One from the vaults: Home sweet home

I’ve really dug deep with this one. It’s from June 2009 when we decided to take a cycling vacation in Seefeld Austria. Sadly, the weather did not co-operate! When I first started blogging, I made little or no use of my photographs. But if you want to see photos of Seefeld and the surrounding area, there are plenty of other posts on my blog.

Sunday was the final day of our vacation and it was still raining, or should I say pouring. Undeterred by the climatic conditions, we have however had a most enjoyable vacation. Most days we have waited for a lull in the precipitation before venturing forth on our bikes, muffled up like Michelin men in rain jackets, leg and arm warmers. It’s warmed up as the week has progressed, although the surrounding mountains still have a dusting of snow.

During the week, we have ascended and descended all the surrounding hills, several times, most of which are an average 10% gradient.  I foolishly made the mistake of buying my beloved husband a book on rides in the surrounding area enabling him to seek out the highest climbs. However, we have also ridden along the valley visiting some of the villages perched part-way up the hills.

Now, we’ve seen plenty of cyclists out and about in the valley but, surprisingly, have not passed any, or indeed been passed by any on the climbs. Slogging back up one of these from the valley on Thursday, I was delighted when it levelled out at 7%. Yes, I know I can’t believe I even entertained that thought, but I did. Of course, it’s been great training as most of the climbs near us are only 7% average gradient.

I have a routine when cycling with my beloved. I always carry the cash, the mobile and the keys. I reckon that the combination acts as a powerful disincentive for my husband to misplace me. Equally, I don’t trust him not to lose any one of them should I be foolish enough to entrust him with them. History greatly supports my fears.

Nonetheless, my beloved managed to lose me on Friday in nearby Mittenwald, Germany. I searched all over for him, without success and as soon as the heavens opened (once again) I headed back across the border into Austria. It was cold and wet and, having climbed back up to the valley, I time-trialled home while passing cars regarded me with considerable disbelief.  My husband trailled in over an hour later looking (or so I like to think), a bit sheepish.

I am of course questioning why on earth did we decide to have a cycling holiday in Austria? Why did we not stay at home and enjoy the warm, sunny weather so ideal for cycling? The answer is my beloved. If he takes vacation and stays at home he keep straying into the office to answer a few emails or answer the phone and several hours later he’s still in there. From time to time, I need to ensure that he has a complete break. Conversely, my holiday starts when he heads off on a business trip. Roll on Monday!

One from the vaults: Postcard from the Giro d’Italia Part II

Here’s Part II of our trip in May 2016 to watch part of the Giro d’Italia.

At the start of Tuesday’s stage, in a suburb of Florence, we caught up with staff we know at team Bardiani-CSF and evaluated their riders’ chances of a stage win. My parting comment was “I’ll keep my fingers crossed, who knows, today could be the one!” Prophetic or what? One of their promising neo-pros, Giulio Ciccone, won the stage.

Impressed by my cakes, one of the Sky boys challenged me to come up with a bar for their musettes. They gave me one prepared by the wife of one of soigneurs. It was okay but rather dry and tasteless. I promised to work on it the following week and will return to the final few stages with a much improved product, along with some of my brownies.

Go, Joe, go!
The King of Utah, Joe Dombrowski
Cannondale's chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!
Cannondale’s chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!

After watching the peloton depart, we headed to a town we’d never before visited. Yes, this was our maiden trip to Bologna, a town about which I had little or no expectations but it blew me away. We stayed in a delightful, modern, three-roomed bed and breakfast in the old town, just a short stroll from the main attractions. Before checking in, we had lunch in a restaurant nearby which had been in situ since 1957. If it’s lasted that long it’s got to be good – right? Absolutely! We enjoyed yet another magnificent meal in a family run neighbourhood institution. The owner had passed away in 2007 but his widow still helps out while the three children now run the restaurant.

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Much to my delight, the restaurant featured an old childhood favourite, the sweet trolley. I couldn’t indulge but my beloved had the house speciality Zuppa Inglesi. He proclaimed it “nice” but a pale imitation of my and my late mother’s rum soaked trifles. Then it was time to walk off those calories around the magnificent old town whose monuments are built almost exclusively of brick, many dating from the 14th century. Some of them are very tall, underlining how wealthy the city was in former times.  The shops are under attractive stone porticoes which have beautiful frescoed ceilings and wrought iron lights, clocks and shop signs. This is one of the most beautiful cities in northern Italy and deserves to feature more prominently on tourists’ itineraries. I shall return particularly now I know how close it is to Mugello, home to last week-end’s Italian MotoGP.

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The following day we headed directly to the Giro stage finish in Asolo, the Pearl of Veneto, where one of my dearest friends lives. A fabulous cook, she whipped up a delicious feast for lunch which we enjoyed before watching the peloton stream through Asolo’s beautiful old town in dribs and drabs. Dinner at a local restaurant followed, before we headed to our hotel for the next few days in Pordenone.

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From time to time my beloved works with a company based here. We know the town well but haven’t visited for a while so it was good to renew our acquaintance with our favourite restaurants and watering holes. Thursday’s stage hugged the Venetian coastline though Wednesday’s warm sunshine had retreated behind clouds and heavy rain. We went to the stage start but when it’s pouring down with rain, it’s difficult to do much more than wave at the riders one knows. Understandably, no one wants to spend a moment longer than necessary in the inclement conditions.

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Friday’s stage started close to Udine in a medieval border town and fared better weather wise, though the boys were looking nervous as the stage heralded a triptych in the mountains before another difficult week ahead of the finish in Turin. I promised to return in the Southern Alps with more baked goods to see them through the penultimate day of climbing.

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Saturday we headed to Trieste to meet with potential clients from Slovenia. We’d briefly visited the city when the Giro d’Italia finished there in 2014 but hadn’t time to have a good look around as we needed to get back for Cannondale’s farewell Giro party. It was great to get another opportunity to visit this fascinating town which still bears the influence of its former occupiers, the Austrians, on its buildings and cuisine. Sadly, I couldn’t find a cake shop doing vegan equivalents of any of those delicious Austrian cakes.

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It was a great trip. The Giro is a beautiful race and I love the way the Italians embrace it by decking themselves, their children, pets and shops in pink. It’s much more of an individual and not a community effort and, as you might expect, it’s generally done with great style, panache and much reverence for the Giro’s history. I consider myself fortunate to live only 45 minutes from the Italian border.

One from the vaults: Postcard from the Giro d’Italia Part I

It’s May, It’s time for the Giro d’Italia. But not this year. So I’m dragging out one of my many posts about our various trips to Italy to watch the Giro. This one’s from May 2016, part II follows later.

My beloved and I consider ourselves most fortunate to often be able to combine work with pleasure. We spent the European mid-May Bank Holiday week-end in Tuscany watching the Giro d’Italia and cycling around the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Although typical wet Bank holiday weather was forecast, it was better than anticipated, with rain falling either overnight or just in the late afternoon.

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We stayed in a hotel we had first visited back in 2005 while spending time with one of my beloved’s German clients, who has a house to die for in Chiantishire. Over several subsequent trips to the region we’ve spent time in a number of  Tuscan towns and have always been delighted (typical British understatement) with the food, wine and culture on offer. Plus the cycling, on undulating roads with little or no traffic, has always been fantastic.

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On Saturday, after a quick ride, we headed over to Arezzo, the finish town for stage 8 of the Giro d’Italia which included some of the (in)famous Strade Bianche. We made the mistake of steering clear of the motorway in preference to the country roads and found every which way was blocked by the race some 4km out of Arezzo.

Undaunted we elected to walk only to later discover that the finish line was actually 8km from where we’d left the car. Now I usually love a brisk walk but found this tougher than anticipated in the warm late afternoon sunshine. We arrived at the finish the same time as the tail-end Charlies from the stage. More significantly, we arrived at the Accreditation Centre seconds after it was supposed to close only to discover everyone had packed up early and moved on. Neither of us could face the hike back to the car so we took a taxi.

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By this point in the proceedings, and having missed lunch, my beloved and I were both famished. On the way back we stopped off in the town where we’d stayed during the 2013 World Championships. Our good humours were revived with an Aperol Spritz at a nearby bar followed by dinner at an Osteria, both of which we’d previously frequented. The owner of the Osteria, who runs front of house, remembered us and his wife duly whipped up a truly delicious meal. Sated, we could finally laugh about our afternoon of mishaps. I slept well that night.

After misfiring on Saturday, we had to collect our accreditations at the start of Sunday’s time-trial stage but this process wasn’t without its tribulations. I was fifth in the queue but none of those ahead of me had pre-registered. The convoluted process took over an hour, added to a further 30 minutes waiting for the accreditation staff to turn up. I managed to while away the time chatting to the other journos and former pro Paolo Longo Borghini, who’s now responsible for rider safety at the Giro, and part of RCS’s management team.

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Next up, and more importantly, I had to deliver my cakes to the respective teams before we headed to the finish in nearby Greve in Chianti with our wet weather gear. Yes, the sun was shining but we’d seen the weather forecast. Most of the peloton would be getting a soaking.

 

The Mighty Boz
The Mighty Boz, aka Ian Boswell

Monday’s rest day involved a recovery ride around the glorious Tuscan hills. We were fortunately back before the afternoon downpour and ate a superb meal in a nearby bar packed with locals. It was so filling we only needed an ice cream from the gelateria for dinner, where I was delighted to discover they did two flavours of vegan ice cream (coffee and raspberry) which, in the interests of research, I just had to try.

French Basque Country: Biarritz

I have waxed lyrical many a time about the Spanish Basque Country. Now’s the time to bang the drum for the Basque Country in France which I love just as much as its Spanish neighbour. It’s not just about beautiful landscapes and great food either, its culture is as fascinating as it is a little mystifying because the French Basques share the same language, culture and traditions as those of the Spanish. They too have managed to maintain a buccolic, country lifestyle but this time among those dark satanic hills of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

We’ve often stayed in the French Basque country en-route to Spain and I’m going to start with probably the jewel in its crown Biarritz which, by comparison with the French Riviera, is a relatively bling-free coastal getaway.

Napolean III transformed Biarritzm formerly a fishing and whaling village, when he built a summer palace for his Pricess Eugenie (now the Hotel du Palais). Just like that the health benefits of sea bathing became fashionable among European nobility who descended on Biarritz for the season in the late 1800s. Screenwriter Peter Viertel had a similar impact when he visited in 1957 to film The Sun Also Rises. Impressed by the waves, he sent for his surfboard from California and single-handedly introduced surfing to Europe.

The focus of Biarritz is the Casino Municipal, on the Grande-Plage. The loveliest places to stroll around are the streets between there and the Plage du Port-Vieux. Just beside the Plage du Port-Vieux, the most sheltered and intimate of the beaches, a rocky promontory sticks out into the sea, ending in an iron catwalk anchoring the Rocher de la Vierge, an offshore rock adorned with a white statue of the Virgin, which has become Biarritz’s trademark. Just below is the picturesque harbour of the Port des Pecheurs, backed by tamarisks and pink and blue hydrangeas. Beyond lies the Grande Plage, an immaculate sweep of sand that stretches past the casino, all the way to the lighthouse on the Pointe St-Martin.

Another icon, the lighthouse was built in 1834 and stands 73 metres above sea level overlooking Cape Hainsart (so called because of the oak trees which surrounded it in the past). It marks the boundary between the sandy Landes coast and the rocky coast of the Basque Country. It’s a climb of 248 steps to reach the top but it does offer an exceptional panoramic view of Biarritz and the Basque hinterland.

Also located in the Port-Vieux, you’ll find the neo-gothic Sainte Eugenie Church aka Imperial Chapel also built during the reign of Napoleon III in 1864, on Empress Eugenia’s request, in a Roman-Byzantine and Hispanic-Moorish style. In other words, a bit of a mash-up. It’s dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and was listed as historical monument in 1981. While, the more centrally located Orthodox Alexandre Newsky Church (above) was built in the Byzantine style by Biarritz architect M. Tisnés. Inaugurated in September 1892, in the presence of members of the Russian imperial family, it has been classified as a Historical Monument since June 2015.

Biarritz has a beautiful red-brick covered market, Les Halles, fresh of façade after a complete renovation. Outside, fat seagulls circle, hopeful of a fishy morsel. I love wandering around markets and always make a point of checking out the produce. Here it was so fresh and beautiful, it looked as if it was sculpted from marzipan. At lunchtime, we enjoyed a few freshly shucked bivalves at an oyster bar.

As one might expect, Biarritz has a lively restaurant scene and plenty of nightlife to satisfy even the most dedicated of party goers. I appreciate that I haven’t even touched on many of its other charms such as its surf culture, golf courses, beautiful coastal walks and cycling highway – we have done that – but maybe this is enough to wet your appetite. Further towns to follow………

 

One from the vaults: Postcards from the Basque Country – Part I

I did say that I wouldn’t recycle too many cycling posts but, frankly, I’m having severe withdrawal symptoms with there being no live racing, anywhere. Ahead of what would have been this year’s Tour of the Basque Country, I’m recycling one from April 2013 which is lacking my trademark photographs – apologies! However, my husband provided plenty from the race for VeloVoices.

I know, I’m back home and I’ve not sent my postcards! We’ve all done it, haven’t we? But, to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve had any real opportunity to write about the trip and not the race which you can read about over on VeloVoices. Well apart from the shenanigans with the Russian visa application.

First up the weather was initially much better than anticipated meaning my beloved was able to ride for the first few days and I even accompanied him despite his unerring ability to find every steep climb in the neighbourhood. Admittedly that’s not difficult in the Basque country although this time he succeeded in finding one or two of the longer, more taxing climbs.

Of course, when I say I rode with him, I meant I trailed behind him. My beloved, despite our lengthy marriage, constantly fails to appreciate that if he runs, skis or cycles with me I’ll make an effort to keep up. Disappear 500m or more up the road, leaving me to my own devices, and I’ll amble along admiring the countryside or get into conversation with other cyclists. As a result, we rarely cycle together.

The first Saturday morning dawned bright, albeit overcast, after Friday’s torrential downpour,and my beloved wasted no time in hustling me out the door though, half-way into our ride, the heavens opened again and we turned tail and fled back to the warmth of our small family-run hotel.  In the afternoon we drove into Navarre to watch the GP Miguel Indurain where conversely the weather was dry with a chilly wind. The race weaves loops around the pretty old town of Estella where, after a truly magnificent lunch, we exhorted the peloton, surprisingly split into a multitude of small groups up the final climb.

Sunday morning we opted to further explore the countryside on two wheels. The sun shone although there was still an early morning nip in the air. The scent of word-burning fires, the bright lime-green shoots on the trees, the blossoming hedgerows, the sound of dogs barking and the tinkle of bells around the necks of goats and sheep gave everything a distinctly alpine feel but then we were riding at around 600-900m and some of the hills still had traces of snow.

I love riding in the Basque country where cyclists always seem to outnumber the motorists who keep a respectable distance and toot in a friendly and encouraging fashion as you labour up yet another of those steep, sharp inclines. Sunday was no exception and we saw many groups from the local cycling clubs, I even cycled and chatted with a few of them after being abandoned by my beloved. Ride over, we settled down to a plate of tapas, a glass of red wine and, on the big screen, the rigours of racing over the cobbles in Belgium in the Tour of Flanders.

Monday dawned bright and fair, again contrary to expectations, as we headed over to Elgoibar and the start of one of my favourite races of the year: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Accreditation secured, we headed to the team presentation and sign-on where I was able to catch up with a number of friends who were riding in the race. There’s nothing nicer than watching and encouraging someone you know. Our early start also gave us an opportunity to catch up with friends old and new in the press corps.

This race is extremely well attended by the bike loving Basques. The biggest cheers, not unnaturally, are reserved for the “home” team of Euskaltel-Euskadi and their lead rider and defending champion Samu Sanchez who obligingly had his photograph taken with hordes of dark-haired, dark-eyed moppets: inspiring the next generation. It’s also very evident that former winner Spaniard Alberto Contador is popular with the on-lookers.

The appreciative and knowledgable crowd also welcomes “old friends” such as Jens Voigt who was awarded a plaque in recognition of his support of this race. Conversely, Sky turning up with only six riders, and failing to attend the team presentation, was seen as disrespectful. As the race progressed, they made a point of arriving more punctually for the sign-on except for their gregarious bearded Basque Xabier Zandio who was an early starter most mornings. By the time they started winning stages, they were forgiven.

I love watching the pre-start interaction with everyone milling around the team buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of their heroes, a souvenir or two or just checking out the bike bling. Likewise those five minutes or so before the race starts where some riders wait patiently, composing their thoughts before the day’s challenges while others chat with their compatriots on other teams, no doubt comparing their experiences of the previous day’s racing.

The Vuelta al Pais Vasco follows a similar pattern most years, with the first and last days of racing centred on one town and the four stages in between setting off from the previous day’s finish town. It all takes place within a relatively confined geographic area allowing the teams to spend most of the race based in one hotel, close to the action, thereby avoiding long transfers and early morning starts. I think this is recompense for the fact that several stages take place in the freezing cold rain. This year’s been no exception, the rain started in earnest on Thursday with the Eibar summit finish shrouded in freezing fog. Friday morning we awoke to find a blizzard blowing. Why did no one tell me the locals’ nickname for Vitoria-Gasteiz is Siberia?? (to be continued)

Yet another Postcard from Dubai

It’s early February  – bear with me here – and this year, just like the last few years, we’re enjoying some sunshine in Dubai. My beloved is here for the dental exhibition, an opportunity to meet with a number of his distributors, largely local dental professionals and the company’s Indian partner. I’ve topped and tailed this business committment with a few day’s vacation.

We may still have spritely springs in our steps but neither of us are spring chickens – much as it pains me to admit it. We may look and act a lot younger but we both admit we are slowing down and it takes us longer to recover from things like jet lag. However, there’s nowhere nicer to recover than in the hotel we rather regard as our home from home in Dubai.

However, despite this being a catch-up post, I am getting ahead of myself.

The week before we left for Dubai, my beloved returned from one of his tiring, whirlwind business trips to London. We’d spent the Saturday shopping and lunching over the border in Italy. Sunday he’d ridden with the cycle club and had returned pretty tired out. The following day he was running a fever and his right leg was red, hot and swollen. I diagnosed an insect bite, an area where I have ample expertise. Mind you, that didn’t account for the man flu-like symptoms. Fast forward a few weeks and he’d no doubt have been claiming a Coronavirus infection.

Thursday he was feeling well enough to brave the doctor who organised a scan of his veins and a blood test to confirm my diagnosis. He’d been bitten by a tick in the UK, most probably while staying at his brother’s, and had symptoms not that dissimilar to Lyme’s disease.

Cue ungents, antibiotics and hourly inspections of his right leg to confirm he was indeed getting better. Consequently, I was pleased he’d have a few days relaxing in Dubai before the exhibition. We stayed at our favourite hotel, close enough to the World Trade Centre and the Metro but which also gives us access to the Jumeirah Beach Club. My beloved loves heading down there to swims laps in the pool and work out in the gym. I like walking along the damp sandy shoreline. So we were both happy bunnies.

Of course, while my beloved was busy at the exhibition, I did what I wanted to do. This generally involved exploring new areas of Dubai, having a spot of head to toe pampering and spending many hours in my favourite bookshop.  I was keen to see how the Museum of the Future directly opposite our hotel plus the renovation and redevelopment of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel site were progressing, visit a few of our favourite places but generally spend plenty of time catching up with new (to me) places in Dubai, plus a spot of relaxing and reading. Sometimes just doing nothing much can be very satisfying.

Before booking our hotel, I always shop around. This time I scored a great deal which included breakfast. The hotel’s breakfast buffet is superb, so superb, we went without lunch and only needed a light bite early evening. Sadly this meant no Friday brunches but it was probably much kinder on our waistlines. I’m pretty sure not eating between 9pm and 6am doesn’t really count as intermittant fasting. We generally regard our stays in Dubai as a welcome opportunity not to drink any alcohol but, with my beloved still on antibiotics, it was obligatory.

Here’s some of the new places I visited in Dubai

City Walk

There aren’t too many neighbourhoods in Dubai where you can easily and enjoyably meander on foot. Yet City Walk – located on Safa Rd between Al Wasl and Sheikh Zayed Rds at the Dubai Mall interchange – is one such place, with the developer striking the right balance between pedestrian walkspace, high-end retailers, restaurants, hotels and residential. We first visited back in 2018 but, like everything in Dubai, it has grown.

I like wandering around the place because it has a very European feel with its walkways, wide boulevards and low level apartment blocks with retail on the ground floors. Tree lined avenues and a collection of contemporary streetart murals and an open plan layout enable it to host regular community events. City Walk is also a bit of a foodie haven with around 70 cafes and restaurants. The eclectic nature of the offerings in the area means there are activities to enjoy no matter your age, background or interests. City Walk also boasts Green Planet, a stand-alone bio-dome.

Alserkal Art District

Located in the AlQuoz industrial district, Alserkal is an edgy arts hub with cutting edge galleries, design stores, pop-up spaces and an outdoor cinema. Its bold brutalist centrepiece is Concrete, an events space designed by Rem Koolhaas which has moveable walls allowing the space to be reconfigured around a central courtyard.

Alserkal brims with the unexpected and inspiring: a willy Wonka chocolate factory, a farmers’ market, sneaker and vintage stores, cafes and restaurants. Opposite lies the Courtyard a collection of shops and caves with Arabian fantasy facades and tinkling fountains.

This is where I was assured Dubai’s hipsters hang out though I’m not certain I saw anyone fitting that description! It’s a huge area to cover and I barely scratched the surface.

Kulture House

Kulture House on the Jumeirah Beach Road is what’s known as a multi-faceted concept space, aiming to facilitate a collision of different cultures. The venue houses a charming café, a fair-trade gift shop, a florist and an art pop-up featuring work by local artists.

The interiors of the converted Jumeirah villa are vibrant, bright and very much a reflection of that melange of cultures. A hearty breakfast prevented me from sampling anything in the cafe, though I was tempted by its wide-ranging and delicious menu.

Jameel Arts Centre

I also headed over to the Dubai Creek to see the Jameel Arts Centre. A cluster of gleaming white cubes, the galleries are built around courtyard gardens filled with desert plants. This aims to be one of the a leading contemporary art institutions for the UAE and the Middle East. It appears to have a very hands-on approach through nurturing artists to produce work from and about the region, and then encouraging its audiences to engage actively with the artworks.

Next door to the centre is the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park, the UAE’s first open-air art and sculpture park designed to balance the rippling water of Jaddaf Creek with the stacked geometry of the Jameel. Designed as an active and lively outdoor gallery space that welcomes community engagement, the Park transitions seamlessly from the open walkway around the corniche and features a children’s playground, zones of fixed furniture with speciality tables for board games or chess, as well as an area for food trucks, plus an amphitheatre.

Miracle Garden

Every year from mid-November to mid-May over in Dubailand, there is a massive space full of the scents of millions of flowers in a myriad of bright colours. The garden, with its 150 million flowers in full bloom, is stunningly arranged. The Garden’s  breathtaking landscaping has two Guinness World Records: the largest vertical garden in 2013 and world’s largest floral sculpture (an Airbus A380) in 2016. The garden is reimagined every year and attracts plenty of visitors. I should’ve allowed more time for my visit – next time!

One from the vaults: Postcard from Siena

I’m digging into my cycling repertoire for a tale about our maiden attendance at an early season race in Tuscany, called Strade Bianche. Its typically held in the first weekend in March and we’ve been fortunate to see the race live three times 2016-18.  I’m always happy to find an excuse to visit Tuscany. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this year’s edition has fallen victim to the Corona virus. The elite men’s and women’s races and the accompanying sportif have all been postponed.

My beloved and I recently enjoyed a romantic tryst in Siena. It wasn’t our first visit to the town but it was our maiden trip to watch the Strade Bianche races. When I saw this year’s edition started and finished in Siena, I knew we had to go. It was a very pleasant five-hour journey, in fine weather, in Tom IV, which was badly in need of a run out.

Duomo from Piazza San Giovanni
Duomo from Piazza San Giovanni

We were staying in a hotel opposite the cathedral in the old town which made use of a car valet service. You drive to the valet and then he drives you in your car to the hotel, drops you off and takes the car away. Fine, except it doesn’t work for a two-seater with two passengers!

Best press centre ever?
Best press centre ever?

We navigated our way to the hotel with our spare GPS, as Tom IV’s didn’t recognise a road that’s been there since 15th century. Unfortunately, we inadvertently drove the wrong way down a one-way street only to meet the strong-arm of the law who then walked in front of the car for the remaining 200 metres to the hotel. Fortunately the hotel owner, a man with connections in all the right places, talked the police officer out of giving us a fine. Once we’d checked in, the valet service collected the car, promising to return it later that evening. Meanwhile, we hot footed it around to the press centre, surely the most magnificent I’ve ever seen with views over Il Campo, where the famous Palio horse race is held.

Double trouble: two world champions
Double trouble: two world champions

At the press conference there were contrasting demeanours from the two UCI road world champions: Lizzie Armitstead, for whom these affairs are still something of a novelty, and Peter Sagan, a man who’s endured more stupid questions from the press than I’ve had hot dinners.

Later, as arranged, the valet service brought the car back and, with the aid of GPS systems in stereo, we attempted to find our way out of the old town which is riddled with very narrow one-way streets. Sadly, we merely succeeded in going round in circles until, ignoring the by now raised GPS voices, we followed our instincts. We’d been advised the town we were seeking was a mere 10 minutes up the road. I’d allowed thirty minutes to get there but we’d already wasted 20 getting out of Siena and the hotel was seemingly in the middle of nowhere down –  yes you’ve guessed it –  strade bianche.

Our late arrival meant the rider I had arranged to interview had already gone into dinner. We agreed to meet up back at the hotel later while we went in search of our dinner. More fruitless driving in circles until we spotted a small restaurant on an industrial estate serving wood-fired pizzas. After quite probably the cheapest dinner ever, we headed back to the hotel to interview Daniele Ratto of Androni-Sidermec.

It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed him, having gotten to know him well while working for one of his former team’s sponsors. We chatted for around 90 minutes, giving me plenty of ammo for my article for VeloVoices, before heading back to our hotel while studiously avoiding any one-way streets.

We woke bright and early to the sound of various church bells and, after a quick breakfast, headed to the start of the elite women’s race. Stupidly, I had handed the map to my beloved who took us the long way round, which included both a descent and an ascent of THAT hill leading to the finish. We arrived just in time to grab a few shots before they set off on the first race of the inaugural women’s WorldTour.

The world champion braving the cold in short sleeves
The world champion Lizzie Armitstead ((Boels Dolmans) braving the cold in short sleeves
Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5)shedding layers at the start
Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) shedding layers at the start

This meant my photographer had plenty of time to take photos of the boys signing on while I took refuge from the rain which veered from deluge to light raindrops.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) fresh from his recent victory in Belgium
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) fresh from his recent victory in Belgium
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) prepared for rain
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) prepared for rain
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) sporting a teeny, tiny ponytail
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) sporting a teeny, tiny ponytail
Who is that?
Who is that?
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) unmasked
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) unmasked
Race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chatting to Southeast's Pippo Pozzato
Race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chatting to Southeast’s Pippo Pozzato at the start

Once the boys were on their way we retired to a local coffee shop where my beloved had a heavenly hot chocolate and I had camomile tea. Sometimes I feel a bit frustrated with my newly imposed regime and then I remember the alternative (surgery) and realise it’s all worth while. We indulged in a spot of sightseeing/window shopping until the women’s race was due to finish whereupon we took our places on the last climb.

Lizzie powering up THAT hill with ease.
Lizzie powering up THAT final hill with ease
Nicole Braendli (Servetto Footon) giving her all
Nicole Braendli (Servetto Footon) giving her all
You can tell that it's hurting as these two weave all over the hill
You can tell that it’s hurting as these two weave all over the place. I can quite understand why!

Having cheered the women home we retired to a nearby Osteria for lunch, reappearing in time for the finish of the men’s race.

Gianluca Brambilla(Etixx-QuickStep) led up the hill
Gianluca Brambilla(Etixx-QuickStep) led up the hill
The leading riders went by in a flash.
The leading riders went by in a flash
Is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the right gear?
Is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the right gear?
Fabian Cancellara's (Trek-Segafredo) third win in this race
Fabian Cancellara’s third win in this race
Il Campo
The race finished in Il Campo

The heavens opened shortly after the conclusion of the podium ceremony and we returned to the Osteria for further fortification, largely because it was opposite the restaurant I had booked for dinner. To be honest, one is spoilt for choice in Siena where good restaurants serving local specialities abound. The following morning, after a bit of a lie in, we headed for home wishing we could have stayed for longer – next time.

On the way back we decided to leave the motorway in search of somewhere for lunch. We chanced upon a packed restaurant just outside of Sarzana where the owner promised to squeeze us in. While waiting for our table, my beloved noticed the karaoke machine and musical instruments in the corner and joked I should just start singing to clear the restaurant and our table.

We had just started lunch when, lo and behold, the band started to play and the largely elderly clientel sprang to their feet for a local version of “Strictly.” My singing, not much worse than that of the band leader, would have had the restaurant’s customers on their feet to leave, not dance. It was an amusing intermezzo on our journey back home.

 

One from the Vaults: Five things we loved about Australia

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts 2009 – 2012 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan. This one’s from February 2016 which I wrote after our month-long trip to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

1. Australians and their passion for their country

As a nation, Australians are very friendly, chatty and helpful. They’ve been eager to share the best their towns have to offer which has been much appreciated. We’ve also enjoyed reading about their towns and gaining a better understanding of their place in Australia’s history. It has also given us an appreciation of how hard life must have been for the early settlers and the enormous challenges they faced. We can also comprehend the draw of Australia and its lifestyle for many people from other lands.

Mal Cooper and friends from Egham
Mal Cooper and friends from Egham

2. The scenery

To be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect once outside the major conurbations but everywhere was wholly and (un)expectedly beautiful, magnificent and diverse from the towering rain forests to the fabulous sandy and rocky coastlines via the inland lakes, the salt flats, the fertile plains and the undulating hills. We’ve loved it all.

3. The Food

We have eaten well. It hasn’t mattered whether it’s been in one of Australia’s top fine dining establishments, local pubs, neighbourhood cafes or restaurants (literally) in the back of beyond, the food has been fabulous, fresh and seasonal. There has always been a vegan option for me and I’ve been thrilled at the number of delicious vegan baked goods I’ve found. We discovered a wide range of organic and vegan produce in every supermarket. I’m going to miss some of that when I get back to France, particularly the delicious relishes from Beerenberg’s Farms. If we had to pick a favourite meal it would be the one enjoyed at the quayside shack in Apollo Bay where we dined on fish caught that morning and, to quote my beloved, “the best chips ever.”

 4. Flora and Fauna

This would never be my specialist subject on Mastermind. Aside from identifying one of my late mother’s favourite plants which were in bloom everywhere, the agapanthus, I couldn’t name any of the wonderful trees and bushes we saw.

The same applied to most of the birds and animals, with obvious exceptions. Even the antics of the oh so noisy cockatoos were delightful. We’ve seen loads of different cattle and sheep but are no wiser as to their breeds which is where an Aussie version of Adam Henson from the UK’s Countryfile would’ve come in handy. I should add that neither of us has been bitten by anything: no mozzies, no man-eating spiders or anything remotely slithery!

5. Sport

Aussies love their sport. I have never, ever seen so many sports’ grounds! It’s no wonder they excel in so many sporting fields. The support for sport at grass-roots level is excellent. There was also plenty of live sporting action to see, such as 20/20 Cricket, The Australian Open and, of course, the Santos Tour Down Under where 70% of the spectators came by bike! It would never happen in Europe.

Tour Down Under riding past Adelaide cricket ground
Tour Down Under riding past Adelaide cricket ground

I could of course go on and on,  praising the excellent road network, the quality of the air, the sunsets, the night-time sky –  a black velvet backdrop for thousands of stars twinkling like diamonds – but I restrained myself!

That's what I call a sunset!
That’s what I call a sunset!

Postcard from Portugal (not): Part I

As you know, we were planning to spend Christmas and New Year in Southern Portugal. The choice of destination had been made by my beloved who’d booked the flights to Faro, booked the car hire and chosen the hotel (with my blessing).

While we were enjoying Thanksgiving on Long Island, he started to question the wisdom of his choice. When we got back from the States, I ascertained we could cancel the hotel and hire car up to two days before our planned departure.

After much dithering, my beloved announced he didn’t want to go. I cancelled the bookings. Having organised meals and drinks with friends prior to our intended departure, this left a bit of a hole in our diaries. Plus, I’d pretty much emptied the fridge, the freezer and store cupboard!

We decided to fall back on our home from home just over an hour up the road in Italy. I booked us in for three nights from 23 December. Meanwhile, we pottered about locally in the warm sunshine and, on the Sunday before our trip, I decided to try out the brunch at the Hermitage in Monte Carlo. We’ve been looking for a replacement for the one at the Grand Hotel Cap Ferret which, after a change of chef, has sadly ceased holding its winter Sunday brunches.

Fear not, the Hermitage with its unlimited champagne offering happily fills the bill. It was also rather enjoyable strolling around Monte Carlo in the winter sunshine, admiring the yachts in the harbour and the flash cars parked outside both the Hotel de Paris and the Hermitage. After a simply delicious brunch in rather splendid surroundings, we window shopped, admired the Xmas market and then drove home.

The following day we were up reasonably early for our drive to Alassio. We ate lunch in one of our regular haunts before enjoying several hours relaxing in the hotel’s Spa. After that delicious seafood lunch we happily settled for an Aperol and nibbles in one of our favourite bars in lieu of dinner.

Unlike last year when it was decidedly chilly, this year the sun shone and we lapped it up sitting on our balcony. We had a very relaxing time, quite different to that which we’d planned for Portugal. We ate out at some of our favourite restaurants and checked out the Aperol offerings at some of the newer bars. We even did a spot of shopping as Alassio has an outlet Vilebrequin, home of my beloved’s favourite swim shorts. I’ve lost count of how many pairs he has but we’re well into double figures.

One of the antiques shops which had a couple of globes in the window was open but after much debate my beloved has decided he wants a modern globe and we’ve now identified a firm which makes them to order. I’m hoping this will be a less expensive option but I suspect not.

We even walked into nearby Laigueglia (where I first holidayed in Italy aged eight) on Christmas Day to work up an appetite for our Christmas Dinner that evening. We returned home the following day, well rested after our three-day break, loaded down with Italian goodies, feeling decidedly mellow after that heady mix of sunshine and spa time.

The weather between our return and New Year was unseasonably warm and sunny allowing us to spend plenty of time out on our bikes. In addition, we were able to lunch with some business contacts who’d unexpectedly popped over to Nice from UK for a few days. We might not have spent our holidays as we intended but it turned out to be a thoroughly acceptable substitute.

Potted History of Montauk

This wasn’t our first visit to Long Island, we had spent a few days here in September 2015 when we stayed in Sag Harbor. I much enjoyed that trip and had been looking for an excuse to return. I decided it would be the perfect spot for a few days of R&R before a hectic time for my beloved at the Greater New York Dental Meeting.

This time I decided to stay in Montauk, a hamlet at the east end of Long Island, located on the Atlantic Ocean and Block Island Sound. I first heard about the place from one of my girlfriends who’d had a beach house here in the 1980s. It’s a well-known spot for beautiful beaches, like Ditch Plains; fishing; surfing; paddling; seafood restaurants; nature trails; music and art festivals. Montauk Point State Park is home to the national landmark, the historic Montauk Point Lighthouse (top left).

Around the turn of the century, Montauk caught the attention of two remarkable real estate investors, Carl Fisher and his predecessor Arthur Benson. Benson bought Montauk in its entirety in 1879 for a mere US$151,000 – you might just be able to buy a garage for that now. And years later, in the 1920s, Fisher bought up 10,000 acres and began to develop Montauk as the “Miami beach of the North”. Both men recognized the “magic” of Montauk and dreamed of turning it into a retreat for the rich and famous, but it was Fisher who really left his mark. He built a luxurious hotel, the Montauk Manor and Playhouse, polo grounds, a beach club, the Montauk Yacht Club, a golf club and among other places, his own office, the Montauk Tower, a unique seven story building that stands today in the centre of the village.

The Great Depression put a halt to the development of Montauk as a high end resort though today, nearly a century later, the dreams of those early investors have been realised as Montauk has become a veritable playground. Though not as upmarket as its Hampton neighbours, make no mistake, Montauk is still enjoyed by families and old timers, but it has truly become a high-end destination frequented  by celebrities, artists, musicians, and us!