Trip to Aix-en-Provence

 

We spent much of last week-end in Aix-en-Provence, principally to catch a couple of stages of the Tour de France but also to enjoy some time in one of our favoured spots. Typically, I meet up with friends in Aix a couple of times a year as it’s pretty much the mid-way point for both of us and we have an enjoyable day out.

Friday we drove to the centre of Salon de Provence, the finish for 19th and longest stage of 104th Tour de France. We were billeted in a sports centre, 500m from the finish line, which did not have air conditioning. It was mighty hot and humid. On the plus side, it had refreshments, toilets and television. We avoided the press buffet by lunching beforehand at a restaurant near one of our dental clients on the outskirts of town.

It’s always much warmer inland as it doesn’t have our cooling littoral breezes. The stage from Embrun passed through some idyllic countryside, much of which we’ve cycled on previous trips to the area. My mission was to deliver cakes to the riders I know who are still in the race. I confess my projected bake had been much pared back (sadly) due to abandons. One team is down to three riders. I think you can guess which one that is. Their cakes (gluten free organic brownies and organic vegan banana loaf) should last with ease until the final stage in Paris.

Salon is famous for being the home of the French Red Arrows and we heard them buzzing overhead while we sat melting in the heat. We could certainly have used one of those ice vests which we saw the teams using in Saturday’s individual time-trial. I did have some ice-packs but they were keeping the cakes cool.

After dropping off the cakes at the coaches, watching the sprint finish followed by an aerial display – probably practising for Sunday in Paris – it was with some relief we returned to the air-conditionned car to drive back to Aix-en-Provence where we were spending the next two nights.  Our hotel is right in the centre of town, overlooking the Cours Mirabeau. It too has air conditioning, a necessity in this weather.

After lunch, I wasn’t overly hungry and neither (unusually) was my beloved, I blamed the heat! Instead, we elected to have cocktails and nibbles at our hotel before a long stroll around Aix. Okay, the shops are all closed but I do enjoy a spot of window shopping.

After a really good night’s sleep we woke at 08:30 and walked to the market to buy vegetables for Sunday’s meals. Aix has a brilliant market and I buy tons (slight exaggeration) of different coloured beans and masses of fresh herbs. The perfume of the basil is positively heady, I’ll make an avocado/basil pesto dressing for the bean salad. After a leisurely breakfast, I have to explore the two bookshops in Aix, one either side of our hotel. Both have an extensive selection of cookery books but none that I absolutely had to add to my collection.

We left Aix to drive to Marseille to watch the penultimate Tour de France stage, a short individual time-trial starting and ending in the Velodrome, home to Marseille’s football team. We noted with some amusement that the route visited the best bits of Marseille. When going to a stage start or finish, you have to follow a certain route, usually well sign-posted and just when we despaired of finding the right road, we chanced upon it and the Velodrome.

Despite the heat, there’s a fantastic atmosphere ahead of the final stage of the La Course, the ladies’ two-stage race, being held before the men’s time-trial. We cool off in the press centre which, this time, is blissfully air-conditioned. We’re now reluctant to leave and settle down to watch the racing only popping out from time to time to catch it live and encourage our friends, none of whom are entertaining any thoughts of winning this particular stage.

It’s also an opportunity to catch up with friends among the press pack and check who’ll be at the Clasica, the one-day race in San Sebastian the following week-end. Many are facing a long drive to Paris for the Tour finale. Others are heading home. The time-trial threw up some surprise performances with the winner having to sit tight in the hot seat for almost three hours and one of the podium contenders hanging onto his third-place by a single second.

We swiftly exit the Velodrome and drive back to Aix. The town’s buzzing, it’s a very popular tourist haunt. We eat oysters at one of the well-known restaurants on the Cours Mirabeau, allegedly a favourite haunt of Cezanne, before a relatively early night – spectating’s tiring!

The following morning my beloved enjoyed a relaxing breakfast in the sunshine while I wandered round taking photographs with my iPad – so much easier when there’s fewer people around. I adore all the honey coloured stone buildings with wrought iron canopies and balconies. I love wandering up and down its cobbled lanes. There’s a massive architectural dig in the centre of town which has revealed more of the town’s Roman origins and I note there’s an art exhibition which I’d like to see before it closes mid-October.

Aix, a bit like Alassio, is the perfect spot for a few nights away. There’s plenty to see and do, it’s pleasurable to wander around, there’s plenty of bars and restaurants and it’s just a 90 minute drive away. The hotel had pretty much my perfect hotel room (post on that coming soon) and was a charming blend of old and new. It was a very enjoyable couple of days and we’ll be back to sample Aix’s delights again soon.

Differing fortunes

On the one hand, it’s been a disappointing week end. I’ll start with the football. My beloved boys in claret and blue lost 3-0 to Chelsea at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. Having played well in the first half, they were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty and Chelsea were fortunate that the referee only gave Terry a yellow card for his tackle on Milner. Sadly, the higher you are up the league, the more often decisions go in your favour, or are bottled by the referee. Having lost, we were hoping that Spurs would beat Portsmouth in the other semi-final. The runners-up (or the winners, if they beat Chelsea) in the FA Cup will get a place in the Europa Cup. Spurs are ahead of us in the League, therefore, if we were to finish 7th (worst case, and sadly, most likely scenario), Spurs having already secured a cup spot, we too would get a place in the Europa Cup. Now, that too may be out of our reach.

As expected, OGCN lost 4-1 away at Marseille who are currently leading the French championship. Nice have nothing to play for having already secured enough points to avoid relegation.

Fabian Cancellara has been sandbagging this week, and we all fell for it. Today, in Paris-Roubaix, he waited for the right moment to catch Boonen unawares, opened the throttle and cruised away from the other favourites. Game over, again. He is a truly magnificent rider and we’re all left wondering what else he’ll achieve this year, next and in the coming years: anything’s possible. The Belgian cobbled classics and semi-classics have all been won this year by riders hailing from outside Belgium. Prediction: a collective weeping and a wailing in Flanders.

That man in orange, Sammy Sanchez won the Klasica Primavera, ahead of team mate Igor Anton and Frank Schleck. He’s obviously coming into form for the forthcoming Ardennes Classics.

Depart fictif grand parcours

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I bettered my time in La Charly Berard and really felt that I went as fast as I could. Mind you, I nearly had a disastrous start when another rider fell against me in the first 100 metres and knocked me off the bike. Of course, he wasn’t one of the 60kg wet Frenchman but a great hulking brute who easily weighted over 100kg.

I started feeling somewhat winded, understandably, and as anticipated the field rode away from me leaving me on my lonesome, as usual. Apart from the Broom Wagon, which was obviously keen to drum up some custom and persisted in trying to knock me off my bike. I managed to evade it, but only just. The course differed slightly from last year, so it’s not easy to make direct comparisons. Other than to say my time to Contes was 17 minutes quicker than last year, despite the howling headwind. This was particularly tough on the final 10km back to Nice.

I rode back with a couple of other guys who were impressed that I could keep up with them in the wind. I took my turn on the front and then sprinted past them to the finish line where I was greeted by the chap who was 2nd on the longer parcours. He’s been riding a similar length of time to me and is a very talented (much younger) local rider.

However, there was no time to lose. I wanted to get back home before it started to rain and before I’d missed too much of Paris-Roubaix. So eschewing the roses (female competitors only) and the meal (pasta salad), we headed back home where I had a hot date with the fleecy track suit, and the sofa.

I see from the results listed in today’s paper that I was first in my age group. I wonder if someone from the club picked up my trophy? Far fewer women took part this year. Indeed, there were just 5 who undertook the short parcours. The quickest (and youngest) was 40 minutes faster than me, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Please, he’s all yours!

My beloved rang me this morning from Germany. He only ever rings me for two reasons: either he’s at a loose end or he wants me to do something. I always know when it’s the former. He’s got nothing to do so assumes I must be in the same boat. This is rarely the case. He’ll start the conversation by asking what I’ve been doing. My response is always the same. ” Don’t do a Nigel on me!” Nigel is my brother-in-law and he rings  my sister at least 5 times a day to check up on her. My sister has the patience of a saint. If my beloved did the same, I’d change my telephone numbers and not tell him.

So, at 10:00am in the morning, it was far more likely that he wanted me to do something for him. I was right. He had lost his passport and by telling me he was effectively passing over the problem. Yes, my beloved is never unduly inconvenienced by the loss of money, credit cards, documents, personal belongings or even me. No, he knows that I will sort it for him. 

He rang just as I was leaving for my 2:30hr ride. I was not delighted to hear from him particularly given the problem. Richard and his passport have become separated on a number of occasions but his passage in international waters has always been soothed by me. In other words, it’s not been a problem for him. I know the drill and within minutes I had advised him what to do in order to ensure his return to France tomorrow. I was tempted to omit this stage but recognised that it would only cause me more problems further down the line.

I then set about  resolving how he could get a replacement passport on Monday so that he could fly to the US on Wednesday. Of yes, when my beloved does something he always goes for maximum impact and disruption. The very helpful embassy staff in Marseille advised me that while in theory it was possible to enter the US on a temporary passport, it was probably not advisable. Given that my beloved is tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed this may well have worked, but I wasn’t taking any chances. 

I have arranged to catapult him to the front of the queue at the embassy in Paris on Monday morning. He cannot fly to Paris as neither Easyjet nor Air France could confirm that he’d be allowed to fly from Nice with only his German driving licence to confirm his identity. So, that means he’ll be going up on the train on Sunday afternoon. In addition, I’ve printed off the necessary forms, dug out his birth certificate and arranged for our Doctor to certify that his photos are indeed a true likeness of him. Now, I’m just savouring the remaining few hours of bliss before his return.