One of these years I will endeavour to follow the entire route of Paris-Nice, just not this year. This time I joined the race for the start of stage 5 in Salon-de-Provence. We’ve visited the town a number of times as my beloved has a client here. But, last year, during the Tour de France, was our maiden venture into its small but beautifully formed Old Town.
My overnight stop was chosen deliberately because of its prized location, with a parking place, most of which in the town had been suspended because of the race. The B&B is the family home of a doctor, who runs his practice from the front two rooms, and his designer wife who runs their home, the B&B and her design practice from the rest of the building which includes a delightful, enclosed courtyard garden and pool.
I was buffeted by the wind on the drive down but didn’t mind as the sun was shining. Everything looks so much better in the sunshine, doesn’t it? Spring was definitely in the air. The mimosa might be on its last legs but the bright lime green of new leaves and shoots was everywhere, along with what I assume is cherry, or maybe apple, blossom.
As anticipated the drive took me just over two hours. I easily located my lodgings and joined my hostess for a reviving cup of green tea while her tiny dog Lilli gazed at me in adoration and gave my shoes a quick clean and polish. The owner looked a tad put out at this open transfer of affection. I didn’t bother to enlighten her about my enduring and inexplicable attraction to dogs.
The house was charming and had been strikingly decorated. It certainly wasn’t to my taste but it made a pleasant change from a beige hotel chain bedroom, plus my bedroom and bathroom were very generously proportioned. Space is always a bonus. I was also their only guest and barely made a dent in the copious breakfast the following morning.
I had arrived suitably laden with baked goodies for a number of the teams. I noted with interest that my race winning brownies served up at Strade Bianche had wrought their magic in the team time-trial at Tirreno Adriatico. Maybe, they’d have a similar effect at Paris-Nice, I certainly hoped so.
Brownies handed out and gratefully received, the peloton departed and I tarried over lunch in the sunshine before heading back to the motorway to get to the race finish in Sisteron. This is a much used location by ASO and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited. I’ve also ridden extensively around here, so it’s always a pleasure to revisit. I typically stay at the same hotel, the Ibis. Definitely beige but usually in the company of a couple of cycling teams. This time it was to be Lotto Soudal and Astana.
As I joined the motorway I had an epiphany. I cancelled my room in Sisteron and drove home. I just had this feeling that I should watch the stage finish, not the stage start. This was to prove a wise decision.
Friday afternoon, I drove up to Vence to watch the final kilometres of a stage which covered roads I know, ride regularly and love. As ever I get a real kick from seeing the professional peloton ride on my roads. My instincts proved correct, the stage was won by a friend, Rudy Molard. I was so happy for him. And, yes, he’d been one of the recipients of my race-winning brownies!
Sadly this year’s Race to the Sun was no such thing. The week-end was a wash-out. I woke on Saturday morning to the sound of pouring rain, rolled over and went back to sleep. I had no intention of getting soaked like the previous week-end in Siena. Instead I watched an enthralling stage on the television before heading to the airport to collect my beloved, where I discovered – not for the first time – he’d misinformed me about his arrival time. I returned home, took his dinner out of the oven and returned once more much later.
Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of heavy rain and wind. We took an executive decision to watch the final stage of the race on the television. This too proved to be wise as, with the exception of the last few kilometres, it rained all day. It felt like a bit of a cop out not to watch both stages live but, to be honest, my flu symptoms had reared their ugly head again. Serves me right for kissing so many in the peloton who were subsequently DNF or DNS on account of the flu. However, when you get to my age, the opportunity to kiss so many fit young guys in lycra shouldn’t be ignored, despite the consequences.
In spite of the weather, or maybe because of it, this year’s Paris-Nice was a rip-roaring race which kept us on the edge of our seats throughout before a long-range, smash and grab by the Spaniards on the final stage causing a couple of wags to re-christen the Promenade des Anglais, Promenade des Espagnols!
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.