Sunday, 19 August 2012

Tourers de France

This was a doozy of a weekend if ever there was one! Being the long weekend (Bastille Day on a Monday), we’d planned to make the most of our hire car with two friends, Rose and Bado, and take a trip down to Morzine in the French Alps to watch the finish of a mountain stage of the Tour de France. By a stroke of luck, Rose and Bado's return trip on the Eurostar on Sunday had been cancelled and they had to book for the Monday night instead. Which left us plenty of touring time. And so that's what we did!

Rose and Bado arrived by train from Paris at about 9.30am on Saturday morning (we were very excited to see them!). We did a tiny tour of Dijon, and then hopped in our hire car to head down to Morzine to catch the end of Saturday's climb stage of the Tour. Each year, France plays host to the most prestigious cycle race in the world. The race comprises of around 20 stages spread over 3 weeks. Each stage takes the racers on a journey through a different part of the country, from the flat meandering roads of the centre to the leg-breaking climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenées. The final stage always finishes in a sprint down the Champs-Elysées in Paris and prizes are presented in five categories. During the race, riders get to wear the Yellow Jersey (Best Racer), the Spotty or Pokerdot Jersey (Best Climber on the mountain stages), the Green Jersey (Best Sprinter, based on designated sprint sections during stages), and the White Jersey (Best Junior Racer). There is also a prize for the Best Team Performance based on overall team performance. I learned all this from our cycle hero, Bado, during the long car drive to Morzine.

Blissfully, the car was air-conditioned. However, we only found this out after an hour of driving with the windows down, when Michael suddenly realised that there was air-conditioning and the reason the car was so hot was because the heater had been left on (and he calls himself a male?). We arrived in Morzine with about an hour to spare before the end of the race, just time enough to check out our chalet, Le Petit Cheval Blanc, and its breath-taking view out over the valley.

Morzine is surrounded by imposing tree-covered mountains that rise up to the sky. The ski fields are somewhere on those mountains but you have to catch a gondola from the centre of town to reach them. The houses and hotels are wooden chalet-style with big overhanging eves and sloping rooftops, like you see in children’s stories, Hansel and Gretel and Heidi (both not set in the French Alps!). The main streets are very touristy but in a quaint way, with tacky souvenirs and winter jackets always on sale, and lots of restaurants with obligatory mountain fare, fondue!

After checking out the hotel’s pool we headed off to find a good viewing spot near the finish line. We ended up about 325m from it which I think isn't bad - not too congested and a pretty good chance of seeing the winner zoom past. There was a real party atmosphere as the publicity caravan went past with their trucks and vans blaring out music and throwing prizes to the cheers of the crazy crowds.

It's interesting how we love getting free stuff, isn’t it? Even if it’s crap! The stuff the caravan threw out was. They were all promotional things like bangers (two inflatable plastic tubes that you bang together to make noise) with the name of a sponsoring team on them, mobile phone straps in the colours of another sponsoring team, caps also in the colours of a sponsoring team and bread rolls made by the sponsoring team (and sure to turn you off buying their bread in the future!). This apparently is a normal feature of the Tour. About an hour ahead of the racers, the publicity caravan stirs up the spectators and whips them into an excited frenzy about the advancing cyclists. It’s all an advertising gimmick I know, but it was fun the first time at least.

After the caravan and a couple of roadside beers, the riders swished past (and I mean they were literally a blur going past) amid cheers in all languages - Belgian (very drunk and very rowdy - very sporting spirits!), Swedish, Aussie, Italian and more. It was fun but all over so quickly. And we didn’t even get to really see the riders (although Frenchman Richard Virenque won the stage and my heart along with thousands of other French housewives!).

After all the excitement of driving 300km to Morzine from Dijon and seeing the riders arrive at the finish line, we were all in need of a bit of relaxation and what better place than in the pool at our chalet! We soaked up the late afternoon alpine sun and even got a bit tanned.

The evening very enjoyably ended in a dinner at the chalet which was included in the accommodation. What a meal! Rose and Bado got to experience the beauty of home-style French cooking for the first time, and Michael and I thoroughly enjoyed watching their delight, safe in the knowledge that should we eat (or more likely drink) too much, we only had to climb a flight of stairs to our room. Over the course of the meal, we had mini-conversations with the waitress as she brought plates and took them away, and we found out that the landscape around Morzine changes dramatically with the seasons. At this time of year everything was green, but we could imagine orange and red-coloured trees in autumn and snow-covered rooftops in winter. It was then that we had the idea of returning to Morzine in different seasons and it was then that I fell in love with the place.

As soon as we arrived I felt like I was at home, comfortable and in my element. Living in a foreign country, I found that I gravitated towards certain places or people because they made me feel relaxed. It was like this with my colleague Lynn when I started teaching English later in the year. I felt very relaxed with her and although we were the same age, I felt she was far more mature and sure of herself than me. It was comforting in a way. Maybe it’s the comfort of something or someone that reminds you of home and the family, friends and places that are a part of you. 

Don’t ask me why I had this feeling about Morzine. I grew up in Sydney where snow is non-existent and even frost is rare in my part of the city. The closest mountains are 100km away and the closest real mountains that actually get snow in winter are over 500km away. I loved going skiing with my family when I was little so maybe it was this aspect that gave me a comfortable feeling in Morzine. It was a breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically). No wonder we ended up visiting it three times over the year and we would have gone more times if we possibly could.

The next morning, we’d planned to drive to Sallanches to see the start of the next race stage. But we narrowly missed it because of the 2-kilometre walk from the car park, which had been taken over by bikies with very bad music taste and mullets to match (who could blame them, at €2 a car?) to the starting line. All we saw was the caravans and trucks from all the teams and reporting crews packing up and hauling out, no doubt heading to the next destination. 

So we decided to make full use of the day to go to Chamonix (1037m). From there, we caught a cable car up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (3828m), a mere 8km away from the Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in France. It was a sweltering 35°C down in Chamonix but we weren’t too sure about the temperature at the top of the mountain. So we walked 20 minutes in full cold-weather gear (well, jeans anyway) to the bottom of the cable car and almost died from heat exhaustion! When we arrived at the summit, the temperature had dropped to just 10°C so our near-death walk hadn’t been in vain!

Because we’d risen almost 3000m in altitude so quickly, Rose suffered a bit of dizziness and Michael too, although his was due to the metal grating stairs that showed just how high up he was (and just how far down he could fall if he took a wrong step). Bado got to see snow for the first time, strangely enough in the middle of summer. And we all got to watch the people coming and going on trekking trips over to the Mont Blanc and across the mountains to Italy. (Later in the week we heard on the news that the very glacier that those people had been trekking on was melting too fast in the heat and was becoming dangerous. We were lucky not to have been witness to a disaster!)

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