Cycling

Cycle Tour #1: The Loire Valley, France (or the start of my French love affair)

For the month of January, I have joined the “Zero to Hero” blogging challenge with an assignment to complete each day. Today’s task is to write what was on my mind when I first started blogging.

The thing that I first wanted to write about was all the fun I was having cycling in France. The thing that got me cycling in France in the first place was the very first cycle tour that TC and I took, so that is what my post today is about.

Cycle Tour #1: The Loire Valley, France (or the start of my French love affair)

The whole idea of a cycle tour came completely out of the blue for me. TC and I had been increasing our cycling to the point that we felt confident on road bikes and were riding longer and longer distances each week. We enjoyed the challenges, the satisfaction and the feeling of exploring new areas of our own city.

Then one day, I was enjoying morning tea with a group of women at my friend’s house. One of the women I met that day was older than me, just embarking on retirement, but had been a keen cyclist for quite a while. I listened with a feeling of “wow!” as she explained to my friend how she and her husband were thinking about doing a cycle tour in the UK but were undecided about taking their own bikes from Australia or to use hired bikes. To be honest, the rest of that conversation was a blur as my mind went into overdrive thinking about the possibilities. I couldn’t wait to get home to TC with this new idea: holidaying in Europe AND cycling combined!

That night, we researched tours in Europe and were well on our way to planning our first cycle touring holiday.

We decided to make our debut cycle tour a truly memorable one, in a style that we knew we would not repeat. In other words, we decided to go for the ultimate: a  top-of-the-range gourmand cycle tour of the Loire Valley! Yes, it would be expensive, but being novices to this whole idea (and it was to be my first trip to France), we wanted to make sure we enjoyed it to the full. And that we did.

A tour was booked which included staying in a chain of small, exclusive boutique hotels with breakfast each day and a gourmet dinner included on most nights. In short, it was magnificent. Yes, this was when I fell in love with France.

We flew into Paris and caught a midday train to Amboise where we found our first hotel on the bank of the river, in the shadow of the beautiful Château d’Amboise. Our room and the hotel were absolutely stunning, as were all of the hotels that followed. Our cycle guide met us that evening to go over all the details – daily route instructions and maps, the GPS, our free water bottles, and the number to call him on at any time if we needed help. In the morning, he met us at the hotel’s bike shed (a cave dug out of the base of the cliff) to ensure we were correctly fitted, and off we set.

Over the course of the week (6 days, 7 nights) we explored historic towns and villages along the Cher and Loire rivers, examined chateaux in awe, tasted wines, picnicked on grassy banks for lunch, slept like VIPs in beautiful rooms, and dined like a king and queen on amazing French gastronomy. Some days involved an exploratory loop ride, remaining in the same hotel that night, other days involved leaving our packed luggage in the foyer by 9am and cycling to the next hotel, where it would be waiting for us. We averaged about 55-60km per day. It was July and there was a heatwave across the UK and Europe, meaning hot days and beautiful balmy evenings. When I say hot, it was between 33 and 39C every day. For me, coming from Australia and expecting much cooler weather, I was in heaven. I actually had to go out and buy more shorts and sleeveless tops as I hadn’t prepared for those temperatures.

We also met other people doing the same thing – meeting up with them along the routes (getting lost at the same points?) and chatting with them over drinks in the hotels in the evenings, or by the pool after a hot day’s riding. You could socialise as much or as little as you felt like, as all the groups were self-guiding on the same route.

Our tour finished on the outskirts of Saumur and left us feeling that we had just had one of the most incredible holidays we’d ever be likely to have. We were hooked.

Of course, this meant further cycling holidays would surely follow (and they have), but as we already knew, we would not repeat the grandeur and glamour of this one. But boy, it was worth it.

I still have the shorts I bought on that trip and can’t help but think of that holiday when I wear them.

Here is a selection of our photographs from that amazing week in the Loire, including many of the hotels we stayed in, some of the beautiful dishes on our tables and the most memorable scenery.  Enjoy!

I would like to add that we booked our tour through Discover France Bike Tours. As I mentioned above, it was not the cheapest option, but for us it was money well spent. The tour operators were all helpful, especially the local tour guides and drivers. For those unsure about taking such a tour, I would like to say that booking with these guys should put you at ease. All the best for those who want to try it!

Who am I and why am I here?

A rest in the park

Who?

I am an Australian woman who, along with my husband, took advantage of a window of opportunity to leave our working life for a year and go to stay in France.

Why?

Why France? We had been on holiday in France before and simply fell in love with the country so we wanted to see more.  A lot more.  The solution was to apply for a long-stay visa, organise some rental accommodation, rent out our place in Perth, start learning French… and go.That was two years ago now.

What?

We rented in 3 different locations around France, but travelled to many more, both by car and by bicycle. Our year soon turned into two as we realised we weren’t going to explore even half of what we wanted to, let alone speaking the language in one year alone. So we went into the local sous-prefecture and extended our visas.

This blog started as a way for me to document our adventures in cycling, exploring France, wine and cooking (which was a great side effect of not working and living frugally!).  I guessed that the things we loved doing, the places we loved exploring and the foods we loved cooking (and eating) would also appeal to others around the world, especially the Francophiles out there, so here I am.

Next?

We are currently back in Australia and returning to work, but planning frequent visits back to France with a scheme to have another year off before too long. There are still a lot more parts of France and Europe that we want to discover.

To celebrate my return to Australia and a fresh year blogging, I have decided to update my theme with a new look. There are many things we’ve celebrated recently with our family, including 21st birthdays, a wedding, Christmas and the new year and a 50th birthday. All of this has kept me away from blogging recently, but I am back for 2014.

 I hope you enjoy both my French and my Australian posts, and I would love to have your feedback and comments!

My first birthday – thank you!

Today I received a “happy anniversary” message from WordPress.

What started as a spur of the moment decision to start documenting our adventures on our “escape” to France has turned into something I really enjoy doing. 80 posts later and I am amazed that 5000 people have viewed and read my little blog and over 400 have left me with lovely comments.

Thank you to all of you that have read and followed, I really do appreciate it -vous êtes tous très gentils!

I also have lots more to post, so even though things have been quiet for a little while – they haven’t for me in real life and I will be back 🙂

Where there’s wine, there’s bound to be an Australian…

It’s not very often that TC and I call in on perfect strangers and introduce ourselves, but perhaps we should do this more often. Today’s adventure starts with a recommendation from our friend Thierry back in Perth.  Thierry owns and runs the fabulous Whisper Wine Bar in Fremantle’s Essex Street,  a place close to our hearts as we spent many hours over a chilled glass of white, plotting and planning our “escape to France” before we came here.

What has that got to do with wineries here in the Languedoc? Well, Thierry told us that a young man who had worked for him a while back, was now back in France and working in a winery not far away from us and what’s more, the winemaker at this winery is also Australian. Not needing any further  excuse than to say “hi” to a friend of a friend from Australia (and the chance to meet another Aussie living and working here), we set off as soon as we could.

Which of course was the very next day, why delay?  On the bikes and off to Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian!

The ride through local wine country was lovely. Sunny and warm, we arrived having worked up a decent sweat.  Just outside the winery is the 12th century prieuré – gorgeous!

Priure de Saint-Jean de Bébian Bike against wall Courtyard

Coming through the gates into such a pretty courtyard that I could have just sat and soaked it up all day. We were met in the cellar by a lovely lady who, on being told that we must say hello to Benoit, rushed off immediately to fetch him. After passing on the greetings from our mutual friend, we had a look around the cave (that’s just the name of the cellar door in France) and then started tasting some of the wines.

Well the wines were great (we managed to squeeze four bottles into our backpacks, despite also having our water bottles taking up space!) and had a wonderful chat with the winemaker, Karen Turner, who was so lovely and friendly that, despite these two strange Aussies turning up out of the blue (and in the middle of the harvesting season!) was kind enough to show us around a little and explain some of their wines and processes.

I LOVED the barrel cellar with its thick covering of cobwebs on the windows – deliberately left there to help keep flies at bay – and we were shown the nifty rack system they use for the barrels. Each one is on individual rollers in its rack, allowing the barrels to be rotated to stir the wine and also allowing single barrels to be removed easily  – something quite impossible if barrels are all stacked against each other!

 

 

 

Unfortunatley, there was no vendage happening while we were there. Karen explained that they only harvest in the mornings so that the grapes are fresh and while they had been harvesting some of the white grapes, the reds simply weren’t ready yet so there was to be a break for a few days.  A pity for us, as we would have loved to see the grapes being brought in, but this day it was not to be.  We did get to see the original stone tanks still used by the winery for the resting and maceration of the red wine grapes.

Chatting with Karen, we discovered that she and her husband also have their own winery, Domain Turner Pageot, specialising in biodynamically produced wines in the Languedoc region. A little more snooping on my part revealed they are part of a group of wine producers called “The Outsiders”, describing themselves as:

“…a group of Languedoc-Roussillon wine producers. Working in the south of France, they are creating exciting wines which make full use of the region’s highly diverse soil types, climatic conditions and grape varieties.”

If you get the chance to try some of these wines, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed and, even better, if you get the chance to call into the winery here just outside the beautiful town of Pezenas, you definitely won’t be disappointed!

Cheers and santé!

Winery sign

ps Yes, West Australians can taste some of these wines in Whisper’s… but shhhh…. I’ll be back there soon, leave some for me!!

Le Tour. Yes, you know which one…

Yesterday TC and I joined a friend and rode out to see Le Tour go past.  Yes, you do know which tour I mean!

One of the things I love about it is that it goes all around the country, giving so many local people the opportunity to go our & see it in their area and cheer the riders on. It came within 20km of our home on this stage and we decided to go to a spot between Montagnac and Villeveyrac where there are some small hills, so we could get a good view of them coming up a rise. The map in that link gives you a good idea of our region.

Once we arrived, we stopped in front of a pretty vineyard (and some of the locals came up to chat, telling us what good wines they sell there) and before we knew it the caravan was coming up the road. For the uninitiated, the caravan is the parade of sponsor promotion vehicles which are like small floats, equipped with loudspeakers, music and people throwing out free goodies to the crowds.

After the caravan, we sat in the shade and enjoyed our picnic of freshly made baguette sandwiches (filled with leftover chicken from coq au vin, fresh ham, fromage & salad) and of course good red wines. Thanks to the caravan, we enjoyed some madeleines as a little treat after our baguettes.  A relaxing hour was spent in the perfect summer weather until the sight and sound of 4 helicoptors coming over the hill announced the imminent arrival of the riders.  Two had gone out in a breakaway lead early in the stage, I don’t think they lasted very long.

Then it was time for the peloton.

Of course I was out in my Aussie gear to support our riders – in fact TC was waving the flag while I was calling out “Go Aussies” and one of the Orica Greenedge riders threw him his empty bottle. I also got one from the Movistar team, Score!!

Then it was all over so quickly… but what a good day out. We made our way home, past many cars & a few small traffic jams and accompanied by the occasional call of “allez allez allez!!!” from other tour fans driving past us. The views on the way there and back were just gorgeous, so enjoy our pictures!

Rolling rolling rolling….

IMG_2018 Well everything has been all about cycling for me lately.

I have been so busy for the past month or so that I’ve hardly had time to post,  but I am now going to do my best to catch up.

The first change to my cycling habits came when, through a chance conversation with a Swedish man in our local bar one Friday night, I discovered there is a social group in our village who go out for an organised ride every week. Of course the following week I turned up on the designated morning and voila – I met a lot of lovely French people on bikes, as well as an English couple who live in our village and also cycle with this group.

The next change for me came in April, when I joined in a cycling challenge called 30 Days of Biking. This came about because I was trying to increase my cycling anyway (in an effort to decrease my expanding waistline) and I thought what better way than to have a commitment for a whole month where I had to get out on my bike every single day, no matter what.  And due to the cool spring weather, yes, that meant actually going out in the pouring rain a couple of days. Silly? Yes, but I am glad I actually did it.

This all meant that I cycled over 1000km during the month, saw much more of the countryside than before and became the bearer of a waistline trimmed down by 1.5kg that month- what a great result, and what great spring scenery I saw.

Here is a little photo summary of my past month on wheels…

Wet days by the beach

Wet days by the beach

Remains of a roman bridge

Remains of a roman bridge

Medieval mill on le Rive Herault

Medieval mill on le Rive Herault

Poppies everywhere

Wildflowers everywhere

Spring in the Languedoc is spectacular

Spring in the Languedoc is spectacular

A church outside Clermont L'Herault

A church outside Clermont L’Herault

Quick stop in a neighbouring village

Quick stop in a neighbouring village

Passing a local vineyard

Passing a local vineyard

Playgrounds on the beach

Playgrounds on the beach

Those popup restaurants are now open...

Those popup restaurants are now open…

... making a perfect spot for lunch after a long ride

… making a perfect spot for lunch after a long ride

Another new thing I got into during April was some regular “randonee” rides. This is where the local cycle clubs (and it seems there is an active club in every village, and I mean EVERY village) organise Sunday morning rides that are open to all riders, comprising a short route (usually around 70km) and a long route of 100km. For a small fee you get a map, markings on the roads to follow, a decent refreshment stop along the way – and being French this does include wine and chocolate – and another at the end.

Along with TC and some of our new cycling friends from our village, I entered into three of these randonees, and what a lot of fun they are! We usually head off at 7.30am when the roads are nice and quiet, and are home just in time to buy a fresh baguette for lunch. Some of these rides also included some fairly decent hills I might add, so I was certainly challenged at times. And for those wondering, I did do the long route on two of them.

With all this gorgeous scenery, of course I set out to take lots of photos. The other day I was so pleased with all the shots I got, especially since it was the second time we rode this particular route, the first time being with our social group. Now with a group, you can’t really be stopping every five minutes to take photographs, after all the object is to ride and enjoy the morning out. So TC and I went out on the same route  a few days later, when I took all the great shots… only to get home and discover there was no storage card in the camera. Yes, that’s a fail.

However, I did manage to get it right on one day out – this lovely, sunny Sunday we rode along the Canal du Midi into Beziers, and had a picnic lunch in the Plateau des Poetes, a beautiful park in the middle of town. So I’ll finish with some of the nice shots I got that day. Enjoy!  IMG_4007  IMG_4011  IMG_4001  IMG_3980  IMG_3979  IMG_4008  IMG_4014  IMG_4015  IMG_3986  IMG_4018  IMG_4023  IMG_4029  IMG_4031  IMG_4030

Weekly Photo Challenge: Lunchtime

Inspired by this week’s weekly photo challenge, I hereby bring you my “Lunchtime” photo… potato tomato spinach

Yesterday and today TC and I went out for a ride of about 40km, one we do often, along the sea front. While it was sunny today, there was a strong northerly wind that was cold. It’s obviously being generated from all the snow that they are still having in the north, so that’s how cold the wind was – cold enough that my toes were numb when we got home.

Cold rides like that make me want to eat a nice hot lunch on our return. Lately I’ve discovered just how healthy and low-fat baked jacket potatoes are with a variety of vegetable toppings.

Today I was like Popeye the Sailor Man and got a decent serve of spinach in with my lunch. I’ve never bought frozen spinach before, but after this, I am a fan!

While the potato was baking (ok, I admit I use the microwave for this) I diced a large clove of garlic and a medium tomato. I had previously defrosted some frozen spinach. I heated up a little olive oil in a frying pan, added the garlic & tomato, sauteed for 3-4 minutes then added the spinach to heat through.

I then put this all over my baked potato (cut open of course), topped it with a tablespoon of light philly cheese and a grating of lemon zest.

Delicious and just what I needed to warm me through.  Enjoy!

A land of olives, wine and water…

Browsing through lots of the entries in this week’s photo challenge on WordPress got me thinking that I would like to submit a longer entry. But then again, do I really want to do another on the same topic?

Yesterday we went for a long ride, mainly along the beautiful Canal du Midi, and I used TC’s phone to take all my shots. We rode for around 35km before turning back, so while it’s not exactly my “neighbourhood”, it is the area we have been living in and just love.

It was a gorgeous early spring day, sunny with hardly any wind, until this strange sea mist came in on our way back. So today, I just have a little photo essay on our region, as seen from my bike yesterday.

Enjoy!

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Olive grove

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Vineyard

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L’Heirault river, Agde

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Colourful canal boat

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Bridges in Beziers

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more bridges in Beziers

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Looking down the Canal du MIdi

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One of many locks, Canal du Midi

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Canal du Midi, early spring

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Canal du Midi, early spring

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Just a duck on a wall

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Canal boat B & B

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Stone bridge over the Canal du Midi

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Another lock

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Horses and the sea mist

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Horses waiting for their riders

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Free standing vines

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Spring flowers in the vineyards

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A beautiful house in our village

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and beautiful spring blossoms

Winter windup

Lately I have been a little caught up in real life which has kept me from posting. I’ve also come to the conclusion that while a cold (colder than I am used to) European winter is a novelty, it has been going on a little bit long now. I for one, am ready for some serious sunshine!

So to hopefully wind up my winter postings, I have just a small selection of pictures taken from my wanderings over the past couple of weeks.

Bring on spring!

After saying that, the next two days here are forecast to be extremely windy and wet – definitely no cycling.

Typical village street

Typical village street

Another typical village street

Another typical village street

A village church

A village church

Archways

Archways

Digging up our road

Digging up our road

Etang de Thau, Winter

Etang de Thau, Winter

Sailing into the Canal du Midi

Sailing into the Canal du Midi

Surprise horses on the beach

Surprise horses on the beach

Cafe at the Sete Beaches

Cafe at the Sete Beaches

On ya bike!

Today was a perfect day for cycling. Clear blue skies and lovely lovely sunshine combined with just the gentlest of breeze. Another 10-15 degrees warmer would be great, but who’s complaining on a day like today!

TC and I were feeling energised to work off our winter padding, so off we set today for a decent ride. Our wheels took us to another area where there are lakes lying right alongside the Mediterranean. We were just east of Frontignan Plage, and not all that far from Montpellier. We stopped on a bridge over part of the lakes to enjoy these gorgeous views. Cycle 20th feb 1  Cycle 20th feb 2  Cycle 20th feb 3  Cycle 20th feb 4

We rode back from there via Sete, spying a fairly large flock of pink flamingos on the way. They are amazing to watch, but noisy. It was hard to imagine at that point that we weren’t so far from some pretty big towns. It was also amazing to be standing on such a narrow strip of land running between the beach and the lakes. The beaches at this point weren’t great for swimming though, unless you like walking across rocks to get to the water.  Cycle 20th feb 5  Cycle 20th feb 6

If only all cycle paths were this great! Cycle 20th feb 7 Cycle 20th feb 8

We stopped in Sete for a little rest and to buy fruit, then it was on to our favourite cafe at the western plages of Sete.  Cycle 20th feb 9  Cycle 20th feb 10  Cycle 20th feb 11  Cycle 20th feb 12 

It was such a good day that every man and his dog was out enjoying the seaside, so we didn’t get to have our usual chat with the cafe owner. It was a definite change from a week ago when the Sete Plage walkways were completely empty. Cycle 20th feb 13

The breeze had picked up a bit on our way home so it began to feel like a workout by then. Eventually we got home having clocked up a decent 75km; that should put a few dents in the winter fat. We are considering longer distance rides as our training regime from now on, to prepare for our next cycle tour in May – in the Bordeaux region. If only every day was as beautiful as today, wouldn’t that be fantastic.