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El Tour De Francia

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons for our visit to Barcelona was that the Tour de France was making a detour into this area. We saw both the finish of stage 6 and the start of stage 7 here. It was very appropriate to be watching Le Tour in the city of Gaudi because it really is quite a spectacle. It’s a huge commercial for the sponsors, a sporting event, and a fiesta all at the same time.

Despite the pouring rain for stage 6, thousands of people turned up to line the route – everything from local residents who were just curious, casual cycling fans, and people on vacation to business people hanging out of office windows to get a view, and of course, the tour crazies. The weather held up for stage 7 and even more people packed the streets for that one. Traffic in Barcelona was probably a nightmare for anyone trying to get to work.

The race itself almost seems secondary to the caravan that goes before it. While the riders speed past you for just a few seconds, the caravan goes on for hours. It starts with more police motorcycles than I’ve ever seen in one place. After that, a whole string of official cars, team cars, press cars, and mechanics’ vans goes through. Then the fun begins. The sponsors floats come through blaring music and throwing tchotchkes to the fans who go nuts for this stuff. We snagged some polka dot hats, bottles of water, and gummy bears – it was a good haul. After the parade, there are more police (for this race both gendarmerie from France and guardia urbana from Barcelona) and more team cars. The later it gets, the faster they drive by, so you know the riders are close. Finally, after all that, the peloton flies by in a multi-colored blur of jerseys and bikes that last just a few seconds while everyone cheers.

After the riders were gone, we headed back the hotel to watch it on TV. This is one sport where the excitement is great, but there is something to be said for TV coverage to know where the riders are and what is happening out on the course. We’ve been watching it on Eurosport, usually with German or French commentators and the sound turned down. I really miss the Versus team, and Phil Liggett especially. Who else could tell us when they are “dancing on the pedals”?

On our way out of Barcelona back to France, we passed through the Pyrenees on the some of the same mountain passes that the riders will be taking over the next few days. We scouted the course and decided it’s much better to be going up these hills in a car.

 Here is the pack underway.  That’s Fabian in yellow and Cav in green.


Work In Progress

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

We spent a few nice days in Zurich with a friend and then made the long drive to Barcelona over two days. We had more than one reason for making the trip, though, because we wanted to visit at least one place in Spain (although we soon learned we are in Catalunya), and we also wanted to see the Tour de France. It turns out that le Tour is venturing across the border this year, so our decision was made.

I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about Barcelona before we arrived, but we quickly got up to speed on it’s most famous architect, Gaudi. His apartment building, la Pedrera, captures the imagination and reminded me of a place that a Dr. Suess character might live. It’s a little strange at first, but the more I saw, the more I really like it.

You can’t come here without seeing his most famous work, the Sagrada Familia, although I don’t think anything I had seen or read prepared me for it. It’s huge, mind-bending, and surprising for me, unfinished. I had no idea that so much work is still going on. There are all sorts of craftsman hard at work, but it still seems to be a long way from complete. The parts that are done are fantastic – some are weird, some beautiful – but all really seem to evoke a strong response in everyone who sees it. I’m already looking forward to coming back in 2025 when it will supposedly get its tall bell tower.

Here’s a look at the Gaudi chimneys at la Pedrera:


How Stuff is Made

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

We arrived in Salzburg with no real plan for how we might spend our days. The town itself is lovely with lots of great views of the river, churches, and pretty old streets. The castle on top of the hill overlooks it all and makes for a great walk too.

After exploring the town on foot, we decided to venture a little further away by car. We soon found ourselves across the border in Germany at the Salzburgwerk saltmine. On this trip we haven’t done too many guided tours, but this one looked interesting and turned out to be fun. Besides learning about where the salt comes from (they drill holes deep in the mine, fill them with water until it dissolves the salt into a brine, and then pump it out and evaporate it leaving the salt), we also got to ride the “miner’s slide” down into the depths and in an open train car into a narrow shaft.

After Salzburg we planned to start heading west. We decided to see the 4th smallest country in Europe, Liechtenstein, and ended up staying one night there. Along the way though, Eric found out that we’d pass near a place called Kufstein, which happens to be where one of my favorite little luxuries is made. Kufstein is the home of Riedel glasses. If you’ve never heard of them, they are wine glasses that are specially designed in different shapes for each type of wine. Their theory is that each shape delivers the wine to your nose and mouth in a different way to enhance the taste and present it in the best possible way for that specific wine. Whether it’s true or not, I’m hooked on the shape of these glasses and the way they look and feel. They are an indulgence that I have missed on the road… drinking wine out of jelly glasses in Greece made me long for them. So of course, we had to make a detour to Kufstein, and it was well worth it. The factory tour offers a fascinating view of how each glass and decanter is made by hand. It’s wonderful to see the craftsmen at work with the blobs of molten glass until finally the perfect shape emerges. It was also lucky for our bank account that we can’t fit anything else in our luggage – the shop at the factory is very tempting.

Here are some future Riedels being born:



Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

After a couple of days in Zagreb, we crossed back into the Schengen visa region and headed to Vienna. The weather in both cities seemed to fluctuate between pouring rain and humid sunshine every few hours, so we learned to be prepared for anything. We learned a few other lessons in Vienna as well. Visits to the Schatzkammer (Treasury) at the Hofburg and the Schonnbrunn palace taught us quite a lot about Austrian history and the Hapsburgs that we didn’t know before.  Next we had a music appreciation class at a concert with music by Mozart, Hadyn, and Strauss in a beautiful old theater. 

We also got a free language tutorial courtesy of the Vienna Parking Department. I felt pretty good about how many German words and phrases I remembered.  I was even able to ask someone on the street about where to buy a parking permit, and then ask for one at the shop. Feeling triumphant, parkschein in hand, we pulled into an empty space. However, we returned to a big fat ticket on the windshield only to discover that the reason for it (and the reason the spot was open in the first place) is that it was a clearly marked “Ladetaetigkeit” which is roughly a loading zone and illegal to park in. That’s a word that was not in any German textbook I ever had.

Our final lesson in Vienna was that it is not a good idea to mess with Austrian cops. We were casually strolling down a street when out of nowhere three undercover police surrounded a guy sitting in a parked car right in front of us. They were shouting and waving automatic weapons before they pulled him out and onto the ground. The whole operation took less than a minute, but seemed to happen in slow motion. Needless to say, as soon as we saw the guns we backed up behind a store front until the action cooled off. We never found out what he was arrested for, but I don’t think it was a parking offense.

Parting thoughts:  It was good to be the Emperor.  Here’s the summer palace at Schonnbrunn: