Tour de France

July 14th, 2010 by carolyn

For cycling fans July means only one thing each year, the Tour de France.  This year the Tour runs from 3rd July to 25th July and takes the riders from the prologue in Rotterdam through 20 stages to the finish in Paris.


My friend from Boston was due to be in France this summer for a family holiday and she contacted me to find out if there was any chance I would want to meet up with her to do some traveling.  Knowing that she is a huge cycling fan, I wondered whether she was thinking of trying to catch a stage of the Tour.  She jumped at the idea and we planned a long weekend in the Alps to see stage 8 Station des Rousses > Morzine-Avoriaz.

I left London Friday after work and flew from Heathrow to Geneva (1 hour flight) to make it to Switzerland by 10 pm (amazing).  We planned to head up into the mountains on Saturday morning via a shuttle ride to the Morzine-Avoriaz ski areas in France and hoped to camp along the route.  The ride from Geneva to the Alps was beautiful and we saw amazing chalets, cyclists and Tour paraphenalia all along the route.  I particularly enjoyed these cyclists with their baguettes on their backs.


We got dropped off at the very top of the mountain in Avoriaz and site of the finish line for stage 8.  As we drove up the mountain where the cyclists would be riding on Sunday, some big black clouds rolled in.  We passed caravans and tents all along the road and rain started pouring down.  Fortunately, we took shelter in the visitor centre (decorated like the maillot à pois rouges the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains) and figured out our plan.


When there was a break in the clouds we popped across the street for some wine and olives to watch the end of stage 7, Tournus -> Station des Rousses.  Once the rain stopped we walked back down the cycle route, past the finish line and staked out a spot to pitch our tent for the weekend.  We had a lovely picnic dinner (the first of many) of cheese, bread and wine.  We were about 2 km from the finish line.

Needless to say, camping on the side of one of largest cycling events in the world is quite an experience.  All night long there were vehicles traveling up to the finish honking horns and people up to all hours celebrating.  We woke up on Sunday eagerly awaiting the arrival of the cyclists.  We walked back up to town to get some more food for the day and had a breakfast of crepes!  Miraculously, overnight the barriers, advertisements, finish line and road markers had been set-up.  That explained all the noise on the road keeping us awake.  It was amazing to see how much goes into the logistics of the Tour and how many vehicles are necessary – lots and lots of petrol being used for a cycle race.


Sunday was very very hot and sunny so we found a shady spot for another picnic and waited for the riders.  They were expected at the finish about 5:30 pm.  We met other cycling fans from all over the world while we waited – England, France, America, New Zealand, Holland, Germany and many more.  We also were visited by French cows with very melodious bells around their necks.
picnic1.jpg  cows.jpg
About an hour ahead of the cyclists, the caravan comes through.  The caravan is essentially a parade of many of the advertisers involved with the tour coming through and tossing out a bunch of free stuff to the fans on the side of the rode.  It was a very bizarre experience but I ended up with a polka dot hat so was happy.

caravan.JPG caravan2.jpg

Finally, the riders started to make there way past us on the mountain.  Although they were tackling a significant climb and were only kilometers away from the finish, I was still amazed by how quickly they went past.  Just as I was figuring out who was going by they were gone.  The first group came through including eventual stage winner Andy Schleck.  As we watched more and more cyclists go by the big news was where was Lance Armstrong?  And we still hadn’t seen the yellow jersey wearer or the polka dot jersey wearer.  It turned out Lance had had a very rough day including 2 falls.
cyclists.jpg cyclists2.jpg

I was surprised to see how spread out the groups were and who was in each group.  After the main groups went by we walked back up to the finish area to get some dinner and see if we could see any of the cyclist up close.  Amazingly, many of them started cycling back down the hill to Morzine before all the others had even finished the climb.  We made it up to the finish area and they were pretty much already starting to take it down in preparation for moving on to the next stage.  As we made our way around the back of all the set-up we literaly ran into Phil Ligget and Bob Roll.  They are television announcers for cycling and the Tour and my friend was literally star struck to have the chance to meet them.  She has some photos of us with them so maybe I will add those later.  As we made our way around all the semis and cables we saw a small group gathering and were told some of the winners were just finishing up interviews.  We saw Cadel Evans ride off in the yellow jersey and Andy Schleck meeting with the media.  Little did we know that Evans had suffered an elbow injury meaning trouble in the next stage.

After such a long day you would think we would be heading straight off to bed but now.  But no, 11 July was the World Cup Final so after a picnic dinner of takeaway pizza we headed back down the mountain as the sun set.  Near our campsite a small chalet had set-up televisions in a tent on the side of the road and we were able to watch Espana finally become campeaones – World Cup Champions!  It was great to be apart of an international crowd watching the match even if it was a rough and tumble final.

sunset.jpg  worldcup.JPG

Monday was a rest day for the Tour so we had a leisurely morning packing up the campsite.  We headed back down the mountain via ski lift and cable car into the town of Morzine.  Apparently Annecy, France including Morzine/Avorinaz area are bidding for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

chairlift.jpg  morzine.jpg

I spent the day wandering around town watching all the cyclists and cycling fans.  It was super hot and my pack full of tent and sleeping bags was weighing me down but I saw some Quick Step cyclists and a former top tier cyclist.  The Tour would be leaving from Morzine on Tuesday but unfortunately, I had to head back to Geneva on Monday night to get back to London and work for Tuesday.  All in all, it was an amazing weekend in a beautiful setting that I will never forget.  I have always enjoyed the Tour de France but I think I may be a convert to a true fan now.  I will be watching over the next few weeks to see how these amazing athletes finish out the route.

Addendum:  Julia shared our photos with Phil Ligget and Bob Roll so here they are.

philandc.jpg bobandj.jpg

Cinque Terre

May 10th, 2010 by carolyn

Over the May Bank Holiday weekend, we had made plans to meet my parents in Cinque Terre, a series of 5 villages in the Italian Riveria.  The towns are accessible via train, boat and walking path but only a few can be reached by car.  My parents were going to be traveling in Italy and we arranged to meet up in Monterossa where my Dad and I hoped to hike the Cinque Terre trail, something we had talked about doing together “someday.”   Unfortunately, my parents were grounded by the Iceland volcano eruption and were unable to make it.  Because everything was booked and our flights were still scheduled Matt and I ended up going on our own.  We flew into Genoa and took a bus to the train station where we hopped a train to Monterossa.  We arrived on April 30th to beautiful sunny weather by the sea.

We set about exploring the town, had a fabulous seafood dinner and made plans to attempt the Cinque Terre trail the next day.  Saturday was another good weather day and we knew that the trail was shut down at times for bad weather so we jumped on the chance to get walking.  We started out from Monterossa and headed out to the next town Vernazza.  This is a view looking back at Monterossa from the trail.

It was amazing to see just how many people were out on the trail.  Matt had visited this area in 1998 when he was studying abroad in Florence.  That was before the area was designated UNESCO world heritage site.  Since its designation, the trails have been revamped, there is an entrance fee and the crowds have only increased (according to Matt).   When Matt was here in 1998 he walked most of the trail but ran out of daylight and had a bit of an adventure making it to the final destination.  I think he enjoyed revisiting the scenes of his old adventure on the trail, like this one.

After wandering by olive trees, grapevines and lemon trees stacked deep on the steep slopes, we arrived with in view of Vernazza.  It was a beautiful town with an arching harbor, loads of gelato and full of tourists.  All 5 towns are connected not only by the walking trails but by train as well.  You can catch a glimpse of the train in some of the shots as it peeps out from its path cutting through the mountains.  Its mostly in ground along this route.  The road is several miles up and doesn’t come to each of these towns, part of what makes them so unique.

Pretty huh?  After a quick stop in town we headed out to the next stop Corniglia.  This town is perched at the edge of a pretty big cliff and also is full of the colorful buildings seen in each of the towns.

Next up?  Manarola.  The trip between Corniglia and Manarola was a bit easier than the other two walks.

And finally we walked along the Via Dell’Amore a nice flat paved path to Riomaggiore.  The main feature here are lots of locks decorating the walls to signify peoples love.

The trail is about 10 km and takes 4-5 hours to complete.  We were pretty tired after reaching the end and planned to take a boat back to our origin point, Monterossa.  It was amazing to view the towns we had just passed through from the water.  We were super lucky with the weather also.  Just as we boarded the boat the clouds came in and some drizzle started to come down.  Here is a view of the towns from the water.

Riomaggore                                                       Manarola

Corniglia                                                               Vernazza

Monterossa                                                      Boat Trip

For dinner on Saturday we took the train back to Manarola and tried out another pasta/seafood place on the water.  It was a dreary grey night but still super enjoyable.  And we got to check out the Christmas decorations set up on the terraces, not lit up, but waiting for the holidays.

The next day, the day started grey.  We decided to try a shorter hike near the hotel.  Of course, once we started the walk the rain really came down.  We had a great time anyway and saw a very difference view of a cloud covered Cinque Terre.  Turns out they closed the path due to the weather so there was no hiking to the 5 towns that day =).

Before the Hike

The view from the top of the straight up hike we attempted……………

Enjoying wine after the workout

Bon Voyage Nic, Clint and Jezebel!

April 27th, 2010 by matt

So tomorrow afternoon, this lovely car and her owners, Nic and Clint, will begin a 4 month adventure driving around the wilds of Europe. Nic has been working with Carolyn for almost 2 years and we’ve had a lot of fun times with them during their time in London. Alas, it’s time for them to move on. We will miss them both and wish them lots of fun and adventures in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Croatia and wherever the road may take them. Good luck guys!

Can you guess where we’re been?

March 26th, 2010 by matt

So Carolyn and I just got back from holiday. Any one know where from this picture?

Ok, give up? Egypt! We spent 12 action packed days there. Lots more to come.  🙂

Madrid Christmas Lights

February 17th, 2010 by matt

So we have tons of photos from Madrid, so I think I’ll break them out some more. Today, let’s look a little more at the Christmas lights Madrid has to offer the holidays. Like many cities, Madrid goes all out with their festive spirit. Let’s see what they have, shall we?


Here is the famous Plaza del Sol and the ‘mascot’ of Madrid, a bear with a tree (the Tio Pepe sign, the other icon of Sol, is next to the bear). You can walk into the big tree. Note how few people are there — normally it’s rammed full at all hours.


These were some cool-ass snowflakes on the side of a building (I think it’s a Cortes Ingles). There were also long vertical lights that ‘dripped’ down the building.


This is a cool closeup of the snowflakes hovering over Plaza Mayor, the other big square in Madrid. They almost looked like flying saucers.

This grand building used to be the post office. Now the mayor uses it as the city hall. It was under heavy restoration for over 10 years, so this was the first time Carolyn got to see it.


We have no idea what the purpose of this building is, but it is beautiful and I love anything called Metropolis :). Jim took this excellent nighttime photo of it with some of the lights on the boulevard next to it.


Many of the streets had massive amounts of lights draped across them. This is a fine example with the lights acting as rugs or something.

It was fun to just wander and see all the wonderful lights all over the place. The Spanish gave the Parisians (and Londoners) a run for their money!

Spanish Christmas

January 30th, 2010 by matt

Ok, January’s not over yet, so I can still talk about Christmas. I’ve not been in the US for the past three Christmas’, so I try to find something interesting to do each time. The first time, I ‘chose’ to have a horrible flu and spend the holiday in a feverish bundle on Dina and Adrian’s couch. Not something I would recommend. 🙂 The following year, Carolyn had made the move over and we decided to rent a place for a long weekend in Paris and do the whole market-shopping, homemade Christmas meal in a foreign country. It was such fun, we thought we’d try it again. However, in order to make sure it wasn’t the same-old-same-old, we added a couple of changes. We went to Madrid this time and Carolyn’s parents made the trip across the Atlantic.

Before I start showing pictures, let me say that one of the reasons we love doing this is we basically drop into town and try to figure out how to shop for some sort of epic kind of meal, without ever having been in that neighbourhood before. The internet truly helps with this, but so much of it is hit-or-miss. For example, we learned that grocery stores in Madrid are horrible. They literally sell the worst of the food you can think of. The bread is like wonderbread, they didn’t have butter (I’m not making this up).

So how does one eat in Spain? The markets. In Paris and London, you tend to go to the markets if you want produce, meat, dairy and bread. This can also be picked up at the grocery stores, but it is possible to do much of the shopping at a market if you choose so. You have options but the basics you might go to a grocery store. In Spain, at least in Fuencarral (where we were staying), they had the Barcelo Market. It’d had recently been moved into a modern space which consisted of 3 or 4 kind of pods with stalls in each. Thanks to this market, we managed to pick up just about everything we needed. Which was good because we arrived on Christmas Eve and we had about 1 hour to find everything before the city shut for festivities.

Anyway, after writing this, I realize I’m making generalities about a city that I don’t know that well. So allow me to call this an observation about a slice of Madrid. I did not go into any of the Corte Ingles (a large department store) that dot the city and Carolyn says that they do groceries as well.

So, after dropping into Madrid and performing a surgical strike on the market, it was time to settle in for the holiday. Jim and Linda were scheduled to arrive in the late morning on Christmas Day. We decided to have a variation on the Spanish Tortilla as our Christmas Eve meal.


After dinner, we wandered around Madrid. We learned the hard way last year not to expect a whole lot of life or open restaurants at any point over Christmas (we had Chinese food last year for Christmas Eve dinner because Paris was dead). As we walked the almost deserted streets of Madrid, we would run into other tourists asking if the Metro was running of if we knew of open places for food. It was all quite eerie — Madrid is a bustling city, but on Christmas eve, it was absolutely dead. Observe the Plaza Mayor at about 10:30pm:


Beautiful lights and only like 10 other people around. Loved it!

After a wander around Madrid, we tucked in for the night so we could prepare to cook a feast to welcome Linda and Jim to Spain. The menu consisted of homemade ravioli (with a ricotta and spinach filling), roast rack of lamb, some vegetables and homemade strawberry shortcake. Here’s the prep for it:


Of course, there was wine too :). Now cooking in a place you’d never seen before until the night before can always be tricky (this place had no measuring cups which is never happy when making a cake), but it turned out nicely:


(The sauce was store-bought and wasn’t the best. But everything else was tasty goodness). Overall, it was a lovely time. Good food, good company, the apartment was beautiful. I’ll leave this post with a the happy family eating and our Christmas “Tree” surrounded with presents:



Photo Dump: End of the Road Festival 2009

September 22nd, 2009 by matt

Festivals are a part of British summer culture. There large numbers of them every weekend. They run the range of the arts, but the best known ones are music festivals (Glastonbury, with 200,000 people, being the biggest and best known). Carolyn and I decided that we needed to experience one, so we went to the End of the Road Festival, a smaller “boutique” festival of about 5,000 people. It was a wonderful 3 days in the country, camping and listening to music. Here’s a lot of photos we took while we were there:

End of the Road Festival Photo Dump


Photo Dump: Bruges, De Haan and Brussels

September 22nd, 2009 by matt

The last Bank holiday of the year Carolyn and I went to Belgium (See writeups about the sites and the food and drink). Now that we’ve written about them, here are a lot of pictures of our trip for you to enjoy

Belgium Photo Dump

Photo Dump: A Trip along the Llangollen Canal

September 22nd, 2009 by matt

It’s been a busy month. We’ve just finished up another long weekend of travel, this time along the Welsh border. We rented a canal boat with our friends Ben, Gerry and Dan and travelled at a leisurely pace along the one of the many canals of England. These used to be the power house that allowed the Industrial Revolution to get their goods smoothly from the North down to London and then onto the rest of the world. They were made obselete by the railroads, trucking and cheap Asian labor, but now they exist as a way to enjoy the English countryside. Here are the photos I took from that trip (our friends took many more, but I think this covers it pretty well):

Canal boat trip photos

Food and Drink in Belgium

September 17th, 2009 by matt

Since Carolyn did such an admirable job summing up our visual fun in Belgium, it’s my turn to sum up what we consumed whilst we were there. Belgium is known for good eats and an amazing array of beers. For a country of its size, they have hundreds of beers made there. Ignoring the swill that comes out of Inbev (yes, a Belgian company that managed to buy Anheuser-Busch), they have some very good beers and all of them have their own special glass to drink out of. I’ll just sum up a few of the more interesting ones we had (we managed to sample over 20 different beers in our weekend there, so I won’t bore you with the details).


Der Garre is a small, old bar in the center of Bruges. They have contracted out with a brewer to make their house beer. Bruges is touristy, and this place had plenty of them, but they claim the locals come just for this beer. I can understand why. It is high in alcohol (12%), but the alcohol doesn’t overwhelm it. So it has a refreshing taste as well. And it’s nice to have a little cheese with it as well. The bar was friendly and bustling both times we went.


This is Carolyn in the bar of the De Halve Maan Brewery, the last remaining brewery in Bruges. Right after WWII, there were over 30 of them. We’ve been on a few brewery tours and each one tries to make it a little interesting. As this place had been brewing beer for 150 years, the process has been modernized and requires less space. So, while they have a big building for brewing, they only really need part of it to brew the beer. As a result, they’ve kept the old bits around as a view into the past of brewing and show you around it. It was very interesting to see the way things have changed. People need not crawl around closed fermenters cleaning beer out of it while getting drunk on beer fumes. De Halve Maan make three beers, Brugse Zot blond and brown and Straffe Hendrick. We had all three at one point and they were all lovely. We liked the glasses so much, we bought two to bring home.


In Belgium, there’s a beer store called brewmania where you can buy a beer and drink it on site. The owner was a friendly, knowlegable and chatty guy who was happy to help find recommendations for us. This happens to be his house beer. The glass is an interesting combo of a typical Belgian beer glass but the stem is a handle, to keep the beer from getting warm by you touching it with your hand.


There are 7 monasteries in Belgium that still make beer. They’re trappist ales. Among them, Westvleren is the hardest to find. They only make exactly the amount they need support themselves for the year and avoid labels and other marketing. As a result, their beer is a bit rare and not cheap. It doesn’t help that they make very good beer that has won awards. Beermania had some, so I had to splurge and have a bottle. It lived up to expectations.


Now onto food. Belgium is a lovely place to eat. It’s even better if you like meat and fries. There are fries everywhere. We ate more than our share of them. The dish above is a local dish called Waterzooi which is a stew of chicken, veg and a cream-based sauce. It was delicious. I also ate way too much steak while I was here. Carolyn avoided that for more fish based dishes. We definitely ate well overall, although there was the occasional meal that wasn’t perfect. The lunch in the picture above was excellent.

Bank Holiday in Belgium

September 16th, 2009 by carolyn

The last weekend in August is August Bank Holiday in England (and much of Europe, I think).  It marks the end of the 6 week school summer vacation and is the last public holiday until Christmas.  We decided to take advantage of the three day weekend to hop the Eurostar under the Channel and head to Belgium.  The Eurostar terminal is at St. Pancreas station – just a 15 minute bus ride from our flat.


We took the 7 am train from London and arrived in Brussels at 10 am (even with a one hour time change).  Our plan for the weekend was to head to Brugge, the capital of West Flanders and a canal based UNESCO World Heritage site, and enjoy some Belgium chocolate, frites and beer.  We stayed at the Bauhaus Hostel just outside the main city centre and after dropping off our bags headed out to explore.

Here is the belfry in the city centre, we climbed all 366 steps to the top:


Here is a view from the top:

We explored through lots of cobblestone streets, toured a brewery and an old beguinage and enjoyed some good fish stew, steak, frites and belgium waffles.  We even rented bikes and journeyed a few kilometers out of town to Damme.


On Monday we got up early to catch the bus to DeHaan, a town on the coast of the North Sea.  We got to town about 9 am so the beach was pretty quiet.  We had it to ourselves for a little bit and then the crowds started to come out.  So we headed back to Brussels where we would spend our last night before catching the 7 am train back to London – just in time to get to work for 9 on Tuesday.

Here is a picture from the beach:


We only had one evening to explore Brussels but it seems like an exciting city with tons of amazing architecture – old and new.  Like this Art Nouveau building:


I’ll leave it to Matt to fill you in a bit more on the food and beer we enjoyed in Belgium.

Flashback: Carolyn’s US Trip in June

September 7th, 2009 by carolyn

Back in June, I made a trip to the east coast for my cousin’s graduation from high school.  It was a great week where I got a chance to catch up with family in Connecticut and New Hampshire and spend the weekend in Boston with friends.  I was even able to make it to my friend Naomi’s wedding (she was nice enough to schedule it for the weekend after the graduation).  All in all it was a great trip home.  Matt was even able to join us for the weekend in Connecticut to see all the family and celebrate the graduation.

Here is Tony getting ready for the big event.  Note the coordination of family clothing.


I had the chance to see my little cousin Carmen starting to crawl as well.  No photos to share but here she is celebrating with me and Tony.


Naomi’s wedding was at the Elm Bank Horticultural Center in Wellesley, MA.  It was a beautiful setting and ceremony and a great party.  Here is Haley and I with the bride:


And the balloon bride and groom:


Arizona Casita

September 5th, 2009 by carolyn

While visiting Matt’s family in Tuscon, we had a chance to venture over to Bowie, Arizona to visit the straw bale house my friend is building in the desert.  Unfortunately, she was out of town (in Michigan) for a few weeks so we didn’t get a chance to see her.  Ground breaking on the house was back in April and at this stage the foundation has been poured, the walls are up and the roof is on.  We had a chance to poke around the site and check out the views.  I was really happy to get to see the house in progress and can’t wait to come back to see it all finished.  I am so impressed with what Nicole has accomplished – she created the drawings, has learned tons about construction and with the help of family and friends, has been building her home herself.

Here’s Matt outside the house.

While in the area we had the chance to explore some other beautiful places as well.  First we visited Katchner Caverns, an amazing limestone cave, which was only “discovered” in 1974 and open to the public only after efforts were made to ensure its preservation in the 1990s.  No photos allowed inside.

Afterwards, we went for a lovely walk in Chiricahua National Monument, a maze of rock spires.  Although we left Matt’s parents at 5:30 am, by the time we went to the airport, had breakfast, went to the caves and drove the couple hours over to the Bowie area, we didn’t arrive at the monument until about noon.  So we set off for our 2 hour walk in the heat of the day, not great timing for us wimps used to England temperatures.  It was well worth it though to see such amazing scenery.  It must be wonderful to see this place in all seasons.  An example of the views:


After this action packed day, we headed back to Tucson and finally got to experience a southwestern rainstorm complete with thunder and lightning.

Photos from our August 2009 trip to the US

September 5th, 2009 by matt

By popular demand, I would like present a photo dump of our trip to Denver and Arizona. ‘Twas a lovely time and a good start to what looking like a busy couple of months of travel and visitors (hurray!).