After landing in Calais, France on 8/2/09, we headed for our next destination……..Brussels!  Brussels was really just a convenient place  to shoot for, getting us half way to Frankfurt, and it would also allow us to add the Netherlands and Belgium to our list of countries visited as we traveled through.  We did enjoy the scenery also and even saw a sign that made us think of “home”……..

Did we take a detour somewhere??

Did we take a detour somewhere??

We arrived in Brussels in the early afternoon and found our hotel with relative ease.  We found Brussels to be a pretty quiet city and very beautiful in many parts

Brussels hotel (was a Marriott Renaissance, but made to blend in with older architecture)

Brussels hotel (was a Marriott Renaissance, but made to blend in with older architecture)

Beauty of Brussels

Beautiful arch in Brussels

But many areas of the city were grafitti covered and under construction and it appeared to be a city mid-revival, at least to a very casual observer on first glance.  Our hotel stay, even though only one night, was very memorable though.  All staff at the hotel spoke 5+ languages and our front desk clerk, Erik, told us this was pretty standard for many areas in Belgium although you would find pockets of French speakers only, or Flemmish, etc..  The hotel concierage pointed us to an absolutely great local restaurant, where yes, I did eat mussels in Brussels (steamed in white wine and so yummy!) :).  Matthew had a local dish as well called Chicken Waterzooi, which he really enjoyed.  As we walked back from dinner, many street vendors shouted about their wares and barkers outdid each other to say their establishment was a better restaurant/bar/etc..  It was a great experience and made me really glad we had picked Brussels as our stop over point, not to mention our hotel room was about 4 times the size of any other room we had during our stay in Europe :).  We will always remember Brussels fondly!

One day left, and we are headed to our final destination, Frankfurt, on August 3rd.  We had mixed feelings certainly as we drive towards Frankfurt………we had had the time of our lives but we had also been going straight for 20 days now and missed our home (complete with my great dad-in-law who was housesitting, 3 crazy pups, our comfy bed, etc.).  We were pretty tired, road punchy, not really wanting to sit on a plane again for 10 hours, but also not wanting to leave in a small way.  We drove to Frankfurt really taking in the final scenery and talking about all the wonderful experiences we had been able to have.

I also am not proud, but we got a little road punchy, and we started noticing a common theme in Germany (we know at least Bill and Sam will appreciate this :D)…………….

*snicker* Sign when leaving German rest stop after lunch, bwahaha

*snicker* Sign when leaving German rest stop after lunch, bwahaha

*snickers louder* Exit sign

*snickers louder* Exit sign

Enough, enough, I know!

Enough, enough, I know!

Anyhow, “Gute Fahrt” means have a good/safe journey/leave but we could not stop giggling about it.  I actually have a few more pictures and may just have to make them their own picasa album 😀

Matthew was pretty excited to get to drive on the Autobahn one more time as well………

(Editors note…  I had this baby all the way to 195 kmh.)

Speed on Autobahn

That is kilometers per hour of course, but still about 112 miles per hour, in a Ford Focus nonetheless, hehe.  I will say I was less excited than Matthew about it :P.  Even at this speed, he had cars flashing their lights behind him to let them pass.

And just for Jim……..Jim's Home Sweet Home Once Upon a Time

And then we arrived safe and sound…….Frankfurt Airport

We actually had a lovely, but quiet, evening in Frankfurt and flew out the morning of 8/4/09.  We did a little shopping, and oddly, had the most wonderful italian meal in our last night in Germany.  We left first thing the next morning, had an uneventful flight, and arrived in Dallas at 2:30pm with the time change.  It was great to see my AWESOME dad-in-law at the airport and who wouldn’t love coming home to this……….Happy Ponsey!

All in all, I’m not sure the best way to wrap up this blog and I thought about just saying “To be continued in 2010………….” but that seemed like a cheap way out :D.  So, I can sum it up by saying (again) that we had an amazing time, 100 times better than we imagined it would be, we met incredible people and saw incredible things.  We saw 7 countries in 21 days.  We (Matthew) drove 6, 820 kilometers around Europe.  We witnessed Lance’s comeback year and saw 10 stages of the 96th Tour de France, and I fell head over heels in love with the sport…….Matthew was already there.  We can’t wait until the 2010 Tour route is announced and we are already planning our return, in hopes of seeing Lance race his inaugural year with Team Radio Shack.  We also hope to have a few travel buddies next time around and Matthew is already dreaming of the possible mountain stages to come.  We are so thankful for the best parents/in-laws in the world and Neil enduring the Texas summer heat for a month and Barbara for parting with him!!  I think the pups are still going through ride withdrawals :D.  And we thank everyone who read all this and sent the much appreciated comments!!  It was fun to put this together and share, as well as help us organize and relive our memories.  I know it is never as fun to hear about someone else’s vacation, but everyone’s excitement about it meant a lot to us! 

Only one more thing……….who is up for a 2010 trip?  We’ll arrange the RV and pick-ups, you just need to meet us there!  Gute fahrt until then!

By the way…………

We ended up with literally a suitcase full of Tour de France chachke to bring back (and this is after giving a large amount away at the time)

Tour de France chachke

Tour de France chachke

If anyone wants anything, let us know and we’ll get it out to you 🙂

I have to give credit to the comedian Eddie Izzard and his “Dress to Kill” performance for this blog title.  He does a whole bit on Stonehenge, and you can check it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it, pretty darn funny :).  Anyhow, it is 7/31/09 and off to Stonehenge we go!  I, especially, was pretty excited to see Stonehenge and we had a nice drive out to Amesbury.  They do not tell you, however, that the roads heading to Stonehenge are not really made to accomodate the traffic for that area and we ended up sitting in some pretty serious traffic in the English countryside.  As I found out later, it is a great source of debate in England what should be done about the roadway issues in that area.  I was also surprised by the fact that you can just see it from the road……..Stonehenge from the road

I guess in my head, it was supposed to be a pretty mystical place so seeing traffic jams, road signs, and then people milling around it like cattle spoiled the illusion a little.  Also, since the late 70’s, they don’t allow mass crowds inside the stones.  You have to arrange a special after-hours tour to do that (which we didn’t do ahead of time)………….we tried to go early in the morning for pics that would be as unspoiled as possible and got a couple of neat onesStonehenge in early am

I also did not realize the large amount of prehistoric burial mounds in the Stonehenge landscape, which proved to be as/more fascinating than the monument itselfStonehenge burial mounds

Seeing Stonehenge though was not our only mission in the area either.  We had watched a travel show prior to our departure on the Cotswolds area of England, supposed to be one of the more scenic areas, and it did not disappoint!!  Our main goal was to visit the Bibury area, which lists trout farming as its main source of income.  It was truly a gorgeous area and again surprising, were the amount of tourists there.  Bibury Village

Stream Running Through Bibury Village

Stream Running Through Bibury Village

The stream running through the village was crystal clear and you could look in and see some HUGE trout staring back at youTrout in Bibury stream

We also finally got some bird pics in Bibury, although not the most exotic European speciesBird in Bibury Stream

I also liked that this black swan was clearing out weeds/gathering materials with his beakBird busy with vegetation in his beak

Also, nothing to do with the beautiful scenery and trout farm, but we got a giggle out of this………

Sign reads "Failure to Pay May Result in Door Opening During Use"  Doh!

Sign reads "Failure to Pay May Result in Door Opening During Use" Doh!

This was a public pay toilet in town and the sign on the door read “Failure to Pay May Result in Door Opening During Use”………good to know the Brits find public humiliation a main motivator to enforce rules :).

You can actually tour the main trout farm in the area, and even purchase fresh trout at the source.  There is a sign saying that they only harvest those trout with some sort of visible damamge too, so maybe it lessens the guilt as you are eating 🙂

Bibury Trout Farm

Bibury Trout Farm

You could also feed the fish there and it really seemed more like a piranha farm during the feeding frenzyFeeding trout at the trout farm

We wanted to see more of the Cotswold area that afternoon, so we said our goodbyes to the lovely town of Bibury and headed to a couple of small towns we happened to see on the map and had a little curiosity about……..the towns were Holt and Bagley :D.

Holt was very close to Bibury and was raining pretty good by the time we arrived.  The road there did yield an interesting road sign

Tank crossing near Holt, UK

Tank crossing near Holt, UK

There was a military base nearby we found out later 🙂  A more welcome sign was leading the way to the tiny town/village of Holt.Sign to Holt

A couple of pics from the village itself………….Holt Village

Commercial vehicle in Holt village

The village itself was very small and quiet, and although we hoped to find an open eatery or business in town, everything looked pretty boarded up so we moved along.  Off to find Bagley!

Bagley was even more rural than Holt and was a bit elusive at first, although our travels took us by the Glastonbury Tor, which is a conical hill and this one has the remains of St. Michael’s church, which is supposed to be Avalon of the Authurian legends.Glastonbury Tor

We were excited when finally seeing the signs for Bagley!Bagley village sign

And then  we drove through it……….Hedgerow in Bagley

Yep, that was it 🙂  Actually, there was a small church and a couple of houses, and the surrounding area was very prettyBagley area

City of Bath

City of Bath

We then moved along to nearby Bath, where you can actually tour the Roman baths, however, it was frankly way to busy to stop and we were pretty tired at this point so we drove through Bath and dined at a small inn just outside the city.

Old Mendip Inn

Old Mendip Inn

We had some great pub grub here, and the wait staff had VERY thick accents.  Our waitress seemed unable to understand a word we said and we ended up pointing out all our menu choices, heh.  I liked that all the doors in the place were very small, Matthew had to duck to avoid bumping his head.

After leaving the Bath are and having driven all over western England, we were pretty wiped when we got back that evening and knowing we had to make the ferry the next morning, we got a good night’s rest.  Even though we were only about 90 minutes from Dover (where we were catching the ferry back to France), every where we go in England seems to take about three times longer than anticipated so we wanted to leave plenty early to make our 1pm ferry.

After a great full English breakfast the next morning, we hit the road for Dover.  It is really hard to believe that it is already August 2nd and that we will be heading home in 2 days *sigh*.  Crazy to think we started the trip with 21 days ahead of us and in a whirlwind, it had dwindled down to only two.  In a surprise also, we made it to Dover with little issue and in the 90 anticipated minutes.  We were even able to make the noon time ferry.  The Dover port was far busier than the Poole port where we entered the UK. 

Dover Port - Waiting to Board Ferry

Dover Port - Waiting to Board Ferry

We boarded the ferry along with this very off, Eastern Bloc looking kind of vehicle Eastern Bloc looking vehicle boarding ferry for France

After boarding and moving into the passenger area, we pushed off from English soil and were able to get a really awesome view of the White Cliffs of DoverGoodbye to England!

White Cliffs of Dover

We waved sadly as we left England and tipped our hats to the Queen, thanking the UK for lots of fun and adventures!  And a final………..Cheers!

On the morning of July 29th, we headed out towards London, with a planned stop at Hever Castle, Anne Boelyn’s childhood home.  I really wasn’t expecting Hever Castle to be as busy at it was, but it seemed like a pretty popular tourist destination.  It was really a lovely siteHever castle

You could tour the grounds, gardens, a small pond, and of course the castle itself which included the second most comprehensive art collection of Turdor paintings (next to the National Gallery in London).  Pictures inside the castle and of the art collection were not allowed but portraits such this famous one of Anne herself were included and pretty amazing to see first hand.  I didn’t know the portraits were housed at the castle so it was a really pleasant surprise!Portrait of Anne Boelyn

I am pretty enthralled with Anne Boelyn so this part of the trip was a highlight for me, and I was glad that Matthew enjoyed it as well.  You are pretty much allowed free range through the castle itself and an audio tour is available.  Interestingly, the castle was purchased in the early 1900’s by the Astor (Waldorf Astor) family and lots of renovations were completed.  The gate house is still original, however, and you can see some original tapestries and furniture as well.  Definitely worth the trip!

On the way to London, we stopped at a small inn called the Grasshopper Inn and had a lovely lunch……no fish and chips, but I did have ale-battered praws and chips, yummy!  Since I always feel badly taking pictures while others are eating, I didn’t bring my camera in, and that always ends in regret.  Matthew did get some iPhone pics and I have to get them pulled off his phone.  The inn was exactly what you think of with an old English inn…….blackened ceiling beams, huge stone fireplaces, substantial mahogany tables and chairs, and Harry Potter as our waiter :).  Seriously, he looked like Harry Potter, only his name was Crumbles and he was a nervous little guy who said “Cheers!” about 26 times during our interactions with him.  Matthew wants to call the inn in the future just to ask for Crumbles :D.

As Crumbles would say, “Cheers!”……  Off to London!  Although we were only about an hour away from London as the crow flies……….we ended up driving through every little town along the way, and the traffic as we approached London put Dallas’ rush hour to shame.  We were so happy to finally arrive at our hotel and safely put the car in the parking garage for a couple of days.  I was happy that Matthew would finally be allowed to enjoy the sights as we traveled around London instead of always having to worry about driving as he had for over 2 weeks now.  We got up early on the morning of 7/30/09 and headed to the DLR and the Tower Gate Station to see the Tower of London!  We did not plan on the fact that we were traveling during London’s workday morning rush and ended up letting 2 completely full trains pass before finally getting on one with some room.  We didn’t care though, we were on vacation and thoroughly enjoying the fact that we had absolutley no time table at all :D.  We only had one full day in London and decided to make the most of it by heading straight to the Tower and then taking a double decker bus ride around the city.

When we exited the Tower Gate station, we stepped out into what appeared to be a business section in London and not at all where you would expect the Tower of London to sit, at least not where I thought it would sit in my mind.  But I suppose that real estate in London is too valuable to give the Tower much of a space all its own.  So we headed towards the entrance, and immediately towards the Crown jewels.  We had read that if you get to them the first thing in the morning, the lines were very reasonable, and sure enough we scooted right in with no waiting.  Of course, no pictures were allowed inside but they were pretty spectacular to view, including the 530 carat Great Star of Africa in the Sceptre with the Cross!  We then headed back to the entrance to enjoy a Tour with one of the Beefeaters.

Beefeater at the Tower of London

Beefeater at the Tower of London

I was pretty fascinated by the whole Beafeater (officially called Yeomen Warders) concept.  Basically, the guys (and one gal) have all had a pretty long military career (22+ years I think) and have retired here to these posts and actually live in the Tower itself.  They all seemed very animated and pretty clever on the fly so I am sure there is a requirement for them to have a pretty lively personality.  They have a set speech they give, but seemed able to accomodate based on the comments and questions from the crowd.  They were in everday dress Beefeater in every day dress when we saw them, but said they have a special red/gold uniform (like on the Beefeater Gin label) when Royalty is at the Tower.  Our Beefeater mentioned that Prince Harry had been there  a couple of weeks ago.

I also thought it was interesting that you could take pictures around the grounds but not in the buildings (such as the chapel where Anne Boleyn is buried under the altar).  Our Beefeater told us that the images inside the chapel (and most of the Tower buildings) are all copyrighted by the British government and even the Beefeaters are not allowed to take photographs.  He said in fact that one of the Beefeater’s grandchildren had just been baptized in the chapel last Sunday but pictures of the event itself were not allowed.

You could take pictures of the grounds though, including the square were Anne Boleyn had been executedTower of London square where Queen Anne Boleyn was executed

And the Ravens close to the White Tower (the original tower of the Tower 🙂 )Raven at the Tower of London

We were also able to view a special exhibit from the Royal Armory of King Henry VIII’s armor……it was pretty magnificent, although again, no pictures allowed insideHenry VIII Armor Exhibit Sign

We also got to view the changing of the guards at the TowerChanging of the Royal Guards at the Tower of London

Seeing the Tower of London was a huge thrill for me, but around noon time, it became amazingly packed!  We decided it was  a good time to see the rest of the city and headed out on a double decker bus.  The weather was perfect for the bus and it was a pretty neat concept……..you could ride for 24 hours and just got off and on wherever/whenever you liked and they stopped at all the big tourist attractions (i.e. Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, London Eye, London Bridge, Big Ben, Parliament, Trafalgar Square, etc.).  With us having limited time in London, it could not have been a better way to see the sights!View from Double Decker bus as you go across the Tower Bridge

We of course got all the obvious pictures of the famous tourist stops (Look, Big Ben kids!) and don’t want to bore you withn those, so here of some of my favorites of London……..I love this one of these 2 small children playing tag around the London Bridge marker and the little girl’s pink chiffon dress in motionChildren playing tag at London Bridge marker

I loved all the people taming the lion statues at Trafalgar SquareLion at Trafalgar Square

I also like this one of Matthew feeding one of the locals near our hotel :)………Local swan in London

And although kinda blurry, I really like this one of the statues of a lion chasing down a gazelle in a park, with the motion of the bushes as we drove by and the little boy climbing aboard, but looking like he is just trying to hang on during the chase!IMG_6069

Was a long but fabulous day in London and we went back to our hotel that night feeling like we had seen and done it all.  It was sad to leave the next morning but was nice to be driving away from the London traffic and towards the western side of London to see Stonehenge and the Cotswold area.  To quote Crumbles again, cheers!

With the 2009 Tour de France behind us and the more sight-seeing part of our vacation ahead of us, we left Paris on the morning of 7/27/09.  Matthew had wanted to see the Normandy region of France and Omaha Beach, and I had wanted to stay in a castle so we decided to kill two birds with one stone and headed towards Bricquebec Castle (now also a hotel and restaurant) with a stop at Omaha beach and the American World War II cemetary.  As we approach the Omaha beach site, I thought this sign was pretty interesting……

Interesting wording on Omaha Beach sign

Interesting wording on Omaha Beach sign

Not sure which “people” category we fell under 😀 but we had arrived.  The Omaha beach area was really quite pretty and people were actually swimming and walking in the sand just like a normal beach.  There were memorials though, and the Star-Spangled banner was playing as we arrived and several people were standing in attention with their hands over their hearts.

Peaceful looking Omaha beach

Peaceful looking Omaha beach

Star-Spangled Banner was playing at US Memorial on Omaha Beach

Star-Spangled Banner was playing at US Memorial on Omaha Beach

On our way to the American cemetary, we also found this memorial, which was really fascinating to me.  I am a bit embarrassed but am not as well-versed in our American military history as I should be (now I know why Mr. Libby was always trying to teach us battle strategies in high school history class 🙂 ) and never really thought of what our solidiers had to overcome when trying to take over Omaha Beach.  This was an enemy bunker that had to be neutralized so that our soldiers and aircraft could successfully take over the area……..

Enemy bunker and memorial in Normandy

Enemy bunker and memorial in Normandy

You can see the damage done to the bunker by US forces near the top and you can actually go inside and view the gun turret

Gun turret in bunker - Normandy

Gun turret in bunker - Normandy

We next ventured to the Normandy American Cemetary and Memorial.  It doesn’t clearly state it anywhere but we wondered if this was US owned land.  The grounds were meticulous and beautiful and there were signs everywhere asking visitors to be respectful of the American cemetary.  We were taken aback by the sheer amount of European visitors at the memorial as well, and throughout the entire region, you could see American flags being flown next to French flags and many signs thanking US and Allied forces.  You could either go straight to the cemetary itself, where over 9,000 US soldiers are buried, or you could go through a very well-done museum and welcome center first, which we did.  Within the welcome center was a database where you could search those resting there by state they were from, name, military regiment, etc..  We searched our family names from Maine and found these 2 soldiers buried here………..

Gerald Adams, Maine soldier buried in Normandy

Gerald Adams, Maine soldier buried in Normandy

Perley Hall, soldier from Maine, buried in Normandy

Perley Hall, soldier from Maine, buried in Normandy

The museum was very informative and well-done, with short videos highlighting the details of the invasion and then exhibits of timelines, gear, and highlights of special heroes and feats.

Normandy Cemetary museum

Normandy Cemetary museum

I liked this little French boy who came dressed up for the outing and seemed very interested in everything he viewedFrench boy at the Normandy memorial

We then walked to the cemetary.  The clouds threatened rain, but it held off long enough for us to pay our respects.

Normandy cemetary gravesites

Normandy cemetary gravesites

US Cemetary, Normandy

US Cemetary, Normandy

For myself, the visit definitely brought home the sacrifice of all those who secured our freedom and made me so fiercely proud of my husband, father-in-law, and family and friends who served and still serve in our US Armed Forces.  Thank you!

There is no way to do this but abruptly switch gears…….so off to Bricquebec castle we go!!  This castle was originally built in the 1100’s and was added on throughout the 1400’s, and has an illustrious history including being in posession of one of the Duke of Normandy, William Long-Sword’s, relatives, being used by the Knights Templars, being occupied by King Henry V of England, and being visited by Queen Victoria in 1857.  It now functions as a hotel in the Logis chain in France, and has a gourmet restaurant on site.  We would only be able to stay one night before boarding the ferry for England but were looking forward to exploring the castle grounds and relaxing.  As you enter the castle grounds, you are treated to this viewBricquebec castle entrance

The castle (also called Bricquebec Chateau) sits up on a hill and interestingly, the town just kind of grew up around it, and is a very pretty little French town

Bricquebec village

Bricquebec village

When you enter the castle/chateau grounds, you are basically inside the fortified walls and moat

Bricquebec castle walls

Bricquebec castle walls

and the main lodging section has 17 guest chambers, a tea room (we didn’t have the afternoon tea service but saw many who ordered it), a reception area, a bar, and a restaurant that only has 20 tables and if you are a guest, you get first dibs at reservations (which we did take advantage of).  They had a menu offering a few a la carte items and a wonderful prix fixe menu, which is what we chose.  Matthew ventured out and tried the fois gras (and enjoyed it), while I stuck with the prawns appetizer.  I did have the most delicious duck for the main course though, although I did feel guilty when feeding the ducks later :).  We both enjoyed the cheese course, and for dessert, we had a a fruit and sorbet plate and the BEST raspberry and chocolate tart EVER made.  It was worth the whole trip, hehe.  Since I always feel funny taking pics while people are eating, I didn’t take the camera in although I did get a picture of the empty restaurant the next morning/  It is called the “Knight’s Hall” and used to the castle’s great hall…….had a very cool feel to it!Bricquebec castle hotel

Bricquebec Knights Hall Restaurant

Bricquebec Knights Hall Restaurant

I absolutely loved the entire experience and would highly recommend it to anyone.  It was a great way to say a fond farewell to France!  Oh, and we did get another baguette sighting…….this time a punk group of teenage boys were munching on a baguette 😛Teenage boys with baguette

On the morning of July 28th, we headed to Cherbourg, France to catch the ferry to Poole, UK.  Our schedule was a little bit tighter than it should have been 😀 and when we arrived, they let us know they were holding the ferry for us and to drive down the pier and we would see the crew flagging us down.  Matthew was speeding down the pier, and we see the ferry crew in fluorescent vests waving their arms.  Focusing on them, led us to sail right past the French passport exit control point, and led the soldiers at the checkpoint to yell loudly and brandish machine guns.  Matthew immediately stopped and backed up, apologizing profusely, and thankfully the French soldiers seemed to be pretty good-natured about it (I didn’t dare take a picture of them though 😉 ).  They let us go without issue and we made the ferry in plenty of time.  Just for the record, we were not the last ones on the ferry and arrived in Poole, UK safe and sound.

Port at Poole, UK

We felt relief in knowing we would be able to speak the language without problem, and did not anticipate the third degree we received at the UK border control.  They actually asked for proof of our return plane tickets and evidence of when we would be exiting the country.  Well, cheers to you too mate!  Seriously though, we were talking with the US customs officer when we came back through DFW and told us about our experience entering the UK and he said that was pretty standard and they do the same with anyone visiting from the EU as well (made us feel slightly better :D).  Matthew quickly accomodated to driving on the left side of the road, although I continued to find it disconcerting to see cars driving down the rights side, and seeing small children or people with their legs kicked up on the dash or snoozing, sitting on the passenger side (on the US driver’s side) continually gave us a giggle.Driving on left side of road

With our feet firmly on English soil, and after a long day of driving and traveling across the English Channel, we had a quiet night of rest and prepared to head to Hever castle and London on the next day.  Cheers!

We drove into Paris at almost midnight (sounds like a great beginning to a novel, doesn’t it? 🙂 ) on July 25th after about 8 hours on the road from the south of France.  I will say that seeing the Eiffel Tower was like a beacon of hope rising before us.  Our hotel was within walking distance to the Arc de Triomphe and before we knew it, we found ourselves riding down the Champs Elysses in about 8 lanes of traffic merging together and moving en masse towards the Arc de Triomphe.  I will say too that the word “lane” is used pretty loosely as there is no defined lanes, or signs or lights, or anything really to direct merging or turning, but somehow, everyone seemed to conduct themselves as orderly as possible and no accidents occurred that we could see.  I will also say that I was a horrible co-pilot as we entered Paris.  Matthew is just trying to concentrate on keeping our little rental car safe and I am completely mesmerized by the night time sights of Paris, absolutely breathtaking!  I didn’t even try to take any pictures, I was like a bug just drawn to the light :P. 

After arriving at the hotel, letting out a big sigh of relief, and handing over keys to the capable looking valet, we walked into the lobby in our khakis, t-shirts and baseball caps and were greeted by very elegant people dressed up to enjoy their Saturday night in Paris.  Feeling like party-poopers, we only wanted a shower, bed, and room service, and after such a long day, it felt like we had the best of all three!  And waking up to a  beautiful sunny day in Paris the next morning wasn’t too bad either :). 

We headed out of our hotel the next morning and lo and behold, there were all the team buses and vehicles.  We hadn’t realized we booked the same hotel they were staying at, but it was a pleasant surprise!Astana team vehicle parked outside our hotel in ParisTeam vehicle outside Paris hotel with bikes visible

I was pretty fascinated that they had fully mobile laundry facilities too (you can see them inside the Team Cevelo truck here)Laundry facilities in Team Cevelo truck

After Matthew stopped getting all geeked up over the team vehicles :), we headed out towards the Champs Elysees (much more relaxing on foot I might add) and stopped at a great sidewalk cafe for Sunday brunchParisian street bistro

With bellies full and hearts light, we headed towards the Arc de Triomphe and I was pretty excited to see it up close.  I was not disappointed and thought the statues and carvings were simply incredibleArc de Triomphe July 26th 2009

Arc de Triomphe carving

Arc de Triomphe, front facing Champs Elysees

From the Arc de Triomphe, you could also look down the Champs Elysees and see the crowds gathered to view the riders enter Paris for the final stage of the 2009 Tour.  Up to this point, we had seen crowds, but nothing like this………..TDF crowd and set-up on Champs Elysees

Tour crowds gathered in Paris

To this point, we had become accustomed to a much more intimate Tour experience, but this was very commerical, “touristy”, and showy, and not to mention hard to move around in.  Much of the area to actually view the riders enter was already very crowded as well, or you needed a special pass to access.  Considering our options, we realized the best view we would have of the riders entering Paris would most likely be on one of the giant TV screensLance riding into Paris on big TV screen on Champs Elysees

And we would be unable to see the podium presentation, except on TV later, although we did see the podium before it was put in place2009 TDF Podium

Knowing it would be difficult at best to actually catch a glimpse of the riders entering Paris, not to mention, we hated seeing Aberto Contador in yellow and toasting to his victory, we decided it was the perfect afternoon to enjoy the sights in Paris.  We headed onto the Metro and never looked back.  Our first stop was……..The Louvre

We had heard The Louvre would have crazy lines and be impossible to move around in on a weekend day, but I think the Tour provided the perfect diversion because before we knew it, we were entering through the pyramid entranceLouvre entrance

And we had plenty of space to view exactly what we wanted.  We were also amazed at how accessible the art itself is and visited the Greek antiquities, Roman antiquities and the Italian painter areas…….a very small portion of what the museum had to offer (how lovely would it be to have days there?).  Most of the displays were right out there and only respect of the art itself kept people from pawing at them I suppose.  Even the Venus de Milo had only a thin rope keeping people maybe 3 or 4 feet back.  I was in awe that this statue was created around 100 BC…..beyond words for me!Venus de Milo

And my favorite statue was the Winged Victory of Samothrace……..incredible to believe that this is a third century BC creationWinged Victory of Samothrace

And of course, no visit to the Louvre would be complete without seeing her……….Mona Lisa  The Mona Lisa was really the only painting behind heavy protection and we didn’t get a great picture of the area, but it was still relatively easy to view.

And besides the obvious works of art to view, the ceilings in most of the Louvre were unbelievable, and you could see most people walking around and looking up between exhibit areas.  Here is one of my favorite sections…….Ceiling art at the Louvre

We have a bazillion pics from here, and don’t want to bore you with posting too many so we’ll probably do a picasa almbum and send them out to everyone.  We did find it interesting on our way out to note the huge amount of people sitting around the outside pools with thier feet in the water (errr…….ewwww)Pool outside the Louvre

After leaving the Louvre, and frankly being pretty pooped after 12 days of go-go-go, we decided to have a nice quiet dinner and enjoy our last night in Paris.  After getting back to our hotel, Matthew went out to a nearby store and literally ran into the Tour teams packing up the bikes and gear, as well as some of the riders just hanging out.  Matthew hadn’t taken the camers since he thought he was only going to the store but he spent a good amount of time being able to chat up the Astana mechanics and various team members, who of course were thrilled with 2 Astana members on the podium.  Knowing what a big fan Matthew was, they gave him a champagne bottle they had used to celebrate with on the final ride into Paris, and one of the tires they cut off Lance’s bike before storing it for travel.  Pretty awesome Tour souvenirs!Astana champagne bottle and Lance's bike tire

This marked the end of following the 2009 Tour de France for us.  Even though we still have a week of vacation left, and are headed to Normandy tomorrow, followed by England, there was some sadness surround the end of the Tour and what had been a really awesome time for us.  We are VERY excited though that Lance has announced he will be back in 2010 with Team Radio Shack and its possible we went to bed that night with dreams of France in 2010 in our heads :).

On July 24th and 25th, we moved into the Provence area of France and focused on the feed zone areas in two Tour stages.  Before I get into the Tour stuff, I have to introduce you to Provence………………..the best way is to have you close your eyes and drink in the scent of fields of lavender. Notice that the farmer spelled “Provence loves the Tour” in the lavender.Lavendar field with welcome message plowed in

And look around at the orchards, vineyards, and roadside farm stands……………..Apricot orchard

Farm market where we purchased wine, fruit, and olives

It is a fabulous region, one of the most beautiful we visited I think, and we were able to drive through many parts of it on the way to the stages we saw here.  This is also the area where the Tour’s second to last stage, and really its defining moment, would occur on an infamous climb called Mont Ventoux or Le Ventoux.  Most people we talked to referred to it as THE Ventoux and it seemed to inspire complete awe from cycling fans, as it has hosted many important stages throughout the Tour’s history, and sadly, a cyclist passed away there in 1967 (has a pretty famous memorial there).  The Ventoux is actually bald on top and is pretty easy to spot from a ways away……..Mont Ventoux

We were forewarned by some German friends we made at an earlier stage that if we wanted to see the stage on Ventoux, we would need to get there 3 days early and camp out.  As wonderful as our little Ford Focus set up is, it would not afford us the luxury of staying 3 days on the mountain side.  So, our plan was to make our way there and get as close as possible, seeing a feed stage going into Aubenas and hoping to try for another water bottle or musette bag.  Well, let me sum up the time quickly to start with and then I’ll elaborate……..we could not get up Ventoux (as our German friends had warned us).  We got there a day ahead of time, and tried to sneak up the back side of the mountain but were foiled!  They had already blocked off the mountain to cars, although several cyclists were headed up.  In fact 2 flagged us down for water before they began the 12% incline (yes TWELVE!).Gendarmerie blocking Ventoux access

Cyclist on Mt Ventoux who had run out of water

And we had success with Matthew getting a water bottle!!  In fact, he got 3, but the one from Team Astana (Lance’s team) made his day :).  It has some sort of sugar/water mixture in it by the way. 

Astana Water bottle thrown out at feed stage

So, although the Ventoux would prove elusive for us (and a win would prove elusive to Lance on this stage, and thus the Tour), we had a great time driving through the countryside, smelling lavendar at every turn, enjoying a wonderful dinner at a restaurant at the base of Ventoux, and even saw some folks playing bocci ball while we ate……….Bocci ball at the Ventoux restaurant

We of course got some great cycling pictures too.  During the Aubenas stage, we were literally within the feed zone area (the 3 km stretch where rider receive food/drink from their teams) and a nice flat stage with very close access to the riders…………here is part of the Astana team escorting the yellow jersey (and eventual TDF 09 winner), Alberto Contador……..Riders at Aubenas feed zone getting eats

And here is a good pic of a chipmunk mouthed rider followed by Lance who is reaching into his musette bag, yummy!Riders in Aubenas feed zone......chipmunk man followed by Lance

And because we could not get up the Ventoux, on 7/25/09, we ended up about 40km away (a little farther north) and just after the feed zone, where we hoped for the thrown water bottles and musette bags before they started the mountain climb.  In addition to the victory Astana bottle Matthew snagged here, one of the riders threw out this food item (which we did not keep) but it looked like a roll drowned in honey (sugar high!)………..Sugary roll that rider discarded on ascent to Ventoux

And many of the cyclists seemed to be discussing strategy with their team cars before the ascent up Ventoux………Discussing strategy before Ventoux

We also met a lovely family from the Netherlands at the Ventoux ascent spot.  The dad was a total Lance fan, and Matthew spread more of the Livestrong word by giving their whole family bracelets, which they all put on and cheered………Family from Netherlands with Livestrong bracelets on

I should mention too that the Dad of the family above was not in the picture because he was sitting down by Matthew in one of the Texas foldout chairs we brought.  Matthew offered him a seat and he said “Now, this is living!” and he seemed to get a huge kick out of the size of the chairs.  He also told us that he is in his 50’s and that he has cycled up Ventoux three times in ONE day, wow!  It should b e noted that Ventoux is considered a “beyond category” climb and when we came down it, our car breaks smelled hot :).

As soon as all the riders passed, we said our goodbyes to folks we met in the area and headed off for Paris, a long 7 hour drive north.  Provence will be well remembered for much time to come and we feel fortunate to have been able to visit it.  Au revoir Provence!Rainbow in Provence

Country road in Provence

Today was different as we attended the individual time trial stage on Lake Annecy (an absolutely gorgeous area!!).  I was pretty excited to see this stage, as I always like watching the time trials on TV, but I will admit it was very drawn out in comparison to the other stages.  Instead of seeing everyone pass in a 15 minute time period, you see the riders come one by one with a few minutes on average between each other.  We were positioned at the southern end of the lake (and the course, which circled the entire lake…..about 40 km total).  Matthew says I only have to post one picture to sum up the day and “nuffin’ else”……………Lance edited

Let me say though (he knew I wouldn’t stop yammering at just that :D)……….we waited out 9 hours for that one shot of Lance above.  The riders ride in reverse order of their current standings, and I believe Lance was in third at this point so he was one of the last 3 to ride.  Matthew was the photographer on this day and took about 900 shots totally, 3 to 4 of each rider.  He actually ended up laying on the ground with his head about 6 inches from their bike wheels, doh!  It yielded some absolutley fabulous shots of each rider though, accented with their name on the front of the team car behind them. 

One of things I find most fascinating about the time trial is that they use completely different bikes (built almost completely for speed and difficult to manuever, with the rear wheel designed to reduce wind resistance) and gear, like the streamlined helmet……Time trial bike and gear

We also entertained ourselves today (between riders) with keeping a running tally of baguettes (we constantly saw them with people walking down the street, in backpacks, strapped on bikes, and even small children running around with them…………Have baguette, will travel

And we were entertained by a local group of Spaniards (dressed in traditional orange), who were there to cheer on Contador and the Euskaltel team.  They almost constantly sang and often performed synchronized routines, such as the rowboat here (this is also in the video Matthew posted on YouTube)……..Enthusiastic Spaniard Fans at Annecy TT

Spaniards cheering

And when the Gendarmerie (local police force) tried to move them to the side of the road, they tried to bring him into their reindeer games 🙂Spaniards coaxing the Gendarmerie









Gendarmerie coming to the dark side












Matthew also took up nature photography in between riders, taking this shot of a local hiding from the escargot hunters……….French snail

Although, I don’t think he can beat my Swiss bee (taken at Verbier)Swiss Bee on Verbier

Speaking of nature shots, we really have to apologize to the family birders …….we simply lacked on the bird watching and photo capturing.  Sounds like a trip to Europe in 2010 is in order for everyone 🙂

As I mentioned above, we have almost 1000 shots opf every rider coming through on the time trial one by one, so many great shots.  I know you don’t want to see a pic of every rider, so here is the gallery of fame (a couple I like best 🙂 ) for the day:Kloden - Team Astana - Annecy TT

Thomas Voeckler, French favorite, Annecy TT

After seeing the entire Tour roster ride by individually, everyone ran to the nearest TV (a local business put one in the window for everyone and one of the RV’s had a generator and let everyone watch through the window) to watch the end………….Watching the end of the stage on a local business' TV

RV playing Tour on TV

If nothing else, you cannot discount the fervor over the Tour on a large scale, and even if you are not a cycling fan, the enthusiasm is infectious.  The best sporting event in the world and thankfully, tomorrow brings more!!  Stay tuned!