Racing to Write a Tour de France Guide

I am setting ambitious deadlines to write a Tour de France guide for spectators and amateur cyclists for release this fall. Jane Friedman’s class “How to Write a Powerful Book Proposal Workshop” has really helped me focus. So I will not be traveling as much and writing more. Instead of taking a hiatus, look for posts on Norway from a trip my son and I took together just before I began this blog.

In the meantime I will tweet progress reports on the Tour de France guide. My goal is to be high-fiving you all with a finished book by the time the Tour de France 2015 route is announced.

Jens Voigt high-fiving fans at the end of Tour de France 2014 in Paris.

Jens Voigt high-fiving fans at the end of Tour de France 2014 in Paris.

How to Dine Alone “Adjacent”

Traveling alone is a choice that I make regularly. Sometimes people tell me, “I could never do it.” When I ask why it is sometimes because they cannot bear the thought of dining alone. Experience has taught me that sometimes the best encounters with the place and its people happen because I am seated alone and so I am more accessible and open. And the food tastes the same.

Recently my friend Ray shared with me how he uses opportunities to eat alone as a date with himself. While in France and England I had the chance to enjoy dates with myself on several occasions and it does change the atmosphere in a very positive way.  Or travel with a group for a long period and suddenly dining alone, eating just what you want, taking only the amount of time you want to take, leaving before or after dessert and coffee. It is divine.

On the last page of the September 2014 issue of Bon Appetit, actor Jason Segal shares his “Rules for eating out alone:

1. Bring a book. When you have a book You aren’t really alone. It’s more alone adjacent.

2. Don’t be bashful. The other people alone probably feel the same way you do. You’re all “alone together.”

3. Think of it as a date with yourself. Get to know yourself. If you get along with yourself, there is a very good chance you will get to go home with yourself.”

I’ll toast to that!

Tapas in St Lary Soulan IMG_2531

Touring Buckingham Palace State Rooms



Outside Buckingham Palace

About a month before my departure for the Tour de France I read a tweet from VisitBritain about the state rooms at Buckingham Palace opening for visitors from July 26 to September 28. On previous visits to London I toured the fascinating Mews (stables) at Buckingham Palace so I clicked through and bought tickets.

Did not give it much more thought until I was in France and looking at my itinerary for the end of my trip: ticket on Chunnel to London, check; hotel reservation at The Ampersand, check; tickets to War Horse at Theater and Buckingham Palace state rooms, check and check. Leaving myself a little time left over to go book shopping.  My flight from Heathrow was not scheduled on Air New Zealand until 4:00 p.m., so I had time to take the tube to the airport. I was all set to make the most of my 24 hours in London.

London is an easy city to navigate with the underground, taxis and footpaths through parks. My hotel’s location was perfect: a half block from the South Kensington station on the Piccadilly (red) Line. The Ampersand did not exaggerate its charms in the email advertising its special rate. It is beautifully decorated and the service was superb.

Buckingham Palace

I already blogged about the thrill of seeing The War Horse on stage. So let us fast forward to the next morning and Buckingham Palace. A quick trip on the Tube and soon I was walking past the Queen Victoria Memorial and looking at the gorgeous Buckingham Palace gates.

I was just here on Tour de France Stage 3 and so I reveled for a moment in happy memories. When bike guide Daniel asked me the highlight of my trip while we were in the Pyrenees, I said riding the race course into the heart of London, turning the corner at Big Ben and seeing Buckingham Palace and then the finish line. I felt like a rock star. I reserved the possibility that Paris might top it, but it did not. So it was great to be back to the best spot of my Tour adventure so soon.

The Royal CafeIt took a few minutes to find the visitors entrance on Buckingham Gate Road, and then a couple of minutes to change my computer print out for actual tickets. I arrived just in time to the correct waiting area to be able to get through security and enter the state rooms a few minutes past my appointed time. 

Wow, the Queen must feel like she is slumming it when she visits the White House.  During the week, she lives above the store, so to speak, and what a store! Beautiful works of art, mostly portraits of family, fill the rooms where official drawing rooms and ballroom. In addition, there was a very interesting collection called “Royal Childhood.”

Buckingham PalaceI decided to forgo the free headphones and enjoy the rooms and the overall ambiance. After the walking through all of the rooms, I enjoyed a snack at the café and a browse at the gift shop.

The exit takes visitors through the garden. I wondered if the Queen or any of the royal family gets to enjoy the garden on their own or only on official occasions. Not that I feel sorry for them. This is one of their many stately homes and most of the others offer much more privacy. Still, what must it be like to grow up seeing art masterpieces hanging on the drawing room walls?

Garden at Buckingham PalaceAfter a quick trip back to the hotel, I hopped on the Tube to head to Heathrow Airport with about 10 pounds of new books. Air New Zealand docks in the hinterlands so I got plenty of exercise before the 10.5 hour plane ride home.

South Kensington Tube station

Spending time in Yorkshire and London reminded me why I have returned again and again to England and Ireland. Looking forward to the next opportunity. 



War Horse as an Act of Remembrance

Winding up my Tour de France adventure, I enjoyed my last 24 hours in London. I stayed at the exquisite Ampersand Hotel in South Kensington. They sent me an email a few days before my arrival asking if there was anything they could do to enhance my experience. My friend suggested seeing the stage production of War Horse. The concierge efficiently fetched tickets and after an afternoon of fossicking around bookshops in South Kensington, I duly trundled off to New London Theatre on Drury Lane to see the play.

I tried to read to the book by Michael Marpurgo and got emotionally swamped. It is told in the horse Joey’s point of view. And like Black Beauty it is gut wrenching. I may have seen about 5 minutes of the Steven Spielberg movie and could not stand the idea, again, of horses suffering even if make believe. Afterall, they did suffer cruelly in World War I, as did people. So I was a little nervous about seeing a stage production. I was also curious about how they would handle the staging and the horse characters. 

Wow. I mean WOW!!!!  Just the puppetry was worth the admission price to witness. It is amazing. I have since found an awesome Ted Talk that describes how they created Joey. Please watch.

The play beautifully illustrated the complete stupidity of World War I. While it is not unique among wars (all wars are stupid), it is the first where technology completely bamboozled strategists. I can understand sending the cavalry in once against machine guns. But again and again? Stupendously stupid. It was all the more poignant for me because of my Grandma Hazel Olson’s beloved horse sold to the US Cavalry. I can only hope that he never made it to Europe–that maybe his high spirits made him too difficult to work with or too attractive to some officer who was on active duty at the Mexican border. 

It is a very moving production, even more thrilling seen in a smallish theater with actors running by right in front of our seats. I realize War Horse has been on stage and travelled the world already so I am not on the cutting edge of theatre. If you have not seen it, make the effort. You will be richly rewarded.

Researching and honoring my great uncle Frank Denham on Le Tour Adventure was worthwhile and added some emotional depth to my experience. I am not going to stop learning about the war either. My favorite conversation on the topic was with my cabbie who gave me a lift from the train station to the Ampersand. With his East End accent he held forth on a number of topics. I told him about my interest in World War I and he said the machine gun was invented by an American living in London, but the British officers did not want to use it (at first) because it “wasn’t cricket.” (meaning that as gentlemen it was not the proper way to conduct warfare). I responded, “But the Germans have never played cricket.” We both shared a rueful laugh. 

All of this remembering while the conflict in Ukraine results in a civilian jet liner shot down, and Gaza rages on; it is a wonder to me that mankind has not wiped itself off the earth yet. Perhaps the reason we yet remain is found in the sparks of creativity that still ignite in puppeteers and writers and many others who choose to spend their energy creating beauty and celebrating truth rather than the dark arts of war. This is the path I choose.

This post originally appeared on 

Chunnel Coolness Factor

The Eurostar train between London and Paris or Lille is a super cool way to get across the English Channel. The train passes through the channel tunnel or “chunnel” much more quickly than going through the airport or taking the ferry. Compared to SNCF (the French railway), it is amazing. 

I was scheduled to catch the 8 a.m. train from St Pancras Train Station in London the morning after Stage 3. I was out late the night before so I did not rise in time to check my email. I missed the email from Eurostar telling me that due to mechanical difficulties and repairs in the tunnel, I needed to reschedule to a later train. A ticket concierge helped me reschedule and I had a couple of hours to get a bite to eat and get through security. 

The St Pancras station’s (across the road from Kings Cross Train Station) Eurostar loading area is fairly small and probably due to the maintenance issues was very crowded. Once we loaded onto the train it was a very comfortable 2.5 hour ride to Lille. I did not even feel the pressure in my ears when we entered the tunnel. The only way I could tell I was under the English Channel was the dark windows. 

Later I received an email offering me a partial discount for the inconvenience. On SNCF I encountered crabby ticket sales people, nonexistent train conductors, closed cafe cars (for the duration of a 4+ hour train trip), and overcrowded passenger cars. I tried first class and second class. The only difference was the color of the seats and plugs for recharging phones.

My chunnel experience from Paris to London was excellent. I already blogged about my misadventure getting to Gare du Nord. Once I got to the station and found the Eurostar entrance I received excellent service. The ticket concierge helped me change my ticket to the next train without a penalty. This time security and waiting was easier. It seemed like we were in London in very little time. 

I will definitely use the chunnel again if the opportunity presents itself and recommend it to fellow travelers.

Our Wonderful Stay at Chateaux Dans Les Arbres

Guest Blog by Faith Winnett

The Chateaux Dans Les Arbres near Bergerac in France–This was a place I had seen in our Brisbane weekend newspaper travel section.  The picture caught my attention first, followed by the description of treehouses designed on local chateaux – castles in the trees. OOH!!! We just had to go. 

Cabane Milandes

Cabane Milandes

Amongst our mostly city hotel/B&B accommodation plans for our month in France, this seemed like the perfect retreat.  With each treehouse surrounded by the forest, and green meadows just a boardwalk away, our toughest choice was which one to reserve.  Fortunately for us, the same one was not available for the two nights of our planned stay, so we got to experience both the two-level Cabane Milandes and Cabane Monbazillac. 


Our arrival after a light shower of rain and a long drive from Le Mans, made the warm welcome of our hostess promising.  We were given a quick overview of the property and asked what time we would like our breakfast hamper delivered (via a rope and pulley to maintain privacy), then promptly escorted to our lodgings for the night…

WOW!  Even better than the pictures–so warm and inviting. The tasteful décor and gentle lighting perfectly demonstrated the versatility and variance of timber.  We were like children exploring everything that opened and shut, climbing the small spiral staircases – one to the parent’s turret and the second to the bunk beds for the children (if we had brought ours from Australia J).  The two-person outdoor spa on the deck was simply the icing on the cake.  Entirely private and incredibly quiet and peaceful, we were so happy we had found this gem.  The enormous European pillows were like sleeping on marshmallows and the view of the forest was just a perfect. 

Breakfast was a very generous serving of warm croissants and baguettes, fresh juice, hot coffee and tea, yogurt, condiments, ham and cheese, delivered precisely at the requested time.  A wonderful way to start our day. 

Cabane Monbazillac

Cabane Monbazillac

We chose to drive to Bergerac (about half an hour away) to visit the original Chateau de Monbazillac and were not disappointed by it’s grandeur nor its wine selection.  A couple of souvenirs (wine bottles) and delicious lunch at a local café later, and it was back to discover the delights of Cabane Monbazillac. 

Our hosts had transported our luggage to our new lodgings (a mighty challenge up the steep steps no doubt), ensuring our only responsibility was to relax. The heavy wooden double doors unveiled an enormous bed with an incredible view, lush timber-lined shower and oriental-themed furnishings to add intrigue and interest.  Fresh fruit ready and waiting to accompany our newly purchased wine and cheese and we were set for another lovely evening under the stars in our private spa. 


The infinity pool near reception was an added bonus, which I think we mainly used just to say that we had as we really had no need to leave the splendor of our castles in the trees.

 It is a truly wonderful place and I recommend to all who ask, and even those who don’t.


Mooching Around Paris

This photo looks like Sacre Coeur is on a green screen. I was really there!

This photo looks like Sacre Coeur is on a green screen. I was really there!

Kim and I had a relaxed afternoon and evening mooching around Paris the day after Le Tour ended. Kim the extreme cyclist from Austin was a complete stranger when we were assigned to the same room in St Lary Soulan; by Paris we were happy to share a walking adventure together and split the costs of an extra night in our spiffy hotel near L’Opera House.

We started by giving ourselves a little over an hour to speed shop in Galeries Lafayette. Then we began the slow climb up to the Sacre Coeur basilica.

My friend Jane from the Alps gave us a recommendation for a restaurant near there for dinner. (She had met the papa of the chef on her travels and dined there earlier in the week.) We stopped as our whimsy directed including a wonderful toy store. Eventually our hunger was prioritized over shopping.

We climbed and climbed until we finally found the restaurant, La Cremaillere 1900. The interior of the restaurant was beautiful (admired on the way to the loo) and all of the seating was outside in the courtyard on Henri Boulard. We enjoyed our meal and a glass of rose and then moved on to see the basilica. 

The Sacre Coeur is very popular more for the view of Paris from the grounds than as a place of worship. I waited for Kim in a seat near the back and watched as people ignored the sign of “Silence, respectful dress, and no photos.” There was even a guy with a Heineken beer bottle cruising through with his family (sold outside on the steps by ambitious “entrepreneurs”). We walked past hundreds of people already waiting on the steps for the sunset.

Hotel Edouard VII

Hotel Edouard VII

We sauntered back to the hotel and packed for an early morning departure. I will never be a Francophile and after four visits to Paris I am satiated. After all of the frustrations traveling in France it was fitting that I had one last experience.

The hotel doorman hailed a cab for me and said “Gare du Nord” to the driver. I jumped in and noticed the drivers earbuds and did not think much of it until we started driving down the Boulevard that parallels the River Seine. Hmm. I do not know Paris that well but I did not think we were headed in the right direction. It took a few minutes to dig out my Paris map and establish that we were headed to Gare de Lyon not the train station for the Eurostar chunnel.  I asked him if he was headed the right way to Gare de Nord. The driver removes his earbuds and says “Gare de Lyon”. By this time I had no time to spare to catch my train. Ideally we would be pulling up to the station in this moment. I probably shrieked, “NO! Gare du Nord!” He began to insist that the doorman said Gare de Lyon. We argued back and forth while he turned towards the right train station. He said he would only charge me 15 Euros and hurry as fast as possible to Gare du Nord. We pulled up at 9:05 and my train was leaving at 9:15. It took a few minutes to figure out where to find the security entrance and Pierre informed me that I was too late. Fortunately because I was there before the train departed I could get a new ticket for the next train at 10:15 at no extra charge. Huge sigh of relief. This misunderstanding with the taxi driver could have happened anywhere, yet the driver never apologized; he just kept blaming the doorman. So French.