Van's RV-9A in Aurora

The Big Picture

The Big Picture
Flying! 8/28/2011

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Trip to Europe - London and the Savoie

I had a bunch of Aadvantage miles due to expire and the dollar was kicking butt, so it was time to make a long talked about holiday to Europe.   We left on July 19, and returned August 3.
This is going to be a long post, and I'll have to add text over time.  As it is, I'm typing this a week after we got back.  But I have already uploaded a ton of pictures to the picassa albums.  I'll be linking to some of them as I fill in the post.

We started discussing this trip at the end of January.  The centerpiece was catching a tour stage, but I also wanted to see ITER and the Large Hadron Collider outside of Geneva.  As we started researching, it turned out CERN/LHC was not really open to viewing the machine, so I dropped the CERN visit.  We settled on a couple of days in London, train to Grenoble, a rental car in the French Alps to catch a tour stage, Nice, then a train to Milan, flying back from Milan Malpensa. 
The vacation was a total success!

New York

I had plenty of miles and tried to arrange business class travel for both direction. I could only get it for the outbound, having to fly coach on the return trip. Yuck.
Because of the way that American was allocating award seats, we had to fly British Airways to London, leaving JFK. This flight left in the morning and arrives in the evening in London, so we had to leave Austin on the 19th and spend the night in New York. We flew business class from Austin to JFK, but I honestly can't remember the flight. Our hotel was close to the airport, but it still took about an hour to get to the hotel.
Once settled in by early afternoon, we decided to catch a subway into Manhattan. The subway doesn't come anywhere close to JFK, so we had to take a cab to and from the subway to our hotel. Once in Manhattan, we headed towards Rockerfeller Plaza. Here we found a nice outdoor restaurant a little off of the plaza and had a nice meal. They had a hummus platter that was even better than my favorite plate at the League! We also drifted over to Times Square, then caught the subway back toward JFK.

We took a lot of pictures of food on this trip, since it was the theme for the Expo and we're both foodies after a fashion. There was a lot of good food!


And so the morning of July 20 we got over to JFK in plenty of time to catch our British Airways flight to London. At first I was not happy about having to fly BA and their odd seat assignment system. But then I realized that we would be on a 747, and that two upper deck seats business class seats were available. I had to pay a couple of hundred bucks to grab them. But I remember as a kid when the 747 entered service, and I always thought the upper deck was the coolest thing. How many other chances would we get to fly like that? So I paid the money and we flew to London in very comfortable, privileged seats!

Our business class tickets got us into the British Airways lounge, so we cooled our heels for a bit before getting on the plane.

We arrived early evening in London and took the tube to our hotel. Easy as can be. Our hotel was on the line from Heathrow, so we didn't even have to change trains. The Europeans understand how to build good transportation infrastructure. Much of what we have in America is just embarrassing.

Here is the first picture from London just out from the tube station at our hotel.

Turn around, and there is our hotel! Our room is visible in this picture, on the far corner, fifth floor.

We had two full days for London. We visited St Pancras station, where we would depart for France in a couple of days, wandered over to Baker Street, down to Wellington Arch, Hyde Park, and got to Buckingham Palace just in time (along with 50000 other people) to see the changing of the guard.

From there we took to the tube to Westminster. Walking out from the station, we are under the shadow of Big Ben! We saw Westminster Abbey from the outside, then walked along the Thames. Everywhere are beautiful, iconic sights. London is very picturesque!

I think we walked about 15 miles that day, and we were exhausted. Took the tube back to Russell Square and collapsed!

The next day was equally packed. We started at the British Museum. Ever seen the Rosetta Stone?

After the British Museum we went back to the river and wandered east, just seeing the sights. I made Lynne stop so I could sit and have a beer. This was right next to St Paul's Cathedral. We walked across the millennium bridge and wandered around the south shore, finding a fantastic restaurant for dinner. We were underdressed, but they seated us and treated us well.

Finally we got to Tower Bridge as night fell and the lights were going on. Just as we were crossing it and got to the drawbridge, the horns go off and the barricades fall. We were going to be treated to watching Tower Bridge as a fully functional draw bridge! At night! What a great sight. The vacation was shaping up to be quite spectacular.

We headed back to the hotel and packed up for the next day.

French Alps

The morning of 23 July we dragged our luggage a few blocks to St Pancras station and boarded a chunnel train to Paris. I captured a few pictures of the French country side but this was otherwise comfortable and uneventful. I booked first class train coaches whenever possible. We arrived Paris Gare du Nord which has a bad reputation for pickpockets and other petty thefts. We had to transfer to Paris Gare de Lyon, and I seem to remember we found a direct train that allowed us to do that, instead of a cab or the Paris subway. We arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon without any trouble and then tried to figure out where our train to Grenoble would be. It turns out that they don't post the platform until about 20 minutes before the train is scheduled to depart. In the meantime, we stood around, with Lynne anxious to get the hell out of Paris.

Finally we boarded our TGV and left for Grenoble. We had to change trains in Lyon. Departing Lyon, the scenery started to change as we got closer to the mountains. It began to get spectacular. Arriving Grenoble, I had a bit of difficulty with a rude Hertz agent. Finally the other agent helped us out and we finally secured our rental car. Thank you Laurence!

Rental car in hand, it was time to try driving in France for the first time. Took a little to get used to some of the signs, but it's not too difficult. I like the French roundabouts - no stop lights, logically arranged, good directional signs, and you can do an easy U-turn, or if you miss your turn just do another circuit. I would occasionally get honked at, there was some subtle lane positioning rule that I didn't quite understand. At any rate, the car got us out of Grenoble and on to the A41, which was a tollway. This caused a little bit of stress, since I hadn't had a chance to collect any Euro change. But we managed, and soon turned off to climb the hills up to our first stay, the Chateau de la Tour du Puits.

Our host, Raymond, apologizes for the trucks, saying they will be gone by 10. What trucks, we say. There was a film crew at the chateau, preparing to film a Tour de France interview for Belgian TV. So just like that, there we were, already part of the Tour!

Raymond turns out to be a great chef. He fed us dinner and then breakfast on the lawn, with a backdrop of the TV set. We were eating dinner as they filmed, so we might be on TV in Belgium.

All of the other guests were doing something Tour related. Most brought bikes and were riding parts of stages to find good vantage points. Everyone was excited that we were from Austin, Texas.

The next morning we have breakfast, pack up, say goodbye, and find the E70 motorway (also a toll road) near where the race will be starting. This is stage 19 from St Jean de Maurienne to La Toussuire. Our plan was to find a spot on the road around La Chambre. We didn't know quite what to expect in terms of traffic, crowds, etc. We had hoped to find a little sidewalk café where we could relax and wait for the race.
The plan worked perfectly. First we stopped a SuperMarche (French Target) and got a few items. Then we found a parking place in La Chambre. We walked around the corner into the town and there it was - the Tour de France course! I was super excited. And we found a little bar with tables in the shade (it was kind of hot) where we parked and had lunch and beverages. The bar had a TV on inside so we knew exactly where the racers were. The crowd was super excited since local kid Romain Bardet was in the break and getting lots of TV time. We met a bunch of nice people including a couple from Australia and another from Holland. Again, everyone thought it was very cool that we were from Austin.

I had to go stand and beg as the parade came through. I got bags of Haribos, goofy hats, and other stuff I have no idea what it is. I was surrounded by kids and families who knew the drill, so I was at a definite disadvantage for the good stuff. Then about 2 hours later the helicopters announce the lead of the race and we took our places for pictures and cheering.

The race came and went. I was taking pictures and missed some of the riders, but I spotted Sagan, Greipel, Nibali, and others. One thing we both noticed is that the crews in all of the support vehicles and motorcycles looked like they were under extreme stress.

After the race passed we got back in the car and moved across the highway to Les Iles. The race was going north to Epierre and then coming back down to Les Iles before turning east for the Col de la Croise de Fer. Once again the spot was perfect. Lots of shade, and I got some great pictures.

After the race passed, we hopped in the car and headed over the Col du Galibier. The race was supposed to be there, but a tunnel collapse changed the route. Still there were many cyclists everywhere, and some even braved the complete climb. The route also took us over the Col du Telegraphe, all famous Tour mountains. There was stunning scenery at every turn.

We stopped and had dinner in Briancon, which is a lovely town and worth going back to. Finally we arrived at the Hotel Olivades, our stay for the night in Gap.

In the morning we packed up again and drove south. Our destination was Nice, but we took the scenic route. ITER was one of the sites I wanted to see, and we drove by it. I got to see the main entrance, construction cranes and tops of the walls for the reactor building, and the double layer of fencing complete with serious electric deterents. Then we passed Lac de Sainte-Croix and drove through the Verdon Gorge, the French version of the Grand Canyon. Finally after a long drive, we got to the coast and found our hotel in Nice.

Here is an experiment with some videos of the tour stage.

This post was getting too long, so I decided to break the trip writeup into two pieces.  The rest of the trip is in a newer post.