Monday, 28 July 2014

"I think I'll start ...

... heading for the village" said Tod, as the thunderclap hit directly overhead and the heavens opened.

So we considered Plans B, C and D, one of which at least was to stay at home and watch it all on TV. But it isn't often the Tour de France comes by, so in the end we packed waterproofs and I agreed to drive him as close as I could.

We forget just how empty this part of France is.  Imagining traffic jams up to road blocks, in fact we drove sedately down into the village and parked behind the half dozen other cars on the verge. We wandered across to the barriers along each side of the street with a stern gendarme forbidding passage to the other side, found a space and watched "the caravan" roll through.  Large garish floats alternated with fleets of cars from bureaucracy and the TV and radio stations. They had driven up from the foothills of the Pyrenees bringing the rain and thunder with them. Those on the back of open-topped vehicles were looking pinched and cold, struggling to keep their cheerful expressions as they flung their slightly suspect "goodies" at us.

For some reason the McCain float got one of the loudest cheers.

Still hankering after my lay-by where I thought I'd get the best views and knowing there was a good hour til the cyclists came through, I left Tod in the village and set out towards town, the road meandering between fields completely deserted except for the occasional small gathering of those fortunate to live on the route - a hay wagon set up for the best view, a family of three under an awning with their large television screen and satellite dish, a jolly late lunch party high on a terrace toasting me as I passed, a young gendarme, like a mother hen, fussing over her flock, telling me to get off the empty road and on to the verge, in case something came by.

I rounded the final bend and saw the lay-by in the distance, up on the crest of the hill.  A cyclist, lounging alone on the verge warned me - I would be stopped by the next gendarme. And sure enough, there he was, barely out of his teens, collecting a gaggle of passers-by, forbidding them to walk on or to turn back. The cyclists were due within half an hour and he could not risk it.  My lay-by with its sheltering trees was no more than five minutes walk up the hill; but to him I was obviously at least as old as his grandmother and too infirm to walk further.

So there I stood. And gradually the skies darkened and the rain drops fell. A battered van with an awning full of holes protected a family - grandmother and grandson playing snap while they waited.  She beckoned to me to come under the awning, which I did with gratitude, not least to shield my camera. Three Dutch tourists were also encouraged to come and join us. From time to time a phone rang with an update: "They are through Monheurt. Just left Villeton ..."

And suddenly there they were.. a blaze of headlights in the gloom, coming over the brow of the hill alongside the lay-by where I'd hoped to be, a cavalcade of motorcycles and cars and in the middle a small bunch of what five, six maybe, cyclists, heads low over the handlebars, legs pumping as the rain fell steadily.

From then on, it was all a blur, eye to the viewfinder, click, click, click, knowing in the appalling light I would be lucky to get even one decent shot.  Little time to think, no time to compose an image, just keep shooting and then they were gone. A rank of cars behind them topped with dozens of spare bikes.

A brief pause and then the peloton swept into view.  A riot of colours, turquoise, reds, greens, somewhere hidden in the melee the man in the yellow shirt - yesterday's and the eventual overall winner. Again, so little time to choose anything to focus on. Just keep pressing the shutter button and hope something comes out.

And then so quickly they too were gone.  We all hung around, reluctant to believe it was all over and then gradually started to drift away.  I wished the Dutch tourists better weather.  They said it was fine and, coming from Holland, they were used to it.

I started the long walk towards home knowing that Tod, down in the village, would be on his way through the back roads to meet me with the car.

And I think the young gendarme did me a service insisting I went no further.  With our little group under the awning, there was no-one and nothing to obstruct my view of the curving road up to the crest of the hill as the Tour de France came by.


The Leaders

The leader at this point, Martin Elmiger, being chased by Arnaud Gerard

One of the motorcycle camera men. They must be tough, with that weight of camera, holding that position, for 200 kilometers in the rain

Spare Bikes

The Peloton - somewhere tucked behind the turquoise group of Astana riders is the eventual winner Vicenzo Nibali

Sadly, no moody black and white close-ups of bike pedals, wheels and strong leg muscles.  In that gloom my camera was on 1,600 iso and the images are just too grainy to enlarge. Next time, maybe.


Tour de France 2014

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The barricades are going up ...

... on the road through town, each with a sign saying parking forbidden from Thursday evening to the end of Friday.

A notice on the main road warns the route will be closed on Friday from 11am to 6pm (woe betide anyone who doesn't know what's going on and has a plane or boat to catch).

The verges are being cut, balustrades are being jet-washed, the roads are freshly tarmacked (possibly too freshly, in a recent brief heat wave some of it looked suspiciously gooey), the white lines gleam from their recent repainting.  Every small bridge now has red and white bumpers covering the railing ends facing south. The village beyond ours has suddenly sprouted new plant pots and parking bays through the centre.

And whilst France is being far less extrovert than the UK (who would have believed Yorkshire could be so giddy - yellow sheep and all) nevertheless there is a certain restrained celebratory air emerging.  On the roundabout on the far side of Miramont there are four metal outline figures on bikes sporting T-shirts - one yellow, one green, one spotted, one white.

I've an eye on a nicely shady group of trees by the T-junction at the end of our ridge.  The road sweeps up from the roundabout and quickly disappears over the brow of the hill.  Nothing that will make the cyclists slow even a fraction, but the stretch is enough, hopefully, to give me some long shots of heads down racing towards me, quick close-ups of muscular arms and calves as they fly by and then a fleeting glimpse of lycra-covered bottoms cresting the ridge.

I'll drive as close as I can and then walk the rest, camera, sun hat and rucksack with water bottle, spare batteries and memory cards, a sandwich and if room a collapsible stool .  The "caravan" passes for two hours before the cyclists, so there will be plenty to keep us entertained, but it might be a good idea to have something to sit on for the long wait.

Tod plans to wander down into the village and take up a seat at a table outside the cafe that normally is never open except late on Saturday and Sunday nights for the Portuguese who work the fields.  He may find there is much competition for that seat.

All my best photos are always in my head and not in my camera, but I hope there will be something worth posting here after it's all over.  I must confess to becoming a tad excited about the whole idea.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Flaming June, Chilly Wet July

We warned our friends, and fretted before they came.

June is an untrustworthy month for a holiday. We've had the wood stove in the lounge burning on mid-summer's day before now.  "Bring a sweater and something water-proof", we said.

And the month was glorious. They swam in water the temperature of warm soup. They sun-bathed. We took them on the boat for a leisurely cruise to the nearest restaurant and lunched under the awning, glad of the shade.  In the evening light we leaned back to watch the aerial acrobatics of the swifts high above as we sat in the courtyard of our favourite crêperie. With the heat from the surrounding walls, the just-in-case-sweaters were not needed.

So they left content, their illusions intact that June in South West France is glorious.

July, on the other hand, everyone knows is reliable.  First of July, summer arrives.  At least, that's what the crowd of tourists in the small supermarket in Clairac on Sunday morning were trying to believe - all in their short shorts and gossamer-thin T-shirts.  As I stood in the queue (smugly wearing my heavy winter jeans, long socks underneath) I could see the goose-bumps on the bare thighs of the woman in front.

Tod lit the fire (in July!) to watch the Brazil / Germany match in comfort and then went to bed unable to bear any more after the fourth German goal.

At night, we lie in the dark listening to yet another thunderstorm rolling through and in the day snatch moments between showers when the washing goes on the line.

The garden in July has never looked so green (or so full of weeds).  The roses are still flowering, the veg patch bursting, the fruit trees laden, the water butts full and the watering cans unused.

I make apricot jam, do DIY, tidy my study. We visit Ikea in Bordeaux. The swimming pool cover stays firmly in place, the sun loungers stay folded.

The sunflowers and distant wheat fields glow against the grey-black of the banked up storm clouds overhead.

We're glad our friends chose to ignore our warnings and come in flaming June.