Monday, June 13, 2016

Mulhouse, France

I stocked up on food before crossing into Switzerland hoping I wouldn't have to buy any, sparing me from dealing with Swiss francs and saving me from paying nearly twice what I would in France to eat. But my two-day foray from Geneva to Bern and back to France was a half day longer than expected thanks to being relegated to bike paths for some of my time.  One had to have local knowledge to be able to follow them at times, causing me no end of puzzlement and leading me astray more often than I'd like to remember.

Even if I could have stuck to the bikeways, they weren't as direct as the roadways or as well-paved.  They may have been scenic and secluded, but they were more of an excercise in orienting than biking, taking me on unpaved tracks through fields and forcing me to lug my bike up steps to old rail road bridges and such.  It was like being in Germany or Holland with their network of bikeways that are plastered all over catering to those who quiver at the sound of the internal combustion machine, and are frequently mandated for all cyclists, whether they want to ride them or not.  If they were better marked and not so circuitous, I wouldn't object, but they are all too often an extreme headache.  The blessed French are perfectly content allowing bikes and cars to cohabit on their roadways.

So the damnable Swiss bike paths made my provisions grow low.  When it became uncertain if I could make it back to France early enough in the evening of my third day to restock, I was forced into a Swiss supermarket.  Thankfully it accepted euros, as most stores do, but I found no special food to excite my palate other than an extra rich yogurt, though the price of the two-pack I bought was for each individual yogurt rather than the pair, making it even more expensive than I thought it was.  I wasn't in the country long enough to decode such things.

I did have an initial fine entry into Switzerland of forty miles along Lake Lucerne on a perfectly agreeable bike lane that was attached to the road. It was the longest flat stretch I'd enjoyed in days after over a week in the Alps.  It took me past the imposing World Trade Organization headquarters as a delegation of nervous-looking Africans was mounting its steps no doubt putting in a bid for assistance.  The lake front was a succession of mansions of the have-yachts.  Some of them were ultra-modern, largely glassed buildings, just like many of the office complexes.

I reached Lucerne in the early evening and began a long, steep climb away from the lake.  In less than an hour I was in the forest and easily found a fine place to camp.  Léo wasn't sure how wise it was to wild camp in Switzerland, thinking it could be a hanging offense, but I felt no qualms.  The next morning after several miles the road I had been on suddenly excluded bikes, forcing me on bike paths for much of the rest of the day to Bern.  As I entered Bern, the Swiss capital, the bike route became alive with cyclists all the way to the city center. Rows of bikes were parked everywhere.  It was a true bike city, most worthy of being a Ville Étape, not only the arrival city for Stage 16, but the departure city for the next stage after serving as the second Rest Day of The Race.  A further reason is that it is the home of Fabian Cancellera, who holds the record of the most days in Yellow by a non-Tour winner--29.  He will be riding his last Tour.

There were no banners or billboards promoting The Tour but a large cube in the city center had a didgital display on each of its four sides counting down the time to the second when the peloton would be arriving at that very spot at five p.m. on July 18.  It was forty days, twenty-one hours, fifty-eight minutes and fifty seconds to that momentous occasion.

I couldn't linger long as it was seven p.m. and I had to escape the city and return to the countryside to camp.  There was plenty of climbing in the next twenty-four hours before I happily returned to France.  Once I crossed the border at Lucelle and its closed down customs station it was less than thirty miles to Mulhouse and Yvon just across the border from Germany.  In my previous three visits to Mulhouse, Yvon had showed me most of what this city with a large Peugeot factory has to offer, but as an official greeter for the tourist office, Yvon could always find something more.  One was his pétanque club that he and his girl friend Doris play at several times a week.  Every day but Sunday it is a gathering spot for several dozen devotees of this favored French pastime, a version of horseshoes, but with heavy metal balls, trying to pitch them as close as possible to a small ball.  The action commences at two p.m., rain or shine, under a covered area  if need be, but preferable out in a large open expanse. It is known as an "Amicale" club and it is amiable competition in every way with winning just incidental.

As the day's players gathered each greeted the others with a handshake or kisses on the cheeks. Most everyone went out of their way to give me a cordial welcome.  Yvon introduced me as one who bikes The Tour de France.  A man with the most florid mustache of the bunch told me he grew up in the same town as Jacques Anqutil and that he has two sons who are competitive mountain bikers.  Only Yvon and I had come by bike.  There was a drawing for partners and then the action began.

Not only do players try to toss their balls as close as possible to the small colored ball, they also try to knock their opponents balls away.  A tape measure is required at times to determine the closest.  

My three days in Mulhouse all included a visit to the club, though never beyond four p.m. as we wanted to be back at Yvon's apartment two miles away for the daily telecast of the Critérium du Dauphiné starting at 4:10 for the final hour of the race.  We saw Froome explode from the leading group on the first mountain top finish on stage four to win the stage and take the Yellow Jersey from Contador, emphatically demonstrating that he should be the favorite for The Tour and join the elite rank of three-time winners with LeMond and Thys.   He held the lead over the next three stages to claim his third Dauphiné.

The telecast included a couple of new features.  One was a camera on the bike of one of the Cofidis riders. It gave a claustrophobic feel for the peloton and was used less and less by the producers of the telecast.  Another was a graphic showing not only the time between the breakaway and the peloton but the speed of each group as the race neared its conclusion and the peloton began its chase. Also unique this year was a graphic of the Olympic rings in the upper right hand corner of the screen with a countdown to the start of the Games, but just in days.  It was at 54.

The French propensity for countdowns extended to the start of the European Cup soccer tournament taking place in France this year.  As we watched the pre-game show for the Opening Game between France and Romania Friday night, the number of minutes until the game began was counting down on the screen.  The event was so highly anticipated a helicopter followed the French team bus to the stadium in Paris.  President Hollande didn't greet the team, but he was in the stands.

Our TV watching also extended to a four-hour tribute Saturday night to the French rock-and-roll icon, Johnny Hallyday, a man who has been cranking out hits since 1960.  Half of the program was his huge concert in Paris last year.  It was preceded by a new documentary on his career called "The Invincible." Former president Sarkozy was among those interviewed.  He began his career as an Elvis figure and evolved into a Sinatra.  He is so revered he will be given a state funeral when that time comes.

Initially our Saturday night plans were to attend a Hallyday-impersonator concert.  It was a fund-raiser for a local soccer team.  But Yvon learned that it wasn't clear when the simger would take the stage or how long he would sing.  The twenty-euro ticket included food, but not drink.  Yvon feared the concert could be delayed until very late so people would buy lots of drinks. It was a long drive to the event, so with the real thing on television, we opted for that.  Although attending such a gathering would have been as quintessential a French experience as hanging out at a pétanque club, the television offerings were a full immersion into the Hallyday phenomenon.  The documentaries were exceptional enough I was sorry Cannes hadn't debuted them.  They would have been extra-sensational on a big screen.

Time with Yvon isn't complete without a bike ride, as it was the bike that brought us together when we both happened to be visiting the Notre Dame des Cyclists bicycle chapel north of Pau when we were both on tours around the county twelve years ago.  This year's ride was fifteen miles to a stork preserve in a small village that had erected a set of platforms for them to nest upon near a river.

It was also near a small restaurant that had an exceptional lunch special. Doris was happy to join us.  She is an accomplished cook who wins cooking competitions.  It was Friday.  The French still make fish a Friday meal, so the day's special was salmon.  We all chose frites rather than rice.  Besides the frites on our plates we were also given a large bowl.  The chocolate cake could have come from the king's cook.  While we ate a van load of Polish workers stopped in and were immediately served, evidently their daily ritual.  Afterwards, we had just enough time to make it to pétanque.

Besides soccer one night and Johnny Hallyday another, we also attended a presentation on travel at a cultural center half a mile from Yvon's apartment.  It was the last of the season's monthly programs.  It was two hours of five to ten minute videos on travel all over the world, including Chicago and all its skyscrapers.  It also explained the four stars on the Chicago flag and all the rocks in the Tribune Tower and Mrs. O'Leary's cow.  It was another fine evening and epitomized my always satisfying time with Yvon.

Now it's four hundred miles across the center of France to Tours and a visit with Florence and Rachid.  There will be no Ville Ètapes to visit or particular sites, but I know there will be plenty to see between the rain drops which are forecast for the next several days after a two day break.

1 comment:

Bill Burns said...

Hey now, George! Being a Chicagoan, you've probably run across it before, but here's a link to Brian Wilson's "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," from the long-lost, but finally realized 1967 Beach Boy's album, "Smile."

Bon voyage! (from the Heartland of the USA, Kansas City)