I didn’t want to turn 40 years old this July. The tasteful white squares of my phone’s calendar seemed to glow white hot with advancing age. What horrid health problem will I suffer first? Hearing loss? Creaking bones? Dusty farts? Time will tell.
I decided to cheer myself up by previewing one of my favorite July pastimes, the Tour de France. When I did, I noticed that, lo and behold, the tour ended in Paris on my 40th birthday, July 27th, 2014. I texted my girlfriend Sweetie to ask if she wanted to go to Paris. She said yes, but there was no way she could afford it. I looked at flight costs. Then I said some bad words.
I reached out to a pilot friend about possibly getting some buddy passes to get the trip cost way down, and he came through for me. Without his help we could never have gone. We also got lucky on the cost of a rental car, which helped a lot. And we chose some off the beaten path places to stay, which ended up being absolutely amazing anyway.
When thinking about travel expense, I think, okay this is gonna cost me, and I might have to never drive a really nice car if I keep doing this. But when I’m so old that I can no longer hear my creaking bones or the slapping sounds of my dusty farts, which will I be more glad I had: the travel, or a cool car?
I think maybe it’ll be the travel.
We flew out of Atlanta into Paris, then hopped on the TGV train to Bordeaux. I wanted to spend as few nights as possible in Paris because it is a vampire with an insatiable thirst for Euros. While you are sleeping, Paris creeps into your bedroom and attaches itself to your pockets and credit cards and slurps greedily. C’est vrai.
In Bordeaux we rented a Fiat 500 from Europcar, partly because Europcar was cheapest, but also because they have a Tour de France team with the Frenchman Thomas Voeckler on it. I like Voeckler. He rides with such intensity that his tongue attempts to escape his face to get away from all the suffering.
The Europcar lady was annoyed with us because we were 5 hours early to pick up our car. I probably made a mistake when I booked it. She let us take it anyway, though, after I explained in French that I hoped she spoke English.
After a short drive to a parking garage that seemed deeper than most mines — and probably some volcanos as well — we found a parking spot for our little car and headed to find our hotel.
The Hotel That Was Not A Hotel
I’m not sure where Sweetie found L’Annexe de Gerald, but when we got to the address, we were confused. We looked up and down the street for something that looked like a hotel, but saw nothing. No sign. No front desk. Eventually we looked at the door and saw that it had a business card on it with the proprietor’s name. We buzzed and someone answered.
Up a circular flight of stone stairs in an unlit entryway, on what the French call the “premiere étage,” or “French Second Floor,” we were welcomed into a very nicely appointed apartment that was, apparently, our B&B. When I think about it, I don’t see any reason why you can’t have a B&B inside an apartment, but I was weirded out a bit.
Once we were inside, we saw that the room was very nice. The gentleman helping us was courteous and spoke much better English than my French. We even had a window, which looked out onto a lovely stairway where the residents of Bordeaux are cultivating penicillin.
If you told me that there was a big five publisher down that stairway who was ready to back my next novel project, I’d still ask if I couldn’t just call him or her on the phone, or maybe hand down my manuscript by way of attaching it to a long stick. Anything to avoid the mossy stairs of doom. Just think of the spores. The spores!
While I gaped out the window at the doom stairs, Sweetie explained to the proprietor that we needed to leave early in the morning to drive to the Pyrenees to see the Tour de France. We wanted to leave Bordeaux at 7am so we wanted to get our included breakfast pretty early.
“Oh no,” he said. “It’s not possible. I will be sleeping.”
Bouches Get Amused
Instead, we went by a nearby market and bought ourselves some breakfast and picnic items. The hotelier said we could put our breakfast items in his fridge, then just grab them in the morning on our way out. That handled, we headed out for some lunch and some sightseeing.
Our first proper meal was at a tiny cafe that just happened to be by our hotel, but it was still better than some nice and quite expensive dinners we’ve shared here in the US. The French aren’t kidding at all about their food. You hear that all the time, but it’s absolutely true.
We walked around a bit, saw a protest of some kind and discussed what it might be about, then returned to our room to rest up a bit and get ready for dinner. Dinner at Le Bouchon Bordelais was so good it doesn’t even bear talking about. I might sell it short. Or I might, in order to do it justice, talk it up so much that no rational person could lend credence. But that’s okay. I know what I tasted.
We enjoyed a Chateau Haut-Segottes 2006 with dinner. A bit of internet research reveals that wine snobs seem to turn up their noses at this wine, which is strong evidence that it is in my price range. I’m by no means a wine expert, but I didn’t have any problems enjoying it.
After a bit of dessert, Sweetie went into the kitchen to beg for recipes, buttering everyone in sight with compliments. The chef agreed to send his cheesecake recipe, but I’m not sure if he actually did. We left her email in case he feels generous.
We hit the bed, ready to get up early and head into the mountains for some professional cycling.
Day of the Tourmalet
We woke up and showered, then crept across the creaking boards of the B&B, trying not to wake the other guests. The hotelier had said we could find our way into the private kitchen to get our breakfast items on our way out, but once there, we found the door locked from the inside. Great. No breakfast.
We gave it up for lost and crept on down the hall to the front door. I paused to write in the guestbook: “We will be very hungry today.” I signed my name. And then the kitchen door opened and the hotelier appeared with our breakfast items. We thanked him, gave him his keys back, and Sweetie added “…but we had a lovely stay” to the book.
One of my stated goals of the trip was to be at the Col du Tourmalet to see the riders come over the summit and head down the other side. I wanted to be sat there with some red wine, a baguette, and some cheese, yelling “allez, allez, allez!” with the rest of the crowd. And that’s exactly what we did. Here you can see me and Sweetie in silhouette as Voeckler turns onto the summit.
It was a real thrill to finally see the Tour in person after watching it year after year. I’m so glad I got to go.
Afterward we sat in traffic for a long time because the French police closed the road in both directions. I have no idea why, nor did anyone else. I asked what was going on, if a car had crashed, but they said no. The Gendarmes just closed it. Vive la France!
That night we stayed at the Hostellerie d’Aste, a lovely little hotel next to the Adour river. It was nice and cool and we got to sleep with the sound of the rushing Adour pouring in our open window.
I awoke to a great shock and a feeling of despair. Our room was positively awash in the greatest scourge of our times: the typeface Comic Sans. Why, France? You’re supposed to be better than this.
We had a long day of driving ahead of us. I went down and ordered a cafe au lait for Sweetie. The waiter made worried eyes at me when he saw that I was taking madame’s coffee up to her so she could enjoy it while she got ready.
My impression of the French is that they like long meals. They also prefer to drink their coffee in a coffee drinking place. Maybe at a patisserie in the city they’ll give you a paper cup so you can drink your espresso while you walk and munch a croissant, but everywhere else they order a coffee and drink it right there. We are used to drinking coffee while we do things. Things like driving, or making more coffee.
I explained to the man at the hotel’s front desk that we were checking out, but I ran out of French. I explained that I’m learning the language, and it’s hard for me because I am a little dumb.
“Je suis de train d’apprendre Francais. C’est difficile pour moi, parce que je suis en peu bête.”
I prefer “bête” to “stupide” because it also means “beast” in addition to just “dumb.” I think it describes me better. The gentleman laughed and said “Nononono!” but he doesn’t know me. I’m totally a little beast.
Before we left, we learned from Sweetie’s dad that we would be traveling close to the Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world. So we went out our way to check it out. It was worth it. I have driven over some bridges in my day, but this thing is freakin’ huge.
But the day’s wonders didn’t stop there. Later, at a rest stop, we learned how far the French are willing to go to sell jam: real far. Like reach over and tweak your nipple far.
That night we arrived in Le Puy en Velay, not knowing that it would prove to be our favorite evening of the trip. It was such a gorgeous little town. We explored the Cathedral there, where pilgrims start their journey along the Way of St. James.
Still full from lunch, we then ate a traditional French light dinner in our hotel room.
The wine key in the background, which we bought in Bordeaux, would later be confiscated by the TSA in Philadelphia. Thanks for protecting us, guys.
There’s a Paris In France
The next morning we headed for Paris. We caused an international incident on the highway when the toll machine wouldn’t take our cards.
European credit cards have a microchip in them. Even though previous machines had accepted our non-chipped cards, and even though we had a card with a chip, we still couldn’t get the machine to accept either. A long line and many annoyed French people resulted.
We used an intercom to ask for help, but the lady who answered just said to use another line. We couldn’t do that because we were blocked in by a long line of cars, but she’d already hung up. Eventually a very nice lady helped us call back and read my address to a gentleman. He couldn’t understand my spelling of my name because while I speak some French, I don’t know how to say letters of the alphabet the French way. C’est dommage.
Once in Paris, we navigated a confusing warren of toll pavilions and tunnels to the airport. A speed camera flashed at me once. I expect to get a Parisian speeding ticket in the mail any day now. Once at the airport, we said goodbye to our little Fiat and hello to a hot, crowded RER train into the city. Ah, Paris!
In the morning, we headed out to see some sights. The Tour wouldn’t be in Paris until around 6PM. We saw this big building which I identified as a crazy detailed hardware store of some kind, like a Home Depot.
Later we walked through the lock section of the hardware store. It’s an open air market kind of thing, but for locks.
And finally, we saw the greatest Parisian landmark of all, the Eiffel Tower. I have to say I thought it was a lot less impressive than people make it out to be, but a French buddy of mine says it looks a lot more impressive at night when it’s all lit up.
We watched the end of the Tour de France later that night, as they rode up and down the Champs Élysées. As I said before, it was a great thrill. Then we ate some escargots at a restaurant called, as one might expect, Escargots, and that was that.
I am a very lucky guy to get to go on a road trip around France with my Sweetie. We had great wine and lots of fun, and all I had to do was turn 40 years old. Totally worth it.