Monday, September 15, 2008
Tour de France
Check out my prior blog entry about Lourdes before reading this one...
The Lourdes train station, my plan was to get a train or bus to another town (Bagnerres de Bigorre) where the Tour de France was to finish the next day. The only problem was that even though this town is only 25 minutes away by car, there is no bus that goes there. You have to take a 15 minute train up to Tarbes, wait 2 hours, and then take 45 minute train down to Bagnerres de Bigorre. No problem, except that the last train home to Lourdes comes back at 5pm, and the Tour riders don´t cross the finish line until 5:30pm. Since there´s no point in going to all that effort and not seeing the Tour, I sit to formulate a plan. Immediately upon sitting, I meet two other Americans who are also in town to watch the tour...James from Michigan and Ryan from Salt Lake. We decide that the next day, Ryan and I will rent a car and drive ourselves to Bagnerres de Bigorre (James will do his own thing hitchhiking up one of the mountains to watch there). The car seems like a cheaper option with more freedom than does a train, bus, and taxi combo because no one seems to be able to tell us how much a taxi back will cost, or IF we would be able to hire one. Plan set, we head out and buy some cheap French wine, some cheese, a baguette, a red pepper, some dark chocolate, and some water and cruise back to my hotel to watch the Tour on TV....turns out it is broadcast IN ENGLISH!!! Yeah!!
That night, after the guys leave my room and I hit the sack...all of a sudden in the middle of the night I wake and itch like crazy. No way. In this nice hotel I am getting bitten by something in my bed. I leap up and find bites all over my arm and feet!! I go downstairs and demand to have a different room. They comply. I throw all my crap into my bag and switch rooms, tired and furious. The next a.m., I wake before sunrise to get ready to meet Ryan to rent the car. While loading my pack, I reach in and...OUCHHHHHHHH....pull my hand back out with a deep slice in my index finger that is oozing blood. (Last night in my haste to switch rooms, I put the knife I used to cut my apple into my bag upside down...lovely.) I´m a real sight now...bug bites all over my arms and feet, a deep cut that won´t stop bleeding. I wrap a (clean) sock around my finger after I wash it out and I walk to meet Ryan.
We get to the car rental place and it is closed for the day! Shit!! The lady yesterday didn´t tell us it was closed Sundays! So we decide to do the train-bus-taxi option anyway and we go in to buy our train tickets. I buy mine, but Ryan has a Eur-rail pass and he left it in his hotel. We have only a half hour until the train arrives, enough time we think for him to run back to his hotel and get back in time to board the train. He asks me to watch his bag...I say no, that if he´s late I don´t want to be responsible for his stuff. He leaves...meanwhile, I'm still holding my hand above my head because my finger is still bleeding, and it´s now 2.5 hours after the time I sliced it! I begin to fear I may need a couple of stitches, and I´m about to go on a train to a place I´ve never been, not knowing how I´m going to get back, and perhaps needing to find a doctor while I´m in this unknown place, on a Sunday. It´s getting closer and closer to the train´s departure time and Ryan isn´t back yet. Finally they are boarding my train and he´s not back yet so I have to make a choice...I decide not to go. It just feels too forced at this point and I think I might have to find a hospital or a doctor soon. One good thing...I actually was able to get 90% of my train fare refunded...this is the only train station that I have ever seen that would refund money. I leave.
Finally, as I'm getting ready to go find the hospital, my finger stops bleeding. Could it be the holy water? Earlier, figuring I had nothing to lose, I went down and held my finger under the holy water faucet (see my prior blog entry about Lourdes) for about 30 seconds. Coincidentally or not, it stopped bleeding an hour after I anointed myself with the miracle H2O. All in all, I spent about 4.5 hours with a sock wrapped around my finger, applying direct pressure, and holding my hand on top of my head until it finally quit bleeding. I am a born skeptic, but maybe, just maybe, I did get my miracle in Lourdes.
So I spend the day watching the Tour in my hotel room, itching, bummed that I can´t get to Bagnerres de Bigorre to watch the finish of today´s stage in person. Afterwards, I go out to the grocery store...a 20 minute walk. It´s closed. Sunday. So I walk all over town looking for a restaurant that DOESN´T cater to every tourist from every country and serve every possible ethnic food including hot dogs, hamburgers, lasagne, quiche, pizza, paella, fish and chips, sandwiches, crepes, pastries, and various mystery mayonnaise-saturated foods. You know how you want to eat at a restaurant that actually specializes in something? Well, you won't find it here in Lourdes. And, can´t a guy get something with vegetables?? (This is a problem all over Spain and France.) Finally I end up in a place that will serve me a salad with lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg, and diced ham. This is the most natural food I can get, even WITH it marinating in a gallon of mayonnaise dressing. If only I could say "on the side" (or anything else) in French.
Oh yeah...before I watched the Tour and after a quick detour through the cathedral, I visited the CASTLE!!! Now this was one of the coolest places I saw on my entire trip. I have no idea what the name of it was, but it was the awesomest old castle, on the top of a steep hill right smack dab in the middle of this mountainous town, overlooking everything. Turns out that in its early days around the year 1000 it was built as a military fortress. Later when the fortress wasn't needed around 1500 or so, the royalty made it their personal residence. Later around the 1700's, when the royalty moved on, the city of Lourdes turned it into a prison. For the last hundred years or so it's been open to the public to tour. The views up there were STELLAR!!!
Next day...up at 5 a.m. Stake out my spot in Lourdes on a sharp corner where the Tour riders will have to slow significantly before they pass. At least I will get to see them for longer since they´re slowing down. It would be nice to be up on the mountain to watch (better scenery, slower riding, and better Tour action in the mountains), but alas the roads are closed and I didn´t have a car last night to get up there and try to find a spot to park precariously on the cliff´s edge to sleep and wait. All day long I wait, from 6 a.m. on...about 12:30 the caravan begins to come through. The caravan is all the sponsor cars coming by throwing out free stuff to the spectators. Some of it is good, some of it is shit, some don´t have anything to give away, some just have sexy girls dancing in the backs of big vans/trucks. It is a spectacle, watching everyone scurry for the crap getting tossed into the crowd. I have a spot on the railing, in a perfect position to see the riders pass, but not so perfect as to get any of the cool stuff getting thrown out to the crowd. Wait...I do catch a cool pen (yeah a pen, my Tour de France PEN) that I set at my feet by my water bottle, until an old lady reaches down and steals it from me. Bitch!! We have an argument in English and French and neither understands the other, but both of us are pissed off. I tell her she just stole my pen. She intimates that she just reached down and found an unclaimed pen. Oh well, let it go, Den...let it go. Finally, at about 2:15 the first riders come through...about 15 of them. Then, about 30 seconds later the other 165 of them come flying by...and it´s over. That's it?!?! My three days of getting here, my bed bug bites, my inability to get to where I really wanted to be to watch the race, my sliced finger and trail of blood left all over Lourdes, my hundreds of dollars spent...all for less than a minute of Tour action. And I would do it all over again. I was THERE at the Tour de France. I SAW it. And I got one sweet photo of the race.
By the way...turns out that Ryan never did make it back to the train station. He got back to the hotel and realized he didn´t have enough time to make it back so he was sitting in front of his hotel figuring out what he was going to do that day. Turns out, a car of one of the Tour sponsors was loading up right in front of him and they offered to take him to Bagnerres de Bigorre. Of course he went. He watched the tour at the finish line, with two hot American girls, one a triathlete, saw the riders get their daily awards at the podium, and then was able to hitch a ride back. That bastard. :) He did tell me that when in Bagnerres, he spent about 2.5 hours walking through the crowd, up and down the street on both sides, looking for me, and he had the 2 American girls looking for me too. At least he tried to have my back. :) Thanks, Ry.
After they pass, I race back to my hotel to watch the final hour and a half of the stage on my hotel television. It's a great finish...one guy somehow musters up the strength, the heart, the force to push ahead of everyone, straight up that insanely steep finishing hill to claim the stage victory. Thrilled to have seen and learned so much about cycling over the last 3 days, I am also thrilled to leave Lourdes and get my ass back to Spain. I need out of tourist hell. Tomorrow morning I will head back to San Sebastian and then out to Leon, Spain and Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
On my last evening in Lourdes, as if to remind me that nothing can go right here, I go out to eat (same fresh iceberg lettuce/egg/tomato/ham/mayonnaise salad) and after eating my meal and a small dessert, realize I've forgotten my wallet. How do you explain that you have no money for the meal you already ate when you can't speak their language? Guess my mime skills are sufficient as not only do I not end up in a French jail cell, but I have them all laughing, slapping me on the back, and high-fiving me by the time I leave. And yes, I did walk back and pay my bill later that evening. :)