Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer 2008 Europe trip

Much travel. I (Richard) was in Trinidad for about 2 weeks, then flew to Dusseldorf via New York and via train to Muenster. After a whole 2 days we were back on the train to Dortmund with our bikes (which live here in Muenster) for the EasyJet to London Luton. At that point we were supposed to have a simple 30 mile ride to Teddington and the UK National Physical Laboratory. We spent several hours seemingly circling St. Albans but eventually broke free and made it to London proper. Unfortunately I lost Bonnie in London traffic. She turned right, I couldn't see her in the crowds, and after I kept on a kilometer or so I couldn't even find my way back (tried for an hour). So, no problem, just use the cell phone! Unfortunately, Bonnie had switched the chip in her phone and I didn't seem to have the new number. She also had all the maps. Fortunately, the natives spoke a language much like mine, so I queried them and found that they had no idea how to get anywhere at all. Fortunately some of the girls were quite attractive so it wasn't a complete waste. I finally found a petrol station, got directions to Teddington, and cycled there. The address of the Teddington Lodge was in my notebook, but it was a bit hard to find since it had no sign or building number. Eventually found the Lodge. Proprieter not there, nor Bonnie. Sat on stump, after a while a tenant came out and we phoned the proprieter. No reservation, it seems Bonnie hadn't confirmed it. Got a room anyway due to kindness of proprieter. Waited on street for an hour and Bonnie comes and I flag her down! She had lost her notebook on the way and had no address for the Lodge (which no one had heard of, of course).

We both gave seminars at the National Physical Laboratory, and they were received kindly. Bonnie ran some aerosol samples on their SIMS (Ian Gilmore has terrific facilities at NPL) and the data looks useful. Teddington is close to the Thames River and to the palace at Hampton Court, overall a pleasant area. After a week of work and excellent fish/chips/ale we rode into central London to spend Saturday at the splendid British Museum. Strongly recommended, particularly the Middle East sections. Rode back to the Lodge through the spacious and green deer parks of Richmond and Bushy Parks. Next day we left Teddington for Montpelier (France) via Gatwick Airport, which was the usual ghastly fiasco of little sleep the night before, ride to the airport in heavy traffic, dis-assembly and re-packing of bikes/luggage, difficulty in checking bicycles, security issues, etc etc. This theme occurs at every airport and so we will probably not be flying with bicycles again. Train, easy. Plane, bad.

Montpelier is a lovely city with excellent cycling infrastructure, a very attractive pedestrian-zone central area, and a great deal of wine. Our little room on the Rue Verdun was nice (in that the proprietors were very accommodating of our cycles) and so loud that I had to sleep with earplugs. During our week here I wandered around and Bonnie attended the Chemometrics conference. Her talk here was again well received. We watched the EuroCup 2008 final on the outdoor big-screen set up at the Place Comedie. Lots of Spanish fans and German fans cheering in a square in France. Maybe the world is getting better. Spain deservedly won despite Lehmann’s best keeping efforts.

Following the conference we headed along the coast on our cycling tour. The Mediterranean coast had lots of traffic (mostly well behaved) and was the anticipated sun and sand. Naturally we swam, sat on the beach, and completely ignored the topless bikini babes. Beziers had a beautiful church, but our bikes were slightly robbed. We lost Bonnie’s binoculars, axle nut wrench (which had significance), some gummi-bears and a watch. Roughly that night also our dinner was inedible due to some contamination of the cooking pot, either from soap or alcohol denaturant. The food was so bitter from whichever contamination that we couldn’t eat it, despite hunger and Bonnie’s cooking efforts. After a day or two we turned inland along the Midi Canal to Carcassone (well preserved medieval city). The canal path was a good overall choice of route, since while dirt and bumpy it was also shady and significantly cooler than the surrounding area. It also made it very easy to find campsites. The view of the medieval city was splendid; the interior a kitchy mess of tourist shops. At this point we realized that our travel rabbit was gone! Polly, the Polyester Bunny, had been kidnapped. She was no longer strapped happily to the top of Bonnie’s rear panniers. Saddened and rabbitless, we returned along the canal to Narbonne and continued down the coast toward Spain. Interestingly, as we crossed the border the signs did not all change to Spanish as anticipated. They were in Catalan! Some had Spanish also, but indeed we were in Catalunya and that was the prevailing tongue (and flag). Awkward, since that meant we didn’t have the language. To me it seemed Catalan was in between French and Spanish. I could figure out the written words, but couldn’t communicate. However, thanks to British/American/capitalist imperialism, lots of folks had some English and we muddled through fine.

While we had decided that we didn’t really need to do the Pyrenees on this trip, the coast road had plenty of climbing/pushing for Bonnie and her Baby Bikie. Once again we found the temperatures inland to be overly warm, so we tended to stay near the Med. as much as feasible. This also gave us beach showers (hooray for civilization) and seafood paella. We had one night of significant thunderstorm but fortunately found a site off the road and got the tent up in time. Lots of people drove up to honk at us, but at least we were dry! We made Barcelona at mid-afternoon and got to see the wonderful Sangrada Familia Church of Gaudi. We had done reasonably well for campsites until Barcelona, but here we slept uneasily the first night under a bridge. Next morning we rode back into the center and blessedly found a hostel, so we could take a hot shower and deposit our stuff in safety. We spent hours at the extraordinary Cathedral and wore ourselves out walking around Barcelona. We loved Barcelona and Catalunya and will definitely be back. The people were cycling friendly and nice, architecture impressive and inspiring, the mountains and sea and pines lovely, the food pleasing. Prices were not low but average Western Europe.

This years roughly 900 km trip included some travails, but was overall a merrie voyage. Cycling in southern France and Catalunya was a joy. Getting on the plane from Barcelona to Dortmund was miserable since our bikes couldn’t fit into the x-ray without removing the wheels, which we couldn’t do (recall the wrench was stolen way back in this story?), but the personnel at EasyJet in Barcelona were a wonderful help and eventually got us through security. The bikes seem to have come through the plane ride trips OK in their plastic bags, excepting a crushed Tubus rear carrier tube on mine. The rack does still work. The cargo people scuffed up our panniers something fierce. I feel fortunate that our gear mostly survived and dis-inclined to risk it again, especially with the misery involved in each air flight. Right now I am happy to be in our apartment in Muenster and not have to leave for a month! The weather has turned rather cool and wet, but we are here to work afterall.

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