A Travellerspoint blog

Slovakia and Austria

Our last meal in Poland at a milk bar and our stash of Polish beers to drink during our trip.

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On the drive. Hay piles

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We drove into the high tatras mountains so we could do a little hiking. I had a lake in mind that I wanted to hike to but when we were booking hotels I couldn't find the information on the trail head. Just by pure luck we ended up booking a hotel only 2 miles from the trail head and drove right by it on our drive! Hike to Strbske Pleso (no, I did not forget a vowel in that first word.)

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After walking for a couple of hours we worked up quite an appetite. We rewarded ourselves with a delicious dough ball filled with jam sprinkled with chocolate powder and covered in melted butter. Gotta love random European Chalets on hikes.

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Okay, I might have gone overboard with the pictures from the hike but it was so gorgeous.

The next day we drove to another lake. A large family was trying to take a group picture and Quinn offered to take it for them. Then they offered us some Slovakian shots.

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(editor's note: I apparently got a little carried away with the saturation on this one. Sometimes it is hard to tell on the laptop.)

Before getting to the next part of the trip, some back story is necessary. Earlier in the trip when we were cycling outside of Gdansk, we had stopped at a restaurant for lunch. Another couple at the restaurant offered to help us with the menu since it was all in Polish. They ended up ordering our entire meal for us and then invited us to come and stay with them in their house in Slovakia. So, that was our next stop, to meet our new Slovakian friends and see their very rural house in the low Tatras mountains. They have such a beautiful and peaceful piece of land. It was a relaxing place to visit but I don't think I could live in that remote of a place year round. To give you an idea, they don't even have a street name, just a house number associated with the town.

They have 2 awesome dogs and a couple of cats to keep them company. This is Katarina and Mark. Oh, and they also have a tank. We got to spend the night in their awesome RV. Mark has a very dramatic spot light over his stove.

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So when we googled how long it would take to get from Low Tatras Slovakia back home it was upwards of a 12 hour drive. So we picked the halfway point and stayed there. Luckily for us, about halfway was Salzburg, Austria. I had been wanting to go to Salzburg because one of my favorite movies as a kid was The Sound of Music and most of it was filmed in and around Salzburg. There are multiple tours that take you to spots where the movie was filmed but Quinn and I had a great time figuring it out on our own and biking all around the city. What a surprise little stop we had. The city is just gorgeous. Poor Quinn, he had to put up with my singing for the whole day!
(editor's note: Kristen had to put up with my poor navigation the entire day as well. I was attempting to use a map from the hop on, hop off bus tours, and to no surprise, they are not to scale. We biked 24 miles just seeing the sights.)

Doe a deer, a female deer, ray.....

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I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence...

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Can Fraueline Maria come back from the Abby?

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I am sixteen going on 17....

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Captain, are those your children wearing curtains and hanging from trees?

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Okay, you get it.....I LOVE the sound of music. Here are some other pretty parts of Salzburg and a random wedding that we ran into. Yes. People still wear traditional dress to weddings. Cool huh?

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To round out our WWII tour we also visited the Eagle's Nest. This is a retreat built specifically for Hitler for his birthday. It was considered an engineering marvel at the time and is still quite impressive to see how they cut the road up the mountain and created an elevator to climb the last part of the steep cliffside. The weather clouded over about 20 minutes after we got there so we only got a small peek at the views. It is a beautiful spot with a sinister history.

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This was a trip with highs and lows and was quite the emotional roller coaster. So to end it on a funny note, check out this stance for this picture.

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Posted by trackers 13:16 Archived in Slovakia Comments (0)

Auschwitz and Birkenau

Warning: The images are graphic and disturbing.

It is tough to visit these places and I don't feel like I can really do any justice with my writing to convey what one feels or sees here at Auschwitz and Birkenau. I will just share a few pictures with you from our visit. I do recommend the book: Children of the Flames which is about the twins that were housed and experimented on at these sites. There are so many exhibits at Auschwitz it would take a few days to see them all. Quinn and I couldn't stay more than 3 hours because we were completely drained just seeing the pictures and reading the exhibits. Each building has an exhibit dedicated to people from different countries such as Poland, France and the Netherlands. There are also 3 main exhibits. One that has evidence from the war, one on the resistance efforts, and one on the conditions and life at the camp.

Birkenau death camp

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Auschwitz work camp

Sign reads: Work makes you free

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Posted by trackers 14:10 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Krakow

We arrived in Krakow in the afternoon and were pretty pooped from a day of driving. The highway from Warsaw to Krakow was very nice and it was a sunny day but we were pretty tired of being in the car at this point. We passed about 250 people selling baskets full of mushrooms on the side of the road. I guess that is a big deal here this time of the year. The walking tour in Warsaw was so informative that we decided to do another with the same company in Krakow at Schindler's factory. This one turned out to be quite disappointing because the factory is more of a Krakow history museum during the wartime. While that is interesting, it was not what I expected. Also, our tour guide spoke way too fast and I could barely understand what he was talking about. I felt bad for the rest of the people in the tour because English wasn't even their first language so I have no idea how they understood this guy. The other zinger was that this one was a paid walking tour. So buyer beware.

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What stuck out most to me in the whole tour was the war propaganda that went on. It was really amazing. I have never actually seen a Nazi flag in real life and they had a bunch of them hung up in one of the exhibits. It really gives you a cold and eerie feeling just to see one. I took a picture but I can't stand to put it up on this page so it's in a file here on my computer. This was the floor in one of the exhibits.

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The next day we needed a break from WWII history so we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. First though a little bit about our "inn" in Krakow. Our host was an "interesting" Polish woman most likely in her early to mid sixties. She really wanted us to love our stay and her breakfast and she had a lot of opinions about what we should do and see everyday.

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She also had a lot of opinions about different countries and nationalities. Doesn't everyone? Anyway, she unapologetically shared all of these opinions without any provocation. Here are some of the highlowlights. Russians are very nice people but they are brainwashed by their government and she is very concerned that Poland is going to get drawn into another war with the whole Ukraine fiasco. Scandinavians are like little children in their world view and think everything is just rainbows and butterflies and they don't understand anything about conflict or politics. She has no idea what they are learning in school there. The Italians are letting all of the Africans into Europe and they are ruining the EU economy (my eyes were like silver dollars at this point). But the crowning jewel was this: She loves being Polish because in Poland they are free. They have more freedoms than Americans. In America there are too many police and too many laws and people are not free like they are in Poland. Interesting view from someone who has lived through communism.

So.....onto the caves.

This salt mine is so large that we toured only 1% and we walked for something like 2 miles. Poland's exhibits, museums, memorials were all really well constructed and artistic in their presentation. This cave tour included a really cool laser light show, an enormous church, and multiple multimedia displays that enhanced the statues and carvings in the cave. To start the tour you walk down stairs for literally about 10 minutes until you are a few hundred feet underground. Creepy! Round and round you go, and dizzy you become.

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Quinn had a special sticker that allowed him to take pictures. (That cost about 5 dollars extra)

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Everything you see in the caves is carved from salt. The last supper, the cathedral, even the tiles on the floor are carved out of the salt. The section of stairs pictured in the second to last photo are about 600 years old, and originally men had to carry a hundred pounds of salt at a time up these stairs for 10 hours a day.

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This is no longer a working mine except for upkeep of the exhibits. You ride a tiny elevator back up to the top that they stuff with 9 people. It was tight.

Back up on top we spent some time in the garden of our inn.

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Then set off to explore the city.

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We capped off the night with an awesome French style dinner in a cave but with Polish prices. Yum!

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Posted by trackers 11:49 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Sure wish this menu was in German

The title of this blog is a little joke between Quinn and I as we were traveling around Poland and couldn't make heads or tails of the signs and menus in Polish. I didn't realize how much German we have learned and how adapted we have become to our lives here until we were thrown into another new language. A few times we were lost and not sure of what to eat and were really missing things being written in German. I even caught myself reading the German translation of the menu when the English one didn't make sense. Weird.

On this grand adventure we drove from our town of Wittlich up to Berlin, over to Gdansk, down to Warsaw, then down to Krakow, onto Slovakia, over to Salzburg, Austria and then a grand race home. It was too much driving and we regretted having so much time in the car, but such is life when you can't decide on seeing just a couple of things. We did this trip over two weeks and it was really nice to have a long vacation. We have done quite a few weekend trips but we haven't had a long trip since Quinn broke his leg which was really just a long trip in the hospital. Prior to that we did a long trip last summer (that was rained out).

Onto the adventure. First stop, Berlin. We hit up an early market and enjoyed a little cafe with some Chai tea and a pretzel croissant.

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Then we saw a special kind of park that has been popping up in Europe that I have previously been reading about. Apparently, these are the new (old) thing where kids are allowed to experience adventure and slightly dangerous play by having access to building equipment (hammers, nails, saws) and also fire pits where they can burn things. They also have access to water for splashing and have minimal intervention by adults. Parents are not allowed in the park, but it is staffed by people who are instructed to intervene if there is imminent danger. This is supposed to build more independence and teach kids how to find limits and build self reliance. Seems like a cool concept, but then again I am not a parent. There was no activity while we were there because it was too early but we could see the fire pit and also some little buildings that the kids had constructed.

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Some musings from around the city.

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Liberal signage around here

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Memorial for the Berlin wall. This memorial did a really great job of conveying the enormity of the wall and the "death zone" that was between the two walls and difficulty of escape. They even had pictures of people testing out the wall while it was being built to see if there were different escape strategies.

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Disappointingly, Checkpoint Charlie is just a huge tourist trap.

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Berlin had a lot of interesting architecture and beautiful buildings. I know a lot of people talk about how they absolutely love Berlin and fall in love with it. While I enjoyed our stay, I did not feel the romance that some report. They did have an awesome burrito place called Dolores Burritos. Quinn and I may have eaten there 3 times in 2 days. Don't judge. Or do. I don't care either way because they have some darn good chipotle mayonaisse sauce.

On the way to Gdansk, there is a crooked forest. It is in the middle of a regular forest but there are about 300 trees that are all crooked. It is believed that German soldiers somehow made this crooked forest, but no one knows how or why.

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It was too far to drive directly to Gdansk so we picked a random spot on the map and stayed the night. The name of the town was Kolobrzeg. What a SURPRISE! It was such an awesome coastal town. They had a bike path that went at least 80 kilometers along the ocean. We only road about 40 of it because we had no idea that it even existed and set out in our jeans and tennis shoes. It was so beautiful to see an untouched wild beach with forest all alongside of it. So many of the beaches we have been to in Europe are over developed tourist traps. It was so nice to see one that had been preserved with a beautiful boardwalk and forest.

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Of course, we would stumble upon an old Polish air field when hunting for a dog beach. It still had the hangers, bunkers and all. Part of it was operating as a private air strip.

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We stayed another night in a little town called Leba because it is a gateway to the sand dunes. These dunes are the only ones of their kind in Europe. Pretty much the whole town is focused on people seeing the dunes, going to the beach, and enjoying tourist activities. Hence, the horribly touristy pirate ship with tons of carnival rides.

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We ignored that part of the town and instead woke up at 6 am and rode our bikes out to the dunes before the little tourist trams started running. Officially the park opens at 8:30 but one can enter earlier and enjoy the dunes all to themselves. It was about a 5 mile bike ride to the dunes from the town, hence which, most tourists take the little tram. Since we had our bikes along we were able to get an early start. It was so peaceful and amazing to be here all alone. The pictures really don't capture the enormity and beauty of the area. (editor's note: I tried)

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There were areas where people could walk and areas that were off limits. It is pretty easy to see which is which in the pictures. The beach was also incredible with sand as far as the eye could see and not a single building in sight. There are also sometimes seals on the beach but we were not rewarded with one during our stay. Hiking up the hills was a bit tough for Quinn with the sand but he is tough and never once complained.

The town of Gdansk is a super cute little town along the Baltic coast. There was a really cute cafe there that both served coffee and had a little room in the back to watch screenings of old movies. I love the concept.

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We were walking along the boardwalk, enjoying the view of the city when we passed an older couple taking each others photo. We asked them if they would like us to take a photo of them together. Then they offered to take our picture. After they took our picture they asked us where we were from and then suggested, Italy? For some reason Quinn and I are frequently mistaken for Italians while traveling. I am really hoping that is for our awesome style and not because we are too loud. Maybe it is a combination of both? (For those of you who might not know, people around Europe frequently complain about the volume of Italians. Guess that is a double whammy for me, Italian descent and American.....yeah that explains it. I will use that as my new excuse!) They also happened to take one of the best pictures a stranger has ever taken for us.

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Pictures from around town. The pirate ship picture is for my mom who was really excited about Gdansk having a pirate ship. Turns out, pirate ships are kind of a common thing around Poland?!

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This was a cool reuse of an old structure. They turned the old underground station into a pool hall. It had two entrances/exits. What a fun idea.

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The first couple days we were having a difficult time identifying what was authentic Polish food so we chose this restaurant that had people in traditional looking dress. Turned out it was Russian food. It was delicious. I had fish and Quinn had venison. Don't let the modest presentation fool you.

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One night we went to a couchsurfing meetup group. It was organized by an American guy who recently married a British woman and they are living in Poland for a while. It was at an Irish pub and had a turn out of over 30 people. There were travelers from a dozen countries and a bunch of locals too. It was fun to chat with a bunch of people and enjoy an Irish pint. We also tasted some Polish vodka. I really hate vodka but even I have to say it was good. We bought a bottle of the Bison Grass to take home with us. Come on over to try it!

One last picture from Gdansk. We were staying at a guest house just outside the city center. Ethan made himself at home.

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Next, we drove to Warsaw and it was a beautiful sunny day. We were disappointed to be in the car. We chose a little hotel that was some type of converted building, it almost seemed like a jail. They did a modern industrial theme with big heavy metal doors, industrial light fixtures, and finished cement floors. It was a good idea in theory but turned out to be ridiculously loud at night with all of the heavy metal doors opening and closing and the sound reverberating off of the hard surfaces. I will definitely remember this next time I am booking some modern style hotel.

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There were a ton of swanky restaurants and cafes in Warsaw and everything seemed to be made of pallets.

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We were walking through town and stumbled upon a "free walking tour." We joined in and it turned out to be really interesting and informative.
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This is Marie Curie's house. She was originally from Poland although she lived for many years in Paris. She won the Nobel Peace prize twice, one by herself and one with her husband. Her daughter also won a Nobel peace prize and her second daughter married a guy who won a Peace prize. I can only imagine what family dinner conversation was like in that house. Here is the house Marie Curie was born in.

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There was an urban legend about these statues that the architect moved them to the back of the building because the bishop from a church across the street didn't want them facing the church because it would bring provacative thoughts to the worshippers. Turned out that the architect just moved them because they had redesigned the building for more office space and they didn't fit in the front any more. Additionally, people made up stories that the women represented love, peace, and justice. Turns out that they represent his mother, wife, and daughter. So much for the fairy tale.

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There was also a partial tour of the old Jewish Ghetto. It is very hard to see where the Jewish ghetto, previously the Jewish quarter, was once located but there are some small markers and outlines on the ground in various places around Warsaw. Here was a map depicting the area.

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Warsaw was completely leveled during the war at the direction of Hitler. He wanted the world to see what would happen to cities that put up resistance to the Third Reich. Everything in the city had to be rebuilt following WWII.

This is a memorial for the Warsaw uprising against Hitler. It depicts all types of people taking up arms or using whatever weapons they had or could invent. Then on the other side it shows people escaping Warsaw through the sewer system. The uprising was very controversial and still is today because many people believe that it left Warsaw weak and incapable of defending itself from the takeover by Russian Communism.

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Since everything in Warsaw had to be rebuilt they used old photographs or paintings to reconstruct buildings. This building was full of sculptures along the top but one was a little curious. It was a monkey eating a banana. The builders were somewhat confused as to why this building would have a monkey statue but they reviewed an old painting and there it was clear as day. Well, it turns out that the painter of that work, many years previously, didn't like the owner of the building and replaced a statue of her with a monkey. It was too late when the mistake was discovered and they decided to leave the monkey statue.

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We also passed this art school with this very "interesting" hand. When the headmaster of the school was asked what the hand signified he responded by saying, "it is just a friendly hand waving hello".....uuhhhh, I don't know about that.

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Can you tell I was paying attention during the tour? It was very interesting and informative.

We spent the next day cruising around on our bicycles. Here is what we saw.

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During Communism there was a lot of propaganda surrounding food and it convinced people that the Polish were a simple people who only needed simple food. Restaurants called milk bars were popping up and they were basically very simple cafeteria style food with little decoration for both the food and furnishings. Recently they have become popular once again and they are the place to eat for lunch. So we did. I had rye soup and Quinn had pancakes stuffed with cheese. The bird watched us. I think this meal was 3 dollars.

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Supposedly, the service is unfriendly and short at these places but we did not experience such a thing. Truth be told, we really loved the milk bar food and ate at different milk bars at least another 4 or 5 times during our trip. The best part, it only cost us about 5 dollars (total) for the two of us to eat lunch or dinner.

Dinner- not from a milk bar but from a Vietnamese place.

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We also had a really great vegetarian meal from this place. This pic is more for me to remember since we scarfed down the food before we took a picture. While we were sitting at this restaurant, critical mass rode by and there were at least 1000-2000 cyclists going through the city. We were so bummed not to have our bikes with us at this point. For those unfamiliar with critical mass, it is when a group of cyclists "takes over" a city by riding in a very large group, while obeying traffic laws, to raise awareness for cyclists and need for cycling infrastructure. Sometimes people also ride naked (i.e. San Francisco). No naked people at this one.

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We also went to a couchsurfing event in Warsaw at a little brew pub. This pub had more than 50 beers on tap and more than half were Polish. The microbrewery culture in Poland is on the rise. We had some really good beers there. We ended up running into another traveler that we had met at the couchsurfing event in Gdansk. Small world. We also met a Korean-German guy who grew up in Munich, is currently studying abroad in Riga, Latvia and was an exchange student in high school in Arkansas for a year. And people think we are world travelers! Hah! He gave us some good intel on the best tents in Munich for Oktoberfest. I also got to chat with a guy who is my age, grew up in Poland and remembers the first time he got a notebook with a color cover. Nothing was printed in color during the times of communism and he was really excited to get a colored notebook. Also, he loved learning English because it was the only textbook printed in color. He also remembers going to the store as a kid and getting fruit as a treat on the weekend. I told him that I was always excited to go the gas station on the weekend with my dad to get a gummy alligator. There were a lot more stories that we shared but I will save them for an in person conversation sometime.

So, that was about the first half of our trip. I will save the second half for another post.

Posted by trackers 13:19 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

France, it has everything

rain

We just can't get enough of France lately. This is our second weekend in a row, but the weather here in the north is a drastic departure from what we had in Provence. I certainly underestimated the size of France before moving to Germany where the terrain and weather vary greatly. A smaller, lesser known mountain range, the Vosges, are a mere two hours from our home and the Tour de France passed through here in this years edition of the race. The forecast called for rain every day, but luckily we only got wet one of the three days.

So we drove to northern France to catch 3 stages of the Tour de France. The plan was to catch stage 7 close to the finish when the peloton is typically moving pretty fast, but there might still be a break out front, and then catch the finish and the preceding start in the town of Gerardmer where we were staying.

We were able to drive right onto the race route and park off to the side, thanks to a miscalculation on my part that put us there 4 hours before the racers came through. Luckily there is entertainment of sorts when the caravan comes screaming by a couple of hours before the race. The caravan is the media parade (read moving circus) that throws out bits of swag or snacks while driving along at 30 miles an hour. It actually seemed a bit comical, as I'm used to the small town parade's in Wisconsin, where at times it seems like the Zor shriners are never going to end. Similar to the shriners they drive some really crazy vehicles, and are all strapped in with harnesses. We were able to score a couple of dry fit shirts and an awesome polka dot cycling hat.

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When the racers came through a few hours later, they made short work of the hill we were standing on and also went by faster than I expected. I snapped a pic of a couple of them chatting, while calmly riding 25-30 miles an hour. These guys truly are amazing athletes. I didn't realize how many vehicles are driving along with the racers. I bet it is exhausting, and it is somewhat surprising that more riders haven't been hit by media cars.

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On day two we camped out near the finish line in Gerardmer, where we had a hotel room 1000 meters from the finish. And when I say camped, I mean sat out in the rain waiting for the riders to come. It was more like camping in Ireland really. This was an awesome finish, with a 2 mile climb at a 10% grade after riding 234 kilometers (145 miles). We didn't get any pictures of this day, as the camera might not have survived. Here are a couple of pics from the hotel room, where maybe you can get an idea of the terrain. Gerardmer is a cool little town in the Vosges mountains that serves as a ski resort in the winter.

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On day three the race started from the same town of Gerardmer and we just strolled down to the team bus area in the morning to see all the riders getting warmed up on their trainers. I guess they are treated a bit like zoo animals, because hoards of people are milling around the fences that are set up watching all the movements of the riders and just waiting for the stars to step off the bus. The poor domestique is treated like animals in the petting zoo (i.e. goats, sheep, pigs), and come and go without much excitement. I was surprised to see how skinny most of the riders are, at least their arms anyway. The guys who perform the best at the multi stage races are fairly small, like powerful little bicycle jockeys.

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I know that cycling has been tainted in recent years by the proliferation of drug charges, but that is not to say that these guys are not athletic monsters. While I in no way condone the use of performance enhancing drugs, I think it is unfortunate that it has overshadowed the sheer ability of the guys who still ride clean. Watching the performance of the riders first hand is really incredible.

This trip was originally going to include some cycling of our own, but due to obvious prior events that wasn't going to be happening. However, it should be noted that this weekend marked my official return to cycling, celebrated with a lap around the lake in Gerardmer. In terms of notable events on my road to recovery, this one is high up there.

We capped off the weekend by watching Germany win the World Cup. This is the second time Kristen and I have been in the country that won the final, but Germany was markedly more calm than when we were in Italy.

Posted by trackers 23:08 Archived in France Comments (1)

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