Friday, November 27, 2009

Are we there yet?

The drive from Chusclan to Albertville, home of the 1992 Winter Olympics, takes about three hours. Eager skiers can stop there and enjoy the slopes or continue upward into the Alps. Having found excellent deals on the necessary clothing, we couldn’t wait for the low altitude resorts to open. Mary Ann booked us a suite in Val Thorens - the highest ski resort in Europe. At an altitude of 2300m (at the bottom of the resort), it was the only resort in France to open before Thanksgiving.

Our trip to Val Thorens started quickly. We rode the Autoroute through Valence and Grenoble on our way. Just outside of Grenoble, the Alps came into sight. Towering rock massifs appeared on the horizon. The way that the rock thrust up through the earth is really breathtaking. You can tell that some serious geologic activity had been at work. Stratifications in the rock that were deposited in horizontal layers, are now found at all angles; some turned vertical.


At Albertville, we turned off the highway and began our ascent into the mountains, first through a narrow mountain pass. A few ruined castles still guarded the passage. Having climbed only moderately through the first 3 hours of our trip, we knew that a steep ascent was eminent. At the exit for Val Thorens, the road reduced to two lanes and we climbed. In inclement weather, the road signs frequently reminded that tire chains were mandatory. I’m glad we chose to take our trip into the highlands before the first winter storms hit.

The final 38 km of our journey took almost an hour. We switched back and forth incessantly. It was impossible to maintain speed going around the tight turns. Around one turn, we noticed a pickup pulled over, and the driver was waving their hand outside the window. I turned to ask Mary Ann, “what do you suppose that means.” She slammed on the breaks in response. A herd of cows were being lead up the highway! They seemed to know the drill. In all, about a dozen large cows meandered past our car. We hoped that they wouldn’t scrape the paint on our rental. Finally, two senior citizens with walking sticks held up the rear of the parade. I guess running your animals up the mountain pass daily keeps you in pretty good shape.

Cows on road

We pressed onward, slightly more cautious about what we might find behind the next bend. At last, the resort town of Val Thorens appeared at the base of the tallest peak yet. On first glance, it wasn’t so much beautiful as impressive. Miles from civilization, the town had grown several times larger than Chusclan, with several multi-story hotels and an elaborate infrastructure. Construction of the village was obviously made difficult by its location on a steep mountain slope. However, the upside to the building challenge, was the opportunity to offer real a real ski-out-the-front-door experience.

Our rooms were in the section of the development named Montana. Land of the "big sky" seemed appropriate for the high mountain location. As we waited for our suite to be assigned, I snapped a photo of the sun setting beyond the Alps. You know, they say, "red sky at night, sailors delight." I hoped that applied to snowboarding as well.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fête de VTT

This past weekend was quite athletic endurance challenge. First up was the much hyped biking festival in Chusclan. Then, after taking a quick shower and packing up the car, we drove to the Alps for two days of snowboarding at the only ski resort in France already open for the season. By Tuesday morning, I was suffering a full-body ache.

On Saturday morning, however, I felt great. I was up at 8:00, took out the dog, and made myself some ham and eggs with melted Roquefort cheese. My stomach usually goes through its own acrobatic routine during athletic events, so reserved plenty of time to digest breakfast. A little before 10:00, we rode down to the Chusclan Cave for the beginning of the race.

I could not believe how many people had ventured into town for the event. Once again, it appeared as though an event had brought out more than the entire population of the village. Our landlord, a proud member of the Chusclan cycling club, had volunteered to help out with the registration. He reported that around 1,500 people had already signed in by 9:00. Despite all the activity, I secretly hoped that the mountain bike trails would be mostly clear by the time I began my run.

It only cost $7 to register for the event, and all participants received a bottle of Chusclan wine. Locals, including yours truly, ride free. This clearly wasn't a money making operation, just another advertising opportunity for the local wine grower's cooperative. With such an impressive domestic advertising campaign, it's a wonder that the cave doesn't also export. Keep your eyes open for the Laudun-Chusclan appellation.

After receiving my riding instructions and course map, I said goodbye to Mary Ann and started up the mountain bike course. There was also a road ride being run concurrently. Bikers had fanned out over 40 km in the surrounding countryside. Luckily, the day seemed ripe for a bike ride. Some fog kept the ground temperature cool and comfortable. Lacking all the fancy gear worn by most riders, I was thankful not to be sweating profusely through my warm-up pants and long-sleeve tee.

Plan de circuits

Turning on the main road through town, I quickly found myself behind about 25 other riders on their way to the off-road courses. We rode slowly through the village and up the narrow roads just outside of town. At this point, most riders were still in groups with their friends. They carried on conversations while the ascent was still moderate. I did notice two female riders struggling in a very high gear to climb the moderate paved slope. They would be in for a very long day. I slipped ahead at the first opportunity.

Four days earlier, I had noticed that the trail markings were up and took a test run through two-thirds of the 25 km course. This proved to be very helpful, because I knew when to anticipate sharp turns and forks in the road. Four different courses were available. The longest was 57 km and very technical. From previous adventures through the Gicon hills, I knew to avoid the red-marked trail. However, on many occasions throughout the race the trails overlapped and therefore a wide variety of skill levels rode side by side.

The first test came about 1.5 km outside of town. We turned left sharply and were confronted by a steep climb over a dirt path littered with loose rocks. I knew the climb was coming, and attempted to gather speed. However, many of the riders in front of me were woefully unprepared for the beginning of the endurance challenge. Somehow, I managed to weave around the stalling cyclists while maintaining balance and shifting into my highest gear. Five months ago, I had stalled half way up that climb. Now I was in better form, and it helped that all the previous riders had helped to mat down the loose dirt and clear away larger stones.

While many riders waited for their friends at the top of the hill, I passed by and followed the sign for the blue trail. The reward for the tough initial climb was a nice descent through the dense brush. Eventually the path opened up to another hillside vehicle path. On a clear day, I would have seen the Rhône River and Mt. Ventoux beyond, but on this day the mist obstructed everything just beyond the cliff edge.

Le Chateau de Gicon - 35

For a time, I continued on without confronting any other cyclists. My path turned left and into the vineyards on the Gicon plateau. The soil there was sandy, and I knew to ride up onto the ditch banks in certain spots to avoid getting stuck in the sand. Riders making their first voyage through this course had to dismount and walk through the momentum-killing sand.

Throughout the adventure, Don McLean's American Pie song ran through my head. Depending on the rate of my peddling, I would hear different verses at the equivalent speed. Strangely, I never really did think of the chorus. I remember the last time I ran a 5k, the Eurithmics' Sweet Dreams was my cadence. Strange how random songs will permeate your thoughts. However, unlike a monotonous foot race, I needed all my concentration to navigate the tough single track.

Deeper into the course, the difficulty level rose for everyone. I was prepared on most occasions, but had to stop at many of the most technical runs because riders in front of me had fallen. This can be especially annoying when you're trying to maintain momentum for inclined sections. At one bouchon, or bottleneck, a kid pushed past me, unaware of the reason for the stoppage. Apparently, I made enough disapproving sounds that his friend called to the side, so I could proceed in front again.

On several occasions, I saw large groups of kids on the course. They were typically chaperoned by a few patient adults. Their ride must have taken forever, because every time they were pulled over waiting for the kids holding up the rear of their party. I took just two breaks in my two hour journey. The first came before the ascent to the high point of the Gicon.

Peddling up the longest ascent of the course, I focus on maintaining a constant peddle rate and the same American Pie verse. When I made the final turn to view the Cèze Valley from atop the hill, the view was reward for all the hard work. By then, the morning haze had lifted, revealing the multicolored valley of vineyards and olive trees.


I was now 15 km into the tour. A rest stop, or ravito, was set up to allow bikers to replenish their sugars. I eagerly grabbed a nut bread, some gummy sugar snacks and, then because it seemed like the French thing to do, I also had a glass of red wine and some dark chocolate. Really! Later, I would regret that decision, but I was feeling good a the time.

Continuing on, I turned up the steep incline to the base of the Chateau de Gicon. Once again, my prior knowledge of the course helped me gather the speed to make the touch climb. However, for the next several kilometers, I would have to navigate uncharted territory. Eventually, I came to a sharp drop in the path that took me by surprise. My rhythm had been disrupted by the break. The first bump dislodged my feet from the pedals' toe clips, and I had to dismount. It was several more meters before I found a suitable flat stretch where I could reset and gather myself for the final stages of the course.

Back on more familiar territory, I was now struggling with fatigue. With every descent, I could only think of the difficulty in having to climb again. I leapfrogged with several other riders also struggling to complete the challenge. Eventually, we reached the final descent. My legs were so tired that I could barely hold the bike under control through the steep decline. Again reaching the familiar streets of Chusclan, momentum carried me to the cave.

Since riders were competing at the own pace, there was no grand finish line. However, there was the matter of receiving your final reward. First I found my landlord running the raffle for free T-shirts and water bottles. I hoped that he might help me cheat to win, but to no avail I cam up empty on that contest. But I still had a bottle of wine to claim. They stamped my map complete and handed over the award winning red.

My final challenge was to ride back home carrying my wine bottle while chewing a delicious apple. Mary Ann applauded my conclusion and then strictly ordered me to shower. There would be time to rest in the car on the way to the next athletic adventure.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gorges du Tarn

The remote villages tucked in between the steep cliffs of the Gorges du Tarn are shrouded in medieval mysticism. Given the ominous misty highlands above, the difficulty of journey and tough life of subsistence it's easy to understand why imaginations might run wild. Today, the sights of the gorge are no less inspiring. If you can handle the incessantly winding roads, it's a great place to enjoy nature.


My favorite tale of tale of the Tarn comes from Sainte-Enimie, so named after the story's heroine. The story the this Merovingian princess began in Paris. She wanted to devote her life to God. However, her father wanted to marry his beautiful daughter off to one of the many suitors that had come calling because of her rare beauty. She refused them and prayed to receive an affliction that would hold the suitors at bay for good. To her initial delight, she fell ill with leprosy.

As her conditions worsened, she began to have second thoughts about her situation. Seeking a cure, she traveled to a remote region of France said to have cold healing waters. Near present day St. Enimie she found her salvation. She lived and took residence with the local monks. Her faith grew, but she was often tested. The legend even recounts her victory of a dragon-like incantation of the Devil himself.

View more of my photos of the Gorges du Tarn on flickr.
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Roquefort's Best (cheese)

Legend has it that a shepherd tending his flock in the fields near present day Roquefort. At lunch he retreated into one of the natural caves at the base of the Combalou cliff to escape the midday sun. After getting out his bread and a bottle of ewe's milk, he was distracted by a beautiful maiden and chased after her. She alluded him for forty days, and when he returned to his meal the bread had molded and the milk curdled. Some curds were infected with green mold. Apparently, the shepherd was so hungry after his hunt that he dug in anyway. It tasted incredible, like no other cheese he had ever tried. At that moment, the idea for Roquefort blue cheese was born. The rest, they say, is history.

I love Roquefort cheese. On a fresh baguette with a glass of light red wine, there is simply no better snack. Mary Ann and I took advantage of our trip to Millau to hop over to the home of the famous Roquefort cheese producers. Several companies provide tours of their cellars along with a free tasting. We decided to patronize the Papillon brand on the advice of Chusclan local. He swore that their black label was the best in the business. That was a test we were willing to take.

Along the way we learned that the modern process for making A.O.C. approved Roquefort cheese is somewhat more complicated that the fairy tale. It begins by collecting sheep's milk from within the region. The Lacaune ewe contains an enzyme that causes the cheese to curd naturally around 30 degrees C. The curds are then collected and seeded with the penicillium mold.

Cave tour

This mold must also be harvested locally from bread loaves aged in the approved cellars. For quality control the loaves are seeded with the specifc strain known to be safe and tasty. 600 g of penicillium can be harvested from each round loaf, but it only takes 100 g to produce one ton (metric) of cheese.

Natural Ventilation

After excess liquid is drained from the cheese wheels, they are salted and taken to the cave for aging. The aging process for both the mold bread loaves and the cheese wheels can only take place in the natural Roquefort caves. In four to six months time the cheese is ready to be packaged and distributed.

Ancient seismic activity opened up fissures in the rock that allow the perfect natural temperature and humidity regulation for aging cheese. Therefore the entire A.O.C. region for Roquefort cheese is only about 4.5 km long. As such, really the only thing in Roquefort are the cheese factories. Though it's perched on a hillside, it feels oddly industrial.

AOC City Limits

Unlike dairy cattle, the Lacaune ewe's gestation cycle is seasonal. Therefore during our visit to the caves in mid-November they were completely empty. Bread production will begin again around December, and cheese production will peak around June. The cheese keeps well in its specially designed tinfoil wrapping and is good year round.

Finest Cheeses, Pampillon

Of course, our favorite variety was the black label. Though in fairness, we did not try the ultra-premium super-moldy cheese that Pampillion markets for special occasions. As it is, the black label is not available in supermarkets. Our tour guide did let us in on a secret. The Bio (or organic) variety of their cheese is most similar to their popular black label and is also available in many French grocery stores. We purchased a quarter wheel and convinced ourselves that it would last until our eventual return to the States. That seems highly unlikely now that we sneak a sample at every opportunity.
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Larzac Templars & Hospitallers

The knights Templar are most famous for their exploits in the Holy Land. Shortly after their founding around 1119, the order took residence on the Temple Mount supposedly directly over the former site of Solomon's temple. The legend continues to proclaim that the eventual source of their wealth was mined from that location. However, it's more likely that monastic warriors were simply shrewd business men. In addition to mercenary work on the battlefield, they helped manage the financial affairs of pilgrims traveling to partake in the crusades. Receiving official recognition from church, they also became a favorite charity for medieval Europeans.

Their influence extended through much of France and into Italy, Germany and England. However, with the end of the crusades, the Templars' purpose was less well defined. Eventually, they seemed redundant with other militaristic orders including the Teutonic knights and Hospitallers. On Friday the 13th of October 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the knights arrested and the leaders executed. His prime motivation was to eliminate large debts owed by the crown to the order.

Many of the Templars' lands were transferred to other orders, like the Hospitallers. Interestingly, some of the best preserved Templarand Hospitaller sites are located in the Averyon department of France. Perhaps it was the remote location and undulating natural landscape that generally spared the religious edifices from later upheavals around the country. Even so, the Hospitallers fortified many of the villages for security during the Hundred Years War.


We explored two Templar & Hospitaller settlements during our weekend trip to the region. An easy to follow driving circuit directs visitors to up to five different sites. For the past decade a regional council has been working to preserve the Templar and Hospitaller heritage of the area.

Saint-Jean d'Alcas

The first site we visited was located on a hilltop overlooking an extensive plateau of sheep grazing fields. Saint-Jean d'Alcas is a small rectangular fort containing round towers at each corner. The small homes built into the fortress wall are all practically identical. A small abbey was also integrated into the defensive construction. Today, only a few shops and a tourist information desk keep residence within the small outpost. A lone cat greeted our entrance.


Twenty-five kilometers east, over rolling hills and through river gorges, we arrived at another historic site. The geography had changed substantially but the medieval architecture was familiar. At la Courvertoirade, visitors can explore the remains of a castle built by the Templars around 1200 and ramparts built by the Hospitallers in the 15th century. The scene standing near the gate of the old castle reminded Mary Ann of a castle scene in Robin Hood. I also thought that the church of the Hospitallers was unique, containing a few pagan symbols and creating a more mystic ambiance than most other churches of the era.

The course continued on to several more sites, but we had exhausted our time. These modest sites of the Larzac barely compare to other massive fortresses or religious sites in France. However, the historical intrigue associated with their founders keeps the tourists coming.
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Millau is an otherwise quaint French town located at the confluence of the Tarn and Dourbie rivers. It is the ideal launching point for dozens of scenic tours through the beautiful Aveyron region. Tour guides for the area would have highlighted the proximity to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, home of the famous blue cheese, or the sordid history of the knights Templar who maintained several settlements in the region, or the majesty of the gorges and rolling hills. In 2004, when construction concluded on the bridge between the Larzac and Rouge plateaus just outside the city of Millau, tourists had a whole new reason to visit the city.

Room with a view

Spanning 2.5 km and standing 343 m tall, the Millau Viaduct can be considered one of the modern marvels of the world. It set a host of records upon completion, including the tallest temporary support (172 m), highest pier (245m) and overall the largest multi-stayed viaduct in the world. Perhaps the most impressive feat, however, was that the entire bridge was constructed in just three years.

The rapid construction was facilitated by an ingenious idea to push the bridge deck out over the piers from both plateaus. This saved the team both from having to ship the massive steel structures down the narrow gorge roads and from needing to hoist the deck up an incredible distance.


Certainly the sequence of erection was critical. First the massive concrete piers were poured, rising 4 m every three days. Then the first segment of roadway was constructed high above on the Larzac plateau. One of the cable towers was also installed to permit the long cantilever while the deck was being pushed out over the valley.

Segment by segment the bridge was constructed until the point at which the two ends met in the middle - no more than a few millimeters off target! That feat seems even more incredible when you drive over the bridge and realize that it actually makes a slight arc over the valley. Oddly, the rest of the cable towers were not installed until the link had been made. Apparently, the box-girder deck segments were substantially stiff to allow the transport of these huge towers under shored conditions.

Two visitors' centers explain the process of design and construction of the viaduct. They also provide contrasting view points from which to admire the bridge. One of these areas is maintained by Effage, the company that oversaw the construction. They are now in charge of operation and maintenance of the viaduct. Visitors to this lookout can appreciate the awesome size of the piers by standing near their base. The tallest pier is actually even taller than the Eiffel Tower.


The elegance of the Millau Viaduct, seeming to accent the natural beauty of the region, was not an accident. Michel Virlogeux conceived the viaduct and Norman Foster's team designed the architectural effect. Through the project life-cycle thousand of people contributed to its construction. And today millions of people annually pay the toll to drive across on the most direct route from Paris to Southwest France.
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Monday, November 16, 2009

Madrid Airport

There's no question, I have put on a lot of miles this past year. Since May, I've taken seven cross Atlantic flights, and there's at least one more trip to make back home. Within the States, I've flown from Chicago to Nevada, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. I have seen a lot of airports! In my opinion, the most impressive terminal of all is at Madrid's Barajas International airport.


The T4 terminal opened in 2006 after many delays. By all appearances it was worth the wait. The architecture, by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers, features a wave form roof supported by slender steel posts. The interior colors gradually change from bright yellow to green to blue with slightly different shades on each successive support line. Large window walls on both sides of the long terminal allow in a great amount of natural light. Even a weary international traveler can appreciate a few moments basking in the Iberian sun.

The bowels of the terminal contain a vast and complex interchange of pedestrian paths through boutiques. At many points along your long journey from one terminal to another, signs indicate approximately how many minutes it will take you to reach the desired gate area. Groggy from the long international flight, I was able to make my way through the maze by following the frequent signage. Along the way, I rode a modernistic tram, ascended multiple escalators and strolled through the flashy duty-free mall.

This architectural gem is unlikely to impress everyone. Richard Rogers in renown for architecture that presses the limits of current convention and taste. His most famous designs include the Pompidou Centre modern art museum in Paris and the Lloyd's of London Building in London. Both designs are notable for placing much of the mechanical innards of a traditional building outside and visible to the public. Though critically panned, both buildings are now landmarks. The Barajas terminals are less evocative, but they still make a strong statement - one of comfort and inviting if only for a brief respite for tired travelers.

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City Rendering

Between the 11th and 13th centuries A.D., a thriving Native American culture, known as Mississippian, supported a network of cities along the length of the Mississippi River. Their domain extended west to the foothills of the Rockies and as far east as Florida. The settlement at Cahokia (near present day St. Louis) was perhaps the largest, with as many as 20,000 inhabitants. At the time it would have been larger than the European city of London. Over time the inhabitants constructed massive earthen mounds that still stand today. The largest of these mounds encompasses a greater area than does the Great Pyramid at Giza.

To sustain such a large population, the culture must have been incredibly complex. We know at least that they were extraordinary farmers, growing corn, squash and seed-bearing plants. Many of the other grains that we associated with the Midwest today, like wheat, barley and oats actually arrived in the New World with the Europeans. The Cahokians initially supplemented their diet by hunting, fishing and gathering in the abundant Mississippi valley.

As the settlement grew, the central government needed to become stronger to keep the peace and distribute the abundant harvest. As in other large Native American cultures, archaeologists believe that the leaders was revered as a living god. He took residence at the top of the largest mound, presumably for closer communication with the heavens. Monks' Mounds, so named for the French Trappist Monks who lived nearby in the early 1800s, stands over 100 ft. tall and consumes an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth.


Other mounds were constructed for various purposes: for lesser government officials, burials, defense and to mark important locations. The mounds come in three forms: rectangular platforms, conical burial mounds, and triangular markers. So many mounds were created within the Cahokia site that the large excavation pits are still also visible today. They have since filled with water and enhance the aesthetic of the park.


In addition to the mounds, archaeologists have discovered the remains of some timber constructions on the site. The residents of Cahokia would have lived in wooden homes with thatch roofs. Additionally, the constructed a large palisade wall around the governmental center of the city. Experts believe that the wall was constructed late in the city's prosperous history, and does not appear to have protected the residential areas of town. This has led some to surmise that the wall was construction to protect against rebellion from within the community.


Further outside the city complex, a circular pattern of timber piles has been reconstructed. The locals have dubbed this structure "wood henge." It seems to serve a similar purpose to the mysterious Stone Henge rock construction in England. Certain perimeter posts align with the rising sun at the Spring and Fall equinoxes and the Winter and Summer solstices.

Mysteriously, the cities disbanded about 100 years before the arrival of Columbus to the New World. What lead to the abandonment of such an advanced urban culture? Depletion of resources, climate change, political upheaval and war have all been suggested as possible reasons for the decline. Sadly, these challenges appear to mirror the problems faced by our modern culture. By delving deeper into the history of the Mississippian people, can we gain a better understanding of our current situation?

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Aqueduc de Balouvière

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Does the same go for structures? In 1870 the citizens of Laudun needed to construct an aqueduct to span a small gorge in the hills just outside of town. Instead of opting for a typical wooden lattice structure, they commissioned a design inspired by the famous Pont du Gard.

Aqueduc de Balouvière

Over time, the town has grown up around the Aqueduc de Balouvière which is now located within the city limits. Actually, it's practically in someone's back yard. The smallish stone arch structure hardly compares to its inspirational model. However, we had fun climbing into the arches and walking across the top platform which no longer carries any water.

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It's all the same to me

Its about 300 miles from Chicago to St. Louis. 300 boring miles. What can you do to stay alert while driving through the monotonous countryside?

I decided to take a photo out my front window every 10 miles. I tried to capture the rear-view as well to give a more complete sense of the space I was occupying at that moment. At time, I thought compiling all the photos into a collage would make an artistic statement. Instead, it simply whimpers, "it's all the same."

Covering such ground in my current home region of France, would take you through dense forests, river valleys, vineyards and rock formations. To be fair, the French Autoroute also tends to follow a mundane path, but at least there is some change in elevation.

I grew up in the Midwest, so the plains shouldn't surprise me so. But having visited many beautiful regions of the US and abroad, I find myself expecting more. A travel companion acknowledged that the sameness of the American Midwest has it's own enduring quality. True as that may be, I wonder if I will be able to accept that fact upon returning from a world of geographic and cultural diversity.

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This work by Ken Maschke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.