Timeline: July 19th – 21st
Not taking any toll roads out of Tossa pushed us up the coast and directly through the towns of La Jnquera and Le Perthuson, which straddle the France/Spain border. Traffic was backing up as we approached town and the road narrowed down, funneling through on a street lined with shops. We’d passed what used to be the old passport control stations, a vivid reminder of how the European Union has reshaped the landscape of this part of the continent.
It was a scene straight out of any border town where life on one side of the border is cheaper, easier, and dirtier than on the other side. Much like our experience in Gibraltar, the Spanish side here offers a duty free experience for the French and thus, the street was packed with people window-shopping.
We crawled along, mesmerized by the sights and sounds and as we began to pull out of town, noticed one or two women standing street side, particularly at the round-abouts and it took us a moment or two to realize that they were working girls, plying their trade on a Saturday afternoon. We’d confirm later on in Paris at a dinner that indeed, it is common knowledge that many men drive to this town for a little fun on the side.
Entering the suburbs of Montpellier, we made way for Camping Montpellier Plage, our seaside destination for the next three nights. This is the worst time of year to be camping in a location like this, as it is a significant vacation destination for many Europeans, but primarily the French. Located one block from the beach, it is basically a resort for folks who like to camp. Amenities would include a well stocked market, snack bar and restaurant, all with long operating hours and a whole bunch of other activities (pool, ball courts, trampoline, etc.) that we’d not get to utilize.
We picked up some basic dinner supplies in the store and made dinner in camp, concentrating on our task for the next day, Sunday, which would be to drive out to a small town in France east of Nimes and try to watch a stage of the Tour de France come through. I’d gotten my wires crossed with the reception lady and thought the only Wi-Fi access cost money, so delayed signing up. When we returned later that night for a drink, we discovered the reception desk was closed and we’d be out of luck for connecting with the Internet.
We still devised a rough plan based on our research from prior days, and that would be to drive out to Tarascon, about 15 miles west of Nimes. We thought this would cut down on our driving time and with a small town, give us the best chance of finding the tour route as we would be flying by the seat of our pants.
Knowing that the tour wouldn’t come through the location until nearly 5:00 pm, we had time in the morning to do a bit more planning. Another trip to the reception desk revealed that there was free Wi-Fi, available at the bar. The pay access was good throughout the campground. Not sure why that message wasn’t communicated the day before but such are vagaries of travel.
We tidied up the campsite and made our way to the bar/restaurant to get a coffee and pastry and check the Internet for a final plan for the day. We confirmed that our best shot would be Tarascon, stopped in at the market for a bottle of wine and picked up the first of what would be many Poulet et Crudites (Chicken Sandwich with Lettuce and Tomato on a Baguette) to sustain us during a long wait roadside later in the day.
We set out for Tarascon with the trusty GPS guiding us to some coordinate we’d made up to get us close. There’s a science to using the GPS when you’re not exactly sure where you need to go. Our device is pretty sophisticated and can perform a wide variety of searches based on many different variables. But when faced with the unknown, our fall back has been to select the town we desire to head to and then tell it to take us to the nearest restaurant, figuring it will direct us to the center of town.
Long story short, it worked. Around 1:00pm, we pulled into the small town of Beaucaire, adjacent to Tarascon on one side of the Le Rhone river and as we glanced across it, we could see red and while stripped caution tape strung up along the side of the road, a bunch of portable barriers standing ready and best of all, a host of local police standing around.
We started to hunt around for a parking space, the lack of which a good sign we’d hit the sweet spot. Driving down a side street not far from where we wanted to sit I found a spot big enough for the Highlander requiring a parallel park approach from the driver’s side of the car (this often occurs here). Thinking ahead to exiting, I instead turned the car around and parked it from the passenger side.
As we unloaded and started to make our way to our viewpoint, a local women standing in a second floor balcony, called out to us, waving in the direction we’d originally driven. We couldn’t quite figure out what she was trying to say. Was this a no parking area? Not likely given all of the cars parked there. We finally figured out she was trying to tell us it was a one way street and the direction I’d parked was wrong. So I jumped back into the car, pulled it out, turned it around and re-parked it. All was good.
As we approached our chosen spot we confirmed with the local police officer standing post that this was the route, so set down our chairs and assorted belongings and settled in for a little under four hours of waiting. The routine with each stage of the Tour is that a caravan comes through two hours before the riders. Made up of most of the sponsors of the various teams, they blast through town in customized vehicles with various forms of display, from signboards to video screens.
As they pass by, personnel in each toss out random samples of their products. This can be a bag of Chips, a package of two small sausages, or a key chain. The scramble for this stuff is chaotic, similar to what you’d find at an Major League baseball park for a foul or home run ball, but even more vicious. Sweet and innocent Joanna got into it with a local over a bag of Cheetos, suffering an injury that drew the sympathy of those around her. And earned her a small bag of sausages.
We settled in for the next two hours with an eye to the western sky. The weather forecast has been for rain and the dark clouds on the horizon, along with the pick up in wind speeds, did not bode well for Tour spectators. Sure enough, about an hour later the rain came down in sheets. We’d brought a couple of umbrellas and while most sensible bystanders had relocated to drier circumstances, we sat in our two chairs, sheltered as best we could.
The rain let up and we had hopes for a dry approach of the riders. With about thirty minutes to go, I made a dash for a nearby mini-mart open on this Sunday in a small town to secure a bit more alcohol (one has to deal with the tedium as best one can) and the clerk was watching the race on the television. I asked him how far out they were and he responded twenty minutes; good news as I walked back over to our spot, picked up the camera and walked across the street to stake out a spot on the back side of a statue that afforded a great view of the riders approach.
About ten minutes to contact, the heavens opened up again; not as bad as an hour or so earlier, but still less than pleasant. I tucked the camera underneath my jacket and waited for the riders. There is no advance warning, and yet you know when they approach. Tension rises in the crowd, an official tour car or two comes through, then the right type of motorcycles and the next thing you know you look up the road and you see the two man break away coming down the slight hill off the bridge, surrounded by their team cars.
I couldn’t get the camera out in time and they flashed on by. Gone in a second or two. Prepared I waited for the peloton to come through and not long afterwards, the same energy crested, the same types of cars and motorcycles came by and here came the riders. I snapped as many pictures as I could (would later discover that the Sigma 18-200 lens we purchased for the Nikon is not equipped for low light situations capturing riders speeding by) and when the train finally completed its passage, caught up with Joanna and walked back to the car, soaked to the skin.
We made our way back to the car and drove to camp. Not particularly hungry after our sandwich earlier in the day, we picked up some supplies that would cook quickly (canned ravioli and canned vegetables) at the camp store, including a 3 Euro 1.5 liter bottle of a local rose wine for dinner. Sometimes camp food is just that; a hastily contrived meal that crams some calories into your system. And that Rose wine, it just made a fitting capper for what had been an exciting day, one we won’t soon forget.
Camping Montpellier Plage: http://www.camping-montpellier-plage.com/location-emplacement.html
Tour de France Stage 15: http://www.letour.com/le-tour/2014/us/stage-15.html