Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sun, Fun and Cotes du Beaune...

Hello All - Haven't been able to update for awhile, so this may end up being a long one... we'll see. Internet is kinda hard to come by, and at the hotels, it's usually 20-30 bucks. When last I wrote, we were headed for Monaco. We headed back through the Mont Blanc Tunnel towards Italy. Fortunately I had kept my receipt from the previous trip, and got the 10 Euro return rate instead of the 40 Euro one way. Expensive, but I guess you have to pay for a 12km long tunnel somehow. On the Italian side of the tunnel lies Aosta, and the beginning of the Piemonte wine region of Italy (think Barolos). Beautiful country - mountains and vineyards everywhere. We didn't have time to wine taste this time around. Hopefully we'll get to come back. We continued down the speed camera and toll both laden Autostrade toward Monaco. We arrived in Monaco and checked into the Marriott. A nice hotel, and they gave us a great ocean view room looking at the Harbor, which was home to some VERY big boats. We decided to head over to the area around the Monte Carlo casino and explore. The money in this town is unbelievable. Winning the lottery probably wouldn't even be enough to rub elbows with these people. The 6 cars that the valet had in front of the casino were worth more than a million dollars. Ferarri, McLaren, Lamborghini... They were all there. So what did we do? Marched right into the Casino and gambled! We didn't win enough for a new car, but we did win enough to buy a nice dinner! Monaco was neat to see, but very busy and crowded. Also, there weren't really any good beaches. Driving around there was probably the toughest place yet. The streets aren't much wider than your car, and infinite scooters whizz by like lightning.
I had originally booked two nights at the Marriott, but changed my mind at the last minute and book the second night at the Le Meridien in Nice. What a great decision that turned out to be! The room we got at the Le Meridien was awesome. They put us on the top floor in an executive room, and our King size bed faced the beach. Waking up to the sun rising over the Med is something I'll never forget. We did have a bit of a scare though... After we checked in, we dropped our stuff in our room and headed up to the rooftop restaurant for lunch. We both ordered hamburgers, and I washed mine down with an excellent, well chilled Sancerre. When we came back from lunch to our room, we noticed all our stuff was gone. We were kinda freaked that our stuff, especially our passports and computer, were gone! After a couple of frantic calls to hotel security, it was discovered that one of the bellmen had goofed and thought that we had changed rooms. They brought our things from the other room and everything was right again. But still, there was about 10min of genuine panic. To calm our nerves, we headed over to the hotel's private beach and I ordered a cocktail. On a tip from the Conceirge, we headed to a French restaurant about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. It was kinda hidden, and out of the way of the tourist area. It ended up being one of the best meals we've had so far. I had rack of lamb over french beans and potatoes au gratin and Alison had salmon. I selected a Crozes-Hermitage to go with it, and it was outstanding. On our way out, I told our waitress that it was the best food I had had in France, and she gave me a hug! For Brandy and Ray: In case you want to check it out if you go to Nice, it's called Les Epicuriens. 6 Place Wilson - 06000 Nice. Tel 04 93 80 85 00.
The next day was pretty much just a driving day to get us up towards Paris. We took the long way from Nice to Avignon, up and over the mountains above Nice and then down into the Provencial plains. We did take a funny side trip... Our guide book had mentioned this thing called the Fontaine de Vacluse, which it claimed was a very impressive and very deep natural fountain. It even claimed that Jaques Cousteau had attempted unsuccessfully to dive to the bottom of it. Since it was only a few km off our route, we decided we had to see this thing. Well, as you can see from the picture, we must have been there on an off day. Oh well. At least the 20 minute hike past all the souvenir carts and fried food stands got our blood pumping after being in the car all day. We got back in the car and headed towards Carpentras, which was our planned stay for the night. But when we got there, we weren't sure we wanted to stay. It was a bit dirty, and kind of a college town. We decided to check out Avignon (20km NW) instead. We're sure glad we did. Avignon is a walled city right on the Rhone River, and it has a really neat cathedral/palace. Apparently it was the pope's residence at one point. We found a nice hotel, and took an evening stroll. Being rather tired of restraunts, we settled for a couple of sandwiches from a street stand. Good stuff, and cheap! We headed back to the hotel early for a good night's sleep.
After a quick breakfast of espresso and baguette frommage (basically a sliced baguette with about half a wheel of brie on it - Delicious!), we headed north for Beaune and the Cote d' Or. Following the Route du Grand Vins, we saw several of the famous Burgundian regions I am familiar with - Macon, Puligny Montrachet, Pommard, and Beaune. We stopped at a few wineries and tasted some great local stuff. I'm not sure how were going to get all the wine we bought home. We took a lunch break in Beaune and were going to stay the night, but there was not an empty hotel room to be found. We decided that we'd just continue to Paris since it was only 2.5 hrs more. So that is where I find myself now, in Paris, at The Le Meridien La E'toille. Looking forward to seeing the sights over the next 2 days, and to coming home after that. Talk to you all soon!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Touring the Alps...

Hello Friends!
This time from Chamonix-Mont Blanc in France. Made our way west today from Andermatt over Furkapass. The drive over Furka was incredible. So green, and so rocky. The road is kinda scary; drop offs to oblivion and not much more that one car width in some sections. Did I really ride this on a motorcycle?! Funny story... I figured that I shoudn't be the only one having all the Fahrvergn├╝gen on this trip, so I asked Alison if she wanted to drive. When I had asked this previously she said no, but to my surprise, she said "yes". I was happy to hear that she was interested in driving, so I pulled over about 1km from the top of Furka. After giving her a few tips on some of the wonderful differences that make a BMW special, it was all hers. She began rather directly, and drove as if she had a sports car at home in the garage. I was fairly impressed. So, if you've ever experienced a pass in the alps, you probably know that there are a LOT of hairpin turns. Some so sharp that you must downshift to first gear, and crank the wheel to its lock. We exited such a turn as the road narrowed to the point where two cars might BARELY get by each other. No sooner than I noticed that a car was coming the other way, did I notice Alison wasn't slowing down to let the other car pass. You know when you're watching a movie, and they slow the action scene down to half speed for dramatic effect? This happened to me in real life. On the passenger side, I saw the mirror no more than half an inch from the rocky wall. On the other side, was a van that couldn't have been more than an inch away. I was positive that the next sound I was going to hear was sheet metal on rock. We heard a sound, but it wasn't that. Alison said she had no idea my voice could go as high as it did. Of course we didn't hit anything, but I have enough adrenaline in my system to last the rest of the trip.
The ride down the other side was less eventful, but just as stunning.

From there, we made our way to Martigny, which is the at the base of the Col du St. Bernard - one of the great climbs of the Tour de France. We stopped at a grocery store to grab some cheese and wine, as we planned to have a picnic at the top of the Col. The weather was nice, so we dropped the top, and began the climb. All the way up, we saw the left over signs of the Tour... "go Lance", and many other rider's names painted onto the road. I'd love to be here sometime for the actual tour. It started raining just as we got to the top, spoiling our idea of a picnic. We quickly put the top up on the car, and decided to seek better weather down the hill. We crossed into Italy just after the summit, and the rain continued. Getting rather hungry, we stopped about half way down the hill and ate in the car. Not quite as romantic as a mountain top picnic, but the cheese and baguette were excellent. We descended into Aosta, Italy and turned west toward Chamonix via the Mont Blanc tunnel. A rather impressive tunnel, it runs almost 12km under Mont Blanc. Not a whole lot going on in Chamonix at the moment (think Mammoth in August), but beautiful indeed. We had a great dinner with some great french wine, and are taking it easy tonight. Tomorrow it's off to Monaco for some beach time!! Stay tuned...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Greetings from Switzerland!

Hello friends! I am writing to you today from Andermatt, Switzerland. A sleepy little town in the swiss alps at the base of 5 different mountain passes. We arrived here last night via Oberalppass (literally "over the alp pass"). Today we're off to climb the Col du St. Bernard and do some more alp exploration.

Since this is the first time I've had a chance to sit down in front of the computer since we've been here, I'll use the opportunity to back track a bit and tell you where we have been. We arrived in Frankfurt early on Saturday and cleared customs. I had previously reserved a rental car at Sixt, so we made our way down the long path to the rental car booth. Much to my excitement, they had upgraded me from the standard 4 cylinder, 4 door BMW 318 and given me a 6 cyl, 2 door BMW 325i hardtop convertable. Short of an M3, I couldn't ask for anything more! Fortunately, it is equipped with BMW's excellent GPS system which has proven invaluable on this trip. When I was here 10 years ago, I was staring at a map and trying to remember the directions before shoving it back in my motorcycle's tank bag. Now, I tell the car where I want to go, and it guides me there!

We made our way out of Frankfurt via the Autobahn towards Wurzburg, which is where we had planned to meet up with Brandy and Ray. Flying down the autobahn in a BMW at 120mph is absolute heaven. And even at that speed, I was being passed by cars going much faster. It took us about 1.5 hrs to get to Wurzburg and since we had arrived a bit before Brandy and Ray, we decided to take a walk around town. We were surprised to see that everything was closed, but later learned that it was a national holiday; the celebration of the reunification of east and west Germany. When Brandy and Ray got to town, we met for lunch at a greek restaurant and dined on Gyros and coke with no ice. After that, we headed south towards Munich. Since we were going to be in Munich for two nights, we thought we'd take it easy the first night, and hit up Oktoberfest the next day. While having a drink at the Hilton bar waiting for Brandy and Ray, our waitress suggested a restaurant for some local bavarian grub. It ended up being fantastic! I was introduced to a local favorite called schwinebraten, which is basically roasted pork shoulder in a gravy of some sort. Delicious! It also came with two potato balls (as did every other meal we ordered in Munich), that were strangely gelatinous. The Oktoberfest brew was tasty, and they even had an alcoholfrei brew for Alison.

Well, that's all I have time for at the moment, but I'll post more soon! Take care, and have a Gute Fahrt! (Good ride or trip - I'm sure you can imagine the smirks and stifled laughter that phrase has caused).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

European Road trip!

Hello all,
Today we are furiously packing and wrapping up last minute details before our flight to Frankfurt tomorrow. I must say, I'm pretty excited about the trip. Visiting some new places, and some that I visited almost 10 years ago on a motorcycle. We'll also be touring some of the famous Cols of the Tour de France; Col du Sant Bernard and Mt. Ventoux. Yes, I do wish I were going to be pedaling up those on my bike, but with a pregnant wife in tow, I think the BMW is a better option this time. Maybe next time. Well, who knows... maybe there will be a bike rental shop next to a giant mall that Alison wants to spend a few hours in! Hey, a man can dream right? I look forward to sharing our adventure with you, and will try to update as often as possible, both here and on twitter (nsgrillo).

Our planned route:

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