Monday, July 29, 2019

St. Claude & Morez, France

People don't realize it gets really hot in Switzerland. I recall one summer where it reached 90 degrees or higher more than 50 days in a row. The Jura Mountains mainly follow the contour of the France-Switzerland border. Mountain ranges makes great natural border/barriers. Though not in the same league as the Swiss/French Alps or even the Pyrenees in France, the Jura Mountains can be an escape from the heat. Mom and pop ski lifts dot the French-side. So, I'm on a day trip and cycling to several out-of-the-way towns on the French side of the Jura. The photo above is right before I descend on a five mile zig-zagging downhill (no pedaling!) to St. Claude, France.
I'm approaching St. Claude, population 9,800.  It's located inside a 650 square mile French regional natural park.
This building in downtown St. Claude houses the the Pipe Museum. Unbelievably elaborate wood carved pipes are displayed. Yep, St. Claude is the world's global pipe capital. Before cigarettes people smoked pipes. Winters are harsh in the Jura and farmers pretty much sat around twiddling their thumbs. In the 1800's pipe makers would hire farmers and teach them wood carving skills. By 1925 6,000 pipe makers were working in St. Claude---put that in your pipe and smoke it! With the advent of mass produced cigarettes in late 1800's the pipe industry tapered off.
 Thanks to pipes, that would explain St. Claude being big enough to have a cathedral.
 It's a Saturday and the streets are full because it's market day in St. Claude.
Another view of St. Claude as I exit the town and mount a long belly-busting steep ride out of the valley.
Fifteen miles from St. Claude I enter Morez (population 5,600), another town tucked away in the Jura mountains. The town center is run-down but, there's an eyeglass museum. Huh? Why is there a eyeglass museum here and why is it closed on a Saturday--when tourists pass through? (typical French).  It turns out eyeglasses have been made here since 1796. At one point over 60 companies employed 3,500 people. Morez is still a hotbed for eyewear with over 10 million produced last year! This photo shows an eye glass manufacturer on the main road passing through the town.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Luxembourg, a member of the European Union and an independent sovereign state with 400,000 inhabitants, isn't very big---about the size of Rhode Island. Luxembourg City is by far its biggest city with a population of 120,000.

I was here 25 years ago and again 20 years ago to visit corporate headquarters. In the photo you see a tall tower which is something new--the sphere whisks tourists up to the top for a photo opportunity.
This picturesque former fortress city is awash with medieval fortifications including bastions, steep ring walls, ramparts and tower gates---which is why I'm back.
 Steep gorges cut through the city
If you look way in the background you can see tall buildings. That area is home to several important European Union institutions including the European Court of Justice and European Investment Bank.
 Luxembourg doesn't have a king but, a constitutional monarchy headed by Grand Duke Henri. This used to be the royal digs but, when Grand Duke Henri took over from his father in 2000 he decided city life wasn't for him and moved out to a castle in the suburbs. He still keeps an office here for official duties and meeting foreign dignitaries (such as me).
When I was here to visit companies it turned out to be a joke. Headquarters for about a dozen of the companies consisted of nothing more than a post office box or mail drop. Seems Luxembourg is a tax avoidance haven for hundreds if not thousands of multinational companies. Corporations register in Luxembourg and reap the tax benefits. Here's a question that needs looking into: why do 250 foreign financial institutions have offices in tiny Luxembourg? After Qatar, Luxembourg is the world's richest country.

Back in 1996 I visited steelmaker Arcelor. In 2006 Lakshmi Mittal, CEO of steelmaker Mittal Steel (based in India), launched an audacious takeover of Arcelor and was successful. It's now the world's largest steelmaker (ArcelorMittal) with over $76 billion in revenues AND, its CEO Lakshmi Mittal is one of the world's richest men with an estimated fortune of $11.7 billion. Though he's the big boss, Mittal doesn't live here but in very palatial pad in London. I took this photo of Arcelor/Mittal's building and chuckled in finding several Indian/curry food places close by.

Yep, I'm back to do a more thorough inspection of Luxembourg's medieval fortifications. Why? For one thing the whole city is designated a Unesco World Heritage site. French military engineer Sebastien Le Preste de Vauban (1633-1707) had a hand in their design. Vauban's design principles were the dominant model of fortifications back in his day.  I took a self-guided two hour walk showcasing Vaudan's works. Over the centuries the French, Germans, Austrians and even the Dutch controlled the city.
Living down in the deep gorges meant hoofing it up steep grades. This industrial-size elevator whisks pedestrians as well as cyclists up the hill. The red, white and yellow van is a driverless vehicle taking locals home.
 View of ramparts.
 Homes down in a gorge.
 A medieval city gate sill standing in Luxembourg city.
Leaving Luxembourg city I make my way down to Colmar, France. Known as the "Venice of France" because of it's picturesque canals and beautiful old town Colmar (population 90,000) ranks as one of my favorite places in France. I've posted photos multiple times.

My plan to spend the night in Colmar doesn't pan out thanks to cyclists--to be more specific----many, many cyclists. I read about a brand new hotel recently opening in downtown Colmar and that's where I was hoping to lay my head. So, imagine my surprise upon arriving in town late in the afternoon to  barricaded streets, crowds of people and big police presence. Jeez, it turns out the Tour de France will be coming through in a few minutes.  

Quick background on the Tour de France. It consists of 21 day long stages over 23 days and covers about 2,200 miles. The route changes every year and towns/cities vie to be on the route AND for the race to spend the night in their community. Why? This traveling circus (riders, support staff, media, advertisers, officials and so on) numbers about 4,000. Besides being an economic boom for the community there's the international media coverage. Sometimes the Tour de France goes through other countries and I was Lausanne, Switzerland when the Tour de France spent the night in town.

So, when I heard the Tour de France was not just passing through Colmar but, spending the night here I knew I had to get out of the area quickly because it'll be difficult finding a place within 30-40 miles (as mentioned before I don't book hotels in advance as I like having maximum flexibility). I ended up cycling to Freiburg, Germany 30 miles away. That's Breisach, Germany (population 16,000) in the photo above taken before I crossed the Rhine river into Germany.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Mons & Namur, Belgium plus Longwy & Nancy, France

After taking the Eurostar from London to Brussels my bike and I immediately hop on a train to Mons (population 95,000). I've been to Brussels several times and it's not a favorite of mine. This is Mon's main square.
Built in the 17th century, this belfry is a Unesco World Heritage site. Unfortunately, myself and a half-dozen other frustrated tourists are ticked off because the gate leading up to the base of the tower is locked.
 This is pretty weird. Check out the mish-mash down the street.
 It's some kind of art installation.
 Some parts of the wood are painted different colors.
The primary reason for making a stop in Namur, Belgium (population 110,000)? To see the city's medieval fortifications. King Louis XIV of France invaded Namur in 1692 and then called in military engineering genius Vauban to rebuild the citadel. As I've mentioned many times I'm a big fan of Vaudan's works.  
 Side view of the citadel which overlooks Namur and the Meuse river.
Another view of citadel from the Sambre river. Namur is the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers making it of strategic military importance back then.
The first time I saw Longwy on a map I thought it was a misspelling. Nope, it's spelled Longwy not Longway but, pronounced Longway---go figure. I even took this photo for proof. My sole reason for coming to this out-this-way, down-on-its-luck town of 15,000 is to see the remain's of Vaudan's ramparts from 1678. Not to be though because I can't find 'em and nobody in town knows what I'm talking about!  
Longwy is set in a narrow valley. Cycling along I scan heavily forested ridge areas surrounding the town for a possible sighting of medieval fortifications. Nothing, nada, zilch.  One local thinks there's something about an hour away. Jeez, there's no tourist office. I leave frustrated and thinking this town needs to get it act together. Who knows how many millions (?), thousands (?) okay maybe a couple dozen are out there like me who like visiting the incredible works of Vauban, the French military engineer.
I've been to Nancy (population 106,000) several times and it's not worth a visit except for Place Stanislas and, a fantastic patisserie a block away.
Built in 1752, Place Stanislas is a square designated an Unesco World Heritage site and is named after the Polish king Stanislas I of Poland, that's a statue of him in the previous photo. What the heck is this Polish king doing in France? He was father-in-law of the French King Louis XV.
Ornate iron railings with gold trim line Place Stanislas and gives the square its imperial look.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

London, England

It's been 25 years since I visited London. Why so long?  Back then I was traversing Europe on my bike visiting corporate headquarters. London was a big stop with over 70 companies to visit. I was being sponsored and filing stories for Bloomberg Business News. First, Bloomberg put me up in a hotel for several weeks located a stone's throw from the famous Tower Bridge and then, I was put up in an apartment for a month in fashionable Chelsea. During the course of tracking down the various headquarters I really got to see London and on weekends I endlessly wandered the streets. So, it was kind of "been there--done that". Anyway, the picture you see above is England's famous Parliament building along with a covered-up Big Ben--there's major renovation work going on and will be taking several years.  Twenty-five years ago I received a pretty cool tour of the building thanks to Lord Holme, an executive with RTZ Corporation (now called Rio Tinto--the world's largest mining company back then as well as now) and I've pasted that story below from

The RTZ Corporation PLC
London has loads of squares (Hanover Square, Berkeley Square) and circuses (Piccadiliy Circus, Oxford Circus, Finsbury Circus) which seem to be favorite spots for companies to congregate. The squares always seem to have a small fenced in park in the middle and ditto for circuses except the later seems to be circular (as in a circus arena) and sometimes has a monument instead of a park in the middle. A St. James Square address is probably one of the most prestigious addresses a company in London can have. The RTZ Corporation, an international mining concern has one. Also in St James Square are two other companies I'll be visiting later: Grand Metropolitan and Polygram. 
What's the lure of St. James Square? Location, location and history. Several blocks away lies Buckingham Palace, the 600-something room home where Queen Elizabeth hangs her hat--oops I mean crown. Closer still is St. James Palace where Prince Charles (the queen's son and heir apparent to the throne) manages to make do with a smaller pad (it looks to have ONLY 100 rooms). Across the street from Prince Charles lives the 95-year old Queen Mother (mother of Queen Elizabeth) in her own palatial palace. Anyway, the development of St. James Square and it's beautiful town houses came about in the mid-17th century for the obvious reasons: the desire of the aristocracy to be near the Court of King Charles ll at St. James Palace.
With 1994 revenues of 3.9 billion pounds, profit 612 million pounds, RTZ is the world's biggest mining company. Yet, there's no name outside the six-story town house identifying the place. Entering is like walking into a fancy hotel lobby. The receptionist, sitting behind a big desk, looks more like a concierge. The floor is marble and the walls oak paneled. Oil paintings of London in the 1700's hang on the walls. A glass display case containing rocks and minerals (malachite, quartz and baryte to name a few) is off to the side. Another glass case contains a book I've seen before, "De Re Metallica" by Georguis Agricola (1494-1555). Western Mining Corporation in Melbourne, Australia also had a copy of this book on display in their lobby. It was the first systematic treatise on mining and metallurgy.
Hey this is great, my bike gets an invitation to be brought inside and stored in a side room. Wheeling the bike through the lobby produces double-takes from waiting Japanese businessmen.
I'm directed to an upper floor via an elevator but, one can't use the elevator unless the receptionist accesses it with a swipe card. Stepping off the elevator I'm introduced to someone who says, "hi, I'm sorry I haven't much time because I have to get to Parliament. If you don't mind why don't we talk in the car on the way over". He then hands me his card. It reads, "Lord Holme of Cheltenham CBE, Director External Affairs & Human Resources, The RTZ Corporation PLC". 
Soon we're in the back seat of a company car with the driver weaving his way through heavy London traffic to Parliament several miles away. Knowing zilch about titles I ask Lord Holme how he got his. Seems there're are two ways of becoming a Lord. The queen bestows the honor for services to the country (which is for life) or, it's inherited-being passed on from generation to generation. The 58-year Holme obtained his the first way. Unfortunately though, when he dies his title goes with him.
Arriving at Parliament, Lord Holme invites me inside for a quick tour. It's pretty neat being quickly ushered through all the security checkpoints with Lord Holme saying, "he's with me". Passing the cloak room he points to the half-dozen wheel chairs and says, "I'm a youngster compared to some of these". It's true. I see dozens of old men (all of them Lords) just hanging around like it's their private club. The building is unbelievably beautiful with wood paneling mixed with wood carvings everywhere. You definitely get a feel of history and tradition here. Though I'm very impressed with what I see I'm somewhat disappointed to find being a Lord isn't exactly the same as being a US Senator. While they're only 100 US senators, there're over 1,200 Lords. 
Though the driver's taking me solo back to RTZ offices, Lord Holme made arrangements for me to see the boardroom and Chairman Sir Derek Birkin's office. About 220 employees work in the 100,000 square foot building, which was rebuilt in 1960. Nothing special about the boardroom. Birkin's middle office has a view of the park in St. James Square and contains a double-sided partners desk, a fresh flower arrangement, no computer and neither rocks nor minerals.
RTZ stands for Rio Tinto Zinc, the name of a mine.

I've seen guys doing this in other cities during my travels and still don't know how it's done.  How the heck does he hold him up with one hand? Don't forget you can click on each image and it'll enlarge.
Twenty-five years ago I wrote about losing weight during my time in England because the country lacked any decent bakery/pastry shops. Well that's not true anymore thanks in part to Maitre Choux ( The goodies here are on par with anything found in Paris. However, the prices are sky high--with an eclair costing $7 EACH! Then again, I have to declare the two eclairs eaten were two of the best I've ever had.  Check out their website.
England was once the world's super power thanks to its military superiority.  Statues of military heroes are everywhere and it's fun reading the plaques. You can see three in the above photo.
 Here's Buckingham Palace with flowers.
 Here's a closer view of Buckingham Palace.
See this white building? To the left of it is the vehicle entrance to St. James Palace and Clarence House compound. Prince Charles resides in Clarence House and his sister, Princess Ann resides in St. James Palace. It's about a five minute walk to see their mom, Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace.  Two police officers brandishing machine guns guard the entrance. I spend a few minutes talking to the officers and learn a Russian bought the white building for more than $100 million. There's no name, plaque on the front plus, the white building comes with no underground parking or parking lot--only street parking.
The red brick building directly in front is St. James Palace. The Tudor-style structure was built between 1531-1536. It's where Princess Anne, the queen's daughter lives. The vehicle entrance shown in the previous photo is to the right. The police officers tell me James Dyson, the billionaire inventor of Dyson vacuums, owns the top floor of the white building on the right.
It's 8 PM and I'm walking near the Horse Guards Parade grounds--this is where horses in all those ceremonial parades you see on television with Queen Elizabeth train. To the very right of this photo--off to the side I spot three police officers with machine guns. I assume it's the backyard to an embassy. Wrong, it turns out to be the backyard of #10 Downing Street--home to England's Prime Minister.
This is the front part and main entrance to #10 Downing Street.
This is the upper platform area of St. Pancras International railway station. I'm taking Eurostar to Brussels, Belgium. The Channel Tunnel is the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Twenty-two miles of the 31 mile long tunnel are under water. Check-in is similar to at an airport-with you or your belongings going through metal detectors.

They make it very complicated to take your bike on the same train as you. There's only room for two bikes on a train (why?). I originally wanted to take the train to Lille, France but you have to bring your bike to the station 24 hours ahead of time and they don't guarantee it'll be on the same train as you. Evidently, they aren't interested in the niche market for transporting touring cyclists. Taking the Eurostar isn't cheap if you book it the day before. Cost was $70 for my bike and $282 for one-way train ticket.
What's frustrating is that the train from London to Brussels STOPS in Lille, France--yet they won't let me off there with the bike!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Bristol & Salisbury, England plus Cardiff, Wales

After flying into Bristol's airport I cycle towards downtown Bristol (population 450,000). In the distance I see the world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon river (it's low tide).
Completed in 1864, the spectacular Clifton Suspension Bridge crosses the Avon Gorge.  It has been a toll bridge since its opening. Think about the engineering skills needed to complete this structure over 155 years ago.
Over four million vehicles a year use this bridge with a crossing costing one pound (about $1.25). No charge if you're a pedestrian, cyclist or on a horse. In 1979 Clifton Bridge takes credit for the first modern bungee jump. At night the bridge is lit up and it's beautiful! Unfortunately Clifton Bridge is also known as a suicide bridge with 127 people falling to their deaths between 1974-1993.
 Bristol took its dilapidated docks lining the river and reinvented itself.
 Now, housing, restaurants and businesses call this thriving riverfront area home.
 Another view of Bristol's riverfront. Bristol lies about 100 miles due west of London.
 And one last view of Bristol's riverfront.
 Bristol Cathedral
 Bristol's city hall
 I like this old building in Bristol's city center.
Cardiff (population 362,000) is the capital and largest city in Wales. The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is part of the fortified walls encircling Cardiff Castle.
A few miles from Cardiff's city center stands Cardiff bay. Back in the 1980's they took this rundown area and transformed it into a tourist destination.
Still in Cardiff bay, the gold dome building to the left of the ferris wheel is a concert hall and to the right of the ferris wheel stands Wales's parliament building.
I had to visit Salisbury (population 40,000) due to its recently being named the best city in Britain to live in.
 It's market day in Salisbury and the place is bustling with shoppers and tourists.
This is Salisbury Cathedral. I learn from a local that any place with a cathedral is designated a city. He mentions this because there's a place (don't remember the name) with only 2,000 inhabitants but, is designated a city due to having a cathedral.  
 Locals in Salisbury swimming, having a pint or, just hanging out along a bike path.
Visiting Southampton (population 250,000) turned into a problem. My original plan was to spend the night in Salisbury but, after spending four hours cycling around Salisbury's city center and suburbs I decided I had seen everything and it was only 4 PM. One of my favorite things to do in a city is going for a long walk after dinner. Since it doesn't get dark until 10 PM I many times wander the streets for three hours. I couldn't see doing that in Salisbury so I went to the train station and hopped on the next train to Southampton.

Being a major port and also home port to some of the world's largest cruise ships I figured there would be plenty to see in Southampton. I'm loathe to make hotel reservations because I like to have maximum flexibility. Sometimes I get to a city and it's disappointing so I move on---you can't cancel hotel bookings at the last minute anymore. I have a list of all the cities I'm traveling through and two or three hotels I'd be interested in spending the night. Anyway, I arrive in Southampton at 6 PM and guess what, nary a single room is be found in the city. Jeez, I should have thought this through, it's Saturday night in mid-summer (July) in a popular waterfront city with weather in the mid-80's. It's called supply and demand.

At one hotel the clerk checked his computer for rooms in nearby cities and announced the coastal resort Bournemouth was showing three hotel rooms left in the city. I rushed to the train station and hopped on a train. It's an hour train ride and to make a long story short---at 8 PM at night I got the last room in Bournemouth, population 180,000. Bournemouth is a summer hotspot with almost seven miles of sandy beaches.

My original plan was to spend the next week cycling along England's southern coast. But, with the great weather I realized any beachfront town will be packed with beach-goers and booked up. Extensive touring over the years has taught me to be flexible. So, I'll probably return to this area sometime in the future--during the off-season.  London here I come.