Monday, January 30, 2012

Paris in January

Look at this weather—oui, c'est Paris!

The Rodin Museum in Paris
Four days in Paris, and it seems like four weeks. On Friday morning, Sabine and I arrived within about 90 minutes of each other, she coming from Munich on Air France, I on American Airlines from Dallas. It was a bit like that Clooney movie, "Up in the Air." By the time she landed, I had already bought the museum passes, arranged for our train tickets, and gone to the post office to mail various items to European friends.
No, it's not Le Penseur, but it's still a Rodin
We spent Friday and Saturday in the city, visiting various museums and sites without getting overloaded. High points were Monet's Water Lillies in the Orangerie, the scale models of numerous French bastions and towns in the Army Museum, and of course Foucault's pendulum. We picnicked (on the banks of the Seine) and we ate meals out, with the most memorable at Le Bouillon Chartier, the iconic 19th century restaurant in the Faubourg Montmartre just off the Grand Boulevards.

One of the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine
At the Bouillon Chartier
For the first two nights we stayed at the Hilton La Defense, a property that  I had not frequented before. Well, I doubt that I'll go back: The temperature control did not work, leaving us for two days in a totally overheated room; the hotel does not have an Executive Lounge, a staple of practically all European Hilton properties; and the overall location of the hotel leaves much to be desired.
The giant thumb outside the Hilton La Defense
On Sunday morning we took the 20-minute train journey to Versailles, where the Trianon Palace (a Waldorf Astoria hotel) was to be our home away from home for a night. Boy, we lucked out, and just like last year I was upgraded to a huge junior suite in one of the prettiest hotels I've ever stayed in. Add to that the fact that Sunday was sunny (yet cold), and out visit to Versailles was perfect. Sabine, as a landscape architect, simply ate up the gardens and overall layout of the palatial landscape, and through her I was exposed to aspects of the chateau that I had never noticed.
A different view of Versailles
It was a beautiful day at Versailles, and we couldn't have planned things better. The gardens, even if not in bloom, looked just so pretty with the sunshine! Lots and lots of people were out, taking advantage of the great weather and the fact that it was le weekend. Our timing was perfect, too, in that we visited the various areas of the palace in reverse order and never had to contend with any lines to enter buildings and chambers. And after things closed down, we had a full evening in our 900-euro junior suite! I love upgrades!
One of the powerful fountains of Versailles
In front of the Chateau de Versailles
Today we went back to Paris, for our last night. I am writing this from the Hilton Arc de Triomphe, one of my favorite hotels. Judy and I stayed here many,  many times, and it is always nice to be recognized as a returning guest. We spent several hours in the Centre Pompidou, marveling at what some modern artists are trying to express with their works. Later we went to Montmartre, where we had a nice moules frites dinner at Chez Ma Cousine. And after the final obligatory walk down the Champs Elysées we're now nursing tired feet with a last bottle of red wine. Tomorrow we're flying to Munich where Sabine's son is awaiting her return and from where I'll head for Geneva in a few days for an anti-doping seminar.

What a fun trip!


Saturday, January 21, 2012

¡Viva Madrid!

Hard to believe: 48 hours ago I was in Lubbock, and in 24 hours I'll be almost back in the US. Packed in between: A fast and furious (and fun-filled) trip to the Spanish capital. I know, for some it may seem like utterly folly to fly for a long weekend al the way across the pond, but for me it makes sense: Extremely low fare ($725 including all taxes), double AA's promotion to earn double qualifying miles, upgrade to Business Class, and, most important, time to spend with my old Buddy Howard and his family. And so I just went.
Lunch in the Irish Pub

After arriving here around 11 a.m. on Friday, it was a day of walking in a beautiful park in sunshine and mild temps, having a few Murphy's Irish Reds over a late lunch in Howard's Irish Pub around the corner, and non-stop catching up with each other. We all have red in the papers and mags about Spain's economic woes, but it is another thing to talk to the employee of an Irish meat importer/exporter who sees it all from the inside. What about an unemployment rate of 48% for young college graduates? Howard's three children are in that very age group (20 – 26), and all of them still live at home. Jobs are very tough to come by, even for smart, bilingual individuals like them.

The buddies in front of the monastery of El Paular

After talking the night away in Spanish fashion (dinner at 10 p.m. and us old fogeys hitting the rack at 1:30 a.m.—Sandra made it home from her night on the town at 7 a.m.!!!) we were off to a slow start this morning for a field trip to the monastery El Paular in the hills to the north-west of Madrid. Along the way we stopped in a sleepy little town, Lozoya.
Saturday morning coffee in Lozoya
The monastery was interesting, especially in the fact that only 7 monks are left over, one of whom gave us a tour of the ornate and sprawling complex. Ah, nothing like tanking a little bit of history and culture in the Old World.
Cherub, resembling the monk who guided us

After another walk through an adjacent park that during the summer months is packed with Madrillenos we hit a nearby restaurant, Los Calizos, for a late lunch. We started with artichoke hearts and I followed that up with the most tender lamb that I've ever tasted. Howard explained that the poor little sheep was slaughtered before it ever got to taste anything but mother milk, thus the name cordero lechal asado.

Tender artichoke hearts with shrimp
PETA probably has put a price on my head for eating this baby lamb's shoulder

Overall, it was a fabulous excursion that showed me a bit of the beautiful surroundings that Madrid has to offer. The sun was already setting when we headed back for Madrid and another evening of conversation and wine. Que vida!
View from the Morcuera Pass going back to Madrid
This time tomorrow I'll be sitting on another airliner, going back to Lubbock. But before then, some hard work remains to be done:
Lidya and Howard showing off the good stuff
That's the 2001 Rioja for special friends
The black-footed Iberian pig and assorted goodies

The master carver at work

Beautiful women simply are attracted to me... ah, the lovely Sandra!


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How I spent my birthday

Sometimes things turn out a little different than planned, and thus it happened yesterday when instead of finally spending a night at home I found myself in Houston, in the Baymont Hotel. Now, had a cool young thing whom I met in some airport lounge been the reason for that detour, well, that would have been OK with me. But when it is a mechanical problem on the Eagle to Lubbock, things are less exciting. And so I woke up this morning in Houston, anonymous and having to wish myself a Happy 56th. I made a few Skype calls to family and friends in Germany, and there were a few congratulatory e-mails and e-cards as well—thanks for thinking of me!
The roundabout way from Lubbock to Louisville and back
American was decent enough to pay for my hotel and even give me a few meal vouchers, so my big birthday meal was a hamburger at Chili's in Houston's George Bush airport. Yeah! My last flight of this long trip to Louisville was then taken on Continental, or United, or whatever they call it now. It sure felt good to finally get home.

And now I'll celebrate my birthday properly: I'll go for an energetic walk around the "tank," as my buddy Wes likes to call the neighborhood playa lake, and then I'll dig out a frozen pizza, jazz it up with ... well, I think there is some garlic left in the fridge, and have a nice glass of CH wine. Happy Birthday to myself—the real treat is going to come in 36 hours when I'll hop over to Madrid for the weekend to see my old British chum Howard and his family.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Nothing like a little brrrrrrrrr.....

That's the weather forecast for tomorrow's first day of finals at the UCI Masters World Championships in cyclocross, taking place here in frigid Louisville in horse-crazed Kentucky. Today's seeding races were run in arctic conditions. Yesterday (the first day of seeding runs) had been rainy and sloppy, so the night's freeze left the entire course with concrete-like ruts that only the best masters riders were able to negotiate without having to run. Welcome to the world of cyclocross. (PS: Update on Saturday morning: It's 17 degrees and the high now is not projected to hit the freezing mark, with snow continuing in the forecast. Brrrrr indeed.)
Masters 30-34 slip and slide on the World's course
I arrived here on Wednesday afternoon, as the UCI's Doping Control Officer. Together with the UCI race doctor, Ton Zasada from Holland, I have been establishing our Doping Control Station (DCS) and been doing preparatory work. The course (which will be used in 2013 to host the Elite World Championships) is a well-laid out venue in a park dedicated to nothing but cyclocross. No wonder Louisville was chosen as the very first non-European city to host a 'cross world championship.
Nanuk from the North—or was it Texas?

The weather has played some serious havoc as there's just not the kind of interaction and general "hanging out" and watching other age groups because of the severe cold. Racers, officials, volunteers—everyone is cold. This may not be Poland or Slovenia, but it sure as hell feels like it! Only thing is: In Poland the boisterous crowds still appear, even if the vodka freezes. Not quite so here.
Cold racers and sparse crowds during seeding
Tomorrow we will see the first finals (except today's 30-34 race, which was won by a Belgian), and I am sure there will be more spectators. The course is exciting, and so far the racers have shown amazing spirit, so one can only hope that the cowbells will ring hard, the hecklers will slap the racers with rubber chickens, and the beer will flow. And with a bit of luck, the heaters in our DCS will be firing on all cylinders!

I forgot: When am I going to Puerto Rico for my next UCI race?


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bidets for men, Premium rail service, and Atlantic depressions

Of course, you would be drawn to the first part of the title, and had I not seen (and oh, experienced!) it, I wouldn't believe its existence. Yet there it was, in Budapest's Gellert baths, in the section reserved for the men: a bidet for the guys! Quite different from the French version, which often is mistaken by American travelers as some weird foot-washing sink, the bidet at Gellert consisted of a type of round stainless steel stool that had the central cushion part removed. Below it, mounted in the center on the floor, was a type of inverted shower head. Since this was the men-only section, many of the fellows simply wear a type of loincloth (either covering the front or the rear but not both) and strut around the area in portly fashion. Some don't bother about the loincloth, probably because the signs alert one that only on weekends and holy days a cover is mandatory. With such skimpy attire it is an easy thing to lower oneself onto the stool, facing the tiled wall and reaching for the two antique handles to adjust warm and cold water (and of course pressure). Presently, happiness starts to cascade upward in gentle fashion, soon reaching one's nether regions. Man oh man. Highly recommendable!
The public section of Gellert
In our four-and-a-half days in Budapest we visited three baths, Szechenyi, Rudas, and Gellert. Each one is different. Probably our favorite was 500-year-old Rudas, with its intimately dark interior, the Turkish dome, and the many small basins with different water temperatures all within just a few feet of one another. Gellert with both its common area and then its separate sections for men and women had the hottest hammam (or steam bath), and Szechenyi is simply iconic with its chess players. Admittance to one of these baths costs between about 12 to 15 euro and includes all the pools, saunas, and hammams, but no massage services or the like; those are priced a la carte. Admittance also covers a cubicle to leave one's clothes and other belongings, with an intricate electronic system that is easy to use once one has figured it out—and there were always friendly locals who would tell us what to do.
The BJC is located in an old residence

Unbeknown to me at the time of my NYE post, January rang in a new era in Hungary: a complete ban on smoking in indoor public places! So, our New Year's Eve jazz concert was absolutely fabulous since we could actually breathe. (The Budapest Jazz Club had decided to make the remainder of December 31 smokeless as well.) Great food, superb jazz, and a fitting venue in the form of an old apartment building that featured a marble staircase between floors made for a wonderful way to start the new year.
One of several trios to play on NYE

Our digs in the Hilton Budapest (Old Town) right next to the Mathias Church were not only luxurious but positively a value: Having access to the Executive Lounge we were able to munch on snacks and wet our whistle for zero HUF (Hungarian forint), and a superb breakfast buffet in the hotel's restaurant (regularly costing about $36 or $37 per person) was also included. So, spending about $130 a night for such a place is not as frivolous as it might seem.
Mathias Church with the intricate tiled roof
Public transport in Budapest is excellent, with buses, trams, trolleys, and the subway working efficiently. We had bought a weekly pass for our 5-day stay, and it was a bargain at something like $16.
The Budapest tram

On Tuesday it was time to leave Hungary's capital (and no, we didn't see or get mixed up in any of the protests). Sabine had made train reservations and by chance had found out about the Premium JetRail service that is being offered for the 7-hour trip to Munich. Think of First Class with a Premium twist—and all that for only an extra 20 euro! During the entire trip we were offered snacks and our choice of unlimited beverages, which led from prosecco via beer to red wine. The seats were comparable to those in transatlantic flights when one sits up front. Wow! If you are going to travel in Europe by train in the near future, you may want to see whether such service is offered.
Traveling in style to Munich
Yesterday, Germany started to get hammered by Atlantic depression "Dieter," yet we decided that after all the holiday feeding frenzy it was time to ride Sabine's rather heavy bikes in hopes of finding an open pub. Well, it was so damn windy that we didn't look long and hard after the first two choices proved to still be closed for Christmas, and so it was a day mostly at home, trying to stay warm and dry. Nevertheless, those 17 miles somehow have given me the sniffles, and I hope that the last few days are not going to be too scratchy-throaty. In a few minutes we'll venture outside, taking the commuter train for the 20-minute trip to Munich's city center. The wind is howling, and I hope we won't have trees landing on our heads. Oh well, if I survived the male bidets I am sure I'll survive a depression called Dieter as well—as long as nobody asks me to pet a monkey!