Kid-Free Vacations

“Mum, Mum, Mum!“ , Katharina rushes home from school with excitement. “Guess who invited me for the summer vacations? “

“Not the slightest idea“, replies Mecki and is pretty curious.

“Lena!  Guess what!  They fly to Mallorca for two weeks and asked me to come with them.  May I?”

“Well“, says Mecki rather cautiously.  After all, you don’t give your kids away like that for the summer.  But in principle, she and Mike welcome Katharina’s idea with wide open arms.  The next family vacations would be a trip with three teenage kids and all the pleasures that come with it.  Who knows how this would be going to end?  And then Mecki has an even better idea:  If they organize trips for Felix and Franziska they would have two child-free weeks.  The last time they enjoyed such a privilege was back in the 1990s, before the kids were born, why not again in the coming summer.  All it takes is to find two reasonable summer camps for the kids.  They could do so many things!  Mecki has a bunch of exciting destinations for kid-free vacations in the back of her head.  Mainly cycling destinations, particularly in the mountains.  The higher up the better, like the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, the Mont Ventoux in Southern France, or the Großglockner High Alpine Road in Austria to name some of the classic climbs that they did during the last few years.  But exciting as these trips were, a lot of very classic mountain stages still remain on Mecki’s and Mike’s bucket list, among them the Tour de France classics in the Alps like the Col du Galibier or Alpe d’Huez.  When you are as crazy about cycling as Mecki and Mike you simply have to climb these passes and the best occasion to do this is a child-free trip because the kids still refuse to share their parents’ cycling craziness.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

So, vacation plans for Franziska and Felix have to be made for those two weeks that Katharina will spend on the island of Mallorca.  And such destinations can be found:  For Felix a trip with a youth travel operator from Cologne to France and Spain – a week canoeing on the Tarn River in central France succeeded by a week in a sports camp at the Mediterranean in Southern Spain – and for Franziska two and a half weeks in Halifax.  There, she’ll not only meet our friend, former neighbour, and honorary grandma Nancy, as well as her former class mates Rebecca, Meg, and Noor with whom she managed to keep in touch over all these years through social networks.  Best of all, she’ll return from Halifax together with Nancy who’ll then spend three weeks of vacation in Rheinbach.

“That’s what I call a really good plan”, states Franziska.  “We’ll all leave for different holiday destinations and return on the same day.  That day, we get get together around the kitchen table and start talking about our vacation experiences all at once.”

With Franziska having endorsed her parents’ plan, Mecki starts planning the details.  It turns out that Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, a small city with a large campground in the French Alps, is the best place for many of the Alpine passes that are on Mecki’s and Mike’s list.  From there, no less than six passes of the two highest Tour de France categories are within easy reach: the Col de Glandon, the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Col de la Madeleine, the Col du Chaussy, the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Galibier.  Mecki’s eyes light up with excitement.  Mike is at first a bit hesitant, because everything sounds like a very challenging trip, and who knows in what state he’ll ever arrive at these passes.  But then, he really loves climbing up and racing down the mountains, particularly in his home built wooden bike Woodstock, so he, too, is on fire soon.

In mid-July within a single day, all four trips start on schedule.  Mecki accompanies Franziska by train to Frankfurt airport, Mike drives Katharina plus Lena’s family to Cologne airport, and Felix joins his group to France and Spain at the Bonn bus station. From there, Mecki and Mike depart to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne where the famous mountain passes wait for them.

The campground in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is tidy and well maintained, full of cyclists, and in fact a perfect base camp to climb Alpine passes.  Each of the passes is different: To reach the top of the Col de Chaussy, the Lacets de Montvernier have to be climbed, a close sequence of 18 hair-pin turns.  The ascent to the Col du Mollard offers even 47 sharp bends, a little less densely packed as the Lacets de Montvernier though, but on a beautiful small back road in the shadow.  The road to the Col du Télégraphe leads through the woods, too, the road to the Col de la Madeleine, however, through bright sunshine.  To make it to the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Croix de Fer, cyclists have to cope with car and motorbike traffic, but are rewarded with a spectacular view onto the Glacier-de-Saint-Sorlin.  Even more spectacular is the view from the Col de la Madeleine onto Mont Blanc in the north, the highest mountain of the Alps, and most spectacular is the view from the Col du Galibier onto the glaciers of the Massif des Ecrins.  The Col du Galibier is very special anyway, because it regularly is the highest point of the Tour de France.  And – very important – it ranks among the four magic mountain climbs of the Tour, together with the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, the Mont Ventoux in Southern France and Alpe d’Huez.

But as different as these passes are, Mecki’s and Mike’s daily routine is always very similar.  To start with, they reliably get a good night’s sleep in their tent, thanks to the ordeal of the trip of the previous day and the red wine of the previous evening.  In the morning, Mike buys two baguettes at the reception, one for breakfast and one for the trip, and the excitement rises because they’ll soon hit the road.  They pack a few last items, refill their water bottles, and assure each other how much they’d prefer cycling at a slow and relaxing pace this day because the last trips had been so demanding, and off they go.  But slow and relaxing – no way! – they start as fast as the ascent allows, for once you are on your road bike the good resolutions of the morning don’t count much.  Alpine passes want to be fought and conquered, there’s no slow or relaxing riding.  On their way, Mecki and Mike have to take one or two breaks, which is not surprising keeping in mind the heat of the summer and their “strategy” of climbing the mountain as fast as they can, but eventually they make it to the top.  Up there, the spirits are always high.  First they ask the other crazy cyclists if someone wants to take the obligatory summit photo of Mecki, Mike, and their wooden bikes.  Then they take a look around, enjoy the view, feel a bit like heroes, and have a talk with the other crazy cyclists.  And of course they look forward to the descent back into the valley.

These descents, however, are unfortunately not very heroic.  Sure, like all road bikers Mecki and Mike like the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of speed when dashing down the mountain roads.  But the prospect of arriving home safely is also not to be sneezed at, so they prefer rolling gently rather than dashing down the mountain.  Which is fun, too, but unfortunately far from heroic.  “I just hope my cycling buddies back home in Rheinbach will never get to know this”, says Mecki when the speedometer of her bike displays a mere 51.8 km/h as the top speed for the descent from the Col du Galibier.  “What a shame, we are slower than on any short trip into the Eifel hills back home.”

With the Col du Galibier, all major mountain passes in the vicinity of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne are conquered.  But almost a week of vacation still remains, so why not move to another campground with new scenic mountain passes?  After a short search in the internet, Briançon, a picturesque little town in the département Hautes Alpes close to the Italian border, is chosen.  Around 1700, Briançon was reconstructed after a devastating fire under Louis XIV as a heavily fortified town by the French military engineer Vauban.  Since 2008, the city’s fortifications are listed as a Unesco world heritage site.  “A bit of culture can’t hurt”, agree Mecki and Mike, and spend their first afternoon strolling through the narrow streets of the old city.  But visiting so many historical buildings can be incredibly tiring, so they soon direct their attention to the true attractions of Briançon: the mountain stages surrounding the town.  These are not bad either: With the Col d’Izoard, the Col de Granon, and the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Briançon is surrounded by three ascents of the highest Tour de France category.

The trip to the Col d’Izoard comes first and proves to be a most beautiful trip.  The route starts off relatively flat along the Durance River to the little medieval town of Guillestre of which Mecki and Mike particularly keep the chocolate croissants of the local bakery on the market square in best memory.  After Guillestre, the route leads through the canyon of the Combe de Queyras, and after the end of the canyon steep up into the mountains, fist through a light pine forest, then through the spectacular Casse Déserte, large fields of barren scree slopes with protruding pinnacles of weathered rock.  Eventually, the monument built in honor of the workers who constructed the mountain road marks the arrival at the pass.

For the climb to the Col de Granon, the second to last trip, Mecki and Mike try a completely new strategy.  Instead of starting off with full power and staying at full power until exhaustion forces them to take a rest, usually under some cheap excuse like an allegedly beautiful view, they try to pace themselves and make it to the top in one go.  And it works.  They reach the pass after one and a half hours of hard cycling, being exhausted but happy.

The last trip is the ultimate classic mountain stage: Alpe d’Huez.  Alpe d’Huez is special.  First of all because of the sheer number of cyclists who take on the climb, and secondly because the climb starts with a starting line in Le Bourg - d’Oisans in the valley and ends with a finish line up in Alpe d’Huez.  No question, at Alpe d’Huez it is a matter of pride to take your time.  What counts as an acceptable time can be found in the internet.  Marco Pantani, for example, set the record during the 1997 Tour de France with 37 minutes and 35 seconds.

“That sounds terribly fast.  I wonder how he managed to do this”, Mike asks himself.

“Probably without taking a break halfway”, explains Mecki.  “We can do that, too, since yesterday.”

So the last trip becomes a mountain time trial over 1100 vertical meters and 21 hair-pin turns that Mecki wins after 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 21 seconds a solid half minute ahead of Mike who needed 1 h, 19’ and 58”.

“Phew, that was exhausting” says Mike after finally reaching the finish line, breathing heavily.  “But now we finally made the four magic Tour climbs.”

“Never mind”, says Mecki, “there’s more magic climbs from the Giro d’Italia.  All it takes is to find some reasonable summer camps for the kids.”

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