My hotel is my castle
DAX, France -- I do all my own hotel booking for the Tour. Sometimes I pick a place because it's near that night's finish. Sometimes I pick a hotel to be close to the next day's start. Sometimes I pick it for air conditioning, or easy parking, or because it's a Place I've Been Before and Know How To Find.
Last weekend, I deliberately chose a hotel that would allow me to flee from the planet's biggest sporting event.
I wanted to watch the World Cup final. I also wanted to be somewhere remote that was still a short drive from the city of Lorient, in Brittany, where Stage 8 ended.
I don't like mob celebrations. I was in Detroit in 1984 when joyous throngs burned cars after the Tigers' World Series victory, and I watched from a Chicago hotel balcony as looters threw garbage cans through the posh shop windows on the Magnificent Mile after the Bulls won one of their six NBA titles in the Jordan era. I covered the '98 World Cup won by the French, and saw the team bus pull off the Champs-Elysees, aborting the victory parade because of the frightening crush.
Win or lose for Les Bleus, I suspected I was in for a bad time if I was in a populated area. That was reinforced the night of the semifinal when I thought I had stashed myself in a small enough town to avoid major chaos. I stuck my head out of the window at halftime and got a snootful of ripe pig from the livestock-bearing truck that had just arrived, grinding its gears, under my window. I lay awake listening to the same four or five cars cruising and beeping most of the night.
So I went to talk to the Chamber of Commerce types that have a booth in every Tour press room and asked for a recommendation. I knew I had made a good decision as I left town. Ninety minutes before the match, Lorient was already resounding with a cacophony of car horns and the hypnotic chant of ahLAY lay BLUH, ahLAY lay BLUH.
Allez les Bleus. I was rooting for them too.
You can be out in very open, quiet country very quickly in France. I drove less than 30 minutes from Lorient before I pulled into the driveway of the Hotel de Kerlon, a renovated farmhouse where the silence was so deep it almost hurt.
It was a typical French auberge that pays more attention to food than lodging. They're not generally cut out for business travel -- my room had a rotary phone the size and weight of a cinder block, and no e-mail access -- but if you know that going in, they can be a nice, inexpensive option.
I watched the match alone in my room on a 13-inch Hitachi. I thought I heard a strangled cry or two from the hotel kitchen, but otherwise it was just me, the pigeons, the bullfrogs and the crickets. I did wish I had someone to process with after Zinedine Zidane's shocking head butt. Non, non, non, Zidane, the announcers wailed.
After the final whistle, I leaned out of my window and listened. Nothing, no hollering, no horns, not even a faraway echo. A few minutes later, I heard the "crunch crunch crunch" of steps on the gravel drive, a waitress leaving for the night. And then silence again.
The next day I planned to get up early, drive 300 miles south to Bordeaux and cover a couple of press conferences on the Tour's first rest day. My trip took me across the Sunflower Line, where the first yellow, nodding fields appear. I felt the outside temperature rise and listened to radio speculation about Zidane's mysterious and ruinous behavior.
I walked into a team hotel lobby boiling with anxious colleagues who clued me in to that day's bombshell: a New York Times Magazine story by my friend Dan Coyle, in which Tour favorite Floyd Landis revealed that he plans to have hip replacement surgery in the near future. Dan got to know Floyd while writing the wonderful and definitive book "Lance Armstrong's War," about the 2004 Tour.
There went the rest day. Many hours later, I wearily made my way to the small wine town of Blaye, on the estuary of the Gironde River north of the city.
I didn't book this hotel for convenience (an hour from the next day's start), or AC (none) or even because it's in a town surrounded by sumptuous vineyards. I booked it because I had never stayed in the middle of a 17th-century fortress before, and if you follow the Tour long enough, you learn to jump at those kinds of chances.
The Hotel de Citadelle is just what it sounds like. Signs in town direct guests to l'enceinte, or the belly of the city-within-a-city, within the fortified walls designed by the Marquis de Vauban, Louis XIV's genius of a military engineer.
The hotel itself is housed in a 25-year-old building, with rooms overlooking a swimming pool and a restaurant terrace. People were walking and biking the path along the ramparts as I lingered over dinner. Hummingbirds no larger than big bumblebees darted in and out of the flower boxes. A calico cat prowled the low wall next to my table. "C'est le chat de la maison," a waiter explained, and then added, somewhat redundantly, "the boss."
Blaye's Citadelle could be a bone-dry artifact. Instead, it's a vibrant place on at least its ninth life. Theater and music festivals and an annual show-jumping competition take place on the grounds. It's far more likely to attract and engage visitors in this incarnation than the average historic monument.
I felt like I had successfully fled again, into a temporary home that was really a castle.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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