I recently had a chance with my family to travel to the south of France for the last four stages of the Tour de France. It was in a region that I had experienced previously only by train as I traveled in Europe while in college. This visit was enlightening to see how the small villages of the Alps with their historic structures, and some modern buildings, go from a quiet place in the summer with only a few travelers to a bustling village with people arriving by bike, bus, car and foot.
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne was a village where the 19th stage of the race began and looped back around again prior to the ascent to the mountaintop. A village plaza with buildings lining the edges to define the public space was the location of a large screen and hundreds of onlookers eager to see the race. The main street leading from this plaza was crowded with Tour racers, Tour vehicles, onlookers on balconies and conveniently, shops and restaurants to fill the tourists’ bellies with lunch as the bikers made their way up the mountain. Features of this village came in handy as the day went on. We took shelter from a passing rainstorm under the cover of a sidewalk arcade lined with patisseries and boulangeries and watched as spectators on bikes filled their water bottles from the public water spigot.
Day 20 of the race took us to Alpe d’Huez that exudes a more modern sense of community and breathtaking views. As thousands of spectators descended upon this mountaintop they came from all directions. We arrived by bus, up the narrow winding roads, barely large enough for one car at a time. We passed scout troops that camped in the woods along the tour route and numerous vehicles that allowed for sleeping under the stars in anticipation of the race that was to come. The bus dropped us off at the Oz en Ousans ski resort, at which point we required the use of two ski lifts and a people mover that dangled us over the rooftops as we arrived over the top ridge of the mountain. We arrived at our final viewing destination that allowed us to see several miles of the race road below as it twisted and turned its way to the top.
The final stage of the race took us back to Paris by way of the city of Grenoble. In Grenoble we had dinner in one of the many open plazas with some of those who were part of our tour group. The buildings again became our backdrop as we enjoyed each other’s company.
Paris brought the end of the tour, yet many days of sightseeing were to follow. As an architect I treasure the various buildings and how they mold the sense of “place.” As I traveled with my husband and two children, none of whom are architects, I could see their appreciation for the “place” as they reveled in reflection of the villages and cities we visited and the memories that they will carry with them into the future.