Saturday, 30 April 2011

"Bon Courage" - Camino de Santiago by bike

After a 10-hour sleep I was ready for the next day.   We wandered out of the hostel in search of some milk to have with breakfast.  Then we set up the gas cooker on the balcony of the hotel and made coffee to have with breakfast.

The day was overcast and drizzly but nevertheless we packed up and started riding.  We were heading to St Jean Pied de Port, the classical ‘start’ of the Camino de Santiago (actually, there are many Ways of St James across Europe, but St Jean Pied de Port is the place that most of the routes converge to then head up over a pass into Spain).  The weather cleared and it was a nice switchbacked ride up the pass.  At the top we were looking down on France to one side; and Spain to the other.  It was funny hearing all the french being spoken in the carpark; while Spanish cyclists would cycle up the spanish side, turn around, and head home again.  Julie said she got all confused when asking for the toilet as she started speaking a mixture of French, Spanish and English “Spa-franglish!”

It was a flying downhill into the next little village; immediately all the names and signs were in French.

We arrived in St Jean Pied de Port; it was buzzing with tourists (all hikers).  The symbol for the Camino de Santiago is a shell; so there were hikers carrying a shell on their pack; and symbols of shells everywhere.  There were throngs of people in the narrow street; and we felt quite chuffed to be staying at the quiet little camping municipal only a few metres from the hubbub.

The next day we had to decide whether to cycle with fully-loaded touring bikes up over the big pass with all the walking pilgrims (the adventurous route) or take the road.  Julie kept asking me what I had decided and I kept deferring the decision by saying “lets go buy our chocolate biscuits first”.  Then “and we need some bread from the boulangerie too”.

Eventually we decided to just go for it.  A warmshowers contact had said it was a great ride; though he’d pushed his bike for 22km of the 26….  “worth it for the views”.

We headed up the hill.  It was a beautifully paved narrow road, but steep.  Not quite walking the bike steep, but nearly.  Every hiking pilgrim we passed seemed to look at us with a bit of wonder; and the french would call out “bon courage!”

 As we slowly wound our way up the hills it got cooler and cooler and we were cycling in the cloud.  The view got less and less as the mist shrouded us.

   Then the paved road ended and the path  became grass and rocks.

 It was windy and misty – just to add to the challenge.  I had promised Julie that according to the map there would be a maximum of 5km ‘off road’ – Julie was very doubtful.  We pushed the bikes up the rocky bits, and rode when we could.  There was still no view at all – just white mist!

 Finally we reached the top - bit of an anticlimax as there was no sign or anything - and then the road on the other side.  We completely left the pilgrims in the dust as we flew down the winding road to the next town.  We got the camp cooker out again for a cup of tea and lunch.

Not long later we came across a solo touring cyclist poring over a 1:1,000,000 scale map at a picnic table.  I went up to him “do you speak english?”  “I AM English!”.  He said he didn’t really like cycling but thought he’d go on on a cycling holiday anyway….  He was headed to Santiago too, so he has now joined us.  He has a bike trailer and thought it was too heavy so sent back to England 10kg of luggage – which included all his camping equipment – and even spoon and plate.  We were planning to camp outside Pamplona and he was happy to join us – without a tent!  He slept inside our two bike bags….

The next day we followed the Camino de Santiago sign-posted route through the city of Pamplona.  My plan was to then go along the road, but we ended up on the pilgrim route a bit longer than expected; cycling up a rocky path.  Julie said “I thought today was a Tarmac Day!”.
  But the views were very rewarding; looking back at the city; and around to the villages dotted among the green waving wheat fields.

We followed highway N-1110 all the way to Logrono; it was complelely quiet as there is a new major highway running almost parallel, so all the cars and trucks were on that; we had the old highway to ourselves.

We camped again in Logrono - Craig the english cyclist is gradually 'improving' his 'tent' - this time he fashioned a roof out of a silver emergency shelter sheet he was carrying.

From Logrono we followed the wonderfully quiet N-210 to Najera; after that it turned into busy highway and we took the gravel walking route again - that was quite fun for a change as the pace is so different to fast road riding.

We met some german cyclists in Belorado who suggested some quiet back roads to cycle on to avoid the busy highway - we'd already done over 80km by this stage but Julie said it was the best road of the day.  Tiny well paved road that wound gradually up a hill, giving fantastic views over the green waving wheat fields and cute copper-coloured villages.  The plan was to stay at a campsite that we could see on the Michelin map.  We arrived, relieved, at the small village; over 100km on the odometer.  There was no campsite.  Julie conversed (fantastically well) with the locals to find there really wasn't any camping (I think they were amazed it had appeared on the map).  I had to have a chocolate biscuit.   Eventually, after four chocolate biscuits I felt better and we decided to continue another 15km to the next campsite.  Which didn't exist either.  By this time we'd travelled over 120km and it was 8:30pm.   Fortunately we found the third campsite relatively easily and ate our posh dinner(purchased 45km and many hills earlier) in the dark - blue vein cheese, spinach, mussels; and 2 bottles of wine.  We were all on a high for having made it - Craig reckoned it was the best day of cycling ever.

Monday, 25 April 2011

San Sebastian

It was like the passing of a baton when we met Mikel and Rosa in the streets of San Sebastian and Peru and Uri said their goodbyes.  Mikel and Rosa love cycle touring - they have been together (and cycle touring) for 15 years - the last 6 with children.  They met us with their bikes - each adult with a child attached in someway to their bike.  After a little gelato (I was so full from lunch but Mikel advised that particular gelateria was the best place in the world for icecream and his recommendation was the "Milk and Rice" - how could I resist?) - we set off for a tour of San Sebastian.  San Sebastian is a beautiful city. It has a clean, long beach (three, infact) with a nicely developed waterfront (stone walled walkways); then a clean compact city (all apartment buildings); flanked by green hills and cute farms.  We biked towards the Castle - a steep climb up a hill - and enjoyed the view of the city.

The next day we joined Mikel and Rosa and the children for a 'walk'.  I guess I should have realised from the bike ride up the big hill to see the Castle the previous day that Mikel and Rosa are a very fit and energetic couple - nevertheless we set out for our walk - within 5 minutes we were walking along tiny  (steep) rural roads, past little farms.  We eventually ended up circling around back towards the city; to a theme park at the top of a hill.  Mikel said the theme park has not changed in 30 years since he was a child!   There didn't seem to be many rides open, despite a number of people milling around.  I was keen to try something, so Julie and I went through "La Casa de Terror".....  Hmm.  It involved walking along a dark trail past dusty old skeletons and dinosaurs, some of which moved with mechanical sounds....  Certainly not scary and rather antique!   Then the roller coaster started up and we jumped on - what fun!   There was a cigar-smoking driver and about 20 seats.  And no seatbelts.  Good thing it didn't do any loops or spirals.   It was really exhilarating - we sat right at the back and screamed on the downhills.

The next day, Monday, Mikel guided us out of San Sebastian along bicycle paths towards our next major destination - St Jean Pied de Port - the start of the Camino de Santiago.
  He took us up until 10km along a Greenways route (an old railway route) then we said our goodbyes.  It felt a bit funny to suddenly be on our own - it was our first time since arriving in Spain to be just us two.  It was raining and the path was gravel so it was fairly slow-going.  We arrived in the next village of Leitz and checked gratefully into the Hostal Musunzar - we were dripping wet but the manager was most gracious and didn't look at all put-out.

Tonight we will eat a 3-course 'set menu' in the hotel - complete with wine - for 12 euros each. Can't wait!

When we get to St Jean Pied de Port we will start the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.  It will be a bit interesting to see how we go with the bikes - I'm expecting we will give up at times and just take the road, as it can be steep and rocky in places - not much fun with a loaded touring bike!  We will take a week or so to arrive in Santiago de Compostello; from there weather and time-permitting we will follow the coast back towards France; completing a loop of northern Spain/Basque country.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Fabulous Basque hospitality!

The trip has begun!

After much jumping on and off scales with my luggage I managed to arrive at Auckland International Airport with 2 pieces of luggage - one bike bag with bicycle and 4 kg of luggage squeezed inside; and one carryon bag of 7kg - quite proud of my light packing!

There was no problem checking in with Royal Brunei Air and the journey began.  The 9 hour flight to Brunei was fine as the plane was fairly empty and I had the whole row to myself; so I lay across all the seats and slept.  Brunei Airport was a bit of a dive and I was disappointed to realise we had 3 hours transit there - I ended up lying on the carpet and napping.  The second leg was an 8 hour flight to Dubai, followed by a short transit then back on the same plane to continue another 7 hours to London.  The last two flights seemed to drag a bit as the entertainment selection on the personal consoles wasn't great but I did get good at Tetris and Memory Game!   I was starting to wonder why I bother travelling to the other side of the world when it is SO FAR AWAY.  

I arrived in Heathrow at 7am a bit jaded.  I had 10 hours before the next flight to Spain, so decided to head into central London for a walkabout.   It was on the metro heading into London that I came alive again.  Suddenly it was all worth while.  It was a magic feeling to look out the metro windows at the classic terraced houses and know that I was IN LONDON!!!  It was a beautiful spring day.  I got off at Hyde Park Corner and walked towards Buckingham Palace.  The gardens are looking lovely; with beautiful tulip beds (and security guards - with a royal wedding only 10 days away I guess they don't want anyone trampling or stealing the tulips).   It was an exhilarating walk towards and along the river Thames; I was on a high.   I walked all the way to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, then took the metro back to the airport.  I checked in for my flight to Spain then went looking for Julie who had just flown from Aberdeen.

We had a few hours to kill so went through airport security and went to an airport bar for a drink.  Julie ordered 2 big glasses of white wine and we had a catchup - she'd had 3 scottish weddings in 3 weeks to tell me about.  Unfortunately I'd only eaten a gelato all day so the wine went straight to my head so I suddenly got really sleepy and probably wasn't very good company!!   We caught our plane to Spain and arrived in Bilbao at 8pm spanish time.   Our warmshowers hosts, Peru and Uri, picked us up from the airport.  They asked us if we had eaten and we said no.  "Oh good!  neither have we, we will go out for dinner!".   We arrived at their apartment.  Julie's brand new bike was packaged in pieces in bubble-wrap and then in a box so everyone started to unwrap it.  Eventually Uri said "I guess we should go for dinner" - it was nearly 10pm!!  "It's ok, that's the time we always eat".  It was lucky I was jetlagged; my body had no idea what time it was so there was no problem eating "Pinchers" at 10:30pm.  We met Peru's friend Louis at the restaurant - we automatically shook his hand in greeting and Peru pointed out that in Spain people always greet a girl with a kiss to each cheek.  So we tried again; shaking his hand and kissing each cheek "No, you don't need to shake the hand as well!".  We have much to learn....   Peru and Uri are two of the most enthusiastic people I have met.  They are friends from university and they laugh together like brothers and best friends.

My bike was taken out of its bag and I discovered the rear deraileur hangar was bent and the deraileur was hitting the spokes.  Not Good.   My fault entirely for not removing the deraileur.  The next day Peru and Uri generously drove us to a bike shop where I could get the deraileur hangar straightened, then they took us for a tour of Bibao.  We saw the famous Guggenheim Museum (from the outside) and had a proper 3-course spanish meal for lunch.   Julie did a bit of spanish at school so she knows some words; I don't know any spanish except "Hola".  Peru and Uri were very patient and have been teaching us some spanish words, to much laughter.

Something I didn't realise before leaving New Zealand was the significance of the "Basque Country" - the spanish Basque country is officially a province of Spain (there is more Basque country in France; part of france) - but they speak their own language, Basque.  So Peru and Uri were speaking to each other mainly in Basque, to us in English; and then teaching us a little spanish!  

That evening Peru and Uri made us a homemade Spanish Omelette - again eating after 9pm.  

The next day we packed up and Peru and Uri joined us for the start of our bike tour.  It was magic having our own tour guides; complete with jokes and so much energy.  Uri was borrowing Peru's father's mountain bike whose brakes sounded terrible; Peru was using his mountain bike whose brakes didn't really work  - on the downhills Peru would put his foot on the ground to slow him down!!

They took us along a coastal route - lots of steep hills and flying descents.  I must say there is no quicker cure for jetlag than cycling hard all day!   We did only 60km the first day but it took all day; we arrived at the campground after 6pm.  The next day was even steeper hills; having to push the bikes for a few of them.  It felt like madness, but it did mean we were on very quiet out-of-the-way routes.  
We arrived in San Sebastian on Saturday and met Mikel and Rosa, our warmshowers hosts.  It was particularly magic because they stayed with me in New Zealand last year!!    We said goodbye to Peru and Uri, and they took a bus back to Bilbao.