Sunday, 22 May 2011

Adios Espana; Bonjour France!

On Monday my achey post-hike legs ouched their way down the stairs of the Pension and we set off on the bikes again.  The legs much prefer cycling to walking!   We cycled 20km to the nearest FEVE (narrow gauge railway) station at Posada and settled in for a day on the train.  The plan was to arrive in Bilbao and then arrange a bus to Biarritz.  The friendly train conductor got talking to us (in Spanish) – I could catch only occasional words; Julie a few more.  We told him we were going to take a bus from Bilbao to Biarritz.  He mentioned something that sounded like “bus-auto” and I nodded.   We were 15 minutes from Bilbao central when he came up to us “this stop Basurto; you get off here. Quick!”  Julie thought she could catch something about a bus station and a black something and a traffic light; as he gestured at the window.  We just hoped that there wasn’t a huge miscommunication….  We got off at Basurto – the station was deserted – and pushed our bikes out into the sunlight.  No signs pointing to a bus station.  We crossed the road and down the hill I noticed a bus – and another – and another.  Hoards of buses parked side by side.  That must be the bus station!   There were no seats on any buses leaving for Biarritz that day so we booked for the next day and checked into a wee pension up the road.  After showering, washing our hair and putting on the cleanest clothes we could find (everything needs a wash) we wandered into the street.  We stopped at a little bar to use the wifi (and bought a glass of wine each).
  Then we cruised past the different eateries deciding where to eat for our last night in Spain. Julie chose a cute bar serving Pintxas (like tapas but more filling) – the bar’s counter was covered with plates full of various snack-sized food portions (slices of bread with various toppings; including spanish omelette balanced on top).  We sat at the bar, ordered more wine, and chose a selection of interesting looking Pintxas.  

The next day we took the bus to Biarritz; I felt so lethargic by the time we arrived.  I suggested to Julie that a gelato would make me feel better, and fortunately she felt like one too.  We found the beachfront and bought our expensive touristy icecreams.  We were happily sitting on the café’s chairs outside the café when a polite waitress advised us that people who only buy icecreams are not entitled to sit on the chairs.  We mooched off down the promenade and sat in the sun on a concrete bench.  The beach is beautiful – pale golden sand; a lighthouse at one end; rocks with waves crashing at another, and blue-green waves pummelling the sand.  For a Tuesday afternoon there seemed to be quite a few people lying on the sand, in various stages of undress; fully soaking up the sun.  I haven’t seen anyone that bronzed in New Zealand for a long time. 
We cycled to Alex’s house just up the road to meet her after work.  Alex is a member of Warmshowers and she stayed with me over a year ago in Rotorua while on her epic cycle trip; so it was magic to be able to meet her again in France.  She took us out to dinner and we met her boyfriend and his friend.  We had such a fun evening.  The friend was self-conscious that his english was ‘no good’ but he was perfectly understandable.  I was recommended to try the local specialty, duck, and it was divine.   We watched the pink sun set over the ocean horizon - magic.
  Afterwards we cycled through town, laughing the whole time, to Alex’s favourite Glacier (icecream shop), but it was closed.  Alex suggested we stay a second night in Biarritz “so you can try the icecream”. Good idea.
The next day Alex went to work and Julie and I checked Julie’s bike in for a service then wandered around neighbouring Bayonne.  I was in endorphin-withdrawal again, so I was happy to spend the day eating gelatos (managed to fit two in) and bread and sweet pastries, and doing little else. We even got on a free car-park bus that did a loop of town; just to have somewhere to sit and gaze at the sights without walking….  We found a Scentery (or something like that) shop that sold locally-made perfumes and ‘room scents’.  The wonderfully enthusiastic shop assistant let us try every flavour of ‘room scent’ – they were really nice but I’m not sure who would realistically want their room to smell like licorice.  Or caramel.
That evening we took Alex for a picnic on the beach; she is such an entertaining and fresh person; we had a really nice time.
The next day, Thursday, it was Julie’s birthday and Alex got up early and brought fresh croissants and bread for our breakfast.
Once more on our bikes, we cycled inland to St Jean Pied de Port once again – we were there 3 weeks previously to start the Camino de Santiago and I thought it was really cool that we were passing through again on our way east this time; to the Pyrenees.We took a tiny road running parallel to the main highway - it was fantastic.
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It was a nice short ride and we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port early afternoon.  I left Julie relaxing in the campground while I cycled around town to organise her special birthday dinner.  I decided we’d have a picnic – we both love picnics – so I needed to find a scenic spot.  I hiked up to the top of the Citadelle and found a spot.  When I got back into town there was a young german busking; singing and playing his guitar.  I asked him if he would be happy to come up to the top of the hill that evening to sing Happy Birthday to Julie and he agreed!   I gave him some red carnations to bring with him. Then I went to the supermarket and found all sorts of treats for our picnic.  I even splashed out and brought cute purple-flowered paper plates (quite decadent as they come in a pack of 30); with matching purple serviettes.  I found some Method-Traditionalle sparkling wine; and feta and olives and cherry tomatoes.  And for dessert strawberries.   The ‘cake’ was a couple of sweet pastries from the Patisserie – with candles popped on top.
Julie was surprised when I took her from the campground and we veered away from the mainstreet up a narrow staircase.  The back route to the Citadelle is direct but steep.  The picnic at the top went really really well; though it was mildly concerning to see dark clouds and lightening over the hills in the distance.  The busker turned up as promised and the look on Julie's face when he arrived and said “are you Julie?” was priceless. 
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 It started to rain just as he finished so we packed up and went back into town.  We hadn’t had the ‘cake’ yet so we sat under the shelter of a cathedral entrance and I lit the candles. The street was deserted because of the rain.  We both sang happy birthday to her, which is fortunate as I can’t sing in tune, not even Happy Birthday.
The next day, Friday, we woke to clear blue skies.  It was Day One of our Pyrenees adventure – we are following the Lonely Planet’s Raid Pyrenee route (in reverse), which is rated “very demanding”.  There are 1-2 major passes each day, with lots of little ones in between.  Julie and I were laughing that just when we should be minimising our luggage weight we are instead carrying leftovers from a birthday picnic, 28 disposable plates, 28 matching serviettes, half a litre of milk (!), a packet of prunes (they were cheap), 6 cans of tuna (forgot we already had some), 500g coucous, 400g mayonnaise, LOADS of chocolate, 3 boiled eggs, 4 large mandarins….
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It took us 3 ½ hours of solid climbing to reach the highest pass; it was noticeably colder at the top so we had a quick lunch and didn’t hang around.   A french man we got talking to at the top enquired about the flowers Julie was carrying on the back of her bike – when she explained in french it had been her birthday the previous day he immediately gave her a kiss on each cheek! 
 The downhill was steep and felt faster than the 50kph that my speedometer was reading – probably because the road was so narrow and a bit bumpy.  
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We were cycling slowly up the next hill when suddenly I felt someones hand on my back pushing me up the hill – I got such a fright I screamed.  It was a french cyclist and his friend, on road bikes without luggage.  They rode with us for a while and we found out they are on Warmshowers too.  We may call in to see them if we pass through their town.

We camped at Camping Municipal in Arrette – I think we may have been the only campers! – and the reception was closed when we arrived with a sign “we will catch up with you in the evening”.  A guy drove past our tent in a small car (it was a very small campsite so seemed odd that he felt he had to drive to catch up with us) but he didn’t ask for any money; just seemed to be checking we were doing OK and warned us there was going to be hail over night. Great.  Then he drove off and we didn’t see him again.  Fortunately there wasn’t hail during the night and in the morning we popped our 7 euro campsite fee in the letterbox.  We had a leisurely 23km cycle to our next campsite; set up the tent, ate lunch and set off for a day-trip to Lescun, a mountain-side village famous for its views.  It was a 5km slog up a twisting road to the village.  It was a very sleepy place; there seemed to be no-one around; just some donkeys in the main square having their nails cut. We saw a sign for a Bar so went there for a chocolate icecream. There are so many flies all of a sudden!  Must be the unseasonably warm weather.  It wasn’t very relaxing sitting in the sun with the flies so we cycled around the village, soaked up the views of the limestone cliffs all around, and then found another bar.  This time we had a glass of wine each, then eventually headed back down the hill and back to the campsite for an afternoon of reading in the shade of the trees. 
Today, Sunday, we cycled over Col de Marie Blanque.  We were overtaken by a huge tour group of cyclists from around the world - apparently there were 15 kiwis in the group too.  They were all on road bikes without luggage.  It was light rain the whole time so we didn't get any views. We are now in Laruns; tomorrow we will climb over Col d'Aubisque - the weather promises to be better!



Monday, 16 May 2011

Picos de Europa!


Today we woke to light rain "siddy-middy".  We decided to head off on our daytrip to Covadonga and the lakes anyway.  
The chapel inside the cave was pretty cool; I didn't drink much of the special husband-catching water though as there was a sign that said "Agua sanitarie sin guarantie".

We headed up to the lakes.  It was a long, slow slog - 11km usually takes only 30 when cruising on the flat - but this took us probably 2 hours!  There was a bit of atmospheric mist but we were hoping it would clear.  
We arrived at the first lake and went to the 'restaurant' for a 'cafe con leche 'grande' por favor'.  It's so funny becuase the usual coffees are served in very small cups; so the largest 'grande' was still smaller than a standard cappucino in NZ!  It was so good though, and then we made our own yummy boccadillos (sandwiches) from our picnic supplies.   It's funny how food tastes so good after such hard work!  The mist continued to roll in thicker.  With happily full tummies we got back on the bikes and continued up the road to the second lake. We arrived in white-out conditions at the carpark - we could hear people talking but couldn't see anything!  Then we put our warm gear on and cruised down the hill. 
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 It was a bit disappointing that we couldn't fly as fast as possible down the hill due to the mist.

We went out for dinner in Cangos; the choice of restaurant ended up coming down to who was actually serving dinner at 7:30 when we wanted it!  Cider seems to be a big thing in this area.  We ordered a bottle before dinner and the waiter held the bottle of cider high in the air and the glasses down low (about a metre apart) and expertly caught the cider in the glasses.  He then told us to drink it 'total'.  We did.  He then left to serve another table. I poured us some more cider - he came back and said "who did this!?  It does not taste the same!"  Ooops.  We were supposed to let him pour out all our top-ups in his special way.  It was hard choosing from the menu which was entirely in spanish, especially when Julie asked for some translations and one of the items was 'pigs ears'.  I was going to eenie meenie mynie mo but I chickened out at that point.
There was an earthquake in southern spain yesterday but we didn't feel it at all. It seems to have affected only the far south of spain.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Ruta del Cares - magic!

We booked into a Pension in Arrenas; there was no kitchen or lounge area so we happily sat on our beds and ate open sandwiches for dinner – you cannot imagine how good a hunk of fresh bread with jamon (ham), cheese, mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce is after a long day cycling.  Heavenly.  Then we went out to find some wifi – it works well: we buy a glass of wine each (good excuse) and then use the free wifi.

Sunday morning it felt funny to leave most of our luggage in the room and take just the minimal gear for a day hike.  We cycled the 5km to the start of the track and locked the bikes up.
  I think Julie was quite relieved to see a big “no cycling” sign – this was one of the walking tracks I’d been thinking that perhaps we could include in our cycling itinerary.

The walk along the river Cares was amazing. It’s a gorge carved out of limestone, so the sides are steep.  The path was etched out of the rock, with small tunnels in places.  To add to it all, there was a fast-flowing canal built near the walking track.  The walking track would undulate but of course the canal kept a steady downward gradient, so it disappeared as a tunnel into the rocks and then reappeared above or below us depending on where the walking track had taken us in relation to it.  




Tomorrow we will take trains to Bilbao, then onward to St Jean Pied de Port – which will be the start of our French Pyrenees adventure.  I’m looking forward to riding in the Alps and tackling some high passes.  One month of cycling in Spain has hopefully prepared our legs enough…

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Gorge-ous!


 On Friday we woke to an overcast sky but loaded up the bikes and headed off down highway N-625 through the Beyos gorge.  It was amazing. The road was narrow and winding but fairly flat, just a gentle upward climb following the river. And there was surprisingly little traffic – I guess it would be an entirely different story in July and August!  It was a really nice ride – our best so far as scenery goes – and the sky continued to get bluer with nice fluffy white clouds.  We stopped in Oseja de Sajambre and had a picnic lunch outside the church; fuelling up for the climb into the mountains.

  A cute fairly fluffy dog sniffed around us curiously.  We noticed an ominous grey cloud coming over the mountains on one side; yet the sky remained blue everywhere else. Then the thunder and lightening started; which felt really strange as it was still sunny where we were standing!  We had finished lunch but decided not to head up the road just yet – we’d wait outside a pub and see what the weather did. A group of motorcyclists were doing the same.  Suddenly the rain came.  Heavily. We dashed inside the pub along with all the motorcyclists.  We decided we should have a drink.  I was well satiated and caffeinated from lunch (I had a home-made frappacino with lunch) so there really was only one beverage option left  - “I’ll have a glass of red wine please”.

 The heavy rain lasted about 15 minutes.  The weather report on the TV in the pub showed thunderstorms for most of northern spain – for the rest of the day and the next! The sun came out and there was blue sky again.  We got on the bikes and headed up the road.

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  The thunder and lightening continued all around us; it was quite surreal.  The little dog started to follow us up the road.  It started to rain again and we sheltered under a tree waiting for the worst to pass. The little dog was still with us.  A few cars stopped to ask if we were ok – I tried giving the dog to one of the drivers (by this stage it had followed us for over 5km) but the driver wasn’t interested.  We started to get a bit cold and the rain seemed to be easing so we got on the bikes again.  It started raining really heavily again and we stopped at a barn for shelter.

  The little dog was drenched at this point.   When the rain stopped again we got on the bikes and continued on.  We decided not to head into the mountains (there would be no point if there was no view) and just stayed on the main highway to Riano instead.   The little dog disappeared off into the forest and then suddenly a deer ran across the road in front of us with the dog on its heels.  We didn’t see the little dog after that.


 Interestingly as soon as we crossed over the pass and started going downhill the sky was much clearer. The road even looked dry.  It was a good feeling to arrive in Riano.  We asked three old men if there was an albergue in town “yes up at the camping” they said, pointing to the top of a hill. Typical.  With tired legs we crawled up the switchbacked road to the campground.  “No albergue here” was the response from the campsite manager.  So our options were to camp in a potential thunderstorm, or go back down the steep hill and look for a hotel in town.  We really didn’t want to head back down the hill after all the effort of climbing up so we took the tenting option.  The view from the campground was good – Riano sits beside a lake with dramatic limestone massifs all around.
We got the tent up quickly and then settled ourselves under shelter outside the campground restaurant, waiting for the storm.  It never came. The sky stayed clear all evening.
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In the morning it was overcast and we were glad we got the views we did the night before.  We took highway 621 – again a surprisingly quiet road – towards Potes. We arrived at the pass (Puerto de San Gloria) and it was a bit misty.  I zipped up my jacket in preparation for the downhill.   It was steeper, mistier and much colder than the uphill!  Halfway down I had to stop to put on an extra layer.  Then we didn’t stop biking (we needed to keep our legs moving to keep warm) until we got to Potes.  I asked Julie if she’d like a supermarket lunch in a sheltered spot or a restaurant lunch – the quick response was ‘a hot lunch!’.  We had the Menu del Dia at the first restaurant that agreed to serve us lunch at the early (for Spanish) hour of 12:15.  Of course it was accompanied by a bottle of red wine.  Feeling very warm and cosy inside, and just a little wobbly, we got back on the bikes and continued down the road.
  It was another magical gorge; this time following the river downstream.  We were still feeling good at the 80km mark (and it was siesta time so nothing was open) so we decided to keep going another 22km to Arenas de Cabrales.   We have now done a near complete circuit of Picos de Europa, and tomorrow (weather permitting) we will walk the Ruta del Cares - apparently Spain’s most famous alpine walk.