In June 1998 I left Oxford, England, and returned there in September, clocking 5,000km on my bicycle. I crossed the channel, went down the west coast of France to Madrid, then over to Portugal, up to the northwestern most tip of Spain at Finisterre, back home through Northern Spain and up central western France. Over those 2 months I met countless, friendly, interesting people, locals and travellers alike, saw wondrous sights and had an experience of a lifetime. This is the story of my excellent Spanish cycle adventure!
The idea of cycling in Europe had hit me in England in June: I was cycling from my home in Oxford up to Yorkshire and persistently got lashed by wind and near freezing rain, a thought quickly formed in my mind: time to head south and do a proper cycle trip – to the sun. I had done a few cycle trips in Europe before, Alps with friends, Pyrenees on my own, but nothing on the scale I was thinking of, through France and into Spain. I was given extra incentive by the invitation of work (alas, unpaid) in Madrid starting in late July, and it was good to focus my mind on that deadline. My plan, as such as it was, was to get to Madrid as quickly as I could, do my work there, then my ideas were somewhat less clear, but I had the idea of cycling on to the Meditteranean at Barcelona. To get to Madrid I figured the quickest way (other than using the Portsmouth to Bilbao or Plymouth to Santander ferries) was to take the Portsmouth ferry to St. Malo in Brittany and go down the flat west of France into Spain, bypass the Pyrenees and head south west from Euskadi/The Basque Country.
I spent the next few weeks trying to earn a bit of money to help me along, but in the end had to borrow money from friends for the trip. That enabled me to buy some new light gear; a small tent, a pocket sized APS (Advance Photo System) camera and summer sleeping bag which packed up into almost nothing. I checked over my bike a bit, a road touring bike – a Cecil Walker my parents had bought me in Melbourne, Australia in 1980. A few things needed doing on the bike, so I took it too my local cycle shop. As an after thought Stuart at Beeline cycles on Cowley Road in Oxford, suggested I add a second water bottle. How important that bottle was to be to me latter when I hit the killing heat of central Spain!
After several days of arranging and procrastinating, in early July, I eventually headed off with some trepidation from my home in Oxford. A neighbour took my photo pointing south next to my bike, with a sign saying ‘ Spain’ attached to the front of the bike. As luck would have it I had perfect conditions that day, a moderate tail wind which made the 130km to Portsmouth seem somewhat relaxing. Indeed I even stopped for a sleep in the sun outside a zoo near Twyford some 50km from Portsmouth, and I awoke with a few bus loads of school children looking onto me as if I was some sort of tramp. Perhaps they were right, and for some reason the thought cheered me; I was leaving the normal world of house bound living to one mostly on the road.
In the evening I boarded the Portsmouth ferry – the MV Bretagne to St. Malo, and settled in for the channel crossing chatting to a few other cyclists and watching a football World Cup game on the big screen. One of the cyclists was Tom, a pleasand chap in his 60’s from south Wales who was going to do a ride through Brittany. I looked at my maps and realized I had set myself a slightly difficult task – I was due in Madrid 13 days from leaving and my maps suggested the route was about 1300km – which meant 100km a day with no rest days. (In the end that distance was somewhat out, it was 1450km). I wasn’t sure I could make the ride, or that it was even feasible. Tom had cycled the part of my route through western France to the Spanish border, he said the west of France is easy to cycle – flat and protected from the wind, and its easy to roll through 100 miles a day. That gave me more confidence, and the Ferry docked in St. Malo at around 8am French time, and I headed south.
Tom’s advice of easy cycling was sound, and I found it even easier than he suggested. Within a few hours I had breezed past a rare hill Tom had warned me about. In fact I had realized by that time that Tom was a flat road cyclist and was a bit affraid of the hills. That first day in France I cycled 180km, crossed Brittany, and camped just west of Nantes in the village of St. Entienne de Montluc. I hardly speak a word of French, and hadn’t had time to try and learn even basic expressions before I left England, but somehow, mostly with pointing, I managed to mumble my way in a small store to buy some provisions. In the evening I sat with my maps and some refreshing Norman cider watching the sun set over the Loire. I reflected about cycling on the roads in France, the roads were so empty, very good condition and the drivers were very aware and used to driving with cyclists on the road. It was a cyclist’s paradise after the congestion of south east England, and I felt I was on my way to a great adventure.
On the ferry across the Loire, just west of Nantes
It took me a further 3 1/2 days to get through France, heading due south, through Rochefort in the Charente – Maritime region, then at Royan taking the ferry across the entrance to the Gironde to Puente de Grave. This meant I avoided the congestion of Bordeaux and could zoom along the cycle lanes of the flat Gironde and Landes regions. It was perfect weather – 25 degrees. I spent the evenings planning the next day, writing my diary, sipping cider and thinking I had found heaven. Despite my lack of French, I always found the French willing to help and usually there was someone around who would understand my mumbled attempts, or spoke English, or on odd occasion I could use my broken Spanish. A few mornings I thought I was too fatigued to go on, or felt I had a cold, but I found after about 60 or 70km cycling in the sun on the relaxing, almost empty roads, I would feel fine, and cycle along relaxed, smiling, even laughing sometimes from enjoyment.
My last night in France was Labenne-Ocean, a touristy seaside resort just north of Bayonne/Biarritz. It was the night of the World Cup Final and I joined the French in an outdoor bar to watch an amazing game, and the famous, and unexpected (by me anyway, and by many French) French victory. After the game the whole town, and presumably the whole of France, exploded into joyous, delirious celebration. It was hard to sleep that night, the party went on and on, with hordes of youths with their faces painted with the french tri-colour surging along the streets, singing and shouting in a very friendly way.
At lunch time on my 6th day I crossed the border into Spain, though with the new open Europe the border was not obvious, just some barriers from a pervious era of border controls, and a sign indicating speen limits in Spain. Indeed I had already crossed a more evident border by entering Euskadi/The Basque Country near Biarritz; the border there being made evident by the change of town names to the strange Euskera/Basque language. Being in Spain now made life slightly easier for me, I speak some Spanish with a thick Australian accent, but I can usually manage to have reasonable conversations. Although I don’t speak French, its not too hard to work out the road and town signs in France. Whilst all the Euskaldunak /Basques speak Spanish in the Spanish section, their native language Euskera/Basque is an ancient non Indo-European language which is very distinctive to read, with unusual letter combinations, such as the frequent ‘tx’, which sounds like a ‘ch’. Most signs are bilingual, but in some areas the Spanish names are painted over leaving the incomprehensible Euskera/Basque. I promised to myself to one day take more time in Euskadi/The Basque Country, and learn something of their ancient language. I recalled the many people in the regional areas of Spain don’t call Spanish ‘Spanish’ (‘Espanyol’), but ‘Castillano,’ since that is the language of the Castilla in the centre of Spain, whereas other the regions (notable Euskadi/The Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia) they have their own languages and other regions their own dialects.
As well as the the language changing as I arrived in Euskadi/The Basque Country, another noticable change was the scenery and topography, which was becoming increasingly hilly. I was avoiding the Pyrenees by cycling along the coast, but even then the road to Donostia /San Sebastianhad a few nice little climbs. I finished the day with a small climb up into the hills south of Donostia (San Sebastian), a pleasant ride through the valley of the Rio Oria. The valley is ringed by steep wooded hills and dotted with many industrial villages. It reminded me somewhat of the coal valleys of South Wales. As I progressed up the valley, I was caught and joined by a friendly local cyclist, Tomas, out on his daily ride. As we cycled up in grey weather, the amazing near cylindrical peak of Chindoqui (1341m) loomed through the clouds, and I made a mental note to one day return and take what must be a spectacutlar walk to the summit. There was no camping around, and I was too tired to wild camp, but luckily Tomas helped me find accommodation in the large town of Guipuzcoa/Beasin, some 40km south of Donostia/San Sebastian. He invited me to join him and some friends for a beer that evening, which was wonderfully inviting, but I all I could think about was food and sleep, and I retired early.
The next day I hit the hills and my first climb was an excellent Category 2 climb up the green and wooded 652m high Puerto de Otzuarte. Enroute I stopped at a viewpoint, and the sign indicated that the forest was run as a cooperative by local families who had lived in the valley for a long long time. It was nice to be in the hills and I stopped at ‘Otzauteko Benta’, a rustic rural bar on the pass and had several drinks with the publican and some locals; they were very friendly and asked me lots of questions about my cycling, and told me stories about local cyclists.
By this time I knew I was ahead of schedule and in the afternoon I rolled down to Gasteiz/Vitoria – the capital of Euskadi/The Basque Country to have my only rest day enroute to Madrid. I had a friend there, Ainhoa, and it was great to spend time with her there as my guide, showing me the local area the old parts of the city. On both evenings I went drinking with her and friends in a variety of appealing bars. It was great to feel normal again, sleep in a bed, and to have all my clothes washed.
After my welcome rest day I somewhat reluctanty continued south, taking in the pleasant climb up to the 1100m Puerto de Herrara which has an excellent viewpoint called the ‘Balcon de la Rioja’. One could see from there the plains and vineyards of La Rioja and it was clear I was passing into another totally different climatic zone, dry and hot compared to the green moist and mild climate to the north. Indeed the descent from the Balcon was like cycling into a furnace, at every corner the heat increased dramatically. Finally on the plain of La Rioja I was reminded of the heat of Australia, it was at least 40 degrees. I started to worry about the heat and whether I would have sufficient water to continue through to the isolated Valle of Najerilla in the Sierra Camerao Nuevo. For the first, but certainly not last time on this trip, I understood the dangers of cycling alone in a relatively remote area. In the end luck was with me, and I was caught by a Spanish friendly touring cyclist, Joqain, who rode with me for a few hours giving me welcome company in the isolated valley. Joquan’s skin was completely fried by the sun and he spoke fast with a difficult accent, presumably typical of his native Huesca further to the east. Joqain was touring Spain, and had done 4400km in a month, with several days over 250km. I tried to find out what he does for a living, to which he didn’t reply, then I asked if he studied; Joqain gave a huge grin and said ‘I study the bicycle’. I thought what a great subject!
Joquain was pressing on further to the south, and as I was tired and the sun was getting low, I stopped when I found a small grassed area to camp wild, next to the Rio Najerilla. I took a refreshing dip in the river, cooling me to a more acceptable temperature after the heat of the day. Conveniently, there was a small bar near where I camped, although the nearest villages were several kms up a side road. Several locals came down from the villages to the bar in the night and I chatted over several beers about their local life. They told me with sad eyes that their villages are dying, the young people, and jobs are moving to cities. Indeed that was a recurring theme from the rural people on my trip; the despondency and sadness of the decline of villages and tradional village life, and the lack of government help, or even of government recognition that there is a problem.
After a good night’s sleep I continued south west to Aranda de Duero, taking some wild desert scenery in the Yezca Valley, which reminded me of Arizona in the USA. After some 15km I was happy to find a Roman Villa near Villanueva de G. (I never found out what the G stood for), with an amazing almost complete mosaic. I was very pleased to see the Villa, but later found out I had passed within 10kms of the famous Roman town of Clunia (the most complete town outside of Italy), and cursed myself for not reading my map more carefully and preparing myself better. In Aranda I passed the evening with a Belgian couple sharing lots of local wine. They spend every summer in Aranda, a welcome change from the congestion in Belgium, and told me about many local sights, which I noted on my map, along with Clunia, for a future trip.
The next day, with my head throbbing from a slight wine hangover, I headed due south on the N1/E5 motorway, and climbed up to the Puerto de Somo Sierra at 1440m, where I recuperated with about 6 drinks of juices and lemonade. It was a Saturday, and not wishing to arrive in Madrid on a Saturday night, I spend a night at a nice campsite near Miraflores del Sol on the southern edge of the scenic Sierra de Guadarama, and relaxed in the evening; swimming in the campsite pool, and talking with the other campers. They were mostly from Madrid and often spent their weekends up in Miraflores in summer (some every weekend), to escape the heat and congestion; Miraflores is several hundred metres above Madrid and noticably less hot.
Arrival in Madrid:
The following morning, I rolled down to Madrid, and waved to many cyclists from there cycling up into the hills for the day. I had arrived in time for the work I had arranged, covering the 1450km in 12 days, including my 1 rest day in Gasteiz/Vitoria. I spent nearly 3 weeks working and living in Madrid, not looking at my bike at all, though I did go to a gym and to swim to keep in condition. It was great to be in Madrid again, to meet up with new and old friends, to go the famous Prado musuem and Thyssen gallery, relax in the El Retiro park, and to enjoy the rich night life. Indeed it was hard to leave Madrid, there was always someone else to meet up with the night before leaving; in Madrid that means meeting at midnight and staying out until 3 or 4am, making it difficult to get on the bike the next day.
Also, I had a dillema of exactly where to head to. I didn’t have a strong plan. Originally I had though of cycling south east from Madrid to Tarragona, Barcelona and the Mediterranean coast, which from the cool summer in England seemed like a great plan. The night before I left Madrid I was sitting in a terrace bar in my local Plaza, in the Tribunal district, and reread my notes from the start of the trip ‘Must head south to find some sun and warmth’. The aim of my trip had been to find the sun, and having found it shining down on me with remoreless intensity in heat around 45 degrees or more, I knew I could take no more, and decided to head north to fresher weather.
My objectives were now changed, on the way to Madrid I had needed to cycle long days to arrive in time, now I had no firm destination and I was aware that I probably won’t make, or didn’t want to make the date I originally planned to be back in England, late August. Also I had decided that now I wanted to take my time more, see more sites, and talk to locals more, and not just focus on cycling alone. I decided I should head to Segovia and rethink my route from there. I had one-half a mind to just go directly north to the mountains in Asturias, but was undecided.
Eventually on the afternoon of August 7th, I slowly made my way out of Madrid to famous town of El Escorial. I visited the spectacular palace and relaxed in the evening in a swimming pool at the excellent camp site there.
The next day I cycled up to see the amazing monument to General Franco and the hundreds of thousand of dead of the 1938 Spanish civil war in the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen). The cross on top of the hill, above the church and tomb, is the most enormous cross I have ever seen. Opposite Franco lies Jose Antonio, Francos first opponent as leader of the Falangists. I almost cried when I saw the tomb to the dead, inscribed ‘The Fallen, for God and for Spain’.
From the monument I cycled up what was to be my highest pass – the 1860m Puerto de Navacerrada in the Sierra de Guadarama; which means ‘Closed by Snow,’ giving a strong indication of the wild weather there in winter. It was a pleasant climb up in the heat and there were many cyclists at the top to chat with. If I had been a few days later I would have seen 2,000 cyclists passing over it with Pedro Delgado (1988 Tour de France winner) as part of his annual pilgrimage and promotion of his club, interestingly named ’53 x 13′ – I assume that refers to the gears for the descent not the ascent! Since the fame of Pedro (fondly called ‘Perico’ by the Spanish) and the great Miguel Indurrain, cycling in Spain has become even more popular, and though it trails behind soccer, there are literally thousands of cyclists out every weekend, and for many the main cycling obsession seems to be mountains.
Coming down from Navacerrada was a long windy descent, and I managed to stop at a nice stream and swim in a hole surrounded by Fir and Pine trees. Again I had crossed another natural climate barrier and already the air, whilst still very hot, was somewhat fresher than on the Madrid side – perhaps it was the lack of pollution. That night I watched the sun set on the striking Roman Aqueduct in Segovia and felt I was glad I was on the road again. I had enjoyed Madrid a lot, but somehow the life back on the bike, and the freedom of it, the countryside, was even more appealing. I ended the night chatting with an English couple, John and Angela, and sipping Spain’s only whisky ‘DYC’, brewed next to the campsite we were at on the outskirts of Segovia.
I headed slightly west of north to the medieval town of Tordesillas. On the way I passed through a small town, Coca, which has an excellent medieval castle, reminding me that the two central Spanish provinces, Castilla La Mancha and Castilla Leon, are so named because Castilla means ‘Land of Castles’. I had a much needed rest day, and lazed about shopping, sipping tea, and wandering around the old streets. Tordesillas might have been an unimportant town in early medieval times but in the 16th century it became famous as the place where the Pope, and the heads of Spain and Portugal sat down to divide South America between them, thus creating Portuguese Brazil, with the rest of South America becoming under Spanish control. Perhaps it was finding out about that meeting the spurred my mind on. I studied the map and realized I was only a day’s ride from Portugal which was completely unknown to me; I had to get there!
Hence I found myself heading west with the aim of fullfilling a dream to cycle the Duoro valley to Porto. I went from Tordesillas to the old Portuguese border town of Miranda del Duoro which, as the name suggests, has a great viewpoint over the Douro valley. The countryside just near Miranda del Duoro was wild and remote, arid, hot – though not as hot as in Madrid – and dotted with very poor villages with local woman wearing traditional dress: dark blue long tunics, with strange large blue hats, not unlike a nun’s habit. The farms were very poor with a few sheep or goats, the land rocky, some fields with a few small melons growing. The houses and fences were made of stone, somewhat reminiscent of Wales. Indeed the people of the North West of Spain and Northern Portugal are of Celtic descent and retain some Celtic music and traditions. That night in Miranda del Duoro I was elated to be in Portugal and had an excellent night at the campsite drinking with some Portuguese, Euskaldunak /Basques and some Dutch, while discussing the changes and future of Europe. The Euskaldunak /Basques insisted that it was their pride to pick up the bill for everybody, how nice they were!
The next day was a long one. I crossed several mountain ranges in wild remote country in the region known as Tras-os-Montes, with very few people and cars, and after the heat of the day I was caught in an incredible storm in the final 2 kilometres. The storm totally drenched and chilled me and turned the campsite at Villa Flor into a flooded chaos. I was fortunate to find a dryish spot, and the rain and hail eventually stopped enough to enable camping. There were 4 young Portuguese people near me, and the two fellows, Felipe and Carlos, spoke fluent English which they said they had partly learnt at school, but mostly by watching American films. They helped me pitch my tent and Felipe came over with a bottle of nice Portuguese Vinho Verde (Green Wine) which was very refreshing! Felipe was heading back to Porto and in a few days time was to be an excellent guide for me in the beautiful old part of that famous city.
The next morning I finally crossed back over a range, with a great 600m (2000 feet) descent to the Duoro valley, heading for the old town of Lamego. The valley was full off vineyards with grapes bulging everwhere; the Duoro climate and rocky soil produces lush grapes that produce the fortified wine which we call ‘Port’. I thought the day would be an easy 90 kilometres, and half expected a climb up to Lamego, it was 12 kilometres up a triburary valley off the main Duoro. Arriving in Lamego, very tired from the the last few days cycling, I looked up with some very big hills around, and had a sinking feeling that the campsite would be up on the top of them; I was right. The 6 kilometer climb to the campsite took me an hour, with the first kilometer out of Lamego feeling like a 1 in 5 gradient, and the last kilometer also a killer; though it did allow great views of the Duoro valley. In the last 2 kilometres before the campsite there was a fire still smouldering, and I learnt that 3 days previously the fire had reached the campsite, but with helicopters dropping water the campsite had managed to be saved. I spent the evening talking with some friendly French walkers who liberally shared their Port wine.
After the hills and long days of the previous few days I needed a rest, so had an easy day cycling along the Duoro (the descent from the campsite took me less than 10 minutes, it was a buzz!) and for only the second time staying in a hotel, this time in the village of Cinfaes. I even managed to have a sort of a conversation with a few locals in the street, using my limited Spanish and a few Portuguese words I had picked up from travelling in Brazil. I spent the evening chatting with an English couple travelling on a BMW motorbike, and we lamented, laughed and shared stories about the maps in Portugal; the main roads may be well marked and correct on maps, but the small rural roads are somewhat lacking. The problems with maps in Portugal and Spain, whilst not a very serious problem, was a recurring conversation theme with other cyclists and tourists.
The next day I headed along the final section of the Duoro, which was become increasingly lush and green and arrived in Porto. One thing that struck me was even 8km from Porto centre the Douro valley was still wooded and you had no idea there was a major city a very short distance away. Not wishing to stay in the campsite outside the city, I fond a pleasant hotel in the old quarter and enjoyed a few drinks in the evening with some nice French girls who were also staying in my hotel. Marie and Cathy lived in Brittany, and I was to call through and rest a day at Marie’s house on my return journey. I spent my rest day with Felipe, one of the group of four I had met in the campsite in Villar Flor. We toured around, stopping at old churches and places and Felipe recounting numerous historical facts and stories about Porto, and Portugal. We visited the ‘Cava’ (wine cellar) of Sandemans on the southern bank of the Duoro, across from the old quarter, in the area known as Gaia. Until not so long ago, wine was transported down the Duoro from the vineyards in traditional boats called barcos rabelos – some are still tied up on the docks at Gaia. Felipe told me his father recalls in his youth seeing dolphins enter the Duoro, sadly now they are long since gone. Felipe recounted a story about an old man who died a few years ago who was a fisherman and who knew the currents and swirls of the river so well that he became famous by predicting the location of bodies of people who had commited suicide by jumping of the very high bridge into the river. We finished the evening with a tour of the bars of the old quarter and I stumbled back to my hotel very late.
I headed north from Porto, along the coast, with the aim of getting to some of the famous parts of the north west province of Spain called Galicia. I spent one final night in Portugal in a small seaside town with a pleasant but crowded campsite and the following day crossed back into Spain and camped on a beach near the Galician city of Vigo. That night I got talking with some locals who helped me plan my future route. I found that I could avoid some distance, and the time of having to go into Vigo and Pontevedra by taking a ferry across their respective estuaries. This enabled me to spend a rest day on a quiet island, the Isla de Ons – just 5km long and less than 1km wide, were I relaxed, swam and walked around. Ons is quiet remote with only about 10 people in the old village in winter but in summer it has a few hundred people staying in some local accomodation and at the free campsite. Some campers stay all summer and there is a pleasant hippy/alternative atmosphere about the island, and a nudist beach. Walking along, I asked all old peasant lady digging potatoes in a field by her small house, if I could buy some of her potatoes, she said, ‘no you can have some’ and gave me an enormous sack full which I distributed amongst the campers.
From Ons I cycled onto the beautiful medieval city of Santiago de Compostella, and on the next day, a rest day, I spent a lot of time in its magnificent cathedral, and its crypts and museums. Compostella has been a place of incredible fame as a pilgrimage to visit the resting place of St. James (Santiago in Spainsh). Starting about 700 AD pilgrims came from central Europe and further away to visit it. Today many people still do walk to it, and cycle, notably from the Cathedral in Lourdes in France, and such pilgrims get free accomodation in huts on the way and in a pilgrims centre in Compostella itself. The combination of the medieval buildings and streets, combined with walkers and cyclists everywhere, was for me very interesting. Tthe pilgrims are full of fascinating stories about their journeys. Compostella was a great place to relax and unwind and dream of another time. I could have stayed for a long time but asI sat down and planned out a rough route for the return journey I realized how far I had come and how far I was from home – in fact I was only just half way through my trip.
From Santiago I headed west to Cabo Finisterre, and Galician equivalent of Englands Lands End, jutting out into the Atlantic, pointing to the American continent. One local I asked directions from said to me, ‘Finisterre really is the end of the civilized world’, and looked out west towards America. It was a longish days cycling, 140km, and into a head wind, but nice and warm, about 27 degrees. On Finisterre itself there was a group of about 50 people meditating, trying to derive spiritual energy from the Atlantic I suppose. I stayed for a while too, relaxed, and chatted with two young Germans who had driven down in 2 continuous days from Frankfurt to have a break and a change from the congestion there.
That night I drank into the wee hours with a friendly Welsh cyclist, Tom, and an English chap, Andrew. Tom had left Wales before Easter, and had cycled to Holyhead, taken the ferry to Ireland, toured it, including being caught in the Easter snow in the Wicklows, then took the ferry to Roscoff, in Brittany (France) and had zig-zagged his way across France and Spain, and had clocked up some 7000kms already. He was a very happy and friendly chap and spoke no Spanish (or French) and was living proof that with a smile and gesticulations you could survive very well without language. Andrew had quit his job as Computer Consultant in England and had driven down for a break, and was another of the many English I met that wanted to change life in congested South East England for a more relaxing, and cheaper lifestyle in Spain or France, indeed many such English have alread done so. We ended drinking a few local liquers, finishing with the Spanish traditional semi sweet liquor of ‘Pacharan’, made from berries of the blackthorn or sloe bush.
Finisterre was the western most point in my trip, and the next day, suffering from the night before, I was pleased to be finally heading east, and hence at least in the direction of home. I cycled over rolling hills to La Coruña. People I had met had recommend La Coruña as a nice place to visit, but, perhaps because I hit it at peak hour, I preferred to cycle on and got to a nice campsite next to a beach which was very relaxing and watched the sunset over the Atlantic. The campsite was called ‘America Beach’ and the family running it were watching a TV show about the life of Lady Di; personally I preferred to wander along the beach to watch the sunset.
From there I could have stuck to the interesting coastline, but I preffered to see some more inland areas and was attracted by the small mountains to the east of La Coruña. I took in the steady climb to 720m high Puerto de Gañidoira and cycled off the main roads onto local roads into the Sierra del Xistral trying to find a small village or nice spot where I could camp. The hills were very wooded with pine plantations, but also there were many native trees – Chestnuts and Hazelnuts were frequent – Galicia is the most forested part of Spain, and perhaps of western Europe. Searching for a camping place I passed through several very small villages of 10 houses or less that were evidently abandoned, and eventually saw a very old woman and her two sons cutting grass with Scythes in a field. I stopped to talk with them and it took me a few minutes to get used to there accent. Indeed Galicians have their own language, Gallegan, somewhat like Portuguese, but when they speak in Spanish (Castillian) they speak clearly (for me, in any case), in fact, somewhat ironically the speak it more clearly than the people of Madrid where Castellan orginates. Perhaps that is because it is their second language, so they don’t have the numerous colloquialisms. They told me there is a village, Xerdiz, a few kilometres down the valley, where there is a bar and that I would be able to camp in the village square next to the church. I told them the area was beautiful and the old lady replied through a grinning tootless mouth ‘I know you cyclists, you go to places much more beautiful than this, this is not so special for you’. I thought her remark was a just rebuff my somewhat platitudinous comment. I found the sleepy village and the bar where a few old men were drinking and playing cards and dominoes. The bar also acted as local shop, and somewhat of a community centre. The Publican’s family lived above it and shared the facilities with the clientel. It was the type of bar I love, full of old bottles and rusted signs on the walls, and as much a community centre as a place to drink.
The following day I felt very tired and didn’t have much enthusiasm to leave, eventually heading off in the drizzle. After about 5km I passed another nice bar in a small village called Minyotos, and without thinking about it stopped and entered the bar to have my usual morning fill of tea. I ended up staying several hours and talked a lot with the publican, Jose. He lamented the decline of the area, and that all the young people were shifting away, the only local industries, forestry and small scale farming not enough to keep them there. He also was very annoyed with the lack of help for small rural communities from the government. He felt they had been abandoned and that in a few years his village would become a ghost town. I told him I had the idea of returning to an area like that to live for some months, even a year, and was interested in finding somewhere cheap to live. He replied that there is no need to pay rent, just live in one of the abandoned houses. He had such a house which was left to him and a friend by his friend’s parents, where no one wants to live, and took me to it, about 1km up into the forest from the village. It was a nice house, perhaps 100 years old, still with electricity and water and a garden his friend maintains and grows vegetables. Jose said I was welcome to live there for free if I wanted as long as I kept the place clean. I made notes in my diary about this. The idea of living in such a village for awhile sounded appealing and I made a mental note to pursue such an idea the next year. Jose also said I could certainly find some work teaching English to the local children, he didn’t think it would pay much, but enough to cover food and drink.
Jose’s bar was simple but nice and had interesting photos of locals on the wall. One was of a local with a huge wolf he had just shot. Jose informed me that parts of northen Spain and northen Italy are the only areas where wolves roam wild in Western Europe. That fact made me think this area was like an old wilderness, amazingly preserved and isolated, but yet only 20kms from the modernised coast town of Viveiro. I wondered with the decline in the villages what the future had in store for the area, perhaps eventually there will be better roads, even a motorway, and the villages will be rediscovered by commuters, weekend vacationers, and foreigners, and the local peoples will be displaced. I assume then the wolves would move further up the valley until they reach the treeless high moorland without the protection of the forest.
It was after 1pm by the time I cycled on from Minyotos, descending down to the hussle and bustle of the coast, 30km, but another world, away. Despite being back on main roads there were several nice towns on the coast, Ribadeo notably. I finished the day very late on a spectacular clifftop campsite over looking the sea at Luarca . I had crossed from Galicia into the province of Asutrias, famed for its mountains and cider, and friendly people.
The next day I headed south east away from the coast as I was aiming to go to the spectacular Picos de Europa in a few days time. I cycled up into cloud over a nice pass, some 700m up at La Espina. I stopped at a small bar on the descent to have some refreshments and a bite to eat. When I came to ask for the bill, the landlady replied, ‘The bill is nothing, I want you to remember Asturias fondly’. I could not recall such generosity in the past and it was all the more surprising as the people were clearly not wealthy.
I rolled down to the Asturian capital, Oviedo, to have a day’s rest before the mountains and to gather information about them. I went out both nights sampling the delightful local cider. Asturian cider is not aerated, but is made so before drinking by pouring it with one arm extended aloft tiping the cider into a glass held down in the other hand, and moving the glass around and around. This is somewhat of a performance art form at which the Asutrians delight and the cider must be drank straight down before the bubbles introduced in pouring escape. That meant you could only buy a bottle at a time (which was only 1£ anyway) – I had asked the waiter if I could just by a few glasses but he said no, then he looked at me and said I would drink two bottles – which I did over the next few hours. I talked to a few groups of locals near me, they were very interesting, and told me many things about Asuturias. One chap called Acionso told me some of the abandoned villages had been taken over by communes who where trying to build self sufficient comminities. A splendid ideal I thought.
Fuelled no doubt by energy from the cider the following day I headed off from Oviedo towards the Picos de Europa, up the green wooded Nalon valley, and slowly made the way up to the barren 1625m summit of Puerto Las Senyales. The north coastal side of the range had been lush and moist but now that I had crossed onto the southern side (and back into the province of Castilla Leon) it was somewhat drier. I fancied staying the night up high and just below there appeared a small village of some 20 houses, which I later found was called Montes Luengos. It wasn’t a normal village but holiday houses. However, it was a spectacular location and at around 1500m the air was crisp and clear. I asked the first person I could see was there anywhere to camp, she was unusually stern and said no, and to go down to the valley below. Not wanting to give up I proceeded along the road and stopped at the last house where two chaps and a lady were working on a house. I recieved a much more hospitalble reply. Tthey said I could camp in the garden and use the facilities in the house. I spent several hours that evening talking with the people, Jose and Angelica. They were very friendly Asutrians and lived down in Pola de Laviana, a town in the valley I had ridden up. They have the house up in the mountains for a retreat, in summer for relaxing in the sun and walking, and for cross-country skiing in winter, when the snow can be banked up to the roof of the house on the windward side. Jose and Angelicas have a daughter who, like me, travels the world a lot, and their hospitality was driven by a pleasant curiousity about others and the hope that the people their daugher meets will treat her as they do others. They allowed me free access to their kitchen and bathroom and I passed a perfect night’s sleep.
In the morning Jose insisted before I left on pouring me some more Asturian cider, after which I wobbled my way down to the valley not very far below. At a dam in the valley bottom I headed back north into the mountains, climbing steadily to the 1450m Puerto de Panderruedas which I believe translates appopriately as ‘the pass of wobbly wheels’. The descent off the pass was a dream of straights and hairpins to the small but touristy town of Posado de Valdeon, the southern gateway to the central Picos de Europea. I took a local road into the Cares valley into the heart of the Picos to the village of Cain. The road was only wide enough for 1 car with 20% descent in places and a bad surface. I found it hard to control the bike on some sections. Cain is surrounded by peaks and is popular with walkers who walk into the mountains or do the much easier valley walk to the northern end of the Cares Gorge. I stopped for a while to rest and talked with some local chidren who were interested to know where I was from and where I had cycled. Occassionally when I slurred that ‘I am Australian’ in my bad Spanish, people would think I was saying ‘I am Asutrian’ and I would have to repeat myself several times. Most people had heard of Australia, many referred to Kangaroos, and the Sydney 2000 Olympics. One nice bar owner I chatted with said, “We don’t get many Australians here, its too far away”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Europe is swarming with thousands of young Australians (and Kiwis) but that most appear to be on organized trips on quick bus trips visiting only the main touristy places, like Barcelona, Madrid, and Pamplona for the Fiera de San Fermin (the ‘Running of the Bulls’).
The ride back up the Cares valley was a nice little challenge, the short 14 to 20% ascents achievable because they are separated by much less step, or even flat sections. I wanted to make camp a bit up the Cares valley in the small village of Cordinyanes, but there is no campsite. The family running the sole local bar told me to just camp by the road on the edge of the village overlooking the Cares river. I talked with three young Spaniards who has just walked up the valley and were heading over the high parts to the eastern section of the Picos. They were jovial relaxed chaps and I sat drinking with them for an hour or two before they disappeared up the steep slopes into the mountains.
I was planning the next day to do the 1200m ascent to ‘Collado Jermosa’ (‘Beautiful Pass’) in the Central Picos and to return the same day. Again, the family in the bar helped me by allowing me to lock my bike in the safety and shelter of their ‘Horreos’, a traditional granary or shed for storing corn and hay that is raised off the ground on wooden posts for protection from rodents. They looked, oddly, similar to barns I had seen in Nepal. I knew the day’s walk would be long and got going by 10am, carrying 3 litres of water as walkers the day before had told me there is no watter until you reach a spring near a mountain hut just below the pass. There were several paths leading up into the mountains in the direction I was going so I stopped to ask an old lady the best route. She told me to take the small path leading up and to the right, not the left path which went to a mine, and to ascend on many zig-zags up and up and up, grinning as she spoke. I headed off and within an hour or so had finished the zig-zags and crossed into a steep valley and over into a lush forest of Beech and Fir. Acsending through the forest I reached a plateau where my guide book said to ascend to the ridge on the left. I did so rested a few moments at the top and to check on the path. My guide book and map I was carrying was indicating I should cross over the ridge but the path I could see remained on this side and traversed below the towering cliffs. I was also confused by some of the words in my Spanish guide book which I had didn’t understand. I was prepared for the map to be inaccurate – all maps I’ve encountered in Spain have been somewhat schematic and full of inaccuracies and other walkers had warned me of the same. I was suprised that the little map in my guide book was inacurrate but I decided to follow the obvious path and was relived to note occasional markers which the old lady had also mentioned I must follow.
I wondered how long ago was the last time the lady had done the walk? I knew from the guide book that there were some slightly tricky bits and an hour latter I arrived on a very steep ascent, full of scree and rock scrambles, one section was roped up. Conscious of the danger of walking alone, I proceeded cautiously and eventually got to the mountain hut and onto the Col at around 2000m altitude with amazing views down the Cares valley and across to the Western Picos de Europa. I sat in the sun eating and watching various birds hover in the wind currents. After a long rest I return to the hut, had a quick chat to a few people there, and started the descent, stopping to chat to two walkers ascending. They were crossing over to the highest parts of the Picos and thought I was crazy for walking in what is a quite isolated pars of the mountains on my own. Indeed, the steep descent from that ridge was somewhat nerve racking and I could feel my knees wobbling a lot. Two hours later I stumbled, quite tired, back to Cordinyanes and relaxed in the sun drinking. I then cycled 8km further up the valley to Santa Marina del Valdeon to a pleasant campsite next to a stream. By now it was the end of August and the campsites were much quieter. However, there was a group of three Kiwi cyclists with whom I drank into the evening. It turned out two now live in Oxford and are almost my neighbours – a small world.
The following day, the 1st of September, I found I could hardly walk. The walking the previous day had put countless cramps in my muscles – I could hardly move. I suppose some steep mountain walking after weeks of cycling uses different muscles and puts incompatible strains on some of the leg muscles. So I resigned myself to a rest day, cleaning my bike, organizing gear, but I did manage to hobble into the village for lunch and a few drinks. I spoke with a few locals at the bar and some Spanish tourists who liked Santa Marina because it is not spoilt like the neighbouring village of Posado. Although I didn’t know it then, this rest day was to be my last until 1465km and 17 days later in Brittany in France. Back at the campsite I met an Australian woman, Joy, and her Australianized English boyrfriend Peter, and exchanged travel stories for a while. I slept early hoping the rest would help my legs recover.
I arose early and my legs were slightly better so I decided to push on after massaging and strecthing. The first few kilometres were up to the Puerto de Pandetrave, 1563m, about a 300m climb, I took it very slowly. At the Puerto I had to make a crucial descion, I wanted to get to the cable car at Fuente De to see that section of the Picos but by the main road it was 60km and several passes away. Off to the left on the Puerto de Pandetrave was a track heading directly across to Fuente De with only a small pass on the way. A park ranger was coming along the track in his 4-wheel drive, so I asked him about the surface. He said it was mostly rocky, some sand, and worn in parts, best on a mountain bike, not on a touring bike like mine. I was also somewhat worried about my tyres. My rear tire was not just completly bald but in sections the Kevlar binding was showing through. The front tyre was bald but still looked strong – and luckily so. My front wheel is an old 27 inch one, no tyres for it on the continent and if it needed to be replaced I would have to buy a whole new wheel.
Despite the rangers advice I headed off slowly on the track. It was very rocky up to the Col and hard to control my bike with all the weight on it but it reminded me of dirt roads in Australia and I was enjoying it. The descent to Fuente De was long, about 10km, and 1km from the top I stopped to chat with Jorge, a biologist doing field work near the road. He told me the track gets more sandy and rutted and to be careful. I said I would be OK and he watched me head off. On the first hair pin bend I lost control, the bike slipping from under me into a deep rut. I rolled around in the dust and cursed a few times, but was unhurt. Jorge stood above me shouting out to check I was OK. The rest of the descent was mostly pleasant and I stopped to chat to some walkers and to admire the incredible view of the middle and western sections of the Picos de Europa, spendid pinacles rising up to around 2600m. The final section into Fuente De was very steep and it was hard to slow the bike down. All the time my back wheel was slipping on rocks as I braked. I was hoping the tyre would survive. Finally I arrived at the campsite there, and chatted to a few people and rested. I glanced over at my rear wheel and noticed the tyre had gone flat and it was in shreads, almost all the rubber off the Kevlar belting.
The front tyre had come through OK, and was to remain much the same through the rest of my trip. I suppose with most of my weight on the back the back tyre gets damaged easily. I replaced the rear tube and hoped I would be able to head on and find a cycle shop. First I went up the cable car to the 1834m viewpoint to enjoy splendid views across the Picos, and I could make out the mountain track I had followed, wondering if that had been a good descision and if I would find a shop nearby. Fortuntaley 15km down the valley in Potes there was a small Michelin shop and I pulled into it and showed the owner my back tyre. Eventually he produced a new tyre, not a very good quality one, so I asked if he had any better ones, like the Kevlar belted one I had used. He clearly had never seen a tyre like my old one, he said ‘No, this new tyre is much better than that old one of yours, look at it, its a wreck’. I wasn’t at all convinced and told him that at least that old tyre had done some 8000kms since I bought it, much of of the time with heavy weight on it. Still I was very grateful to have a new tyre, and he also tightened my brakes and fixed my rear bike light – I knew I would be going through some tunnels further east, and also, the days were starting to draw in a bit.
As I was leaving Potes I got talking with two pleasant English cyclists on a tandem, who had just cycled up from the coast. They warned my to be careful on the road out to the coast. There were fires along the steep sided gorge and whilst the fire was not near the road, it was spitting rocks all over the road from above and appeared to be getting worse. I reluctantly headed down the valley and not really wanting to get killed by a flying hot rock I decided to camp along the road somewhere. I found a nice local bar and asked if I migidn’t mind. Just as I put my tent up the Guardia did arrive at the bar so I thought the best approach was to go to the bar and talk with them if needed. In the end they seemed impressed with my cycling and not the least interested in me camping in the field and I passed a pleasant night.
The following day I had a hard descision, I really wanted to see more of the Picos, but knew I would not be able to walk more as it affected my cycling too much. So I bid farewell to the beautiful Picos, vowing to return sometime soon, and headed east to the coast and to the perfectly preserved but very touristy medieval village of Santillana del Mer, that, despite its name, is now some 5km from the sea. Santillana is close to the port of Santander where ferries arrive from Plymouth in England and the campsite was full of English familes. It made me feel I was finally on the way back to England. Also nearby are the famous caves of Altamira. They have some of the best preserved prehistoric rock paintings in Europe, mostly of Bison and people. I asked a local old man if I could visit the caves and he replied ‘No you can’t until at least the year 2002, the caves only admit a limited number of people per day – 10, so as the preserve the paintings, and it is fully booked out until then. But they are building an exact replica next to it which should be open next year’. I was dissapointed but strolled around Santillana in the evening marvelling at its old buildings and despite more tourists than one would like, it still had a medieval and rustic charm. I watched a farmer herd his cattle up through the old streets, past the church as the sun was setting, and another farmer cutting grass on his farm on the edge of the village in the age old way using a sycthe.
That night it rained and as usual in the morning I procrastinated a lot, but finally heading off eastwards at midday. I by-passed Torrelavega (‘Tower Meadow’) but got lost and stopped to ask a local for directions, in particular for a small road eastwards that would keep me away from the congestion on the coast at Santander. I was initially dismayed when he replied “You need to take the road to La Montanya (‘The Mountain'” – I had been hoping for an easy day. A few kilometers latter I was relieved to find ‘La Montanya’ was a tiny village, somewhat inappropriately named, perched on a small hill. I pressed along to the coast east of Santander and considered stopping at the nice coastal town of Laredo but wanted to make it further, hoping to get to Euskadi/The Basque Country.
During the 500m climb out of Laredo I got caught in a downpour and for the first time in the trips used my waterprof jacket. Then I punctured a tyre on the descent. Eventually, as the sun was almost setting, I crossed into the Euskadi/the Basque Country and got directions to a coastal campsite. I was dreaming of an idyllic beach campsite to rest. Indeed, there was a beach opposite the campsite, but there was also an oil refinery next to it. It was a Saturday night and rather than trying to sleep early with the smells of oil wafting through my nostrils, I made for a local bar, where I got chatting with some friendly locals. Two pleasant young chaps told me how they had been cyclists – doing 15,000km a year, but now they wanted to enjoy there lives! They also gave me some advice on avoiding the industrial sprawl of Bilbao, telling me to take take a coastal road into the outskirts of town until I got to a bridge, that they described as famous and as ‘hanging’ but I took them to mean a suspension bridge. To my surprise the next day I found it indeed was a hanging bridge, literally a slab hanging down on 4 wires from high supports and moved along by rollers at the top, operated from below, and costing almost nothing to cross.
Crossing the bridge put me quickly back into pleasant countryside and after vearing inland from the coast I was pleased to find a beautiful castle, Castle Butron, and it was open. I went on a very informative tour – the Castle’s keep was originally 13th Century, but mostly built in the 16th and 17th century as the seat of Lord Butron, one of the famous Lords of Vizcaya. It had fallen into disrepair but was renovated last century with and the woods surrounding it planted with trees from around the world. Wandering in the castle and its groudns was a welcome change from cycling but after a few hours I headed further east, eventually coming to the old Vizcaya capital of Guernica. I already new a bit about Guernica, partly for the famed fairness of its medieval government which sat under a tree, partly because the moving and disturbing painting of the same name by Picasso which adorns a wall in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The painting is a mixture of human and bull parts, representing the horror that Franco (with Hitlers Lufftwafe’s help) had inflicted on Guernica in the 1938 civil war. Repaying with vengance the local miners going on strike. With this mixture of tragedy and celebrated history I found my way to the Assembly House where a pleasant guard in full old uniform offered to watch my bike for me as I looked around. The grounds of the Assembly House contain the present Oak tree, dating from 1860, which represents the history of the Vizcayan assembly. The assembly was dissolved in 1876 but restarted again in 1979 and sits under perhaps the most amazing modern (1985) stained glass window I have seen. It features aspects of past local history.
From Guernica I crossed some small but, to my cycling legs, not insignificant hills to the coast and ended in a very pleasant campsite near the picturesque coastal town of Lekeito. Lekeito has a pleasant natural harbour with an island in the middle that you can walk to at low tide. The town was in festival mode. The locals were out in force, drinking and participating in a variety of contests from rowing to dunking people in the river, to throwing full wheat sacks over what appeared to me to be high jumps. I spent the evening watching the events and talking with a young English cyclist, Chris, who had cycled alone via Germany and Italy acorss France and into Spain. Chris had found cycling alone hard. But said he was getting used to it as long as he didn’t spend to many nights alone, camping wild. His back tyre was even worse than mine that disentegrated in the Picos and he seemed pleased both to have someone to chat with for a while and an excuse for a day or two rest while he found a new tyre.
The next morning the weather was perfect, some 25 degrees maximum and a slight tailwind. I awoke, determined to cross back into France. The coastal road was spectacular with small hills and coves. After a few hours I found myself directed by the road onto a motorway on the outskirts of Donostia/San Sebastian. After a few kilometers there was a sign telling cyclists and other non moroway traffic to get off but not wishing to return to the slow urban roads in Donostia I made a quick decision to stay on the motorway until I got as close to the border as possible. There was little traffic but I became worried when I realised the motorway was a toll road and eventually I would have to exit. Finally after some 20 or so km I came to a toll barrier just near the border town of Irun. Not knowing quite what to do I read the signs which had the usual toll booth signs for cars, trucks, etc. As there was none for cycles I crossed through an automatic booth (I assume drivers pay with some card they have) and came to an abrupt stop as I set of a series of alarm lights and bells. Some of the toll booth operators were yelling at me ‘What are you doing,’ etc. and I stayed calm as I was directed forward to be interviewed by three young weapon carrying soldiers. I pretented to know no Spanish but mumbled ‘mistake’ a few times and pointed somewhat randomly at my map with a confused expression. I found the soldiers pleasant and friendly as they told me in broken English ‘Bike, Motorway, No’ and pointed me to the next exit. In fact I think I broke the boredom of the day for them as I cycled off I looked back to see them shaking theirs heads and laughing. In Irun a large group of perhaps 50 cyclist passed the other way in brightly coloured reflective gear, speaking English, but I didn’t stop to find out more. From Irun, instead of taking the coastal road I had entered Spain on some weeks earlier I headed inland and stopped for some drinks at a service station. The proprietor laughed as I told him I had cycled along the motorway and confirmed my suspicion that in fact the local roads are much more dangerous and have many accidents. With this caution I headed south up the green and wooded Bidisoa valley.
At the village of Bera I stopped to ask directions and a local drew for me what turned out to be an incredibly accurate map of the best route to my destination of Sare in France. It dawned on me that I could now change back from 1 to 400,000 Michellin maps of Spain to the wonderful 1 to 200,000 French maps. As I’ve mentioned, the Spanish maps leave a lot to be desired and being able to use the French maps again made me simultaneously happy and sad; happy to be able to trust the maps are accurate, hence making life somewhat easier, but sad because then some of the adventure would be lost. Another change for me was the language. Now my conversations with the locals would be limited to English speakers. Sare was a small medieval town. I sat in the campsite that evening and planned a vague route back through France, heading further east as I went north, thus avoiding Bordeaux, and the taking in some of the Dordogne and Loire valleys.
My desires to get quickly towards Dordogne were thwarted somewhat by rain the next day, not very heavy and continuous rain, just enough to be annoying and to need to seek shelter on occasions. In one such place I arrived at an old mansion which had a very interesting exposition on Chili peppers – both local and from around the world. Despite the rain it felt pleasant to be taking my time in France, compared to the zoom through in 4 and 1/2 days I had done on the way down. That evening I arrived at a small village just off the Gave de Pau and found a wonderful farm campsite run by a very pleasant old lady. It had a shelter which enabled me to dry some clothes, very handy, as the next days were to be a continual struggle against rain and dampness. I sat in the evening reading in the shelter and shared a beer with the only other campsite inhabitants, a Dutch couple travelling in a campervan.
The next day occasional showers were blowing in from the Altantic but as I was mostly heading eastwards (well, north-eastwards) I had a splendid tail wind. On the flat straight roads of the Landes I made an easy 160km and arrived on the Garonne river (that passes through Bordeaux) . My front wheel was wobbling a bit by this stage, and not pretending to be a wheel straightening expert I was keeping an eye out for a cycle shop. Luck was with me; I noticed a boy and his father straightening bicycle wheels outside their house and I asked if they could straighten mine (the son spoke Spanish, which saved my dilema of not knowing how to ask in French). That they duly did and wished me well on my journey.
The following day the flat land gave way to small rolling hills and I pushed on to the Dordogne, so pleasant, green, lush, and full of idyllic medieval villages and castles, some cut into the cliffs on the banks of the river. The Dordogne its full of English people; both holiday makers and those living there. I could certainly see the appeal of the area and despite the noticable tourist presence there was still a rustic, medieval, alluring charm . The surrounding countryside was a mixture of deciduos forests, corn fields, and farms with tobacco drying in large barns.
I had originally had the idea of heading into the Puy area of central France, cycling the wonderful spiral road up the Puy du Dome near Claremont Ferrand. It was very tempting to head further east the as the following day there was an even stronger westerly wind (with the usual accompanying showers) which would blow me there in a few days. I sat in a bar at lunch time in Sarlat-la-Caneda and wondered at yet another idyllic medieval town and contemplated my route north. Sarlat is so well preserved the street lights are still gas, no electric street lights at all. In this romantic setting the feeling that I must finally turn north westwards was coming strong onto me, perhaps because of the number of English people I had met, but also because campsites were now often closed and more would do so in a few days time (in France many campsites close on September 1st or 15th). Lodged in my mind was also the risk of getting blown further eastwards and then having to spend days and days pushing back into the headwinds towards Brittany and Normandy.
The air was feeling definitely fresh, many trees had all but lost their leaves with the feeling of autumn coming and summer closing down with increasingly short days. I finally made my mind up to head to the north west, missing the chance to go to the Puy region. This turned out to be a good decision; it was a bit further to Brittany than I had calculated and the wet westerly wind did indeed hammer me for the next week. An interesting feature of the Dordogne was the neolithic cave paintings and etchings -clearly the area has been populated since time dot. Like in Spain however, I never managed to enter the caves to see the ancient art; this time they were already booked out a few weeks in advance. I camped at a municipal campsite in a small village – Trelissac, just east of Perigueux – and watched the campsite manager beat his friends at Boulle. I fancied joining in the match but it was far to serious and competitive for my competence level.
I resolved the following day to get onto more smaller roads again and stopped to ask an old man directions for a very small local road. By combination of pointing and some guesswork, all I could work out was he wanted to show me on my map but he needed my glasses. I knew this wouldn’t work (I am short sighted) and when he put my glasses on he looked at the map, realised he still couldn’t see (even worse, I should imagine), handed them back, threw up his hands and walked away exclaiming uncomprehensibly. I did find the road and pushed on that day, with frequent stops to try and avoid the rain. Eventually I just decided to get wet but it was somewhat pleasant on the small local roads, often through dense forests. In the evening I had to put up my tent in the rain with many of my things soaked. I found a bar in the evening to dry out and noted that the beer selection was starting to improve as I headed north – the bar had excellent German Weiss beer.
The sun did come out the next day and I managed to dry some of my things before setting off, finding my way to the Vienne river; which is a bit unusual as it runs south to north (most rivers in that part of France are east to west). The weather deteriorated during the day and in the late afternoon I was frustrated in my attempts to find a campsite, all were closed now. I decided to buy some food in a small market in another village and asked there where is the campsite, which created a minor comotion amongst some locals in the shop who pushed a somewhat tipsy but friendly chap in my direction. I worked out he was the campsite manager. By yet another conversation of gesticulations I understood that I was to jump on my bike and follow him. The the camping ground was empty and essentially flooded but there was a cover where I could sleep. At this stage I would sleep anywhere dry and wasn’t expecting much. In fact the campsite was excellent, a basic, but large hut with very hot showers, a sleeping room, and a dinning room overlooking a small lake, and all very cheap – 11Fr. I easily cooked in the dinning room and dried out some things, aided by a 200W light throwing out a noticeable amount of heat.
Somewhat refereshed the following morning I headed to the north, staying alongside the Vienne river and passing through several nice medieval villages. At Chauvigny I went on a tour of the lavish Chateaux de Touffou. The tour guide spoke in French but a local family translated for me. I was ammused when I asked them to translate what the guide was saying in the kitchen. I assumed she was talking about the food and cooking techniques but my translaters said “We don’t know, we don’t have a clue what she is talking about at all!” In the evening I managed to find a bar just open – I had become aware as I was heading north that bars were closing very early in the evening in the villages and often the villages were dead by 8.30 or 9pm. Pierre, the owner of the bar I strayed into spoke excellent English and was proud of the fact and of his bar, ‘Au Feu de Bois’, (‘the Fire of Wood’). Pierre was from near Lille and had the romantic affection for the beer and bars of his neighbours in Belgium. He was somewhat scathing of his fellow Frenchmans disregard for beer and also told me it was 10 years before the locals accepted him into their town because he was from another region. He was considering shifting now to another region but didn’t want to go south of Bordeaux where he says ‘everything is run by the mafia’ to whom publicans need to pay protection money. This loathing of the south of France presented him with a dilema about moving for it was his observation that French people were shifting south (in search of better weather, I assume) and that the north was finished. My conclusion was that he would end up staying put.
The following day I finally made my obejective of reaching the Loire valley, stopping to take in the sights in the village of Montsoreau where the Vienne meets the Loire. On the Loire there are many interesting types of buildings, not just enormous opulent Chateaux but also houses and bars called ‘troglodytes’ presumably after their neolithic forbearers. These latter are carved into the soft limestone rock on the banks of the river. Some are specifically for growing mushrooms. Such mushrooms are somewhat oddly called ‘Champignon de Paris’, which I believe stems from the fact that their technique of growing growing mushrooms in caves started in Paris.
The following day I cycled lazily along the Loire, though sometimes straying up the surronding hills. It was idyllic, despite some drizzle and the continuing steady head wind. I was just getting used to saying a few words in French and thinking I would like to spend more time there. Then I stopped for a rest and some food. As I bit into my baguette I felt an unexpected crunch – fortunately I held back my bite and the baguette revealed a dead cockroach! That put me off a little bit. I camped on the Loire at Ancenis, just west of Nantes, and savoured my evening drink of cider, knowing my trip was finally was nearing an end.
The following day marked my change of direction from heading westwards to northwards and I had been expecting to the predominantly south westerly wind to assist me. But as the cyclists sods law goes, the wind had shifted during the night to a north westerly so I again had a headwind. The clouds of the last week had finally broken but it was cool. I cycled easily and stopped in a few small medieval villages for tea and to view old castles. I camped in the town of Marigne -Ferchaud with only a couple as companions. I wandered into the town in the evening and found an empty but open bar that looked like it hadn’t changed since World War II, or earlier, with classic red wallpaper and a host of old photos on the wall. The proprietor was friendly and very interested a lot in my cycling. However, after a few minutes I had exhausted what I could say in French and relaxed sipping my beer and reading.
The next day was ony a 1/2 day, 50 kilometre ride to the village called Cornille, near the town of Vitre, just east of Rennes. I was back in Brittany. There I rested there for 2 nights, my first rest day for 17 days and 1465km. And I needed it. I stayed in the house of Marie, one of the French girls I met in Porto. Marie was a wonderful host, giving me run of her house, food, and wine whilst she worked. I took her labrador for a walk (or more correctly, it eagerly took me for a walk) and relaxed in the autumn sun and chatted with Marie late into the night after she returned from work. I felt normal and back in civilization again.
I said good by to Marie on a splendid, sunny day. Luckily the wind was now with me and within 4 hours through small rolling forested hills I was at Le Mont St Michel, the spectacular rock on the north coast of Brittany with its dominating monastery and Church. I wandered through the medieval streets but it quickly it became apparent that St. Michel was living up to its reputation as the second biggest tourist destination in France after the Eiffel Tower. The streets were packed with hords of people stopping to buy trinkets and food. Occasionally groups of monks passed by giving a more authentic air but after being on the road for weeks and away from crowds I found an hour there was enough for me and I headed off around the coast into Normandy. I passed one campsite but pressed on northwards, thinking I would find another. But after an hour or so the sun was starting to set and there were no campsites around. I turned off the main road north of Arvanches onto small roads and thought about just camping on the side of the road. However I stopped and asked an old couple if there was a campsite and I eventually understood their reply that yes there was one a few kilometers away. The campsite was basic, run by a friendly Englishman called Fred, who let me stay in one of his caravans instead of camping. He also let meo use his kitchen for cooking my meal. Fred freely handed out wine and it was interesting talking to him about living in Normany. He loved it but felt somewhat isolated. Two couples from Belgium were also staying there and we passed a friendly evening drinking together and chatting about travels and the world.
My next day was my last day cycling in France. I pushed on northwards and made the romantic town of Bayeux by late afternoon. I spent two hours here reading about and looking at the world famous ‘Bayeux Tapestry’. I knew about the Norman invasion of England under William the Conquerer in 1066 and the tapestry was made soon after that. The tapestry bought history alive for me; it is a graphic account of the events leading up to the invasion and the famous battle (at Battle, near Hastings in southeastern England). Seeing the tapestry made me note the strong connections between Normandy and England, despite the different languages. I had a feeling they were closer than Normandy is to some of the parts of southwest France I had cycled through.
I pushed on from Bayeux and arrived at dusk at the port of Ouistreham, near Caen, and borded the night ferry. It was a pleasant crossing and though part of me was glad to be going back to England, a big part of me was still behind, somewhere in France, Spain or Portugal, longing for another small road, with an old village to camp next to, and a rustic bar to pass the evening in.
The ferry arrived at Portsmouth at dawn and I headed north towards Oxford feeling strange to be back in England, not just because of being back on the left side of the road. England felt so different, so congested, more developed, busier. In the middle of the afternoon I rolled into Oxford with a sad satisfaction of having completed what for me was more than just my longest cycle trip. I felt I had learnt more about three beautiful countries and their people. The urge to return there remains with me. Another theme that occured to me was the desire to make more antipodeans aware of the beauty of rural France, Spain and Portugal and to try and encourage more travelling off the main toursit routes in those countries.
On the practical cycling side of things, I had cycled 5051km, in 50 cycling days, had spent another 8 days resting, one day walking in the mountains, and 20 days in Madrid. 264km in two days in England, 2130km in 18 days plus one rest day in France, 2207km in 24 cycling days (plus 24 non cycling days) in Spain, and 450km in 6 cycling days (plus one rest day) in Portugal. I used two pairs of cycling mits, worn through 1 rear tyre, had 6 punctures, and at some stage a wobbly front wheel. But I had no misshaps or difficulties. Back in Australia people have asked me how did the locals treat me and my answer was that everywhere I was treated wonderfully, sometimes like a special guest. I felt none of the slight chill that some English people feel in France. The French were always courtious and polite and friendly too me and I would say the place in the world where drivers respect cyclists most. Equally in Spain and Portugal the people I met were very friendly and I never once felt unsafe with anyone. My only desire would be that one day there will be better road maps of Spain and Portugal and that as they modernize their road network they don’t continue to forget cyclists as their planning seems to be doing in many areas. At the moment they could learn a lot from the French road system.
Since you are reading my story on this website you will see that I did return to Spain, to live and build a business there. I think I am one of the luckier people in the world to be able to live my dream.
This trip and article is dedicated to the memory of my Father, Kevin Budin, born 10/11/29, died 26/4/98.
Copyright G.R.Budin, October 1998.