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from Littlehuan


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Cold mountains, warm welcomes.

I write, as usual, from an Albergue, the improbably cheap pilgrims’ hostels that line the Camino De Santiago. My ride down from the mountains alongside swollen rivers into Pamplona, then onto the Camino itself has seen the countryside change. Near-vertical sided valleys clad with snow topped pines have given way to my first olive groves and vineyards (yes I did cycle past Bordeaux without seeing one..) planted on gentle, south facing slopes to make the most of the terroir.

Swollen river, steep sided valley

Swollen river, steep sided valley

Gentle slope

Gentle slope

My literal high point so far has been the conquest of the formidable Porte Belate at 854m, dwarfing on the same day my first ascent of note, the Col d’Ibardin which marked my passing from France into Spain. It is comfortably my biggest climb on any bike, let alone one with 20 kilos of detritus strapped to it. My sense of achievement was somewhat soured by the presence of the Belate Tunnel, closed to bicycles of course, which took the rest of the traffic off the high pass. How come if I had an engine I’d shortcut straight through the mountain, but because I’m leg-powered I must switchback up it? Doesn’t seem the right way round to me.

Je suis un grimpeur!

Je suis un grimpeur!

A dog (wolf?!) barked loudly at me about three quarters of the way up. And though my expectations of French dogs was that they might well be fenced in, I had no such expectations of Basque/Spanish Pyrenean ones. Which got me thinking, if one did give chase, what would I do? There’s no way I’d outwalk a dog going uphill, let alone outrun one, which leaves really only a couple of options…
1. Turn round and head downhill to escape. Not happening.
2. Kick it to death with my neoprene booties. No, it would probably think I was trying to tickle it.
Which, in my mind, only left option 3.
3. Be gnawed slowly but mercilessly, until I meet my sorry, bloody end here on the mountain.

The dog was probably miles away, its bark echoing eerily between the peaks. I made it up safely.

The triumph of reaching the summit, seeing the road I’d travelled minutes ago seemingly miles below me, was very real. As real as the mountaineer’s sense that I must get down again soon, lest I risk leaving a finger or two behind to frostbite in the gloomy dusk. It was dark and cold by the time I reached the warm welcome of a log fire and the warmer embrace of my first night in Spain.

My high point of Belate was to be surpassed later in the trip. But it had been overcome already by the hospitality and kindness of friends that were strangers mere days ago. It is these highlights that will remain most alive in my memory, and it is to these people I will dedicate my next few posts.

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Patrick of the woods.*

I awake just south of Soulac sur Mer on the Medoc peninsula in the dense pine forest which separates the sea and its dunes from the rest of France. The forest in Gironde and Les Landes stretches for 200km, punctated only by quiet roads and cycle paths. At this time of year it feels like I have the whole place to myself. It seems I might- whole seaside villages are closed down for the winter. There’s something sad about an out-of-season resort. In one a lonely proprietor stood forlornly outside ┬áhis Australian themed bar, hoping for custom. To say it felt a bit like Morecambe would not be unkind… to Morecambe!

I sometimes like to seek out empty spaces, but those back home which I love, the North Pennines for example, tend to be bleak, difficult places hemmed by steep gradients, their vegetation stemmed by harsh winds. This place is the opposite: lush, verdant and flat, and it feels instantly homely and welcoming. The sea proves elusive. Though I hear waves born half a hemisphere away roar and crash against the coast, I rarely glimpse the ocean. The forest hugs the coast so closely that the trees protect the beauty of the beaches from all but an intrepid few. The sight of frost on the sand dunes is equally startling and beautiful, and impossible to photograph, so will be in my memory alone.

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Frosty start.

The ice shaken from my tent is the only litter I’ll leave behind. Naturism seems to be popular here, with resorts dotted along the whole coast, but if anyone is practicing on the beaches today, all I can say is “Brave naturists!”

After my little rant about Velodyssee route 1, she has redeemed herself here. At times it feels like there’s a steamroller up ahead, laying a path through the woods just for me. At times shallow roots search for water in the sandy soil, underneath the Tarmac, which is perfectly understandable. But my favourite section is an old one I find, not part of the route at all. It’s a narrow ribbon of old concrete mere inches wide. The joins are cracked and there are pieces missing, and I bunny hop my behemoth over the gaps. Parts are almost invisible and I keep expecting my front wheel to disappear into the clingy, soft sand. Where it’s been repaired, it’s been done badly. Effectively its a 7.5km long trailcentre skinny. I love it.

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imageMy heart leaps as I see my first Camino di Santiago sign, and I am transformed from a traveller into a pilgrim, unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly…

Eventually I reach an old wooden jetty for the boat across the oyster-rich lagoon to Arcachon, and the tiniest ferry, even more rickety than the jetty, chugs into view. As the handful of us embark, the wind and the tide conspire to throw the boat up and down. Mine and another Brooks saddled bike are dumped on the little bow, and we stagger aboard. Even the seasoned passengers look nervous. As we turn to leave a wave tips us sideways. People swear in French. I check where the lifejackets are. But our young skipper soon has us bouncing over the breakers and into the relative calm of the bay. As we unload I count my bags to make sure none have escaped overboard. A quick “Chapeau” to the skipper and he chugs off into the gloom.

Pretty Brooks, on a soon to be salty bike.

Pretty Brooks, on a soon to be salty bike.

Desperate to calm my nerves I find a bar and order an espresso. A double bass and a couple of guitars are strewn across a small stage. Cables and boxes on tables betray a sound check is imminent, and soon skiffle style riffs fill the air, the guitar playing unmistakably French, the lyrics of swing classics in English. I’m invited to a corner of the bar where a quintessentially moustachioed man hears my story in broken French and pores over my maps. If he wants to make the tourist comfortable, he could do better than to rearrange the sparse notes in my wallet and whisper in my ear, “Be careful.” From further along the bar my mild discomfiture is noted, and multilingual David rescues me. He commands Russian, German, Spanish, Basque, Portuguese, French and English, along with a great attitude and curiosity, and the generosity to buy me a drink. The swing band return in monochrome suits with narrow lapels turned up. They look impeccably the part. But, as the lead singer points out, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” Thankfully they sound the part too. So as the band played, I was in great company, and my first drink has been bought for me, I stayed a while. And whereas yesterday’s camp was certainly Mrs. Right, this one is much more Mrs Right Now. Still, I melt into the woods once more, wrapped in silence and sleep’s embrace. Another day on the road.

*The title of this post is how my Warmshowers host addressed me when she sent me directions to her home. Seems to fit, so I’ll keep it.


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One fine day.

It feels like a big day, so I thought I’d share it.

It began in a mezzanine bed space in the artists’ workshop of Couchsurf host extraordinaire Ilaria. Sleeping amongst her sculptures was inspiring. Some of her stuff exaggerates the female form in quite provocative ways. I feel it has something to say, and I was sad to see some pieces unsold, broken and gathering dust in there.image

This second night was entirely unplanned, but the impromptu day off in La Rochelle was enjoyable and useful. There are some amazing buildings to see. The harbour is especially beautiful, but I also needed to pedal up to Decathlon for some bits and bobs. If Go Outdoors back home took nandrolone and EPO for a year, it would struggle to match this place for scale..

After a very comfortable night playing cards with the kids and talking cricket with the exiled Ian, I set off south, hoping to reach the Royan ferry shortly after lunch. But it wasn’t to be, and as usual navigation was the issue. I’ve also discovered that cycle paths seem to be the same the world over, and Velodyssee route 1 south of La Rochelle matches the worst of Sustrans anywhere for directness and surfacing. Anyway, I’m not on a Velodyssee, I’m on a mission- so give me Tarmac!(take note one well connected European reader of this blog!) So despite the sunshine and the following wind, I found my mood getting lower, and had to resort to a bit of Rule 5. Certainly finding that my petite amie back home has been posing for French road signs cheered me up no end. But trying to work out if this bridge at Rochefort was worth a categorised climb was not on the top of my list. Nor was finding myself in Middlesborough!image

imageimageEventually the ferry for the short hop across the Gironde steamed (dieseled?) into view, and the relaxed crossing calmed my nerves. Finding myself surrounded by forest and knowing I could slip invisibly between the trees for an undisturbed night added to my chilled outlook. Finally content, with fresh, plump mussels bubbling on the stove, eaten to a full moon, and to rest in a perfectly pitched tent.image

A woman in the post office told me that Medoc wine is the best in France, so if you find me even more relaxed tomorrow, you’ll know why. Goodnight.


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Finding my way.

Despite not wanting to be the sort of tourist that stares inanely at my iPad while pretty churches and grand vistas go unexamined, I’ve found myself staring at the map a few times too many already on this trip. I’m a bit too closely wedded to my carefully plotted path, which joins blue dots on an electronic map. The intense emotional upheaval which accompanies, at least for me, a “route barre”* or a missed turning (too many to count, I’m rubbish at wayfinding…) is perhaps a signal for me to slow down and enjoy the ride.

My route choice has been so far so good, an excellent balance between direct and quiet. It reminds me that this whole trip is a balance between a pure journey, and one with a destination.

The trick to finding seems to be to stick to D roads, but this can be misleading, since some are dual carriageways. I’ve found that the lower the number the better the road for cycling. I’ve spent many happy kilometres on the D1 in the Loire, and the D7 in the Vendee. Higher numbers seem to be the newer roads which have superseded the old ones, leaving them for me to enjoy. Please avoid the D105 into La Rochelle if you can though, the only place in France I’ve felt at risk of being removed from this life by a two-trucked HGV.

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One thing which has struck me is the number of roadside crosses and crucifixes you see, which are sometimes large and ornate. I even passed between an Our Lady Crowned Queen of Heaven gazing helplessly at her crucified Son from across the road. But the one I stopped to photograph was this, a really simple one from just outside Les Brouzils. I expect it flowers in the summer, too. As I was crossing to get the picture, a near-peleton of road cyclists went past, relaxed and chatting, perhaps three abreast, one of many I’ve seen. I wonder if such a group would be tolerated on UK roads? It confirmed for me I’d made a good choice of route and I carried on.

The lure of a warm bed tonight has been overwhelming. I thought I would miss my Couchsurfing host in La Rochelle for one more night, but just by pedalling along I found myself with daylight remaining and a couple of hours to go to my host. One more embarrassing text, to confirm the bed-space I’d postponed hours earlier, and here I am with the gracious Ilaria, and her charming children. I hope to take some time to see the city tomorrow, then it’s back to my little tent, parked unobtrusively at the roadside between dusk and dawn.

*The socialist French seem to be spending their way out of this recession with big capital works. I’ve seen a railway line being electrified, and every village seems to be getting their roads done. I hope it works for them.