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from Littlehuan


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The Young Ones?

One of the most memorable encounters of my journey was with Jorge and Alfonso, who responded with generosity to a Couchsurfing request that I made before I set out. When they heard about my stolen gear and passport in Ponferrada, they were the first people on the phone to me. They offered all they had to help me. These two people have shown me more beauty than the great cathedral of their city, the snow-dusted Picos de Europa or all the art in the Guggenheim at Bilbao. This post is dedicated to them.

The Lads in Leon

The Lads in Leon

Jorge met me in the big cathedral square in Leon. I’ve spent a little time since I encountered him waiting in public squares or bars for hosts I don’t know. In Bilbao I sat for maybe half an hour, wondering if the long winter shadow which preceded the next arrival would be that of a generous soul who had offered me shelter that night. Guessing that it wasn’t from the gait, pace and deportage of a shadow was perfect entertainment for a people-watcher. A insistent but unhurried arrival, with openness in the shoulders is a good clue. In Bilbao I had a better one- Pintxa arrived on an unloaded touring bike, commanding the streets with aplomb.

Jorge and I arrived at a fairly central flat, and secreted the bike in the basement. Living arrangements seemed fluid. My arrival rang more changes, as I was to take Jorge’s usual room, and he would take the couch. So perhaps he’s the couchsurfer, then, I joked. Though I couldn’t have been happier to be there, Jorge was full of apologies. The place is small, your room is cold, it’s not so clean, there is no hot water… In fact the modest nature of the place made me more grateful, not less. I loved it, but ‘lived in’ is a euphemism too far. Knowing it was guys sharing a flat, I chose my welcome gift well. As the beers were passed round out of my pannier, everyone seemed to relax.

With flat mate Alfonso acting as translator when needed, Jorge explained his life to me as we sat in the smoky front room on comfy, well-worn sofas. He found what work there was in Spain as an occasional swimming teacher. But his passion was clearly poetry. His gestures were magnified, his narrow facial features animated whenever the subject arose. We talked of my songwriting, and of looking for meaning in the seemingly mundane. I mentioned my poet friend Seamus Kelly’s blog Thinking Too Much, an affliction shared by Jorge and I.

(Though this ride promised so much time for reflection, I found that the bike is a better tool for quieting the mind than opening it. Practical tasks of finding food and shelter, and so many new stimuli from the environment have led me to satisfied slumber at the end of each day, not creative energy. So I’ve not written much since I’ve been out here, though I thought I would.)

Jorge’s Magnum Opus is a work of love for his girlfriend, which comprises a verse of poetry for every kilometre which separates their respective homes in Leon and San Sebastián. I’d ridden each of those kilometres. I felt their distance, and mine, from home. Each short verse paints a deep image, some of hope, of loss, or of love. Love beyond distance, time, or even death. Jorge’s work had inspired an artist friend to create some of the images the poems inspired, and in the true spirit of art for all, fly-posted some around the city. Please, visit the collection here, to see them all.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

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We beat as one.

Alfonso seemed the more brash and streetwise of my two companions that night. He’d lived in Ireland, spoke with easy humour and had an excellent command of English. He walked his big old dog around the streets of Leon as if he owned them. He and Jorge made a good double act. I can’t help thinking that the world Jorge inhabits is a little harsh, given his gentle nature. With Alfonso around though, I think he’ll be ok.

It turned out there were more than two guys sharing the flat, but one was away at his stall in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, at the seemingly famous Christmas market I’d passed through a couple of days previously, selling his artisanal soaps. It’s likely I walked past his stall. I’d been enchanted by the costumes, music and juggling. I was even invited to join the piper with my penny whistle at a gig that night, when he’d exchanged his local pipes in the key of C with Ulilean ones in D to match my whistle. Sadly I had more distance to cover, so I declined.

When I thought back, the itinerant, bohemian occupants, the lack of hot water and the ‘lived in’ feel (I felt I must rise earlier than the residents just to clean the kitchen…) all gave the place the feeling of a squat, and it did feel like I’d stepped into a Spanish version of The Young Ones. But lazy caricature says nothing of the warmth and generosity of these people. In this little place, amongst the spilt tobacco, and in the local bar, I never felt more welcomed, or at home.


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There is a time.

“There is a time for all things, and a season for everything under the sun” Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a face and a place which will always be imprinted on my memory. The place is the vast, flat plain between Burgos and Leon. For the second time I had the feeling of a pathway laid only for me. The N120 was a companion for much of my trip, its kilometre markers counting ever upward from 1 to 320 as I slowly passed by and finally turned off its course at Astorga. This original road had been superseded by a motorway, but instead of widening the existing carriageway, they simply built a whole new road a couple of fields away, leaving me with acres of Tarmac beneath only my wheels.

It could be argued that my paved Camino was a more authentic one. Walkers tramped an unsealed path often adjacent to the road, but it is likely that the original camino (it simply means Way) was built and improved until it became the surface along which I often rolled. At times of heavy traffic, to reach a village or just for a change of scene I would join their Camino. Andromeda, my trusty bike, seemed equally at home on both surfaces.

Yes, this was an empty place, but not one of solitude, as for a glorious 24 hours I had the company of Eyke. (Pronounced Ike. Yes, his sister is called Tina) A jockey, who worked in his home of Bremen, around Germany, and for a time in Newmarket; he possessed the drawn, hollow face of a man for whom food is an occupational hazard and tobacco is a meal replacement. Its lines told tales of pre-dawn waking and a life spent outside in harsh weather. I shared with him the song of the Jolly Plougboys which Kate Rusby had sung at a gig I was at a few weeks before. As a young, pony-obsessed girl the 4am starts it details put her off horses for life. Other creases betrayed a man who smiles easily and frequently. His journey had taken him the length of Germany, across the Alps and from France into Spain by foot and by bicycle. His wander without end required bags and a Croozer trailer, two tents, and quite the largest sleeping-bag I’ve seen. A couple of miles on his bike taught me the lesson of the old woman in Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, that Andromeda was indeed light, fast and nimble, and not at all heavy or slow.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Perhaps because of his racing life he used expletives more frequently and effectively than anyone I know. He railed most at the lack of woodland. “What kind of a country cuts down all the f***ing trees!” We were both puzzled at the “Private Hunting” signs. “COTO PRIVADO DI CAZA” they exclaimed, in a landscape that seemed to support only bare, brown soil and weak, pale grass. Perhaps the red kites and kestrels which soared and hovered above us all day knew differently.

Our sometimes buoyant but often deep conversation, his aptitude for ignoring hunger and the empty villages, closed for business meant that it was 5 o’ clock before we stopped for lunch, and it was then we decided to camp together for the night. We slept soundly and comfortably as tent twins in a narrow strip of ground between a wall and a drainage ditch. The moonless night provided stories that sparkled like the stars. As morning dawned and the sun made stars of every frosty surface we both knew that the time for this relationship

Tent twins

Tent twins

was at a close, and the season for new ones was beginning. Perhaps that very day Eyke was making the decision to finally turn his wheels toward home. A hugged goodbye, a snapped picture and an exchange of addresses proved only the penultimate act of this brief friendship, as our shared ritual of the morning espresso stop saw us meet at the next village! But onward I pressed, to the next encounter…

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Hot water, helping hands.

As usual when heading towards a host, the road seemed long and strewn with minor obstacles. I’d ridden under the Milky Way the night before to leave myself a little less to do, but this was still a journey that would take me from the deserted forest of Les Landes, through the urban conglomeration of Bayonne and Biarritz, and into a village nestled beneath the towering, snow-clad peaks of the Pyrenees. It was raining, and frequent stops to check my direction slowed me. At times all roads seemed to lead to the motorway, or something that looked scarily like one, as all living, working and transport must be squeezed in here between the mountains and the sea. Eventually my climb above Saint Jean de Luz was rewarded by my final descent into Urrugne, and my first warmshowers experience with Ingrid and Jon.

Ingrid and previous guest http://www.mundubicyclette.be/

Ingrid and previous guest http://www.mundubicyclette.be/

The first thing that struck me was that indeed, this was a warm shower. After a week in the woods, endless buckets of hot water poured over one’s head is quite some experience. Instantly as belongings that were dirty became clean, what was wet became dry and what was cold became warm I knew that these were people who understood the needs of a soggy cyclist. Jon and Ingrid have travelled Vietnam by bicycle, and plan to do more in Iceland. But it’s Ingrid’s love of not only travel but travellers which has led to them becoming a popular stopping point for so many voyageurs-a-velo. One even arrived by unicycle. This multilingual home in which five languages are regularly spoken and daily commutes cross borders, was a fascinating place in which to spend time, and once more I took an extra day to stop, to write, and just to be still in comfortable surroundings.

Ingrid, originally from Belgium, showed me around her adopted city of San Sebastián/Donostia, and instilled in me her love of a beautiful place with a unique Basque culture. I ate with the family and felt totally accepted and included. Ingrid’s is a gentle curiosity and a generous, listening ear. She shared with me the many stories and blogs of the other travellers who’d shared her home. I felt inspired by their big journeys and world tours, if a touch intimidated that my trip, ambitious though it is, was a bit little in comparison. Her photography of people and their places at times arrested my train of thought and I found myself returning a gaze from a far-off land.

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Ingrid’s images from afar

On Ingrid and Jon’s advice I took the hilly road south to Pamplona, to benefit from another night’s hospitality with a different host, and to join the Camino de Santiago there, where hostels would be plentiful and the way would be well signposted. I was to take a disused railway line up the valley which without Jon’s local knowledge would have been impossible to find. And with the thought of a second warm shower in as many days to motivate me, I set out once more.

As it happened I wasn’t the only touring cyclist who would be accepting hospitality at that time. A gentleman I know only as @specialized_guy needed a place to take stock and book passage home after a WWOOF that didn’t work out. As we were both leaving Jon passed us both a business card, saying that we ever needed any help while in Spain we should pop into an office of his company, MAPFRE, or contact him directly. I accepted it, never thinking I would need to. However, Ingrid and Jon’s generosity, thoughtfulness and multilingual negotiation skills would soon come to my aid in an hour of need. (more hot water…) Our paths would cross again much sooner than I’d anticipated, but no sooner than I’d hoped.


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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.


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The first of many.

I’ve learned lots today. For example:

If you’re pedalling into a headwind, and suddenly there’s a tailwind, it’s unlikely that the wind has changed. It probably means you’ve taken a wrong turn and are heading back the way you came.

Navigation has not been my strong suit today, and as a result I’m not too far from St Malo. My brain has been so busy taking it all in that retaining directions for even a pedal revolution has proved impossible. But today, my first day has been a day of firsts.

First French conversation with a delightful woman outside the boulangerie. She wanted to talk about the Queen, and about her son, who travelled the world in a VW camper van. She also said “Chapeau” to me, the racing cyclist parlance for “Good effort” or literally, “Hat” for “I tip my hat to you.”

First (and second) of many espressos in the PMU. It’s effectively a betting shop with a cafe. They’re ubiquitous, and put the opening hours of every other French establishment to shame. Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I’m looking forward to Rennes being shut when I get there.

I spotted some ruins in Hede, but despite the urge to sleep in an ancient monument, I left it, on the account of it also hosting a basketball court. If young people hang out there of an evening I don’t want to interfere. As it happens I’m in the corner of a wood, next to a quiet road. A gale is blowing up, but I’m cozily hoping it passes before dawn. The newness is tiring, but the excitement I feel in small things, like a buzzard sitting unflinchingly on a post as I pass, is a privilege I hope to retain.

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Ferried away.

What a day. I woke this morning to a favourite sound: the happy murmurings of my children. Knowing I wouldn’t hear their contended voices for a whole month was a tough realisation. They will miss their daddy, and however wet, cold or aching I become, this trip will be hardest on them. And I’ll not forget the debt of gratitude I owe those three wonderful little people.

It was all a bit of a rush, really, but somehow they got to school kissed and hugged, and I gingerly made my way to the station atop 35 kilos of quivering steel and stuffed panniers. Christine and I shared a tearful platform goodbye, hearts touching through train windows, but it was all a bit much and she needed to be hugged by a passer by, the first of many acts of kindness that will surely characterise this trip.

I’m pretty sure I spotted the Red Arrows practicing in the distance as we sped through Lincolnshire. Time passed swiftly as the good luck messages arrived, and soon I was perched once more on Andromeda, my Super Galaxy, amongst the taxis outside King’s Cross for the transfer to Waterloo. And bless, her, she’s not the most nimble of beasts. In tight London traffic we wobbled and weaved, but my acceleration at the lights must’ve matched the ferry on which I sit as I write this.

I’ve bumped into two touring cyclist couples on the ferry, but neither is venturing south of Brittany, and one has only empty panniers to fill with wine for their return tomorrow! The seas are gentle and all is well.

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