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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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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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