Big ideas

from Littlehuan


Leave a comment

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 Sebasti√°n/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.

image

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.

Advertisements


1 Comment

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.


2 Comments

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.

20121127-232939.jpg

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.


1 Comment

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.

20121125-102400.jpg

20121125-102408.jpg


1 Comment

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.

20121125-101921.jpg