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Lorenzo of the Mountains.

Descending mountains on a bicycle is as intensely cold an experience as I ever wish to have. To go instantly from maximum exertion and no wind-chill to freewheeling in 40mph winds does not make one toasty warm. No glove yet invented or shoe cover yet produced is enough. No amount of facial hair is protective. (I have plenty now) One time, my glasses iced over. Anyone who does this with only a newspaper shoved up their lycra top has my total respect.

Spartacus being nails

It was in this sorry state that I arrived at Lorenzo’s door, in a tiny village in the shadow of the fearsome Porte Belate. I was welcomed by his wife, who used my pitiful Spanish and her expressive gestures to usher me into the shower and fetch me a beer and pistachios. Now there was a Warmshowers welcome! Logs flickered and embers glowed in both the fire and the stove. The place felt like home instantly. My bicycle found a home in the only vacant corner of a stuffed woodshed. Wet things were hung over the local iteration of the AGA, my shoes stuffed with newspaper and placed beside it. The scene was perfect in winter, but sadly my language skills were not sufficient to ask, “This is all very well for December, but how do you cook and avoid boiling alive in your own home in July?!”

On Lorenzo’s return he set to work preparing the salad to accompany the meal. Not a salad fan at the best of times, let alone after the day’s riding I’d had I watched with suspicion. To my visible relief calorie-rich anchovies and olives went in alongside the leaves. Then began the almost ceremonial dressing. Dark olive oil poured on and on into the bowl, with balsamic vinegar, then a taste. Somehow more oil was needed, along with some cider vinegar for sharpness, and some salt. The resulting salad was the best I’ve ever tasted, and would have made a whole meal even for a starving cyclist. Praise indeed.

Lorenzo’s son was something of a guitarist, and musical instruments littered the house. After my failure to find a way to bring the Martin Backpacker along, and my unsuccessful attempt to learn the ukulele while living out of a one-person tent, I could not resist, and we shared music which crossed cultures and languages all night. At a late hour, Lorenzo and I chatted about my future, and I commented that my delicate musician’s fingers mark me out as using my brain, not my hands, to make a living. He gestured to the guitar and said, ” Maybe you can use your hands to make work. I think it’s better…”

Encouraged and affirmed by an encounter only hours old, I slept soundly. I’d hoped that this trip would allow me to find confidence to face the future, and though I’m not naive enough to think I’ll walk back into England a professional musician, maybe music can be part of what I do next.

At breakfast the next day Lorenzo gave me more local knowledge about a bike path into Pamplona. It turned out to be ace, for most of the way…

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He also bestowed me with a couple of gifts. Turron is a marzipan/fudge hybrid which is a popular Spanish Christmas gift. Though not so popular in Lorenzo’s house cos this stuff was from four Christmases ago and three years out of date. I tried it, but the sugar had leached out and it tasted rank. And I got some dried fruit, which I poured into my porridge the next day. But the raisins had pips in! Deseeding raisins an unexpected addition to my morning ritual then…

Lorenzo of the mountains. Great guy. Amazing salad. Crap presents. Cheers.

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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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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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Hope for humanity, and a warm shower.

I’m just having a browse at Warmshowers.org and I posted this. Somehow it captures a bit of what the ride’s about.

Well it’s getting ever nearer. On Friday I take a train south from my home in Newcastle, UK, to Portsmouth, then an overnight ferry to St Malo in Brittany where my adventure will begin. Sleeping in a tiny tent by the roadside, I hope to eek out an existence cheaply and sustainably as I go, perhaps busking in villages with a travel guitar. I’ve been on quite an emotional journey to get to the start, as my fledgling blog will show, and my updates from the road will document the journey of a lifetime. 2500km in 26 days will keep me honest, and busy- I’ll need most of the daylight and all of my stamina to make it. I’ll need strength I don’t yet have, and determination I don’t yet know. I’ll discover as much about myself as the places that I’ll visit, and I’ll return to make an uncertain future my next adventure.

Warmshowers is one of those perfectly simple yet fantastically useful little sites for the travelling cyclist (another is crazyguyonabike.com). It’s a robustly non-commercial way for the adventuring rider to get in touch with like-minded locals on her/his route, and benefit from reciprocal hospitality along the way. That such a community even exists is a great encouragement for me. Humanity, as a whole, is warm and generous and safe to be around. While explosives are flung and devastation wrought between communities, I’m reassured of the goodness of people. If I’m able to find a host along my route; if I can leave their company warmer, drier and cleaner, but more importantly wiser, gentler and more grateful than I arrived, the value of my trip will have been so much more.

Tallulah. Isn’t she beautiful?

Andromeda (see what I did there..?)

P.S. I took the bike out fully loaded the other day and it rides like a dream. The handling, settled by my lovely new front panniers is true and predictable, and it seems to just roll and roll with minimal input from me. It almost seems to ride itself and take me along with it, a bit like my fixie, Tallulah. They both need a little persuading up hills though!