Thoughts and tales from the saddle - on my own in Europe.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Day 45 - Viana do Castelo - West Coast - Portugal

Cycling into Portugal was a surreal, but satisfying, experience. Surreal because I was in a remote valley following a winding road up and down the left hand side, towards the sea, occassionally passing a large house and its terraced fields, and even more occassionally passing a person - an actual person! - walking along the road or, as is usual, stopping their work to look at me as if I were a different, alien species. Around one corner a large concrete sort of archway was covering the road. No signs, no warning, no explanation, just a concrete box - like a garage you could drive right through - and then, afterwards, a sign explaining the 'new' rules of the road (mainly speed limits for cars) because we were now, apparently, in Portugal. You wouldn't know it otherwise and the first time I really noticed was about 10 miles down the road - they have orange traffic arrows! They're green in Spain! Amazing.

I've been following that river, in the valley, for the last three days, meandering my way down the left hand side, looking across at Spain, on the right, until today when I reached the sea and my compass began to point South again. That's the satisfying bit, by the way. Knowing I've now cycled the length of France, from coast to border, the width of Spain, from border to border, and now not-quite the-width of Portugal, from border to coast.

I have a decision to make, however, fuelled in part by mother nature but also by my own conscience. To complete my plan of cycling through all European countries this year, I really need to be starting at the top of Italy at the beginning of June. I don't know when the last time you properly looked at a map of Europe, or, more specifically, France and Spain, was, but that is quite a long way from the West coast of Portugal. With Andorra in between, I would even go so far as to say it's too far for me to be able to cycle in 4/5 weeks. So do I sacrifice any purist intentions and resort to other means, at least for the journey back across Spain, or do I stay in the saddle, regardless of how that might affect the overall plan? I've always said there are no rules - and there aren't - only in my head, which is where this particular battle is currently taking place.

Finally (yes, I'll shut up in a minute), in response to a specific request (thanks for all the comments, by the way), if you want to recreate the conditions I am currently working under, in order to be able to experience these 'best thing since mass-produced vodka'...err...experiences, try the following:

Turn the heating up to about 30 degrees (or just go outside, if the weather reports I'm hearing are correct), get an exercise bike and put together a small mixture of sun cream and salt water (or just sweat, if you happen to have lots of that lying around). Set the exercise bike to nearly the hardest level, get on it and pedal. Every 5 minutes or so turn the level up for 10 minutes, to the point where you can just about keep the momentum going - that's a hill. At the same time, get someone to flick the suncream/sweat solution into your eyes. Keep pedalling until sweat, real sweat, drips off your nose and runs down into your mouth, your eyebrows long since overwhelmed. Taste that suncream. Feel the burn in the legs? Tough, another hill. Get out of the saddle, push down on those pedals. Get someone to throw some insects at you, making sure that some stick to your face, legs and arms, and at least one large one gets caught in your hat. Try and get it out while still pedalling. Get someone to throw dust and dirt at you every five minutes - they're lorries passing. Do this for four hours.

Admittedly, the scenery, the food and the cold, cheap beer tends to take the edge off a bit, but you'll get the general idea.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Day 38 - Ribadeo - North West Spain

There´s been a few notable landmarks reached since I last was able to write on here. ´One month away´ was over a week ago now - I left on 12th March, started cycling on the 13th. I´m now well into my fifth week ´on the road´. I´ve also cycled more than 1000 miles, I discovered this morning. About 1100 now, actually.

Numbers aside, the last ten days or so have been quite eventful. I´ve eaten tapas whilst ´talking´ with Spanish people (they talked, I did my nodding/shaking head at seemingly appropriate points routine), made friends with a couple from the Basque country, drank brandy with an eighty-something-year-old English couple in their campervan, met and cycled for a day with a lonely guy from New Zealand who talked too much, stayed in a town called ´Poo´, and had my hardest day - physically and mentally - of the trip so far.

That was yesterday and pretty much the end of this North coast for me now. I´ve seen and met a lot of people on the ´Pilgrims Route´ to Santiago Compostella in the last week or so. I´ve also been asked if I´m on it myself many times, but I´m not - I´m avoiding things like that, remember? So I´ve no real desire to keep going to Santiago for the sake of it. Portugal beckons, as does the rest of Spain after that, so it´s time to head South.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Day 27 - Gernika-Lumo - North-East Spain

My journey out of Les Landes (that flat forresty bit in the bottom left corner of France) was more rapid than I expected it to be. Another leisurely day planned, I headed for a small town a few hours ride away. That seemed pretty dead on arrival so I set my sights on Biarritz, in the hope of some decent leisure time and a bit of life. Biarritz didn´t grab me at all, not helped by the most snotty, unhelpful tourist information employee I have encountered thus far, in my life, so, further still I went and found myself in St Jean De Luz at the end of the day. I also found myself, more noticably, in Basque country. Suddenly there were ´proper´ tapas bars, people speaking Spanish, red and white flags displayed proudly, and hills. Oh yes, hills.

A day off in St Jean followed (thoroughly recommended - much nicer than Biarritz) which allowed me to rid myself of a few kilos of books and maps, courtesy of the French postal service. Then I had only one place to go - Spain.

I had envisaged the border crossing to be a somewhat monumental affair. Ok, maybe not monumental, but a sign at least, that I could photograph and look at with pride, but in reality there was nothing. I crossed the river that acts as the border in the centre of Hendaye and entered Spain without so much of a ´You are now leaving...Welcome to...´

Some might say that I cheated my way around the Pyrenees, by sticking to the coast. To that I would reply ´Have you seen the coast?´ - ´cheating´ is certainly not a word I would use. I also made up for it in some way, and avoided 20km of traffic on the main road, but taking the scenic route - up Mt. Jaizkibel. I did the 6.5 miles, 455 vertical metres, from sea (harbour) to summit, in dead on an hour.

In Donostia-San Sebastian I got my first real taste of Spain and coming out of a sleepy France in March, it was quite a shock. There were people! And life and colour and laughter and chatter and people drinking in the streets outside bars, shouting at their friends from cars. The fact that it was Good Friday obviously added to all this and it also added to my accommodation problem. In this part of Spain they don´t have campsites near town centres, mainly because the town centres generally fill a hole between steep hills. Showing me on the map where the campsite was, and noting my bike, the girl in the tourist information winced at me. ´I´m sorry´ was about all she said.

6km and another 400+ vertical metres later I arrived at what seemed to be a Spanish college Easter Holiday party. The majority of the occupants were 20-somethings already well stuck into numerous cans of lager and large quantities of strong smelling weed (is it legal here? They smoke it everywhere!). They weren´t, however, a particularly friendly lot so I didn´t join them, only took advantage of the onsite facilities (a bar!) and went to bed to rest my hill-weary legs.

I have spent the last three days following the coastal road from Orio to Lekeitio, cutting across this afternoon to here. If you are ever near here - on foot, bike, car, whatever - travel along that road. It is quite magnificent and absolutely beautiful. It is rides like that which remind me why I´m here and put a genuine smile on my face, even going uphill.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Day 22 - Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains - South West France

"But, you know, it can't rain all the time."

Hmm...talk about tempting fate because, actually, it did rain all the time. Well, it did on Sunday at least and I can tell you with some authority that rain, camping, sand and cycling is not a good mix.

After three hours of it on Sunday, and no end in sight, I retreated to a hotel to lay my things out infront of a heater and remove damp sand from, err, damp sandy places. My panniers are waterproof, if you pack them properly. Lesson learnt.

The other lesson learnt is that quiet France is all very well and good but a different game altogether when you get to the real 'summer' towns - the ones with the beaches. Here you find that instead of summer just being busier, it is, in fact, 'it'. At this time of year they are just dead.

Still, South I continue to go, now finding some (sandy) campsites open. The boarded up bars, restaurants and supermarkets on site hint at more profitable, and sunnier, times, and also add another 2-4 miles to my daily riding in order to stock up on supplies and get a beer in the evening. Not a hardship by any means and I comfort myself with the thought that in 2/3 months time I may very well be sick of 'the summer season' and crave a quiet, chilly French town in April.

The riding continues to be flat and the pine forests beautiful and calming, perhaps natures way of preparing me for the 'storm' of the Pyrenees?