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

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Day 79 - Tarascon-s-Ariege - South-West France

I cycled 40 miles yesterday. The first 20 were uphill, at an average gradient of 7%.

I left Andorra La Villa under clear skies, unsure of where I would stop that night. The roads gave me no time to sit back and think - the town lies in a deep basin, surrounded by steep mountain sides. My route went up a gorge to the North - up being the operative word, I was climbing from the first pedal strokes. So up into the valley I went, the sides getting gradually steeper and narrower, the road never relenting. I passed through small towns that advertised their proximity to ski slopes - a 3 or 5 minute drive. Then I started going through ski resorts - I recognised the familiar collection of bars, shops, chalets and hotels from skiing holidays I`ve been on. A strange feeling indeed - not only because there was no snow to give them that extra 'ski resort' feeling, but because ski resorts to me were always slightly other-worldly - places you got to after very long car or coach journeys, arriving at night, somehow separate from the rest of the world, but there I was, pedalling through them, having got there by leg power alone. I thought back to Decision Beach - sea level to mountain top in one seamless journey.

That was not the time for self-congratulatory reflection, however, as the road continued to take me up - beyond the ski resorts, now level with the largely-snowless slopes, with their dormant lifts. The air was getting cold and thin. I was stopping regularly to eat and drink - the last thing I needed was to run out of energy here - but the cold mountain air would get to me immediately, evaporating the sweat on my body and chilling me instantly. I put on extra layers.

The road came to the end of the valley, the view ahead filled with snow-capped peaks and the scree slopes that ran down from them. It was a dead end and there was only one way out of it - up and over. To my left the road climbed the valley side, a series of switchback turns that I knew would eventually lead to the top. I didn't let myself think of the top though - I concentrated on my pedal strokes, making sure I got the most out of the energy I was expending, and kept my eyes on the road immediately in front of me. It was relentless. After 4 or 5 turns I was really feeling it - my legs were beginning to protest loudly, my breathing was getting heavier and my chest aching from the cold air, I could feel my heart beating, imagined it wondering what the hell I was doing to it. Steeper turns followed, one after the other, still concentrating on nothing more than the 4 or 5 metres of tarmac infront of me, then I looked up - a petrol station and a building. The road started to ease off. I sat up in the saddle, my legs suddenly relieved of some of the burden and now spinning more freely, more easily. A small sign, insignificant almost - Pas de la Casa - 2408 metres.

I stopped to take photos and marvel at the road snaking its way down a new valley over the other side. It was bitter up there though and I knew enough about cycling in the mountains to put on yet more layers, including my windproof. One thing I failed to take adequate precautions with, however, was my hands. After just 5 minutes down the other side my fingers were frozen and I knew my warm gloves were in the bottom of a pannier. I did have something that might help close to hand though - a pair of socks in the top of a bag on the back.

So there I was, rolling down into France with a sock on each hand. They helped but the next 20 miles were less than comfortable. My hands and forearms were cramping with the cold and constant braking, my feet went numb from inaction and my whole body seemed to ache not only from the effort of getting up but also from the pressure on it to keep rigid whilst being forced forward on the way down. I arrived at Ax-Les-Termes 5 hours after I had set off that morning.

I have been reaping my rewards today, however. This French side is much different to the Spanish side I experienced - I feewheeled down the valley for 20 miles this morning, basking in the warm sunshine, breathing in the fresh mountain air and marvelling at the scenery - lush green mountain sides scarred with rocky crags, snow-capped peaks in the background. This is what mountains in the Spring time is all about. I've even managed to find a near-perfect campsite to relax in for a few days, in Tarascon, next to the river. I think there's a bar that sells Guinness in town aswell.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Day 75 - Balaguer - at the foot of the Pyrenees

I saw them today for the first time, the moutains, looming on the horizon as I cruised along the last few miles of this plain. I've spent a long time looking at the map for this next bit and been told many scary stories - the roads are full of lorries and very dangerous, not to mention choked with fumes, Andorra's a horrible place anyway - don't bother, you'll be going uphill for a long, long time. I like that last one, as if it was news to me that crossing the Pyrenees was going to involve going uphill.

I think I just need to get on with it now so tomorrow I head up into the foot hills, granny-gear at the ready.

Mountains aside, I am quite looking forward to getting back to France, for a number of reasons. Spain has been good - very good - but it's been long and, at times, seemed impossible. Crossing that border will be sweet. I am also meeting friends in France for a 4 or 5 day rest - the first familiar faces I will have seen for three months. And then of course there's the Super U.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Story

Luke is 47 or 48. He doesn't remember which. Either that or he just doesn't know. I don't think it makes much difference to him. In certain light, he looks quite youthful - more 30's than 40's. He has smooth, weathered skin that hides his love for cigarettes well

He's never settled down, always moving from one job to another, one town to the next, never staying for longer than about two years at a time. He went to University in his thirties and then went back to working as he did before - gardening, labouring, tree surgery. Six years ago he decided to go and see some friends he had in Madrid and try and make a life for himself in Spain. He drove down in a beaten-up old car he had, with two hundred pounds in his pocket. He didn't stay in Madrid long and went South, looking for work amongst the English communities that had congregated there. He got some work, bought a caravan and lived on some land with a commune of Brits, all of whom were either escaping something or putting something off. Luke didn't feel that way though, he felt at home for the first time in years. He got two cats - Bertie and Onka - and for the first time in his life he felt something like settled.

Luke, Bertie and Onka were like a little family. He had been alone for so long it didn't take Luke any time at all to become very attached to them. They were like his brother and sister, his best friends. But things weren't all rosy in Spain. Luke made just about enough money for the three of them to live, then the car started breaking down, then the tools he used to work with needed replacing - it was just one thing after another - one step forwrd, two steps back - and he started to accumulate a large amount of debt. After a while he decided to cut his losses and return to England. He could live rent-free on his parents land, in his caravan, and work as much as he could, repay his debts and save some money.

So the three of them set off for a ferry in the North. About 40 miles South of Madrid they stopped in a motorway services for the night. They're not ideal for stopping at but they didn't normally charge you and you could get back on the road straight away the following morning. In the middle of the night Luke was woken by Bertie and Onka fighting. He reached for his torch, which had its own little hook above his bed, but for some reason it wasn't there. He started to get up but by then they had stopped, so he settled down to sleep again.

In the morning, Luke woke and put the kettle on for coffee and started to fill the cat's bowls. Onka rubbed around his legs, as normal. 'Bertie!' he called, expecting him to come skipping out from his sleeping place between the cupboards. Bertie didn't come out. Panic rose in Luke's chest. 'Bertie!' he called again, his voice anxious now. He looked around the small caravan - at the cushion the cats sometimes slept on together, at the place on the sofa where they often sat with him, then at the makeshift cat flap he had put in the door, with its piece of wire to hold it shut. The wire was hanging loose. Bertie was gone.

Luke stayed at the services for 5 days, walking around, calling Bertie's name, asking people if they'd seen him. He climbed over the back wall, walked the fields and farm tracks. Still no Bertie. He couldn't stay there forever and on the sixth day he wrenched himself away, distraught. Chances were, Bertie was either long gone or flat on the road somewhere, but he didn't know. It's the not knowing that kills you.

His plan in England worked and after three years he had paid off all his debts and saved a lot of money. His application for residency in New Zealand was accepted, Onka had her jabs and passport, and they were due to fly out in 6 weeks time. He got lucky with two weeks of cash work and was suddenly flush. He thought of what to do with it and his mind led him back to three years ago and a promise he had made to himself, to Onka, to Bertie. If he ever had the chance he would come back and look for him.

Luke packed a rucsac and a tent, flew to Madrid, hired a car and started driving South. The place had changed but he still recognised some things, especially when he got on the road South. He knew he was getting nearer and his heart started beating faster, his hands becoming slippery on the steering wheel. His heart was in his throat as he approached the services, tears already welling in his eyes, excitement in his stomach. It was a long shot, he knew that. But he had to try it. He owed it to himself, to Onka, to Bertie.

The barman at the services was bemused at first but eventually remembered the strange English guy who stayed there for a week three years ago, looking for his cat. Luke started pretty much where he left off - walking, calling. He did a day at the services then headed South, on the route back to where he and the cats had lived together for three years. He stopped in villages, walked every street and every farm track, calling Bertie. He inspected every litter of kittens for traces of Bertie's genes, questioned every cat owner, and pretty much anyone he met. Every movement in the shadows, every cry or wail from a cat at night was a potential Bertie. He immersed himself in it, it drove him mad, but he knew he had to do it.

He went back to the commune where he had lived. All the same people were still there but, strangely, all but one of the couples had swapped partners with each other. That was the way with these places. They had a party that lasted until 7am. A big, angry woman who remembered Luke from years ago, and didn't like him then, punched him in the face and knocked him to the floor. He was too drunk to remember it properly, or for it to hurt too much.

There was no Bertie though and Luke headed back towards Madrid, stopping in the same villages, walking the same tracks, calling the same name.

He flies home tomorrow morning. He's stopped calling now, stopped looking. He's looking forward to seeing Onka again, to starting his new life in New Zealand. At least the journey back to England will be straight forward, with no quarantine to deal with.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day 62 - Toledo - Central Spain

I've been here two days now and will probably make it three tomorrow - my first real 'holiday'!

I was going to leave today but I met some people in a bar last night, just as I was about to go back and have an early night. It's always the way, isn't it? Mark and Javi were going down to the river to a free 'concert'. I went with them. We drank beers and listened to local rock bands. Then we went to a club in the centre of town. Spanish people don't dance - Javi told me that and I saw it for myself. They have waiters in the clubs here - you don't even have to go to the bar. I got back to the tent at about 5.30am.

Today I have been playing football with Javi, Mark and a group of their friends. I scored a goal. We went for a beer and then back to Javi's house and now we're going out for a drink and some food. Javi has pet caterpillars.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Due to popular demand...

Decision Beach - where I decided to pedal back across Spain:


Riding through Extremadura, underneath the eagles:


Chilling in Caceres - Sunday evening in the Plaza Mayor (main square):


Monday, May 07, 2007

Day 56 - Caceres - Central-Eastern Spain

Two and a half years ago, when I first decided to do this, I wrote a short piece explaining why I was doing it and what I meant by ´Avoiding Europe´. Some of you may have read it - it was on my website for a while - most of you probably haven't and should possibly consider yourselves lucky.

Anyway, as well as a bit of a rant about Australia and general musings as to what 'travelling' actually was, I wrote something along the lines of:

"Most people know Spain for beach holidays in the south and maybe the odd city break, but how many people go to Extremadura, one of the most beautiful places in the country?"

I don't know the answer to that - I'm not out here doing a survey - but I have been cycling through Extremadura for the last two days. And it is beautiful. Rolling hills, pristine countryside, pitted with huge granite boulders, stretching as far as you can see, bright orange lizards, snakes, rivers, lakes, eagles constantly within sight, circling in the sky above me...it's quite a place.

In contrast to that I'm feeling awful today and am having a day off in Caceres. You could say ´self inflicted´ but I blame the barman in the ´Berlin Bar´, a proper rocker´s paradise. The walls are adorned with pictures of a Guns and Roses tribute band and the barman has proper 80´s Stadium Rock hair that he swishes about dramatically while playing, unashamedly, a mean bit of air guitar. He also dishes out shots of vodka to his friends at the bar (and me, last night), giving out double measures but only having a single shot himself each time, ´because I´m working´, and uses half a bottle of Bacardi to make two Bacardi and cokes, in pint-sized glasses, hence how I feel today.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Day 51 - Coimbra - Central Portugal

I spent a day in Porto at the weekend, thinking I might have a day off there. I didn't like it much though - despite discovering an excellent local food and drinkery - so I continued down the coast and discovered a bit of postcard Portugal. Sun, sand, sea, a beach promenade and a pleasant, chilled atmosphere. I took a day off there, in Espinho, and spent Sunday sitting on the beach wall with the locals, looking at the sea. I walked down to the waves, took my shoes off and stood in the water, the powerful tide stripping the sand from beneath my feet as it rushed out, and nearly knocking me over as it came back in again. It's a beautiful sight, the Atlantic, especially when you know there's nothing but water between you and America. Makes you feel quite small, quite insignificant.

Got me thinking too. When I arrive on the East coast of Italy and look out over the Adriatic, having done the same on the Med., how would I feel knowing I had cycled all that way, on my own? And how would I feel if I turned up having 'cheated' a bit, on the pretence of saving some time? I can feel it now, thinking about it, in my stomach, and that's why I'm heading East to the border with Spain tomorrow and then for the Pyrenees again. On my bike.