A lightweight fixed-gear bike tour of France and Spain

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Pamplona and Rain

In the night and day since we left Pamplona we have met with some big differences from our time in France. The first has been the roads, because of the nature of our touring and the style of the French road system, we were often on county single lanes or very quiet district roads. However, in Spain we are following a major route, for walkers, but also for cars, trucks and buses: it’s a connect-the-dots journey from major location to major location across northern Spain and has been for 1000 years. Yet only in the last several years (certainly since after 2004, for our Cicerone guide is bit out of date) have many of the roads become a struggle for cyclists or entirely impossible. This we discovered when trying to leave Pamplona. The road our book had reccomended to take had been converted into an autovia, the largest kind of highway in Spain. The trouble is, all traffic leaving town is funnelled onto that road. We found ourselves on the begginning of the road, and not only did it feel very unsafe (there were already highway stile exit and entrance ramps), it is also illegal for cyclists to ride on autovias. So we got off at the next exit and found a triangular route, which was considerably longer, and also went over the mountain that the autovia takes a tunnel through. The wind was incredibly strong, we had trouble making any headway at all. Partly because of the wind, we started looking around for a place to stay. Several places were full, so we started looking got a place to camp. We took a dirt road to a chapel slightly off the route, bit the area was too flat to offer shelter from the wind or eyes peering from nearby houses. We went into the 12th century church, it was a small irregular octagon with a matchingly irregular domed roof. All the windows were alabaster, not glass, and were glowing in the setting sun. Our book didn’t mention that there was anywhere to stay bit we had seen signs for a bathroom. Sure enough there was a tiny pilgrims’ refugio, and the German couple who ran it said there were two beds left and if we hurried we would have time for showers beofre dinner. Dinner was delicious, and the couple were very generous.
The next day we started off on a gloomy looking morning, and we waited in the nearby village for a rainshower to pass. It I’d, but returned shortly, even stronger. In four hours we biked for just an hour and a half, and spent the rest of the time hiding out under bridges and bus stops. We are really spoilt, This is our first day bikig in the rain. In the end, we did 30km of the 80 we had planned. In the first big town we stopped to buy a bunch of things we needed, but it was pouring the whole time. We checked into a youth hostel and waited for the rain. It stopped at about 6 and we explored town. We are now a day “behind” but since we have no schedule it makes little difference.

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Spain

We haven´t written anything since Toulouse  because the nature of our journey has changed somewhat. During the first part of the trip we were planning only a couple days ahead and traveling through areas that, although touristy, were still in the off-season and a little out of the way. But now we are on the Camino and we are2 of several hundred thousand people who will complete the pilgrimage this year. This means that finding people to stay with is much more difficult along the route of the Camino. Without people to stay with, it is hard to find internet, and without internet, it is hard to keep the blog up to date, and also hard to find more people to stay with.

We are now on our second day in Spain. From toulouse, we headed West and a little bit South, passing through big pilgrimage towns such as Auch and Pau. Without exception, the roads were hilly, the countryside was beautiful, and every town had a disproportionately high number of churches! When we reached St. Jean Pied de Port, at the edge of the Pyrenees, we really discovered just how busy the Camino would become. The town is the last stop before Spain, but also happens to be one of the major starting points for most pilgrims. We spent one night in town, staying at the publicly funded pilgrim´s refuge. we didnt sleep much because of what we later termed “the snore chorus.” Of the other 8 people we were sharing the dorm room with, 5 of them snored! the next morning, we set off on foot, leaving our bikes and several kilo´s of extra gear behind at the refuge. That morning, we followed the steady stream of pilgrims through the rain and mist, along the camino. There were hundreds and hundreds of walkers. once we had gotten a taste for that, and realized it was not a flavor we enjoyed, we left the camino in search of emptier trails. After getting a little bit lost, we connected a series of pyrenean walking trails over the course of the next two days. We wild-camped both nights. The first night we spent in a field with the most beautiful view. It was surrounded on 360 degrees by steep valleys which rose up in the distance into great mountains, sheep fields giving way to rocks and open grazing lands. Early on the third day, we picked up our bikes, re-packed our gear, and headed over the pyranees. The climb was long, nearly 20km, but not very steep. Compared to the climb we did a few weeks ago out of Clermont-Ferrand in the Massif Central, this was easy. We entered Spain that morning, not that we noticed! There was no big sign saying “Welcome to Spain.” What triggered the realization eventually was that the mailboxes no longer said La Post but El Correo!

We are currently in Pamplona, using the free internet at the public library. Our plan for the next two weeks is to follow the Camino to Santiago de Compostella, then continue on to the coast, to the Cape of Finnesterre.

Hopefully we will be able to post more consistently over that period, as we figure out ways to find internet.

Castelnau-Montratier to Toulouse

From Castelnau-Montratier we headed south. In the late afternoon we reached a forest, and decided it would be a good place to camp. We waited around for it to get dark, writing postcards and reading our books. It was a warm afternoon, with blue sky above us. As we sat we thought we heard thunder from the west. Then it was all around us, but still sunny overhead. We pitched our tent and waited for the rain. Despite all of the thunder and lightening;=, it only rained lightly for half an hour. We went to bed with the tent doors open. At 2am, it started pouring!

The dry patch our tent left after the thunder storm

We followed a canal for the second half of our journey, and here, our canal crossed over another river!

Toulouse is in the "brick belt"

We arrived in Toulouse around noon, and spent the afternoon exploring the city. We got our “pilgrim’s passports” stamped at the cathedral and watched unicyclists doing tricks in the main square. We like Toulouse, it has a very New-York-West-Villagy-feel.

Le Mont Dore to Figeac to Castelnau Montratier

On the 19th we climbed Puy du Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif Central.

The next day we took the train from Le Mont Dore to Figeac, in the Lot region. On the train we met an Australian named Phil who was also planning to bike for a while in this region. After comparing maps, we realized we were planning on doing the exact same ride. When we arrived in Figeac, Phil treated us to a beer, and we agreed we would meet up the following morning, and ride together for the following day or two.

We left town and found a field to camp in. For dinner we heated up a tin of beans in tomato sauce, which turned out to be incredibly bland, and not at all like the delicious english baked beans we were expecting! The farmer was in his tractor moving hay bales, and at one point came within 20 feet of us. We lay flat in the long grass and he didnt see us.

The next day we biked along a lovely road (defined as smooth, flat, free of cars, and with beautiful scenery, a rare combination!) following the river Cele. That evening we reached the confluence of the Cele and the Lot, and found a campsite. The ground was so hard we had to use a block of wood (and a sturdy tent peg borrowed from Phil) to pound pilot holes in the concrete-like earth for our delicate pegs. That evening a huge number of flies hatched out of the river, and swarmed around the lights of the campsite. To get to the toilets, one had to walk through a huge cloud of them! The next morning, the floor around the lights was carpeted with dead flies. Lovely!

The next morning we followed the Lot into Cahors, where we said goodbye to Phil. From there, we had to get to Castelnau Montratier, a small town about 25km from Cahors. There we would be staying with the family of Rob’s mother’s high school friend. Early on we took a turn off the rather busy main road, thinking it would lead us straight to the town. A few hills later, one of which was steep enough that we had to get off and push the bikes, the road devolved into a very rocky dirt track. We retraced our steps and after a very hilly couple of hours of riding, reached the town of Castelnau Montratier.

While in the main square of the town, a car pulled over and from the back seat someone called out “Are you looking for the Hartmans?” We replyed that we were, and after rattling off a stream of instructions, none of which we understood, the car drove away. We knew that the house was accross the valley from town, so we headed off down the valley. It was a long and winding descent from town. half way up the other side of the valley, we ran out of ideas as to where the house could be. Just then the same car that we had seen in town drove past, but headed back the way we came. It turns out that the town was surrounded on three sides by valleys, and we had picked the wrong valley. In fact, we had gone in the opposite direction from the house. We eventually got to the house by car, putting the bikes on a bike rack (and saving us climbing back up the hill we had just come down).

We have been at the house since then, relaxing that evening and all of the next day.

Today we took a day trip to the town of Moissac, 30km to the Southwest. We had lunch and looked around the church.

We noticed a lot of people in town who were pilgrims, walking or biking the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route we plan to follow in Spain. One branch of the route goes through this town. So we went to the tourist office, and for six Euros, bought “pilgrim passports.” The passport gives you discounts at various tourist attractions along the Camino, as well as at hostels and restaurants along the way. At each town along the route, you get your passport stamped at the local church or tourist office, to prove that you have really done the Camino. We got our first stamp in Moissac, which was exciting!

After the life of luxury we have had here (everyone has been very generous), it is hard to leave, but tomorrow morning we will start biking to Toulouse. Although we mostly avoid cities, we have heard good things about Toulouse.

In Castelnau-Montratier

A quick update: we are at the Hartman’s beautiful estate in the Lot region south west of Cahors. We have been relaxing and will write and post pictures soon about our journey from Le Mont-Dore to Castelnau and the things we saw and people we met along the way.

Clermont Ferrand to Le Mont Dore

This post will be mostly pictures, as it’s the best way to show you what we have been up to.

We left Clermont Ferrand, and cycled uphill for 15km with 800 meters of altitude gain (9.5mi, with 2600 feet of altitude). It was a hard climb. It was hot, there was not a single flat stretch the whole time. That got us to the Col de Ceyssat, at 1100m. From there, we got off the bikes, and hiked up to the summit of Puy de Dome, at 1400 meters.

The view from the top of Puy de Dome

From there, we had a long descent, on a lovely road, reaching a top speed of more than 50kph (30mph), and then rolling hills, with only one other major climb. We reached a campsite on a dairy farm, and because the toilets were not yet operational, the farmer let us camp for free. We bought some cheese in the morning.

Feeding the cows along the way

Then there was one long climb to the Col de Guery, with some stunning views along the way.

Looking over the “chimneys” of two extinct volcanoes.

From the Col it was downhill all the way to the town of Mont Dore, where we are now. We are staying with a Dutch couple who run a business renting accommodation to skiers in the winter, and cyclists in the summer. We found them via the website warmshowers.org, which organizes free accommodation for touring cyclists. They are a lovely couple, and we were given our own apartment!

Today we plan on climbing Le Puy du Sancy, the highest mountain in central France.

In Clermont Ferrand

When we set out from Saumur for Clermont Ferrand (in the Massif Central), we knew it would be a roundabout journey, maybe through Paris or with lots of changes. But we never expected it would take 10 hours, including  a 4 hour detour! We arrived at the Saumur station and went straight to the ticket office to find out the best route. The lady there printed us tickets that went from Saumur to Angers, then to Tours, then to Moulins (a random town that happened to be where we would switch trains) then to Clermont Ferrand. We assumed that although Angers was in the opposite direction of where we planned to go it was a faster and more direct route, or maybe the only way to get there with our bikes. So we ran onto a train and at Angers, walked around, then sat in the station wasting time for around 2 hours. Then we took a train to Tours. Much to our surprise the train passed back through Saumur! Naturally, we were upset, the detour had taken four hours, probably cost extra, and meant that we didnt arrive in Clermont Ferrand until 7:30 in the evening. We probably could have reached our destination much earlier. We had no-one to stay with in Clermont Ferrand, so after looking for internet, we tried to take the bus to the nearest campsite. We were not allowed on, so we cycled up hill in the dark for 5 of kilometers to get to the campsite. We got there at 9:30, and the office was closed. Eventually found a number to call, and the guy on the end of the line just said, pick a spot, we will sort it out in the morning. We fell asleep, exhausted.