Kate and Greg cycle from Toulouse to Barcelona, over the Pyrenees

We had already biked through some of France and Italy, so we decided that we should try to see some of Spain. Plus, after biking a bit through the Alps, we wanted to check out the Pyrenees; and since I'm pushing 63 and only have one good leg, I felt I'd better do this soon.

This is a rough map of where we went:-

View Larger Map

Well, the trip didn't start well. We had booked our trans-Atlantic flight with Zoom airlines. They went bankrupt a week before we were leaving. This lead to a mad scramble to find alternate flights to and from Gatwick. We finally got an Air Canada flight to Heathrow (bus to Gatwick -- stay overnight), and an Air Transat flight back from Gatwick at the end. It was kind of a zoo.

Kate and our bikes in Blagnac

This is Kate assembling our bikes in Blagnac -- the airport town of Toulouse. A word about these bikes would be in order. We were having more and more trouble getting our normal sized touring bikes over to Europe. They take up large bike boxes, but even so, airlines used to ship them free. Now they charge for shipping bikes. Last year the total cost was about $650 for the two of us. Another problem is that the size of the boxes makes them a pain to move anywhere. Eventually one tires of carting huge boxes through railway stations and airports, and finding special large taxis to get to and from your hotel.

So we decided to go with small folding bikes. We chose the Dahon mu24. This is a sturdy seeming bike with 20 inch wheels and 24 gears that we tried on the local mountains and found worked quite well. The great thing about them is that they can be disassembled to fit into a maximum sized suitcase. The box you see beside Kate is the box we shipped them in. They are light easy to cart around, we can use normal taxis and normal buses to travel around. It does take some assembly and packing to fit them in though, but it is worth it. Finally, the boxes, which are made of our cut down Crateworks bike boxes are light and we can fold them down enough to carry them with us. This means that we don't have to worry about returning to our starting point to pick up our boxes.

I got my bike assembled relatively quickly, and Kate had hers almost finished when she told me she must have left her front spindle (it holds the front wheel on) at home. After figuratively banging my head against the wall, I ended up biking into Blagnac to a couple of bike stores and getting something that could be used. One of the features of biking in France is that there are bike stores everywhere.

I got back, we got Kate's bike assembled and then she said: "Oh look, here's my spindle!". I had a Tourette moment, but we were too far behind schedule for me to properly elaborate.

For our first night we had a hotel booked in the little town of Lombez on the river Save. Someone at the hotel in Blagnac tried to help us by giving directions to a road they used to haul in large Aerobus 380 (the huge one) parts from the Atlantic. We never found it, instead we ended up cycling round the French country side (pleasant enough cycling as it was) for a few hours until we hit the main artery into Lombez.

The next day was pleasant enough cycling to Boulogne-sur-Gesse and the following day we made Tarbes in a downpour.

My bike/drying rack

This is what my bike looked like leaving Tarbes. Some drying was needed after the previous day's rain. From Tarbes we cycled through some back country roads to Lourdes, by which time we were in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Grotto at Lourdes

This is the Grotto at Lourdes. Kate checked it out while I watched the bikes. After biking up the very pretty (but uphill) "Gorges du Luz" we finally made it to Luz-St. Sauveur, which is the town at the foot of the Col du Tourmalet. We stayed here two nights because the weather report said it would be raining the next day, but the following day would be better. Plus, we wanted to be fresh for the climb.

Greg at the watchtower at Luz

This is Greg at the watchtower at Luz on our rest day. You can see that we are in the hills by now. The Pyrenees aren't as mountainous as the Alps, they have occasional peaks sticking up, but very few glaciers, and are generally more like foothills than a mountain range. We encountered a lot of hikers.

Greg's bike heading up the Col de Tourmalet

This is my bike as we start up the Col du Tourmalet. We had found a good patisserie in Luz and we were also carrying our normal baguette.

The Col du Tourmalet is famous in the Tour de France as it is generally the first major pass the cyclists go over. It's a significant climb.

Scenery heading up to Tourmalet

This is the valley leading up to the col.

Col du Tourmalet

At the top. This is the required trophy pic. There were a lot of cyclists coming over the top, from both sides. The top was just below snow line when we got there, and if we had gone up the previous day, we would have topped out in a snow storm. There was a small restaurant at the top that served Greg coffee while Kate visited the souvenir shop.

Heading down we encountered donkeys and llamas, as you can see:-

Donkey at Tourmalet

Kate and llama

We pretty much zoomed down to the valley on the other side of Tourmalet. We had a hotel room reserved in a little hotel in a Ste. Marie de Campan (the Hotel des 2 Cols) which had a restaurant and served us a very good supper and quite a good breakfast.

They had these life size rag dolls outside and, of course, Kate could not resist hamming it up with them.

Kate and rag dolls

The next day we headed up the Col d'Aspin. This is significantly easier than Tourmalet, it is more like cycling up the Cypress Bowl road here in Vancouver. We made the top easily enough but there is nothing there. The col is in the middle of a cow pasture that also has sheep and goats. This is a picture of Kate with the very rare child-headed goat.

Kate and Child-headed Goat

We then dropped down into the town of Arreau. We had booked a hotel here, but the proprietress had said that they would not open until about 1700. We got there and waited around a bit. We were reading in the back yard of the hotel when she found us there and let us in to our rooms. This was a "Logis de France" hotel. They generally have good beds and a good resaurant. Unfortunately, today was the day the restaurant was closed, so we ended up getting some charcuteries at a local shop and eating these in our room.

The next day we headed up the Col de Peyresourdes. This was long, but not too steep climb until just at the end. We had been told that the Pyrenees was different from the Alps in that there is never anything at the top of the cols. This did seem to be the case, as we arrived at the top, and there was only a small place selling honey. We took this picture and headed down for Bagniers-du-Luchon.

Col de Peyresourdes

Luchon is a big town. We were staying at another Logis de France hotel, but when we asked when we needed to reserve for the restaurant that night we were told it was already full. We ended up going to a restaurant recommended in the Michelin Guide, and had a good meal. It was Kate's birthday, and we needed that.

The next day was our last day in France. We headed up the Col de Portillon, the col that marks the border between France and Spain. It was not a bad col -- this is the top. The white part of the monument is where someone has painted over the word "FRANCE". There is no indication in the other direction that you are heading into Spain. Instead it says "Val d'Aran". This is Catalonia, and they don't really think of themselves as Spanish.

Spanish Border

I have to point out that Kate is not making a peace sign here. For the first time in living memory, she had left her mascot stuffed rabbit at home. This turned out to be a semi-traumatic experience for her, and this "peace sign" she kept making was really a rabbit head with two ears, so she could think that the rabbit was there in spirit. I find shaking my head from side to side is helpful in these situations.


At any rate, now we were in Spain, or we thought we were. In fact, we were actually in Catalonia. Maps, guides, and general knowledge will tell you that Catalonia is part of Spain. The Catalans won't.

It turns out that this presented a bit of a problem. I had learned a bit of Spanish to get by in Spain. In Catalonia, they could understand my Spanish, but they tended to respond in Catalan. Which is very much like Spanish, except, as they say, for the words. My Spanish-English dictionary was useless, as none of the words we encountered were the same in Spanish as Catalan.

Fortunately, most of the menus we encountered were bi-lingual (Catalan and Spanish); some people, especially in the hotels, understood some English, but most of the people in the hotels understood French. Generally the people we encountered thought that if we were foreigners, we would be French, and so my French was frequently more useful then either English or Spanish. We also learned to say "Hello" in Catalan.

We spent the first night in the ski resort of Vielha in Northern Catalonia. We still had one more pass to go over. This was the Port de la Bonaigua. It is a ski area, and is being rapidly improved on from the side we descended. Here is the building at the top:-

Port de la Bonaigua

We quickly got down the far side, and we were now over the Pyrenees, and descending out of the foothills. We spent the night at a pleasant hostal in Escalo; in places like this where the hotel is in a very small town, we would get media-pensiones (demi-pension in French). The hotel room, dinner and breakfast were all included in the price. The trick (learned the first time this is used), is that the price is per person, not per room. It is still generally a reasonable deal; and in Escalo we had very good food, although it was a fixed menu, as there were only ten or a dozen people staying there.

The next day we headed down for Tremp. This was generally pleasant bush biking and normally slightly downhill, so we made good time. We ate a the Catalan equivalent of a greasy spoon in Poble de Sequr (I had a donair which was fine) as it was just about all that was open. Around here, restaurants seem to close for lunch and open for supper at about 9pm. This restaurant had this menu, which Kate loved as an example of translation gone bad, especially the "Muffled marine thighs":-

We rested in this road that went around one of the tunnels (bikes were not allowed in this one).

Abandoned road around a tunnel

The trip from Tremp to Balaguer was through desert formations that looked like the Grand Canyon. As Kate said: "How did we get to Arizona?"

Tremp to Balaguer

One of the sections was a long haul past a reservoir that put us over another "pass". This one only 700m at the top, but it was a pain after all the nice downhill we had experienced. This is Kate chewing on a rosemary tree as we got near the summit.

Kate and Rosemary

We finally got to Balaguer, and we were now in the plains. As far as I could tell these were the plains of Urgell. This was one of the ancient dukedoms that was a foundation of Catalonia, and you could see why. Leaving Balaguer we biked for 30km straight as an arrow across what has probably always been an incredibly productive landscape. Here is a pic:-

The plains of Urgell

We spent a night at a truck stop off the A2 to Barcelona and had pretty good food there. The next day was over the outlying hills of Barcelona to a town called Martorell in the pouring rain. Finally the next day we made Barcelona in light rain. As we approached our hotel, this is the view down one of the streets:-

The Sag Fam

Kate had managed to find what I think was probably the cheapest hotel in Barcelona that still had clean sheets. The people were quite nice and spoke English and, fortunately, it was two blocks from the Sagrada Familia "temple". This is Kate with some bottled water (she didn't like the tap water) in our hotel room.

Kate, water, and our hotel room

We spent the next few days sightseeing. Barcelona is a crowded, touristy, town; but it absorbs it well. It also has a lot to see. One could spend some pleasant weeks here just being a tourist.

The first full day we were in Barcelona was during a week long Catalonian holiday, called MercÚ. We watched this parade from the plaza in front of the City Hall. The lime green air-columns were actually confetti shooters, you can't really see that the air is filled with confetti during the parade.

Next day we looked over the Sagrada Familia. It is an interesting cathedral. Technically it is not a cathedral, although it is being built as one; because Barcelona already has a cathedral. It is not clear which end is the front and which the back; but here is one end (the nativity end):-

Nativity end of the SagFam

And this is the crucifixion end, very different sculpture:-

Crucifixion end of the SagFam

Gaudi used a different style of columns inside. The traditional system for a gothic cathedral was to build straight columns to the top, and handle lateral loading with buttressing. Gaudi, instead, built the columns along the line of the loading, as you can see here. This also makes the columns lighter:-

Column construction in the nave of the SagFam

Here is a picture of a model Gaudi used to calculate the loading on a church he built (not the Sag Fam). He used the fact that the load on a catenary forms the same shape as the same loading on a column, but reversed. So Gaudi loaded this model with equivalent weights, took a picture, flipped it upside down, and had a picture of the load lines on the church (the picture is upside down.):-

load model of a church

We spent much time visiting museums. This is an exhibition beneath one of the buildings in the old town. When they moved the building here, they dug down to the old Roman town for a foundation. They found it fairly well preserved, and so the basement became an exhibit showing the streets and shops of antiquity. This picture is of the remains of a winery.

Remains of the old Roman town

On the last day in Barcelona, we visited Park Guell. This was an early gated community designed by Gaudi -- financially it was a total failure. Here is Kate and the "Dragon" mascot:-

Gaudi Park

And a Gaudi designed building that is famous (La Perdrada). This one was not a financial failure.

La Perdrada

It was finally time to head home. Our flight to Gatwick was late in the day. It was nice to be able to just hail a cab (without having to order up a special taxi a day in advance to handle bike boxes), and head off to the airport. Our flight from Gatwick to Vancouver was for about 12hrs later than our arrival time, so we had decided to try out the Yotel in Gatwick. These are very small compartments for sleeping and showering, etc. You rent them by the hour. This is Kate going in. She found it very welcoming in a Startrek "Beam me in, Scotty" sort of way.

Kate and Yotel

The flight home was typically long, then a taxi ride to North Vancouver, and we could relax.