This year we decided to see some more of the Pyrenees, with a short time in Northern Spain.
Here is our trip. The places we stayed are green circles.
Joanie drove us to the airport. These are our bike boxes and our luggage. We use one panier each for 28 days in Europe.
Getting to Europe is always tiresome from Vancouver. We took our normal Air Transat flight to London Gatwick and then we did something different: we flew the next stage out of Stansted, North of London. The flight we needed to Bilbao was only available from RyanAir flying from there, so we embarked on the numbing bus-ride from Gatwick to Heathrow and change to Stansted. We arrived in Gatwick in the morning and arrived in Bilbao (after perhaps a 2hr flight) after dark. We would not do this again.
We were staying in a "Pensione" in Bilbao close to the centre of the old city (Casco Viejo), which we found quite nice. They didn't serve breakfast, but there were plenty of places within 50m that did.
One of the main reasons for starting our trip in Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum there. The architecture of this is renowned and it is an interesting building.
This is the front of the Guggenheim with the "puppy" in flowers in the plaza.
Inside it is pretty empty. It seems all the effort went into the shell. There was a Braque exhibit but he was a pretty second rate impressionist, known mostly for the company he kept (the first rate impressionists); there was also a series of heavy steel maze-like structures on the first floor that you would need to move with a cutting torch and gantry. I think the museum was probably built around them.
At the back of the museum, there was a spider.
After a couple of days in Bilbao we had our bikes assembled and we headed off. The first day was a simple straight river run to Durango where after only getting lost once in pouring rain, we found our B&B. Unfortunately we were using Airbnb and because we had not completed our optional profile, they had told the owner that we had cancelled. At least this was the impression that the owner got. They weren't there. After being helped by the whole community around the B&B they finally got word to them, and they arrived and we got let in. It was a nice place and they were nice people, we ate at a local fast food place and they gave us breakfast the next morning. They were apologetic.
The view from one of the passes in Basque Country.
The next day we ended up going over two pretty steep passes, one with heavy truck traffic due to construction. Not pleasant biking. We finally made it to Lazkao just South of the town of Besain where we stayed in a hotel off an industrial zone that looked like it catered mostly to truckers. It was good, and the food was good. I had fallen coming through Besain -- I had hit a small marble curb too fast, at too small an angle and gone straight down -- so I was still bleeding a bit when I arrived at the hotel. The patroness gave me some "instant skin" or something to stop the bleeding (and protect her sheets). It worked quite well.
The top of the pleasant Lizzarusti Pass and the restaurant where we lunched.
The next day we had to go over a pass to get to the high valley that led to Pamplona. I was a bit worried by this after the passes the previous day, but this pass proved to be one of the most pleasant passes of the trip. The road up was low angle, in the shade, and it had a nice restaurant at the top.
The trip down the other side and into Pamplona was actually more gruelling. We had to push along a road beside the freeway in the hot sun to get our miles in to Pamplona and really didn't enjoy it. When we arrived in Pamplona, Kate had hoped to meet someone at the place we were staying (another AirBnb), but her mother was there instead, and she spoke no English. We had this womans apartment all to ourselves. It was near the centre of the old town, so the location was good, and there were plenty of places to eat nearby, so it was okay; but Kate was expecting breakfast with the room (it is, after all, AirBnB, meaning Breakfast). But it was not to be.
We ate supper the first night in the Plaza in front of the Pamplona Town Hall.
We spent two nights in Pamplona, so we had a day to see the sights. This involved walking around and seeing about the only thing that Pamplona is famous for, the running of the bulls, or as they call it here, El Encierro. Since they weren't running the bulls in September (they do it in July), we had do content ourselves with following some of the path, and looking at the monument. We also went to the citadel in the centre that has been turned into a civic park and saw the deer in the moat. The day was so hot that they were mostly submerging themselves in a pond.
Deer cooling off in the citadel.
This is the monument to the running of the bulls, so people that don't show up in July when it happens can see what it looks like. I wonder if BC Med would cover you in something like this.
Having finished savouring the delights of Pamplona, we headed off for the Pass of Roncesvalles or, if you are a Basque, Oreaga. I have always wanted to see the pass of Roncesvalles because there is an ancient French poem, the Chanson de Roland about a battle that was fought here 1200 years ago or so (Aug 15th, 778). Charlemagne was retreating across the the Pyrenees through this pass and left a rear-guard with one of his knights, Roland. He told Roland to call for help with his horn if he needed it. The Basques attacked the rear-guard and overwhelmed it. Roland refused to call for help until it was too late. Chalemagne got across fine, Roland was killed, but became a knightly hero for his moronic behaviour. It is important to understand that when you saw a knight on horseback in the middle ages, all the brains were in the horse.
This is the monument put up by the Basques on the 12th centenary of the Battle of Roncesvalles.
These days Roncesvalles is known much more as one of the chokepoints on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. There were pilgrims everywhere, and we talked to a few. They were saying that the numbers had exploded in recent years. Partly this was because of a film by Martin Sheen about someone walking the route, but also because a lot of baby boomers were doing it now that they were retired. In any case were were lucky we had reserved a room months before in one of the hotels in Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles is a small place, really just comprised of a few hotels.
Roncesvalles is very crowded and we were lucky to get a room here.
The next day we went over the pass and down the other side into France and the town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Being in France I now found it easier to communcate with people. My Spanish relies heavily on the tolerance of the listener, my Basque is non-existent, and sometimes the only language I could use was French. Now that we were in Southern France, I could talk to more people in bad French, although, in fact most of the people here preferred Occitan.
We got down to St. Jean quickly, but we still had 50km to go to get to where we were staying the night. A Logis hotel in a town called Montory. We arrived in late afternoon and it was quite a nice place, good food.
The next day we headed off and ran into a cycling race, we would continuously encounter peletons of bikes heading the other way. We must have passed several hundred cyclists in all. Finally we got to our B&B in the town of Laruns, ate in the town square and had a good nights sleep.
We were going to need it, because the next day was the hardest day of the trip. We would go over the Col d'Aubisque and the Col de Soulor. The Aubisque is frequently done in the Tour de France and it is rated as "brutal". That was my impression as well.
Kate finds these bikes need climbing. I don't.
This is us at the top of the Col d'Aubisque.
This is the Pic de Ger from the Col d'Aubisque with a friendly horse that came down and welcomed tourists.
Kate loves being run off the road by sheep (these may actually be brebis). Note the huge bell on the bellwether.
We ate at the top of the Col d'Aubisque and then headed over to the Col de Soulor, a drop and climb we really didn't think was necessary. Then down to Betharram. The descent North to Betteram from the Col de Soulor was steep, we had to stop several times to let our bike wheels cool -- a problem that is more serious with 20" wheels than the larger 700mm wheels of normal road bikes. All my recent flats have happened at the foot of long descents because the tubes get hot and herniate into wells where the spokes are fastened. This time I had taped over those wells, so this never happened. We had no flats on this trip, although I did have to retighten my spokes once.
The thing we wanted to see in Betharram was the cave. This is famous and was one of the first caves in France that was electrified, in the late 19th or early 20th century. The remarkable thing about this cave is its' ceiling.
The ceiling in the Grotte de Betharram
In the Grotte de Betharram
The next day we had a good breakfast and headed for Lourdes and Bagneres de Bigorre, where we had a reservation. We stopped at Lourdes for Kate to fill up her water bottle with magic water and I needed to buy new brake pads, a new mirror, and some metal rod to make a new holder for my handlebar bag.
We were now cycling across the Northern foothills of the Pyrenees to get to the Mediterranean. This is very pretty country, although not spectacularly mountainous, like the Alps; it is continuously interesting cycling.
It was Kate's birthday in Bagneres-de-Bigorre and we found a French all-you-can-eat buffet in a restaurant. We had never seen one of these before (in a French restaurant), and Kate thought it was a great birthday dinner.
The next day was a straight-forward 62 Km day to St. Gaudens, where I had to pad my saddle in some foam we bought for comfort. Then an easy 50Km day to St. Girons where we stayed in a hotel that catered to cyclists -- although generally fitter ones than us. It was called appropriately enough the Flamme Rouge after the flag signalling the last kilometer of a stage in the Tour de France.
The next day was a 62Km ride that took us over the Col de Porte and down into Tarascon.
Kate at the Col de Porte.
We stayed in Tarascon for two nights because we wanted to visit the Grottes de Niaux. These are caves famous for their cave drawings.
The entrance to the Grottes de Niaux. We biked here even though it was a real grind getting from the valley town of Niaux up to this entrance, designed so subtly to blend in with the environment.
This is a picture of a postcard of one of the cave paintings in the Grotte de Niaux. We could not use cameras in the cave itself.
The Grottes de Niaux was worth it. Because they let very few people through each day, we had booked months ahead, although by luck, we got in free because of what day it was (I didn't catch what that was). It is about a half kilometer walk through the caves to get to where they were, but there were pretty well preserved cave paintings from around 13,000 years ago. Definitely worth the visit.
The next day was an easy 67 Km to Quillan where we had a nice hotel room and a thoroughly uninspiring supper of a sandwich -- it was Sunday and most of the restaurants were closed.
The next day was an easy 35 Km that took us from Quillan to St. Paul de Fenouillet. We were now no longer crossing over valleys in the foothills that were heading North, but we were in a valley heading East, straight to the Mediterranean.
We stayed two nights in St. Paul, so that we could do a curcuit North into a valley beside the one we were in that had a ruined castle. So the next day we headed up over the col to a town called Cubières. The road to Cubières passed an ancient hermitage that must have been a great place before the road went in 30m above it! We then went through a steep gorge and down the valley to the town of Duilhac. This is where the road up to the Chateau de Peyreperteuse started. Its' average grade was 10% for 4 Km. I measured one section (not the steepest -- I needed to be able to start up again) at 15%. But we finally made it and saw the castle. An interesting ruin.
This is Kate and the house cat in our hotel in St. Paul de Fenouillet.
You can see the hermitage in the centre of the picture here, with the road behind it.
The ruins of the Chateau de Peyreperteuse. This was once a border fort between France and Catalonia, but the border moved South and the border castles lost their utility.
The next day we finished the last 45Km of the trip into Perpignan easily. It was down a river valley with a tailwind. We found our digs in Perpignan without a problem, although it was closed when we arrived. We were staying in an apparthotel. It is an appartment, with a kitchette, not a hotel. The rates are better, and while they don't serve breakfast, there is a shop just across the street that sells croissants, and you can make coffee in your kitchenette.
It was a fifteen minute or so walk to downtown. We were actually just opposite the train station. The train station in Perpignan had a moment of glory when Salvador Dali was there and called it "The centre of the world". Who knows what he as on, but succeeding visitors have just shaken their heads and said "Seriously?". However, it does now have an office complex built above it called "Il Centro del Mon", which I assume is Catalan or Occitan, because it is not French.
After settling in, the next day we saw the tourist sights in Perpignan. There aren't many, an old gate, an old castle that has been updated with Vauban walls. That's about it.
The Palace of the Kings of Majorca is one of the few places worth touring in Perpignan.
However, Perpignan is not on the Med. It is about 20 km inland, so the next day we decided to bike to the Med to actually complete the trip. There were supposed bike paths all the way, and we even found some, but we lost as many as we found, nonetheless we ended up on the beach with a view of the Med and having a lunch of crépes.
Kate looking at the Mediterranean and the beach near Perpignan.
The next day, we started to fly home. We flew from Perpignan to Stansted again, via Ryanair, then, because I had believed something I read on-line, we took the bus from Stansted to Victoria Cross Coach Station (in the middle of London) and then changed to Gatwick. We arrived in Stansted from Perpignan at around 10:00AM, we got into Gatwick in the early evening where, fortunately, we had a room booked in the in airport hotel (the Bloc hotel).
The next morning, pretty early, we checked out, got our flight to Vancouver, and Joanie was there to meet us. Thank you Joanie! The next day I came down with food poisoning from the chicken I had on the flight.
A perfect holiday.