Saturday, 28 August 2010

Leon, Spain - mini update

Pre-dawn starts and flat terrain have taken us easily across the Meseta and we are now enjoying a couple of days in the bicycle-unfriendly, difficult-to-navigate, one-way-systems of the otherwise very agreeable city of Leon. Next we continue west through the mountains to Santiago with some very high passes ahead.
Just want to say thank you to everyone who is reading the blog and for posting comments - it´s great to have all your support. I´m glad that people are enjoying the blog. It´s become a key feature of the trip for me - a kind of thread that pulls me through the journey. So please keep reading!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Castrojeriz, Spain - Don´t shoot, I´m a pilgrim

Well, I have slipped seemlessly into Spain but not without incident. My first night in Spain was a wild camp in a little wood on a Saturday night. I thought it was a good, concealed spot so looked forward to a lazy Sunday morning. The height of laziness when camping for me is to make my first mug of coffee without even getting out of my sleeping bag and to sip it with the door of the tent peeled back so I can watch the world go by from the comfort of my tent. But this Sunday morning at 7am gunshots started in the woods all around me. It doesn´t take a genius to figure out that it is not wise when there is shooting going on to be concealed in the trees in a tree-coloured tent! So I was out of there faster than you can say "hasta luego".

It´s amazing how quickly things changed between France and Spain - like the flick of a switch. The countryside is scorched to shades of ocre and gold; folds of hazy mountains stretch to the horizon; the little hill-top towns are now closely stacked with flat terracotta roofs and look quite precarious like the constructions you made as a child with a pack of cards. One of the most notable differences is that Spanish campsites provide toilet paper, although it tends to be one large communal roll outside the toilet block. This is a bit strange - how do you know how much you´re going to need before you go in? It´s sure to happen on occasion that you get settled in your little cubicle and realise too late that you´ve not taken in enough paper!

I´m now well along the camino and meeting lots of pilgrims. It´s a lovely feeling to have a shared sense of purpose and goal with all these strangers. I experienced quite a strange coincidence with one fellow cyclist, Hans. Like me he had cycled from Holland following an almost identical route through France along the Loire and down the west coast; he was now cycling along the camino like me; and amazingly also turning south through Portugal to a small town only 10 miles from the small town in Portugal that I´m heading to, where my sister lives! Isn´t that funny?

However the biggest excitement of the last week is meeting up with my friend and base camp manager, Graham. I met him off his bus in Logrono - him and his bubble-wrapped bicycle. It was great to see a familiar face, especially as he´d brought lots of my favourite gluten-free goodies! So now I have a companion for the rest of the camino to Santiago. We each have our shells tied to our bikes so people can see we are pilgrims - this gives us some discounts at campsites and encourages complete strangers to shout, peep and yell directions at us as we pedal along. Everywhere we go we look for shells - tied to other bicycles or walkers´backpacks, hanging above doors, brass shells embedded in the pavement, shell sculptures - all leading the way to Santiago. In the last couple of days we´ve passed through the swanky town of Burgos. We strolled along in the shade its wide tree-lined avenues and gazed in awe at its glorious cathedral. Now we face the big challenge of crossing the Meseta - a vast plateau at 800m scorched by the sun and scoured by the wind, where even water is not guaranteed. It will take us four days. Our ploy to beat the heat is to rise in the dark and be on the road at 7am as the sun is just coming up.

So stay tuned. Will we ever see the sunrise? Will we die crossing the Meseta? Will we make it to Santiago? If we do, will we still be speaking to each other?

New photos on my Flickr page.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Estella, Spain - mini update

I've crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and I'm making for Logrono to meet my friend and base camp manager Graham, to cycle the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

St Jean Pied de Port, France - Dodgy knees in the Pyrennees

Here I am in St Jean Pied de Port in the heart of the Pyrennees and my gateway into Spain. With a final push tomorow I should be saying "au revoir" to France and "buenos dias" to Spain. It's not been an easy route here and I've had one of the toughest days ever on a bicycle, climbing over a 850m col. I've done big ascents before but not with this amount of kit and not in the heat of a Pyrennean summer. My knees may never be the same again! The pain was relieved of course by stunning views of vertiginous drops, of rocky spires of the big daddy mountains in the distance and of little farms like monoploy houses nestled in patchwork fields way below. At the top of the col eagles circled on the thermals so close I could almost touch them and cast their immense shadows on the hillside. My smug smile at the top of the col was quickly wiped off my face by a mildy terrifying descent on a single track road that in places was just a ledge carved in the hillside.

St Jean, an ancient fortified town, is the capital of the Basque region and it is said that all Basque roads lead to the square in its old town centre. It's a tiny, wee town in modern terms and you've probably never heard of it. But in one respect it is a cornerstone in Europe. For it is here that all the pilgrim routes of St James from all across Europe converge for the final 500 miles or so to Santiago to Compostella in northwest Spain. These routes come from as far away as Norway, Italy and Eastern Europe. Entering the town through the massive old gate I got a real sense of its significance as modern day pilgrims on foot and bicycle jostled through the alleys. It's a pretty town too, with narrow cobbled streets that wynd uphill to the citadel. Between the closely-packed buildings are views to the surrounding mountains. My favourite part of the town is the city gate, the Porte de Notre-Dame. Within its walls are carved simple stone seats where for centuries the poorest pilgrims sat to wait for donations of food and drink to help them on their way. I tried sitting here for a while but no double tall skinny latte appeared!

The pilgrim route would appear to be as busy now as it ever was. For many people walking the camina, as the pilgrim route is called, it is simply a focus for a holiday in northern Spain. For others it is a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey. Either way I think it's wonderful that this ancient route is still trodden by so many feet. As my own route across northern Spain will follow the camina, I have registered here in St Jean as a pilgrim and collected my shell, the official symbol, to attach to my bicycle. My journey is not a religious pilgrimmage but one of significance nonetheless, a chance to explore the world but also to live a more simple life for a time with tent and bicycle. My journey's goal is not some distant point on the planet but it is to be back home, where perhaps I'll see home as if for the first time.

Like any pilgrim I face challenges such as physical obstacles in the mountains; sacrifices such as losing the comforts of home; and there is pain . . . which right now is in my knees!

Click this link:
to see lots more new photos.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Oloron Ste-Marie, France - Camping it up

Those of you who know me will be shocked by the following two facts. First, I have been wearing stockings and second, I have been to MacDonalds! The sun has been blisteringly hot of late and because of the position on the bike, my arms get it full blast all day. So I cut the toes from a pair of those robust stockings that maiden aunts wear and I pull them over my arms. They keep the sun off without adding too much warmth to one's ensemble. The visit to MacDonalds was to appease Tigger for not making it to Eurodisney!

August seems to be the month for village fetes in France. As if the little hilltop villages are not charming enough, they are now bedecked with colourful bunting that flutters in the breeze like Tibetan prayer flags. Yesterday I reached the hilltop village of Arthez de Bearn which marked my first 1000 miles. I also got my first glimpse of the Pyrennees, a hazy blue wall of rock shimmering in the sun. Today I began the climbing into the foothills. All this is very exciting but not half as exciting as finding gluten-free raspberry cookies!

The last proper bed I enjoyed was on the ferry to the Zeebrugge but this is no hardship as I love camping. Though I will need a room soon to charge camera batteries. Mostly I've used campsites in France which are everywhere. I love pitching my tent and watching camp life. The French seem to like to just relax, share food and good company. Then perhaps a game of petanque will start up. Of course, there is drinking but never any rowdiness and everybody is quietly off to bed by 11 except on karaoke nights. The French find my tiny tent very amusing as they don't go camping in anything smaller than a wedding marquee! I've also camped wild to save money or where there is no campsite on my route. My routine is to have a light supper and stock up on water in the last town that I pass through.
Then at about 8pm I'll find a quiet track off a deserted road that leads into a wood or a hidden field margin. I wait till it's actually getting dark before I put the tent up in case I've unwittingly picked the local lovers haunt! Then I'm away next morning about 7am. The nicest wild campspot so far was in the margins of a vineyard along a cycle route on a disused railway line. As I sat by my tent in the warm evening glow, the sun dipped below the horizon, a cacophany of insects started and as it got dark I heard porcine gruntings that I assume could only be wild boar.

The climbing now in the hills is pretty hard and I was exhausted with one steep hill late in the afternoon when a couple working in their garden invited me to stop for a cold drink. This made me think what a unique persepctive travelling by bicycle brings. People notice you on the bike in these quiet villages and at the speed I travel it's easy to call me over to stop for a chat or a drink. The traveller in a car would speed through these places in seconds and miss all these chance encounters.

Over the next few days there's a lot more climbing to do higher into the Pyrennees - in my stockings!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Bordeaux, France - Beside the seaside, beside the sea

I had high hopes for France's Atlantic coast. I'd imagined myself standing on a wild promontory, looking windswept and interesting as I gaze thoughtfully across the ocean. The reality is a busy chain of beach resorts with hideous amounts of people and cars. There were a couple of highlights. Such as cycling like bats out of hell down the Medoc with Daniel and Thierry, two French cyclists on tour that I'd met on the ferry. The cycling here is along specially-built, traffic-free pistes cyclables through a vast coastal forest. And the medieval walled town of Brouage. Standing on its deserted, dusty main street, I felt as if I was on the set of a spaghetti western. Any moment now Clint Eastwood would step out from the shadows, stare at me with eyes of chipped granite and say through clenched teeth - "gosh, it's jolly hot under this poncho".

As I write I'm in the beautiful city of Bordeaux. I'm not a fan of cities but I love Bordeaux with its cycle paths, wide esplanade along the river and vibrant life. Photos on Flickr. And today I have been away for 4 weeks. It's flown by. I do think about home, family and friends but I'm not at all homesick and feel I've adapted pretty well to life on the road. Funny little things remind me of Portobello - the bells of the village churches remind of the bell's of our town clock; this morning I listened to an accordion player on the street, just like the one that plays on the prom; and the screech of the swifts overhead or the clap of a woodpigeon's wings make me think I'm sitting in my garden on a sunny afternoon. Sometimes on a Saturday night I lie in my tent and think, wouldn't it be nice to be magically transported back to Portobello for a nice lazy Sunday. I'd go for a long walk along the beach; have coffee at the Beach House sitting on the prom; then perhaps a scoot round the lagoons on the bike. It would all be so easy and familiar. But then I remember that's why I left!

So now I'll have a second night at a lovely wee campsite on the outskirts of Bordeaux before heading onwards and upwards - literally, for now I have the get over the Pyrennees to make a rendezvous in Spain!