EUROPEAN TOUR 2006 PART II - SPAIN, FRANCE
Santiago de Compostela, Spain to Avignon, France
May 28 to June 30, 2006
Start 47,771 miles (76,433 km):
End 48,896 miles (78,234 km) cumulative
North Spanish Coast
Santiago de Compostela to Bilbao
May 28 to June 7
One of the many Camino del Santiago routes enters Spain from France at the coastal town of Irun.† It runs along the coast and then cuts a diagonal route to Santiago.† Our plans were to somewhat follow this route, backwards, with a little bit of modification.† Since camping opportunities on the diagonal route were essentially nonexistent, we decided to head directly north to the coast at A Coruna and then head east from there.† It wasn't a bad plan we thought.† But little did we know that this route, which would have us headed eastbound on the coast for 2 weeks, would also have us headed into a headwind for 2 weeks.
We left Santiago on a Sunday morning.† It was a hot sultry day that actually had all the earmarks of our first truly summer day.† Our road was predominantly downhill with just a few very sweaty climbs here and there.† The closer we got to the coast, the greener the vegetation became.† Although this was a slight change in elevation and distance from Santiago, there just seemed to be an increase in the amount of undergrowth, moss, and ferns.† This was a clear indication that this is a wet, wet coast.† The hills around Santiago are essentially a blockade for storms coming in from the north.† So the coast sopping wet.† The rain in Spain really doesn't fall on the plain after all.
We had our usual lunch of cheese sandwiches, chips, and cookies at the little crossroads town of Travesa, which really does mean crossroad.† We then proceeded on down the steep, but pretty descent to the reasonably pretty town of Betanzos before hitting the coast.† This being a beautiful, clear sunny day meant that the coastal waters were clear, brilliant blue, and packed with swimmers.† We got our first taste of the summer crowds yet to come.† This was just a weekend day at the end of May, yet the beach was wall to wall towels, umbrellas, and sunbaked bodies.† We were beginning to think that maybe once we get to France, heading inland and over to the Alps for the height of the summer season might not be such a bad idea.
Once we hit the coast, finding an open campground proved to be a rather difficult task.† Spain seems to have an unusual concept of camping.† Their campgrounds are rarely near towns, with the exception of towns frequented by nonSpanish tourists.† They usually don't have direct access to public transportation.† They're almost always near a beach, which means that most of the 1000 or so campgrounds are lined along the coasts and most of these are on the Mediterranean.† The campgrounds seem to be all private.† We never found any municipal or public ones.† They're often full of these permanently placed caravans that usually have an added canvas room that literally doubles their size.† Temporary campers have to squeeze in between these makeshift houses.† Finally, most of the campgrounds do not open until either June 1, 15, or 30.† This is certainly not the kind of camping we're used to.
So as we made our way along the coastal road we started checking in at some of the string of ďcampingsĒ.† One after the other they told us they really weren't open.† Yet, in each one there were crowds of people.† These were the people who owned the permanent trailers who were allowed to stay for the weekend.† Temporary campers weren't.† It took 3 tries before we found one nice lady who let us stay, but only because we were only staying for one night.† She kept saying, "But tomorrow there won't be any body here."† That's OK, we wouldnít be here either.
Summer seemed to come and go in just a single day.† After a hot, steamy Sunday, we awoke to cloudy skies and blustery winds.† It was cold.† Not a full, dead of winter type cold, but more of an early spring or late winter kind of cold.† Actually it felt more like fall.† All around it looked like there would be showers pestering us throughout the day.† Light showers are tolerable, but heavy rains on a cold gloomy day can be downright miserable.† To top it all off, we had no idea where we'd wind up camping for the night. As far as we could tell there were no campgrounds within one day riding and we didn't know if wild camping opportunities would present themselves or not.† We pressed onwards anyway.
We had been told that it is legal to camp anywhere in Spain for a single night just as long as itís not obviously on someoneís property.† So as we pressed toward the north coast skirting around Porto Barra, we kept our eyes open for something that looked appealing.† As it happened, we discovered a very nice picnic area/road side rest stop.† The day was early, but the skies still looked menacing.† This particular picnic site happened to have covered tables.† We set up the tent and moved right on in.† Later in the evening one security person drove in to check us out and drove off.† So it looks like the rumors are true.† You just canít be too flagrant.
Over the next few days as we reached the coast and turned our front wheels east the winds continued to howl and always east to west.† They did lessen just a little bit, going form just barely passable to almost cyclable.† Yet for day after day we found ourselves tucking our chins, gritting our teeth, and simply bearing down on the pedals.† We didn't see any relief until we neared Bilbao where finally the mornings would provide a short respite before afternoon winds once again howled.† We came to the conclusion, if you want to ride the Spanish north coast in summer, you're best to go east to west, which happens to be the direction the Santiago pilgrims take.
We stuck to the "red" road which, until the new highway is completed, forced us to share the road with all the large trucks and a lot of traffic.† The more interesting towns are located on the smaller, side roads, but these were extremely hilly.† And with such a tough headwind we didnít want to add a lot of climbing to already difficult days.† We did take the time and effort to head into the towns that were supposed to be particularly attractive, such as Cudillero.
In the height of the summer tourist season itís apparent that Cudillero would be mobbed.† Itís easy to see why.† The small town is nestled in a deep ravine that encompases a tiny port.† Pretty multicolored houses climb up both sides of the ravine.† Town center consists of an extremely narrow main street that wanders down the ravine to the tiny bay.† It happened that we visited when the entire street was dug up for installing new sewer pipes.† So getting around was a mess.† Fortunately, since it was still early spring, the streets were virtually deserted and only a few tourists were wandering around.† We wandered down from our campsite located at the top of the ravine to have a short look at the fishing side of the bay and then the lighthouse side.† Then it was a stiff climb back up.† Cudillero is a pretty town, but we have to question its ranking as the prettiest along the entire north coast.† We passed a lot of other equally pretty towns along the way.
Gijon was a mess to negotiate.† We started out on a "red" road and soon found ourselves accidentally on a highway, one that didn't allow bikes.† Hopping off at the first possible exit, we found ourselves right at a large Carrefour supercenter where we could at last pick up a better set of maps which helped a bit.† Soon after leaving the store we were wending our way around a supposedly back road that proved to be the access road to several industrial sites including mines.† We were now sharing our road with big dirt moving trucks rather than semis.† We finally found our way into Gijon proper, but true to most Spanish side roads, once the signage gets you into town you'll be hard pressed to find the right signage to get out.† We found ourselves wandering around town back and forth trying to find the right street back to N-634 toward Santander.† Giving up we once again resorted to getting on the highway, enduring the honks from all the cars tying to tell us we were doing something illegal, and enduring an uphill climb through a tunnel.† We finally hopped off at the next available exit.† We still had several more heavy duty climbs to complete before we took the long, steep descent to pleasant Playa Espana campsite for the night.
Here was another place where carrying an extra meal once again came in handy.† Despite riding through several small towns on the way to the beach, none had any markets.† Not even a mini market.† There was only a bakery and that had closed.† So we ate our emergency, Sunday night dinner that we had just bought in the Carrefour.† This was one small pasta dish with sauce, a powdered soup mix, and some cookies.† Breakfast consisted of bread and the last of the peanut butter we'd brought from the U.S.† One thing we learned about Spanish campgrounds, it seems you always have to come prepared with spare food.
The climb out of Playa de Espana was a steep, gut busting 500 to 600 ft straight up.† That was tough to do on a breakfast of just bread.† Sweat poured down our faces and we had to stop 3 or 4 times just to catch our breath.† Of course this wouldn't be the last hill of the day.† It was certainly the toughest.
A few more turns of the pedals and a swift downhill we arrived at the somewhat pretty town of Villaviciosa.† Actually, what was surprising were the shear numbers of large, modern 4 and 5 story tall apartment buildings.† These were all brand new, probably no more than a year or two old, and all looked nearly identical.† One would have looked all right.† But there were so many it greatly detracted from the town's appearance. It looked too much the same.† We took a quick photo of the Iglesia de Santa Maria, about the only really old structure in town, located a grocery store, and moved on.
Our next stop was Ribadesella.† There's not much here.† A pretty bay surrounded by the usual high-rise apartments, a small somewhat older section of town, and lots and lots of tourists.† Much to our amazement we found that there are bus tours all along this coast bringing European visitors from all over to visit these little towns that, although being pretty, really seem to us to hardly rate the effort.† This is not like visiting Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or Reno.† This would be like a bunch of bus tours showing up at my old hometown of Cazenovia, NY.† It was a pretty enough town, but a major tourist destination.† No way. Maybe these European bus tourists have simply run out of new places to visit so they come here.† Anyway, it did strike us as being very odd.
So upon arriving at Ribadesella after 5 PM on a Saturday no less, we had to promptly attempt to find a market, any market, still open.† Better yet, trying to figure out who was a local versus who was a tourist so we could ask directions was even more difficult.† We started with two women sitting on a bench who turned out to be tourists.† Another woman we found was a local, but seemed none to happy to talk to strangers.† We finally hit upon a couple of old timers out fishing and they were all too happy to direct us to the one and only market still open.† It was a tiny market, as so many of Spain's so-called supermercardos are.† But it certainly did the job.† After that we hustled up the well appointed, three tent rated campground for a good night's sleep.
Our next day took us through the pretty town of Llanes. This was a medieval fishing village and whaling port that still has a nice old core and fairly bustling harbor.† The best thing to see is the old Basilica begun in 1240 which has an incredibly dark interior.† The other items of interest are the funny painted breakwater cubes.† The Cubes of Memory were done by painter Agustin Ibarrola.† They look somewhat like a whole bunch of graffiti artists or children were hired to do it.† Only in a few spots can you see a picture that looks like more than children's play.
Further east and a few hills more, we found ourselves in the late evening riding into the town of San Vincente de la Barquera.† It has a small old town with a middle ages core, but we were running late and needed to get to the campground.† Also, despite having a few items in our usual Sunday/emergency dinner stash, we still wanted to augment this selection with a bit more.† So we crossed over the 18th century bridge and then over the really nice middle age bridge with its closely spaced arches to arrive at the spacious camping on the opposite of the estuary.† Thankfully there was one small market that opened only on weekends that happened to still be open.† Prices were high, of course.† But this meant we wouldn't have to spend our morning in search of food.† Instead we could get out on the road and have a few miles under our wheels before the usual afternoon winds started to howl.
We passed through two more of those towns well visited by tour buses before making camp near the second.† Comillas has some beautiful 19th century architecture in the form of an enormous palace, university, and church.† The medieval old core has a couple of nice plazas and folks seem to like filling their patios with pleasant flower arrangements.† Of course being an old town along the coast, the Camino de Santiago passes right through its center.† You can find the usual painted yellow arrow or even a fancier tile versions scattered throughout the sidewalks along the path.† Being the beginning of June and the walking season just getting into full swing, we were sure to spot a perigrino or two in town, and we did.
Santilana del Mar was just a few short km further west.† We had wanted to stop there early to make a visit to the Museu Altamira. This is a full scale recreation of the famous nearby Altamira cave.† This cave is filled with some fabulous prehistoric cave paintings that are dated at around 14,500 years ago.† Unfortunately too much visitation was degrading the paintings. So the Spanish authorities took the rather bold approach of creating a complete reproduction cave, uneven rocks and all.† It's housed in a museum that you visit with on a guided tour.† That is if you're not there on Monday.† Of course, we happened to arrive on Monday.† Not only was this museum closed, but so was every other museum in town.† So we just resigned ourselves to wandering up and down the middle-aged streets and taking a few photos.† So much for those plans.
Santilana eastward to the border with France includes some of the most industrialized regions of the north Spain coast and our job was to get around it all safely.† First there was a direct route cutting across the peninsula on whose tip rests the huge city of Santander.† We avoided the most of the city mess by this cut-off, but not all.† It seems that whenever we try to cut around these cities on the small, white roads, we end up sharing the road with large dirt and rock moving trucks.† That is an experience all bike tourists would wish to never deal with.
Once again we crawled up and down several killer hills until finally the road took a nice, wide curve through a gap in the mountains and we found ourselves treated with a fabulous view on the Orinion bay and the little resort town of Islares where we'd be spending the night.† Here, with the mountains reaching right to the blue ocean waters we felt so much like we'd found ourselves back on the California coast.† It was gorgeous and the sunset, absolutely smashing.
North Spanish Coast East Section
Bilbao to San Sebastian (Donastia)
June 8 to June 11
Bilbao historically has been one of the main industrial cities on the Spanish north coast.† Despite recent efforts to gentrify the city, to us it still has that busy, rather messy, industrial city feel.† That is especially evident when you try to ride a bike from one side to the other.
The day started out quiet, the usual steep climb or two.† But, we were still far out of the city and traffic had as yet to build.† As the heat built, so did the steepness of the hills.† We had to feel some degree for the 5 walking pilgrims we saw making their way up the hot pavement.† Interestingly a little way further down the road we spotted a sign that indicated that they really weren't on the true Camino at all.† It actually went further inland, into even higher hills, through some smaller villages.† Cheaters, eh?
We came upon an intersection where we had a choice, go around the small mountain toward the mouth of the river, and then make our way upriver the 10km or so to the bridge.† Or keep going straight the shortest route possible, dropping down to the river just in time to hit that same bridge.† Oh if only we had chosen the river route. Our lives would have been much, much easier.
It wasn't too long before we found ourselves dancing with the cars and dodging the trucks as we headed inland.† The city seemed to stretch on forever.† At one spot we saw a bike path, oh so tempting.† But, we had no idea where it would go.† So we continued on.† Finally, after over an hour of this frustrating and frightening riding, we came to a spot where we thought the bridge might be.† At least there was a structure that looked like a bridge.† We turned left, headed downhill only to discover that this was actually the roof for the municipal sports arena.† Fortunately, it also happened to be right in front of the bridge we were looking for.† So now at least we could get across the river.
From there everything went awry.† Thinking we could simply take the route nearest the river, we turned left.† Four km later we found ourselves at a dead end in the middle of an industrial park with some sort of canal blocking us from where we wanted to be.† So back to the bridge we went.
This time we asked for directions.† We were told to take the second road over and stay by the river.† This road promptly took us into a tunnel.† We'd missed the quick left turn we probably should have taken.† We soon found ourselves headed in the completely wrong direction after climbing up another hill and on a highway where bikes are not supposed to go.† We tried to get off only to find ourselves on another highway.† Turning around and trying to get off, we suddenly see a police car in front with its lights flashing.† Now we were in for it.† We had visions of being hauled off to jail for violating traffic laws.
When we told them we were completely lost, we were trying to get to Sopelana and had bad directions, they promptly lead the way as we pedaled hard to the next exit.† They gave us a quick reprimand about not getting on highways, then gave us good directions, and wished us a good trip.† The younger of the two returned a second later to tell us that the coast would be a beautiful ride.† Phew, we got away with that one.† From now on we'll really try to avoid those no bike roads.
So after wandering around the city, riding some 10 km inland just to get to a bridge, getting a scolding by the police, and huffing and puffing up several extra hills, just imagine how frustrated we were when we arrived at the interesting transport bridge a good 5 km further west.† Had we only taken the river side road we would have come across this unusual bridge long before the many wrong turns, the ride on the highway, the extra climbs.† Grrrrr.† Ah, but in the end, it's all a part of the cycle touring life.
The transport bridge is interesting in part because it's the first of its kind built in the world.† It's sort of like a ferry except that that it floats on air rather than on water.† It's a huge platform suspended by cables from a gigantic truss structure stretching across the river.† Cars and pedestrians pile onto the platform and it gently glides from one side of the river to the other.† When it was built in the 1800s it would have been a great improvement in cross river transport.† Today it really is highly inefficient compared to the modern highway bridge spanning the river just a few km further upstream.† For a biker, it would have been a huge time and distance saver, had we only known of it.
We stopped for a day's rest at Bilbao not so much because we had a great desire to visit the city, but more because we simply wanted a rest.† Those winds and hills had taken their toll and we were bushed. When you get to the point that your thighs hurt simply walking up a single flight of stairs, then it's time for a rest.
The old city of Bilbao is a collection of interesting 18th century buildings, all the usual 4 or 5 stories high, all with some very nice facades.† The entire old town is mainly a nice shopping district today and really is not devoted solely to tourists.† There are a few tourists wandering around and the correspondingly tourist trinket shop graces a corner store here and there. Mostly it's a day-to-day working town.† But the old town really is not why most people come to Bilbao for in the first place.
Bilbao is home to one of the famous Guggenheim museums.† This one is very new and was designed by an American architect.† It is supposed to house a reasonable collection of contemporary art pieces from several of the masters, but it seems that most people come to the museum mainly to see the building itself.† Let's just say that within the museum's gift shop there seemed to be more books about architecture than art, which is very telling indeed.
We wandered around the outside looking at the building from several vantage points.† Just imagine huge sheets of aluminum being wrapped around a huge pencil to make them curl and then being piled up into a single bundle.† That's the impression we got.† In other words, we weren't all that excited.† Then when we looked at the 12.50 E entry fee required to mainly see the interior of the building and a few works of art, we decided the price was just too much.† If the exchange rate were more in our favor, we may have considered it, but not at $1.26/E.† It just wasn't our kind of tourist visit in the first place.
On to San Sebastian and the French border.† Our eastward trek across the northern Spanish coastline was finally coming to an end.† We left Bilbao looking eagerly forward to flatter environments and easier riding.
San Sebastian was just 2 reasonably comfortable riding days along some of the most spectacular section of coastline we'd ridden to far.† It was here that we finally started to see a huge number of Spanish cyclists out for day rides.† And it was no wonder.† For many kilometers the roadway snaked along right next to the beach with steep mountainsides to the south.† The hills were actually reasonable for a change and the winds had finally calmed for a while.† The scenery was amazing.† These last few days were finally the kind that all bike tourists long for.† If we could have ridden along like that for weeks we could have been quite happy.† But, all good things come to an end.† All too soon we had to make our way through the usual traffic mess found on the outskirts of Spanish cities to get into the center of San Sebastian.
A good day of riding had to be ruined by a bad ride from the center of town to the campground.† Had we known that we would have to ride a full 5 km back south and up nearly 1000 ft of steep, narrow, winding, busy roads we would have cut off many km earlier and taken a different route to the campground. Had we known that the hikers and bikers are squeezed into these small plots having no shade or grass, right on top of one another we would have gone to a different campground.† This was one of our least favorite campgrounds in all of Spain, perhaps second only to the very first campground we stayed in upon our arrival in the country.† We'd stay 2 nights, just long enough to visit San Sebastian, but no more.† We wanted out of this place.
San Sebastion, SP to Biarritz, Fr
June 9 to June 12
San Sebastian, fortunately, proved to be a very pleasant town.† What first impressed us was just how bike friendly the town is.† Head down to the tourist information office, ask for a bike map, and they will hand you a town map that shows probably a good 50 km of bike paths, existing and planned.† Bikers and bike paths crisscross all of town but especially along the shoreline.† The beautiful half-moon bay is lined its entire length with a bike path completely separate from both the road and the pedestrian way.† The cute little bike stop lights were particularly amusing.† We were delighted to see this as it would make getting across the city a lot easier when we left on Monday morning.
The old town of San Sebastian is a nice grid work of narrow lanes bordered by 16th century buildings all located out on a peninsula that is punctuated by the statue of the Virgin topped hill.† Chic restaurants and shops line these streets.† But there is the usual interesting church to visit as well as a fairly well done municipal museum.† As it was Sunday we could visit for free.† We also wanted to visit the naval museum, but with Sunday's early closing hours, we simply didn't have time.
So after wandering the streets and eating lunch, we contented ourselves with a wander along the beach walkway watching the Sunday bathers all packed like sardines, side-by-side lying out in the sun to fry.† Brian found the "top optional" attitude of some of the local women quite interesting.† I just wondered how these women kept themselves from ending up with thoroughly toasted and roasted titties.† I just know if I attempted to expose my all too sun sensitive skin areas for more than 15 minutes I'd be hurtin for certain the next day.† Uh uh.† Not for me.
Monday morning was our last day and ride in Spain.† It was too bad it had to be a difficult one.† The maps we had showed only a red road and a highway going north.† Red roads are almost busy and bikes aren't allowed on the highways.† So we had to spend several hours dodging traffic and trucks as we slowly made way north.† This was the kind of nightmare type riding that all bike tourists dread.† It's practically impossible to avoid this type of ride entirely, but we do try to minimize it as much as possible.
Traffic certainly didn't decrease after crossing the border and riding conditions didn't improve either. However, we did notice a rather subtle change in the towns, beyond signs suddenly being in French rather than Spanish.† Coastal Spanish towns seem to be very compact.† In their centers they have many 4 to 5 storey apartment buildings.† Often they're not particularly attractive.† Riding through these towns feels a little like riding along the bottom of a canyon.† But, that's Spanish culture.† They tend to like to congregate in the small confines of city centers.
France, on the other hand, tends to have more sprawling cities.† If you look at the square area of the city of Biarritz on a map and compare it with San Sebastian you'd think it's was 2 to 3 times the size.† It is, but only in area.† In population it's less than 1/2 the size.† The French go more for individual houses spread out of a large area, much like the US. In the Basque region of southwest France these houses are usually covered in brilliant white stucco with bright red, blue, or green shutters.† It's rare to see houses with more than 3 floors and far more usual to see just 2.† For this reason it seemed like we were riding through one constant residential area for the over 20 km from the border to the campground in Biarritz.† It did feel like the residential area in a small town rather than a city.† Definitely a different kind of city environment than we found in Spain.
The other thing we noticed was the plethora of supermarkets and hypermarkets.† In Spain these are far and few between.† Towns of a fairly good size where you'd expect to find large supermarkets still have just these very small markets having a limited variety of foods.† This was perhaps one of the things we found most frustrating about Spain.† When you ride lots of miles in a day, you really want to find a good market within easy walking distance of the campground so you can get a good meal. This just doesn't apply to Spain.
Hypermarkets in France, on the other hand, were an absolute delight.† Whereas a hipermercado in Spain or anywhere in Latin America may have 1/4 filled with actual food items, the French markets are fully 1/2 if not more food aisles.† The variety and quality is astounding.† You could spend a lifetime sampling all the different cheeses, meats, and pastries.† Even the variety of canned goods was amazing.† We quickly went through a sampling of some of the local specialties.† The wine aisles were a delight as well.† We've never seen such a huge selection and every market has this.† It would be so much fun to have a camper so we could spend months sampling all the great food fare found in just a single hypermarche.† It's easy to see why France is known for gourmands.
Our first stop in France was the beach resort of Biarritz.† This is a very picturesque, former small fishing village that sits on the rocky cliffs overlooking the sea.† There are several small beaches both north and south of the town.† But it appears that the Fishermen were more attracted to the safety of the main inlet right in the center of town.† Today, not much of that original fishing village remains.† It's mostly modern hotels, restaurants, and residential areas.† If you want to see the old Basque architecture with the white stucco houses and brightly painted shutters, you'd need to go to one of the other nearby towns.
Taking a day off, we decided to visit the small aquarium.† We wanted to see just what kind of fishes those fishermen of old were hauling in.† Much to our surprise, the fish of the Bay of Biscay are really quite plain.† There are the usual eels, sting rays, star fish, sea horses, and normal fish ranging from tiny to huge.† But, they are pretty much all just plain brown or silver.† We didn't see any flash of blue, green, red, or yellow.† Really, quite boring.
Yet even the display of stuffed birds on the third floor revealed little color.† Nearly all the local bird species are plain browns and yellows.† Only a few have a little blue/green in their plumage.† There's no red cardinal, blue jay, nor even robin.† You can see why the colorful feathers of tropical birds have always been so popular. It seems most other birds are kind of dull.
Perhaps the most fun exhibit was the seals.† This little aquarium seems quite proud of the fact that for the first time in 25 years of operation they finally had the successful live birth of a seal pup.† Evidently when they had a previous male seal, all its pups died at birth.† With their new, 5 year old stud, Charlie, they just got their first pup.† Now they are, of course, expecting old Charlie will do the same over and over again.
Southwest Pyrenee Country
Biarritz, Fr to Lourdes, Fr
June 13 to June 18
To continue heading north along the Atlantic seaboard would have meant entering the top vacation season for all of Europe right when we were in the middle of the top tourist destination.† Also, it was getting hot.† And we wanted to add another leg onto our eventual connected route from the Atlantic to the Pacific on the eastern continent.† So we decided to head east toward the Mediterranean.† First there was the traverse of the foothills of the Pyrenees to complete.
We headed out early in the morning, fought our way through city traffic, made several turn around runs as roads turned from bikes allowed to no bikes, and finally found our way to the south shore of the river.† From here to Pau (rhymes with so) and on to Lourdes we'd be following the rivers which, for the first time in weeks, would mean flat riding.† It would have been a great day of riding had Brian not been sick.† Some salad dressing we were trying to use was giving him a bunch of trouble.
This is a river that has seen boat traffic for hundreds of years.† Consequently there are lots of beautiful old chateaus tucked in among the trees here and there.† Some were in excellent condition.† Some were completely abandoned and left to crumble.† It was a treat to round a corner and spy another chateau every now and again.
Two days of riding with an upset stomach was too much for Brian.† By the time we got to Pau, he was good and ready to stop until such time as his tummy decided to settle down.† Needless to say he was not in a very good mood when we arrived at the one campground in Pau we knew about only to find that it was closed for entire 2006 season.† We had no idea what to do.† According t the very limited campground guide book we had, the nearest site was a good 8 km away.† There was no way Brian was going that far.† But, as we had discovered, that guide book was very limited and often there were far more campgrounds around than indicated.† So maybe, just maybe there was another around.† The only problem was to find someone to ask as there seemed to be nobody around.
To our rescue came a gypsy.† That's right.† A gypsy with his son in a white van had just stopped by to check in on a band of his peers parked who were parked a nearby field.† When we asked if he knew of another camping in town, not only did he say there was one, but he was headed there right now.† He'd been staying there for the previous 5 days while he completed a painting job.† From there he would head up to Paris and then on to the mountains.† So we stuffed the bikes into the back of his van and soon we were off to the Pau municipal camping.
Unfortunately as far as campgrounds go, this was not one of your better ones.† The bathrooms were clean, but the sites were awful.† The ones in the shade were just dirt.† There was only a bit of sun.† It was right on the corner of two busy roads.† And not only was this gypsy living there, there were several others.† To top it off, that night after we'd gotten all set up, it started to rain.† It poured and poured all night long all the while splashing mud up onto the sides of the tent. By morning, we were still dry but the tent was filthy.† We wound up spending hours the next day cleaning off the mud and washing the zippers.† Add to that the strange people living there, one of whom demanded that I cut his hair after finishing Brianís, and it all added up to a not very pleasant place to stay.† Had Brian not been sick, we would have left immediately.† But he did need a place to get back to normal and it did suffice, just barely.
By the next day we were so anxious to get out of this campground, we didn't even go to visit any of the few tourist sites there are in town.† Rather we packed and pushed on to Pau's far more famous neighbor, Lourdes.
Lourdes is perhaps the most important pilgrimage site in all of Europe, maybe second only to Rome.† And it is all about water.† I remember seeing an old 1950s or so movie, shown annually around Christmas, that went through a complete and probably overly theatrical recreation of the apparition that appeared to a young girl named Bernadette.† According to the story this young, country girl was approached by an apparition of the Virgin Mary.† This saintly ghost directed her to a holy place where she was to find a spring than was supposed to have miraculous healing powers.† Of course these healing powers would only work on other people and not on her or the 2 other children accompanying her.† She would die at the age of 35 and the two others much younger.
Naturally with this spring spewing out and endless supply of magical waters and with miraculous cures happening every so often, this seemingly innocuous pool of water soon became a major destination for all those seeking remedies for all sorts of incurable illnesses.† The definition of incurable has inevitably changed over the centuries and the number of miracle cures has declined dramatically. The last fully documented and authenticated miracle happening nearly 20 years ago in 1987.† But people still come to Lourdes, by the millions each and every year.
Lourdes has grown from that small, farm village of Bernadette's day into one monstrous and really strange city.† It can be extremely depressing and repulsive all at the same time.† Upon entering the Rue de la Grotte your senses of sight and sound are immediately hit smack on by a barrage of the most touristy, tacky junk imaginable.† Show after shop after shop house displays of Lady of Lourdes plastic trinkets that overflow and spill out onto the sidewalks.† Most popular are plastic bottles bearing the lady of Lourdes logo. Various sizes for various wallets and suitcase sizes, from gallon to 2 ounce.† People port these bottles down to the fountains at the main cathedral to be filled and taken home as a souvenir, or maybe to give to a family member or friend back home.† These shops go on for about 1 km all the way to the entrance to the holy site.† There they sit, even right across the street.† It's tackydom at its utmost.
Once you work your way past the plastic tack salesmen and get through the gates to the holy shrine you find a locale that could be a very nice, peaceful religious setting.† That is if it weren't for the hordes of visitors.† In fact, in winter when visitors are slim and half the town shuts down, it must be rather pleasant.† But, by early June the crowds have begun to descend.† We were amazed at the crush of humanity we found and it wasn't even July yet.† Thousands upon thousands must cram into this park like setting each and every day in August.† In fact, the largest of the church assembly halls, a super ugly underground bomb shelter type arrangement was built in the 1960s to fit 20,000 worshipers and we wouldn't be at all surprised if it fills to overflowing.
Many of the people coming to Lourdes are the very sick or invalid all seeking, hoping for, praying for that once in a gazillion miracle cure.† Aids, mostly women, wearing white shirts, light blue skirts, and light blue scarves with some sort of pin emblem on their shirts are assigned the task of helping these miracle seekers.† They push wheel chairs.† Or they pull these overgrown red flyer wagon things arranged to allow the sick to sit.† Once in a while a very, very sick person is wheeled along in a full hospital style bed.† Theyíre given water to drink, pass through a huge evening procession, and even can partake of a large bath.† So many come hoping for that improbable cure.† Just imagine the disappointment for those that really do believe they'll be that one special person.† It's likely their one last hope smashed to smithereens.
The site of Lourdes inside the gate is a large, park like environment bisected by a flowing river.† On one side is the main temple that gets all the photographic attention.† A chapel topped with a golden crown is approached by two graceful arching stairways.† Three chapels sit one atop the other.† The lowest one was the largest and probably has the nicest interior.† Each of its side apses is covered with a beautiful, bright, and colorful mosaic representation of part of Christ's life story.† Needless to say, camera flashes are going off continuously.† The two upper chapels seem to be in descending size and splendor.† It was tough enough getting into the top, smallest one in June.† It's probably impossible in August except at perhaps midnight.
Beyond this main temple you find a lot of other unusual features.† In the middle of the plaza there is a huge box stuffed full of long white candles with blue wax for about 3 inches on the bottom.† These candles come in a wide range of sizes, and correspondingly prices, ranging from about 1 inch diameter to the huge 20 kg super, duper and expensive granddaddy of them all.† Yet despite the high cost of even the smallest, something like 2.50 E each, they come pouring out of the box often 2, 3, even 4 at a time.† Huge boxes full of supplies stand at the ready, day and night.
The spring itself remains within a small cave like grotto, the source inaccessible to the tourist.† Rather its waters have been piped to a series of faucets arranged in a large semicircle.† Yet even at this low season, it was still hard to get in.† Beyond the cave are sheds for burning all those candles.† They come complete with a full time candle attendant who cleans up the drippings and makes sure each candle is burned to its full extent.
Beyond the candle sheds are the baths.† Rows upon rows of seats are arranged outside for the long lines of bathers.
On the opposite side of the river is a large pavilion where the many priests and assistants gather for the daily procession into the bomb shelter. †When we visited this procession must have gone on for over an hour.† In August it must last for hours on end.† Just the procession of wheel chair patients last seemingly forever.† All the while the priests chant and sing in a multiple of languages.
All in all it's a rather amazing site to behold.† But what really bothered us was the feeling that here was an entire city whose main reason for existence was to take advantage of people who were desperately seeking aid.† Hit them when they're down so to speak.† Itís far too commercialized.
Canal du Midi
Lourdes, Fr to Carcasonne, Fr
June 19 to June 23
Upon leaving Lourdes we wanted to head for the Canal du Midi yet at the same time avoid going into the huge metropolis of Toulouse.† Toulouse is one of France's largest industrial centers.† Airbus manufacturing is based there.† It's one gigantic city through which we had no desire to ride.† Had we been coming from the Bourdeaux area we could have ridden the Canal du Midi paved bicycle path straight through. †But, we were in the wrong direction.† So we had to negotiate a route that went a long distance around the city.
Toulouse sits at the intersection of several rivers as well as the canals.† We were coming in from the south west along one river. The Canal du Midi headed out of Toulouse toward the southeast.† We needed to span the angle between the two rivers on a straight path going through the hills.† So we headed out along some of the small white roads and immediately discovered why the main roads follow the rivers so closely.† These white roads can be mighty steep.† We had to struggle up each and every one, making full use of every gear we had on the bikes.† Add to that the fact that it was hot and really humid and you have one difficult ride.† We were beginning to really look forward to the flat riding of the Canal.
France is full of canals, some 9000 km worth.† It seems that anyplace there was water and a relatively flat countryside, they built a canal.† The Canal du midi was built in the 1600s to provide a much shorter path from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.† The Canal du Midi goes from the Mediterranean to Toulouse and the Canal Garonne continues onward.† Up until the French revolution it was a private concern being held by the descendents of Paul Riquet, a tax collector who saw to it that the canal was built.† It then became a part state, part private concern.† Eventually the government turned the entire thing over to private railroad company who decided not to upgrade it to more modern standards.† Instead cargo transportation was done by a newly constructed railroad.
Today the Canal du Midi is a fully functioning waterway used mainly for pleasure boats.† There are boat rental companies all along the canal so that you can rent one at one place, spend a week or so going to another, and leave it there.† There are also people on ocean going boats just passing through.† We saw a lot of dismasted sailboats passing through.† What we found most interesting are the live aboard canal goers.† Now there's an unusual lifestyle.
Just as many folks give up the live of a fixed, permanent house to live in an RV, there are many people who opt for a canal boat.† Often these boats are some of the original cargo canal boats built decades ago and continually modified for new uses.† Some are quite large, probably a good 60 ft long.† These people spend all summer and probably some winters just cruising up one canal and down another.† Many of these live-aboards seem to be from English speaking countries, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.† We spoke with one couple who'd been canaling for 9 years.† They just motor from one site to another.
It's an intriguing lifestyle.† You can dock for free pretty much anywhere you want.† You always go through some of the oldest towns and often by some of the major tourist attractions.† Even Paris is accessible.† It's obviously a very relaxed life as you just can't be in a hurry.† It takes a long time to get through each lock and the locks only operate at certain times of day.† The main thing that wouldn't interest us is the fact that you're stuck to the flatlands.† There's no mountain climbing with one of these things.
The Cana l du Midi is an engineering work of wonder in itself.† It goes some 245 km from end to end.† It has over 100 locks.† Usually the locks come as one or a pair.† There are quite a few triples and even rarer are the quads.† But, the biggest tourist draw of them all is the 9 lock set at Beziers.† Getting through this set takes a lot of time and muscle.
The process of locking through really is a two person job.† One person keeps the engine going as the pressure of the water flowing into or out of the lock wants to move the boat about.† The second person has to go ashore to man the lines.† It takes quite a bit of muscle strength to keep the boat from shifting back or forward.† It's not such a problem if you are the only boat in the lock.† It's a tricky business when the lock is full.† Needless to say, locking through can cause a lot of marital arguments.
Much of the length of the canal is shaded by these gigantic plane trees.† These were planted 300 years ago and now actually achieve the purpose for which they were intended, a fully shaded tow path.† The canal passes through several very old towns that built up specifically around this major transportation corridor.† Today these old canal towns are more tourist attractions.† Each set of locks still has a fully maintained lock house complete with lock keeper.† Signs posted on the house give distance to the next lock in either direction.† In between locks and towns the canal passes through farm lands usually filled with grape vines.† Off the canal it is open and hot.† On the canal it's a bit of shady heaven although, it can sometimes be incredibly noisy.† The sound of the crickets is so loud it's nearly deafening.
One of the old cities visited by the canal is Carcasonne.† On a hill overlooking the city is an impressive walled city affectionately called La Cite.† In the 18th century this medieval fortress seemed to be destined for the brick junkyard.† It was a crumbling walled slum that the city fathers concluded was an eyesore and hazard.† They chose to tear it all down.† To the rescue came the controversial restorer Violet le Duc.† He's is considered controversial because his idea of "restoration" often meant making major "improvements" rather than trying to rebuild the original.† Evidently he had a hand in creating the Notre Dame we see today.
As a result of Violet's actions only the lower ramparts of la Cite are original. The higher walls were rebuilt and most of the 52 towers we re topped with extremely steep witch hat tile roofs.† It gives the entire structure a rather fairy castle effect, the kind of thing you'd see at Disneyland.† Yet, from the outside it really is impressive.† And had it not been for Violet's intervention, Carcasonne would probably be just a small farm town to this day.
Within the impressive walls of la Cite you find a tourist land that can easily turn into a nightmare in the peak August season.† We were there in June and even then the streets were quite crowded.† We just couldn't imagine tryin g to squeeze between the crowds later in the summer.† There are only a few permanent residents living within the rampart walls.† The rest of the buildings are filled with all sorts of tourist trinket shops, restaurants, hotels, and a few really forgettable museums.† This is a site that lives and dies by the tourist trade.† We had to wonder what visiting in the middle of winter would be like.† We guessed it would be a lot like Rhodes, no tourists, shops all closed, and everything in a sort of eerie time stopped moment.† It'd be nice to return at that time of year someday.
Carcasonne, Fr to Avignon, Fr
June 24 to June 28
From Carcasonne we had just a couple more days on the canal before reaching the Mediterranean.† The tow path continued along pretty much uninterrupted all the way to Beziers, although it's condition varied drastically from one section to the next.† Beziers was a rather dumpy city that we were perfectly content to skip.† It was at the sea side resort of Agde that we finally once again hit water.† So now we had a route extending from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.† It may take us years to finish the connection to the Pacific, but at least part one is done.
We headed northeast along the shore passing through one seaside resort after another.† This was a section of France that we'd ridden some 15 years earlier.† We always recall that we found this area rather ugly and uninteresting compared to more northern France.† Our second time through simply confirmed our first impression.† Still, thousands of French flock to these beaches every summer.† We, on the other hand, were more than anxious to head over to the Alps.† They are higher, cooler, and hopefully less packed in summer.
The city of Grande Motte on the coast is a particularly strange place. It was purpose built in the 1960s as France's b id to attract some of the tourists who were flocking to Spain.† Of course it was a "planned" city that in reality doesn't work all that well.† The streets are laid out in a rectangular grid, but many of the blocks have no continuation.† Getting from one part of town to another usually requires an odd zigzag route and a lot of backtracking.† There is one area where all the campgrounds are clustered, 1 or 2 streets with all the restaurants, and just a couple of shopping centers.
What was truly strange was the architecture of the buildings.† Imagine taking the top half of a cruise ship, sticking it on the ground, and calling it a hotel. Imagine an entire town filled with these "cruise ship" style buildings.† They're all white, have odd shaped profiles, and have balconies that have the rounded effect of portholes.† Not just one is like that.† That would be tolerable.† The entire city is filled with these monstrosities.† The place was so ugly we didn't even have the heart to take a picture. Why break a perfectly good camera.
While in Grande Motte we decided to crash a party.† We really did.† Some bank was having some celebration right out on the sidewalk.† At the end of all the perfunctory speeches, food was served.† We have no idea what the festivities were about.† We just knew there were no bouncers at the front. †So we waltzed right on in.† We dined on canapťs, egg rolls, a couple of plates of muscles, and even champagne.†† We would have liked to have stayed for dessert, but the grocery store was about to close and we needed to get breakfast supplies.† Yup, those banks sure now how to put on a good party.
A hot sweltering ride the next day took us through the Carmargue.† These sandy, swampy lands are the river delta of the mighty Rhone River which extends all the way to northern France and beyond.† The Carmargue is divided into rectangular plots of land where they raise rice or bulls.† Some of those big black bovines are destined for the bull fight ring at the town of Arles during their annual bull fight festival.† Yes, bull fighting and bull killing are not just a passion of Spain.† The region is trying to promote eco tourism. †You can take a jeep safari or rent a bike in Arles and follow one of the many cycle routes.† All in all, we just found the area hot, humid, bug ridden, flat, and boring.† Thankfully it was only a one day ride across.
We had a one night stop near the town of Arles.† We had chosen to come through Arles rather than swing further north mainly because they had some old Roman ruins that we hadn't seen before.† Specifically there were the skeletal remains of a theater and a reasonable stadium. Other than that, we weren't too excited about the town.† For some reason we just found that these lower Rhone cities from Avignon south and west not very interesting.
Avignon, on the other hand, is a city well worth a stop.† It's just one day's ride north of Arles along the Rhone River, yet it seems almost a world apart.† Avignon is a major tourist destination because of the beautiful castle and well preserved city wall.† The castle actually was once the seat of the catholic religion.† During period of unrest in Rome the pope's moved their headquarters to Avignon.† With this came an influx of many of the church's powerful and the city grew in both size and opulence.† The Pope's palace is a wonder to behold, especially at night from across the river.
Avignon is full of museums, including the one inside the Pope's Palace, although that particular museum is extraordinarily expensive.† Rather than spend the money on that one which is intended primarily to showcase the castle itself, we decided to concentrate a little on art and archeology for a much more reasonable cost.
The Musee de Calvet has two separate sections in two completely different buildings.† One, the Musee de Lapidarie, houses a whole bunch of artifacts from the Greeks, Romans, Asians, and middle ages.† There are statues, pots, daily use artifacts, jewelry, etc.† Some in fantastic condition, such as the carving of a boat full of amphora being towed upstream and the clear blue vase in unbroken condition.† Other items take a bit of imagination to figure out what they were.† Best of all are the descriptions, in well translated English, that give all sorts of detail information on the daily lives and belief systems of the cultures.† The museum is housed in a beautifully restored former school chapel which adds even more to the visit.† Unfortunately the museum isn't air conditioned and on this particularly hot day even the inside of this old church was still somewhat stifling.
The main part of the Calvet museum houses mostly paintings from the 16th century on.† Many of the works seem to be from the Netherlands and Flemish schools.† We got a kick out of the works by Joseph Buerger and his sons which show typical Flemish activities in a particularly amusing manner.† The wedding scene and the street party are both full of interesting bits of activity.† It's a bit like the Naive art of today.† You need to spend time working your way around the painting just to pick up some of the strange oddities it contains.
However, none of the paintings came even close to the one done by the master, Peter Paul Rubens.† It's a portrait of an unknown, but obviously aristocratic young woman.† She's wearing a black dress with a gold embroidered bodice trimmed by delicate lace.† She holds a beaded rosary in her hands.† What truly is amazing is how the artist manages to take various hues of yellow, orange, and gold and make it look like pure gold.† Or how he took the slightest wisps of white paint and produced what appears to be nearly transparent lace.† The skin tones were superb.† And her eyes appear to follow you wherever you move.† It's a painting that manages to produce a nearly 3 dimensional effect that not even a modern photo can get.† It's so clear why he is today considered one of the masters.† It's just too bad modern artists don't bother to produce such amazing works.
Museums in Avignon made the 2 day stop here well worth the time.
Appendix A - Route
May 28 - Route N550 through Ordes to Meson, backroads to Betanzos, beach route through Mino to Pontedeume, 76.57 km
May 29 - N651 through Cabanas, N642 through Abad, Felgosas Ortigueira, Espasante, 74.18km
May 30 - N642 through Viveiro, Xove, Cervo, Burela, Cangas, to Foz, 68.89 km
May 31 - N634 through Ribadeo, Navia, to Puerto de Vega, 66.42 km
June 1 - N634 through Luarco, N632 to Cudillero, 53.3 km
June 2 -N632 and A-8 through Aviles, N632 and back road to Gijon, A-8 and N 632 to turn off to Quintes, 72.02 km
June 3 - Backroads to Villaviciosa, N632 through Colunga to Ribadesella, 62.13 km
June 4 - AS 263 to Llanes, N632 to San Vincente del Barguero, 71.3 km
June 5 - AS 263 through Comillas and Santillana to Queveda, 37.13 km
June 6 - CA 131 and N 611 through Oruna, CA 240 through Escobedo and Revilla, N634 through Astillero, Solares, Hoznayo, Anero, Ambrosero, Gama, Calindres, Laredo, Orinon,to Islares, 84.01 km
June 7 - N634 to Bilbao, lost in Bilbao, various roads to Sopelana, 80.54 km
June 9 - BI-634 through Mungia, Bi-2121 to Gernika, BI 633 to Lekeitio, BI-638 to Mutriku, 79.35 km
June 10- BI 634 through Deba to N-634, through Zumaia, Getaria, Zarautz, Orio, to N1 to San Sebastion, 59.6 km
June 12 - N1 to Irun, N-10 through St. Jean De Luz and Bidart, NB11to Biarritz, 55.57 km<BR>
June 15 - City roads through Anglet and Bayonne, D261 through Hastingues, Peyrehorade, backroads through St Crico du Gave, Lahontan to Belloca, N117 to Orthez, 85.19 km
June 16 - N117 to Gouze, backroads to Arance and Abidos, N117 to D33 and D2 through Laroin to Pau, 51.52 km
June 18 - D937and D938 to Lourdes, 56.82 km
June 19 - D937 to Montgaillard, D28 and D120 to Cieutat, D938 to Mauvezin, Capvern, La Barthe de Neste, Tuzaguet, Aneres, St. Laurent de Neste, Mazeres de Nestem N117 to st Gaudens, N117, 75.2 km
June 20 - N117 to St. Martory, and Boussens, D10to Cazeres and Carbonne, D73 to Peyssies, 68.16 km
June 21 - D48 to D298 to Capens, D622 to D74 Through Beaumont sur Leze and Lagardelle sur Leze to Vernet, D19 through Venereque to St. Leon, D38 to Ayguesvives, Canal du Midi to Avignonet - Lauragais, 83.3 km
June 22 - Canal du Midi to Carcasonne, 74.56 km
June 24 - Canal du Midi to La Redorte,back roads to Pepieux, 45.80 km
June 25 - Backroads to La Redorte, Canal du Midi to Capestang, 58.45 km
June 26 - Canal du Midi through Beziers, Vias, to Agde, 52.39 km
June 27 - N112 to Frontignan, Bike path along D114 to Vic-la-Gardiole,† Frontage road to Villeneuve-des Maguelone, Bike path to Les Quatre Vents and Palavas-les-Flots, D62 and D59 through Carnon-Plage to La Grande Motte, 77.70km
June 28 - D58 to Grau du Roi, D979 to Aigues Mortes,D58 to D179 to St. Gilles, N72 to D37 to backroad to Arles, 70.46 km
June 29 - D35 to Tarascon, D81 to D2 to Villeneuve les Avignon, 49.37 km
Appendix B - Campsites
May 28 - Camping Ber Door, Pontedeume (11.37E/night)
May 29 -Roadside rest stop north of Espasante
May 30 - Camping San Rafael, Foz (10E/night)
May 31 - Camping La Ancla, Puerto de Vega (10 E/night)
June 1 - Camping Amuravela, Cudillero (14.70 E/night)
June 2 - Camping Playa de Espana, Quintes (12.70 E/night)
June 3 - Camping Ribadesella, Ribadesella (14.55 E/night)
June 4 - Camping El Rosal, San Vincente del Barquero (11.82 E/night)
June 5 - Camping Altimar, Queveda, (11.10 E/night)
June 6 - Camping Arenillas, Isleras, (15.41E/night)
June 7, 8 - Camping Sopelana, Sopelana, (15.66 E/night)
June 9 - Camping Aritzeta, Mutriku (11.25E/night)
June 10, 11 - Camping Igueldo, San Sebastian (12.40 E/night)
June 12, 13, 14 -Camping Biarritz, Biarritz (15.40 E/night)
June 15 - Municipal camping La Source, Orthez, (7.40E/night)
June 16, 17 - Municipal camping Pau, (11.50 E/night)
June 18 - Camping Ruisieu Blanc, Lourdes, (7.50E/night)
June 19 - Camping Municipal Belvediere, (9.30 E/night)
June 20 - Municipal Camping Peysies,(10.50 E/night)
June 21 - Aire Natural Municipale, Avignonet Lauragais, (7.70 E/night)
June 22, 23 - Campeola de la Cite, (14.30E/night)
June 24 - Municipal Camping Pepieux, (6.90 E/night)
June 25 - Municipal camping Le Tounel at Capestang, (9.00 E/night)
June 26 - Camping Pipiniero, Grau de Agde, (9.60 E/night)
June 27 - Camping La Petite Motte, Grande Motte, (14.75 E/night)
June 28 - Camping Des Rosiers, (17.00 E/night, dump)
Lonely Planet Spain Guide
Lonely Planet France Guide
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.