09 – South to Spain

08 was a solo ride East across Europe, 09 was our first trip together, a three week ride along the Atlantic coast of France to Bilbao and back to Brighton via Portsmouth, it promised great food, beaches, deserted cycleways, vast pine forests and surfing, but first we had to fight our way from Brighton to Portsmouth against a strong westerly wind for the St Malo ferry.

The Hayling Island to Portsmouth ferry, the first of many ferrys on this trip provided respite from the constant westerly wind which only added to the monotony and drudgery of the UK leg, but even on a miserable summers day the bikes had broken down barriers, an elderly gent approached us over lunch and regaled us with tails of his biking trips of yesteryear.

Ah, the joy, an overnight ferry to St Malo, while some people happily consider a return journey a mini cruise, or even a holiday I consider this some kind of cruel torture and took refuge in our cabin claiming the spokes needed polishing only venturing out for food and drink.

Heading directly south through Brittany we gorged on crepes, sipped coffee and ate croissants at small cafes and enjoyed the largely deserted roads including the 7 mile straight above.  Staying at municipal campsites we’d forgotten just how shut rural France can be on a bank holiday weekend and resorted to plundering the abundant fruit trees of the region.  While annoying to learn this part of France would not open again until Tuesday we did envy the French Laisez Faire attitude and its stark contrast to the anglo saxon work obsession.

The third Ferry crossed the Loire and the countryside changed dramatically as we entered the wine producing regions and the coast.  The sun shone, the terrain flattened and temperatures soared to 38c, the roads remained abandoned as we cycled between vineyards and sunflowers, soon we would reach the coast and the cycleways that would lead all the way to the Spanish border.

France is a proud cycling nation, drivers are courteous, strangers approach you and ask about your journey, fellow cyclists probe about gear ratios and equipment while pedestrians shout Bravo in encouragement but the La Bicyclette was disappointingly shut !

At St Jean-de-Mont we arrived at the coast, this was the start of the cycleways and after the obligatory ice cream on the beach we rolled out of town, the breakers and beach on our right and the pine trees on our left, it would remained this way for the next few hundred miles.

The cycleways tracked the coast, no cars, no pollution, no worries, cycling nirvana.  Every10 to 15 miles a small surfing community would be thriving between the dunes and we alternated between fresh bread and cheese on the beach  and locally baked treats from the village bakery.

Heading inland the cycleways remained superb and the waterways of Vendee mean’t roadside oyster sellers, soon we would be in Marennes, city of Oysters.

Crossing the Charente at Rochefort is vividly remember, theres nothing like a huge bridge carrying a dual carriageway to remind you how vulnerable you are on a bike, still had time to stop on the top and take the obligatory photo though !

The buildings on stilts are not houses, look closely the nets at the seaward edge are dipped into the sea providing the fresh produce to the local restaurants.

With another ferry we crossed the Gironde at Royan and head onto Soulac Sur Mer and into the largest pine forest in Europe, we would now not leave the forest or its cycleways which are based on the old pine sappers trails until we reach Biaritz near the Spanish border.

Alone except for other cyclists and the occasional nudist camp we cycled into the Forest and passed from small seaside town to the next.  Spirits were high and shouts of Bonjour rang out, other cyclists enjoying the extensive network along the Atlantic coast included numerous families with small children, this reminded us anything is possible.

Camping on the Dune de Pilat amoung the pine trees was the best spot, we spent three nights here exploring the dune and the neighbouring sandbanks.

At just over 100m tall the Dune de Pilat is the tallest in Europe and every evening the local paragliders put on a fantastic show so grab your beer and head to the top for the best seat in town.

As the tide drains the Arcachon basin and huge sandbank opposite is exposed, the locals head out and combe the beach for fresh Oysters for lunch but we were having a day off so spent the day on our backs enjoying the sun before heading south again the next day.

Getting back on the bike after a few days rest felt great, as we head South the cycleways grew more remote and the communities became more rural, there is simply nothing like the feel of the wind in your face, directly in touch with the sounds and smells of the land your moving through, soon we would head through the up market resorts of Biarittz and San Sebastian.

Approaching the mountainous Spanish north coast the weather became more unsettled, the temperatures dropped and we dug out our waterproof jackets from the bottom of our panniers, Biarritz passed in a disappointing blur of grey drizzle, but nothing could dampen either the shoppers or the surfers.

Crossing the border into Spain we immediately started to climb the mountains of the Pyrennes, the countryside changed, the weather varied from heavy rain to blistering sunshine.  San Sebastian stands out amoung the beach resorts we passed easily eclipsing the glitz of Biarittz, a glimpse of the glamour of an earlier age and somewhere we definately plan to visit again.

We crossed the pilgrims way, Santiago de Compostela numerous times in the mountains on the way to Bilbao and admired the resolve and fortitude of those walking the roughly 1000km route, around the route is fantastic number of restaurants, cafes and guest houses catering for the pilgrims.

The beach resort of Zarazotz made a great lunch spot with its pin strip beach huts and large bay, we made every excuse to stay sat on the beach watching the surfers that flock to the French and Spanish atlantic coasts but rolled out of town around the headland to our next camp spot.

The road along the coast to Bilbao has its up and its downs, the ups had magnificent views and spine tingling descents and the downs were spectacularly carved into the cliff sides metres above the roaring surf.

As the roads climbed we headed further into the heartland of the Basque coutry, an extremely proud people, flags hung from windows, murials decorated the walls and slogans shouted out support for ETA.  The road continued to climb and the vegetation changed as we headed into large Ecalyptus forests marking the much wetter and greener environment of northern Spain.

Mundaka was the last beach stop before Bilbao, its a UNESCO biosphere and a great place to spend a few days surfing, canoeing or just reading on the beach.

Entering Bilbao via the transporter bridge was a great ending to the trip, cycling through Spanish citites was not such a great experience but no worse than any UK city but a stark contrast to the French leg.

We found some clean clothing at the bottom of our panniers, the sun came out and temperatures topped 43c as we wandered around Bilbao, we enjoyed ice colds beers and wandered around the main sights before taking the short cycle to the ferry port and the overnight crossing back to Blighty.  On the way back we began to plan and scheme for 2010.

Trip over! Cycling is the most environmentally friendly form of transport.  It connects you with the environment and people in a way that is not possible using motorised transport.  It allows you to reflect on the hectic pace of western society.  Is addictive and it’s part of who I am, plans for 2010 are already well formed.

The Route

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