Bicycle vacation Transpirinaika
Crossing the Pyrenees from coast to coast
Crossing the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean: 900 kilometers, 14,500 meters of climbing and 30 mountain passes. In the scorching sun and through thunder- and hailstorms on roads that are often in extremely bad condition, along gorges, mighty massives, fast-flowing rivers and rustling brooks, woods, mountain pastures and beautiful towns.
Travelogue & photos: Pieter Parmentier
While riding uphill on a bumpy road, immersed in clouds, I startle a herd of deer; without a sound, they flee to the nearby woods. There are at least thirty of them.
We are on our way to cross the Pyrenees from east to west by mountain bikes in twelve days and we are often stunned by the spectacular landscape and everything that grows and lives here.
"We" are six friends, five guys and a woman (four of us are over 55 and two are over 60 years old). Together, we bicycled in many inhospitable areas, from the Vosges Mountains to the Andes and the Himalayas.
Because we have only two weeks to bicycle for the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, we shortened our route to a little under 600 kilometers, measured by regular roads. But we aren't planning on taking regular roads. A travel agent has found and booked accomodation for our trip, so we don't have to worry about that on the way.
The beginning of our journey is not encouraging: it rains and we are in a traffic jam. It doesn't feel like vacation at all. Our arrival in our first hotel doesn't bring any relief. The woman at the reception tells us dinner can be had latest at 7:30 PM. Since two of our friends, who are traveling by train, won't have arrived by then, we get an hour respite after some hard negotiating. In Spain we won't have this problem, because dinner there is never before 9 PM.
A difficult start
Climbing in thunder- and hailstorms
The next morning my hind wheel turns out to be stuck. Fortunately, for the first time ever, I brought a spare bike. I quickly change the wheels and there we go. But then only 2 of 27 gears work, which makes bicycling much harder.
On our first peak another surprise: two of our friends are missing. They were the first to leave this morning, but they took a wrong turn after two hundred meters and according to them they bicycled up a real peak before they found out they made a mistake. Our van picks them up.
Between showers we bicycle. After a wonderful climb follows a descent on an extremely bumpy path, which reminds me of biking in Peru. After our arrival in a hotel in Ribes de Freser another rainstorm begins.
The next morning the weather is beautiful. Bicycling is much more comfortable for me today, because my own sprocket wheels are now mounted on the spare wheel, so I can use all my gears. Soon after we leave, we turn onto a new concrete path with inclines of around 20 per cent.
We have a tough time when we get soaked by a shower, dry up and get soaked again; this time during a thunderstorm with marble-sized hailstones. The van does good service for half of our group. A warm shower in a nice hotel afterwards, makes me feel that having a tough time of it, increases the enjoyment afterwards.
In front of our hotel, the road is being repaired. We are often woken up by large trucks on their way to Andorra.
We only find food at 2 PM, after a 25 kilometers ride in five hours. But when I arrive at our next hotel around 6 PM, I look back on a wonderful leg of our trip. At first I biked together with one of my friends and later by myself; it turns out that both bicycling together and alone is pleasant, especially when alternated.
Our daily schedule usually looks like this: the alarm is set for 7:30 AM; at 8 breakfast; leave at 9. Around 5 PM a beer, a shower, washing our clothes, check our bikes, explore the village, etc. At 9 PM we eat our biker's dinner, plan a route for the next day and we turn in at 10:30.
Two kilometers difference in height every day
Idyllic valleys and bumpy roads of the worst kind
It's a beautiful sunny day and idyllic valleys alternate with bumpy roads of the worst kind. On the mountain pass, a friendly old man serves us huge sandwiches rubbed with tomato.
In Spain, when you order a sandwich and the person who is serving makes a gesture as if they were ironing, it means: do you want tomato rubbed on your sandwich? I couldn't taste it and you have to look hard to find even a hint of tomato, but they seem so happy to offer it that it's hard to refuse.
The distance between hotels isn't very great as the crow flies, sometimes just 13 km, but by bike from the Spanish southside of the Pyrenees it goes in circles northward and the terrain isn't level, to put it mildly.
Most of our hotels are at an altitude of 800 meters. Yesterday our bike trip was at altitudes between 1,900 and 2,200 meters. That means the total difference in altitude is about 2,000 meters every day, which is a lot for an 80 km ride.
There are many long climbs in the Pyrenees (one time even 50 kilometers) and of course the same goes for the descents. So if you descend on a bumpy road, like today, you have to stop every now and then to rest your hands and feet. It's a miracle we have so little bike trouble and stay in one piece ourselves as well.
We don't see a living soul all day
Up to Colletó de la Portella at 2,280 meters
Today it took five hours of climbing to reach the highest pass of our trip, the Colletó de la Portella at 2,280 meters. These mountains are magnificent! Eighty kilometers doesn't sound like a lot, but with all those bumpy roads we can't ride fast. Even though we often find signs for hikers and bikers, they also are missing often, so we have to use our maps. My rule of thumb is that in case of doubt, the most difficult route (up) must be the right one...
Our map readers each have a copy of the Transpirinaika guidebook, which has maps, useful tips and instructions, but unfortunately it's all in Spanish. They are often seen studying the book and this way usually keeping us from riding in the wrong direction.
But when I say something like: "Look at the beautiful flowers" or "Wow, that's a pretty mountain" they can hardly tear themselves away from their books. Fortunately there will be pictures for them to see what they missed during our trip.
Today we didn't see anyone on the way, literally nobody.
Bicycling in a box of gravel
The landscape gets increasingly barren and empty
It's getting easier and easier, but today was more like a biking tour for senior citizens. I have to admit that towards the end I inadvertentdly skipped a pass, but the rest of the leg was a piece of cake.
During some legs it wasn't really convenient to ride a bicycle; other reminded me of those large boxes of gravel you can see along highways in Switserland, which are for to help trucks to stop when their brakes are broken.
Today we met other bikers for the first time during this trip. The landscape is getting barren and emptier, but still we found two outdoor cafés. You have to look hard to find them, because they're well hidden. You would think that there would be outdoor cafés everywhere in Spain, but here that isn't the case. It's simply too hot here during the summer and along the roads we take there aren't many potential patrons.
Our luggage transport works great. Every day one or two volunteers drive bags and bikes to our next hotel. And if there's still time and they feel like it, they can even ride their bikes for a while. Until now I have been able to dodge this chore, not because it includes dragging up all the heavy luggage to the rooms; I just feel more like bicycling.
During the second week I will have to do my duty as a driver. For now, I got easily used to having my luggage taken to my room and receiving text messages with the route to our next hotel.
Today's hotel is on a little square in the town center of Pont de Suert (at 850 m). Its balconies are decorated with dozens of potted geraniums and the atmosphere is pleasant. But the waitress looks sad and when I ask her if she is happy, she says "Not at this moment".
By 10:30 PM the Spanish who are eating and drinking in the square are getting energized and stay that way until after midnight.
Our special bikers' dinners are ordered in advance, so our meals are varied and harty. We can't even always finish our plates. Breakfasts are usually generous, but the ones we have in France are frugal. Red wine is served here as cold as white wine, which takes some getting used to.
We are familiar with most dishes, even though we often don't really know what we are ordering and get surprise dinners. Sometimes followed by interesting discussions about the names of the ingredients. One day we get a kind of mega-beans, which soon turn into obsession beans, because we don't know what they're called. Which is actually not that strange: there are over 4,000 kinds of beans in this world. These were already grown in Peru 8,000 years ago and are called Lima beans or Gigantes.
Magnificent panoramic views
From barren and rocky to charming brook valleys and mountain pastures
It's 4:30 PM and I am drinking my sixth liter of liquid today. It's not unusual to drink eight liters a day. In the valleys it's getting tropical with temperatures over 35 degrees centigrade and also in the mountains is getting hotter.
Today is a day of rest, of kinds. Sixty kilometers isn't much after a week of exercise, but 1,500 meters denivellation is a lot, on the other hand. Also the road is really bad at times. But that happens every day for dozens of kilometers, both uphill and downhill. So we never go very fast downhill. I am enjoying myself, if only because of the endorphines rushing through my veins.
Seven days of biking so far, with an average of 80 kilometers a day and 1,700 meters difference in altitude (all in all, this trip is 560 kilometers and 12,000 meters difference in altitude). No wonder we are more hungry and thirsty every day, even at breakfast.
Today I mounted an extra flask holder, so that's another kilo more to shlep, but even so it's not enough water. On the way there are hardly any places to buy drinking water, so we sometimes take water from a village water pump or "from the wall": in some places water seeps from the rocks. The small brooks look very attractive, too.
We have passed Andorra and are getting nearer to the ocean. There is no end in the number of pretty roads and the panoramic views are magnificent, from barren and rocky to charming brook valleys and mountain pastures.
We hardly ever meet anyone, despite the (European) investments in infrastructure, housing and hotels. In most places roads are being repaired and in every village people are building or renovating houses.
It's a vacation with lots of flies, probably because of the cow dung, turds and other kinds of shit everywhere. A falcon just flew by. We often see eagles, many swallows and innumerable kinds of butterflies and flowers. Besides pinetrees, cypresses and poplar trees, we see many walnut trees.
Most hotels are vacant, not bad at all, and today our hotel is even excellent, but it doesn't have a pool. Not that we use pools often, because it's a well-known fact that biking and swimming are not a great mix. At least, that is what the pros say, but I suspect that is because they would look ridiculous in the pool with their tan arms and legs but white bodies.
Monasterio Viejo de San Chuan d'a Pena
Time for a little culture
It's a difficult day, because of the route, the denivellatie (2,200 meters in altitude), and my physical discomfort. It started with cramps this morning and will end with spending the whole night on the toilet. This morning I felt super fit, but this afternoon I feel exhausted. Both the landscape and my weakness remind me of a comparable day while biking in Peru.
Tomorrow I won't be able to ride my bike, but that doesn't matter because it's time for me to drive the van. The altitude during this trip has increased to 12,500 meters, so I have no reason to complain.
On my second day of driving, carrying the luggage upstairs goes reasonably well, so I must have recovered a little. Nice opportunity to visit an ancient monastery, Monasterio Viejo de San Chuan d'a Pena, and get a little taste of culture. Usually there is no time for that on this kind of bike trip.
The Spanish are friendly in general, except sometimes for waiters and the like, but everyone says "hola" when I expect "hello". I dont' understand the rest of their Spanish here. Possibly because it's Catalan, or because my Spanish isn't great to begin with, and most likely both.
The old men of Hecho are gathered opposite the outside café where we sit. Some of them have been there for hours. It's very calming. They chat and probably discuss the situation in the world. It seems they do this on a daily basis. Some of these men would have been in old people's homes already in The Netherlands, but here they still roam free.
The Pyrenees keep surprising us
Deep gorges, mighty massives and fast-flowing rivers
I'm still on van duty, but I still enjoy the spectacular landscape.
We have almost crossed the Pyrenees, but this mountain range keeps surprising us: deep gorges, mighty massives, a group of houses lumped together on a mountain top, fast-flowing rivers and rustling streams, pine woods, mountain pastures and picturesque towns in the foot hills.
There are lots of asphalted roads to make this beautiful region more accessible, but we prefer the unpaved paths. We have climbed and descended dozens of kilometers on this type of paths and we had surprisingly few accidents or problems. With exception of my "travelers disease" our bodies have also held out well.
Again we learn that heat is harder to deal with than cold. Because you drink so much (not always clean) water, your stomach tends to get upset and if you don't eat enough salt, you're in trouble. Salty soup is a good remedy and there are also sport drinks that help, and there is ORS (oral rehydration solution).
The most wonderful part of a bicycling expedition like this is that you feel super fit. Well, today not quite, but by Saturday I will.
The advantage of my forced refraining from biking is that I can take pictures this afternoon in the village of Isaba. It's our one but last stop. The surroundings here are stunning, but the houses are built with their backs toward all this beauty. They stand huddled together around the church. The narrow streets provide the necessary shade.
Also here few outdoor cafés and eating outdoors isn't done at all. It simply is too hot here. That is also the reason these villages look deserted and some are. But there doesn't seem to be an exodus. To keep it that way, the roads are being repaired everywhere.
Back in France we discover another advantage of bicycling in Spain: 25 euro for four beers isn't fun. After over a hundred liters of water, tea, fruit juice and every now and then a cold glass of wine, 900 kilometers, 14,500 altitude meters, 30 mountain passes and much more, we have arrived in St Jean Pied de Port, the final destination of our journey. There are still too many flies, but in every other way life is completely different here.
St Jean is a real tourist resort where thousands of people who have nothing to do (they don't bicycle) wander around. The roads in France are a little more crowded, there are more stand-alone farmhouses (not concentrated in villages) and there are outdoor cafés everywhere.
The first restaurant where we stop for coffee and cake has huge windows with a view of the valley. In Spain, the dining halls usually didn't have a view. Fortunately we were generously compensated during our rides.
After three days of van duty, I bicycled again today. Fortunately I have recovered in time for the last day of biking. And what a wonderful day it is! Great also that the last day is the heaviest. That is, if you have bicycled the days before. After three days of fasting, at least not being able to hold down my meals, I don't ride "like the firebrigade" as we call it. But I still have enough energy to ride uphill at a calm pace and even enjoy it.
That means taking my time to drink coffee, stopping frequently for photos, taking a break to eat a banana, etc. As if it's a vacation... This afternoon I got some presents to take back home and we had a good meal in our atmospheric hotel. A great last day of a wonderful journey.