Saturday 13 August 2011

Cycle Mountain bike “Pilgrims” in St. Jean Pied de Port

When I say “pilgrims” this is actually a bit of an exaggeration to tell the truth. The plan originally was to trek with 25kg of camping equipment and clothes from St. Jean Pied de Port to St. Jean de Lux on the South West coast of France, down to Saint Sebastian in Spain, and then back up and across the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Hmmm the plan changed considerably prior and during our stay.

Three things changed the plan:
1. Our dreadful experience in a 2 man [feels like 1.5 man] tent during our weekend in Limburg for the “Limburgsemooiste” cycle ride.
2. The realization that the Pyrenees [albeit just the foothills] are already very steep.
3. Simply the 24 hour rainfall forecast and received when we arrived in the South of France.

So instead of our planned “pilgrims” adventure we ended up staying put for 2 weeks in St. Jean Pied de Port [temporary home to all the real pilgrims doing the “Santiago de Compostela” route], in a mobile home and doing mountain bike routes starting and ending right outside our little palace. Thankfully it had a wonderful heated, albeit small shower, where we could warm up after a muddy ride in the rain.
Jerica insisted that we still use our newly purchased “extra wheel” bagage carrier which hooks onto her mountainbike and provides maximum 8 litres of space for luggage. After dumping the camping equipment shortly prior to departure, we had extra room for clothes, so I took an extra bikini and summer outfits! Well it is the South of France, spitting distance from Spain and July so the obvious conclusion is: heat and sun. Wrong! I should have packed thermals, even in the mobile home it was woollen sock weather.

What a beautiful area of France the Saint Jean Pied de Port valley is. It is so green [no wonder with all that rain], has quaint little villages, bubbling streams, great food [oh no that was me, I was the chef!], stunning views and mountain goats and cows who like to take regular stops in the middle of the mountain roads, tracks and trails. You can really relax in these surroundings, that is unless you are climbing 20% gradients off-road. But seriously, the mountain biking is fantastic. Conveniently the tourist office at St. Jean Pied de Port has produced a handy little book with all the official walks and “VTT” [French for MTB] routes mapped out, although without a detailed OS map to accompany it you might struggle in places, or get damn lost in others.

The French in this region are a bit funny about mountain bikers; they obviously favour the real pilgrims [the walkers without the help of a bike]; as they save the best tracks for the walkers and send the mountainbikers off on crazy circuits and forget that mountain biking isn’t just about going up mountains and down again via the roads, but actually going off-road – those fun routes seem to have been saved for the walkers, according to the official guide book, obviously that is if you stick to those offical routes mind.

“Wat is het gezellig in onze staancaravan, toch!” [Dutch for “isn’t it cosy in our mobile home] was Jerica’s most used phrase in the first week of the holiday! Cosy can be construde in a multitude of ways in the context of the holiday: Cosy meaning
1. Small and getting smaller by the day when cooped up inside it
2. Feeling smug sitting in a dry caravan looking out at the poor holiday makers in their tents, wringing out their sleeping bags and cooking horizontally
Yep I tend to agree with Jerica, “Het heeft wel wat dit caravan!” [Dutch for yes this caravan certainly has a little je ne sais quoi]

Back to those Pilgrims … seriously I couldn’t do it. They walk at least 30 kilometres a day with 10 kilos of stuff on their backs and sleep rough or camp every night in a new place, for months at a time. Wow respect! They don’t look half strange though walking in the hills in the rain, with their improvised walking sticks and bright yellow rain jackets pulled over their ruck sack, which makes they look like a cicadelic hunch back of Notre Dame [Debby I am sure you still managed to look charming however]. They were also kind enough to let us use their off-road GR tracks and those sections turned out to be the most enjoyable, slaloming round the cicadelic hunch backs every few kilometres.

It rained constantly for 4 days during the first week in St. Jean Pied de Port, everything was wet and had no hope of drying in our damp caravan, even Lycra and hence got smellier [not nice]. We were over the moon during that period when we found a washer/drier. Finally we could dry our towels, underwear and cycle shorts, in fact we splashed out on a wash and super dry, throwing literally everything in for good measure.

The other highlight of the holiday was the “chef”, if I do say so myself! On one particularly rainy day I took great pleasure in spending an hour in the supermarket, not only sheltering from the rain, but picking out the tastiest and least healthy foods I could find. Well what is a girl to do when she’s pissed off, wet and cold – yep eat chips, chocolate Nutella, French wine and lots and lots of cheese. Delicious! Mostly I lose weight on holiday due to mountain biking and healthy eating, not this time! Cheese with this, cheese with that and cheese with just about everything; good job I don’t know if I have a cholesterol problem or not.

I had always wanted to visit San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque region, and seeing as we were so close, [as the crow flies over a very big mountain, less than 100km away] this was my big chance to visit. It turns out that by train from St. Jean Pied de Port, it takes 5 hours to get to San Sebastian, including 2 changes and 3 different trains and long waiting times. Not put off by this little detail, we got up at at 5.30am and walked the 2 kilometers to the station to pick up the first train of the day to Bayonne, our first change over. All went smoothly with the trip, in fact with all the waiting time, we got to see a bit of Bayonne and Hendaye, as well as sample their coffee and croissants.

The five hour train journey was actually very pleasant, with beautiful scenery, enough food and drink and a Daily Telegraph [Yes they didn’t have the Guardian] to check out the weather forecast back in the UK and Holland. Plus it was all wort hit, the weather was fantastic in San Sebastian, the beach a god send, and the tapas and wine for lunch was mouth watering. The city is charming, although I am still a fan of Barcelona and Sevilla. It has a funny sort of mix of architecture; including a pier that looks like it belongs in Brigton; an Austrian mansion and Parisian apartment blocks. It was as if the town planner had had one too many Sangrias before he put his official stamp on the design layout.

After a week, the sun finally came out to play, and not just a little bit. From 23 grey skys to 32 degrees and not a cloud in sight, I certainly wasn’t complaining. The daily cycling which had previously a departure time of 11am, after waiting in vain for the rain to stop, got earlier and earlier. In order to get those grueling climbs out the way before 9am when it was already too hot. We left early after scoffing down a couple of croissants and we were back from our ride before most people had started on their second coffee and croissant.

We re-did a couple of the mountain bike routes as they had so much fun and excitement. Unlike your average mountain biker who wants to spend the whole day descending at break-neck speed on single tracks, we like the variety that the French routes indulge us. A mix of climbs and descents, on-road and off-road, through woods and villages, muddy, grassy and stoney surfaces and breathtaking countryside. Within 10 kilometres of St. Jean Pied de Port there are numerous routes but 2 are fantastic with “gradios” descents off-road in the last 5 milometers [GAMIA being the best]

Friday, we had decided to have a rest day, in other words not going crazy on the bike, but taking it easy. After an hour of cycling lazily to our favourite village St. Etienne de Bagorry and a coffee and coke later, we were on our way to “visit” the Chateau, when we stumbled across a sign on the side of the road. It read “This way for the Col d’Ispuguy, 8km, 690m, 6-7% incline.” We were only going to visit the bloody Chateau, as the temperature rose to 32 degrees in the shade. Well we just continued cycling up the road as it sounded like an adventure! Could I get to the top in one go without stopping? At an average of 9km per hour, it was going to take the best part of an hour to reach the summit. Well there was only one way to found out. I needed to find a “cadance” like Lance Armstrong, the same principle applies on a road or mountain bike. And I found that cadance after 2 kilometres and never let it go and I made it to the top. It had taken a lot out of me [and Jerica who of course made it too!] as I painfully realized later that evening. However on hearing that most real cycling pilgrims cycle two of those “cols” [big hills] per day, over the 1000 meters with 10 kilograms of luggage attached to their bikes, I felt considerably less proud of my achievement of the day.

After 11 days in our mobile home on the campsite in Ascarat on the outskirts of St. Jean Pied de Port, we packed up all our stuff – which BTW didn’t fit into the same bike bags it came in – one of lifes little misteries. Therefore we couldn’t cycle to our hotel but instead did a Mary and Joseph trick and pushed our trusty pack donkeys [our bikes] to their place of rest at a hostel in the center of St. Jean Pied de Port. The campsite was owned by a charming French farmer by the name of Alain and the hostel was owned by his sister Sabine.It turns out most of their family are in a combination of tourism and farming – which seems like a strange mix of businesses at first, but it requires the same amount of passion, patience and a sense of humour. The campsite was very well kept, with good facilities and fantastic position and outlook in the countryside surrounded by hills. The hostel was clean and light with romantic rooms. The only downer was the wooden staircase combined with the pilgrims walking boots and heavy footing. St. Jean Pied de Port is a very touristy spot, with a beautiful citalle, cute little shopping streets, a bubbling stream and the standard “petit train” taking tourists round the village at a snails pace for and exhorbitant amount of money. Advice spend no more than ½ day exploring St. Jean Pied de Port and then chill out in nearby St. Etienne de Bagorry and then spend the rest of the holiday walking or cycling in the hills.

The highlights of the holiday:

1. Early morning mountainbike rides into the countryside where few venture and cycling to the top of a hill/mountain taking in the early morning sun and watching nature literally wake up before your eyes.

2. The kick of still being able to get up a 20% gradient and climb a “col” up to 700 meters in one go, without stopping or going into cardiac arrest. In fact I think I am getting fitter with age [or perhaps I am pacing myself better]

3. Reading 2 very interesting books, albeit oldies: Bad Science and The Wal*Mart Effect, both pointing to the importance of good quality research and honesty being the best policy, always!

Some mentionable quirkiness during the holiday:

1. Our full day long train journey to San Sebastian with 3 change overs was made all the more amusing by the antics of the train conductors. They took stamping tickets to a whole new level – my ticket got 10 holes in it – what was he thinking, that I might go to the trouble to repairing one hole, so he gave me 9 extra for good measure?

2. The game of “naked hand pelote”. Standard pelote is already a strange game, a sort of cross between squash, tennis and beach tennis, but far far slower. But naked hand pelote tops it. Played in a long thin hallway with sloping sides, a very hard white ball that bounces like a yoyo and hit with the bare hand at great effort against the wall, and I am assuming great pain too. I always found volleyball dreadfully painful on the wrists, but this game takes the biscuit. I couldn’t watch because of the associations with pain, the other hundreds of spectators didn’t seem to have an issue though, they were very enthusistically encouraging the players to hit even harder and fanatically. BTW the rules and scoring was also a mistery. It was the warmest day of the year , and not only were the players dripping with sweat on the stifling indoor court, but the spectators too. The smell of a squash court after a few years had nothing on this court.

3. We had 4 flat tires during the holiday, which isn’t unusual if spread over 14 days, but they all happened in the space of 2 days. In fact 2 of those punctures happened at the exact same minute and hour of the same day, in the exact same place [outside a restaurant], on the back wheels of both our bikes, with exactly the same sharp instrument – a staple! Hmmmm yep this is what I mean about they prefer the walkers in those parts of France!

What a lovely holiday it was ... onto the next one!

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