MANCHESTER TO MUNICH
Once I had left Manchester, I cycled in a south easterly direction through the Peak District National Park before heading onto my friends home in Nottingham.
One afternoon, the wind became so unbearable it was actually pushing me off the road. Once or twice I had to try hard to correct myself in order to avoid falling straight into the ditch on my left.
With this I decided to stop outside a farm to take a breather as it was just too dangerous to carry on. About five minutes later, a car pulled up and the lady inside asked me what I was doing. I told her that I just needed a rest. I then decided to ask them if it was at all possible to put my tent up on their land for the night. They then told me that it wasn’t their land but then asked me if I would like to sleep in the stables instead. They said they were clean and that the horses had been moved out a couple of weeks before and so I said yes without hesitation.
They even cooked me a roast dinner and allowed me to use their shower. I guess this goes to show how pleasant people really are outside of towns and cities.
I made my way through the western outskirts of London before eventually reaching Brighton a few days later.
From Brighton, I headed north east in the direct of Royal Tunbridge Wells and then continued on towards east London.
Having then caught the ferry across the Thames from Gravesend, it was only another 70km's to Harwich and my ferry to The Netherlands. Things were going well!
Arriving in The Netherlands north-west of Rotterdam was a nice experience having lived in Amsterdam previously.
I ended up staying in Amsterdam for two weeks catching up with friends. It was time to head south!
Crossing over the French/Belgium border meant I could no longer understand anyone, and it was from this moment on that I actually began to feel like I was doing something new, like I was on holiday and I started to my journey proper. It felt great to be on the road again.
It was a 250km ride to the outskirts of Paris where things would get a little tricky. More on that below.
I passed through Tourney, Arras and Amiens along the way. I believed the last city was pronounced 'Aimes', which led to many a blank stare whenever I dared to ask for directions.
On the way into Paris, around the town of Beauvais, I met seven Lithuanians whom had cycled from London. After cycling with them for a half hour, I pushed on and met them again at a McDonalds further down the highway. This is the point where I should have asked them which road they were taking as it was from here that I endured an ordeal that lasted around five hours.
I was now around 45km's from central Paris and from this point on, things turned sour, dreadful and downright ridiculous.
I suppose I only had myself to blame.
With a vastly inadequate map, a lack of knowledge of the local lingo and no access to a smartphone, it was always going to be an uphill struggle to work my way through 30km's of urban sprawl and Paris was no different.
With every conceivable entrance blocked by motorway upon motorway, I finally called it a day and ended up taking the tram for the remaining 20 kms. I was utterly defeated.
The thought never occurred to me to go back to the McDonalds where I had met the Lithuanians in order to use their wi-fi to get directions.
After three days in Paris, I made my again through the urban sprawl before finding somewhere to camp on the outskirts of the city. The next day I followed a similar direction to Orsay and Chartres where I stopped to take a look around.
The countryside was now much different to that of England, The Netherlands and Belgium. The horizon wasn't endlessly filled with farms but was instead broken up by swaths of forest, hills and waterways.
Small villages passed by and the landscape grew ever grander. As the elevation increased, huge thumping hills and valleys with thick woodland lining the edges popped out from every angle imaginable.
I stayed in Nantes for a couple of days with a couchsurfing host whom had been kind enough to put me up.
Having now seen Nantes and a giant mechanical walking elephant, I set off and made my way south again in the direction of St John-de-Monts as I had another friend to see.
I headed south west to the coast and the island of Noirmoutier which I thought would make a nice place to camp for the evening.
As I approached the coast, I could taste the salt in the air, really I could, and it felt like another little milestone had been reached.
I headed for as small road that I could see. It connected the island to the mainland but upon reaching it, I found that the road wasn’t a road in the normal sense of the word. It was indeed a road, but it only came into being once the tide was at its lowest. It would thus appear as if out of nowhere.
Having spent a nice day Wirth my friend, I cycled south towards Bordeaux passing through La Rochelle, Rochefort and Royan along the way.
Reaching Marennes and thus the coast, I stopped to check which bridge would take me south. Looking closely at my map, I saw the bridge to my right went to an island, thus I knew I had to take the one on my left towards La Tremblade. It was at this point that a car pulled over and a man asked if I needed help with directions. He then confirmed what I thought and he went on to tell me about great places to camp on the peninsula that I was now headed towards. He told me which fish to buy from the fishmonger and how to cook them on my stove. A very nice guy whose name was Archie and whom also looked a little eccentric. You can see this by the photo I took of him.
The entire day was a joy to remember with everything going amazingly well. When I needed water, a village cemetery appeared as if it knew I was thirsty. When it became too hot and my stomach a little empty, out popped a row of tree’s which offered me shade and under which I could make lunch. Everything was going perfectly, almost too perfectly I thought. Something was bound to go wrong, and as was usually the case, it did. This though is what makes for an interesting story I guess.
Having reached the village of Saint-Ciers-du-Taillon, I had a choice of three different directions to take, two of them indicating towns that, from looking at my map, headed east and north east. I went with my gut instinct and took the last option which appeared to head south. The sun looked in the 'correct' place for the decision I had made thus I set off with much gusto and enthusiasm.
After an hour, and with the wind continuing to press against me, I knew all was not going according to plan. I stopped in a village, feeling that its name sounded disturbingly familiar and asked in a pub about where this road led to. They told me it was in fact heading north! I couldn’t believe how wrong I was. I was gob-smacked. Of course it was only fifteen km’s that I had done but I was tired, hungry, sweaty and dirty. I was in no mood to be confused and disorientated.
The guys in the pub showed me on the managers laptop where in fact I was, and then wrote down the names of all the small villages that I needed to pass through on my way to Bordeaux.
It was now half seven, and although I was tired, I wanted the following day to be an easy one in order to give myself plenty of time in Bordeaux. With this in mind, I pressed on as hard and as fast as I could, making my way to the first village they had written down for me.
Passing through it, I realised I had been through here earlier on in the day and, when the next village came I knew I was now cycling back through the exact same places I had cycled through three hours earlier. I was going round in a huge circle! Man alive, I was cursing out loud. I tried to remind myself where I was and how beautiful it was but I also couldn’t get out of my head the absolute demon hills that lay ahead, hills I had already climbed up. The whole situation felt diabolical. Having finally reached the last of the villages that I had already gone through, I began to feel a little better, knowing now that I was heading in a direction and through places I had not yet been to before.
Once in Royan, I saw there was a boat leaving at 14:00 that could take me over the inlet. This would mean I'd have less km’s to cover to Bordeaux. Being impatient though, I decided to take the small D roads that led along the other side of the inlet which brought me south through the wine growing region north of Bordeaux. I was mightily happy I chose this route. The scenery was simply stunning. Picture perfect vineyards lined the road on either side, and although there were some insanely steep climbs, the views at the top over the surrounding countryside and coast were superb. I could see the little villages that dotted the landscape, each with their own small, ancient church and all covered in those Spanish style red slate tiles.
From Bordeaux, I followed the coast south for the next two days passing through beautiful towns along the way. Both Bayonne and Biarritz were both particularly cute and they both definitely have a more Spanish feel to them.
By half nine, exhausted and starving, I decided to call it a day and found a place to camp just outside a town called Etauliers. Potatoes, bacon and vegetables never tasted so good.
I crossed the French/Spanish border in the evening, and as I was stood by the highway figuring out where to sleep, a van pulled over leaving the hazard lights on. Cycling up to it, he waved me down and asked where I was headed. Upon replying 'San Sebastian', I he asked if I cared to stay at his house for the evening.
I'm not really in the habit of following people in white vans to their farm but the fact that the van had something about an ecology business on the back and that there was a young girl sat in the front made me feel a little at ease and so I responded with 'of course'.
It turned out to be some sort of commune with around eighty people living and working there. Even though they were all very religious and talked about how they had all found happiness living together, they were a welcoming bunch.
I did want to ask some difficult questions about the bible, but as their guest, I thought it best not to do so and thus kept my beliefs to myself.
They also invited me to their morning gathering at 6am in which they all sang and praised the Lord together. I said I might attend if I was awake from my slumber but I knew this wouldn’t be the case. I needn’t have worried though, as at precisely 6am the following morning, I was awoken with what can only be described as an alarm imitating the volume of a large brass band being played through various loudspeakers discretely positioned in every room. I was still not getting up though and so I buried my head under the covers.
It was just a 10km ride into San Sebastian the following morning.
I opted for a campsite just west of the city. Had I known it was up, possible the longest and steepest hill I have yet encountered on this trip, I might have decided otherwise. It needed a herculean effort in order to reach the top. I was shattered.
Arriving there finally, I found the reception closed and so went ahead and set up my tent anyway.
I spent the next few days slowly making my way along the beautiful Basque coast that was dotted with small fishing towns and ports including Zarautz, Getaria and Zumaia. I stopped for a while in Zarautz to find a supermarket which turned out to be much cheaper than I thought possible.
An old man kept staring at me in the queue but then turned away when I saw he was looking at me. He then proceeded to stare at me again and so I stared at him until he moved his eyes in another direction. This was becoming ever more common; maybe it was the bedraggled look I had or perhaps the fact that my clothes weren’t the cleanest but this was getting a little tiresome.
Before I arrived Spain, I had an image in my mind. This consisted of wide open plateaus, dotted with olive groves and medieval villages with sun lit-hills forming the backdrop. I really couldn’t have been more wrong. I didn’t expect the north at least to be this hilly, humid and almost tropical.
The coastal road I followed weaved and tumbled its way around the cliffs.
The views across the Atlantic from atop the cliffs though were superb. You could clearly see why these coasts were sought after by surfers.
At Elgoibar, I followed the road through the valley until I came to what would be the final big climb of northern Spain.
By now it was baking hot and it was certainly sweaty work on my way up. On the other side lay the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Coming out of the high, forested area that I had been cycling through the previous few days was like a breath of fresh air; the deeply cut, forested valleys now gave way to spectacular sun drenched plains as far as the eye could see. When I envisioned Spain before I arrived, this was indeed the image I had in mind.
Just south of Mianda de Ebro, I headed into the Rioja region thus I knew It was going to be hot. I was simply not prepared however for the overwhelming ferocity of the heat. It simply took my breath away, quite literally.
The following couple of hours grew hotter and hotter until I could simply cycle no more. The wind was non existent, which is usually a good thing, but today I was actually praying for it to return. My mouth began to feel like a desert with the dry air sapping away any moisture that was left behind from my water. The heat sapped away my energy too so in the end, even the slightest incline became torturous.
There was also no shade to be found anywhere; no trees, farmsteads or shelters of any kind. The land was scorched and barren at times and I thought I might not be able to handle Spain if it continues like this.
I headed on in the direction of Burgos.
From Burgos, I made my way through the Castilla Y Leon region passing through beautifully aged and sleepy villages en-route.
It was at one of these in Mazuela that I saw these strange little hobbit houses built into the rock-face. Either they were very small homes indeed or they were some kind of tomb.
As I made my way out of Santa Maria Del Campo, I was chased by several dogs and which I am certain was the most exercise that had had in a very long time.
At one point, I came to a junction in the road, and upon looking to my right up the road, I saw the most amazing little town set high up on the cliff face and upon seeing that, I obviously went down to take a closer look. Palenzuela it was called.
It was like something from another world and it felt like time had forgotten this place. I loved it.
I found a sleepy little village a little later and decided to head on into a bar to down a much needed beer and to charge my mp3 player. It really did look very quiet from the outside but, upon stepping through the door, I was greeted by the most rapturous of scenes; laughing, shouting and the general hustle and bustle of a late night bar in a city. It was siesta time!
The back tyre that I had been keeping inflated for the previous three days with frequent blasts of my pump, had by now given way completely thus I decided to actually fix it on the way out of town. I found a shaded area by the side of a small apartment block and began to take everything off the bike when a man came out from one of the flats and offered to help me. I said I was fine and that it was a minor problem but he came back out with 5 litres of water, two yogurts, a can of fish and a bottle of san Miguel for me. Wonderful I thought. We tried to have a conversation which proved quite difficult and before long I was on my way again. He testified that Salamanca, the city I was now headed for, was indeed as wonderful as I had been led to believe.
I continued in a more or less westerly direction for the majority of my time. I'd try to rise early in order to put in some km's before the sun rose too high and then relax for a few hours in the shade at midday. Sometimes I would find a small bar in one of the villages I passed whilst other times were spent outside under a tree watching what little life there was go by. And so the days passed.
Eventually, I made it the city of Salamanca and my what a breathtaking sight it was.
Having spent four days in the beautiful city of Salamanca, I cycled south west towards Ciudad Rodrigo.
It felt a little weird being back on the bike after a period of time off it. I felt exposed again; exposed to people’s eyes as well as the elements and there were butterflies in my stomach too. Not the type that you get when you’re about to be pushed off the high diver at school by the masculine female teacher, aptly named Miss Manly, but the kind when one is about to enter somewhere new and unknown. It’s an altogether pleasant feeling.
I was on my way to Portugal.
I ended up, yet again on the motorway, having missed the sign at the start. The motorways here aren’t like the ones back home, being much smaller and with an infinitely less amount of vehicles. As no one was honking at me, I decided to carry on until the next exit.
After 10km’s however, I received a swift “no, no, no” from a Spanish policeman who had pulled over on the other side of the highway. He swiftly indicated that I should take the next exit which I duly did.
On the way to the Portuguese border, I heard a loud bang from the rear wheel, and upon checking it, realised that the inner tube was actually protruding through the tyre wall. It seemed that part of the rim had been cracked too somehow. It didn't look good.
Being in the middle of nowhere, I decided to push my bike down the highway in the vain hope that a city would magically appear.
In the end, and having walked 4 km's, I decided to call it a day and camped for the evening hoping tomorrow would bring better luck.
I set off the next morning, and to my surprise, found a roadside motel after walking for some 2km's. I ventured inside to see if there was anyone whom could give me a lift into the next city but upon entering, heard the most amazing cockney accent.
It was the motel owner, Fred. He offered to take me into the city as long as I could take off the back wheel.
A couple of hours later, I was standing in a bicycle shop ordering a shiny new wheel and a few extra spokes just in case.
Fred brought me back to the motel, and I helped him bring in the stock that we had picked up on the way. Thanking him profusely from the bottom of my heart, I set off with renewed hope and in excellent spirits.
As I was cycling through the hills towards the border, I stopped for a break under a tree. All of a sudden a racing cyclist screeched to a halt. After some conversation, he left but not before giving me ten Euro's and a banana. Strange times.
I was cycling along extremely small country roads and gravel tracks by this point and which were leading me over impossibly high terrain. Due to the sheer intensity of the heat, the climbs were difficult to say the least. Luckily for me, there is usually handy water fountains placed conveniently along the road every few km's and these were a god-send.
Once I had reached the top of the pass I had been ascending the day before, I was afforded spectacular views across the surrounding Spanish valleys and plains along the Portuguese border.
It was a marvellous ride along the switchbacks all the way to the bottom. This also gave me a chance to cool down a little, if only for a few minutes.
I spent the next few days cycling through the mountainous interior of Portugal. The landscape became much greener and there was the ever present danger of thunderstorms looming above.
The humidity was unbearable, so much so that it was difficult to sleep. Often I would climb out of my tent in the evening and stand naked under the torrential rain pouring down just to get some relief from the sweltering temperature.
I cycled through Castelo Branco, Macao and onto Abrantes before continuing south through Bemposta, Pavia and finally onto Evora.
Portugal felt noticeably much poorer than Spain, particularly the villages; the pavements weren’t properly levelled, the paint on most of the buildings seemed to be chipped off in large chunks and the populace seemed evidently poorer (economically speaking) simply by the clothes they wore and the cars they drove. I have never been to Cuba, but It kind of reminded me of what it must look like there.
Every village I passed through brought the familiar sound of wild barks in the distance or around the corner. Sometimes the dogs would jump out from behind a wall whilst sometimes they were chained up outside a house.
The drivers were by far the worst of the trip thus far. They raced pass with alarming speed and took corners with unrelenting ferocity. I really didn't feel safe at all.
I spent a day in Evora, and saw the sights, ate some good food and enjoyed some wine with a Dutch couple at the campsite I was staying at. I did try to find an actual hotel but every single one I visited had a vacant reception and no one to be found.
On the way back to the campsite, a van sped so fast past me, so close in fact it brushed the side of my back pannier. I was livid and I ended up following it down the road. After a week of sharing the road with actual lunatics, my patience for this kind of thing was non existent. I could possibly forgive this kind of behaviour in less developed countries but heck, I was still in Europe. After cycling for half a kilometre down the road, I saw the van pull off into a residential area and then park next to a café. When I arrived, and to my utter astonishment, I found it was a school bus with a few kids still inside. I then let out a tirade of abuse at the driver until I thought he got my point. Obviously he didn’t understand a word I had said but I felt I had done my bit and so cycled back off quite satisfied with myself.
It was always my intention to cycle onto the very south of Portugal from Evora in order to see a friend but also simply because I was utterly desperate and felt compelled to get to the coast. The promise of fresh sea air and a beautiful sandy beach were most alluring.
After consulting both my own paper map and GoogleMaps, and upon seeing that there were categorically no roads whatsoever across the border back into Spain from anywhere along the coast, I decided visiting the south wasn’t going to happen. There was one road but of course it was a motorway. The world is indeed built for the motor vehicle.
Armed with this new knowledge, I headed south east to the border and the town of Mourao.
I passed beautiful little villages along the way, camped in an amazing location by a lake and received a lot of help from a bicycle shop owner even though his shop was closed. The hills were a memory now thus the baking sun wasn't hindering my progress too much.
I really enjoyed my time in Portugal. It's a beautiful country full of wonderful people, it isn't expensive and the sights are gorgeous. It's just a shame about the drivers.