MANCHESTER TO MUNICH
Having crossed back into Spain, I reached the town of Olvera de la Frontera. I had two options here; the first one being to carry onto the next large town along the main highway before turning south east towards Seville and the second option being to take the much smaller road directly south and through the hills. I don’t know why I do this to myself but I chose the latter.
I spent the day meandering through the Andalucian countryside. The land was lush, the traffic light and there was an abundance of orange trees to pick from along the way.
I camped about 45km's from Sevilla and spent the following morning making my way into the city which is of course no easy feat without a detailed map.
I spent a few days in Seville and then headed east to the town of Alcala de Guadaira following a gravel track along a canal. I very nearly came off the bike whilst eating an apple. I usually eat apples or grapes whilst cycling and usually this isn't a problem. As I was cycling on gravel this time however, I very nearly ended up in a ditch.
Fortunately, everything was okay and I finished my succulent treat whilst stationary.
As I was hauling my bicycle up a hill into the town, a voice called out my name from the pavement and I was a little taken aback to see the cleaning lady from my hostel back in Seville staring at me in disbelief. She couldn’t fathom why anyone would cycle in this heat and indeed to Granada for that matter. I couldn't have agreed more.
I spent the next few days cycling though Andalucia.
I passed through Carmona, Marchena, Osuna and finally Mollina before heading into the hills and valleys. The heat was above 40 degrees every day and it was painful to cycle in.
This trip was a learning curve that's for sure. I learnt to carry adequate and good quality maps, suitable clothing, better wheels, tyres and inner tubes and to spend some time planning a route which takes into consideration the actual climate of the region.
Still, the sun baked hills and landscape were undeniably beautiful and it was a pleasure to cycle through.
More often than not, as the midday heat grew too much, I'd pass through a town where I took repite from the heat at a cafe. An ice cold beer in this climate is a real pleasure.
This would give me an opportunity to charge the electronics I was carrying and to fill up my bottles. It was always just a shame that after just a half hour or so, the ice cold water didn't feel like it quenched my first at all, as hot as it was.
One night whilst camping, having switched off my head torch and closed my kindle, I heard a short heavy gallop fly right past my tent.
At first I thought it was just a wild pig that had run past but a few seconds later, I realised it was indeed a dog. Actually two of them.
They stood outside my tent for about an hour barking, moving around the tent and thus making me feel quite queasy. I’m not the happiest and the most at ease with farm dogs at the best of times but when it’s the middle of the night and I’m sat alone in my tent in the middle of nowhere, I’m quite literally crawling into my sleeping bag for comfort.
I really needed to sleep and so I reluctantly started to kick the tent and shout out at them. To my delight, it actually worked and they backed off a good 50 metres enabling me to fall into a deep slumber.
I was now north west of Granada slugging my way through the torturous mountains, willing myself on towards the city, a bed, and perhaps air conditioning.
Every hill I climbed brought more misery for my body. I was aching, drenched in sweat and gasping for water.
At one such momentous climb, I began to plead with someone, anyone that would tell me that the top would pleasingly come into view.
Having inched my way to the top, I was confronted by the most breathtaking sight; the bluest lake I had ever seen. It simply stopped me in my tracks and I was left standing there admiring it for many moments.
Having spent a couple of hours by the lake, had a refreshing dip and dried my clothes, I set off to find somewhere to camp for the evening. I found the perfect spot surrounded by wild rosemary.
After few more hills the next morning, a long decent led me to the city of Granada where I was to spend a few days.
I stayed a couple of nights in Granada and then caught a bus to Murcia where I continued north along the coast.
Granada is an interesting city, what with its Moorish architecture. Often times it looks completely different from other places in Spain.
I arrived on the coast at around half six and immediately headed to a supermarket to pick up some supplies. Before I knew it, I was following the main highway north towards Alicante.
As with any large city, the roads leading out were lined by an unbroken chain of warehouses, garages etc but this actually worked in my favour as it gave me ample camping opportunities.
I had a go at a handover in a relay race one day when I was cycling along, just outside of Alicante. I heard a couple of beeps, and looking in my mirror, I could see a van pulling over to the side of me whereupon the guy in the passenger seat was holding out a bottle of water. I held out my left hand hoping to grab on to it before managing to slot it into my holder. I shouted a loud gracias and waved to the guys who sped off down the road. I cycled on with a broad smile across my face.
Where the land juts out into the Mediterranean, I thought I might take a more inland route and thus pass through the mountains instead of taking what appeared to be the far easier coastal route. With the temperature still in the late thirties though, I opted for the latter.
Heading north, I began to realise with a little distress that the mountains actually straddled the sea and for much of the next 100 km’s or so, there appeared to be no respite. There would be no flat coastal highway for me just yet.
Huge mountains, splintered and bald dotted the landscape to my left whilst the coast to my right was awash with hotels of every shape and size.
At times, I headed off the main highway, and cycled through much smaller roads that wound their way through pretty little villages untouched by tourism it seemed. Being right next to the ocean, these roads carved their way up and down and around inlets thus it wasn't long before I found my way back to the highway.
As I cycled past Benidorm, which I really didn’t want to see, the motorway somehow blended into the main highway and thus I wasn’t able to continue; cars started honking and one guy shouted for me to get off the motorway. I thus had to realise my dream of visiting Blackpool by the sea and so headed on down to the town to make my way though it.
It was a little surreal really. Out of nowhere, huge high-rises jutted out from the bay looking like a mini Manhattan whilst the town itself was covered in a whole manner of different restaurants and cafés catering for the tourist more at home with a kebab than tapas.
One night, I became a little stuck trying to find somewhere to camp. Every piece of land was being farmed. Every patch of earth was being used for something and it became almost impossible.
Sometimes I would see a small patch of land big enough for my tent, and having waited for a lull in the traffic, tried to climb the verge quickly but it was always too steep.
I was still cycling at 10pm and there were still people out and about all over the place; a man walking his dog beside the highway, a group of kids playing football by the verge. It was always busy.
Literally by the time it was complete darkness, I saw an area of untamed land over the other side of the road. With a wave of relief, I walked across and began to wheel my bike into the undergrowth but the noise I created in doing so seemed to disturb two dogs from behind a fence and I had to cycle on yet again.
I eventually ended up camping by the side of the highway, using my bike as a means of holding up the tent. It was without doubt the most most horrible place I have ever had the misfortune of finding myself sleeping in.
I ended up staying for four days in Valencia, recharging my batteries and enjoying the sights. I met some very nice people at the hostel I was staying at and even had a trip to the hospital to check out a lump that had had been present on my eyelid for the last couple fo days.
Turned out it was just a sweat gland that had become infected.
I set off again with Barcelona and Tarragona in my sight.
After Valencia, the following three days were spent cycling north along the coast.
Sometimes I would find myself on the highway, whilst at other times, I would find myself traversing orange and lime groves.
There were many points where the road ended abruptly and this necessitated me in somehow finding another available route by means of trial and error.
Every hour of every day seemed to bring a fresh challenge. Perhaps it was a set of tunnels or becoming lost in a town. Perhaps I might have followed what appeared to be a prominent road on my map only to find a dusty gravel track that meandered it's way up 15% inclines around the cliffs. What ever it was, I had to find a way or else there was no way I was going to reach Barcelona under my own steam.
As was usual for me, when I reached the outskirts of Tarragona, I became completely lost and disorientated. Every road seemed to join up with the main motorway heading into the city and I was again forced to use the smaller roads that led through wasteland and farmland.
I stayed in Barcelona only for a couple of nights as I had now made the decision to return to England for the winter rather than carrying on east to Turkey.
The ride into Barcelona was, if not exactly easy, certainly less of an ordeal than Tarragona. I had ensured that I had made screenshot after screenshot of my route through the suburbs and with these saved on my kindle, it ended up being relatively simple. I wanted to avoid cunjuring up memories of the debacle that was Paris.
From Palafrugell, I I again joined the main highway north that led to Figures. By now the landscape was an abundance of green farmland and forests. It was abundantly clear I was now back in northern Spain.
The Pyrenees rose up in the distance and there came a wave of excitement one gets when nearing an international border under their own steam.
From Tarragona, it was a simple 100km ride along the coast to Barcelona.
Out of Garraf, I took a road up into the surrounding hills where I found a quiet spot to camp for the evening.
I heard the first sound shortly after setting up my tent but didn't worry too much at all. After an hour, I started to hear these strange low pitched screams that I thought could only come from a pig.
A little later, the noises became louder and louder until eventually I heard an animal sniffing around the vicinity of my tent. It was walking all around my tent evidently trying to find a way in. It was a little unnerving to say the least and I now wished I had eaten somewhere else.
It then knocked one of my bags over which startled me even more and induced random scenes of the film Hanibal where the guy gets mauled by aggressive pigs.
It wasn't the best nights sleep I have ever had.
I followed an excruciatingly difficult road north along the coast passing through Tossa De Mar, Palamos and eventually Palafrugell.
I passed the final Spanish town and the road basically became one long truck stop with every imaginable service on offer.
I spent twenty minutes pushing the bike up a series of switchbacks before settling in for the night safe in the knowledge that France lay only a couple of km's away.
I crossed back into France the following morning without too much hassle. With that done, it was lovely ride all the way down from the Pyrenees to the town of Perpignan. It was here I picked up a canister for my stove.
I cycled north east towards the village of Bompas, but was informed on the way out that the minor road I wanted to take to the coast wasn't possible with a bicycle. With this information, I cycled east to Canet instead.
With my map being wholly insufficient for the roads I was now using, it really did take ages to get there. I cycled alongside fields and vineyards and through a couple of farms and eventually came to a road that led me back onto the main highway to Canet which again I found I couldn’t cycle.
Having stopped in Canet for an hour or so, I simply tried to follow whichever road I thought might take me north to La Barcares.
Eventually, the road I had been using joined up with the duel carriageway and was thus closed to anything slower than a car.
I ended up cycling through 2km's of gravel, glass and sand before finding out it was a dead end. Back I went, all the way back to town where I managed to acquire some actual directions.
Arriving in Port Leucate, I was again left cycling aimlessly around the suburbs and port area looking for some path, any path that led north. After 40 minutes of trying in vain to find a small road or at least sign’s indicating a bicycle path, I grew so tired and frustrated that I just plonked myself down on a bench to rest, eat and watch the local wildlife lick their behinds.
I managed to find a route north and had the most amazing views with the Mediterranean to my right and the blue crystalline lake and mountains to my left. I also found a beautiful camping spot too by the beach which was a nice way to end a long day.
I continued north towards Narbonne and Beziers, always sticking to the main highways in order to a) not get lost and b) reach more interesting ground as soon as possible.
In Narbonne, I stopped and asked a man at a cafe if I could fill up my bottles. In answer to this, he gave me 2 two litre bottles of water frozen solid. That's ice. He also proceeded to fill up the other three for me too. I encounter this kind of generosity all the time.
Back in Salamanca, I had met an American dressed in golfing attire, and he proclaimed the French to be very rude and quite petty. Upon asking him where he had been to, he uttered the word 'Paris". I thought 'well if you only go to a city that receives 306 million tourists a year, your view might be a little skewed and thus not to be trusted'.
As I entered Montpellier, I cycled through the usual unsightly suburbs but upon reaching the centre, found a beautiful historic town set along a leafy river. This seemed to be a running theme in most countries.
I thought that I might spend the evening there but a German guy had told me that the only hostel in town was quite expensive and you required a pass to even book which itself cost nine euros. As this clearly wasn't going to happen, I opted to walk around before heading back out.
Outside the city, I stopped to make some lunch but checking my front pannier, I found that my jar of Nutella had been smashed, emptying its gloopy contents over everything present.
The bottom was a mixture of glass and chocolate sauce and I knew instantly that it had been caused by a meeting of sorts I had had with a lamppost earlier upon my arrival in Montpellier.
I reached Nimes the following day, and as I was determined to find a bed for the night, headed for the local tourist office to see if any were available. I gave the lady in there 60 euros to play with, but unfortunately she couldn't find anything for less than 100 euros.
I don't think that it's a good idea to visit this part of the world in July, and certainly not when there is a Carlos Santana concert on.
I elected to head onto Arles and to try my luck there.
Before heading to Arles, I made my way north east towards Poulx which would hopefully take me onto Point du Gard further on.
Once again however, I became completely bewildered by the roads I was now travelling on. The sheer amount of detail that was lost on my oversized map led me down one meandering road after another until I eventually gave up this dream.
There were indeed a lot of lessons to be had from this trip, not least the maps I was using and I vowed to acquire some new more detailed ones in the winter.
With my realisation that Pont du Gard was not to be, I began to head south through beautifully wooded land towards the village of Marguerittes.
Arriving in Arles, I was Immediately struck by how different the city was when compared to Nimes. There weren’t really any of the bold and striking facades, squares and buildings that I saw back in Nimes. Instead it had a grittier and ‘lived in’ feel about it and I liked this very much.
I took a seat at a cafe and used their internet in order to find a room for the night, but once again, there were none to be had for less than 100 euros.
I sat down a little later in a park when a lady came over and actually said hello. This was unusual in itself as usually people will look at me and then turn away when I look at them. We had an interesting conversation about when she and her husband used motorcycles to go around the world back in the 70’s and she was a thoroughly agreeable character.
From Arles, I cycled south east towards the coast and onto Marseille before finding somewhere to camp for the evening just north of the city.
I spent the next morning manoeuvring my way through the congested outskirts of the city before finding a hostel for the evening.
I spent quite a nice day in Marseille and enjoyed some good food, great beer and great sights.
The whole area surrounding Marseille is one of extreme beauty; huge mountains tower above the surrounding suburbs whilst forest literally clicks to every available spot that might have a diagonal surface.
I cycled east along the main highway on a road that followed a river inside a deep gorge for 30 - 40 km's. The landscape was simply staggering.
I followed the highway north east to the town of Saint-Maximin -La-Sainte-Baume where I stayed with a friend for two nights before heading east back to the coast.
It was nice to see a familiar face for a change and it was lovely to see some friends.
I passed through the pretty town of Brignoles after 20 km’s where I just couldn’t get rid of an old man whom had taken it upon himself to decide that I was his new best friend. I only stopped to take a picture, but he thrust his hand onto my arm and insisted I follow him further on into town.
I came to the town of Frejus, and having had a look around, followed the coast into the next town of Saint-Raphael. It was late, and searching for a place to camp became impossible as it was just wall to wall development everywhere. I pushed on and on into the evening as the light began to fade over the horizon.
With my prospect of finding somewhere looking bleaker by the minute, I rounded another bend into a bay and saw that there was an embankment by the side of the bay with a surprisingly well cut lawn. After cycling up, I realised it was the entrance to a golf course, but the edge of it down to the road had no markings or fences and so I decided this was good enough for me. I pushed my bike onto the grass and was greeted by several WW2 bunkers built into the area and lots of trees and bushes in which to hide quite stealthily.
I followed the spectacular coast to Cannes passing small decadent towns built into the bays above the blue sea.
Reaching Nice, I was presented with a bicycle path in which I happily used if only to get off the exceedingly busy highway for a while.
I won't lie, it's all very beautiful, but yes its touristy, it's expensive and its insanely busy around these parts. I wouldn't ever think of actually visiting in summer unless I was simply traversing the south like I was now doing.
Coming into Monaco, I was directed down into a series of tunnels where, it seemed the traffic from all the surrounding roads converged into an underground labyrinth of roundabouts. It was very, very busy being about 5 pm and I had to think hard and fast about which turnings I had to make as it was really quite dangerous, for a bicycle anyway.
Having made a customary lap of the streets of Monaco, I was on my way East again. It was only 12 km's to the border but it was a hell of a ride in order to get there.
It was one huge traffic jam for the first 5 km's or so thus I had the pleasure of making my way through the bumper to bumper traffic made up of sports cars on my bike.
It was about the only time I had been faster than them along this entire stretch of France.
I arrived at the border at precisely 21:39 having had to spend some time fixing a puncture in Menton. It was already late and still had to find somewhere to sleep. I just hoped I could manage that once I crossed.