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  • Jamie Shannon

Entering Spain. Religious communes and Basque Country

I ended up only staying for one day in Bordeaux. As beautiful a city as it is, I do get immensely frustrated sometimes when I’m unable to find my way. This is usually always the case in big cities. It’s when I arrive in a large city that I have certain things to accomplish as well as the usual things that every tourist does. I sometimes need to find some kind of outdoor store store in order to procure some fuel for my stove. I also usually try to find the central library so I can use their wi-fi. The other ‘job’ I need to do is to find a relatively cheap supermarket like a lidl or an Aldi. Doing these things in a city you have never been to is mildly irritation if I'm honest.

Cities are expensive too. They seem to burn a hole in my wallet faster than the time it takes to say “how much?” I’m trying to live off fifty or sixty euro’s a week and this is fairly manageable when cycling through the country. The only thing I really have to buy being food, but lots of it! In a city, everything is on offer and so temptation is around every corner and I usually succumb to it.

Having said that, Bordeaux has free museum entry and so I enjoyed that for sure. The beer was slightly cheaper than it has been too so of course this went down a treat. I have to admit, I did go into an Irish pub just for some English conversation and, yes I found some!

Anyway, Bordeaux is now behind me and only Spain awaits!

Getting out of Bordeaux went seamlessly, just like it did in Paris. I feel I’m getting especially good at this now. As long as I just cycle through the small streets and suburbs using the sun as your point of reference, I'll come to a slightly bigger road where the signs are to be found, and these will take me in the direction I need to go.

I followed a road south of Bordeaux for a couple of hours until I reached a town called Belin Beliet where I took a right and headed into the National Park area. In fact the entire area south of the city is a National park and is really quite pretty; quiet, hardly any traffic and ample places to camp.

The following day was spent spinning through national park land and then through the country roads. These were almost always surrounded by forest with the odd farm scattered here and there at pleasing intervals. There were no hills to speak of, the road surface was for the most part, very smooth and, heading in a south easterly direction towards the city of Bayonne, the wind was mostly behind me. I was cruising all day long, listening to music and simply enjoying the scenery.

I did have my first dog 'chase' me however. They really do go crazy at the sound of a pair of bicycle wheels spinning along in their direction. They’ll usually run alongside me until their enclosure halts them in their tracks but they’ll continue to bark wildly long after I have disappeared from their view.

Luckily, for now, the dogs are behind fences but I'm sure this is but a taste of the things to come, particularly when I hit Greece and Turkey. This is something I’m particularly dreading; traffic, humans, spiders, mosquitoes, wind, rain and hills I can handle but dogs will take some getting used to I can tell you.

Inching my way ever closer towards the coast, I decided to keep going until I got to perhaps a couple of km’s within reach of it and tried to find a spot by the beach in which to camp. In the end, there were too many people about for this to become a reality and so I pushed my bike maybe twenty metre’s behind the beach in a forest again, albeit a very pretty one at that.

Waking up the next day I knew I would be in Spain by its end and so I couldn’t wait to get going; the promise of another country, a new language and different people filling my head with excitement.

I followed the main highway past the small towns that line the coast and before I knew it, I was on the outskirts of Bayonne. Anais had told me I should visit it thus I was contemplating whether or not to spend the night here. In the end it was Sunday, and with most things closed and the town very quiet, I decided to push on towards the border. I did spend a couple of hours walking around however, seeing the buildings, the church and walking around the old walls that mark the extremities of the city. It was all very quaint, colourful and rustic thus giving the whole centre a homely feel.

Bayonne quickly became Biarritz and large roads, often dual carriageways quickly led to yet more large roads etc. If you look at a map, you can see that, between the coast and the Pyrenees, there isn’t much else besides the towns that line the coast and the large roads in between. Thankfully for me, the traffic was quite bad meaning it came almost to a standstill and thus allowed me to actually travel faster than the cars which was something that pleased me very much.

I stopped at the penultimate town before the border, and nipped into a bakery in order to nab my last French baguette and the lady actually gave it to me for free. Seeing my bicycle and maybe the fact that I was paying with a card for one baguette perhaps persuaded her.

I hadn’t attempted any hills for three days now and so I had to get my legs and lungs back into the groove of things. Cycling on, and seeing the Pyrenees in the distance lifted me no end and I was able to reach Hendaye by five, the last town before the border. I stopped at a cemetery here to fill up my bottles before heading on other the western side of town, across the river and into Spain, country number 5! I was delighted. I had made it. This could be done and I was in fact doing it. Maybe I could reach the other side of the world after all? Let’s get out of Europe first though, one step at a time.

I had hoped to reach the city of San Sebastian today, but with it being another 25 km’s away and already half eight, I knew I would have to find somewhere to camp for the evening. I found a golf course where I could sit undisturbed to cook my dinner and having done that, popped it securely in my pannier so I could eat it later on in the warmth of my tent.

Cycling back towards the highway, and upon making my way through a roundabout, a van pulled over in front of me, leaving the hazards on. Cycling up behind it, the man had gotten out and waved me to stop and so I pulled over to see what the problem was. He asked me where I was going and so I told him San Sebastian after which he asked if I’d like to come with him to where he lived. It was already half nine and I didn’t want to entertain the thought of cycling on the highway at this time and so I said yes without too much hesitation. He seemed like a nice guy and his van had something about an ecology business written on the back and so I knew it wasn’t just a plain old white van that had invited me home with him but something that could be tracked and so felt a little safer. I followed him down the highway and then off at a roundabout, up a hill and onto a piece of land where three or four large buildings stood. After he and his daughter, which made me feel a little more comfortable, got out of the van and I pulled up, he told me he lived with a community, much like a commune. With this statement I thought it might be filled with people simply living together, growing their own food and inherently living off the land. This was indeed the case but, when he started talking about “our lord, love and finding happiness”, I knew something wasn’t quite as it seemed.

I said I had already cooked my food but he insisted I eat the food they had prepared earlier for their religious feast and so I felt obliged to do so. The women in the kitchen of the main house set out a plate with a huge salad on it which was accompanied by homemade pizza and bread. It was all very delicious; everything being grown on the land, the vegetables, fruits and the grains, even the chicken I was now consuming like a beast. It was delicious.

About eighty people lived there, and even though they were all very religious and talked about how they had all found happiness living together, It was all very nice and very welcoming, this being my first night in Spain. I tried hard though not to ask difficult questions about the bible and thus relaying my beliefs, but as their guest, I thought it best not to do so.

They invited me to their ‘gathering’ that happened at 6 am every morning in which they all got together in the main house, sang songs 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 about not waking up 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.

When I eventually rose from my slumber, I walked over to the main house where they served me with fresh yogurt from their own goats, berries from the trees on the land and strawberries picked from the gardens outside. I was given some kind of milky coloured liquid that equated to chai tea although I knew it was nothing of the sort. This I didn’t enjoy so much but, again I felt obliged to wolf it down.

A young Hungarian guy I was chatting the most with then showed me around the vegetable patches, fruit trees and where the animals were kept and I found It all very enlightening, particularly watching them milk the cows by hand. Indeed most things were done by hand and the only electric things I saw were the cookers in the huge kitchen and the various sockets in the walls; they live a very unhindered, simple life I thought.

By ten, I wanted to get going though as I really did want to get to San Sebastian as I had heard it was a great place to spend a couple of days with extraordinary nightlife and music and I was determined to treat myself a little as a reward for making it to my fifth country.

Having reached the centre of San Sebastian without too much difficulty, I had to now find a place to stay. I was thinking about booking an actual bed in either a hostel or a cheap hotel but in the end I decided against it and opted instead for the campsite situated 5 km’s west of the city.

Had I known it was up, possible the longest and steepest hill I have yet encountered on this trip thus far, I might have decided otherwise. It needed a herculean effort in order to reach the top. I was shattered. After a hard days cycling already under my belt, I still had a long and steep 3km climb ahead of me right at the end of the day. How could it be! I had to continually start and stop as I was breathing heavily and sweating litre’s of water. There were great views to be had along the way but I’m not sure if this made it worthwhile. I swore to myself that if it was over ten Euro’s, I would try to barter the price down, indicating the climb I had to endure.

Arriving there, I found the reception closed and so went ahead and set up my tent anyway. After an hour and a half, no one had come round to check the tents and so I thought I would travel back into town. Indeed, looking at the tariffs on my way out, and seeing it was fourteen euro’s, I felt in no position to search out the owners.

I arrived back at the campsite at around half ten later that evening a little tipsy from the four beers I had drunk before. He actually only charged me 2 Euros for them which was a nice touch. Im getting perhaps too much generosity everywhere I go. It’s unnerving. Anyway, I diverge. When I got back I found the gates closed and so I had to actually climb over and then pull my bike over too. I heated my cous cous that I had made the previous evening and had a good nights sleep.

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