Into the land of cheese (and figs)

It took a great effort to evict ourselves from the comfort and homeliness of Ian and Mamiko’s place, but it had to be done… Not least to give them their space back before their next innundation of guests!

We decided to catch a train North to save cycling through the madness of Barcelona city, and so we found ourselves on the Costa Brava just as the sun was short of setting. The chance of finding a good wild-camping spot was minimal and the chance of us paying the 40€ that most campsites were asking for was even less likely. Eventually, in the dark we found a little corner for our tent, we probably shouldn’t have been there, but we blended in well and we were up before the sun and so before anyone could complain…

Next stop was the Pyrenees, and France. From a culinary perspective, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to cycling in France, mostly due to being offered several too many omelettes* back when family holidays were a thing. Hoping that the French had broadened their perspectives on vegetarian cusine and knowing that we rarely ate out in restaurants or cafés anyway, we pedalled up and onwards towards France regardless. Geography meant that we had little option as to the next country we could pedal through anyways. At least there would be no shortage of good cheese!

With stormy black clouds hovering over the mountains ahead, we checked the weather forecast and as we could predict with our own eyes, there was rain a-coming. And a lot of it. No sooner had we checked, big fat drops started falling from the sky. We found shelter under the corrugated iron porch of the closest supermarket, and ate our lunch**, moving incrementally further inside as the wind became stronger and blew the rain across the tarmac towards us. As we watched the supermarket trolleys being swept around the carpark we were thankful to receive a positive reply from warmshowers host Joan – he had a place we could come to stay about 25kms away, although he warned there would actually be no warmshower to have as the house was still mid renovation.

Knowing that the rain wasn’t going to stop we made a dash for it. The rain poured. It didn’t take long before water was creeping under our jacket sleeves and dripping down our necks. We laughed at what a ridiculous sight we must be: two heavily laden, rained-soaked cyclists ploughing onwards through the driving rain, water dripping from our noses… The laughter came more easily given that we were cycling towards shelter, if it hadn’t been for the kind offer of Joan we would probably have still been hanging out at the supermarket and not laughing quite so much.

Just as we stopped to check our bags were actually properly closed, a van coming the opposite way flashed his lights at us. The driver stopped and beckoned us over. As we approached we realised it was Joan – having heard flood warnings on the radio, he had aborted his afternoon of house renovations to come and find us (there was only one road from where we were towards Olot, and two cyclists touring bikes would be quite easy to spot).

We piled the bikes and our soggy wet selves into his car and he drove us the remaining 15km to his house. Naturally, as we drove and Pedro and Joan chatted about the local climbing spots, the rain became lighter and lighter, before finally stopping. Nevertheless, given that at this stage we were now quite cold, we were happy to have been rescued safe in the knowledge that we could soon change out of soggy wet clothes.

We were honoured to be the first people to sleep in the flat that Joan had been renovating – before even Joan and his girlfriend – even if it was like inside camping. After introductions to the pet guinea pig, a tour of the town and the local inactive volcano, we said our goodbyes and rolled out our sleeping mats careful not to damage any of the hardwork of Joan and his father.

On the advice of Ms Em, from previous Timily bicycling adventures, we were planning to cross into France at the Col d’Ares. Joan confirmed this was also a good crossing point as he had come the other way over it on his way back from Turkey some years before. A steep pedal on the first day, gave way to a gentler climb on the second day and we ate lunch in Spain for one last time.

Our route through France was unplotted, the only definite destination being Grenoble – but that was atleast 700km away by our calculations***. We had a few points on our map to join together thanks to cousin Ian’s love of canyoning, Pedro’s love of climbing and Joan’s local knowledge of the region. Through a game of dot-to-dot, our own attempts to stay in areas shaded green on our map, and taking the advice of people we met along the way (notably the lovely Maria who, after helping us find water, pointed us in the direction of a good swimming spot and *insisted* we make a diversion to Cirque du Navacelles), we weaved our way through the south of France.

The sun was still strong during the day, despite our efforts to avoid it by cycling North, and so our route through various gorges was chosen not just for the scenery, but also the bathing opportunities. Who knew that France had so many? The rivers we swam in were numerous and crystal clear, some more icy mountain fresh than others. We bathed so often there was little need to stay in a campsite or with a warmshowers host to take a shower… Or atleast we thought so… Maybe if we spent more time in the company of other people they would have disagreed.

Although the landscape was beautiful, we did have some struggles with cycling in France. These mostly concerned food and drivers which, considering we spend most of our time cycling in the road and eating, have quite an impact on our day-to-day lives.

The first shop we went into in France I wandered round for 10 minutes before leaving empty handed and in shock that everything was twice the price that it had been in Spain. There was so much fruit hanging from trees and in the hedges, that we resolved to only pick fruit along our way rather than buying their overpriced (and probably inferior) cousins. It was the perfect season for it, we feasted on blackberries, plums of all shapes and sizes and bags full of the juiciest figs – all far far tastier than their supermarket equivalents (we assume).

In Spain, I had been lulled into a false sense of security with the wide availability of reasonably priced gluten-free food, enough to keep any coeliac happy. In France this disappeared. If you were lucky you might find a small packet of pasta hiding on the shelves next to the cat food, or a sorry looking stack of rice cakes, but gone were the days of finding gluten-free tortillas, beer and maria cookies. It was not the end of the world, just a thump back to reality. It’s not like I’m expecting to find gluten free pasta in Mongolia, but I would have thought France could allow us to diversify our evening dinners away from rice and lentils just a little bit. At least there was no shortage of figs!

Which brings us on to the drivers. Those we came across were in general, in comparison to those in Spain, nuts. I don’t know how many times we were overtaken on blind corners on narrow mountain roads, passed so closely we could touch the cars, or honked at for apparently taking up too much space or going too slowly. I know I don’t have a driving license, but I’m pretty sure that is not what is recommended in the Highway Code…

Even the culture of fellow cyclists we passed had changed. From our experiences in all of the places we’ve both lived and cycled before, we were led to believe that there was a universal bicycling language of a smile, nod or a wave to any other cyclist that you passed.

I will never forgot the cyclist I used to pass everyday on my way to work in Lisbon : at first he wasn’t a smiler, but I made it a project to break him! Little by little, smile by smile, each and every morning we passed one another, eventually I got a smile and even a wave or a “bom dia” out of him everyday since. Success! Hopefully now he’s got his own project non-smiling cyclist to work on, to transmit a wave of cycling smiles even further across Lisbon!

We tried, we really did, to send a wave of smiles across the bicycle network in France, but it wasn’t to be! At the very least – it made the handful of ‘bonjours’ and cheers of encouragement that we did encounter, as we pedalled up hills with our ridiculous load, all the sweeter.

We endeavoured to meet some Frenchies to dispell the negative feelings we were having. Fear not, our fortunes were to change!

*Despite still being egg based, I have much less strong feelings towards tortilla. Somehow the Spanish eggy meal is redeemed by the high proportion of potato to egg.

** Who said our lunch spots were always scenic?

*** Our guestimates of how long it is going to take us to get to a place are very (un)scientific… We find the distance the from A to B on Google maps, then times by 1.2 to allow for the fact that we rarely cycle in a straight line, and divide by 60km to get the number of days we think it will take us to reach B. We actually more likely cycle 70kms a day…. But 60km gives more room for extra zigzagging.

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