Spain

The descent into Berreota, Spain, was as delightful as the morning’s climb. Hairpin switchbacks, one after the other, into a mountain valley with a big river, a highway, and an old, abandoned railroad grade with a cool, long, curved tunnel. I slept at a picnic area beside it between the railroad grade and he river, which had a suspension bridge walkway over to the highway. I knew no rain was forecast, so I skipped the tent and woke up to a heavy frost. I wrote my son Tim a long e-mail from inside my sleeping bag waiting for the sun to hit my camp. Still, I had to dry out my sleeping gear at lunchtime.

The day’s route started on the old railroad grade along the river, then took me over another gorgeous mountain pass. If yesterday’s pass was like Vermont, today’s was like Colorado. It’s two tunnels were closed to bicycles, so I was obliged to take the old road, an extra 18 kilometers and an extra 200 meters in altitude (860 meters at the top). Hardly any traffic (the occasional propane truck, barred from the tunnel), and another gorgeous, peaceful lunch spot at the top, this time with snow around but sunny enough for a nap out of the wind. I’m in heaven. My nap was interrupted by suddenly heavy traffic, both cars and trucks. I figured the tunnel was closed, an accident or something, and sure enough, when I reached the bottom a police roadblock was directing traffic onto the old road. The descent, with hairpin switchbacks one after the other, big trucks sharing the narrow road, and the occasional icy patch, was a white-knuckle affair. Another kind of heaven for Billy.

Now that I have visited Francis and Irene, I find myself lacking an immediate destination. Looking at the big map, I haven’t progressed very far toward Hong Kong in six weeks. Zooming in, there’s a lot of inviting destinations. Gibraltar and Morocco are ten days and a €65 ferry ride away, and I’ve always wanted to see both. But the accident, and then adding Amsterdam to the itinerary have already set me back and hurt my budget, and a trip to Morocco could do more.

I’ve also realized that visiting big cities is costly, in terms of money and time, compared to camping in the countryside.

Which is what I’ve been doing for five days now. Two mountain campsites were up in the Pyrenees, with heavy frost. the first I have described; the second was in an unused pasture, and had all the ingredients: hidden from view, wind break, morning sun, soft grass underneath and perfectly flat. Not always easy to find an hour before sunset. After dinner, reading (re-reading, actually) Rene Descartes’ “Discourse on The Method…” on my phone, I was struck with a clarity of purpose and a determination to take action. This happens to me now and then. I wish it would happen more often and last longer when it does.

At any rate, it caused me to abandon my southward course toward Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar and Morocco, and turn east, through the desert and mountains to Barcelona. There I’ll take a ferry to Italy and continue east toward my goal, Hong Kong.

Now, three days later, I am at my third desert campsite. The first, in a pine grove on a ridge, was windy but nice. When I had nearly found it, far from the village below and high up on a rocky path, I met with a very old man walking with his cane, a Basque farmer by the looks but neat and clean in a beret and wool coat. We had few words in common, “Hola,” and, “America.” “Bueno”, he said, and gestured with his cane toward the whole scene; sunset, valley, mountains, tiny village with church tower and lights winking on in the homes. We stood for a long while in silence. He tapped my pannier with his cane and pointed it toward the pines. Then he gripped both my arms and looked me in the eyes. “Via con Dios!” he said, and smiled. We parted, and after a few steps turned and waved a small wave, nodding our heads in understanding.

Next day the wind blew me 110 kilometers through tiny desert villages, past monasteries, irrigated crop land, mesas and arroyos, crumbling hilltop forts. I washed up at a gas station rest room miles from nowhere, then had a beer in a village cantina with some old men at 11:00AM.

I avoided ridge top campsites that night and sought the shelter of a pine grove on the south side of the hill. Still, the wind raged and shook my little tent all night long. Up before sunrise and on the road early, I had another long ride with the wind, including a section on a primitive mountain road, hardly more than a trail. The snow-capped Pyrenees were distant now and the road flat and smooth. The desert is starting to give way to vineyards and olive groves, still irrigated. Tonight I found an empty stone hut in an olive grove, ancient but still in use, four meters square with a low door, a single small window, and a fireplace. I don’t dare attract attention by making a fire, but the wind rages out there and I am cosy and warm, using the hearth to cook rice on my alcohol stove.

Sorry, no photos this time. I’m uploading using my European phone, which is a bit too slow for that. Next time

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Francis & Irene

I have been the lucky recipient if much excellent hospitality on this trip so far. France has saved the best until last. The few days I have spent in this home in Saint-Jean-de-Luz have been so fine, so memorable, that I am devoting an entire post to describing the experience.

Francis and Irene are the parents of my good friend Maude, whom I have known for 14 years, and parents-in-law to Philippe, my very close friend for 20 years now. Since about 1998 Francis and Irene have visited New York City at Christmas time. At first we shared greetings, then sometimes wine or dinner, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood where I sell Christmas trees. A few years ago the whole family (now with teenaged grandchildren Enzo and Eva, my buddies and interpreters) visited my Vermont home for the holidays. What a party that was!

After successful careers as restaurateurs in Versailles, they retired to Irene’s home town, a beautiful resort on southern France’s Basque Atlantic coast. They transformed an ancient stone farmhouse into a more-than-elegant home, where they have developed the art of living the good life to a high degree. Francis plays Pétanque (similar to Bocce) at a high level, and will even modestly admit to being a former national champion. Deep sea sport fishing is another of his passions, as is food and wine. Irene leads a full life with close friends and relatives nearby, often at her table. She walks a lot, and takes seriously long hikes each week with her group in the nearby Pyrenees. Fresh local bread, seafood, cheeses, vegetables, fruit, meat and wines, all simply and elegantly prepared, grace their table three times each day. Perhaps this all helps to explain why, at an age that many dread reaching, they are full of the joy of living, still in love, and look far younger than their years.

Francis and Irene are gifted hosts, and their home sees many guests. My son Henry was one a few years ago, spending three months learning French. I was very pleased to meet his friend Aldo, a retired hotelier and Francis’ comrade. Now my friend too, Aldo drove me to town in his immaculate VW Rabbit (on a day when we had rabbit for dinner, good for a few laughs) to get parts so that I could repair Irene’s bicycle, the only little bit of a chore I was allowed to perform during my stay. Aldo introduced me around as “Henri’s Papa!”

Pleasant, extended mid-day meals were spent with Irene and Francis, Aldo, and Irene’s friends Dani and Marie Claire. An afternoon excursion to nearby San Sebastian, Spain, with the whole crew, ended in classic style at an upscale restaurant’s outdoor table. The waiter seemed to treat us with special attention and care. A bicycle tourist rolled slowly by eyeing our table. Now I was on the inside looking out, sipping my wine and laughing with my party, not a care in the world.

Some years ago I took an interest in the life of Louis XIV, reading an excellent book about his life and reign (the longest reign in the history of European monarchy), and it was here near the border he was married to Maria Theresa of Spain. Always extra agent in gesture, he ordered the church door walled up after he passed through with his new wife. Irene showed me that walled-up door, much larger than I had imagined. I read in that book how Louis XIV had, next morning, stood at his bedroom window and for an hour threw newly-minted gold francs to the townspeople below. Irene showed me that window.

Next day I went shopping with my hosts. Not to a supermarket. First the busy fish house, where we were well greeted. I can’t remember seeing a more extensive selection or a more beautiful layout. Another warm welcome at the cheese vender, more beauty and variety, history and tradition. And again at the butcher shop, the bakery, the vegetable man, the fruit stand. Each one knew Irene and helped her make the careful choices that form a part of her kitchen magic. Francis and I lugged around a week’s worth of provisions, setting them down only to remove our hats and shake hands with the many locals who seemed delighted to meet Henry’s Papa, the American cyclist.

I thought I would spend two nights here. My friends’ sincere objections kept me here two more. They sent me off with the ingredients for success: bread, cheese, fruit and wine.

My ride this morning was among the best I have had, ever. Three hours to the top of the Venta Liziaerta, sort of like the Lincoln gap, for you Vermonters. I chose this pass because it seemed like the road less travelled. Town gave way to farms and villages, then forest, roadside springs, mountain sheep meadows, and finally a rocky summit. I’m sitting here now in the sun, France spread out below to the north, Basque Spain
to the south. An old stone customs border control hut sits unused, doors bricked over, stone pillars for the old gate still standing close to the narrow road. Hawks circle; the only sound the tinkling of sheep bells as they graze in the meadows below. My belly is full, and my climbing done for the day. I suppose a little wine wouldn’t hurt anything.

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Good water

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Francis

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Irene

Bordeaux to Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Today my tour took on a whole different character. Sunny, in the forties, I rode all day in my favorite outfit: wool tights and wool jersey. Gloves off at midday for the first time. Even too warm for the Fedora. A tailwind blew me through the suburbs of Bordeaux and soon I was in flat farmland, then managed forests of Scotch pine or similar species. Instead of wondering when I would ever get to the next town to warm up, I was saying, “What, here already?” For adventure, I took an unpaved road, a 10k shortcut to save a few kilometers. Good halfway, it turned to unridable sand, hard to push through. It was over soon; I didn’t save any time, but with my plan to camp tonight, time was not an issue. I made ten more kilometers than I had planned anyway.

Every so often an inviting logging road appeared on the left or right. When the sun got low and I felt some chill in the air, I picked one at an edge between field and forest, so that the morning sun would hit my campsite. Bread, cheese and fruit for dinner. The soil is sandy and dry, covered with pine needles. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A little walk showed me tracks and signs of small deer and large wild boar. These feral pigs are not the giants that menaced medieval peasants, but they are big enough to be a danger. Usually wary of contact, they will attack if you are on their established trails.

I really have the urge to chronicle lately. My only human contact today was at the grocery store. It’s dark now and my tent is lit by this little screen as I type. It is not yet 8:00PM but I will be asleep soon.

Next day now (Friday, February 17). This morning I awoke at dawn and was pedaling an hour later. More flat and beautiful woodland, much of it on a smooth new bike path away from the roads. Late in the afternoon, however, this paradise gave way to seaside tourist land, off-season. Rows of giant hotels and crowded boutique avenues, it reminded me of the Jersey shore, right down to the style-challenged vacationers and occasional surfer bum. And this was when It was time to find a campsite. When I heard the surf, I made my way toward the Atlantic and was awed by the horizon, as I am always awed by the ocean when it appears. I watched a lone surfer catch two ten-second waves in fifteen minutes (admirable dedication) and proceeded south. I consulted the oracle (Google maps) and soon found paradise, a municipal forest of huge oaks and sandy trails. The sign said no camping, but it was in French, which assured me that I would not be disturbed by French campers. I got set up by dark and cooked pasta, which I had carried half-way around the world for this occasion. Magically, I could hear the distant surf, but not the nearby highway. This was Capbreton, France.

In the morning I took my time, letting the sun dry my sleeping bag and tent before setting off. This tent is my first “single-wall” design, which means that instead of lightweight walls with a separate rain fly, it employs a breathable waterproof fabric, like Gore-Tex. Advantage: lightweight simplicity. Disadvantage: condensation. Last night’s cold temperatures (frost), even with vent and door open, produced wet interior walls, all from my breath. Condensation around the hood of my sleeping bag is normal in any small tent. I am preparing some separate “Technical Information” pages for gear enthusiasts where I will review my equipment (which I call my “kit” to honor my British friends I miss so much), so that’s enough for now.

Saturday’s ride brought me to Bayonne, which surprised me with its beauty and charm. I lunched by the downtown river waterfront (carrots and clementines) while a carnival, complete with costumed revelers and musicians, filled the air with happy sounds.

In the afternoon I encountered the first significant hills since England, and the massive Pyrenees appeared in the distance. I am happy to report that only five weeks since my accident left me feeling feeble, my legs are like pistons and simply obey my commands without complaint, and it takes a good long hill to get me huffing and puffing.

I arrived at the home of my good friends Francis and Irene a bit early, and here I sit in their sunny dooryard awaiting their arrival. The mountains loom closer now to the south and on the other side, Basque Spain. I will stay here a few days to visit my friends, clean my bike and rest my bones. Thanks for checking in.

Billy Takes a Train

All right, enough is enough. I will happily trade foot pain for budget pain. The train to Bordeaux set me back $80 and transported me to balmy, rainy, above-freezing weather near the coast. I had a two hour wait for the train, and when it came in I was on the wrong side of the tracks. Such an American idiot. I hustled down the stairs, through the tunnel and up the other stairs with my 90 pounds of bike and gear. Just barely made it, but I accidentally boarded the first class car, which had no exit to the other other car, and no provisions for bicycles. I was tolerated politely for half an hour, until a drunken Polish euro-trash punk, big and abusive, emerged from the bathroom and started his loud show. He started bothering a young woman a bit too much for my comfort, so I stood and told him to back off. He came at me, but it was easy to dodge his drunken lunge, and soon I had him back in the bathroom. Then I was popular! A stout fellow posted himself at the bathroom door and called the next station on his phone. I played my mandolin and ate ate the snacks they offered, and let the little kids play with my mandolin. At the station two smiling, laughing cops bowed to me, shook my hand, whacked the Pole on the head with their gloves like he was a bad dog, and took him away. The passengers insisted on unloading my bike for me. I would like to report that the young woman gave me a kiss, but…

Bordeaux is beautiful. All these French cities are beautiful. Wandering around I found a luthierie, a violin restoration specialist, a one-man shop. In my experience, this kind of craftsman can be a little cold and distant with visitors. Not this guy. His bit of English and my bit of French weren’t getting us very far at first, and there were some uncomfortable silences. Then we started to simply name famous violin builders and pantomime our admiration or disapproval. Then musicians. He is a big fan of Doc Watson. The fellow was so nice, and had such a beautiful shop, I wanted to end my travels and work there, rehairing violin bows and restoring cellos.

I’m staying with Lydie, a woman who takes bicycling holidays all over the world and doesn’t ride much otherwise. She is a great cook and photographer. Here is her blog:

http://en-vadrouille-ailleurs.over-blog.com/

It is in in French but her pictures speak all languages. She makes me want to improve my photos, and I will try harder now.

While Lydie was at work this morning, I stayed home with Fifi the dog and did some e-mails and WarmShowers planning. Trying to update the software on my phone so I could use the new CouchSurfing app, my phone crashed and died. It made me realize how much I rely on this little thing. (I finally got it going again, but lost all my music, photos, and [replaceable] apps). My contacts and calendar and e-mails were backed up in the cloud.

I make a map with each day’s route the night before, and consult frequently with a GPS fix. It is no problem getting from city to city, but finding my host, hotel or hostel would be quite time consuming without it. Plus, I use the phone to do this blog, take my few photos, e-mail my kids and everybody else, find places to stay, translate language, convert currency and metric measurements, get weather reports and news, tune my mandolin, pay bills and do my banking, Skype phone calls, and buy stuff. Of course a man can ride his bike around the world without all this help, many have, but I have to admit that if I lost this gizmo, it wouldn’t be long before I secured another.

I believe that Bordeaux is the last big French city I will see. For the next few days I will travel down the coast to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where I will for the first time visit old friends, Francis and Irene, parents of my dear friend Maude Bonsingnour. I plan to camp now that it is warmer (38F today). A big change from the gourmet food, fine wine and luxurious surroundings here at Lydie’s home.

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Another Post From France

Thank you all for the comments and e-mails. I look for them every day and I really love them.

You say you want more frequent posts? OK, will do.

You say you want more pictures? OK, I’ll try. I’m not much of a picture-taker, and this phone is all I have. Here’s a photo of the way to my hotel tonight:

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I’m in Blois, in the Loire Valley, valley of the kings, as it is called, with castles to show for it. Many castles. Blois, which I never heard of before, is a town on a hill overlooking the river, vineyards, castles. Its pretty big, and older than old. I’m in a tiny room high up in a fifteenth century hotel downtown. Except for the radiator and sink it looks like the fifteenth century, too. And I love this radiator! I froze my ass today; heading west toward the coast now, my tailwind became a side wind. Sundays the only thing open is the church and the boulangerie; I stopped at every one. Still I made it here by sundown and looked around before checking in. Great town.

Last night my hosts were Eric and Rozenn. Eric is a banker who commutes to Paris, an hour on the train and ten minutes by bike at each end. (It took me two days to get here from Paris). He’s a long-distance cyclist, a randonneur, and has done 620 miles in two days, no sleep. Rozenn is a writer for the local paper and a novelist. Their kids are darlings and made me long for my grandchildren again Like many of my hosts, Eric guided me out of he city by bike in the morning. Bright sun, bitter cold.

My decision to visit Amsterdam before heading south is costing me time, money, and suffering on the bike. But I am learning a surprising amount of French language and history. I remember telling cyclists who visited me in Vermont all about Ethan Allen and Fort Ticonderoga. Frenchmen like to show me their local cathedrals and castles.

Careful readers of this blog will have determined that I will not reach Hong Kong by November at this rate. I don’t mind. I feel at home on the road now and could happily take two years (except for the budget and my commitment to Jane Street). Perhaps I will change my banner to “London to Moscow 2012”. Maybe I’ll take the train across Siberia, two weeks instead of three months. Maybe…a lot of possibilities. I haven’t played much music, and I haven’t use my dress clothes even once. As my money dwindles and my toes freeze I am eyeing warm third-world countries like Thailand and India. There seems to be few opportunities to earn money on the road but you never know.

Three Days of Paris

Lionel and Sophie are the greatest. Jules, 11, and his little brother Achilles (ah-SHE-lay), 8, are my pals. Who needs French when you’ve got Pokemon? Darling Adele, 5, gave up her room for me! Wild kids, super parents, hospitality to write home about (so I’m writing home about it!).

At their insistence, I stayed three nights. Learned a lot from them, about French, the train system, maps, wine (it must be “interesting”), more.

First morning I took the train to Paris. What a miserable day I had! I had three simple errands to do: change money and wire some home for Ellie to deposit in my account; find a replacement for my lost hat and tent footprint; and get my British cell phone working. I stomped around in the slush for hours and achieved nothing. Damn clerks rolled their eyes at my French, then sent me on wild goose chases, dead ends all. I couldn’t bring myself to spend $19 on a sandwich, so I didn’t eat. I handed out a euro to the first ten beggars then stopped. They all had dogs; by the end of the day I started saying, “Eat the damn dog!” Hustlers tried new hustles on me. I felt like an idiot surrounded by pickpockets eyeing me and jet setters carrying Chanel and Armani purchases to their swank hotels. Had to pay to piss. I think I saw Notre Dame–some big church with a crowd of Japanese tourists at the door. Missed my train stop and didn’t get back until late. That was my first day in Gay Paree.

An evening with the kids cheered me up. Next day I took the same train to Paris, like a commuter. Forgetting my errands, I walked this time through the various neighborhoods and came at last to the city center. Notre Dame Cathedral was worth the crowd. I went to the Louvre for a quick look and spent six hours there, enough time to see a small portion. I have still not quite recovered. I didn’t use the maps or guides but wandered aimlessly, mostly in the French and Italian sculptures and paintings. Yes, I saw the Mona Lisa, with my friends the Japanese tourists. I spent a long, long time transfixed by a giant painting of a feast by some Dutchman. The more I looked, the more I saw, until finally I felt that I myself had been to the feast and now I knew these drunken revelers. I got choked up and had to come back later, so glad to see my pals again. If I had had that experience at age 20, I would have devoted my life to art. That, and more, was my second day in Paris.

On the way back “home” to Lionel and Sophie’s, I bought a baguette and some fruit, and passed the evening delightfully with my hosts. Sophie seemed to effortlessly keep a beautiful home, cook wonderful food, even bake for the kids’ school event. When it looks that easy, you know it isn’t. Lionel efficiently found me the information I needed about routes, Warm Showers hosts, cheap hostels and hotels, and trains. I’m thinking about taking a train to the coast before this upcoming blizzard predicted in a few days. There it will be rain, which is easier to deal with.

Next day I took the same train to Paris, this time with my loaded bike. I rode around with some familiarity now, and saw the sights from the saddle. Dig these buzzwords: I had a fellow in a beret make me a crepe by the Seine at the Pont Neuf overlooking the Hall of Justice on my way to see the Arc de Triumph on the Champs Élysées. My first crepe. Made a wish. Hasn’t come true yet. I cycled out of town in the evening thinking about that painting. Thus concluded my three days in Paris.

Pressing Onward

In Compiegne I stayed with Jean Claude, the luckiest man in France. He’s retired, but his younger wife works. He spends six months a year or more bicycle touring, everywhere. He’s into jazz and photography. He appears to be 50 or 55; he’s 68. He speaks more English than I speak French, and we had no trouble. A warm fire, jazz, good beer–a fine evening.

I set out in the morning for Varies sur Marne, where a Warm Showers host was expecting me. Perhaps I should mention again that Warm Showers is a group of touring cyclists. Members offer a place to sleep, a warm shower, and often more, to other members. All have experienced two wheel travel, our common bond. They know what you need and the adventure stories are endless. My membership page includes photos of my family on our 1999 tour to Alaska aboard our “quad” (four-seater), which makes me somewhat of a celebrity in some homes. I e-mail a few days ahead and make arrangements. There are members in every city, hundreds sometimes; they are a bit thinner in the countryside. Their member page descriptions, sometimes short and sometimes in another language, are all I know about them before I arrive at their address and knock on the door. The e-mails and arrangements take time every day, but then so does camping (with no warm shower). When I slack off on that chore, I pay for it, either by camping or at a cheap hotel.

Tonight, Lionel and Sophie and their three kids, near a train station 40 kilometers from Paris; they have cycled in the Orient, Eastern Europe, and Turkey. Thirty more kilometers in this cold wind and I’ll find out more.