One of my main reasons for moving from Australia to England was to experience Europe in all its summer glory. After the success of my Northern England ride, I quickly devised another trip. This time the journey would span over five weeks, taking me over 2500km from England through France, Spain and into Portugal.
On arriving to the port of Portsmouth I was feeling confident after Cadel Evans had finally won the Tour de France for Australia. I was feeling even more buoyant after surviving the commute through the chaotic traffic of London, bouncing off numerous red buses on my way from Kings X to Waterloo stations. Once in Portsmouth I found myself taking my first swim in an English beach, soaking up the warm salty sea while the teenagers looking after my bike hoped in vain that I would buy them alcohol. In the evening I found myself a scenic camp spot perched along the medieval walls of Southsea Castle.
The following morning the Norman Arrow took me across the channel to Le Havre. The frantic roads coming out of the port city were made up by a lunch stop in the gorgeous historical harbour of Honfleur. I was buzzing as I peddled through the rolling hills of Normandy. I managed to reach Pegasus Bridge before sunset, where the US 101st Airborne Division captured the strategic site on the eve of D-Day. As I set up my tent I started chatting to an inquisitive French fisherman, whose disbelief at my journey was matched by myself when he gave me his fish for dinner!
The next morning after a couple hours on the bike I visited the historical sites of Caen. Afterwards, I returned to the coast to visit the first of many British cemeteries at Hermanville s-Mer. The rest of the day was spent cycling along the roads and promenades of Sword, Juno and Gold beaches. Peddling along the sandy roads near Arromanches, I met a nice Parisian couple -Sego and Jean-Paul- who were cycling to their London teaching positions, and together we camped for the evening in a French field. Sharing our various foods from our pannier bags, we managed to scramble together a typical French feast with lots of cheeses.
Returning to Arromanches alone the next morning, I got a closer look at the remains of Mulberry Harbour and The Landing Museum. Later in the morning I spent a bit of time at the 150mm German gun ruins at Longues-sur-Mer, then turned inland to Bayeaux. After lunch under the spectacular Norman gothic cathedral I did the obligatory viewing of the Bayeaux Tapestry which recounts the Norman conquest of Englandin 1066. Once I had reached the coast again I also visited the Normandy American Cemetery, a familiar sight from the film Saving Private Ryan. My next target of the day was to get myself clean, so with a bar of soap I splashed into the beach of Omaha, with French holidayers looking on in shock. As I continued riding on to Pointe du Hoc the golden colours of the sun falling over the wheat fields was just magical; and on arrival I couldn’t have hoped for a better camp spot next to a German artillery bunker overlooking the English Channel. As I sat on the bunker enjoying my croissant and nutella dinner, I reflected on the tragic history along the Atlantic Wall.
The next day I visited Utah beach, then turned inland through the undulating hills towards Coutances. As I enjoyed another French sunset in the shade of a spectacular cathedral a lovely French girl came over for a chat, and within minutes she had kindly invited me back to her apartment for a shower and dinner. Mathilde was a fabulous host, and as well as provide a home for the night she cooked some delicious French meals and took me on a walking tour of her city.
I left Coutances around 5pm the following day, and rode on all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel. The roads were again a pleasant mix of flat and rolling hills across corn and wheat fields, and it was brilliant cycling through familiar village names from The Second World War. I had to chase the sun to get to st-Michel before it was too dark, and despite the flood of tourists I think it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. After exploring the site in the dark, I set up my tent next to three Parisians in a construction field with the abbey glowing on the nights horizon.
After a few hours exploring Mont St-Michel in the morning, I continued riding through farmlands and along the coast, stopping for Breton crepes in the port town of Cancale. The roads stretching into St Malo were packed with people spending the day at many of the gorgeous beaches along the route. The beach promenade going into St Malo was really beautiful, and I also spent an hour or so cycling through the cobbled streets of the fort district. Most of the afternoon I was completely lost, but it was such a nice city I didn’t mind one bit… I eventually found the right road and managed to find a campsite by a dam just south of La Rachidais.
The next day was full of hard riding through Brittany, finishing in the medieval town of Josselin. I found it a struggle to find my rhythm in the morning, and it took countless croisonts and strong coffees to get peddling. I had cycle paths most of the way into Dinan, whose beautiful Breton architecture kept me marvelling for over two hours. South of Dinan the roads became noticeably quieter, and it was relaxing cycling through fields being harvested. When I finally reached Josselin I cooked up a nice meal and drank some Bordeaux wine in Notre Dame Place, and the numerous people wishing me ‘bon appétit’ made me appreciate the French language more than ever… cycling along the River Oust I admired the Chateau before finding a discrete camping place between the river and a corn field.
The next day was both the furthest distance and the cheapest… for a 138km ride I spent a total of €1.86! For the first time I also didn’t have a proper map, and with just some notes from a Google map search I managed to get to Nantes. Arriving as the city was falling asleep, I stumbled across Place Royale where I cooked up some meat with my gas stove for a small group of homeless people. I reluctantly turned down their offer to sleep with them on the street over the night, and because of that it took me until after midnight to find somewhere to set up my tent. When I set up I noticed that the building did look strange; but it was still a shock when I woke to find people observing me through the window of a huge gym!
The next couple days were spent rushing to La Rochelle to meet another cycle tourist. Along the way I rode with a nice French couple along Breton farm fields, and shocked an elderly French lady when she came across a naked bloke having a bucket shower in the backyard of her apartment complex! She nevertheless apologised for disturbing me, and wished me a bon voyage! After I met Xina outside La Rochelle train station we cycled to the island of Ile De Re, camping between sand dunes by the beach. Xina had previously cycled for six months from Cambridge to Kenya to raise money for Kenyan schools, and we would spend the next three weeks cycling together to Santiago de Compostela. After exploring much of Ile De Re and La Rochelle the next day we continued our ride south, setting up camp under the lights of the impressive engineering feat of Le Pont Transbordeur.
In Royan we took the short ferry across to Pointe de Grave, keeping us on the intertwined cycle paths down the Atlantic coast. The quality of the cycle paths all the way down to the Basque region was incredible, taking us through countless forests and beachside villages. Our days were spent eating wild blackberries with porridge for breakfast, cycling throughout the morning before stopping in a beach for a swim during the heat of the day. Afterwards we would cycle on until we found a good place to stealth camp. Occasionally we would stumble across picturesque sites like Dune du Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe, which provided stunning views of the coastline.
In Contis-plage we met an American cycle tourist called Dan, and together he joined us for three days to the Spanish border. Entering the French Basque region we were shocked at the dramatic changes in both the architecture and culture. With the impending Pyrenees in the distance, we explored charming towns such as Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. In St-Jean plage Dan left us for his route over the mountains to Barcelona, while we cycled on over the border to a dramatic end to the flat cycle paths since La Rochelle!
After visiting the medieval streets of Hondarribia we began our first steep ascent up Mt Jaizkibel. The views across the valley were spectacular, and when we discovered a lookout near the summit we knew it was time to get off the bikes and take in the stunning sunset view over a cup of tea. The evening was spent admiring the views, drinking beer with a road tripping French couple, and watching a strange Spanish Christian ritual on the summit!
The next day we descended into San Sebastian, where we cycled along the beach promenades and explored the beautiful streets. After a 2km swim across the bay we satisfied our appetite with various gastromautic delights in the form of Basque tapas, or pinxto’s. It was the perfect way to sample the best of San Sebastian cuisine as we watched the sun drop over the picturesque bay.
Over the next two days we cycled along the coast through Guernica and Bilbao, before turning inland towards the Camino de Santiago. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was truly stunning (making all that research I had done for a previous partners architecture essay all worthwhile), and I had never felt more European listening to a jazz band in a café next to the museum. The cycling inland really made us appreciate the subtle changes in the landscape, from lush coastal roads to the arid interior of Spain. These changes were noticeable after each mountain climb, especially the tough 1000m climb of Puerto de la Mazorra.
After two days we reached Burgos, where we joined the Camino to San Sebastian. That night we camped in idyllic farm fields, and sleeping on top of my tent I woke to see wild dear skipping along the grass in the distance, and hear pilgrims make their way along the ancient road. Each day we tried to cycle three pages of our mapped walking guidebook, stopping in historic religious towns along the way. I was beginning to get pins and needles in both my hands, and within days I was experiencing constant numbness and loss of feeling. It was becoming difficult even to brush my teeth or go to the toilet! Over the remaining week I tried to maintain different hand positions on my handlebars, and within a few days I was relieved to get most of my feeling back in my hands.
One morning we had to climb two mountains, and soon after Collado de las Antenas (1515m) both my brake pads failed me! I had been slack in maintaining my bike, and between us we didn’t have any spare pads. We quickly tightened my brakes for emergencies, and I decided to use my right shoe for the 900m descent over the next 14km. Xina cautiously rode behind me, and pilgrims looked on in disbelief as I slid through towns unable to stop. As I pushed my leg down on each switchback, by shoe soon disintegrated. I was so relieved when I finally got to Molinaseca, where we fortunately ran into the Dutch couple Hans and Alie who thankfully donated one of their spare brake pads. The new brake was enough to take us along pleasant country roads to the town of Villafranca del Bierzo, where we stayed the night to wait for the bicycle repair shop to open the next morning.
In the coming days we quickened the pace to reach Santiago, taking in more beautiful scenery along the way. One highlight was a four hour climb, followed by an exhilarating 12km descent from the peak of Alto do Poio (1337m) into the town of Triacastela. When we finally arrived in Santiago we spent the morning in the shadow of the cathedral, and then celebrated the end of our ride together by spending the last of our kitty money in the historic Café Casino. It was hard saying goodbye, and I continued cycling south into Portugal alone.
It was strange camping alone once again, and on two evenings with the light closing in around me I hastily camped on private property. Portugal, however, provided the best riding of the trip through scenic valleys and along the Lima River (where I was impressed with the Roman Bridge in Ponte de Lima). The medieval cities of Braga and Guimaraes were also a delight to explore.
As I cycled into Porto over the River Douro I could not believe my trip was coming to an end; I felt compelled to cycle on down through Western Africa, and I regretted having to return to the classroom in England to teach! Throughout the afternoon I sat drinking glass after glass of port, watching the colours of the city change across the river. Then around midnight I met Johannes, who had cycled from his home in Germany- after more wine by the riverside we slept under the stairs of an apartment block. I had never felt more homeless in my life, but it was the perfect way to spend my last night before the flight home the following day.
To see the best of the trips photographs click here!
Kilometres cycled: at least 2500 (my speedometer broke after 1000km)
Longest day: 138km
Shortest day: 12km
Days off the saddle: 0
Shoes destroyed: 1
Paid accommodation: 2 nights
Clothes washed: once
Cheapest day: €1.86
Number of deer seen: 3
Number of near death experiences: 2
Terrorised by dogs: twice