Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bilbao to Castro Urdiales:

We planned a short day today so that we would have time to look around this beautiful port town, and go swimming.

The ride involved a couple of steep climbs, but there was little traffic and great scenery. It helps that the sun was shining all day. The pilgrim sightings have increased since Bibao. We were told by a Lithuanian pilgrim that the  albergues are getting pretty crowded. We wouldn't know first hand because I am travelling with some sort of Guccigreno. This is not the man I married. This new Gord likes Ibis hotels and breakfast buffets.  However, I am not complaining one bit!!  And there are still remnants of the old Gord.  He is for example still carrying a piece of bread purchased 5 days ago, "just in case we run out of food."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Gordon:  After an early morning climb over a minor pass, we spent most of the morning on a gentle downhill roll into Bilbao.  This region was an important industrial area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and there are some unattractive reminders of that era.  The last 30 kilometres into Bilbao was on a busy highway through an uninterrupted landscape of industrial enterprises and housing blocks.  However, Bilbao itself was a pleasant surprise.  It was wealthy during the 19th century, and most of the central district is comprised of beautiful buildings from this period.  There has been some redevelopment of former industrial land in recent years, so some unapologetically modern buildings are throw into the mix.  The best known of these is of course the Guggenheim museum, which really is quite a visual treat to walk around.  We did not actually view the contents of the Guggenheim, having already spent a considerable time in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.  This is the sort of regional art gallery we really enjoy, with a good survey of art since the medieval period, including minor works by major artists such as El Greco.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

San Sebastián to Elgoibar: Lessons in Navigation

Those lines really do look flat on the map! We continue to learn the same lessons but with even less forgiving terrain when you get it wrong. Those nice little back roads do nothing but climb up to mountains that need not be climbed in the first place. This morning we began climbing out of San Sebastián immediately, and when we turned off onto our chosen smaller road I was reassured to see a jogger also choosing the same road. It just couldn't be that steep, I thought, before we lost the mountain running superstar as he passed us and disappeared into the clouds. Instead of making any contours our little nightmare kept climbing and climbing. A local woman stopped her car to tell us to go down to the National road which was much easier and not busy.  She had probably never seen cyclists on her mountain road before. "N" roads were Marg's favourites in France and they are my necessity in Spain, at least in this area.

With our first challenging 9 kms completed, the rest of the day went well, with stunning seaside towns and beautiful mountain forests. If the weather holds out we will continue on the Camino del Norte until Santiago de Compostela, but I keep my plan B train schedules (south to the main Camino route) just in case. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Into Spain and onto the Camino del Norte: San Sebastián

We have entered Spain and are waiting out a rain shower before heading out of San Sebastián. There is something about me and rain on beach days. I was tired so we took a bus into the old town yesterday before walking back along the beach. Our walk was interrupted by a torrential 5 minute storm. We were instantly soaked with floating feet in our shoes - a category 10++ on the Ruth Rain meter.

After an amazing coast out of the Pyrenees we now have to work for many of our kilometres on this rugged landscape.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

L'hospital D' Orion to St-Jean Pied de Port and St. Jean to St. Pée sur Nivelle: the Pays Basque

Ruth and Gordon: We completed the Voie de Vezélay yesterday at the pilgrim Disneyland of St. Jean Pied de Port.  Suddenly we were no longer on a quiet route with just a few pilgrims. St. Jean is the starting point for many pilgrims from all over the world. At our Gite last night we shared a meal with French, Catalan, Italian and Dutch Pilgrims... Oh, am I forgetting someone Gord? Bruce? Yes, there was also a young Swedish pilgrim who for some reason Gord has mentioned several times.  He keeps mumbling something about stereotypes and some movies he watched in the 1970s.

This morning we said goodbye to Bruce and Marg who are taking the train to Bordeaux for a few days of R & R without those implements of torture (the bicycles).

We are currently in the Pays Basque, the French portion of the Basque region.  Cycling on small roads in the foothills of the Pyrenees this morning, it felt like we had indeed entered a new country.  The houses and the farms have a different appearance, and the strange alphabet soup of the Basque language appears everywhere.  This is an area with a variety of cheeses, many made from sheep's milk, as well as a famous red pepper.

Friday, July 25, 2014

St. Sever to Hospital d'Orion: Gluttony in the Gascony

Gordon:  After a few weeks of cycling there is no more welcome sight than a smorgasbord.  I do not believe they are a part of traditional French culture, but we have seen evidence (including advertisements and expanding waistlines) that they are becoming more common here.  In any event, we stumbled upon a buffet in our search for a lunch out today.  At 13 euros per person, including a 1/4 litre of wine and coffee, the price was right.  After informing the host of our intentions, we hurried to the spread of food to start the feast.  We were not really certain of the protocol, so Ruth in particular filled a large plate in case we only got one shot.  We were therefore quite surprised when our host came by to confirm that we wanted the main dish: a plate full of tender veal and rice.  We rose to the occasion, however, not neglecting the excellent selection of desserts.  We did have a few regrets later, as we struggled up a series of steep hills with our overfilled bellies, but as Swainson's says in ads for their TV dinners "it's good to be full."

We feel we earned our buffet experience today, as we have now cycled half of the distance to our destination of Santiago.  Our tripometer will turn over 1,000 kms tomorrow, which is also Bruce and Marg's last day of cycling.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Foie Gras and Truffles in Roquefort

Ruth and Gord:  In Sorgues, the self proclaimed black Perigord truffle capital of the world, we purchased 20 grams of the ugly brown mushrooms for 25€. While we were breaking the bank, we threw in a tiny 30 gram can of pâté de foie gras for 18€. Tonight was our first night since then with access to a kitchen, at the municipal refuge for pilgrims in Roquefort, so we finally had the opportunity to taste our treasures. "Geez it looks like cat food, " Gord remarked as we cranked open the can of foie gras. On a bit of toasted bread the greasy granules were actually pretty good, having a smooth, buttery taste.  Still, they are chunks of liver, so at 2€ per bite I believe our money may be better spent on wine or pastries.

We used the truffles in a simple omelette, a popular way to eat them.  Although the omelette was liberally studded with minced pieces of the expensive fungus, none of us could felt that their presence transformed the simple dish into ambrosia.  The truffles have a pleasant, smoky taste, but again, we would rather invest in a platter of the local chèvre shown in the photo above.

We entered the department of the Landes today.  Although we are 80 km from the sea, the soil in this region is almost entirely sand.  With limited farming value, the area was planted with pine trees in the mid-nineteenth century.  The result today is what is claimed to be the largest forest in Europe.  There was a period during which the pine trees were tapped for their pitch, but the major industry is now logging.  The region remains sparsely populated, but that presented us with no practical impediments as we sped along the quiet and almost entirely flat roads.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Moulin on the Water at L'Auvergne, Bernos-Baulac

There is really nothing better than sitting outside and eating a fabulous meal with our lovely French hosts  Clair and Jean Paul Meric. They are busy people with both a Gite and Chambres D'hotes. There property is set in the valley along a river and includes an old mill. They hope to have their own power generation soon. With all this to take care of they still open their home to Pilgrims passing on the route.

What a wonderful place.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Le Gite Jacquaire St. Ferme

We are in Saint Ferme staying at a wonderful Pilgrim Gite with our host and Hospitallero Dominique. This is the true pilgrim experience that we always hope for along the route. Dominique welcomed us with a cool drink and showed us around before starting preparations for our dinner. Dinner was a lovely multi course meal with wine and great conversation. After dinner Jean Claude came by to give us a personal tour of the Twelfth century Abbey. He comes by the Gite each night in case there are Pilgrims here to take them on a tour before he locks up the church for the night.

One of the most interesting details in this church are the signatures of the various stone masons on their stones. With a good flashlight we saw at least a hundred. 

I am so glad we stopped here; what a lovely surprise for our first night in  the Bordeaux region. The vines are everywhere now and the wine...lovely.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Le Tour de France through the fantastic small cities of South West France: Limoges, Périgueux, and now Bergerac.

When Marg made a toast at dinner last night both Gord and I thought she said, " to the end," but she was really toasting the "Ns" or well graded National highways we have been riding on for the last two days. In a hilly landscape they are much easier and the traffic has not been bad. There is a bit of a rush right at noon as people all try to race to their noon meal, but that is followed by two hours of relative calm.
The last couple of days we have been tracing the Tour de France route, but in reverse.  We have passed through a couple of beautiful small cities I had not even heard of.
Périgueux with its jaw dropping Byzantine style cathedral and medieval core.

Bergerac- the home of the literary love letter master Cyrano de Bergerac, with its half timbered houses and St Jacques church.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Limoges and no room for China!

We are in Limoges staying with the Sisters of Saint Francis de Assisi just a stones throw from the Cathedral. 

The Cathedral from our court yard.

As tempting as it might be, China and cycling trips are not a good combination. Too bad because there are lots of discount and high end shops here overflowing with lovely pieces.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Engaged leg muscles as we climb: Cluis- Garilesse Dampierre - St. Germain Beaupré - Benevent L'Abbaye - St Goussaud - Châtelus le Marcheix

Gargilesse Dampierre

Ruth: The last two days I have been reintroduced to my thigh muscles, especially to how they feel after big climbs. The flat land that we had previously has given way to steep river valleys and bigger hills. 
The rewards in scenery and sights have made up well for our efforts. 

Yesterday we visited Gargilesse Dampierre where there is an unusual 12th century fresco of Jesus with a knife in his mouth in the crypt of the church. He is described in this manner by John in the book of Revelations following his visions in the cave on Patmos, Greece.

After a lovely night at Maison Derran in St. Germain Beaupré we headed off this morning to visit 
Benevent L'Abbaye before heading on to our long climb up to St Groussaud. We were not expecting to climb almost to 700 m, lines look so much flatter on a map. The views at the top and the long coast down almost made up for the long, and as it turned out, completely unnecessary climb.
Near the top Gord and I performed an interpretive dance with fern fronds and ceremoniously renamed Marg "Dame Limosin du Mont."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Morning at the Menagerie and Evening with the Pilgrim's Share

Ruth: Last night it just poured again in Lignières and we were soaked to our skins walking back from town. Luckily there were enough amusements for us back at the L'Ange Blanc Chambres D'hotes while we dried out. This modern renovated ancient barn is home to a menagerie of animals. Budgies, nine cats, including a nursing mother with her five kittens, and a donkey. The fine balance of peace and harmony was kept not by Alain our host, but by the most outgoing and personable dog I have ever met. Yes mom, Tippy included!  When the dog wasn't picking up a kitten by the scruff of its neck or head (a bit terrifying) he was kissing the donkey. 

Marg: Ruth suggested that we buy food in town in the morning, but we neglected her wise voice of experience. When we arrived in Cluis the promised magasin was closed for Bastille day. No food. No wine. Unhappy Marg. Ruth to the rescue: she chatted up the women in charge of the pilgrim refuge.  One donated pasta sauce for our left over pasta and the other delivered breakfast eggs, local apple juice, homemade jelly and red wine now in our bellies. 

The house we are staying in is aproximately 12 feet wide, with a dryer that sounds like the voice of God ie loud. I just wish it had rained today with such an amenity, but today we are not soaked to the skin and hypothermic.

Bruce: I reluctantly but generously donated my two Camino chocolate covered peanut butter bars for our dessert. Unbeknownst to the typist Ruth I still have two in my bag.

Ruth: Le grand noir du Berry is a world famous breed of donkey from this area.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The brief return of our shadows: Neveres - Ferme Auberge des Pirodelles - Lignières

Yesterday twice I tried to take a picture of our shadows before the clouds moved in again.  Although there were some showers we had a beautiful ride, much of it along the tow paths of various canals.

Pont Canal over the d'Allier river.  A pont canal is a canal built into a bridge crossing above another river or valley.  They are remarkable examples of canal engineering.

We had full sun for a lovely picnic at Apremont Sur Allier, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. 

France is much more of a meritocracy than Canada. Every town is judged and only a few hundred make the plus beaux list. There are other competitions as well; one of them recognizes the quality of flower displays by rating them as one to four town des fleurs.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Premery to Nevers

Holy piss pot!  It was a category 10+ day for rain today. Meaning we were wet to the underpants and wringing the water out of our insoles with our numb and club like blue fingers. The rain stopped just as we entered the Espace Bernadette where we are staying in Nevers. It is also the resting spot of the mortal remains of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. We visited her earlier in the day and saw her tiny body and her wax coated face.

The town was named in honour of the many pilgrims who entered the town gates in the pouring rain uttering, "Never again" under their breath.

The weather is going to be better tomorrow!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

First days: Vézelay, Cervon, Premery

Auxerre to Vézelay: 53 km 
Vézelay to Cervon: 42 km
Cervon to Premery: 42 km

After our third day on the route we are managing to work out some of the kinks of jetlag and travel. The weather has been threatening and delivering some huge downpours, but we are mostly skirting the worst of it and loving each sunny break. 
Today was the unfortunate exception because it rained steadily - not quite a category 10 ( ie wet to the underpants), but definitely in the 7 or 8 range with soggy numb feet. The weather should be good on Saturday and last for awhile. Thank god!!!  I am roasty now at our chambres d'hotes in Premery.

I still swear by the App Pocket Earth for delivering to us some excellent cycling routes each day. There has been a combination of tiny paved country roads that curve up and down through sunflower fields and forests followed by long stretches on dedicated bike paths along the tow path of canal de Nivernaise. 

Last night we stayed with Mme et M. Mattieu in Cervon. They open their house to pilgrims on the route. It was a beautiful old Presbytery with wonderfully renovated in French country style. We were not expecting a meal but were surprised with a beautiful one. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Auxerre: Our starting point for our pilgrimage to Santiago

After three flights, a bike ride, and four trains we made it to Auxerre France, our starting point for this year's trip. The whole process was pretty long for one day, and as always, I am nursing a small pulled muscle from the train transfers. We have met up with our good friends Bruce and Marge who will ride with is for the first three weeks. The weather is not good for this week, but the wine cheese and company are excellent. Nous sommes bien installer dans le Masion des Randonneurs à Auxerre.