8 June – Costa Brava

8 June – Costa Brava

We sped away from Figueres this morning on easy roads (mainly C31) across flat countryside. Mostly farmland with wheat, corn and some olive trees. It was quite windy, which kept us cool.

We reached Palamos, about 80km away around midday.

I have never seen so many hotels in my life. The whole town consists of one high rise after another. It is ugly from the back. When you come round to the beach it is nice with white sands and a long promenade, palm trees; cafes and restaurants. There was also a cruise ship docked in the bay. We stopped for a coffee and then on our way again.

Between Palamos and Sant Feliu de Guixols it is continuous tourist entertainment area – we passed a fun fair, endless apartments; sex shops, other shops of all types, camp grounds etc etc.

From Sant Feliu de Guixols we found ourselves on a windy coastal road without much traffic or any buildings. This was a scenic route around the coast. At this point the coast falls away into cliffs down to the sea without beaches. The next 20km took us just as long as the first part of our ride, as it was a up and down climb around the coast. It was extremely pretty but also hard work.

As you can imagine we were pretty tired out by the time we reached Tossa de Mar – our ride was altogether 119km.

We were very pleasantly surprised by the town which, despite its name, is one of the most perfect seaside holiday towns I can imagine. If any of you are wanting to holiday on this coast; come here. See the pictures at http://www.tossademar.cat. We could easily spend more time here; but I am afraid we will be off in the morning again as Barcelona calls.

We have very basic accommodation here (a pension), in the old city. The city has medieval walls dating from the 14th century – they look like a castle next to the beach. The old city has wonderful shops to explore and many restaurants vying for your custom. We had a lovely meal, including Paella, in the old city – very reasonable and friendly service too.

So far we are finding Spain cheaper than France and Germany (which were already cheaper than NZ). The accommodation seems to be cheaper by around a third.

7 June – Surreal in Spain

7 June – Surreal in Spain

Today was another short distance ride – only 55km. However, we are at last in Spain!

We started out early at 8am as we were told the road was narrow and popular with tourists. We seemed to have beaten most of them as the traffic was light. The route was beautiful – winding all along the coast with vineyards and picturesque holiday towns. Also hard work, as it goes up and down all the time – so lots of hill climbs – making for some impressive views.

We crossed into Spain just after the town of Cervera and then stopped at Llanca for tourist info and coffee and a snack. From here we took the less scenic (but fast) road to Figueres. There was a bit of traffic but at least there was a shoulder to the road so we felt OK riding on it; unlike lots of the roads in south of France.

Figueres is the hometown of Salvador Dali, so we made a visit to the Dali Theatre-Museum a priority after we had found a hotel and cleaned up.

Highpoints:

  • The Dali museum – truly an experience with weird sculptures – some hanging off ceilings; huge painting on some walls and one on a ceiling. The museum is build on the site of an old theater and was designed by Dali himself.

Lowpoint:

  • Prostitutes again, sitting on plastic chairs in the middle of nowhere, on the road to Figueres.
6 June – Pyrenees mountain pass

6 June – Pyrenees mountain pass

Today we conquered the Pyrenees, but we have not yet arrived in Spain. We are in the town of Banyuls sur Mer – a holiday seaside town.

This morning we were expecting an up and down coastal road into Spain. This is how the road started. However at one point it seemed to turn into a highway (going through a tunnel) and we opted for the mountain side route. This turned into a major climb up to at least 500m (later found out this was the Tower Madeloc road). Once we though we had reached the summit and went down a few hundred meters we turned a corner to see another climb to the next summit. It was an adventure with views like we have never seen – the coastal town, castles, vineyards with stone wall terraces and sea. This road was so narrow it was hard for two cars to pass and there was very little traffic. Also no other cyclists, but a few trampers.

We had a long and slow (winding) descent to Banyul arriving at around 2.30pm. By this point Jenny had had enough cycling for the day so we found a hotel in the middle of the town. The owner is very friendly and presented us with the specialty Banyul aperitif, which is a bit like Port, to relax us after our long ride. We had some more with our picnic supper on the beach front later in the evening.

We are now only around 10km from the Spanish border. Our journey today was 55km.

PS – Kris decided not to replace the bike yet, so we are still on the same bikes – but they are behaving well.

5 June – to Perpignan

5 June – to Perpignan

We looked in lots of bike shops today as Kris has more or less decided to replace his bike. This took up a lot of our time. In the second shop we bought a new seat column for Kris’s bike so at least it is ridable.

The first part of our journey was lovely – on bike paths all along the lagoon. The seaside towns of Port Leucate a and Barcares are sprawling and full of holiday apartments and cafes.

We found a great bike path going to Rivesaltes – along an old railway line, wide and newly surfaced. On either side were apricot orchards, the trees laden with fruit. Also mountains in the distance now.

It is very noticeable today that the architecture is different here – we are getting close to Spain.

Peripignan is a large city. Wonderful fountains and avenues of shady trees near the tourist office. Also arborists up in the trees with mountaineering gear pruning them. After spending some (fruitless) time in a city center bike shop, we had a look at the palace, before going to look at bike shops on the outskirts.

The last shop we went to was the best – Veloland – but it was getting late and we were pretty tired so we plan to go back tomorrow.

Our accommodation is near a town just outside the city – Cabestany – it is on a rural block with horses; swimming pool, lovely views from a large porch and hares in the driveway. We had our picnic dinner on a table near the pool where it was nice and cool.

Highlights:

  • Peripignan palace (Palais of the Kings of Mallorca – construction started 1276) – especially the moat and the view of the city from the top tower.
4 June – riding on the water – to Leucate

4 June – riding on the water – to Leucate

We headed straight for Narbonne this morning with the primary aim of getting my bike fixed. We arrived just after ten and got the locations of three bike shops from the tourist info people. The first and biggest shop couldn’t help with repairs but sold us a new wire. The other two shops were closed (how do people here stay in business??). So Kris decided he would fix it himself – however we needed a small Phillips screwdriver for that – more riding about the the outskirts of the city to find a suitable hardware store that could sell us one. All set Kris did the repair in front of a supermarket (the world is our workshop). He was brilliant – it didn’t take more than half an hour and I have my gears back.

All set to go we did a little sight seeing around Narbonne – the Cathedral and Palace beside it are impressive – I especially enjoyed the dog-like gargoyles.

In the afternoon we set off for our journey to Leucate. Once again along the Canal du Midi – again of variable cycling quality but a relief to be away from the traffic. There are fewer tourist boats on this part of the canal. Also very breezy – so for once we weren’t too hot in the afternoon.

Eventually, we realised there was a large lagoon on the other side of the canal cycle path. And then a logoon appeared on the other side of the canal as well. So we felt like we were on a little strip of land between these large bodies of water. With the wind blowing they looked quite dark and smelt all briny as well – a unique place to ride!

The canal ended and the last part of our ride was over very flat coastal land, then up a hill again before coming to Leucate village which overlooks another lagoon.

Altogether we did around 93km – our distance extended by riding around Narbonne looking for shops.

Our accommodation was very smartly furnished – we had the biggest bed we have ever slept in! The next morning we had a memorable breakfast with a choice of 17 jams all made by the proprietorships. Including jam from the orange tree in the courtyard.

Highpoint:

  • Picnic supper at the old castle above Leucate – now very much in ruins. The castle used to be on the border with Spain but  when the area became French King Louis XI destroyed the castle he obtained through the land acquisition.  Parts of it date to the 11th century. We had wonderful 360 degree views of the area from the top of the hill – the village, the coast, the lagoon, villages on the other side of the lagoon, windsurfers, wind turbines in the distance

Lowpoint:

  • Towards the end of the day Kris’s bikes saddle broke (he can still ride it but not comfortably) and he also broke a spoke.
3 June (Sunday) – Bell-ringer reunion in Montouliers

3 June (Sunday) – Bell-ringer reunion in Montouliers

This morning we spent about 2 hours finding the Canal du Midi from Vias. Ended up riding between farmer’s fields again before we found a canal with a mountain bike type track beside it – not what we were expecting (we thought it would be an easy ride). The track improved to a sealed path before Beziers for a while. But was very variable – in places lots of rocks and tree roots to avoid. This made for fairly slow going around 10km per hour.We saw many tourist boats on the canal, including some going through the eight locks at Beziers (3 boats at a time).

We left the canal before Capestang and went up the viewpoint of Oppidum d’ Enserune – a hill which was occupied around 6BC to 1AD. Great views of the surrounding countryside, including fields shaped like spokes draining into a circular depression in the centre (called the swamp of Montady).

From here we moved onto Capestang by road (still roughly following the canal) – here they were clearing up from the morning market. And then we found our way to the small village of Montouliers, where we were hosted by Derek and Mary Williams. Derek is the ringing master of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul and Mary is also a Cathedral ringer. They spend part of every year in this French village – it was great to see some familiar faces and also to see their place in France.

Too bad the bells in the village church rung with an automatic mechanism!

Altogether we did around 70km.

Highpoints:

  • We spent a memorable evening with Derek and Mary. First they took us (by car) on a visit to the village of Minerve – a truly remarkable place. It stands on a ledge between two intersecting limestone river gorges. The city was a Cathar stronghold that was besieged by Simon de Montfort (under the authority of the Roman church) in 1210 – they shot at the place with catapults and prevented them from accessing their water supply. When the city fell, 180 Cathars were burnt alive by the Inquisition.  Derek is very knowledgeable on the history of the whole area and being with him was like having a personal tour guide. Back home Mary made us a lovely home cooked meal, followed with strawberries and cheeses bought at a local market – we were very spoilt.

Lowpoint:

  • The wire in my bike’s gear mechanism broke in the morning – so I had to ride the whole day with only 3 gears. Luckily there were not too many hills!
2 June (Saturday) – to Vias

2 June (Saturday) – to Vias

An easy ride today – 74km including 5km into town and back at the end of the day.

Ride consisted of rolling farmland interspersed with regular towns – olive trees; vineyards; wheat fields, some dry river beds.

It also seemed a little cooler in the afternoon than in the previous few days – thank goodness.

We stopped St Andre de Sangonis for breakfast from the local bakery and coffee shop.

Then onto Pezenas where we arranged our accommodation at tourist info and spent an hour or so looking around the Saturday morning market – huge food market in the historic center. We bought a large bag of delicious cherries and also some bread and tomatoes. Leaving town I was pleased to find a big Carrefour Supermarche, where we shopped for the rest of our picnic and also bought a snack and coffee (nice and cool inside).

The road between Pezenas and Bessan was appalling for bikes – not enough shoulder and fast traffic. After running this gauntlet we were relieved to get onto a quiet road again and then not far to our accommodation just outside Vias.

The chambres d’hotes is on a farm – very well kept place. She has around 5 extra rooms built around the large house, each with its own patio. We enjoyed our picnic on the patio and then fell asleep for a couple of hours – indulgent!

Highlight:

  • Going into Vias this evening and finding a folk festival in full swing. Lots of people in traditional costume. Also a stage with folk dancing and some great singing (accompanied by fiddle and accordion). Mostly local people, and a stall selling a delicious smelling meal – meat that must have been cooked in red wine. Too bad we were too full to eat again!
1 June – magic ride to a legendary valley

1 June – magic ride to a legendary valley

After several days of frustrating cycling we had an almost perfect ride today.

It was a little shorter at around 65km but a lot of it was hilly.

We first made our way to Claret on fairly busy roads. Yes; we did pass a wine cooperative there. From there we went up a small mountain pass onto a high plateau area. It was hard work but well graded and we could make it in one go at our present fitness level. Wonderful granite outcrops and views of the farmland below. Obviously other cyclist like it as we saw quite a few on the route.

At the top it was reminiscent of the Cederberg area (in RSA). Very arid, not many houses or farms – think it may have been a nature reserve.

Eventually we came to the old town of St Martin de Londres – where we had some lunch out of the bakery and booked our accommodation through the tourist office. It was very hot again but as we were so high up it seemed drier and more bearable.

The journey from St Marten was first very up and down through wild arid country and then a huge down hill run or around 3km coming into Puechabon. Again the views of the countryside and towns below were awesome. After Puchabon there were lots of groves of olive trees and vineyards again. Kris said it reminded him of Israel and it seemed quite biblical to me, even saw some people having a meal under an olive tree.

We are staying in St Guilhem le Desert – coming into the town is amazing – you come from this arid country to a huge gorge with a fast flowing river. We later find out that the old bridge crossing the gorge is called the Pont du Diable – there is a legend about the devil building it in 3 days. We then rode up this gorge alongside the river for several km before we got the the town.

Our hotel is on the river at the entrance of the town. St Guilhem (William) founded a monastery here in 804. His cult grew around a fragment of the True Cross (which is still in the church). The town was founded in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Today the church has special UNESCO world heritage status. The town is largely a tourist town – just one street really with lots of craft and gift shops. We had a lovely supper at a cafe under a plane tree at the center planted in 1855. Very hot into the evening – we are glad that our hotel has air-conditioning, even though we usually prefer fresh air.

Highlights:

  • The church and monastery

Lowpoints

  • Kris broke a spoke again, luckily only about 10m away from our accommodation
31 May – too hot in Sauve

31 May – too hot in Sauve

Today we did another long ride – 85km and really suffered from the heat in the afternoon again.

We started out going slightly to the north to see the town of Uzes that we were told was very pretty by our bed and breakfast host. Well, the old town was pretty, with a nice castle in the center and church- but spoilt by terrible roads for bikes (too narrow, lots of traffic)  for about 10km in and 10km out. Also full of traffic all around the old city and tourists – felt as though you couldn’t move.

We were relieved to get onto quiet country roads again mid-morning and have resolved to stay away from tourist centers and cities.

This was borne out by the town of Vezenobres which we passed through next with no expectations. Almost no tourists, but so much more interesting. The old medieval city is built on a hill so we had to work hard to get there – pushing the bikes part of the way, it was so steep. Also very hot by this time. The city has amazing views over surrounding countryside and some access between streets is through tunnel like walkways. The whole place is beautifully kept with roses climbing up walls and fig trees. Part of it is being restored.

We then pushed on to Sauve. Our rural roads took us through endless grapevines again. Also a little more hilly today, so harder work (but nice to cool down when you hit a long down-hill)

Sauve is another amazing little town. the tourist office guy was extremely informative. After sorting out our accommodation he told us all about the town in  broken English. The town is on the Vedourle river and a subterranean arm of the river resurges from underground in the town, next to the wall of a Benedictine Abby whose oil and flour mills it worked. There is also an underground river running under the town that caver’s dive in and is inhabited by a rare type of shrimp.

They also still manufacture a unique wooden three pronged pitchfork; from one piece of wood, that they have been making since the 11th century. they split the tree into three while it is still growing.

Highlights:

  • Walking about Vezenobres – would have loved to have spent an evening here.
  • A kind lady living in Vezenobres – we asked her for some water and she produced a large ice cold bottle of bottled water (looks like the tap water is no good). Would absolutely take no payment – also spoke no English at all.
  • Walking around Sauve in the evening, buying some groceries; and finding the pub where the locals drink. Discovering a new drink – pastis (aniseed flavored aperitif) – by pointing to what the locals were having and asking for one. One of these locals lived across the way from the pub and his wife kept on putting her head out the window to talk with him (possible as the street is very narrow). The other had his dog and cat with him (I think he told me they were his – they were pretty jolly and didn’t speak any English at all).
  • Again, no broken spokes – how long can this last?
30 May – to Remoulins and the the Pont du Gard

30 May – to Remoulins and the the Pont du Gard

A long ride today in the heat.We started out heading to Orange to see the amphitheater there. Couldn’t really find a suitable bike path – at one point we road along a path by the river, where I got my bike all muddy, but it was too rocky to ride on for long. Eventually we gave up and rode on a busy road. Passing Mornas and seeing a castle overlooking it on the edge of a huge cliff was impressive.

Orange was crowded with traffic, so after examining the amphitheater, we headed out along quieter roads as advised by the tourist office. We crossed the Rhone again and went through a perfect little town called Cordolette – very prosperous looking with lots of hanging flower baskets and cobbled streets.

We made our way to St Laurent des Arbres; mostly through vineyards now and very hot. There we found the tourist office (which was in a small castle) closed until 3pm. The whole place was very quiet – maybe they were all having a sleep. We had a small picnic of bread and cheese and decided to head on to Remoulins to find accommodation. At Lirac we tried to get onto a rural road again and found ourselves on another rocky road and then in a vineyard. Looking up we saw a monks cell built into a cliff; which is probably where the road was heading. So we backtracked and went on the busy road again – it was ok for a while but unpleasant as we came into Remoulins.

Our accommodation is bed and breakfast just outside town – ok except there are mosquitoes!

So a longer than planned ride at 95km, but no spokes broken three days in a row now!

Highlight:

  • Evening picnic on riverbank at the Pont de Gard  – only about a km away from where we are staying. This is a Roman aquaduct built in around 50AD to carry water to Nimes. It was amazing with huge arches – as big as any modern bridge. It was lovely walking over it at dusk and seeing all the swallows fly around it and into holes where they nest. The river was still and beautifully reflective.

Lowpoint:

  • Prostitutes blatantly working on the road coming into Remoulins at 3 in the afternoon. Very high heels and skirts so short you can see their crotch. Must be very unsafe for them getting into trucks and cars on the roadside.