Spain 3/France 5/Switzerland 1: Girona to Bear (Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland)

28/09/18 - 12/10/18
Distance travelled: 3245km

Writing from Lomello 01/11/18

This really was a stage of two halves.  Until we reached The Alps we weren’t having heaps of fun (and then we had mountains of it!).  We’ve been reflecting today about the first few days of cycling after leaving friends and family and the upshot is they aren’t much fun.  The old adage, ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened’ holds truth, of course, but leaving is hard and there’s no point in denying it.  Regardless of where you are or what upcoming fun you have in store, we’ve always experienced a bit of a lull after saying ‘goodbye’.  We’re not miserable or unhappy by any means, just acknowledging that it can’t be sunshine and rainbows all of the time, and cycling 50km along a dual carriageway or 100km into le mistral are a couple of examples of that from this leg of our adventure.

Flamingos were a fun feature of the first part of this stage of the trip.

Part 1: The Dog Days

For two days after we left Mas Vinyoles and Girona we didn’t take any pictures and we thought about this later as being a sign that things had taken a bit of a downward turn.  Every single day we see wonderful things, but it seems we were blind to them on this occasion.  The day we got back on the bikes I remember our lunch spot by a fountain, the tasty egg sandwiches and a lady walking a nice-looking, golden retriever.  I remember it being so, so hot that we weaved in and out of shaded spots; I remember a castle that lost some of its beauty as a result of being so heavily fenced; I remember almost burning out and having to walk the final kilometre or so.  I remember taking a long shower and going to bed wishing the wind would change direction as all we could smell was stinky sewage.

Last minute photo at camp when we realised we hadn't taken any all day.

For the following day we have two photos (of the same thing) that don’t mean much to either of us.  We crossed back into France via Le Perthus, an experience we didn’t find overly pleasant.  The border control booths were deserted, but the duty-free shops were very much open and although the shopkeepers tried to lure in customers with perfume and sunglasses, they gave us a wide berth. (A pity, I’d have quite liked to have smelt fragrant for the first time in a few months and we all know how I feel about my sunglasses!)  We enjoyed our return to Intermarché and had lunch in a school waiting area whilst watching a mother and son rollerblading in and out of plastic cups.  We arrived at the night’s campsite in the rain which got heavier and heavier as the night progressed.  As, by this point, it was the end of September, campsites were starting to empty or close and I remember we had to shower in the children’s facility as the other blocks were closed, which was perfect for me as the ‘seahorse shower’ was lower than a standard adult one and came with plenty of drip-drying space! The meteorological downpour coincided with an emotional deluge too as I struggled to make sense of my thoughts and feelings. We both went to bed looking forward to a new day.

Your guess is as good as ours...

The new day started well with a mammoth coypu sighting not far from the campsite: I really enjoyed watching these little, swimming guinea pigs!  (I happily overlook that they are considered vermin...)  Then, we made it to the Med!  Being by the sea definitely lifted our spirits and the warm weather and blue skies reminded us of ‘the summer’ which we’d spent so happily cycling around France. 

A mound of oyster shells. 

Behind the scenes.  On the left are seafood restaurants.  The fronts look so fancy and the waitresses were wearing Wellington boots.

Lunch spot snap.  I paddled in the sea after eating.

Although we had a campsite in mind, we took the decision to try and wild camp if the opportunity arose. Along a bumpy canal path we started to scout out potential spots, finally deciding on a patch of grass that looked as if it had already been slept on which eased my mind a little. This spot was in the Parc Naturel Narbonnais, an area which, not long after we’d left, suffered some severe flooding. Cycling through marshland, here and previously, was something I had never before experienced and it was really interesting for all of the wildlife we saw. However, our spot had been surrounded by water and the headlines got us thinking. Regardless of the headlines that came later, it was a Marmite experience. The sunset and sunrise were absolutely magical and cooking dinner with a flamingo-fly-by was incredible! In addition, for me, wild camping is always quite thrilling. However, when asked recently what the low point of the trip had been, I quoted this evening. I got NO sleep because it was SO windy and I thought the tent was going to be destroyed. (Olly has just told me that he found the noise of the wind to be soothing. This is a lie.) We got our earliest start yet that morning and, I must admit, the feeling of having done 10km by 9 o’clock was pretty sweet.

Sunrise, sunrise.

However, it is transpiring that early starts for us are a sign of later trouble. The first time we had an early start we witnessed a car accident and that wasn’t nice. Today, although occasionally buoyed by a flamingo sighting, we were miserable cycling into a fierce wind that we’d spent all night battling, Olly’s front wheel blew out and he came off his bike quite nastily. At lunchtime we changed our plans, shortened our day and headed for a campsite called Berges du Canal, back on our old friend, the Canal du Midi. 

Beautiful, but abandoned and so windy.  The seaside towns we passed through along the Mediterranean were completely empty and as such, they were a bit sad (and kind of creepy).

The campsite was buzzing, a real change to what we’d recently experienced and the lady on reception so enthusiastic about what we were doing that she gave us free Wi-Fi codes – more musings on our relationship with the Internet at a later time, but, regardless, it was a nice gesture that we really appreciated after a difficult day. There were special cycle-tourist spots on the campsite which also made us feel especially welcome, but looking back, part of me does regret not staying in the special, tree-house type hut for cycle tourists. You store your bikes underneath and sleep up above. Next time, for sure. 

This brings us to ‘dog day’, Olly’s response to the ‘lowest point of the trip’ question. The day started wonderfully with 10km along the canal before it got too windy. There were vineyards to our right, the canal to our left and autumnal colours appearing all around. The moment we had to come off the canal path, however, was like stepping into an alternate reality. We wound our way through a run-down, neglected, ramshackle area: everything a little bit broken and mouldy. There were lots of residential caravans and after passing a small commune, we cycled straight into the ferocious bark of a large, black dog, more terrifying than The Grim. Large, black, barking, rottweiler-type dog was standing guard for his even bigger and more frightening pal who was stood on his hind legs, fascinated by something in a big, commercial/municipal bin. I’m grateful to whatever was in that bin because I’m convinced it’s the only thing that prevented us from being torn limb from limb. I don’t joke. So, we got off our bikes and turned around, almost as quickly as the woman on the phone ahead of us scrambled back into her van when Guard Dog started towards her. On our diversion we then started being chased by a spaniel. Olly stopped and I went a little ahead – a heroic tale. As Olly stopped, fortunately, so did the dog. Shouting ‘away’ was enough to send this dog back where it came from, but that was three feral dogs in about as many minutes and we were feeling a little shaken up. We’d read and heard lots about wild dogs, but we didn’t anticipate meeting any this soon! 

Shocked and cycling along a main road discussing what had just happened, we then passed ‘Europark’, the creepiest and least safe looking theme park I ever did see. It was completely open, we could have walked right in, and completely abandoned. I wondered if it had been fully operational during the high season and even if it had, whether it had been a popular. It was turning into a strange day. We felt like we’d lost civilisation somewhere along the first canal path and we were keen to meet up with it again. 

We did head back on to a canal path and after a while I realised that I was cycling alone. I stopped to wait for Olly. In my then current state of mind, far too much time elapsed between my stopping and Olly’s arriving. It transpires he had been foraging in the woods sourcing a dog stick. We’d be grateful three more times that day to have it! 

Our next dog encounter was along the canal path. Two dogs were sat outside of a canal boat, clearly where their owner lived. However, a German Shepherd sat in your path is a pretty formidable sight. Its gangly friend lolloped straight over to us, which given our earlier experiences, gave us the heebie jeebies (I initially wrote something far more explicit). The gangly friend was merely curious and friendly, but over the course of the morning I had taken a strong disliking to canines.  Once shouted at by their master, the dogs left us well alone and, incredulous at how many bow-wows we’d faced, pedalled on.

Flamingo (in French, flamant-rose, a ‘flaming pink’) sightings and a beautiful, quiet lunch spot helped to bolster our mood. We were looking forward to a Warm Showers stay that night and started to think about the town of Sète that we’d be staying in.  I had been to Sète, a fishing town, once before when I was at language school in Montpellier and remembered the pretty coloured buildings.  A little ahead of schedule thanks to a flat, coastal cycle path that was easy to navigate, we stopped just before Sète for a drink and to update our host of our arrival time.  Unfortunately, wires had been crossed and he was expecting us the following day and wasn’t at home that evening and so was unable to host us. In the space of a minute we’d gone from being ahead of schedule to having no schedule, which wasn't as liberating as it sounds.  Darn dog day. 

There were no campsites in Sète and so we continued until Frontignan for our final dog encounter of the day. Semi-permanent residents seem quite common on some French campsites and tonight’s campsite was no exception. There weren’t really any tent pitches and so we walked around the site until we found a chalet with soft enough ground in front of it to pitch our tent on. We benefitted from the covered terrace and a table and chairs, but our neighbour was a man in a van who was ‘here all week’, and his dog was untethered and not keen for our company. It yapped and yapped and jumped around, but when Olly raised the dog stick it shied away. We do not ever want to have to use a dog stick, but by this point today we were beat. The campsite facilities were absolutely adequate and I enjoyed having to weave my way through a game of boules that four friends were jovially playing. When the dog’s owner returned, the owner seemed nonplussed about the dog’s having broken free and the dog seemed over the moon, running around with an empty plastic bottle in its mouth. We only suffered a few more snarls before we left the following morning, hopeful that dog days were over. 

A room with a view.

We didn’t hang about in the morning largely because we had a very long day ahead. We were heading for Nimes and a youth hostel whose grounds we were going to camp in. My memory of Nimes was exclusively of the beautiful Pont du Gard which is some 15km outside of the city – I now know. I also didn’t quite realise just how big Nimes was until we were trying to cycle in, around and out of it. The day started nicely enough as we cycled along the coast and saw so many flamingos. Flamingos replaces sunflowers for me in the sense that every time we saw flamingos, we had to stop to look at them just as we had done with sunflower fields during our first few weeks cycling in France. 

The day continued with lunch on a bench in a prime spot for watching older people moving between a shower block and the beach, and a pit-stop at Lidl for some Dragibus, vegetarian sweets.  Either because we were genuinely tired, or because we were suffering from the highs and lows of excessive sugar consumption, we took a short break at around 4 o’clock on a bench at the start of a long, canal greenway.  Checking the route we realised we still had some 40km to go that day and our averages meant an arrival time of around 8pm, and we still had to pick up some food.  Heads went down and legs went into overdrive as we did half the distance in the following hour.  This perked us up and the burst of optimism was necessary for balancing out the remaining 20km.  Largely off-road or on busy city roads, and mostly in the dark we finally made it to the road the youth hostel was on.  Up, up, up we cycled as the lane was so steep, adrenaline was by this point our only fuel, I’m sure.  When we arrived at the hostel complex it was shrouded in darkness.  I had emailed ahead and so I knew it was open, but it didn’t look promising.  After trying to break in through the delivery entrance, the guys from the hostel found us and we went through our evening routine as quickly as possible in order to get to bed.  Another early start awaited if we were to arrive on time to the Airbnb that we had booked for Olly’s birthday. 

I'm sure this puddle would have come up to and over my middle.  En route to Nimes.

We managed the early start and then spent a long time cycling 10km out of the city. It wasn’t much fun and we felt we’d lost the early lead. The next 50km passed by in a bit of a blur and that blur was the fast moving traffic that raced by us on the dual carriageways we had to follow. I had no shame wearing my high-vis jacket that day. When we stopped for lunch in a small town with a park, I felt so grateful for the green. This stretch of cycling was really unpleasant and prompted a lot of discussion about the future of the trip. Olly managed to better articulate the tangled thoughts and feelings that had caused my meltdown a few days previous and we picked ourselves up by re-evaluating our plans and setting new wheels in motion. 

Sometimes it feels good to go a long way in a day. More often, though, it feels good to not go so far or so quickly.

And so, after a monumental birthday food shop we headed up a big hill to Saint Restitut where we had booked into an Airbnb to celebrate Olly’s birthday. We celebrated in style with jam on toast, breakfast in bed and back-to-back episodes of Parks and Recreation.   It was a very relaxing and ‘gourmet’ stay, but bittersweet when all was said and done as we weren’t perhaps on quite the same page as the hosts. Regardless, well-rested we set off now with only one thing on our minds: The Alps.

28.  (The start of your 29th year on the planet!)

When thinking back to ‘the dog days’, we realised that we may also have experienced a bit of a slump because we didn’t have any Warm Showers stays, which are really wonderful, humbling and reaffirming experiences. We realised too that thanks to a Warm Showers stay, or, indeed, a stay with family or friends, we feel more acquainted with an area; we remember it even more fondly. Another long day completed, we arrived at Sandrine’s place at about 7pm. Sandrine and her little Noah welcomed us and made us feel so at home. Sandrine and her husband had travelled the world by tandem and the big world map on their living room wall had us captivated and sharing stories all evening. Our stay with Sandrine was the first of three consecutive Warm Shower stays all of which filled my heart with warm, happy, fuzzy feelings. Adrien and his young family gave us the warmest greeting and the meal we shared that night was an instant favourite (we’re sorry, though, Adrien, for eating all of your lunch) and we bought Les Crozets in a bid to recreate it.  With David and Marlene we felt like we were meeting up with old friends and the fact that it was past midnight the first time we looked at the clock that night is a testament to how great their company was. We’d turned a corner, the dog days were done.  It was en route from Voreppe to Grenoble we hit the 3000km mark too and it felt a new chapter was in the making.