France 4/Spain 1: The Pyrenees

Luchon to Girona 13/09/18 – 22/09/18
Total distance travelled: 2318km

The Pyrenees
Wasn’t a breeze,
But had me feeling weak at the knees:
All of the clouds trapped in trees.
Take me back please
For there is still so much to see
So many more hills to climb
And wonders to find.
The landscape was vast,
Our pace far from fast.
From France into Spain we passed
Over a Col that is world-class.
The Pyrenees
Take me back please
For the clouds trapped in trees.

The Pyrenees was EPIC.  The landscapes were just incredible (and I’m even saying that writing from the Alps!).  The Pyrenees provided our first mountains of the trip and thus our first big climbs.

We left Luchon following signs for the Col du Portillon, a mountain pass that had featured in this year’s Tour de France, though we think, if the writing on the road is anything to go by, that it was climbed in the opposite direction to the way we did it.  Olly had been researching ways to cross the Pyrenees for a long time and we’d sought advice from several people: Warm Showers hosts and cyclists we met en route.  Many recommended crossing the mountains to the west, referencing gradual, manageable climbs.  When I mentioned the Col du Portillon to one cyclist as we were on our way into Luchon, trying to gauge what I was in for, he simply said, ‘non’ and went on to suggest a border-crossing route via Saint-Béat and a main road.  Although now completely terrified, having built this Col up to something far bigger than its 1293m, I knew I’d rather take a quiet, windy, albeit-very-steep-in-places, road to a fast-moving, busy, main road where the drivers are often on auto-pilot or their mobile phones.

The sense of achievement when we got to the top and saw the sign, smiling knowingly at the other cyclists – and there were a few, none quite so heavily laden, but two with ism saddles like mine – was incredible.  Everyone was clearly “buzzing” – and also stuffing cereal bars into their faces.  I’d certainly never climbed something so significant on my bike before and neither had Olly (he thinks).

Although I had adopted Shona’s “be bold, start cold” rule for outdoor activities, I was so sweaty when I got to the top that I actually decided to take my soaked top off and fix it to the back of my bike to dry off on the descent.  I’ve always been sweaty, but this was something else!  In hindsight, this was not my brightest idea as I didn’t replace the stinky top with anything other than my fleece and I got very cold very quickly.  By the time we got to the bottom of the hill and the town of Bossost, I was shaking and had a headache that lasted until I woke up the next morning.  So began my mountain climbing ritual: electrolytes in my water, a celebratory (!) energy gel at the top of the climb (SIS orange flavour is my favourite by far), gloves and layers a plenty.

For many, the descent is the reward for the challenging climb, and Olly is no exception.  He speeds off – safely, he assures me – twisting and turning with ease and confidence, clearly enjoying the thrill of it all.

I, on the other hand, gripped my breaks so hard for so long that I think I sprained a finger!  On all of our descents, Olly was able to stop and take some spectacular photos.

Descending the Col du Portillon.

Descending the Col du Portillon.

And so, we were in Spain, or more precisely, Catalonia, and it’s not a mistake that you make as the independence movement seems to be in full force with the red and yellow stripped flag with the blue triangle and white star adorning so many buildings; the yellow symbol spray-painted onto so many roads; and yellow ribbons tied to anything that isn’t already decorated to support the campaign.

Col du Portillon was done, but that was just the beginning.  The following day was a big one!  We climbed 24km uphill to arrive at the ski resort of Baqueira-Beret and the Port de la Bonaigua which is at 2072m – the highest I think I’ve ever been!  We climbed for hours – four or five of them (including a trip to Mercadona and our lunch break).  It was never too steep, but neither was it ever really flat.  Often I’d take a break thinking I had successfully stopped on a flat section of road only to have to get going again by pushing off uphill (and so I’d try to go across the road instead of up, which isn’t overly safe) in my easiest gear and so wobble all over the place.  It was on this ascent, and one such wobbly stop-start, that we hit the 2000km mark which is a mega achievement!

The view 2000km from home.

Awesome lunch spot half way up the climb.

The top of the climb afforded, as anticipated, amazing views.  I was transfixed by the ski lifts which stood stationary and which almost looked abandoned and a bit post-apocalyptic, though that could just be energy gel talking.  Cycling through the mountains and seeing this sight a few more times did get us thinking about how we ‘use’ nature.

In a couple of months I imagine the wild horses with whom we shared the views will be gone and people wrapped up in scarves and sporting skis will replace them, the ski lifts transporting people to where we stood to see the same views, but perhaps without the same level of appreciation for the climb.  The roads were popular with motorbikes and also a fleet of vintage cars all with Swiss number plates.  Other than the road works taking place about three-quarters of the way to the top, the roads were good to cycle on – provided you didn’t look down too often (which I did) and feel overwhelmed, both positively and negatively, by the drop down back into the valley we were leaving behind.

Hours of uphill pedalling and then in about an hour we covered almost the same distance as we descended into l’Esterri d’Aneu.  Olly took some brilliant photos as he was, by this point, really starting to get to grip with his camera.

Plenty of signs about bears on roads, lampposts and cars then led to the second worst night’s sleep of the trip as we pitched on an almost empty campsite, having chosen a spot for its wonderful view of the hills we’d just come down from, and wherein every rustle and scuffle we heard we feared was was coming to eat us.  (Truth be told, in the middle of the night it did genuinely sound like something (chickens?) was being attacked…  Talk to Olly for facts and figures about horse deaths and other such Val d’Aran, bear-based joys…)

View from the tent.

Feeling a little weary, the following day we decided to have a relaxed start and to not go so far thus having a sort-of rest day.  We travelled 30km in just an hour and a half (super speedy by our standards), admittedly it was 99% downhill.  However, the ride was wonderful.  We really admired the views and the freewheeling.  We arrived in Sort and pitched up at our favourite campsite for the duration of our stay in Catalonia: CampingNoguera Palleresa – named after the river that flows through the town.  The campsite had a relaxed, chilled-out vibe with a good atmosphere and was only a five minute walk into the little town and the supermarket!  We enjoyed the Wi-Fi and the chance to sit by the river and listen to music.  We managed to shower just before a big group of kayakers arrived who brought with them a good buzz and an excellent warm-up the next morning!

Another day, another climb, this time to El Canot at 1720m.  The climb started almost immediately upon leaving the campsite, as did the sweating and the gritted teeth.  A Slovenian guy, who I couldn’t even wave at for fear of falling off my bike and losing my mojo, offered me coffee out of the back of his car, crying, “there’s no more water” as I attempted to nod and smile as I passed, now also wondering what he meant about the water.  Turns out that Olly did stop to talk to him, which is how we know he’s Slovenian, but he didn’t have a coffee.  Olly does an excellent re-enactment of the conversation should you wish to know any more, it involves the Slovenian guy calling me very determined and/or focused which I enjoy.

Another awesome lunch spot.  Another awesome opportunity to dry out our kit.

It was on this leg of the trip that we wild camped for the first time too.  Inexperienced for now, it did take us a while to choose a spot and upon reflection, it may or may not have been a farmer’s field.  It was a good start up the next day’s climb, though, and close to the road (just in case a rescue was required) and a river (for more pressing survival reasons).  The wild camp afforded a beautiful sunset, an incredibly starry sky and a chance to try out some so far unused kit…  However, I didn’t get the best night’s sleep and in the morning when I said this to Olly he replied, “it’s a good job I didn’t tell you about the boar tracks I saw last night then”.

New kit being put through its paces.
New kit being put through its paces...

We continued our climb to another ski resort, La Molina, at around 1700m and then argued at the top about the best way to get to the campsite: my Google Maps saying one thing and Olly’s another.  Turns out, we were navigating to different campsites.  We ended up at Ribes de Freser and the campsite at the top of a – in the then present state of mind – horrible, windy, bumpy hill.  We then argued about the best place to put the tent after the campsite owner had somewhat grumpily taken our Euros and pointed us in the general direction of the mostly empty pitches and the shower blocks that had no doors.  We took a rest day in Ribes de Freser (not too soon, it seems) and enjoyed taking the lift to and from the centre of town (completely unnecessary, but good fun all the same) and bumbling around the town without any real purpose other than bumbling.

Final descent from the Pyrenees

Ribes de Freser


Camp spot at Ribes de Freser.

With Girona now firmly in our sights, and the Pyrenees shrinking away behind us (along with the threat of a bear attack), we climbed one more Col, completely unintentionally, and met a merry band of Frenchmen at the top who all talked at once as they tried to lift up our bikes.  The group of four friends had been riding the length of the Pyrenees little by little for three years and the following day would be the culmination of their project as they reached the Mediterranean Sea.  I was reinvigorated by this encounter which is why, perhaps, I agreed to Olly buying a box of four Cornettos at the supermarket in Olot, where we stayed for a night, and then eating two of them in a row.

Colourful crossing near our lunch stop.

I'm losing height on this trip, but no weight...

The campsite owner in Olot had told us the cycle route to Girona was brilliant and that after one small hill we wouldn’t need to pedal at all.  He wasn’t lying!  We had managed to arrive in Girona a day ahead of Andrew and Hilary’s (Parents Rowe) arrival and had a Warm Showers lined up for the evening.  Xavier is something of a Warm Showers legend and he had organised a paella night for five cycle tourists at his friend Joan’s house – Joan was hosting the other three tourists.  We cycled across the district of Salt with pudding and paella in our panniers and had an amazingly serendipitous evening watching Xavier and Joan pour wine precariously down their throats and having to scrape some of the paella off the floor (something to do with fierce rice?!).  The other cycle tourists were from France, Brazil and Switzerland and all were Barcelona bound.  We headed back with Xavier to sleep in his Warm Showers tipi before heading into Girona the next morning, anticipating Andrew and Hilary’s arrival.

This was a really exciting leg of the trip, the excitement perhaps amplified by the arrival of and stay with Olly’s parents that was awaiting us at its end.  The Pyrenees was so spectacular, though at one point I found myself getting a bit complacent with the mountain views and so I took a moment to try and really appreciate what I was seeing.  There is no doubt in my mind that I will return to this part of the world.  I felt proud of how I’d managed the climbs and Olly felt relived not to have been eaten by a bear.