To the train in the rain: cycling from Mimizan to Labouheyre and taking trains to La Rochelle

After some discussion, we decided that La Rochelle would be a good place to sit out the promised heavy rainfall and high winds of the next couple of days. The nearest railway station to Mimizan is Labouheyre, about 18 miles to the east, so we decided to ride there and take the train to La Rochelle, changing in Bordeaux en route.

As we set out, we noticed a fine film of fine green dust on all of the bikes. This turned out to be pollen from the pine trees we had cycled through the previous day.

The green dust that coated our bikes was pine pollen…it’s Bianchi ‘celeste’, for cycling fans

It rained most of the way but upon arrival, we found a café for refreshments and established that bikes would be carried free of charge. We had about an hour to wait for the train and the timetable suggested a wait of one and a half hours in Bordeaux. The latter proved to be optimistic. Our train was cancelled and we waited five and a half hours at Bordeaux for our train to La Rochelle.

Taking bikes on trains in France is free (at least on the ones we used) and the facilities are great

We’d selected La Rochelle as the two-day stop-over because that would leave us just over 200 miles, four days’ riding, to get to our destination of Saint-Malo, from where we’d catch the ferry home. We found a hotel just a few hundred yards from La Rochelle’s station and, well wrapped up against the weather, set out to explore the city the next day.

The covered market was a typical palace of delights, including an oyster stall that provided lunch and our first taste of French seafood on the trip.

Despite an educational ten minutes but the stall-holder, none of us could distinguish one oyster from another by its taste

After a wander around, we decided to look for a backgammon set to occupy some of our spare time. We eventually found a shop that specialised in board games. When we used our poor French to ask for the game, the reply came in English with a Yorkshire accent. The place was run by a guy from Huddersfield who had lived in France for the past 20 years.

Where to buy your board games in La Rochelle – a Yorkshireman’s shop!

The following day, as the promised storm arrived with winds of over 60 mph, we explored the maritime museum and aquarium in La Rochelle. Both were excellent and well worth the couple of hours we spent in each of them. The highlight was a weather ship that formed part of the museum.

In the afternoon, we dropped into a café for a game of backgammon and a coffee. We also shared a single beer, one that the owner suggested we try because it’s brewed to complement oysters. Our unanimous recommendation is to stick to Muscadet!

A beer for oysters…not recommended!

Later, we had dinner in a small restaurant in the harbour. It was good but not spectacular.

By now, we were all keen to get back on our bikes and ride again. The forecast for the next few days was largely sunny with crosswinds on the first couple of days, then moderate tailwinds and temperatures in the high teens centigrade to end the trip.

La Rochelle’s pretty harbour, where we ate on our second evening in the city

As it turned out, we were to reach Saint-Malo in three days, rather than four, as we began to revel in the kind of cycling we’d hoped to encounter earlier in the trip.

Some misdirection before we headed north to Mimizan

The main navigation tool we use is Komoot, which is generally brilliant but sometimes painfully flawed. So it was as we set out on the next leg of our journey. We’d imported the file for the route from one posted online by another rider. He had taken the journey in the opposite direction but we used the ‘reverse route’ function in Komoot so that we could use it to go south to north. What we didn’t realise was that after quitting the app for the evening and then switching it on again the following day, it reverted to the original north-south route. We were a little inland so did not have the sea on our left to guide us and we finally realised the error after riding six miles south before turning around to get back on the planned route. Most of the day was then spent riding through the forest on traffic-free paths. We had a crosswind, rather than a headwind, which made things easier, and once again the route was mostly flat and largely deserted.

Traffic-free, smooth tarmac and the temperature getting up to a balmy 12 degrees C

It was an uneventful day and towards the end of it, we found a hotel in the town of Mimizan, a few miles inland from the coast. We’d covered 76 miles, including the ‘wasted’ 12 when had to retrace our route, so had again worked up a bit of an appetite. After a quick change of clothes we strolled into the small restaurant next door to the hotel and had the best meal of our trip so far. Amazingly, the whole place was run by one guy who was the chef, waiter, and sommelier. While we were there he served 26 covers with amazing dexterity and little delay. The food, drinks, and service were all outstanding.

The atmospheric Mimizan restaurant where the owner did everything, and all of it well

While we were eating, we looked up the weather forecast for the next few days. It was not good. Heavy rain was forecast and there was an orange storm warning for the west coast of France due on the third day. Once again, we decided that the train might be a good option for the next stage of the trip, even though the nearest station was 18 miles away. With that in mind, we retired for the evening.

Crossing into France and Eurovelo 1

San Sébastien is close to the French border at Hendaye and it was only a short ride along the cycleway to enter France unchallenged. Almost immediately, we came across a sign for Eurovelo 1, the Atlantic coast cycle route that runs from Portugal to Norway. We planned to follow this route part of the way, so somewhere southwest of Bordeaux. An immediate change was that facemasks were no longer compulsory in shops in France, and only perhaps one in ten people were wearing them. The regulations in Spain were still in force but scheduled to be relaxed from April 20th.

Eurovelo 1 was signposted immediately we entered France

It continued to be cold, just a few degrees C, but the sun was shining so we got our heads down to do battle with the north-easterly wind – at least this section of the ride was pretty flat most of the way to Bayonne.

The coastal scenery was stunning as we pedalled through Hendaye and on via Saint-Jean-de-Luz towards Biarritz. Most of the route was on traffic-free cycle paths or quiet roads. The tourist season hadn’t started.

Sun, sea, sand…and warm clothing
There are cycleways everywhere in France and most of them with surfaces comparable to those of the excellent roads
Miles of trails through woodland and forest added variety to this section

The view from the bench where we stopped for lunch – yet another baguette!

Bayonne is an industrial town, in stark contrast to the architectural elegance of Biarritz, and we followed the railway line to the north of the city in search of somewhere to stay. couldn’t come up with anywhere suitable in Ondres so we ended up going a few miles back on ourselves to Tarnos, just north of Bayonne, and checked into a modest, modern two-star hotel. It was fine except that the only choice of restaurants within walking distance was Macdonald’s or Buffalo Wings. We settled for the latter as the lesser of two evils. It was fine, but not the French cuisine for which we’d hoped. That was yet to come but we’d covered just under 60 miles, and our hunger and thirst were satisfied.

Exploring San Sébastien: food and drink!

The train journey from Elgoibar to San Sébastien was smooth and easy. There were dedicated bike spaces on the train and it was only a couple of hours before we were checked into a hotel and ready to explore the food and drink for which San Sébastien is renowned. Pintxos – a Basque version of tapas – was the order of the day. We crawled several bars on a sunny but cold afternoon and took in the sights.

Ready to join the train at Elgoibar on a cold and windy Sunday morning
It might look like a summer’s day on San Sébastien’s seafront but it was about 4 degrees C with a strong north-easterly wind
Andy enjoying one of the local delicacies – goose barnacles, called ‘percebes’ in Spanish. Richard took one look and decided to pass up the opportunity.

When we returned to our hotel we agreed to make a relatively early start the next day and try to achieve a decent mileage to make up for our idleness and burn off some calories!

Bilbao to near Elgoibar, and the hazards of GPS navigation apps

The trip from Portsmouth to Bilbao on Brittany Ferries was smooth in every respect. Good service, good food, and calm waters throughout the crossing. In the best traditions of our friendship, we are last to depart the bar on the evening of April 1st, having treated a few hardy souls to the delights of Richard’s travel ukulele and Andy’s newly acquired harmonica!

There’s nothing quite like a travel ukulele for encouraging voluntary social distancing

At 7am local time, we disembarked to the quiet streets of the Bilbao ferry terminal and headed to the city centre some 10 miles away. It was just a few degrees C but sunny and dry, so all started out well.

We followed the estuary until our GPS directed us to cross it on a cable platform ‘ferry’, the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. We had to find a cash machine on the other side because they only accepted cash, and we weren’t carrying any! Continuing to follow the river we then stopped for a quick photo shoot across from the Guggenheim Museum on the opposite bank.

Crossing the river suspended on cables..unusual, to say the least

Our destination for the day was a converted farmhouse about 8km outside of Elgoibar in the foothill of the Picos mountains, a ride of about 50 miles where most of the hills would be in the later part of the ride. We could see snow on the hills to our right and it remained cold. There was a little sleet at first followed by prolonged period of rain. As far as practicable, we stopped to shelter from the rain, grabbing coffee and sustenance from various cafes along the route, but we inevitably became wet and uncomfortable. At one point. Andy took the opportunity to wash his bike off with the rain pouring off the roof of a building during one of the downpours.

An impromptu bike wash made use of the rain pouring from the roof under which we were sheltering

The terrain became hiller in the second part of the ride and we braced ourselves for the final climb to our accommodation for the night, the Casa rural Abatetxe. We followed our GPS app, Komoot, and after a huge climb, a short descent, and another shorter climb on rough concrete roads that were too steep to cycle up safely, we were directed to ‘turn left’. The track indicated was hardly passable on foot, let alone on a loaded bike and although we knew we we’re close, we couldn’t see our destination. We had an inkling that we are on the wrong side of a valley, so we put in a call to Matteo, our host. He stepped outside to look for us and, sure enough, was able to see our bike lights in the distance. We were not far away but he said that it was a round trip of several mile to get to him – the app had led us up the wrong climb. Matteo offered to have us picked up by his wife, Annie, and we accepted gratefully. We had ridden loaded bikes 53 miles in the rain and cold and were ready for dinner.

Climbing up the wrong route to our accommodation due to misdirection by our GPS apps made us reconsider the benefits of paper maps.

Sunny Spain…

As Annie drove us to the farmhouse, we realised just how tough a ride it would have been if we’d insisted on cycling. The road to the casa was more of the narrow, rough concrete type with gradients that appeared to be 20% in places, and the snow was falling. The forecast for the following day was for 2 degrees C, and more snow. Our destination would be San Sébastien, about 50 miles away, and with the biggest climb of our tour to start the day. As this was meant to be a leisure ride, rather than an endurance test, we decided to take the train and continue our ride the following day after exploring the eateries of San Sébastien.

In the meantime, dinner at the casa was a simple salad, superb homemade pizzas and chocolate brownie, and some local cider to wash it all down. The casa is a beautifully restored building in a stunning setting but it was not the weather for sitting outside to admire the view. The following morning, after a good breakfast, Matteo drove us into town to catch the train. He could not have been a more considerate and helpful host.

Our casa accommodation on our first night in Spain

My 70th birthday blog, and another adventure is underway

Ready to set off from home two days ago (30th March). My bike is as old as I am, but in better condition!

I’m writing this first entry for our trip on Brittany Ferries’ ‘Salamanca’ ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao. I’m with two friends who’ve been mad enough to ride with me in Europe in the past and were up for another adventure. Richard is a retired consultant psychiatrist and Andy, on the left, is a freelance IT boffin. Both are great cooks, which is handy if we stay in some B&B places, and it’s great to have them along as my carers on this journey.

The plan, such as it is, is to ride around 50 miles each day. If you ride regularly, as we all do, that’s not a big deal and should allow us plenty of time for good lunches and sight-seeing. We decided to cycle to Portsmouth over two days, rather than complete that journey in one, which is what we’ve done previously.

The first day was cool but dry and we enjoyed riding through the most picturesque villages of Wiltshire and Hampshire until Richard noticed his saddle seemed to be stroking the inside of his thigh. While not a sensation to which he would usually object, it clearly indicated a technical problem. In this case, his Brooks B17 saddle (a touring cyclist’s classic) has suffered a broken fixture underneath and was decidedly bent. It was rideable, just, but would need to be replaced.

It shouldn’t be that shape at the front!

We found a helpful bike shop in the middle of Salisbury and although it didn’t have a replacement B17 in stock, they had a more modern Brooks C19 saddle which, after a few miles, Richard declared was a comfortable substitute.

Just one of the many idyllic scenes encountered as we cycled through Wiltshire.

We decided to push on an do a few more miles because the weather was due to deteriorate on March 31st, getting down to a few degrees C due to a cold north wind and with the potential for sleet and hail. We chose the Cromwell Inn in Romsey for our overnight stop. We were able to take the bikes into our rooms and everything about the place was perfect, including the free beer on arrival. We’d covered 63 miles and had just 30 more to do to reach the ferry.

The ride from Romsey to Portsmouth was fine for a few miles but it didn’t take long before we reached what felt like endless suburbs and industrial areas. There were designated cycleways but many were on lumpy pavements and we experienced endless delays in having to switch from one side of the road to the other to stay on the cycle routes. The traffic was heavy almost everywhere, the temperature felt below 5C with the wind chill, and we experienced the promised sleet and hail showers along the way. In contrast to our first day, it was not enjoyable cycling and the day was topped off with Andy getting our first puncture of the trip, having ridden over some broken glass in an underpass.

The first puncture of the trip, fixed during one of several sleet showers

We arrived at the ferry terminal at 5pm with an hour to go before we’d board the ship. The wind was fierce and there was another flurry of snow so we were all wrapped up like Arctic explorers.

Finally getting on to the ferry was quite a relief from the cold!

When we land in Bilbao at 6am (5am UK time) it’s due to be 6C and there could be some rain.

We have 50 miles to cover, including a final 5-mile climb to our B&B in the Picos, but it is due to warm up as the week goes by, so there’s plenty to look forward to 😀🚴‍♂️🚴‍♂️🚴‍♂️

Domloup to Saint-Malo, the final ride in France

We were awake early with bright sunshine streaming through the window. Breakfast was booked for 8:30am and we decided to finish the journey to Saint-Malo, even though it was two days until we were due to catch the ferry. According to the weather forecast, there would be an easterly wind, a crosswind for our direction of travel. However, reaching Saint-Malo today would give us a day free to explore the city on Tuesday, before our 8pm crossing back to the UK.

Andy with our host, Alain, as we were about to leave our Domloup gite

After a stop at the pharmacy to collect ibuprofen for my improving knee, and sun cream, we left Domloup at 10am. We decided to visit Auberge la Tourelle in Sens-de-Bretagne for sentimental reasons. I´d received such great hospitality when I arrived there cold, wet and exhausted on April 7, 2012, after covering over 200km on my vintage Thanet bike. We arrived at 12:15pm and enjoyed a great three-course lunch, including wine and coffee, for 14 Euro each. We had a chat with the owner about my previous visit. I´m not sure she remembered it but she did a good job of pretending to! I can´t recommend the auberge too highly, it´s what dining in France is all about and it doesn´t cost the earth either.

Auberge la Tourelle – highly recommended!

As we left the restaurant with about 40 miles to go to Saint-Malo, Andy noticed that he had a puncture in his back tyre. We fixed it on the steps of the town hall and were on our way again about 20 minutes later.

The route to Saint-Malo was lovely. It was sunny, about 18C, and with a cool breeze from the East. Ideal conditions for cycling. We were in rolling countryside so there were a few hills to climb but nothing of any consequence. We had a small beer about eight miles out from our destination then we dodged the rush-hour traffic as we entered the city.

We arrived into Saint-Malo about an hour earlier than we had indicated to our host so we sent him a text and had a celebratory Ricard at a bar just inside the ramparts while we waited for a reply.

Andy with windburned cheeks and a small Ricard as a reward for cycling the length of France

Our apartment for the night was one room with a mezzanine floor for the beds – you could kneel beside the beds but not stand up and the steps leading up the mezzanine would be unlikely to pass any UK health and safety regulations. However, the building was clearly hundreds of years old. It was called ‘Le 1684’ and had great charm and character.

Ancenis to Domloup, Brittany

When I woke this morning, the first thing I noticed was the pain in my left knee. A good night’s sleep had done nothing to ease it. However, as I moved around the apartment, I though it possible that if we took things easy, we should still be able to cover the required 40 miles of riding to keep us on schedule. We agreed to split it into four ten-mile sections and to rest in between each. It should hardly be the most challenging of excursions.

After the usual confusion of trying to find the right way out of town, we found ourselves pedalling along quiet D-roads in glorious sunshine, albeit into a strongly northerly headwind that was to stay with us for most of the day.

There were a couple of people fishing in the Loire as be did a ride past before heading North

I took a couple of ibuprofen to ease my knee pain and our Komoot navigation soon had us heading out into the countryside to continue our journey. A few parts of the route were on unpaved surfaces reminiscent of the L’Eroica vintage bike ride, but it was easy enough to navigate the potholes.

The crunch of gravel under our wheels featured on a few stretches of the route

Large parts of the route were virtually traffic-free and we did see a few French cyclists. Just as in the UK, Sunday seems to be the main day for cycling. They’re not a particularly sociable bunch, most of our cries of ´bonjour´ being ignored.

We encountered a typical French market in one of the small towns en-route and stopped to pick up more water. We were also looking for a pharmacy so that we could buy more painkillers (for the misbehaving knee) and some sun protection cream, but it soon became clear that every French pharmacy, and most everything else except bars, are closed on a Sunday.

Market day in a town whose name I can’t remember!

As we came to the outskirts of Chateuabriant, we were directed onto a cycleway that was once a railway line. At first we thought it was going to take us out of our way but Komoot directed us along it for 15 miles or so. The surface was perfect, the surrounding deciduous woodland so much more alive with birdsong than the pine forests in the South West we’d passed through earlier in the week, and we were sheltered from the wind, at least for a while.

We enjoyed some of the best riding of the week along this converted railway line

After covering 35 miles since we’d set out, and having left the cycleway for roads again, we stopped to discuss where we should stay for the night. I looked up my blog post from 2012 to remind myself about the name of a loverly Auberge where i had dined and stayed overnight back then. It was 40 miles away but my knee was suitably numbed and so we set up a route to the destination in Komoot and started pedalling. One hour later we decided to check that the Restaurant Auberge La Tourelle would be open when we arrived. To our disappointment, it would not.

We carried on travelling North and at 5pm stopped in the town of Janzé to consider our options for a bed for the night and food. They were limited – no hotels in the town and one pizzeria that was due to open at 6pm. Further research turned up a gîte in Domloup, just northwest of the larger town of Chateaugiron. We booked a room and pedalled on into the continuing northerly wind, but at least it was sunny. It was our first totally dry day of the last five.

We arrived at La Métairie a little after 6pm to be greeted by Jo-Jo, the owners’ dog. The room was great but had just one double bed, not the two we thought we had booked. Alain, the husband of the couple running the establishment quickly reassured us that this would be converted into two singles while we were out for dinner. He then furnished us a bottle of local apple juice that we gratefully consumed while watching the swifts dart around the courtyard.

Being a Sunday evening, there was only one restaurant in the town open, and it was 2km away. Alain kindly offered to drive us there and back. The restaurant was a rather odd, modern, self-service place on a business park but the food was fine, if not exceptional, and we were glad of it, having cycled a little over 60 miles.

Les Herbiers to Ancenis

We made a late start after breakfast to allow the heavy rain showers in Les Herbiers to subside. After a few minor diversions caused by timing delays in the GPS app, we found the road North. It was a long but steady climb and we knew it would take us to the highest point of the ride towards Saint-Malo. At the top, there were ancient windmills to the left of us and an ancient church, with the obligatory stained-glass windows, to the right.

In an adjacent field the cattle were unimpressed and simply surveyed the surrounding countryside.

The northbound D160 felt reasonably safe but there was a fair amount of traffic so we once again decided that a detour onto smaller roads would be worthwhile. We stopped at the first village, sat on a bench and ate a couple of ham and cheese rolls that Andy had snaffled from the breakfast buffet. An almond croissant from the village boulangerie completed the meal.

The sun was breaking through frequently and we were lulled into a false sense of security that we wouldn’t see any rain before our next destination, the town of Ancenis on the mighty river Loire. The only problem was that a niggling pain in my left knee, which I first noticed on the way into Les Herbiers, had become a lot worse. It was really uncomfortable, limiting our speed, and we made a further stop so that Andy could dispense his supply of ibuprofen.

The pain dulled and we ploughed slowly onwards, incurring another delay when Andy noticed my rather deflated back tyre. It’s a tubeless tyre, like those on a car, and contains a fluid which seals small punctures on contact with air, although not without some loss of air as it does its job. We pumped it up, repeated the process a few miles along the road, and it appeared to be fully repaired, unlike my knee. (There was a puncture in my front tyre on day one of our trip too. That sealed well but only after spraying little dots of sealant over the front of my jacket!)

About 12 miles South of Ancenis, we stopped at a bar for a medicinal beer and logged onto to search for accommodation. We were immediately struck by a smart, spacious Ancenis apartment in a good location near the Loire so we booked it. A rain shower passed over during our last hour of cycling but so quickly that we’d dried out by the time we reached the bridge over the Loire.

The bridge into Ancenis, with a dedicated cycle lane

A photograph can´t do it justice: the Loire is a majestic river!

The apartment was one of two in a converted old building and the conversion was done with some great style. Andy was keen to cook again and there was a well-equipped kitchen.

Home cooking

After a short shopping trip, French-trimmed lamb cutlets with peppers and salad re-fuelled us. We ended these evening with a stroll to a nearby bar with the most fabulous selection of wines.

Andy checking out the best year for Margaux

Rochefort to Les Herbiers – a much better day’s riding, despite the afternoon rain

Rather than breakfast at the hotel, we perched outside of a cafe in the centre of Rochefort and shared a huge almond croissant. A couple of double espressos each kicked started us into riding North again and we enjoyed two benefits over the last couple of days: it wasn’t raining (well, not more than a few drops here and there) and we had a tailwind most of the time. We had about 230 miles to go to our final destination of Saint-Malo, so only needed to cover around 50 miles each day.

Most of the morning was spent on long, straight D roads with relatively light traffic so we made great progress, averaging 14.5 miles an hour by the time we reached our lunch stop. It was agreed that we’d follow my Komoot navigation and the previously evening I had carefully plotted a route that was reasonably direct but avoided major roads.

We rode several sections on dedicated cycleways, some alongside rivers and canals, and passed through lovely villages and towns in the Vendée.

Grey skies but good riding in the Vendée where cyclists are well catered for

At one point, Andy noticed a huge bicycle frame attached to the side of a building so we went back to photograph it. We’ve no idea who built it or why, and the local guard dog had no intention of letting us in to find out.

As we continued North, the terrain became hillier after the first 50 miles and just after 3pm it started to rain again. It wasn’t heavy but it was persistent. Despite this, we decided to carry on to the next major town, Les Herbiers, so that we would have miles in hand. It would give us the option of shorter days ahead, or exploring a little more.

We had a sufficient break from the rain to dry out whilst riding but as as came into Led Herbiers, with 80 miles covered, it started to rain again. We took immediate shelter in a hotel doorway, then we went inside and booked a room at Hotel de Relais. It had its own restaurant so after showering and changing we took dinner there. We were tired and it was raining again, so there was little temptation to explore the town.