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 😀🚴‍♂️🚴‍♂️🚴‍♂️