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The Algarve and the end of the road

The last few days have seen us cycling down the coast, in a more leisurely fashion towards Faro.  Originally we had intended to catch trains back up to the north of Spain and sail home from Santander, but the train situations didn't allow for easy transportation of bikes and so we opted to fly home with them from Faro.

So we cycled and camped our way south, mostly with good weather except for a dense sea fog in one town.  The southern tip of Portugal is a National Park and the last days riding was spectacularly beautiful, and warm.  But we eventually ran out of road and ended up in a version of Lands End, with sun and no charges for being there.

San Vincente The lighthouse at the end of the road in the most South Westerly part of Portugal.

Camping in the town near by then making our way to Faro to pack bikes into bags for a flight back to Bristol. Five weeks on the road, four of them cycling, over 2200 kms and three very different countries. A great trip.

Arrival in Lisbon

Made it to Lisbon after negotiating the industrial outskirts, dodging HGVs and all manner of rural traffic on the way in.  On our way to the old part of town we passed an enormous cruise ship tied up on a quay and not surprisingly the town was full of passengers, wandering around doing the sightseeing thing.

After having our picture taken in the main square, a quick beer and some lunch we headed out of  the city on a ferry across the bay to the other side and what we hoped would be quieter roads leading to the Algarve.

Main square

Landed on the other side and chose a town on the south coast which looked from the map might be nice and had camping. Turned out to be a very busy route and town like Torquay in smaller and at the bottom of a very steep hill. So much for guessing from maps.

Pedalling south

The weather has finally shifted from grey cold and wet to a more Mediterranean climate and this part of the trip feels a bit more like a holiday and less of an "endurance" event.

We cycled south on our second day on country roads that skirted most of the hills and whilst there were more than a few juggernauts, they weren't too busy. Cloudy but dry till lunch when the heavens started to open and we took refuge in a restaurant for lunch, definitely not picnic weather. There was a TV on, as there is in most establishments with a very religious festival being shown. It turns out to have been Fatima, a major Catholic Church vision that occurred in Portugal in 1917 and was later sanctified by the church.

We were headed to stay with Keith and old friend from Totnes and his wife Hedy just east of Coimbra. They have a place in a hamlet in the hills surrounded by pines and the ubiquitous eucalyptus trees which abound in Portugal. A couple of lovely days with them catching up on sleep and nourishment and exploring some bits of the country they were familiar with.

The coast looked appealing but as we headed south we kept on going instead of veering west and ended up in Tomar, a historic town made famous as the the home of the Nights Templar in the 12 & 13 th Centuries.

Tomar castle and conventWe spent the morning wandering the cloisters and vestibules of the old convent and marvelled at the mix of architecture and ecclesiastical designs.

And then headed south again, along what we thought would be quiet back roads running down the valley parallel with the Rio Tejo. Nice roads, few hills but as the afternoon wore on, busier and busier with more and more articulated lorries barraleling along. Felt quite intimadating as the afternoon got later and the road narrower. Eventually our designated town for the night was reached to find that the campsite symbol on the map did not elicit any campsites..... And instead we had to go out on tiny lane another 6km to a site that wasn't really open and no food or shops any where near. So supper was had by rooting around the various leftovers we had in our panniers. But the site had beautiful pine trees and we had a good night beneath clear skies.

Made it to Portugal!!!

Today we crossed in to Portugal.  Ciudad Rodriguo is about 25km from the border and we set off in the cold grey of the morning on more of the old rolling roads that had become so familiar. Less of a headwind but still more incline than down. Crossing the actual boarder was rather unceremonious, no checks and no guards. We stopped for coffe in the first cafe we found in Portugal to warm up (9* C) and check where would go next. The main road is an Autovia, motorway so we needed to find the old national roads that preceded the AVs but which aren't very well signed.

The scenery changed very rapidly from the open plains to steep valleys and wooded slopes and the cycling with it. Curving downhill runs followed by slow steady climbs up the other side.

Wooded hillsides











Portugal already feels very different from Spain. Softer, smaller maybe gentler. A couple of times on our first day when we were looking at maps trying to work out our route drivers stopped to ask us, in good English, if we needed help and where did we want to go. Really helpful and very friendly.  On the challenging side, Portuguese isn't at all like Spanish, or any other language to listen to, so I feel a bit adrift in a country where I can't communicate on even a basic level very easily, though we have come across people who speak French if they don't have English.  Will have to learn some basic words!

Portugal also seems to be cheaper than Spain for coffee, food etc, and economically is probably not as well off. Roads are more potted and the surfaces more cracked, more older cars on the road.

We had aimed for a small town with a campsite marked on the map, Coletico, just west of Guarda, but on arrival found there was no campsite, and as it was getting late in the day having shelters in bus stops a couple of times from heavy showers, opted for a room in a pension/hotel that we found online and was very reasonable.  Also had a simple but tasty meal in the restaurant next door, which included three courses and a couple of carafes of wine for 17€ for both us.

The last city in Spain

This evening we arrived in the city of Ciudad Rodrigo, the last major town before entering Portugal. Psychologically this was probably my toughest day though not the most physically demanding. The evening that we arrived in Salamanca I wasn't feeling good, probably something I ate or drank (not alcohol :-) ) at lunch and by the time we settled in to the youth hostel after arriving in the rain, I was quite ill. So didn't go out to explore the tapas opportunities of this city and the next morning still feeling very fragile, I went for only a short explore to see the Plaza de Mayor, the cathedral and Roman bridge, before returning to my bed for most of the afternoon. Fortunately we had planned to have an extra day as the weather forecast was looking very wet in the afternoon.

Even by the evening I wasn't great and had a little supper, nothing too greasy! By the morning I was feeling a bit better but low energy and we had over 90kms to cover. The road was as previous days long long straights, rolling hills, but more up than down, or so it seemed and under a lowering sky, a headwind, enough to make cycling that bit tougher. The plains continued and we were still at over 800 metres. By the time we reached the halfway point the showers started catching us and we had to duck for shelter where we could find it qfrom the most formidable ones before donning wet wet weather gear for the final hour. 

This is Spain, mid May and the temperature was less than 12* C.  There has been snow in many parts of Spain over the past few days, I saw online that London was 23* C. Fortunately what ever afflicted me hadn't done for Ken so he was in better shape and set the pace, with consideration for my depleted state. We finally rolled into CR around 5:30pm in the rain. The forecast had promised a sunny evening. We found the campsite, looked at the sodden grass and the complete lack of any break in the rain and googled a cheap hostel. Warm and dry and indoors, not under damp tents. Luxury! A bar, a hot meal and comfy beds, a better end to the day.

The plains of Spain

The plain of north Spain is huge, but more surprisingly high at between 700 and 900 metres!
Wide open spaces, long long straight roads surrounded by fields of wheat and barley. Windmills dot the higher ridges. The local roads have almost no traffic on them and often feel like a bespoke cycle track.

Long empty roads
The view looks the same in both directions. If a car passes we can watch it disappear into the distance for many minutes......

Coming to a bend in the road raises some slight anticipation of what is coming next, but usually just another long straight stretch. The only pitfall to cycling in this wide open space is when there is a headwind, it makes for tough days. The views and the spaciousness are amazing, not like anything I've seen in the UK, not even east Anglia.

From Burgos we headed to Vallaholidad, not a town I'd heard of before, but where we very warmly welcomed by Jaun and his family whom we had contacted via the WarmShowers site and invited us to stay with them. We had a delightful stay, they showed us their city and a taste of Spanish culture and we ended up staying two nights which was very welcome break from the wheels, and a day of rain.
Jaun and family
Juan, Sylvia, Luis and Lara on the battlements of the castle in Penafiel where we also had a fantastic lunch.

Rested and well fed we headed on early the next day to Salamanca, 120 kms south. Anticipating showers we had sun for much of the way, and again the roads were largely empty and rolling. At the top of each rise we hope for a descent, only to find the plain continued and then rose again. We were cycling at over 800m. As we approached Salamanca we could see the darkest piles of clouds with drenching downpours scattered on the horizon. We'd avoided some by good fortune but in the end we had to seek shelter and don full waterproofs for our arrival into the city. We'd booked ahead a place in the youth hostel and welcomed a dry room and shower.

First night and days in Spain

So, our first night in Spain was wild camping in woods by a cold fresh running stream. We'd headed generally downhill towards Pamplona when both Ken and spotted a likely looking path at the edge of a field. This turned out to be a perfect spot. Ice cold plunge/wash, something to eat and we were sorted. On the other side of the stream in the woods, the Camino path where the walkers were making their way to the next village.

Planning the next day by the stream

We had the next morning in Pamplona, circling the city on our bikes, picking up a few items form the camping shops, trying the 'Menu del dia' before heading back on the road. It felt like a lovely old city full of character.

Climbing out of town in to the hills for our next destination we had a sense of the plains.

Estella, a small town picked on the map and part of the Camino de Santiago route was the destination for our second night. It was a hot afternoon with a couple of demanding hill climbs, going over the Pyrenees was obviously not the end of going up! It turned out to be a small old town, with narrow cobbled streets and the stream we had camped at previously was now a river (Arga). The campsite turned out to be some way out of town past an industrial site seemingly making industrial alcohol 24 hours a day. There weren't any Camino pilgrims willing to walk extra at the end of their long day.

Day two in Spain and we wary of the steep hills...... But to our delight we found long rolling empty roads (superseded by new motorways) going on for miles or kilometres, and we fairly flew along. Almost dedicated cycling roads as were passed by only a couple of cars all morning. By the afternoon there were a few more hills that we struggled up before arriving at our destination town of Lograno. Many Spanish towns and villages have a semi industrial wasteland of closed and derelict factories and warehouses evidence of the poor economic climate that is still current here. Some of the complexes are huge.

Day three and our destination is Burgos. We anticipated empty roads parallel to new motorways and for the morning we weren't disappointed, but after lunch the roads reverted to 'A' roads and we found ourselves beside thundering juggernauts as we headed west. Scary stuff. We also found ourselves another hill climb, this time higher in altitude though not in duration as our Pyrenees crossing.
On the hill to Burgos
In the distance rain showers and only a slight descent to the city which is about 950 metres above sea level, higher than Snowden. A wet arrival through another industrial derelict zone and a confusing perambulaition trying to find the Tourist Information office. Sign posting is often very hapahazard. We looked at hostels but ended up opting for another campsite on the edge of the city, well populated with Dutch couples in caravans and motor homes.
From here we turn more SW and head for Portugal, leaving the Camino and its host of steadfast walkers.

Leaving France

Our journey into the mountains was not entirely uneventful. Our Garmin friend (GPS) Insisted on taking us on a non existent route round Bayonne, which led to several frustrating false starts getting out of the city. We finally found a riverside route that took us the valley to Cambo.
For me this was familiar territory in that I had hitchhiker through the area and stayed way back in the autumn of 79 and again with a group of Plymouth Uni students in 93. It is Basque Country and all the signs are in two languages.

From Cambo to St Jean Pied a Port, jumping off point for the pass into Spain and the beginning of this stage of the Camino de Santiago. We chose a 'scenic' route, which proved quiet but ver steep in sections and I ended up with a snapped chain and a puncture. After some very greasy dealings with said chain, and many baby wipes, managed to get going again and arrived late and tired in St Jean. Camped in to town and did some shopping for our epic climb. For details of our provisioning see Ken's blog .

So the morning of our pass crossing dawned grey and cloudy, which was was probably a blessing. The first 9kms were fairly straightforward and not too steep, and then the ascent began and we crossed the border quite low down.

First coffee
Fully loaded, heading deeper into Spain

First cafe in Spain, and a quick cup of coffee and carbo loading with some dense cake like provision we had bought. Then up and up and slowly up. Pauses every few kilometres on a steadily rising road until we finally reached the summit, 1057 metres after 27 km of climb.
And the sun was shining on the other side of the mountains and we descended a few hundred metres for our pic in lunch. We'd done it.

Bordeaux to Bayonne and beyond

On a lovely sunny Friday morning we departed the village La Sauve, just east of Bordeaux, rested and extremely well fed and looked after.

We were headed south and west into le Landes, land of pines, flat and far reaching. Long straight roads and little traffic make for good cycling, though there was always the hope that there may be a slight change of view round the next bend.

We overnighted just outside a small town, Lehouyade, in the middle of the Landes. A very nice evening in the sun eating our latest supermarket acquisitions, and beer by a small lake, until the midges arrived and we beat a retreat to our tents.
The morning dawned showery and we managed to pack up in the dry spells, but just as we set off the heavens opened and we found ourselves cycling into lashing rain and a very stiff headwind. It was some 30kms to the next town, but we assumed it would pass quickly. It didn't and we had to make full use of all our waterproofing to attempt to stay dry. After a couple of paused enroute and fortified with another pain au raisin we reached our destination, Mimizan as the clouds parted. We had crossed the whole of the Landes and we're now on the coast. The wind continued but as we turned down the coast the wind veered and became a bit of a tail wind. Now we found a lovely smooth path inland from the beach running through tall pines. Gorgeous.

The little towns by the beach are like ghost towns, wind blown sand everywhere, a few disolate tourists and nothing open. The sea was wild in the wind and we returned to the relative calm of the forest, but the sand on the coast had joined the oil on the chains of our bikes and the sound and sensation of grinding metal was very unsettling.

Also on the coast and now only a couple of hours behind us after our Bordeaux detour was a friend, John, from Totnes and a friend of his also John who were cycling to Santander. We planned to meet up at some point further down the beach. But having realised that the beach towns were inhospitable Ken and I chose a small town inland to rendezvous. Our comms to this point had been SMS but now, John had no signal and so didn't get the change of venue, it was some hours before they found us in the field behind the municipal stadium enjoying a fire and supper.

The next day, Sunday dawned sunny and still and we cycled together in convoy down the coast all the way to Bayonne. Here the two Johns went west into Spain and Ken and I headed for the departure point for our Spanish leg of the trip, St Jean Pied a Port in the low foothills of the Pyrenees which we had seen rising in the distance as we approached Bayonne.

Bridge in Bayonne
Saying good bye to the Johns in Bayonne as they head west and we head into the mountains.

Heading for the hills

Heading for the Gironde

Having said grateful farewells to our Warm Shower hosts Katherine and Lauren, we headed down to Lucon and then off on another cross country oddessy. Navigating the smaller roads still provides challenges. Relating names or numbers on the map to what appears on road signs, and if the Garmin, GPS device is playing, cross checking with that to determine the direction of travel. Also our start point from each town isn't always easy to determine which makes tying up the map to a route difficult. Asking local passers by can be illuminating, especially if their first look is one of incomprehension before enthusiastically telling us to go in a completely different direction..... Our trajectory out of towns and villages often involves a couple circuits of the 'centre ville' before finding to signs that point us on our way.

The landscape for the morning of our ride takes us across very flat plains of the Marais with canals and ditches of water and long straight roads unbending into the far distance.

The Garmin GPS says we should turn right here!The GPS says go right

We picked a small town on the map as our destination, anticipating a campsite, cafe, maybe a restaurant... There was a campsite, by a quiet stretch of river, but the town, Tonnay Boutonne was devoid of almost any signs of life, and the one person we did meet we ended up meeting three times. Maybe there isn't anyone else........

The next morning we head south again aiming for the coast of the Gironde estuary. We circle east of Rochefort and pass through Saintes, a town with a Roman history. The sun shines briefly on us here as we have a picnic lunch in a park, before reverting to the low grey clouds and chilly wind that have been with us all morning.
We stick to minor roads and pass through any number of small villages, often devoid of people and also lacking opportunities for a coffee stop. Around 5pm we reach the coast, find a place of a coffee and then track down a campsite , one of the few that is open, and it has hot showers.

Can we stay here? Could we get them signed up on the Warm Showers website?

A cold night but the sun shines in the morning the sky is clear and the wind has dropped. The route down the estuary towards Bordeaux is flat and the cycling conditions are perfect. The vineyards are just coming in to leaf and there is a real feel of Spring. By late morning it is even warm enough to delayer some of the clothing.

Wine country, I wonder if I can get this on my bike?I wonder if I could get this on my bike.....

For lunch, we spot a 'Rotisserie' van and buy a roast chicken and some bread which we hungrily devour. The GPS does well today and guides us around the built up areas and main roads to get us to our destination. We are heading just east of Boradeaux to stay with friends (Martine and Stephen Batchelor) for a couple of nights, which will include a rest day.

Loire and south

Heading south down the coast in a complete mix of weathers. Cool breezes, often the dreaded headwind makes getting the appropriate clothing layers difficult. Regular stops to dress or undress, check the map etc make for a slow but steady start to the day. The mid morning stop for coffee and pain au raisin are always anticipated keenly as a sort of second breakfast. Keeps the tanks topped up.
Pornic on the coast where we spent Saturday night after crossing the Loire was a welcome opportunity for a hot shower after a previous days of cold cat washes or dips in streams.
Sunday headed south and east following small roads on the map, navigating from town to village to village along small Deparmental roads trying to keep track of road numbers. These change periodically as we cross Departmental boundaries and so keeps us checking the map regularly, also to remind ourselves of the next village we are supposed to be heading for.

Ken had logged on to the cycling site "Warm showers" ( a site for touring cyclists, a bit like couch surfing) early in the day and we were delighted to get an invitation from one of the hosts on the site who was on our route to come and stay. It turned out to be a long 130km day when we finally arrived, but a warm welcome, the warm shower, a meal and a bed all made it very worthwhile and our hosts were equally welcoming.


So we arrived in Roscoff on the Wednesay morning. Cool but dry after an uneventful crossing. First thing to get used to is cycling on the 'other'side of the road. And a headwind into Morlaix to test our mettle after which we rewarded ourselves with coffee and pain au raisin. The first of what will become a daily ritual.

Campsites are largely closed so when we are looking for somewhere to stay, because we are camping, we end up in empty sites that have limited facilities (water, sometimes warm) but are free.

Over the past couple of days we have worked our way across Brittany, along country roads, canal towpaths and through various towns. (Carhaix, Pontivy, Redon) and innumerable villages. Dry days but some rain at night. Acclimatising to cycling fully laden bikes takes a few days, as does packing and unpacking them.

Today, Saturday, we said farewell to Andy who returns to Roscoff with the train and Ken and I crossed the Loire on the huge St Nazaire bridge. A milestone on our journey south.

Tuesday sailing

In the end there was another email to cancel the ferry for the Monday night...... disappointing as I was prepared and almost fully packed and ready to go. So instead we were rebooked on the Tuesay night sailing.

The bike was repacked and final bits added. It now weighs a tonne, well maybe not that much but a lot more than when riding it bare. it always takes a bit of getting used to as there is a different balance when riding with panniers and a slight sense of 'wobble' in the steering.

There are three of us setting off, Ken, Andy and myself. Andy is with us until Nantes in southern Brittany, though he may be persuaded to go a bit further. Ken and I are intending to go all the way to Portugal.

No email to cancel the ferry, so we arrange to meet up for the ride to Plymouth, about 25 miles from Totnes. Ferry leaves at 10pm and we need to be there an hour earlier so we leave in good time and
peddle steadily south on small side roads.

Setting off

ferry getting readySo this is the first post on the day we set off. Ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff (overnight).
Desperately cramming the panniers full ready to cycle down to Plymouth - when there is an email to say that due to technical difficulties, the ferry will be delayed by approx two hours. This gives time for an extra two hours of packing and repacking, adding and discarding. Not sure it is all that useful!