Category Archives: Cycling

Posts that include cycling day-trips

(During) Home Exchange 2 – South to Périgueux, Cazeneuve, and some France Passion vineyards

We returned home on time from Lac de St. Mathieu to say goodbye to our first guests, and to begin to prepare our home for the arrival of our second visiting Home Exchange family.  They arrived punctually the next morning and we welcomed them all into our newly-cleaned home.  After a speedy tour and basic overview of how to look after our pool, we left them to settle in and enjoy.  We headed south out of the ‘Shire’ (Haute Vienne to others) to our first planned stop at Périgueux.  We were last here on the day we bought our French house, and were then a little distracted by calls, so it was good to return and see it afresh.  It was a Sunday morning and we thought the town would be closed and quiet, but it was mid-festival and there were many places open, with crowds of people wandering around.  It was as beautiful as previously, although decorated with millions of pieces of coloured plastic.

Perigueux - (bridge approach)

Perigueux - (walking the streets)

We doodled south along the sleepy backroads of Dordogne, to reach Domaine de la Lande, on the outskirts of Monbazillac.  This was a France Passion vineyard where we parked up adjacent to neat lines of vines, were graciously welcomed and invited to a tasting session at 6pm.  After a lazy afternoon we arrived into the quirky tasting room, site of a thousand fun nights.  A memory wall was covered with photos of camping cars arriving there for many years, under all country flags.  Our host was a fantastic character, explaining all about their wines with humour, passion and vigour.  His grandfather was Albert Camus, but not the famous one.  He was the fourth generation of winemakers to run this domaine, his son is now in charge of the main business (he still loves to take the fun-filled dégustations) and his 18yo grand-daughter is in line to be the future proprietor, the sixth generation.

Domaine de la Lande - (relaxing at vineyard)

Domaine de la Lande - (walking through the vines

Monbazillac - sunset in vines

There were four couples from other vans in the same tasting.  Max the dog, visiting along with one camping-car couple, was adopted by us (or us by him) for the evening.  After eight or nine small glasses of varied tasting, trying to keep track of the relentless French chatter and variance in wines was impossible, so I zoned out and just enjoyed the cheery atmosphere.  In the morning we got up early to run a quiet 10km loop of the local vineyards, but a few kilometres in Nicky felt a little light-headed and dizzy, so we gently walked back.  We saw the same beautiful views, breathed the same morning freshness, all just at a slower pace, allowing more time to appreciate it.  Once returned we bought a few bottles from the store and said our goodbyes to our gracious host, glad for the fun experience.

Domaine de la Lande - (passionate owner)

Domaine de la Lande - (wines for sale)

Monbazillac - town centre

We kept on moving south, passing vines and sunflowers and stubble fields recently cut for hay, until we moved into the region of plum trees and walnuts.  We soon reached familiar territory, as we were back in Allez-et-Cazeneuve, to visit now old friends Monica & Ken.  We hadn’t seen them since their visit to ours last September, and several other visits had been cancelled due to complications or weather, so it was great to be able to make it work this time.  Soon after our arrival we set out for a gentle countryside walk around some well-worn paths, taking in the views and the reddening sky as we caught up on news.  We cooled off in their pool with a glass of Ken’s wonderful home-brewed beer, ate beautifully roasted home-grown vegetables with succulent fish and had a fun evening of catch-up chat.

With Monica & Ken - (relaxing pool time)

With Monica & Ken - (sunset walk)

With Monica & Ken - (cross-country)

The morning took us out for a 32km cycle around the local countryside, mostly on off-road trails we never found ourselves, even during the two months we house-sat for K&M back in the winter of 2018.  We were not feeling very bike fit, having ignored them for months in favour of running, but were happy to see we could keep up and really enjoyed the route.  We ventured around the perimeter of a huge corn field and found ourselves being showered in river water under the gaze of a giant irrigation frame.  We visited a windmill on a hill in Montpezat before returning through Dolmayrac to finish our loop.  After lunch we had archery.  Ken managed to place an arrow right in the centre of the bullseye, from over 80m away.  He might claim it as skill, but it was a glorious fluke, and with 40 arrows fired between us we only managed to hit the target four times in total.  But this one shot was worth remembering.

With Monica & Ken - (windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (at windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (archery)

We all had a cultured hour’s downtime, us listening to Ken’s classical guitar playing, Monica playing piano in another room, me sketching (practising faces and features) and Nicky undertaking another self-led lesson in Italian.  Rested and contented after our creative pause, it wasn’t long before we were all back at the poolside for a continuation of cooling swims accompanied by trays of tasty beers.  More fabulous food and a little too much wine followed, the chat increasing in volume and timbre with each new glass filled.  It rained heavily overnight, but was dry and bright again by morning.  Nicky & I had a morning run with Ken, a hilly 8km, where the trees dripped on us like showers as we passed under them, with muddy ground underfoot and long grasses tickling our legs.  It was good to shake off that hint of hangover from the previous evening’s excess, and it always feels good to have your prescribed exercise for the day completed before breakfast.  Ken and Monica had their own Home Exchange visitors arriving later that afternoon, so we headed off to give them time to prepare, with fresh aubergines and home-made chilli sauce in hand, and the knowledge it will be late spring 2020 before we have opportunity to meet up again.

With Monica & Ken - (proper bullseye)

With Monica & Ken - (beers and pool)

After a supermarket shop and more beautiful country lanes, we arrived at a France Passion vineyard near Blasimon that afternoon, to be greeted by a huge Great Pyrenees mastiff, the same breed as on the farm at Buron de Fages.  After meeting the owner who would be out later for a marché nocturne, we arranged a time for a tasting.  He was clearly busy and a little stressed, but still had time to gift us a handful of plump, ripe tomatoes from his garden, unprompted, which we could roast with Ken’s aubergine.  At 5pm sharp we had a few quick tasters, bought ourselves a bottle of rosé and a dry white in exchange for our night’s stay, before leaving him to his evening plans.  We settled in for a gentle read and relax in the warm summer evening air.  Late,  as we sipped tea and thought about sleep, we watched a young deer walk through the fully-laden vines very near to our van; a calm, serene view.

Blasimon - (chilling by van)

Blasimon - (Benny in the vines)

Our next stop was at the Grand Etang de Jermaye, a lake we know well from our time in our house-sit near to Riberac.  Within moments of our arrival we decanted to the beach and spent our morning reading and relaxing, interspersed with some longer swims.  Each time we see Monica & Ken we are reminded that we should be swimming more, as they are both passionate and talented long distance swimmers, and they inspire us to push ourselves.  Well toasted, we moved on to Saint-Front-de-Riviere, solely because the aire looked nice in the Camper-Contact app, and we found it to be so.  We had a short walk and found an accessible stretch of trickling river.  It was inevitable; to cool off from the sticky drive, we both stripped and sat down in the shallow flowing water, like in a cold bath.  It was so refreshing and invigorating, and immediately restorative.  We drip-dried and dressed, returning to the aire with cheeky grins, feeling satisfyingly naughty.

There was a lot of noisy palaver later, when many more vans arrived and spent hours wrangling ways to connect themselves to one of the two free electricity points provided.  We stayed well away from it all, and pondered over some motorhomers mini-obsessions with having power, especially free power, at all costs.  After a lazy morning and another chilly river dip, we returned north to Lac de St. Mathieu, originally planning to overnight there.  After an afternoon on the beach, swimming and toasting ourselves, we decided to move on.  There was a weekend event on and looked like being a noisy spot, and as it never hurts to be closer to home, we moved on to overnight at Pageas, our local aire, only 4km from our home.  Only the thumping rattle of falling acorns occasionally landing on our metal roof disturbed our rest, and we were up and ready to say goodbye to our second Home Exchange family.

A&N x

France – Plage de Pampelonne and Saint-Tropez

We awoke early, and as we packed up we chatted to our Slovenian neighbour, the late arrival and aire comedian.  After a few morning laughs we were soon retracing the coast road around and through Toulon After several wrong turns and a couple of sudden sharp exits to avoid various tunnels under the city, we crawled our way east.  The coast road was similar to some in Costa Brava, with beautiful, steep rocky cliffs, private coves and sheltered bays, overhung with gnarled trees with thick foliage.  Black-trunked trees twisted out of the dense undergrowth, giving definition and shadow. Wide and tall umbrella trees, casting dark circles of shade, were scattered throughout.  Huge, deep hedges of bougainvillea, glowing magenta in the sun, defined the edges. We spotted many white beaches dotted at short intervals, each lapped by the shimmering azure ocean and busy with people actively doing nothing.

Road to Toulon

Plage de Pampelonne aire

It was a difficult undulating road complicated and slowed by its many cyclists, but slowly-does-it was the best way to experience it.  We were heading for a large commercial aire right on the sea at Pampallone beach, set a short way south of our main destination – Saint-Tropez.   It was a huge aire, one of the biggest we have ever stayed in, with hundreds of vans scattered around different areas of the land.  We settled in to the accompaniment of loud birdsong and cicadas, with a worrying backdrop of bulldozer.  After a walk to examine the extent of the aire, we unloaded our bikes and set off on our cycle to Saint-Tropez.  Our chosen way began with a rough gravel off-road track, before becoming an easy rolling route on the side of the not too busy main road.  We reached the marina in 25 minutes.

Saint-Tropez (yachts in harbour)

Saint-Tropez (yachts and town)

Our first impressions were as expected – Luxury yachts, polished glamour, a timeless old-school feel, dripping with money.  We locked our bikes to a convenient post and walked all around the marina and through the old town streets, enjoying each vista in turn.  We had expected to be disappointed, predicting that reputation would overstate the reality, but instead we found the town, despite its obvious new-found commercialism, utterly charming.  We walked around a circular tower to another small beach and beyond to a jetty where several others were sun-bathing.  Although we had no towels or suits with us, we were unable to resist and we both stripped for a wonderfully cooling swim in the bay, recapturing the memory and spirit of Bardot and Hepburn.  We were a small part of it all, now,

Saint-Tropez (old town streets)

Refreshed, we climbed to the castle to view the town from above, then returned to the marina for a walk full of dreams of buying a yacht.  The Universe clearly thought we’d had too much of a good day and was ready to even it up.  Cycling home, my front wheel slid off a deep drop on the side of the tarmac and, unable to right myself, I was thrown to my left back into the road.  I landed on my side, slid a few painful metres and lost skin from my ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, elbow, tricep and shoulder; quite the bloody mess.  At least the car behind me on the road stopped sharply rather than bumping straight over me, so it was not half as bad as it could have been.  After a few choice words I picked myself up and rolled back home, marking my route with thick drips of blood.

Saint-Tropez (marina selfie)

Saint-Tropez (swim off jetty)

Once back, I cleaned up my cuts, sanitising them and removing lumps of stubborn gravel.  Deciding it might be of help we hobbled to the busy sandy beach for a swim.  The salt water stung and itched my wounds, but that probably meant it was doing good.  At least I was staying cool, even if I looked like an extra from ‘The Mummy’ when resting on my towel.  With my hydro-therapy complete we returned to the shade of our awning, re-patched everything and decided I needed special vineyard medicine.  As night fell the site echoed with the incredible croaking from breeding toads, drowning out our attempted conversation and television watching.  We were meant to move on, but decided another day of gentle recuperation wouldn’t go amiss, so we decided to rest up another night.

Plage de Pampelonne - busy afternoon

Pampelonne Beach - sunset panorama

Pampelonne - Nicky on rocks

We spent a second day supine on the beach, with only occasional jaunts back to Benny or into the sea disturbing our laziness. We enjoyed a sunset evening walk to a more local beach, where few other people ventured.  This was a curved bay of rounded stones, the shore lined thick with smooth bleached driftwood on one end .  The water was calm and clear, framed with pink skies.  This was to be our final stop on the Mediterranean, on this trip.  In the morning we took the coast road north, passing busy Saint-Tropez and crawling through Saint-Maxime.  We passed busy beaches, none motorhome friendly judging by the barriers, but all very pretty.  We were heading inland, and soon reached an ACSI campsite in Roquebrune-sur-Argens.  We snuggled into a cosy corner plot surrounded with pink flowers.  At our disposal was a 25m lap swimming pool, adjacent Jacuzzi area, sauna and adult-only spa pool.

Benny in leafy campsite

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (chilling in spa)

We had come to the area to kayak on the Argens river, and were delighted to discover that this campsite offered free kayaking to guests, another welcome bargain.  We happily accepted and were garnished with paddles and life-vests.  Minutes later we were gently floating down the river, full of smiles.  The flow was slow from lack of rain and the surface held a lot of debris, so the river not as beautiful as perhaps it could be.  But this made for more engagement with the living nature rather than the subjective beauty.  There were thousands of tiny blue and yellow dragonflies dancing on the still water surface, stuck together in breeding pairs.  Patches of lime-coloured waterlilies hosted hordes of black-winged butterflies and shy frogs who hopped underwater every time we neared.  The surface was alive with playing, surface-skimming insects and we could clearly see the bottom through the pristine water.

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (river swim)

Some fishermen were fly-fishing off a sandy bank, casting across most of the width of the river, so we paddled by close to the opposite bank to offer them a wide berth.  Beyond them, we had the river  to ourselves.  Feeling hot, I stripped off for a cooling swim on an empty stretch of river, loving the soft water on skin as I sizzled myself cool.  By slowly breast-stroking I could approach busy insects even closer, increasing my connection to nature.  I did not have the most dignified re-entry back into our canoe but I made it and we floated back slowly as I sun-dried myself, before a rushed redressing when other kayakers were approaching.  We passed our evening reading at their pools, trying their Jacuzzi and spa, quietly enjoying the relative coolness of the evening night air filled with the scent of blossom.

A&N x

2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)

2018; another year of memories gathered, activities enjoyed and goals achieved. In some ways it was more of a transitional year, a soft landing leading from constant travel in Benny to a return to a more rooted existence. House-sits and WorkAways helped reconnect us to the idea of motionless living. We regained the love of sitting still, of being a part of a small community. Of creating use from objects, of honest labour, productive acts, holding local knowledge. The coming year has much to live up to.

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Everything in our recent travels had been generalisation. We had spent little time anywhere, passing through and glimpsing only a sliver of the life of each place. One blurred facet of one afternoon, one small portion of a village or town, and yet we reacted and drew conclusions from the visit. We judged, we opined, we decided our mood and experience based on the scantest of evidence, the whims of the weather. Destinations were deemed perfect, poor, terrible or terrific on the strength of that short, solitary instant. We jumped to thin, creative judgements of boastful self-indulgence. Our experiences were unique to us, to that time, and, in all honesty, tell others nothing of true value of the place or the people we encountered. These travel-through screenshots represent a momentary mirage, an insubstantial connection as we rudely, uninvited, threaded our lives into those of locals. Nothing is complete, nothing lasts, no description by any tourist day-tripper can capture a place with dependable emotion and clarity.

Our House - (from the pool)

Now, we were settled. We have a base, a home. We are able to make longer judgement on an area, our area, no longer reliant on tentative and superficial first impressions. We no longer need to be presumptuous. We can creep below the surface and uncover a new layer of reality, a deeper understanding beyond the trivial veneer we normally witness. We are no longer only travellers, but residents, and have the right to both observe and absorb at leisure.

Our days are filled with a different type of experience. Different dreams.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

Completed several house-sits and WorkAway projects, befriending great new people and learning new skills
Attended and completed our first SwimRun event at Lake Vassivière, France
Hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 180km multi-day trek through three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)
Crossed the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world near Zermatt, Switzerland
Bought a home in south-west France, to be our new regular base for future travels.
Participated in three 10km races in the wine regions of northern Spain and two more locally in southern France
Spent the days before Christmas soaking up the festive atmosphere in Paris

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

To run my first marathon, with a finishing time starting with a 3. A 16-week training schedule is underway and going well so far. The distance and the time are both feeling achievable, barring injury or other catastrophe. We will see.

To write better, focused pieces, deeper dives into the meaning of travel, beginning with a new Medium account. The focus will be on improving the storytelling rather than simple diary posts following our daily travel exploits. I’m also writing a draft of my first novel, to see where the process takes me, even if the final product is unusable and flawed.

Additional time is to be given over to painting, specifically line & wash watercolours. I’m tentatively considering that the novel above could evolve into an illustrated graphic novel, but time, technique and talent may have a say on that outcome. My aim is to produce paintings I would be contented to see hanging on our new French walls.

To complete all the on-going projects around our new French home. Alongside the typical DIY works, I hope to build a few detailed furniture pieces, design and construct several stained glass windows, and plant a fruit tree orchard. All new skills to learn.

To continue to travel around Europe, with shorter trips to north eastern Spain, Cote d’Azur and the Italian Dolomites already planned, and others under consideration. We are also looking at trips further afield, a few flights of fancy to faraway lands.

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

We have nothing but time, yet we never seem to have enough. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, life may well be much more successful when looked at through a single window, but we don’t want to sign up to the limitations that implies. We don’t want to expend all our energy on the pursuit of only one goal. We want to dabble in everything that interests us, and that includes many subjects. We may not be capable of achieving brilliance at any one activity without focused dedication, but that’s okay. Enjoying a taste of many things won’t bring excellence, but it will bring interest, satisfaction and stave off boredom. We dabble at kayaking, cycling, running, skiing, open water swimming, chess, free-diving, painting, furniture-making, woodworking, quizzing, gardening, cooking, writing, mountain climbing, guitar playing, piano, beer brewing, sketching, poetry, photography, mathematics, astronomy, theatre, scuba-diving, movies, learning languages, and blogging. We read biographies, science journals, logic manuals, graphic novels, contemporary fiction, Arctic exploration histories, travel monologues, legal opinions, and everything in between. And long may our thirst for the new continue.

We want to be generalists, not specialists. And we want to continue to explore every avenue we can.

A&N x

Spain – Haro & La Rioja pueblos cycle

The weather was an uninviting grey, cold and windy, at first light.  In no hurry, we waited a few hours until the rising sun worked its magic on the thin clouds and removed the morning chill. On bikes we tried to leave Casalarreina on a marked, signed route, but as is often the case, the hardest part of any new trail is finding the start.  There were many signs in many directions, but none seemingly pointing the way of the correct route we wanted to follow.

Haro - (nicky cycles past vines)

Haro - (countryside cycle)

With a photo of the route map we ignored the finger posts and backed ourselves instead, and soon we were on empty gravel tracks, enclosed by red-green vines and feeling fully immersed in an ancient Spanish countryside. Dusty hillsides stood tall wrapped with patches of deep green foliage and below them wide fields varying from green to yellow to brown, depending on current use.  Neat rows of box vines, aflame with oranges and reds, lit up the flat, monotone landscape. Church bell towers stood tall, distinctive silhouettes on distant hillsides, helpfully marking each coming village on our chosen wine route cycle.

We passed through each small settlement in turn, circling their proud churches and making the local dogs bark manically. Zarratón, then Rodezno, then Ollauri to Gimileo.  Each village was strategically positioned on a natural, curved mound set above the flat plain, and each brought a warming, breath-stealing hill-climb up followed by a fun, sweeping descent back down the opposite side.

Haro - (tasting the grapes)

Haro - (vines and cut bunches)

Tiny black grapes hung in huge bunches from vines, them smaller than blueberries.  Most grapes had already been harvested, but some remained, whether left or missed.  We tasted a few, and they were sweeter than expected, tiny bursts of juice but with pips that were a quarter of the grape.  The route ahead was cut up in deep ridges and very steep in places, a portent for our upcoming run in similar terrain.

After 15km or so, we were approaching the main town of Haro.  Dating from 1040 CE, historic Haro is the capital of the La Rioja region.  It was scruffy on first approach, sprawling and flat with constant lines of single-storey commercial premises, and from the viewpoint of our bikes it was unclear where the historic centre of town was.  We re-joined the road and eventually found signs directing us to the Centro that led us to the main church and then into the beautiful Plaza de la Paz. The town hall, all flags and wine barrels, defined one corner of this impressive, imposing square that featured an ornate bandstand in the centre.

Haro - (nicky in bandstand)

Haro - (Town hall and wine barrels)

There were a series of bronze statues representing, even glorifying, ordinary local jobs, from shoe-shiner to goat-milker to grape-crusher to wine-bottler.  Roundabouts were decorated with giant barrels and bunches of grapes, the motifs of wine-making always in plain sight, leaving no doubt as to the town’s primary occupation. It reminded us a little of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, in its single-minded approach to promoting its famous wares.

We cycled to the other side of the river where many of the regional producers had visitor centres huddled together. One vineyard’s posh tasting room had been designed by the office of the late Zaha Hadid, so we had to check that out in passing.  We stayed on this side of the river and followed a small irrigation canal back west, through more expansive rows of colourful grapevines. This route led us through Anguciana then into Cihuri, with its old abandoned bridge, once maintained for passing pilgrims by the local monastery.

Nicky suffered another puncture on our return to the outskirts of Casalarreina. Unfixable, we walked back, thankful we weren’t far from Benny.  This likely spelled the end of our cycling on this trip, at least until we reach a larger town with a shop where we can buy a repair kit or spare tubes; we checked the local supermarket to no avail. Kids were playing football in the sports centre adjacent to the aire, but took their frantic, energetic noise back home at dinner time, leaving us again to pass a quiet night in the drooping shade of the tall willow trees.

A&N x

Spain – Ulibarri-Gamboa lake – walks, runs and cycles

Under dull, monotone skies and with heavy hearts we again said our goodbyes to San Sebastián and drove south, away from the coast. The morning was chilly, a damp, hanging fog had descended and, combined with a light but bitingly sharp breeze, the heat from our limbs was ripped away.  This was very different weather from our glorious arrival.  For twenty miles we remarked on how green Spain was looking, until suddenly the entire countryside transformed into blonde stubble fields and burnt grass, a palette of pale yellows and muted browns.  It looked like this region had suffered drought and burning sun for long months.  We were on an easy dual carriageway, twisted and steep as it navigated the hilly terrain, reaching the northern outskirts of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (first look)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (circuit map)

We had plans to visit Ulibarri-Gamboa lake for a few days of gentle running, walking and, perhaps, swimming. Our first stop was a tourist office at Garaio, near the south-east lake shore.  Here we were informed that we could park overnight at one of the nearby car-parks, which proved ideal for us.  We went there and ate lunch, marvelling again at our luck.  The sun had broken through, burned off all the fog and the sky was a cloudless pastel blue.  The trees lining the park were turning to the muted reds and amber of rich autumn colours, and best of all, there were no other visitors; the stunning lakeside park was all ours.  During a leisurely lunch armed with detailed maps from the tourist office we planned a 44km cycle (tomorrow) and a 13km easy walk/run (today), each hugging the shore.  We set off in perfect running conditions; still warm air, wonderful autumn foliage providing occasional shade, no time constraints and with no one else in sight.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (viewpoint above church)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (running trails)

We passed timber miradors overlooking wide, still rivers alive with grebes, coots and egrets, feeling a little guilty when our presence disturbed their restful day.  The paths were leaf-strewn gravel or compacted white sandstone dust, perfect for exploring on foot.  We crossed a low timber bridge, more of a pontoon, then later another more substantial, arrow straight bridge, built high above the water.  We could see energetic sprites darting in skittish shoals below our feet.  Just beyond this bridge crossing stood the ivy-clad remains of a stone church, the sole remaining structure from one of the many abandoned villages that were flooded back in the 1950’s during the formation of this important regional reservoir.  Exactly on our 13km expectation, after passing loose cows on the path, we crossed a raised timber walkway that returned us to the rear of the quiet car-park where Benny was patiently waiting.  Joyed by the beautiful weather and happily weary from our beautiful, exploratory run, we spent a restful afternoon sipping tea and scoffing pannettone, amazed we’d found yet another gem of a stop.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (towards church ruin)

The stillness and quiet, mixed with fresh-air and exercise, led us both to a deep, lengthy sleep.  After nearly 11 hours in bed, we were well rested and utterly famished.  After breakfast we chatted to our new motorhoming neighbours Nadine and Chris, a couple who lived in the Vendée coastal town of St Jean de Monts.  We have long been considering a circular coastal trip round Brittany, starting near Nantes, and their kind offer for us to visit anytime may make a very good starting point for our planning.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (view accross)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (aaron on shore)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (return to benny)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (great parking)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (start cycling)

We finally got moving, wary under very different conditions.  The sky was now streaked with muted greys, almost black in places, layering the whole park with a shroud.  Autumn foliage was no longer vibrant and bright, but consisted of muted browns and muddy olive greens.  We hoped it might clear with time, but sensibly planned for the more likely scenario – dull, persistent rain. With waterproof jackets donned, we started off in the reverse direction of yesterday’s run, following the lake shore on easy paths.  We covered distance quickly and soon were back at the tall straight bridge, but passed by rather than crossing.  From here the path quickly deteriorated, a less used route.  It was steeper now, up and down in rugged, rocky bumps, the surface deeply cracked and broken like it had recently been subject to flash floods.

We had to dismount and push for a couple of the steeper climbs, the path too poor to gain traction. Soon after we joined a tarmac road, glad for the easy going. With a miserable drizzle filling the air, and with low visibility across the lake, we decided to stick on the road and enjoy a simpler stretch, cruising downhill and across a river before rising smoothly up to meet the main dam.  We paused soon after to nibble fruit cake on a timber bench and could barely see the walls of the dam opposite – such a different day from before.  Soaked through and devoid of views, we pushed on with a shortcut in mind.  Before we got there Nicky’s front tyre was punctured and we had to pause on the path, in heavy rain, to fix it.  Only here did we discover all our glues had expired so a patch was impossible but we also carried a spare tube, so this was fitted and we were on our way again.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (on the trail)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (steep rises)

At the top left-hand corner of the lake, near Landa, we decided to forego the shore-hugging cycle route and, heads down, quickly progressed down the shorter, straighter, easy tarmac route to Marieta. Turning right off the road, we re-joined the wiggling cycle path, walked across a pedestrian bridge we’d ran over the day before and, after another grassy shortcut, we happily arrived back at Benny.   Our shortcut had reduced the lap to 37km, rather than the expected 44km. Drying, cleaning, rinsing, showering and packing dominated our next hour, as we faced the usual motorhome struggle of what to do with a load of sodden gear, especially when the rains persist outside.  We steamed cosily inside, reading and supping tea much of the afternoon.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (evening walk views)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (evening views)

Late afternoon, after a warming rest, we got a little restless and decided on a short walk.  The weather had dried up and small patches of blue sky were visible in the otherwise grey murk. We followed the road back towards the tourist office, before cutting left to ascend to a local high point. Stone steps formed the route, our leg muscles being tested again. Adding just this small raise changed the perspective over the lake.  We spent a few restful moments at the top picking out places we had visited and spotting key landmarks in the rolling landscape.  A small number of vivid copper trees lit up the vista, set between a sea of darkened green, lime and white leaves.  At a distance we could just see the river that had been dammed to form the reservoir.

At the bottom of the mound we passed a metal sculpture of a dinosaur-like creature that, like the polar bear in Tromsø before it, just had to be climbed.  (always a child at heart).

A&N x

Spain – San Sebastián, revisited

We slept soundly, weary from our run, despite the pounding rain bouncing noisily off Benny’s roof.  When morning arrived the deluge had dissipated and the sun was out – it was time to move on. We followed the busy coast road west, slow behind unpassable tractors and cyclists on the narrow roads, in the direction of Spain.  We passed through the pretty looking Saint-Jean-de-Luz, spotting a messy aire tightly packed with manoeuvring motorhomes set in a great central position, before dropping down to cross the notional country border at Behobia.

We had driven this road before, a little over two years ago, and we mused on how much we’d seen and done in the time since.  Benny was almost new then, with less than 3000 miles on his clock, in comparison to the near 29000 miles we have driven now.  We stayed off the tolled motorway, preferring the coast road into San Sebastián, knowing we only had a short drive day.  We arrived at the central aire near the university and were surprised to see it so packed, although many spaces were coned off for large buses to use.  We nabbed one of the few remaining spaces, bought a €3.30 overnight ticket and headed to see the bay.

San Sebastian - (first views of the bay)

San Sebastian - (the main beach)

Despite having been here before, we were again stunned by its easy, natural beauty, regal buildings and sparkling sea. The day was clear and bright, and in direct sun it was scorching, skin blistering hot, unseasonably warm even for Spain.  We had slept through the worst of the predicted heavy rains and were beyond the ugly reach of the nasty hurricane currently battering Portugal and southern Spain; it all couldn’t have worked out better for this visit. We walked to the old town and nosed around the busy tapas bars in the tiny streets, loving the colour and variety.  This trip for us had been built around several interesting 10+km runs, a means for us to experience familiar places in a different way. Part of our plan was to be tee-total for the duration, as we’d been hitting the pop with our new neighbours a little too hard. Nowhere was this self-imposed exile from our tasty lubricating friend harder to endure than in these sociable back-streets tucked behind Spain’s most beautiful bay.

San Sebastian - (view of bay)

San Sebastian - (walking on beach)

The only downside of this visit was realising just how obviously rusty and basically useless our Spanish had gotten in our time away – we need to visit more.  We skipped out of the bars before temptation won us over and instead ate takeaway snacks on the beachfront, soaking up the view and the sun. After eating our fill and enjoying a lazy bout of people-watching, we walked back around the combined length of Kontx and Ondarreta beaches, slowly dragging our toes in the cool waters and dreaming of owning the domed paradise of Santa Clara, with its beautiful solitary house set deep in tall trees, a focus point just off-shore out in the curved bay.  We watched several hardy swimmers cross the wide bay and began making plans to mimic them, mañana.

San Sebastian - (on beachfront)

We awoke the next morning to find a grey blanket had descended, and the air a near-frosty 15 degrees; normal weather service had resumed.  We postponed our swim plans until the afternoon and instead grabbed our bikes for a morning’s exploration.  We rolled along the beachfront again, this time continuing to the bay’s third beach, Zurriola.  We paused near a Conference Centre and watched groups of surfers take lessons.  We saw other groups, carrying boards in pairs, walking in lines towards the water, and we were sure they were school classes heading not for maths or history, but for double surf.  Nearby, other school kids noisily played basketball, choosing dunks over tubes.  We were stopped by fencing at the end of the beach, the route blocked to protect against falling rocks.

San Sebastian - (Zurriola beach)

San Sebastian - (walking through park)

We doubled back and hugged the coast behind the Old Town and Mont Urgull, enjoying the raw power of the breakers smashing persistently into the tall protective walls. We reached a dead end high above our onward path and had to take a glass elevator down to the lower level, just squeezing our bikes in alongside a couple of bemused locals. We headed back to Kontx beach, then south through more residential areas, and climbed a steep hill to reach a park we had noted on a city map. At the gate we discovered that riding bikes was not allowed in Parc Aiete, so we instead pushed our steeds up the leafy, shady hairpin track.  Nearing the top we arrived at an interesting small grotto, before carrying our bikes up a final series of steps to reach a grassy, formally-laid out plateau.

The Palais d’Aiete, a large white building sat here all closed up, looking lonely.  We had hoped for views during our climb, but the bay and beaches were hidden by tall townhouses, so a sea of rooftops was our only prize.  At least we had one reward – a long, flowing descent from the hilltop back to where Benny was parked, passing screaming school kids as we whizzed by.  We had a lazy lunch to refuel from our 20km jaunt around town then cycled back to the beach, this time with rucksacks stuffed with wetsuits, goggles and towels. Our patience had delivered; the air had warmed sufficiently, to 22 degrees, and had convinced us to swim.

San Sebastian - (pre-swim selfie)

At Ondarreta beach there were lockers and hot showers available for €1.50, so we locked up the bikes outside, changed and lockered our gear, then headed to the water.  We passed guys skilfully playing footie-volleyball and a few other swimmers now resting wearily on the sand.  The sea was around 18 degs, clear and blue, generally flat but with the occasional bout of high waves that swelled menacingly from nowhere.  We swam east, parallel to the shore, aiming roughly for the centre of Kontx beach.  With each breath our view was filled by Santa Clara island and Mont Urgull, both framed by a moody, greying sky. Changing our plans we didn’t go ashore as the fierce breakers had grown in intensity and we thought we might struggle to get back out.  Instead we turned around and headed back, staying away from the frothing surf in relatively calmer waters. Nearing our start point we cut diagonally back in, covering only 1km but contented to have finally had our long-desired swim in beautiful San Sebastián bay.

A&N x