Tag Archives: Cycling

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

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France – Sausset-les-Pins and the calanques of Marseille

We left Remoulins late morning, and after an hour and a half of easy dual carriageway we arrived in Sausset-les-Pins, the location of our first organised 10km (well, 11.2km) race of this trip.  Here we got our first true glimpse of the Mediterranean.  We wanted to arrive early to ensure a space in the free aire (43.338412, 5.108487) , but found only two others in a spacious car-park that easily could accommodate twenty.  We settled in, ate lunch then cycled the two kilometres down to the beach and picked out a space to flop into.  We had occasional dips in the shallow bay, clambering over rocks carpeted with soft algae to reach the clear, cool water.  But mostly we lay still, slowly roasting under the heat of the afternoon sun.  We turned ourselves like burgers on a grill to ensure an even cooking, dripping hot sweat like fat on the white stones.

Sausset-les-pins - (beach front cycle)

Sausset-les-pins - (beach spot)

We had to rest up – we had plans for the next morning.  A 7am alarm, a quick breakfast and an easy cycle back to the seafront.  Before we left home we had signed up for an 11.2 km local run, and today was that day.  We locked up the bikes and warmed up, readying ourselves for the off. Over 1000 runners were taking part, a larger event than we anticipated, but there was a welcome, friendly buzz.  The morning was hot muggy grey, with flashes of distant lightning and growls of thunder and we had two short downpours to dodge.  Each left the air cooler, but thicker and sticky; difficult running conditions.  We set off exactly at 9am, following the coastline before cutting inland up a few dusty hills.  Our tops were instantly soaked through with sweat, the humidity making a sodden mess of us. Fifty-eight hot minutes of crowded countryside trails later we arrived back at the start, drained and gasping in the heavy air.

Sausset-les-pins - (a on race day)

Sausset-les-pins - (raceday selfie)

We helped ourselves to drinks, fruit and cake, picked up our finishing gift (a neat rucksack rather than a T-shirt) and our free beer and retired to the beach for a cooling-off swim.  There are few pleasures better than the joyful relaxing after a hard run, and we revelled in the restful simplicity of our sweat-removing dips.  Revitalised and fresh, we left the beachfront in Sausset-les-Pins and, after navigating our way through the markets, returned to Benny to eat lunch and pack up.  We were moving on, down through the centre of Marseille to reach Marly Parc, a paid aire south of the city and, from an overnighting perspective, the only game in town. Our drive took us through the central streets of the city and the thriving heart of the Old Port, and even from within our van we could feel the historic grandeur.

Sausset-les-pins - (passing the marina)

Sausset-les-pins - (nicky with rose)

We arrived in Marly Parc (43.338412, 5.108487), via a series of long straight avenues, and slotted into our designated corner plot which looked very tight but was surprisingly spacious once we were in.  This was to be our base to explore the rugged coastlines within the Parc National des Calanques. A quiet night of gentle planning led to preparing our bikes and we packing enough snacks and water to see us through a lazy afternoon.  We set off, under hot, clear skies, thinking the 6km ride to the beach would be a simple, casual affair, an easy jaunt.  But we had vastly underestimated the terrain we had to cross over to reach it, and joined others heading our way in pushing our bikes up most of the extremely steep 4km long hill.  Once over the top we swooped down the last 2km on the opposite side to the sea, all the time aware that we would have to repeat the effort back up.  We rolled into the Calanque de Sormiou, locked our bikes to a tree and walked to the water, joining hundreds of others who shared our plans today.

Calanque cycle - initial view

calanque cycle - (at the calanque)

The popularity of the main beach fuelled our decision to skirt around the back of the bay and explore wider.  A dusty path led to a couple of small beautiful-looking beaches in hidden coves.  Descending to the first and removing our shoes meant we could paddle and scramble over a rocky outcrop to reach the less accessible second beach.  At this time of day it was in partial shade, so had only attracted a few others.  Reclining on our towels we marvelled at the beautiful clear blue waters lapping a few short steps from us.  We had refreshing dips in the calm waters as small boats and larger yachts edged into the calanque, providing us with a murmur of friendly noise and pleasant people-watching opportunities.  An afternoon of intermittent swimming, sunscreen application, lunch nibbling, book reading, careful hydration and general relaxing kept us fully occupied for several slow and pleasant hours.

calanque cycle - (costal path)

calanque cycle - (main beach view)

Marly Parc - relaxing with beers

The return journey saw us slowly grinding the gears and pedalling away from the coast.  In contrast to our fast downhill approach, our speed on the return was slow enough to truly take in the beautifully craggy limestone valley that had been our host for the day.  With a few brief breathers on picturesque corners  and one bout of pushing our bikes, their handlebars higher than our heads, we soon made the summit of the pass.  From there, a quick provision stop at a nearby supermarket and a couple of simple kilometres led us back to Benny.  We remained at Marly Parc that night, quietly enjoying a couple of chilled beers tucked away in the shady warmth of our private little corner.

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

France – Bayonne & the ’13km de la Nive’ race

We left La Jourdanie late, the packing for a three week trip taking longer than anticipated.  We had thought we were nearly ready, but the final essential items to add still ate up our morning – so much for an early start in Benny.  We were finally away by 11am, heading south, pausing only to empty our recycling tubs as we passed through Châlus.  Now-familiar roads carried us to Thiviers and around the west of Périgueux, where we called into a Benimar dealer to see about a few niggling items, forgetting that all but one were actually Fiat issues.  Large plops of rain dulled the day as we passed Bergerac vines with the first hints of autumn colours, set in fields lined with golden red ferns fluffed up like bright plumage.  We passed more familiar villages, places with aires we’d once stayed at, others we’d cycled to or visited on walks.  Many looked different, lessened in the muggy rain, not matching the perfect memory of the clear blue skies filled with warming sunshine our memories dredged up, or had perhaps created.

Caumont - canal banks

We crossed the calm flow of the rivers Isle, Dordogne and the Garonne.  We reached our first overnight stop, Caumont, a small free aire on the banks of a canal flowing parallel to the Garonne, the same stretch of canal where we spent much of our time running and cycling during our La Reole house-sit.  We parked up under tall plane trees laden with yellow leaves and reflected on the simple serenity, the instant hit of peace that can be found in some well-positioned aires.  Inevitably the church bells began and we started to reconsider, but even their incessant ringing was tuneful enough to soothe us rather than annoy.  We enjoyed a short walk along the canal banks, watching the drifting yellow leaves drown in the milky green water, before pizza, darkness and bed.

Bayonne - (beach by aire)

The next morning brought a longish drive, on ruler-straight roads through scrub and wild woodland.  We were back in the true south-west, empty and sparse, with only the brief oasis of small villages breaking up the monotony. We had vague notions to visit the only large town on our route, Mont-de-Marsan, but on arrival it was solid with parked cars for miles in all directions and we saw nowhere easy to stop.  Rather than loop around and spend time hunting out a place to park, we kept on, back on the long straight road to the bottom corner of France.  We stopped a little to the north west of Bayonne at a paid aire (€6 / night) in Anglet, on the coast.  It was two minutes from Biarritz’s north beach, where we spent most of the afternoon watching the wild, powerful waves break hard on the sand.

Bayonne - (playing on beach)

We returned for dinner then headed back to the coast to be bombarded by an incredible sunset on a busy beachfront boulevard.  Walkers, runners, skateboarders, surfers floating in the pinkish water framed by a backdrop of wild red sky, families walking dogs, drinkers, eaters and selfie-takers.  Active and vibrant, thoughtful and serene, the only negative were the occasional swarms of roaming sandflies. Many water-babies, tanned and tattooed, were standing wrapped in fleece towels, shivering gently after a full day of attempting to surf that perfect wave.  There was a wonderful vibe, chilled and easy, a proper community feel for the entire length of the shore.  Very different groups were mingling peacefully to enjoy the warm autumn evening and the exploding sunset. We felt privileged to be here at this moment, the fall of the dice aligning perfectly for us.  We have to remember to keep appreciating it all, this glorious freedom we have.

Bayonne - (beach view)

Bayonne - (sun setting over surkers)

The crashing thuds of the waves kept us awake, seemingly creeping closer and closer in the dark, unknown stillness of the night.  We finally slept and awoke late, a welcome benefit of our fluid lifestyle.  We readied our bikes and cycled off, towards Bayonne; we had a race to complete our registration for and a city to discover.  We zagged across empty roads, passing hugely impressive houses, both ancient and brand new, hidden behind high walls and tall trees.  We reached an off-road area with a network of criss-crossing parkland trails, pine needles and ferns draped over a deep sandy base.  We climbed up small, steep hills, dunes really, with our back wheels spinning out in deep sand, making the rises that much harder to summit than we’d expected, or hoped for.

Bayonne - (pink sunset glow)

We headed first to the Stade La Floride, where we would catch a bus early Sunday to take us to the start of the race, only to find this was not the actual location of the registration.  We doubled back into town and after a few more false stops we located the correct place on Rue de Basque just moments before it shut for a two-hour lunch.  We happily collected our T-shirts and race numbers, safely tucked them away and were then ready to explore the city.  First impressions – Bayonne was a delight.  The day had reached 28 degrees before lunchtime, unexpected by us in mid-October. A produce market filled a long, thin plaza set along a stretch of the river Nive, and narrow streets brimming with boutique shops and busy cafés led off in every direction.

Bayonne - (city streets)

Bayonne - (in the streets)

Five or six storey townhouses lined these streets, their colourful shutters closed against the sun, some timber-framed, many with stone-arched passageways at ground level utilised as commercial premises. The domineering twin peaks of Bayonne cathedral, the Gothic Cathédrale de Sante-Marie, were always visible above the rooftops. A wonderfully colourful and fragrant permanent covered market selling a wealth of tempting delicacies teased our senses. They were serving tapas and wine at makeshift bars, and in several places we heard more Spanish than French being spoken.  We had no prior knowledge or any real expectations of Bayonne, so were utterly contented to have time in this gem of a city.

We had dismissed it two years ago as we passed, eager to reach Spain and the Picos de Europa, and we’re now sorry to have done so.  We sat on the cathedral steps and watched a wedding photoshoot where the bride, not to be outdone by her groom’s orange waistcoat, donned dark sunglasses and a blue denim jacket over her flowing silk dress. We wandered through the nearby Botanic gardens to reach the Monument aux Morts, the grand memorial to the war dead from Bayonne.  We continued our stroll to the Hôtel de Ville and adjoining Opéra house, buying our mothers local postcards in a small tabac off the Place de la Liberté.

Bayonne - (cathedral view)

We wandered a while longer, lingering on busy streets to soak up the sights, smells and sounds, before returning to our bikes, abandoned on rails beside the cathedral.  We cycled back on the easier but slight longer coast-hugging cycle path, through the more practical, robust, industrial northern harbours. The rest of our day was spent back on the beach, our skins gently bronzing, watching an unending conveyor belt of waves crash into 3m diameter tubes of white foam and froth.  It was a delight to lazily watch nature’s wild sea, but it conflicted with our desire to swim.

Race Day 1 – 13km from Ustaritz to Bayonne

The next morning was race day.  After a self-imposed alarm and a quick pack up, we no doubt annoyed our neighbours with our Sunday 7.15am exit, the day still wrapped in moody darkness.  We parked up at the Stade La Floride, ate breakfast and dressed for action. The first buses left from here for the town of Ustaritz at 8am, where we would run the 13km back to Bayonne, along the banks of the river Nive.  We caught a bus and it smoothly deposited us by the village church to await the 10am race start.  There were no facilities here, and no water available (they had coffee though) and we wished we’d waited for a later bus.  We mused about, pretending at a thorough warm-up, but fooling no one.  More stripy buses periodically arrived, carrying the 350 or so race entrants to the over-crowded start area. The trees and bushes of the church grounds were soon overrun with lycra-clad hooligans peeing everywhere, trying and failing to be discrete.

Ustaritz - (race banner)

Ustaritz - (warmkng up)

Eventually we were called to the start and the race began, first through the town streets on temporarily closed roads before cutting onto a wider than expected path following the banks of the river.  Small pockets of spectators clapped us on, with a few small kids delighting in high-fiving passing runners.  Avoiding the scramble, we’d started near the back of the field so had the guilty pleasure of slowly picking off the slower runners, one or two at a time, as we made our way towards the finish, a bright string of colourful vests stretching out into a long line in front of us.  The river was hidden from view for long stretches and the snatched views of it proved not as picturesque as we’d hoped, although we did see single skullers gracefully skimming past on the still waters.

Ustaritz - (startline selfie)

Ustaritz - (on the trail)

The route was paved and flat the entire way, all easy running, or at least it would be for those runners who’d trained sufficiently.  After 10km the lack of recent distance in our legs began to tell as our pace slowed rather than increased as we’d hoped.  The last 3km were a slog, but we were buoyed by larger crowds and our arrival at the stadium.  Sadistically, they then made us complete a lap of the running track before allowing us to cross the finish line in relief.  We gorged on cake, chocolate, apricots, bananas and oranges at the finish, then luxuriated in long, steaming hot showers in the changing facilities of the sports centre.  Glowing from our run, we paused to watch a high quality rugby match, before driving Benny back to the same aire to relax for the afternoon.

No sooner had we slotted back into the same spot (such creatures of habit) the heavens opened in violent torrents, but contented and weary we rested up snugly in Benny – let the weather do its worst.

A&N x

France – Saint-Junien & Saint Pardoux

After our relaxing, relatively speaking, week of birthdays and dinner parties, we continued with our renovations and works.  We were refreshed, attacking jobs with a renewed vigour and keener eye. We ticked off many items but our to-do list continued to grow longer as we discovered other items needing replaced or other projects we suddenly felt excited by.  Ensuring variation in our tasks kept our interest and energy high.  Our focus is on working hard, but we have the freedom to stop, rest, take a day off, have a dip in the pool or try something new when the mood takes us.  We are tied to nothing, our time is ours to use as we wish. We have been foraging, baking cakes, learning music and languages, stone wall building, roofing, planning orchard tree layouts, digging our fledgling vegetable patch.

LaJourdanie- (our first veg bed)

A previously ignored stone chicken shed, with a semi-collapsed roof, surrounded by weeds and with years of thick, compacted rubble inside was suddenly seen as a potential man-cave.  I would sneak away to work on clearing this at intervals between prepping or painting walls.  Looking for more outside jobs whilst the weather was good, Nicky got excited about uncovering the circular stone well set tight on our boundary.  It was almost entirely blanketed in ivy, with a thick carpet of moss on the broken canal tiles scattered loosely around its ineffective roof.  We added its revival to our long list of to-do works.  We dipped in and out of these unessential garden jobs at the whims of mood and weather, enjoying our time outside and the constant, obvious progress that such distinctive clearances offered.

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - before)

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - after)

We had a visit from friends Monica and Ken from our previous house-sit in Cazeneuve.  After a long, enjoyable road trip on their shiny new Triumph motorbikes, they arrived with us early afternoon.  We fell into their easy company, swimming in our pool in the afternoon heat and sipping beers as we caught up.  We later walked around our place, giving them the full tour and garnering their helpful opinions and experiences on the works we are undertaking or planning to do.  We took a leisurely walk along a local grassy chemin to loop around a small lake, before returning for an al-fresco dinner and drinks.  We sat outside until darkness then retired to our lounge and chatted long into the night.  After breakfast we said our goodbyes as they headed off to further explore our region, visiting our recommendations of Oradour-sur-Glane and Brantôme.

St-Junien- (nicky with planes)

St-Junien- (aerobatic planes)

One fine day, as a different sort of effort, we cycled the 30km to Saint-Junien to visit an advertised airshow.  We followed minor roads and off-road trails where we could, waggling our way north all the time. The route was mostly downhill, a very pleasant roll passing through the small hamlet of St-Martin-de-Jussac to the river Vienne where we crossed the bridge into St-Brice-sur-Vienne.  Only then did we face a long, steep climb away from the river to the top end of Saint-Junien to reach the hosting airfield.  We abandoned our bikes and walked into the event, exploring lines of classic cars and obscure farming equipment, cannons and warfare implements, all manner of motorbikes and of course, small acrobatic planes that were the star of the event.  Local flights were available for all who wished it.

St-Junien- (classic cars)

St-Junien- (before and after car)

We checked out the museum displays and small stalls, surprised that the show was not busier.  We read posters describing in detail many planes and their uses, and watched a long queue of people take their turn to experience a virtual reality flying experience.  After a thorough look around and a few cheap sugary crêpes to fuel us, we got back on our bikes.  We took a different route home, simply for variation and exploratory purposes.  We passed through similar scenery and beautiful but hilly woodland paths, before stopping at Saint-Auvent to look in their pretty church.  Soon after, we paused at the étang de la Pouge, a long, thin lake that we hoped might have swim potential.  There were no signs saying no, but with the presence of fishermen, we feared it was not the best location for swimming.

Condat-sur-vienne - (race start)

Condat-sur-vienne - (us at race)

We entered a local 10km race, as something to shake us from our slumber on an otherwise lazy Sunday morning.  We drove twenty minutes to the village of Condat-sur-Vienne where the race would begin, parking in a nearby Lidl car-park.  It was a busy event, popular and bustling, and we felt good to be a small part of such a thriving running community.  The run took us on closed roads and along gravelled woodland tracks, with overhanging trees providing welcome shade from the morning sun.  52 minutes later we had completed our two laps of the marked 5km loop, having enjoyed the wonderful paths and the cheering crowds.  The mayor and other eminent locals presented a wealth of prizes in multiple categories, along with a tombola, using your race number, that gifted bottles of wine.

St-Pardoux - (Running walkways)

After a further few weeks of house-related works, we decided to treat ourselves with another break, this time a long weekend at Saint PardouxWe had visited it previously, enjoying the swimming lake and woodland trails, and it was close by, only 40 mins north of us.  We reached the comfortable aire, much less busy than on our last visit, and picked out a prime spot to relax into.  We knew our way around from before, so it was easy to plan our days here.  We ran each morning, following the coastal woodland trails on soft paths of tree roots and pine needles.  With only one bridge splitting the lake, we faced either a 27km loop of the entire lake, or more local laps around the lake edge and inland backroads.  The latter enabled us to create circular routes of 10 to 12km which suited our running level.

St-Pardoux - (lake sunset)

St-Pardoux - (causeway to island)

St-Pardoux - (returning to the lake)

Post-run, we rewarded ourselves with plenty of beach time, thinking of nothing other than the book in our hand as we soaked up the toasting sun.  We had frequent cooling dips into the cloudy water, but little real swimming.  Still feeling a little disappointed with her swimming performance in this summer’s SwimRun event, Nicky tried out various combinations of trainers, floats and neoprene shorts trying to find the optimal, speedy solution for her.  From the beach I timed her swims from buoy to buoy to ascertain how each outfit fared.  We ventured out for short evening walks, enjoying the burst of deep-red sunsets over the still water and the soothing sounds of calling birds.  Other motorhomes came and went, milling around busily, as we stayed still, unruffled, the calm centre of our restful universe.

LaJourdanie- (picking apples)

Fresh bread, croissants and pastries were available from a well-stocked vending machine behind the tourist building, refilled twice daily, so we had no need to move.  We could have stayed longer, enjoying our running and the fresh, lake-side air.  But we decided to return home after two nights and three days, as we found ourselves missing our house, and jobs not yet began were creeping back into our thoughts.  We were being taken over by a compulsion to work, to keep busy, to better our nest.  We wonder how long the novelty will last, this daily excitement of hard, physical work, so we want to utilise our willingness and drive whilst the determination still exists.  Yet these two nights in Benny, our time filled with runs and swims, re-sparked the interest and excitement of the road again.

Longer trips will soon be visible on our horizon.

A&N x