Red faced, perspiring and with my breathing sounding like a steam train, I pedalled slowly up the last few metres of the twenty kilometre hill climb to the Collado de Urkiago, in the Pyrenees. I looked up to see a group of Spaniards standing behind their car looking at me. Feeling rather self conscious, I decided the thing to do was to wave gleefully to them. They promptly broke into a round of applause and rushed over offering to refill our water bottles. What a great way to be arrive into Spain and cross our high point in the west Pyrenees.
Two days previously we had cycled from Dax to St Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees and had our first taste of the climbs to come. The countryside here is green and lush with fields and woodlands on the hillsides.
Jerry was peddling strongly after a day off and took all the hills in his stride. I hauled away behind and invariably found him waiting just at the top of the next rise. We were following in the footsteps of Richard the Lionheart (of England) who came this way back in the 12th century. His mission was to burn towns and punish barons who were being unfaithful to his father Henry II. We decided to approach more peacefully and cycled up a quiet valley to the Col de Palombiers.
Unfortunately, we did not
reach the climb until mid-afternoon when the sun was beating down on one of the hottest days of the year so far. A crazy time to be pedaling and I paid for it later with raging heat rash on my legs.
St Jean Pied de Port is a picturesque medieval town famous for being where many of the Pilgrims’ routes from all across Europe come together and become the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays a tarmac road skirts around the edge of the medieval town, but walking Pilgrims still approach down the old cobbled high street to seek out accommodation in one of the many Auberge (hostels).
We opted for the slightly cheaper option of the municipal campsite and squeezed ourselves in between German and Dutch Campervans, eating camp made pasta salad for our supper.
After another hot day wandering around St Jean buying Spanish maps, some new socks for me and a good supply of food, we set off for Spain. Jerry took a last look back at France as we climbed up into Beech woodlands that cover the mountains.
After crossing the col to warm applause from the Spanish, we had hoped to have a very pleasant cruise down the other side. However, we were thwarted by a strong Southeasterly slowing us to snail’s pace if we did not pedal. By the time we reached the small hamlet Zabaldica, about 10km from Pamplona we were ready to finish for the day and checked ourselves into a small Albergue (hostel) run by a catholic parish to raise funds for their hamlet and climate change. The locals take turns to volunteer at the hostel and welcome Pilgrims. We had a fun evening with sixteen other pilgrims and our hosts singing songs from our home countries, swapping travel stories and sharing our stories of personal endeavour.
Next day, we took it easy, only covering 18 kilometres, and taking the sights of Pamplona, famous for its bull running festival.
Now a full day of Spanish cycling later we are getting used to the rise and fall of the road ahead. We are heading west, crossing all the streams and rivers that flow north to the Bay of Biscay. The landscape is more arid, with orchids and sweet smelling herbs, such as rosemary and thyme lining the roads.
Around us, small stone built houses crowd together into villages perched on small hilltops.
We have stopped camping at the moment as the police patrol the Camino vigorously looking for wild campers to fine and campsites are prohibitively expensive. Instead we are staying in small albergue run privately, by the municipality, monasteries or parishes. They are clean and cheap, and offer us an insight into the night time noises of sleeping humans. I’ll leave the symphony to your imaginations.