The Pyrénées: crossing rivers and ridges

Having reconnoitered the airport and purchased the bus tickets to get Cheryl and her bike to Bordeaux, on Tuesday, 15 August, I met her flight from Paris. After an initial warm reunion, we stood by the carousel in Baggage Claim until it was clear that neither her bags nor her bicycle were on the aircraft. The Baggage Claim office confirmed that they had been left in Paris, and assured us that they would be delivered the next day. We walked down to the Garonne River and enjoyed an organ recital at the Cathedral. 

Waiting for the bags and the bicycle to arrive quashed any ideas of touring Bordeaux on the 16th. When no one showed up at the flat by 1630, we figured that they would not deliver that day. We slipped down to the corner to get something at the supermarket. Five minutes after we left, the courier showed up. The driver refused to return, or to come back on the way back to the warehouse. After some very distressing conversations with Air France, the courier company, and each other, we decided to try to get the bicycle and bags ourselves from the warehouse, which was open until 1900. We took the tram to the industrial suburb of Bégles, where France Express has its warehouse and distribution center. We cut it close, finding our way down roads with no sidewalks and autoroute ramps to the place. I won’t describe in detail the runarounds and false information that filled the day, because in the end, I was happy to have Cheryl reunited with her bicycle and her bags. We walked them 2 km back to the tram stop and made our way back to the city. The experience reacquainted us with the uniquely French concept of customer service across a wide range of industries and sectors.

With only Thursday left in Bordeaux, we toured the city, using a combination of bicycling and walking. The Cathedral, the stores on the rue Saint-Catherine, the broad promenades along the Garonne, and the restaurants all confirmed what people had told me: that Bordeaux is a beautiful and very livable city. I was properly worn out when we retreated to the flat to lay out the trip ahead.

On Friday, we packed up, secured the flat and rode to the Gare Saint-Jean. The plan was to take the train to the coast, skipping the suburbs and get on with the adventure. The town of Arcachon at the end of the line was a great start. We had a very comfortable room in the Trianon Hotel with a view of the bay. Riding out the coastal bike route, we reached the famous Dune du Pilat (Pilate’s Dune), the largest sand dune in Europe. It was indeed impressive, and a difficult climb. The top afforded a view over the tops of the woods and out to sea. A large group of teenagers climbed the dune at the same time as we, obviously an organized trip. They spoke Catalan, which has always sounded to me like Spanish but without any words that I recognize. After the long walk back down, we admired the sunset, then rode back into town, arriving after dark. The seaside bike route included a bike path that passed the night life of Arcachon on the water, so finding an excellent supper on the corner near the hotel was easy.

The next morning, we carried our bags to the bicycles safely locked in the hotel parking garage. We rode back to the station, this time to jump to Pau, which Cheryl wanted me to see before we started tackling the Pyrénées at the Atlantic coast. Pau was in the low foothills, and afforded the most sensational views of the mountains, and the ridge that marks the Spanish border. It had been the capital of the County of Bearne (remember sauce Bernaise?), with long history of self-government. The Count of Bearne let the Parliament of the city run his lands for him, so that they were about the last fief to join the Kingdom of France. We enjoyed dinner in the restaurant district, and a comfortable room in the Continental Hotel.

The next day, we coasted down to the train station and took the train to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, almost the last French town in Basque Country before the Spanish border. There was a folk festival going on in the square, with traditional dancing. The church had a pretty nave, with ship models hanging. In the afternoon, we rode back up the coast to Biarritz on the Eurovelo 1.

This was beach country, with high-rise condos, pine woods, cliffs, and beaches crowded with vacationing families and foreign tourists. There were even a fair number of bicyclists going in both directions. Biarritz was as I remembered it from the farcical French comedy that I had watched in Challans: broad beaches filled with vacationers and white, art-deco buildings crowding the seashore. We tucked into the Hotel Palacito in the heart of downtown Biarritz.

On Monday, 21 August, we put the railroads and airlines out of our minds, and set out for the Pyrénées. Departmental Route 932 led us on a gentle climb along the Nive River to the D918, which we figured out after a few days had been the King’s Highway and later the National Route across the mountains on the French side. D918 continued along the Nive to the medieval village of Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port, which is traditionally the marshalling point for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) from France, called the Camino Francesa to distinguish it from the Camino del Norte, which follows the coast, and which Cheryl and I rode in 2016. Gîtes, hostels, and other accommodations were everywhere, ready to accommodate the tourists and pilgrims. We spent the night – and enjoyed a family-style supper – at the Chemin vers l’Etoile¸ the only pilgrim accommodation that advertised in booking.com. We walked the old streets and saw the gates and walls that countless pilgrims have passed since the 12th century.

On Tuesday morning, we began to follow what is known as the Route des Cols. A col is a mountain pass, and the word includes the long climb to the pass and the descent down the other side. Our first one, the Col d’Osquich, was only 495 m high, but the views were already breathtaking. We spent the night in the charming Hotel de l’Ours in Arette, which afforded green views in every direction.

Wednesday the 23rd saw us making our way from the valley of the Vert d’Arette river to the Gave d’Aspe river, as the D918 skirted around an imposing pair of mountains to our right. Along the Gave d’Aspe, we arrived at our destination lodging, Hotel Restaurant l’Ayguelade, too early. We saw a laundry facility across the street at a campground, and we convinced the owner to let us run our laundry while we waited for the hotel to open. That gave us the idea to check campgrounds if we need a laundromat in the country. Another idea when travelling in the country is to find a hotel or inn that also has a restaurant, because supper becomes problematic when restaurants and supermarkets become scarce. Eateries and stores close so early that there is nothing open by the time one has settled in, showered, and changed.

The next day we climbed two cols that are regular stages on the Tour de France. The Col d’Aubisque, 1709 m high, came first. I had climbed the Madonna del Ghisallo (754 m) in April, but this was different. I needed to guess just what gear I could push for long enough to still have a lower gear ready at the end. As we climbed above 600 m, I looked back at the valley and noticed the smog below me, trapped by the temperature inversion created by the colder air at altitude. This is a result of the widespread conversion of the European automobile fleet to diesel engines. Since 2005, more than half of all new cars sold in Western Europe have been diesel powered (except in the Netherlands). By now, the smog is noticeable even in remote, mountainous regions.

The 15 km to the top of the Col d’Aubisque put me into a numb mental state, slogging one foot in front of the other. Even with the signposts every kilometer giving me the countdown, I felt surprised to reach the top. The downhill was relatively short and fast, and took me into the next department, aptly named Hautes-Pyrénées. Soon I was climbing the Col du Soulor, 1474 m. Though it took less time, I was more than grateful to turn downhill in the late afternoon. Cheryl was well ahead of me, of course, so I was alone for the brake-burning downhill. I was a little disappointed that the road surfaces on the eastern (downhill) sides were not as well-maintained as the western sides. I could not take full advantage of gravity with all the potholes, loose gravel and cracks. Cheryl found a delightful, family-run lodge in the town of Arrens-Marsous.

Friday, the 25th was a short day, down to the Gave du Pau river and upstream to the resort of Luz Saint-Saveur. This proved to be the biggest town we saw since leaving Biarritz, and it was crawling with visitors, most on expensive road racing machines. The city supports the skiing crowd in the winter and the bicycle aficionados in the summer. We chose to stop only 35 km into our day, because Luz Saint-Saveur lay at the bottom of the Tourmalet, arguably the most challenging col on the Pyrénées section of the Tour de France. I also knew that there was a high-end bicycle shop there, appropriately named Tourmalet Bikes. I needed to have my brakes serviced, because I had almost no braking power left. We did not expect to share the city with the annual Gran Fondo Marmotte, which attracted thousands of semi-pro and amateur sportif riders for a grueling two days of crossing cols. We wanted to start the Col du Tourmalet fresh, but finding a room looked problematic. While I went to Tourmalet Bikes to have my brake pads replaced and the bicycle tuned, Cheryl went in search of accommodation.

She found us a place in a resort hotel just outside town for a great price. While I rested (my hips were bothering me again), she took a walk to the castle between the hotel and the town. We ate in the room and turned in early.

Saturday morning, we headed up the Tourmalet. As with the previous cols, this one was marked with signposts each kilometer, letting us know how far to the top and what the gradient was for the next kilometer. It was 18 km from Luz Saint-Saveur to the top. The first half was tolerable, until the town of Barèges. Then came the payback, as the gradient increased. After a while, we rose above the tree line. I could only catch glimpses of the stunning scenery below me to the left, or smile in acknowledgement to the friendly racers, urging me on with the traditional “Bon courage!” I knew that they knew how tough the climb was, and I could sense that their admiration was sincere for the crazy guy doing it with a heavy touring bike and loaded panniers. I thought, wait till they catch up with the attractive woman doing the same thing, but faster. They gave me heart to keep slogging on. I rested at the cable car station, where I found hundreds of hikers resting. It was an official stop on the Gran Raid, an annual long-distance hiking event over the Tourmalet and its impressive peak, the Pic du Midi. I used the washroom, then tackled the last 9 km of the mountain. I began to see cyclists coming back, who had passed me hours before, close to Luz Saint-Saveur. There was nothing to be done about the last 500 m, which cranked up to an impossible 13% grade when I was already in my lowest gear. I struggled off the bike and pushed it to the top. It was immensely satisfying to be there, on the highest paved pass in the Pyrénées. I had not ridden the Tourmalet for myself but for my best friend Walter, a high school classmate who had climbed the Tourmalet (and other French mountains) a few years back. We had not seen each other for decades when we went to the 50th anniversary reunion of our class, and he told me about the Tourmalet. It was something that we could share now in our adult lives. Cheryl was way ahead of me, and I found her in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, almost at the bottom of the hill, in another charming family-run lodge. I almost missed it, blasting into town at full speed. We enjoyed one of the best meals of our whole tour, with local, fresh ingredients.

Sunday, we found ourselves still in the company of the riders of the Gran Fondo Marmotte as we tackled the Col d’Aspin, 1489 m. This one provided comic relief as a herd of cows decided to join the humans at the top of the col. The sheep and cows have right of way on the roads through their pastures. I witnessed some very entertaining faceoffs as cyclists tried to avoid the occasional 1000-kg beast that decided to stop in the middle of the road. There was food at the top for the Marmotte riders – but not for the cows. One hungry animal snuck up behind the food tent and grabbed a long loaf of bread from a basket. An irate official drove her back smacking her on the face with a baguette. The ride downhill led us to a pleasant surprise: the Paleo-Christian Basilica of Saint Just, located on the site of the Roman city of Lugdunum Convenarum. This was a stop on the oldest route of the Way of Saint James. Nearby, the town of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges dominated the valley floor. We climbed to the medieval city, where we found a room in a hotel directly across from the Cathedral. It was wonderfully quiet, but the foot traffic past our window taught us that we should avoid ground-floor rooms in the future.

By now, we were closer to the Mediterranean than the Atlantic, and the hills were becoming less imposing. On Monday, the 28th, we crossed the Garonne River far from the last place we saw it (Bordeaux), and climbed to the Col de Portet d’Aspet, “only” 1069 m. With an average gradient of 9.7% and in the heat of the day, it was as challenging as the others. I found myself seriously depleted halfway up. I came across a memorial to Fabio Casartelli, who died on the Tour de France in 1970 when he went off one of the curves. As I rested, a middle-aged French couple pulled up to visit the memorial.

I noticed that they had an empty bike rack on their station wagon. As they returned to the car, I asked for a ride. The man was about to answer, when his wife sharply cut him off and said, “No. Not at all.” He shrugged apologetically, and they got in the car. I struggled back onto my bike and made my way to the top. There I found a woman selling fresh cheese from her little truck, and a spring yielding cold water straight from the mountain. I refilled my bottles.

On the way down, the Col de Buret (599 m, and the Col des Ares (797 m) were almost an afterthought. Soon I was riding along the Lez river heading toward Saint Girons. Cheryl had wanted to spend the night there, but it had grown into an ugly industrial town since she had last been there, so she found a place by the Salat River in the medieval village of Saint-Lizier.

Saint-Lizier

We had crossed from the Haute-Garonne department into the Ariège. We had only one more col to cross, plus the ridges between the rivers of this well-watered land. Soon we would be at the Mediterranean. Languedoc, Provence, and the Côte d’Azur lay ahead.

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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