Stopover in San Sebastián

Never having straightened a wheel in my life before and reluctant to carry out my first lesson in wheel truing on the roadside, I resign to take the train rather than cycle the 100kms to San Sebastián.

This also buys me more time in Bilbao so it’s straight to the Guggenheim…

Stunning.

The railway follows the exact route that I intend to cycle and it takes me two guilty hours instead of two days.

Leaving the bike maintenance for mañana, some serious R&R follows. The next few days are spent refueling on delicious Tapas and pottering around the picturesque narrow alleyways in the Parte Vieja (Old Part). Bliss.

San Sebastián or - Donastia - in the Basque language oozes 'old world' charm

The walk up to the Castillo atop Mount Urgull overlooking the the bay was the perfect setting to stretch my sore legs and catch the evening sunset.

But all good things eventually have to come to an end.

With the back wheel still out of joint – and I later discover, a broken rear gear shifter – I learn from the officious chap at the ticket counter that I can’t take the Sherpa on the Renfe fast train. This leaves me in a real predicament. Especially, as I was looking forward to celebrating New Year with a good friend in Barcelona the following day.

Solution?

  1. Blow a small hole in the budget
  2. Procure an economical, medium-sized family car
  3. Dismantle bike
  4. Load bike and associated accoutrements into the boot
  5. Drive the 600kms across the Spanish Plains in time for siesta

So folks, at the close of 2010 and after only one week on the road, I reluctantly have to conclude that so far it has Bean on a Bike, Boat, Train and erm… a Seat Ibiza.

Here’s to a more pedal-powered 2011!

A Boxing Day drop into Bilbao

Under a clear blue sky and with a keen wind behind me, the scene was set for a perfect ride. To one side was the Atlantic Ocean and the other, views of the snow-capped Cantabrian foothills in the distance. For the first time, I could feel the warmth of the winter sun’s rays on my face and felt like I had finally found my rhythm on the bike.

The road gently unfolded through quiet villages, pine forests and farmland pastures before hugging the rugged coastline again.

Stopping off only for a lunch, the entire day was spent blissfully on the saddle and I was confident of getting to Bilbao in time for Paella; or at least that was the plan.

Immersed in the liberating sensation of just moving through the countryside under self-propelled locomotion at a rhythm that feels completely natural, I had neglected to pay much attention to the route. The increasing frequency of – uphill – switchbacks was the first warning sign. My rather impractical large-scale motorist’s Michelin Map of North Spain soon revealed my folly and I had inadvertently taken a road where a snowy ridge of hills presented themselves, standing between between me and my Paella.

Having invested energy already into the ascent, I didn’t want to turn back. So committed to the climb, I pushed on. Or up. By the time I had reached the top, the sun had set and I was exhausted, stopping only briefly moment to take in the city lights of Bilbao below.

Now, it says in the Thorn brochure that the Schmidt 6v hub-dynamo headlight encourages ‘spirited’ riding at night. They certainly aren’t wrong. In fact, it is so bright that oncoming motorists will dip their headlights, no doubt in some confusion as to the source of the 3 LED high-power single beam. The brilliant Schmidt lighting the way, I felt the adrenalin rush of negotiating the downhill twists and turns into downtown Bilbao, sensing the Sherpa wanting to accelerate. On the way down, I manage to pass a clapped-out old lorry which had been belching out noxious fumes in my face for over a slow mile. In the process of performing this unorthodox overtaking manoeuvre before the next 180 degree switchback, my 26″ Rigida Andra 30 Carbide rims unfortunately took the full force of a well primed wheel-slaying pothole. Net result: Buckled rear wheel. On Day 5.

Limping into the outskirts of Bilbao my energy finally runs out. With my paella becoming distinctly less a reality by the second, in possession of an discombobulated rear wheel and the mercury dropping fast, I dive into the nearest budget ‘reasonably priced hotel’.

The irony was not lost on me:

A Convento Christmas

It’s December 24th. The atrocious weather continues without let up. Gale-force gusts of wind turn my Ortlieb panniers into sails (and not necessarily in the right direction of travel), making for slow progress. So much so, I only manage to cycle the 40kms of undulating coastline to reach the historic harbour town of Loredo just before nightfall.

In the dying light of day, I cycle through the town’s narrow cobbled roads and soon emerge from the north side looking for a good spot to camp; mindful to keep a distance from any more hay bales and curious farmers. The skies open again with yet another downpour. As I reach a fork in the road, I take the lane which passes a small collection of run-down dilapidated farmhouses.

A weathered-looking man in his forties followed by an old Labrador emerges from one of the dwellings. Wearing a faded blue poncho and a dustbin liner for extra protection, he shouts something over the pitch of the wind and walks briskly towards me. ‘¿A dónde vas’, he asks in a low, gruff tone. ‘¿Por dónde se va a camping,’ I reply wishfully. He shakes his head in disbelief. The wind picks up again and breaks the momentary standoff. ‘Follow me,’ he responds, making the sign of the cross on his chest.

The prospect of weathering out the storm under the canvas for another night did not hold much appeal, and with no better options, I turn the Sherpa around and we walk the five minutes downhill into town. He introduces himself as John, a Basque mariner from Bilbao, and tells me proudly how his Republican grandfather fought the fascists in Spain, and later in Normandy, France. Reaching a large aged-wooden door, he knocks assertively. A brief exchange then ensues between the mariner and the surprised-looking Sister who answers. The word ‘chico’ is mentioned a few times. This obviously does the trick and she invites me into the Church. (I wonder if I would have been granted admittance if I was introduced as ‘hombre?)’ John wishes me a ¡Feliz Navidad! and disappears back into the driving downpour.

Relieved not to be spending another night under the canvas and humbled by a serendipitous encounter with a kind stranger who finds me shelter in my hour of need, I hang out the contents of my panniers to dry and fall into a deep sleep.

And there you have it. A non-believer, taking refuge in a Nun’s Convent; on Christmas Eve.

Convento de San Fancisco

The Stealth Camp that wasn’t so Stealthy

Leaving the fair shores of Blighty on a cold but crystal clear day, only to arrive in Santander the following morning under brooding, ominous skies was not supposed to be in the script. No sooner had I hit the road the skies opened with a vengeance, proceeding to bucket hail and driving rain in unimaginable quantities for the rest of the day. Determined to to put as much distance between the port and my first night on the Iberian Peninsula, I managed to find a secluded spot about 45kms due east of Santander overlooking a sleepy valley dotted with rustic farmhouses. I didn’t sleep much that night as I was woken with frequent regularity as the next wave of hailstones hammered the canvas. Still, I felt dry and cosy in my Terra Nova Quasar tent augmented by a slightly righteous warm glow of someone who had successfully carried out the art of their very first ‘stealth camp’. Or so I thought…

A french breakfast of strong Ugandan Robusta (High Roast) espresso and dark chocolate fortified me enough for the pack up and go. By now, pretty much everything was either damp or just plain wet through. The rain and hail continued to fall from a seemingly bottomless sky and I kept on having to dive back into the tent to take cover as the storm clouds marched on overhead and deposited yet another torrential downpour. Like a ridiculously outmatched game of cat and mouse, it went on like this for two hours until a break in the sky meant I could eventually get the kit fully packed and back onto the Sherpa.

An espresso too far?

Pleased with myself, I decided to fire up the MSR stove to brew a celebratory Robusta. It was at this very juncture when the farmer and his son chose their moment to turn up on their tractor for a bale of hay which had served as my windbreak for the night. Now, I have an admission to make; I’m not that fluent in Spanish. In fact, despite my repeated attempts to translate phrasebook scenarios into real life situations with varying degrees of success, I struggle to get understood as soon as I deviate from the basics such as ‘Hola!, Gracias’ and ‘Cerveza, por favor?’

How was I going to explain my way out of this? I couldn’t remember reading a chapter on ‘How to Placate Farmers’ in my Lonely Planet Spanish Fast Talk edition phrasebook.

After a surreal exchange where I attempt to articulate why I was brewing a cup of coffee on his land which revolved around the words ‘camping’, ‘frio’ (cold), and ‘perdido’ (lost), the farmer looked at me with bemused puzzlement, smiled, turned his tractor around and headed off with his hay bale, giving a salutary wave.

‘So much for the Lonely Planet, thank heavens for the international language of mime’ I thought to myself and made my getaway.

Bon Voyage

After the round of emotional farewells with family and friends, the Big Day finally arrived. Like a meeting with an old friend who you haven’t seen for years, you prepare yourself for how you are going to react, hoping that the moment isn’t going to be forced or uncomfortable. When it did finally arrive, it felt as natural as a proverbial duck to water although somewhat tinged with sadness, excitement and apprehension as I was waved goodbye by my dear sister Catherine, from her North London home. By coincidence, it happened that my departure from London to Plymouth by train also fell on the auspicious day of the 21st December – the Winter Solstice – a turning point in the year when the dark days begin to recede and the light, new hope, begins to grow again.

A clear, crisp midwinter’s sunrise heralds a new day over Plymouth, and indeed a new dawn, as I took the short ride to the ferry port after spending a welcoming night’s stopover with special thanks to the hospitality of family friends, Matt, Gen, Laurence and Luke.

The 24 hour crossing was unseasonably calm. Even the Bay of Biscay, notorious for its strong currents and unpredictable weather ,was strangely tranquil. Deeply breathing in the fresh sea air with a G&T in one hand and a book in the other, the hours slipped away on deck whilst the Orca Whales remained out of sight and as illusive as ever. Taking the ferry gives you the full sense of the expansivness of the oceans (if our blue planet is covered by 70 per cent saltwater, why do we call it Earth?) and the sheer distance covered that a flight merely compress into just a few dehydrating, high-altitude hours. It allows the senses and body to adjust and provides space to contemplate the land and loved ones that you leave for the new experiences and places that lie on the road ahead. A perfect start.

Steel is Real

S0, let’s get straight to the point, steel is real.

The only material that can be forged into a diamond geometry that offers the most durable, load-bearing bike frame at an affordable price.  And so, after hours of painstaking research, I settled on putting my faith in the good people at Thorn Cycles in Bridgewater, Somerset, to build a bike that will withstand the many bumps, pot holes, uneven dirt tracks and all the abuse that terra firma can inflict along the winding road ahead. With 35 kilos on the front and rear pannier racks combined and another 80 kilos (I could lose a few!) on the saddle, it has to. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long walk indeed.

Introducing my – fully loaded – trusty steed, the lovely Sherpa ‘Kaldi’:

Affectionately named after the Ethiopian Shepherd Kaldi and his dancing Goats!

In the Beginning…

It is told that the rejuvenating and stimulating effects of the coffee bean plant were first discovered in Ethiopia by an Abyssinian goat herder, named Kaldi, back in the 9th century.

One day, while Kaldi was tending to his goats, he grew tired and decided to take a quick nap. He later awoke to find his goats dancing gleefully around him.

Kaldi decided to investigate what was causing his goats to behave so energetically. Following them, he was led to a certain bush that produced an abundance of bright red, yellow and green berries.

After tasting a small handful, Kaldi began to experience a similar elation that he had observed in his goats earlier that day. He took them back to his village and presented the berries to the village elder in a state of excitement. The elder, skeptical of Kaldi’s discovery, threw them into the fire. Minutes later, a rich enticing aroma filled the air. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers of the fire, ground up, and placed into a bowl of steaming hot water.

And so legend has it, that high up in the in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa many centuries ago, the world’s first cup of coffee was made. The rest, as they say, is history.