Fiestas and Flamenco

I’ve discovered that Spain is not difficult(as I first thought), it’s just different. I’ve become accustomed to the warm air like a giant hair dryer as I cycle, and I just need to wake early to beat the heat. I hit upon one town just as they were “running the Bulls” – the tradition of tormenting confused animals through narrow streets and then jumping over the safety of a huge wooden fence. Although not a vegetarian my sympathy lies with the animals rather than the jeering crowd safely behind barriers. 

No matter how small the town or village there is always a bar open for a watering stop, often with bull fights on a TV in the corner. On one occasion exclamations of “Madre Mia” and offers of lemonade and ice cream from afternoon sherry drinkers when they asked me what I was doing. 

I have had the pleasure of another VIP road companion as my brother Jeremy joined me for a couple of days. Together we headed southwards off the high plateau of Madrid with busy but joyful downhills to smaller roads leading to the jangled maze of the cobbled streets in Toledo. Here the melting pot of different cultures and mudeca (mix of Christian, Jewish and Muslim architecture) is evidence of the rich history over centuries of invasion and co existence in this part of Spain. 

Back flying solo again and the dustbowl of central Spain is a harsh and inhospitable landscape at this time of year. Women in long house coats sweep away the dust of the day from their doorsteps and men sit on benches, legs apart, walking sticks in hand watching the world go by and gossiping in the shade of a tree. 

I’ve cycled through enormous plains where there seems to be few beating hearts apart from mine. The sun bleaches the mountains surrounding into a shadowy and flickering shimmer. In the distance a lone farmer with a couple of wolverine dogs and a flock of sheep or goats graze on the few scraps of brown grass left at this time of year. Not so far from the Spain of Laurie Lee even after eighty years.  Birds of prey soar overhead and the only green is the dark Spanish home oak and scrappy thorny bushes. For the few passing lorries and cars I must look a strange sight as I eat my picnic lunch – a lone girl taking cover under a sparse tree straggling by the side of the road.  

As the villages turn Andalucian white they cling to mountainsides providing gasp inducing climbs and exhilarating hair pin bend descents. The arid landscape has almost imperceptibly turned more verdant with the canals and irrigation systems introduced by the Arabs centuries ago and still in use today. These provide enough water for the plentiful olive and orange plantations breaking up the dusty landscape with ripening oranges soon to be ready for our tea and marmalade. 

So I leave behind the Flamenco city of Seville tomorrow with Laurie Lees words ringing true in my final leg:-

Spain enclosed me once more with its anarchic indifference, asking no discipline but the discipline of manners. I was back on the road, cushioned by its unswept dust, and by my anonymity, which would raise no eyebrows.”

Once again thank you to the huge generosity of everyone who has sponsored me. X

Youth Adventure Trust –

Re-cycle – bikes for Africa-

worth the cruching climb uphill

this little piggy…

sherry drinkiing fans

a giant horror clown

heading out of Toledo

As I cycled out one midsummer morning 

The Spain of Laurie Lee’s day has very much disappeared but as I cycle South his vivid descriptions of travelling through this county still resonate and at times it feels like nothing has changed. Both of us on a journey of discovery with a time lapse of just over 80 years. 

So it was as I left Pamplona that I encountered a country unaccustomed to road cyclists and within an hour I was on a dust track next to a motorway with a couple of donkeys looking as bemused as I was.  The roads are unforgiving and the drivers uncompromising.  There are two choices – playing chicken with trucks on one of the national routes or roads where all signs of life have disappeared. Villages lie abandoned, shuttered and silent, with the crumbling decay of a world that has taken the young to the glittering cities of work and promise. Other than the sound of the wind there is a silence I’ve rarely encountered before as valleys and ridges unfurl like geological petals of layered time in every shade of brown to rich iron red. 

With the Pyrannes behind me I was under no illusion that the road South would be flat, and I was ready and happy (within reason) to churn up the hills of the Navarra.  I was not prepared however for the intense headwind. A wind that stole the exhilaration of a downhill after a climb of nearly 1000 metres up to San Felices and had me shouting and screaming only for my words to be carried away and dissolved into the atmosphere behind me.  After sobbing with frustration for several kilometres the sight of a truckers motel was like reaching the doors of paradise and 20 euros has never been better spent despite the lumpy bed, paper thin walls and an early morning wake up call of the guy next door vomiting loudly. 

The Spanish haven’t displayed the same curiosity about what I am doing as the French and the words cyclist + touring + female + solo in one sentence is almost incomprehensible.  On occasion I will stop in one of the villages I am passing through and hunt down the only signs of life in the bar.  These bars are seemingly reserved largely for older men, one arm on the bar with a glass of wine or beer in the other no matter what hour of the day.  The discarded white tissues of tapas and sunflower seeds scatter the floor.  The barmen march up and down their domain with a territorial efficiency whilst conversations like rapid fire bullets shuttle across from person to barmen and back. There is a momentary fraction of silence when I enter and a quizzical glance before they turn back to their conversations and the barman will give me a perfunctory “di me” as I falteringly ask for some tapas and a beer to keep me going on the road ahead. 

And once the day is done and my tent is pitched, I devour Laurie Lees descriptions of  the world I have the privilege of travelling through before falling once again into the dreamless sleep of 100 or so kilometres covered. 

I have increased my target from miles to kilometres (i.e £5,000 to £8,000) to hopefully raise £4000 for each charity.  A huge thank you to everyone that has sponsored me – it really does help keep those wheels rolling. Xx 

Youth Adventure Trust –

Re-cycle – bikes for Africa-

San Felices – a big climb up

the wind that left me broken

Spain’s Navarra

Medinaceli Roman arch


running of the bulls in centrenuigo

Viva Espana!

The Ginger Ninja has had to undergo major surgery.  I hasten to add this name was not given by me! After many kilometres of crunching up and down, the gears have had the equivalent of a hip replacement. The surgeon of which was a small chest height French man in the historic town of Blaye who spent many minutes sucking air through his teeth as he assessed the situation claiming that new parts would take at least a week. Perhaps him being chest height worked to my advantage as he managed to fix Ginge by the next day but still only cracked a weasly smile when I reluctantly handed over my credit card.  
As I have so often found on this trip, serendipity must have been working in my favour as he was probably the only person within cycling distance who could have fixed it, and ascending the Pyranees with only three gears was not going to be an option. With a day lost and a flat route ahead through monotonous pine forest I sped down the Atlantic coast on one of the off road Eurovelo routes, covering nearly 300 kilometres in 2 days and wild camping by a fresh water lake to avoid the huge campsite empires that line the coast for mile upon mile. The charm of tumbleweed villages, creaking farm houses, and glimpses of chateaus through oak trees very much gone. With the long lazy days of Summer drawing to a close, the campsites are closing and forlorn and the restaurants are empty. The first blush of Autumn is in the air with trees and bracken just turning golden and abundant blackberries lining the road.   
Since the inception of this trip the Pyranees have loomed large. Hours have been spent trying to work out the best and flattest (!) route so it was with trepidation that I left Bayonne. My brother comforted me by pointing out that the Spanish are the best road engineers there are, and while you can’t engineer a climb out of a mountain, I slowly crunched my way up round hairpin bends from St Jean Pied de Port to the top at Roncesvalles. I shared the winding road with a vintage car rally, a few butterflies and the weary and slouching pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago and I arrived at the top jubilant and emotional. Two landmarks – the Pyranees, and crossing the border into my final country achieved in a day. The descent down through the pine forest foothills to a dusty sun scorched landscape and into lively and bustling Pamplona is a joy I will never forget. 

Nowhere more so than between France and Spain has the culture shift been so dramatic. In other countries the change of landscape, architecture, food and national stereotype has seeped into one another like paint. But with the natural barrier of the Pyranees, arriving into Pamplona was an assault on the senses. Throngs of people taking their evening stroll, groups of young people sitting on pavements drinking beer and delicious pintxos displayed on every bar top.  

As I sit in Cafe Iruna in Pamplona, one of Hemimgways favourite haunts it seems like a fitting place not only to write my blog but also to reflect that the end (of this trip at least) is almost in sight. And with that a variety of conflicting emotions… the desire for the adventure to continue, the desire to spend time amongst the people I know and love and of course the uncertainty of what happens when the wheels stop rolling. But for the moment – que sera, sera.

A word of thanks to Stewart who I met on the road in France and cycled with for no more than half an hour but donated to Re-cycle after our brief conversation and to the anonymous donor whose large donation was a huge boost just before the Pyranees. 

Youth Adventure Trust –

 Re-cycle – bikes for Africa-

On top of the world on top of the Pyranees

It is flat but after a few hours the novelty wears thin

My own private beach – one of my top 3 wild camps

Dune de Pyla – the largest sand dune in Europe

Sunset from Blaye citadelle while getting bike fixed

Ready for the road after a wonderful break chez Godfather Pip and family

La belle vie

When I’m not camping in a hideaway field or by a stream I sometimes use a “warm shower”. This is not as dodgy as it sounds! Rather like sofa surfing, the worldwide cycling community open their doors to random strangers who know how wonderful a bed, a shower, food at a table, and local knowledge can be. I have found this the best way to meet people from the countries that I am travelling through and their kindness and generosity are humbling. In France Jean Noel took me to see the Amiens cathedral son et lumiere, Eric came out on his bike to meet me and escort me back to his house, Yves Marie the bee keeper and his friends gave me beer and delicious honey.  

Even without the warm shower community when I have rocked up and asked in my faltering French if I can camp, I have been welcomed. No more so than Corinne and Herve who live in a beautiful water mill on le Loir. I am always on the lookout for the perfect pitch and after a very hot day of cycling, jumping into their mill pond with dragonflies and lily pads was as idyllic an end to a hot day that I could possibly have asked for. Not only that, the next day they took me to see the best of the Loire chateaus and we spent two balmy evenings on their terrace discussing everything from brexit to the best route south. It could not have felt more like “la belle vie”. All these people feel like an extended family supporting me along the way with their hospitality and kindness with no expectation of anything in return. 

I have left the vast open vistas of northern France behind me and the brick houses with grey slate roofs are evolving into the white stone and red curved tiled roofs synonymous with Southern Europe. The huge army of electricity pylons continue to stride through the landscape delivering power to the French nation. The fields of sunflowers that stood so proud before are now bowing in their final homage to the sun. The distances between villages is lengthening and I have to remind myself that shops (when there are any) close not just for lunch but for the whole afternoon. I can spend many hours on roads and only be passed by a couple of cars and the landscape feels like mine alone especially in the early morning when nothing stirs. Village churches provide respite from the heat. Autumn mists reveal a patchwork of undulating vineyards and there is a smell of pine and scorched earth that pervades the air synonymous with the heat and languidity of warmer climates. 

The heat and the hills of Spain loom large, and as I take a couple of days rest staying with my godfather and family in his beautiful house near Bordeaux I am nervous and excited by this final phase. 

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me so far – I’m about a third of the way towards my target. My goal is to raise £1 per mile so if you can sponsor me a few miles along the road it will really help to motivate me in my final push.  

Youth Adventure Trust –

Recycle – bikes for Africa-

Thank you in advance! X

Gladiator ready! at the amphitheatre in Saintes

electricity pylons march through fields of sunflowers

la vrai france!

a fellow cyclist ..

Chenenceau chateau – one of the many in the loire

an idyllic spot at the water mill

monets garden giverny