Encore 04/10/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, france, marseille, mountains, pyrenees, spain
Nearly 2,000 km have passed beneath my feet since my last update and all I left behind was wonder.
The roads of southern Spain were a marvel, baked and shimmering under the sun, delivering me to some of the most unbelievable terrain I’ve ever seen in my life. Between blue-green lakes and distant castles I cycled the narrowest of mountain passes, in awe of the world below as much as the sky above.
How it will resonate, I can’t say, but I know the experience defined something within me, something apart from my travels. I’m only sorry that words are all I have to help me share it.
Winding my way up coastal points and down to rocky coves, I crossed the French border in the first days of April. My final descent thrust me through an alpine tunnel, and at the other end were the grind and gravel of the flatlands I know so well.
I got lost in my thoughts for days. Peripignan, Narbonne, Montpellier – they all clicked by and I hardly noticed. It wasn’t until I collided with the limestone heights near Marseille that I realized I was pedalling and stopped wondering why.
People often ask why I left home to do this, and still, after 10 months on the road, the only answer I have is that something was missing. Pouring money or alcohol or people through the cracks only made them wider, more obvious. Yet now, with nothing, I am beginning to feel whole and sometimes all I want to do is rush home to prove it. But in my heart I know it’s too soon, and what scares me is the idea that it always will be.
Enough about that, more about Marseille.
The place is filthy, greasy as the paper in a pizza box, and when I hold it up to the neon lights as I walk the streets, I see all the rich and repulsive flavours that make a city spin.
I passed one-legged skippers and hopeless beggars, Gypsys and gentry and lipstick in the shadows, a soiled drunk who undid his belt a moment too late, ice cream chins and the dreamy song of a carousel, lemon rum ladled from peanut butter jars, fountain cherubs, slick harbours, and, oblivious to it all, there was a puppy chasing a plastic bag through the trash.
It’s been an experience like no other and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.
Back in the saddle! 03/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: andalucia, camping, france, punta umbria, rain, sevilla, spain
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It was two full weeks after settling in Punta Umbria that I finally thought of my bike and realized, with little surprise, that I didn´t miss it one bit.
It sat unnoticed while I wandered up and down the beach, turning over splintered seashells and wondering where my passion for travel had gone.
The idea that I could go on but perhaps didn’t want to worried me. A lot. I knew I wouldn´t feel a failure if I suddenly stopped, if I said “enough” and just walked away from it all. But the thought of restarting my life when everything I own fits on the back of a bicycle was daunting, and probably always will be.
There was nothing to do but wait, take time to relax and let my wants take care of themselves. And, of course, they did.
At first all I missed was the simple pleasure of sleeping outside. The temperature drop at midnight, the symphony of insects humming while the frogs keep time, the first rays of sunshine dripping through my canvas - they´re all like a drug for me and the coming of a beautiful Spring hardly seemed the time to kick the habit.
Then, out of boredom I opened my European road atlas and, as ever, stacked hours upon hours planning imaginary routes for the only dreams I´ve ever made real. There was no going back. It was time to go.
In short order I´d organized my path to France, even using the street view on Google Maps so I could navigate around major cities without getting hopelessly lost. Why I didn´t think of that months ago is beyond me. I set Tuesday, March 16, as my departure date and spent its eve so excited, so positively tingling with electricity, that I hardly slept a wink for fear of missing the morning.
The first days on the road were awkward, but they always are. My shorts didn´t feel right, the bike seemed off balance and shifting was more chore than automatic. That´s what happens after more than a month off the pavement.
But by the time I reached Sevilla – a short day and a half into the ride – I felt supremely confident in the saddle, as though I belonged nowhere but that tiny space between the road´s white line and . . . everything.
The sights of Andalucia were spectacular, and even when I inched my way up a hill, tongue hanging out and sweat pouring down my face, all I could say when I raised my eyes was “wow.”
The now longer days and sunny weather were also having a huge impact on my mileage, which was almost double what it was in the dark days of winter. Call it ego (it is), but the kilometres I travel are wound so tightly around my satisfaction that the two can never be separated. So, to cover 130 km on only my fifth day back on the road felt very good indeed.
They say you have to be lucky to be good, and I’d be tempting fate if I didn´t acknowledge my fortune thus far. One day, after pounding up endless hills in the driving rain, I looked up at the settling night and down to sopping feet. For the next hour I searched olive groves and unplowed fields, even rocky slopes for a place to camp, and all I got was muddy.
I´d almost resigned myself to getting a cheap hotel room when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a decrepit building at the bottom of a small valley. I skidded down a boggy lane and discovered, to my absolute delight, an abandoned railway station with a roof as airtight as the one over my head right now.
It was amazing. I had the place to myself until the rain subsided, and a pair of discarded high heels, peeking white and strapless from the rubble, were enough to fuel my imagination indefinitely.
As I set up camp, I couldn´t help but wonder what the place had been like in its heyday, when men in grey suits and brisk watches leaned over the tracks to watch the train glide into the station, all steam and whistles. I pictured a porter, brass buttons glinting as he hopped onto the open platform to punch tickets for busy men or shoeless women.
But that last train had gone long ago, and now all that was left was me. Mostly. On my second day out of the rain, a red Jeep growled up the platform ramp and three olive pickers billowed out in clouds of cigarette smoke.
At first I thought I was going to get raped and murdered – granted that was a worst case scenario. At the very least, I supposed I was going to get in trouble and be told, in machine gun Spanish, to hit the road.
But much to my surprise, the three visitors were only looking for a way around the muddy road and, what´s more, they considered the idea of biking to Spain from Canada absolutely hilarious.
They insisted on a photo, teased me that bikers never get laid, shook my hand and were gone before the mud on their tires even had time to dry.
I suppose that episode best sums of this leg of the trip. Perhaps it´s that I finally have some travel experience, but things that would have ruined my day in the past are now interesting stories or, at worst, annoyances easily remedied by blue skies and friendly faces.
If we all knock on wood together, I might even venture that I´m getting pretty good at this cycle tour thing.
Back on the road and happy to be there – who could ask for more?
The wagon wheel effect 02/17/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bad drivers, border, couchsurfing, portugal, punta umbria, sevilla, spain
Portugal was beautiful, without a doubt, but there are two things I won’t miss about my travels there – namely, the roads and the drivers.
Rattling my teeth on 10 kilometre stretches of cobblestone highways was tough. Worse was passing dozens upon dozens of forgotten dogs, gutted and rotting in the swollen ditches. But when an oncoming motorist left his lane to knowingly run me off the road, I decided enough was enough. I punched my ticket east and didn’t look back.
It was no place to be stranded but, oddly enough, a magnificent spot to cycle. The traffic was light, the sky smiling, and on the way I felt something I’d been sorely missing for months – my connection to the road.
The surge, that extraordinary harmony of muscle and miles, can turn guard rail posts into picket fences. It sends me whooping over mountains, blasting through sunsets, and when it’s all over, I’ve conquered the world without ever touching the ground.
I coasted into Spain and celebrated the stars through the green glass of a wine bottle. Tucked between olive groves and vineyards, with only the baying of a faraway dog for company, I finally exhaled the weight of the winter and watched it disappear into the night. Home isn’t a place but a mood, and it surrounded me as I slept, dreamless and content.
The next day I was blessed with an honest-to-goodness tailwind – my first since arriving in Europe nearly three months ago. I tore up the asphalt, covering 70 kilometres before lunch and arriving in Sevilla with energy to spare.
After visiting the city centre and punching out a pay phone that didn’t return my change (it relented), I met up with my CouchSurfing host and spent the next two nights touring sweltering bars and ogling beautiful Spaniards.
By the time my bags were packed and I was ready to hit the road once more, I’d met countless people and been invited to either cycle to Morocco with a New Zealander or follow an American to the coastal city of Punta Umbria for some rest and relaxation.
It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure book – sweat over the Atlas mountains or walk barefoot on the Atlantic shore. I chose the beach and I’ve been in Punta Umbria ever since.
And I suppose that’s where this chapter ends. I’ve found a wonderful house to share with my American friend and her new roommate, a Brit teaching English at the local school. I plan to stay for a month, perhaps more.
The trip may be on hold, but today certainly isn’t. I have a transistor radio and a bottle of wine – I’m going to the beach! Adios!
Snowflakes and flu bugs 01/12/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: blizzard, compostela, couchsurfing, health, portugal, spain, winter
It seems those Basque-ards to the east have a lock on sunshine in Spain, and the country as a whole has provided more challenges than I ever expected.
First, and always most important for me, has been the weather. I chose the northern coast because it historically goes without snow in the winter. Most kids have never seen it and adults vaguely remember the white stuff from a storm that fell 20 years ago. It was a good plan, but now it´s buried somewhere near Vilalba under about a foot of powder. There I found myself in the middle of a full-scale blizzard – blinding snow, howling winds and Spanish drivers spinning summer tires to no avail.
Stranger than the surprise storm was the fact that the falling snow inexplicably made me happy. Giddy. It made me feel very much at home in a place where I have trouble using the payphones. The highways were completely empty and the weather wasn´t cold, so once I got started I found it was a perfect time for travelling, provided I cycled in a straight line and crossed my fingers on the hills.
On one of those hills I came upon a German cyclist making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. His gear was ramshackle, his blue jeans soaked, and he was walking his bike because his feet were frozen. I liked him immediately. We cycled together for three days and partied until 5 a.m. to celebrate his arrival to Santiago. It was a crazy night that I´ll always barely remember.
Despite the fun, I never really felt at ease in Santiago. There were too many tourists looking up and too many locals looking down. I had no regrets about continuing south to Pontevedra, but on the way my stomach started doing flip-flops and my forehead was burning up. I thought I was just a bit hungover, but it wasn´t the same feeling at all. After my third mad dash to use the facilities at a coffee shop, it dawned on me that I might have a stomach bug.
And how. I spent the next two days sitting on the can with my head in a bucket, wishing that someone would do the right thing and shoot me. Luckily I´d arranged a CouchSurfing host several days earlier, so at the very least I had a comfortable and warm place to rest between yak attacks.
I look like a twig in the mirror, but after a bit of 7-Up and some toast this morning, I think I feel strong enough to take to the highway once more. I´m less than 60 km from Portugal, so I should be able to cross the border by this evening if all goes well.
This trip certainly isn´t getting any easier, but in a way that was never the point. Starting in Belgium, and now especially in Spain, I´ve stopped considering the trials as either good or bad. They´re temporary and that´s all. Lately I cycle the same whether I´m climbing a hill, facing the wind or dragging my bike through six inches of mud. I don´t know if that means my mind is clear or I´m a vacuous idiot, but it sure helps me stack up more kilometres.
The rain in Spain just ain´t the same 12/31/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: basque, bordeaux, border, france, mountains, pyrenees, rain, spain
If the gods were to gather for a winter convention, it would surely be held in Spain. After spitting out buckets of rain in Belgium and freezing my particulars in central France, the Basque region was one of the most welcome changes of the trip.
I´ve been following the northern coastline from the border – nothing but miles of beaches on one side and the velvet green peaks of the Pyrenees on the other. The mountain climbs have been leg-screamers at times, but the descents make them worth the effort. There is nothing like blasting down a winding pass at 60 km/h - you have to enjoy every second because the next might see your guts painted on the highway with a 400-meter brush stroke.
I´m still trying to figure out the Spanish people, which is rather difficult since my vocabulary is limited to ¨I like¨ (I don´t know what I like, but I like), ¨water¨and ¨please¨. So far the folks seem incredibly laid back, kind of like the French without appointment books. But there are definitely two things I don´t like here:
- The Spanish don´t eat soup. I´ve checked every supermarket. No soup.
- Motorists think the frequency of horn blasts is directly proportional to the speed of traffic.
These are just minor annoyances, though, and since the temperature is hovering around 20°C, I´m not about to complain.
Still, I have to admit that a teeny tiny part of me is still in France. I crossed the border just when I started feeling comfortable with the language and culture, and truth be told, I miss it more than I would have ever expected. The cities there were so alive, so vibrant, that sometimes I´d just lean on my bike in the downtown plazas and soak it all up like some blue-eyed sponge, always thirsty for more. Here´s a clip of a random 30 seconds in Bordeaux:
There are so many things I want to experience that I´m starting to realize the only enemy of this trip is time. It´s like a bird overhead, always circling, perched around the bend, and yet never seeing what I see or feeling what I feel. All it counts are these days away.