Saturday, 23 August 2008

3: Aupa from Donostia!

The last few days in France were spent continuing along the Chemin St. Jacques, ending up at St. Jean Pied de Port. From here pilgrims usually continue across the Pyrennees via Roncevalles to Pamploma before taking an inland and less undulating route to Santiago. Wanting to travel along the northern coast of Spain, however, I took a right hand turn and came over the mountains to Euskadi, or the Basque country. In fact, I was already in the French Basque region before crossing over, so there is a cultural buffer zone when crossing through from France to Spain.

The IkurriƱa, the Basque flag.

The symbols, flags, and murals calling for independence and promoting Euskal, the Basque language, are everywhere. I had taken a small road through the mountains when I was heading for San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) and I ended up sitting in the little square of Goizueta, a small village about 30 km in the hills above San Sebastian in between a couple of biblical rain storms. People were polite and some passed greetings when I was making up lunch, but the surroundings and the overt displays of nationalism, including some flags for ETA, the Basque paramilitary group, were more reminiscent for me of the Balkans, or northern Ireland in the past, and hard to grasp the transition that I had made in such a short distance from southern France. There is, of course, a historically close association between the political conflict in northern Ireland and Euskadi and wandering around last night I came across an Irish bar with the decor theme being posters from both sides of the fence, spanning the past 30 years. Very interesting, and the pint of Guinness was good too.

Donostia, Euskadi
Trip distance: 2032km

Sunday, 17 August 2008

2: Pilgrims, hills, and a non-practicising Irish Protestant

Since leaving Lyon a week ago I crossed back over to the Loire valley and continued upstream to Le Puy en Velay. Le Puy is a popular starting point for the French pilgrimmage route Chemin de St. Jacques, which joins up with its Spanish counterpart, the Camino de Santiago at the border at St. Jean Pied de Port. At the hostel in Le Puy there were many hikers arriving and departing on the 1500 kilometer pilgrimmage to Santiago, including a German fellow in my dormitory who had started walking from Vienna! Some do the walk for religious reasons but many just like the idea of following a historic route that has been traversed for almost 1000 years and in more recent times a substantial tourist industry has been created around the route. The contrast between walking and cycling is much the same as for cycling versus driving a car or riding a motorbike. Along the route I've met people traveling by horse or on foot and where I've passed through in one day on the bike, takes them four or five days. I haven't been following the path itself however, just the roads that run near to the path.

Following the St. Jacques route has been a different traveling experience to the roads I traveled along before Le Puy. Since the route runs a path through mostly rural areas and small villages, locals and tourists alike usually assume that if you're carrying a backpack or have bags strapped to your bike, then you're a pilgrim of some description. As a result there is often a much more open and spontaneous approach towards engaging in conversation than I experienced farther north. Similarly, you're sharing a common goal with other cyclists and hikers, or at least a common destination, and there is a more immediate solidarity between you all. Over the past few days I've met and re-met several groups of people; including one cycling group from central France who insisted on me joining them for lunch on a couple of occasions. Since they are traveling with a support van their lunches are much more substantial affairs than I'm used to and sampling the local wine was particularly enjoyable, especially when you are already partially dehydrated or have a 20 km descent immediately after lunch, like I did on the Aubrac mountains the other day. I'm surprised in one way because I had suspected that I might not enjoy following the Chemin de St. Jacques, not generally being overly amenable to pre-ordained routes too much. But on a bike you're not actually on the route for starters and you can choose a pick and mix approach to which roads you want to follow or places that you want to visit, so there is some flexibility. Following the route also ensures that you stay in rural areas most of the time, which is the best place for cycling if you want to avoid the busy roads linking larger towns that are particularly busy at this time of the year.

Achieving less time in Purgatory, however, is not, excuse the pun, a walk over and since leaving the Loire valley in Le Puy and having crossed over the southern part of the Massif Central, I've realised that you don't have to be in the Alps or Pyrennees to have big hills in France. In fact, the hills I passed over in Aubrac are twice the height of the section of the Pyrennees where I will pass through, which someone thankfully pointed out to me at the summit rather than the bottom the other day. In order to try and prolong the life of my knee joints I ride in the lowest gears, which is at, or marginally above, walking speed, usually about a breathtaking 6 kph up the steeper hills. Since these hills can be up to 15 km long, I need to somehow pass the time as I snail upwards whilst gaining ecclesiastical brownie points. In this regard I have found singing to be the best form of distraction, both for me and for anyone else within earshot. I have a number of tunes that get a lot of airtime and suffer from many deformities in my rendition of them. Two particular favourites at the moment include 'Take me home country roads' (particularly the Toots and the Maytals version that I was recently introduced to and lucky to hear live before leaving Ireland), as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo's version of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' - complete with all the jungle sounds. It's at times like this that it truly comes home to me how inadequate my mental lyrics library is, so if you have any suggestions for good cycling tunes, send a copy of the lyrics my way.

Cahors, France
Trip distance: 1546 km

Saturday, 9 August 2008

1: Salut from Lyon!

In the end I didn't need to utilise my midwifery skills when I stayed with Trisha the night before catching the ferry to France. The good news is that I got a text message yesterday morning in the hills above Lyon that Trisha and John had a baby girl - Charlie Eilish Moore - last Thursday morning, so congratulations Trisha and John and bon courage avec parenthood!

Following a very bountiful 'full Irish' breakfast I left Trisha's two weeks ago today and took the 20 hour sailing from Rosslare over to Cherbourg. From there I headed via the Normandy D-day landing beaches across Normandy and after a few days I joined the river Loire in Orleans and then followed it upstream to Roanne in central France. I then left the relative flatness of the Loire to cross over to Lyon and the Rhone valley to take a couple of days off the bike and catch up with a couple of friends. Following an exceptionally hot couple of days in Normandy, rain and thunderstorms have been a pretty consistent feature of the trip so far, but this is often more welcoming than the hot sun, especially on the hills.

In Normandy I happened to follow a route that retraced the allied advance into that region after the D-day landings on 6th June 1944. It's still a very humbling experience for me to witness these sites that have now overgrown the destruction and death that once took place here, and to visit the cemeteries where the dead are buried, almost always young guys several years younger than myself. You are also aware, however, that in such situations it is always the victors who get to immortalise their dead and I wonder what efforts have been made to help the German families remember there dead youngsters too? Similarly, in the British military cemetery at St. Charles de Percy, I was reminded how often the contribution of Irish soldiers to the Allied cause was overlooked at a time when the Irish government and, in particular, the then prime minister De Valera, was trying to maintain a facade of neutrality. I recalled that it has only been in the very recent past that WW2 veterans in Ireland have been officially supported in their memorial services. Many of the headstones bore Irish surnames and in the cemetery registry book several of the dead soldiers had addresses in the Irish Republic, these just representing one small part of the numbers who perished during the war.

Just before reaching Lyon I managed to meet up with Celine, a friend from Dublin, and her wonderful family at her mother's farm near the village of Montrottier in the hills above Lyon. They were all about to head back to Ireland the following morning but I had a great evening re-learning how to socialise and maintain conversations for more than five minutes. Celine's parents met when her father Brian came over from Ireland to work on the farm during the summer holidays, picking strawberries and then tobacco later in the season. Times have changed, however, in many of these small farming areas and of the eleven farms that used to exist in the valley, only three can now operate on a full-time basis, with these three farms renting the land of the other farms that have gone out of operation. The beauty of these rural areas can conceal the difficulty that people have in finding employment and continuing to live there. In addition, there is the familiar pressure of people moving in from outside the area, buying properties to use for just a couple of weeks a year, thereby forcing local people out of the housing market.

Apart from Orleans, which I passed through on an empty wet Sunday afternoon, Lyon is the first city that I've stopped in or indeed gone through whilst in France. So I've been making the most of visiting local watering holes and enjoying urban features, including this internet cafe, as it has been surprisingly hard to access the internet in rural France, even in decent sized towns. Well I'll go now and make the most of it before leaving tomorrow for Le Puy en Velay and the start of the Camino de Santiago.
Lyon, France
Trip distance: 1106km