Dieppe to San Sebastián in 15 days.
- 467.6km. 2 trains. 3 ferries.
11 days into the rest of our lives and we have finally found the time to start writing up some of our experiences. Seriously – we’ve been busy.
Thinking back…how did we get here? Oh, yeah – it started with McDonald’s and a ferry.
We’d agreed to meet Nick and Gav at the Newhaven MaccieD’s for a ceremonial last McMuffin before we left our great friends for some time. Nick laughed at the weight of Cal’s bike as we quickly inhaled our breakfast and joked about incoming big quads (Chlo’s). Time went fast, 8am came up quickly and we headed to the port. Our 4 was made a 6 when Katie and Arthur pulled up to the port just in time for a huge hug and farewell.
From Newhaven to Dieppe we took the ferry. It’s a journey that we had made many times before and we knew the interiors of the ship intimately, but the feelings we shared were new for this crossing of ours.
Boarding was easy because there were literally about 20 passengers on total for this ships payload. We practically walked through the customs, locked our bikes, and in a cinematic crescendo of emotion we watched our friends gloriously cycling along the port edging as far as they could go and when they could go no further we cried and laughed and waved them ‘Goodbye! See you in Japan!’. A multitude of emotions settled on a short lived sadness before we were soothed by an empty, silky smooth passage to Dieppe.
We stayed at BnB in Dieppe which allowed us time to decompress after our travelling day. We made a trip to our favourite Patisserie for a special macaron before making lunch for the next day and winding down.
We had planned to ride to Barcelona via the Dordogne then head south to Morocco where we would meet some friends who were racing the Atlas Mountain Race. In the back of our minds this race was likely to be cancelled because of COVID-19 as the land border with Spain is closed, and as it happened it was cancelled. So, as we have subsequently done many more times, our plans changed.
Chlo had never been to Paris and we were so close to it! In a matter of minutes we’d made new plans to go there in 4 days of about 60km per day via the Avenue Verte, a railway line converted to a flat and mostly straight cycle path to the outskirts of Paris. We don’t really have much more to say about the Avenue Verte…it’s a little boring. But, good to get into the riding and it’s traffic-free.
The first day of riding went OK although it was a little short of our target distance that day because the campsite was unideally placed. We made a good tuna ratatouille pasta for dinner. The following day was misty, a little rainy and unwelcomely familiar. The day after the first day of riding is always hard and usually leads you to question your ideas, plans and thoughts about your life decision in general. But that aside we pushed on, riding over-distance for the day – which was a mistake. The damp conditions and long ride opened up some lingering saddle sores which meant we wouldn’t make the ride to Paris in the 4 days. Now, we’ve both cycled in Normandy quite a bit so we weren’t too fussed about the riding to Paris, rather we wanted to be in Paris. So, we diverted our route to a campsite in Dangu near Gisors from where we would take the train to Paris for WarmShowers host and a BnB.
This proved to be a good decision. Gisors has an impressive cathedral which we looked at and went in, a ruined castle with pleasant grounds to walk in, and a truly spectacular La Poste. If we can submit our recommendations for the meilleux La Poste it would unflinchingly be this one. Cal went in to send his heavy laptop home because he can do all his work from the iPad. Upon entry a gent of a lad greeted him and personally assisted him through the whole process including being kitchen roll holder as Cal shamefully packed the box with this stand-in for proper packaging. Even when Cal joked about it being “sans-plastique” the assistant maintained true professional form and did not laugh, oh no. He just nodded, looked away and effortlessly dropped a “oui, monsieur”.
Feeling light and – through virtue of La Poste – unencumbered, we enjoyed our day in Gisors and had dinner at our campsite. Our pitch was next to a large fishing lake where 5 mute swans and 4 Coypu lived. Coypu are an invasive, large, beaver-like rat species that live near water and can cause problems for plant life where they over feed on vegetation. You can catch ‘nutria itch’ which sounds like and probably feels like nuclear itch. We opted out of that one. Cal was hissed at by a pair of Swans which had cygnets. In marvel we watched 3 gaggles of geese take flight into skeins. It was a good camp.
We took the train to Paris on the following day.
The train was sparsely populated for most of the 2hr journey from its beginning at Gisors but quickly filled up one stop from its termination at Gare Saint Lazare. Getting on with loaded touring bikes was easy, and we had an entire carriage to ourselves. Indeed the entire ticketing and boarding process was stress free and we made use of the lift access at each station. With all of this in mind, it was therefore troubling and surprising for both of us that Cal was experiencing something akin to a panic-attack after we had boarded. Instead of fear and tight-chested worry, though, it was a smouldering rage and nervousness, origin unknown. On reflection we think it was a self-assigned pressure that built up in the preceding weeks to make this trip happen and the combination of slight fatigue and changing of plans blew one metaphorical rivet. Or, maybe, it was none of this and we still don’t have an explanation and, maybe, never will. Now, he’s more relaxed.
Friends, family and acquaintances had given us advice about Paris. “Parisiennes are NOT like the other French!” they warned. We tried to responsibly ignore this with the view of entering Paris unbiased and non judgemental, but our plan to stay the first night in Paris with Bertrand, a WarmShowers host and essentially a stranger, was seasoned with trepidation. Navigating from the Gare to Bertrand was easy and we discovered for ourselves that cycling in Paris is not only safe and enjoyable but it is one of the best ways to see a city of this scale. There are many lessons for the UK to learn and implement in its own cities.
“Boulevard Richard Lenoir” sounds best straight for the mouth of a Parisian but Cal kept repeating the name of our rendezvous spot with Bertrand in his best imitation of our extremely hospitable host. Bertrand lives in a ‘Bis’ apartment which is where an assigned block of property is sectioned in two – Bis is Latin for 2 – and one half is suffixed with ‘bis’ e.g. 47bis. You can see ‘bis’ and ‘ter’ (3) often in Paris. He shares an apartment with 3 other young people, 2 of which work full time, well paid public sector jobs.
We stayed with him and his GF Marion for an excellent dinner and we learnt a lot from them about living in Paris as a 30y.o, where to go for croque, the difficulty of buying a house and the reality of Paris – from their long experience and our short time there it’s probably no more dangerous than any other city. Our trust in these strangers was well-placed and once again gave us an insight in the Paris you don’t see as a ‘tourist’. It goes without saying that you trust your gut in these situations, you don’t blindly trust just anyone. It was lovely to stay with them and we will always be thankful for their hospitality and welcome.
We were in Paris in the quiet season and, of course, during a Pandemic. As a result there were very few tourists and little traffic and this only enhanced the romance of Paris’ Haussmann charm and elegance. After saying goodbye to Bertrand and Marion we rode across town to beautiful Montmartre to our Haussmann BnB where we washed our dirty kit in the tiny bathtub. We ate much viennoiserie, queued up for and enjoyed classic, inexpensive French food and saw all the sights. We spent almost 5hours walking everywhere north of the Seine in an attempt to Flâné. Big thanks to Robin who gave us excellent recommendations for wine (Le vin au vert) and food (Bouillon Pigalle) and loads of other tips, also to En Selle Marcel for the chainring bolt. We loved our time in Paris.
2.5 hours later we alighted the TGV in Bordeaux, and our stay in the city was almost as fast a the journey there. We ate a good dinner, then quickly retreated the heaving old town. By 11am the following day (22nd August) we were on the road again and joined the Eurovelo 1 ‘La Velodyssée’ cycling route which starts in Brittany and continues to Hendaye where we would leave it for San Sebastián arriving there 7 days later.
The riding for these 7 days was almost all traffic free and on the purpose built cycle path. The highlights for us included: YES Day (watch the video), seeing the vast Biscarosse lake with glassy water, having a 3 hour lunch break and swim in Cap de L’Homy, and riding through the hot pine forests that hug the Atlantic coast through which a hot air carried an aromatic and sweet scent reminiscent of honey and rosemary and vanilla. We stayed in camps ranging from so called eco-sites complete with ‘Mongolian’ throat singing sessions to large resort style campsites. On an evening that we reached camp relatively early, we had a chance to do a systems check on our Bokehs and kit. We met some old surfer dudes and a New Yorker in Moliets but only stayed there for one night.
Up to this point we hadn’t seen many other cyclotouristes on the road which surprised us, but we came across one in a relatively unlikely place. We met Hans-Peter at the large “Les Bleue Pins’ campsite. Immediately it was obvious that he was a seasoned long distance rider: German touring bike, nicely worn panniers, solar panel, linen trousers, the right tan-lines. We said “Hello” and conversed in English (his is excellent, but he’ll never admit it) for the rest of the night, sharing wine and hearing with absolute focus and engagement about his extensive travels across the world on bicycle, motorbike and Land Rover, and about his home life in Austria. Being at the start of our own big adventure, it was inspiring and exciting for us to hear these stories from someone twice elder. Hans had recently sold his part of his Architect practice in Austria and was living life in his way.
We learnt that he was taking a similar route to us and we shared the road for the next two days to San Sebastián. The few days we had with Hans were the best days of our journey so far and we felt so lucky to have met him in the Basque Country, making a mark on our trip and carving the milestone of reaching Spain.
We crossed the border from Hendaye to Hondarribia by taking a small ferry where we loaded our bikes on the bow of the boat. Once there we we temporarily departed Hans as he was taking the short route to San Sebastián but we were going over a small mountain ‘Jaizkibel’ at 470m – climbed in entirety from sea level with some near 20% gradients. Tasty. This was Chlo’s biggest and hardest climb to date and for both of us the first proper climb on a fully loaded bike. It wasn’t easy, but it was a hugely satisfying climb and the views over the Bay of Biscay and Donostia/San Sebastián were incredible. And the smooth descent from the top was worth it alone. By taking this route we entered the old city via a very old village called Pasaia and another tiny ferry. We pretty much entered Donostia directly from a mountain top which was our reward for getting off the well-known cycle routes we try to avoid, usually.
That evening we met up with Hans again and as a 3 we met Niklas. We made contact with Niklas through WarmShowers and although he could not host us, he generously offered to meet us for Pintxos and welcome us to San Sebastián. He is studying a PHD here in which he manipulates molecules at atomic levels with an incredible machine to measure their magnesium and structure. We shared a few bottles of local Sidra which he taught us how to pour properly (as to effectively incorporate air into the cider and make it fizzy) and we asked many questions about living in the old Basque town.
Hans and us stayed out for another drink before saying our own emotional goodbyes. Going forwards, he was to take a slightly different route from us. Perhaps we’ll see him again on the road, but we’ll be staying up to date with his adventure on his blog lookingforward.at.
This morning we had coffee, charged battery packs and did some laundry – ‘normal stuff’ – to get it out of the way so we can eat, eat more and eat even more pintxos for the next 2 days. Vamos!