(8/10/10) M.V. Normandy docks at Ouistreham before dawn and – after yesterday’s ride to Portsmouth and a sweaty night on-board – I turn West along the coast for a few hundred metres, lean my bike by an imposing D-Day memorial and trot down the beach. It’s a long way to the water. On the last dry sand bank I take off my shoes and clothes, stack them neatly with my passport, cards and cash, then run into the shallows to bathe.
Returning, scouring the gloom for my possessions, I imagine losing them to the incoming tide. When a dark pile becomes my stuff relief breaks in a warming wave. On a trip like this you have to trust yourself, trust others and the World.
Normandy sand stays in my shoes until I swim in the Loire – camping wild on a river island – two nights later. Two more and – like some low-rent Richard Long – I’m rolling in the Atlantique at Soulac sur Mer. Sleeping to the sound of crashing waves, hooting owls and mysterious cracking noises, too diverse to be human, on the nearly deserted camp-site; some kind of nocturnal woodpecker is my first guess? In the morning I work-out it’s pine cones, loosed by the breeze, hitting chalet roofs.
(14/10/10) There’s no sign for Spain until you’re 1500 metres from the frontera. Is this because I’m on the old coast road rather than the autovia, Francocentrism or sensitivity to Basque nationalism? Funny to find a whole country, an empire, treated like some municipal amenity. Orwell called Spain “a lump of Africa crudely soldered onto Europe” is there still evidence you’re entering a new continent, a new World view? The small “Welcome to Spain” sign has – predictably – been defaced by Basques, with something about “Nazios”.
My morning coffee in France was often taken in an empty bar, or one shared by a rheumy-eyed town drunk nursing a – not necessarily unfortified – orange juice or coffee, and wondering where it all went wrong? In Irun I nip into the first local, a small room, nearly full of big men with bellies and moustaches, smoking, shouting and drinking spirits in generous measures.
My arrival causes some muted interest as they go out in ones and twos to check my bici-comico, a Burrows Ratcatcher. They politely don’t engage me in conversation as I drink my con-leche but, after I pay and bring my drinking-bladder in for the barman to fill, they burst into a raucous chorus of “Whisky-Coca’ – Whisky-Coca’ – Whisky-Coca’ “. It’s tempting to build psycho-geographical theories on an anecdote. My first coffee in Spain was slightly later in the day and in a more urban setting than those necked in rural France… …but it did make me think?
60 km uphill to the first continental pass at 847 metres. Near the top the new road runs in a tunnel, closed to cycle-traffic, so I climb further, alone on the old highway, winding gently through intricate forest hairpins. An unfamiliar road sign – the silhouette of a petrol pump? – indicates a spring-fed, roadside fountain. Two elderly men in shabby clothes are filling plastic bottles, putting them, four at a time, in carrier bags and loading them into the back of a battered saloon car.
They stand aside to let me wash my salty face. I ask how far it is to the top? “Not far” The first suggests.
“A kilometre?” I ask.
“More or less” offers the first.
“Less than half a kilometre” adds the second.
“More clothes.” They agree. The cloudless evening is drawing in and I face a 25 km drop to Pamplona.
At the Hotel Yoldi – mentioned by Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises”, where, every Saturday, by tradition, Miguel Indurain hosts a get-together for his extended family – they insist I park my bike in the lobby, among the designer furniture, as “an exhibition”. I’m certainly not in condition, not tough enough, to ride weeks of consecutive 150 km days on a classic bike.
Late night department-store shopping yeilds a set of maps for the Iberian diagonal.
The high plains of Castille are cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons under skies of blank Velásquez blue. I see the towers of Madrid from the hills above Guadalajara. In Peurtollano, a mining town strung along a valley like South Wales, well dressed people in early middle-age have rickets. Not long ago this was poor country.
The roads in Spain are mostly even better than France, but occasional sections are rough, on some cycle-traffic is exiled to a dirt-track service road, I can’t identify these from my 1:200,00 maps. Where old roads are being renewed whole sections are closed entailing lengthy detours.
(20/10/10)Into Andalucia over four mountain passes through a lonely parc naturel. I see, a brown squirrel with tufty ears, deer the size of horses and an Iberian lynx. I might have thought it was a big domestic cat but for the multitude of road signs telling everyone to keep under 40 kph as this is “the Country of the Lynx”. The signs persist for fifteen miles and the scarce motorists respect the limit. Motorists in Spain are the politest I’ve ever ridden amongst.
In Andalucia the evenings are warm in pastel-painted towns busy with animated citizens like an operetta’s opening scene. Two days of rolling hills with nothing but olives. Low down it looks like you’re lost in a great, green sea and – from hilltops – as if the country has been upholstered in some tufty green and cream fabric. The trees seem gnarled and ancient but are planted in regimented rows to be serviced by machinery. The largest building in every town is the olive oil refinery. Their heavy scent is everywhere.
Relief from this hallucination of stasis only comes with rugged mountains and white, Moorish, hilltop villages, at odds with the road network, making navigation troublesome. Andalucia clings to my heels like some plaintiff lover, probably singing a nasal ballad, Arab pop with Castillian vocals and just when you think you’re breaking through to the coast, the shock of English ex-pats, behaving like they’re in East Sussex with the heat turned up. At a café I find an English-language flyer for a dog show.
Hilariously I must walk the last kilometre in Europe as the Algeciras Port police are affronted that I’m riding sin casco – no crash-hat. I told them I’d only had politeness from people and police of all categories all the way from Navarre. Was their dual-carriageway really the most dangerous road in all Spain? It felt somehow OK to be hounded out of Europe by jobsworths.
(24/10/10) Landing in Africa it’s a short ride to the border of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and entry into Morocco proper. Here the landscape, the faces, the crops, lots of the architecture, are indistinguishable from Andalucia. Do the Spanish hang a quarter pig behind every bar, drink spirits for breakfast, beer for lunch and wine at night, to convince themselves, and everyone else, that they’re no longer Muslims? You’re leaving lands where people expect cars and fridges, for those where street markets feature second-hand shoes and old clothes. In the country some families must walk to collect their water.
The sparse roads of the Moroccan countryside are quiet and well surfaced. Some of the motor traffic a little less disciplined than in North West Europe but the possibility – round any corner – of very slow moving traffic, flocks of sheep, ancient trucks labouring up hill or creeping gingerly down – keeps everyone vigilant. I manage to avoid being overtaken by any donkey carts.
Down the Mediterranean coast, through the Rif mountains, across a fertile plain – where the only tourists go speeding by in buses and towns are strung along the highway like sets for wild-west movies – to reach the mysterious, ancient capital Fes; exactly three weeks riding from London.
Fes is definitely a different place but, because I’ve measured every dry millimetre with the power of my will, somehow I still feel at home.
(28/10/10)First stop a home-furnishing shop in the new city to cadge a coffin-sized cardboard box. Then to a carpet shop in the old city to enquire about shipping to London. I buy a 10mm hex key and some candles in the souk and in a gloomy garage spend half a day breaking up the bike and packing it, with my road clothes. A barrow porter wheels the resulting carton to the post-office.
(01/11/10) After a couple more days exploring the alleys of the old city an early morning train to Tangier.
(02/11/10) Lunch between trains in Madrid, and – just over the invisible French border – onto a rattling sleeper.
(03/11/10)Breakfast in Paris, London by lunchtime.