Midi-Pyrenees: The Canal des Deux Mers and Gascony
From Carcassonne, we picked up the famous Canal des Deux Mers route which follows the Canal du Midi and Canal du Garonne clear across France from Narbonne on the Mediterranean through Bordeaux to the Atlantic. Originally, we planned to ride all the way northwest to Bordeaux, though out of the way, in order to take advantage of the completely flat terrain. However, after a few fast days on the canals, we realized we were ahead of schedule and decided to change plans. With a few extra days, we could tackle the Pyrenees! For two months we had tried to find any possible way to route ourselves through the mountains dividing Spain and France, but the phenomenal climbs on the route caused us to give up the idea. The most famous of the Tour de France climbs are all in the Pyrenees, and all along the only road traversing the range, meaning the route would be incredibly steep, especially for a pregnant lady. But by entering the mountains midway in Lourdes and taking about a week to divide up the climbs, it became feasible! So, excitedly we ditched the canals just west of Agen and headed south through beautiful farmland toward Lourdes at the foot of the mountains. From there, we will rest up for a day and then begin our week in the Pyrenees.
The Canal des Deux Mers is the title given to a network of canals, primarily the Canal du Midi and Canal de Garonne, that transect France from the Atlantic to Mediterranean. It's a very impressive feat of engineering that allows boats to motor clear across the country. It is only feasible because it follows an incredibly flat course, which also makes for easy cycling. We were excited for long, flat, lovely days. Unfortunately, as we picked up the canal path in Carcassonne we quickly realized the trail was not cut out for road bikes. Monique was sliding and bouncing all over. So on our first day on the canals we regretfully had to ditched the canals and ride through pretty boring and busy highways to our destination at Castelnaudary. Fortunately though, the ride was made more enjoyable by mile after mile of sunflower fields. They dominated the valley like grass. At Castelaudary we built leaf boats to sail on the canal and enjoyed the local specialty: Cassoulet, a bean dish made with duck and pork. Yum.
After a sort of failed first day on the canals, and more than a hundred miles to go, we started this day really hoping for a different scene alongside the waterway. However, at first it was more gravel, dirt, and tree roots with section of hardback in between. We decided to give it some time before bailing to the highways yet again. Good thing! After a few miles the trail passed a junction with another canal and from there on it was smooth concrete bike path. After that it was fast easy riding all the way to Toulouse.
From Toulouse we picked up the second of the two canals, the Canal de Garonne, en route northwest to Bordeaux. The trail was more pristinely paved and ultra flat bike path, making for fast riding. We stopped for the night in Moissac, a town with a beautiful abbey and church, picking blackberries to enliven our picnic along the way.
This would be our last day on the canals. From Moissac we continued on the Canal de Garonne to a town called Buzet-sur-Baise where we left the canal path and road through farmland to our stay in an old country home. That night we decided to switch our route and head south.
The next morning we said goodbye to the Garonne River and its canal as we crossed over it and rode due south on quiet country roads through the Gascony region, home to the famous d'Artagnan depicted in Alexendre Dumas' Three Musketeers. We didn't expect much of our 4-day trek toward the mountains. It was merely a means to buy us time in the Pyrenees. However, it ended up being a really wonderful few days, capped by desolate and beautiful roads and quiet stays in beautiful farm country. The first day took us as far as Condom where we enjoyed a quiet day off.
From Condom we battled through some infuriating headwinds to reach a beautiful 200 year-old family farm near the tiny town of Lasserade. The sweet hosts let us pick apples and figs from the garden and we became quick friends with their puppy.
After that it was a short ride to another quiet home in the country near Sauveterre. Nearly the whole region is so rural that the "big" towns have only one restaurant and maybe a bakery. We had to get creative in finding food. This day we happened to pick up sandwiches the size of our heads and enjoyed them in the giant backyard. From the nearby hilltop church at Sauveterre we could finally get a good look at the Pyrenees sprawled out before us.
From Sauveterre we basically pointed our wheels straight at the mountains and rode, enjoying mostly beautiful quiet roads once again. As we approached the foot of the mountains we took a bit of a scenic detour wrapping through beautiful sheep farms before entering into the busy tourist destination of Lourdes. We don't have space here to fully explain our feelings toward Lourdes. Suffice to say it was not our favorite place. It was the only time on the trip we were disappointed to have booked a day off somewhere. We dubbed it the Catholic Disneyland as its the second most popular tourist destination in France (succeeded only by Paris) and completely filled with souvenir shops selling religious chachka, the most popular of which was plastic water jugs in the shape of Mary. Due to the infamous "miraculous waters of Lourdes" and the touted Saint Bernadette who reportedly saw visions of Mary and healed many, thousands come everyday to fill up bottles of the special spring water and even to bring the sick and disabled to be healed. And the cathedral built on the location of the miraculous spring is the biggest behemoth of a church we've ever seen. It was all a bit much. Though we've been fascinated and pretty sympathetic to the European religious culture and church history that we've discovered while here, Lourdes was hard for us to digest. The whole thing reeked of bad religion en masse.
Anyway, if you want to know more, just ask. Regardless, it served as a fine gateway into the amazing Pyrenees mountains which was the reason we had come after all. The next day we would start up into the real mountain country to spend about a week on our way west toward St Jean Pied de Port, an important layover town for pilgrims en route to St Jacques (as its called in France), and then over the mountains and across the border into Spain. We'll then ride down from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees to Pamplona where we'll meet Tim's mom who is flying out to cycle the Camino with us. The Pyrenees will be the last and likely best of France for us. Until then!
The Pyrenees: Lourdes to Pamplona
Fleeing Lourdes, we rode up a long valley into the heart of the Pyrenees where we began our time in Tour de France mountain pass country. We first stayed in Luz-St-Saveur, a thermal spa town at the crossroads of several impressive valleys. Luz is one of the hotspots in what is basically the world's cycling mecca. The roads in the Pyrenees are impressive, traversing a general east-west course across dozens of mountain passes. It's called the Route of the Cols (passes) and is famous for cycling. Several of the passes are the most popular routes on the Tour de France, selected as part of the annual multi-stage race more than any other roads in the world. They're selected for their combination of quality roads, grueling ascents, terrifying descents, and incredible views. All of these combined to make this the most appealing and intimidating of our journey, especially for Monique with her growing belly. She, however, proved more than strong enough for the task, just as the mountains proved as wonderful as we anticipated. In total, we successfully climbed together up and over five touted Cols, while Tim ascended a sixth, the famous Col du Tourmalet, on his own without bags.
The Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela (aka The "French Route" of the Road to Santiago)
We happily greeted Tim's mom, Ada, at the Pamplona train station on September 8. That night we walked the city's medieval walls and enjoyed some phenomenal tapas. The next day her rental bike arrived and the day after we set off on a very new chapter in our adventure. Being on road and touring bikes, we couldn't actually ride on most sections of the "official" road to Santiago. Instead, we took paved roads close to the camino. This felt like an unfortunate compromise at first, but soon proved advantageous. With each day that we drew closer to Santiago, the road grew more and more crowded with pilgrims, about 3/4 on foot and 1/4 on mountain bikes. The day we finished our pilgrimage, so did nearly 1600 others. Constantly passing all these folks on narrow dirt roads was not something we were sad to miss out on. Some of our roads proved better than others, meaning they were quieter and more scenic. Sometimes we had to ride on busy highways. Similarly, some sections of the camino were altogether beautiful and worthy of travel in themselves while others such as the hundred-mile-long Mesesita section proved a bit barren and boring, if not altogether ugly. Most of the appeal of the camino for the growing number of pilgrims who traverse it is not, however,its natural beauty, and most are no longer mandated by the church to do so to prove their penitence. Instead, the long history of the Way itself and its unique social atmosphere intrigue people from around the world. Many are Christians, both catholic and protestant, but probably as many have no faith at all. We have lots of reflections on our own experience of the camino which we will try to share soon. Suffice to say our cycling journey concluded in Santiago, after cycling nearly 1900 miles (with 150,000+ feet of elevation gain!) since our start in Florence. It did indeed prove a rich spiritual pilgrimage which will profoundly shape our lives, though perhaps not in the ways we might have expected.
Day 59: Taxi from Sahagun to Leon
The End of the Earth...and our Adventure (via bus)
Due to the great health (and size) of our little nugget and the poor health of his dad, Santiago was the end of the riding. The only other options were to ride to Finisterre and back again or all the way down to Porto. Instead, we took advantage of the pilgrim-focused services in Santiago and paid to have our bikes shipped back home. From there we transitioned to traveling ultra ultra light via a couple small backpacks and hitched a bus out to Finisterre, or Fin de Terra in local Galician, meaning literally "End of the Earth". This little fishing village was once believe the most westward point in all of Europe (it's not) and therefore, because the Americas were unknown, the very end of the world. Legend says that the apostle James traveled here in order to fulfill the Great Commission of bringing the good news of Christ to the ends of the Earth. It also became, therefore, a second final finish to the camino. Many pilgrims used to ceremonially burn there clothes at the lighthouse on the end of the cape to symbolize the end of their old, defiled life. When we walked to the beautiful bluffs at the end we found a few scorched shirts and some slightly melted trekking poles. The tradition apparently lives on. We spent three wonderful days in Finisterre resting, getting healthy, and enjoying long afternoons at the beach. Monique partook in a slightly desperate effort to fix the less than ideal tan lines caused by nearly three months in bike shorts. From Finisterre we took a pair of buses back to Santiago and then south into Portugal and down to the beautiful and ancient port city of Porto, where port wine derives its name. Though our time in Portugal was short, it was a sweet ending to a long and amazing journey. During the last few days we were more excited to get home than anything and for that Porto proved quite helpful.