Monday, July 28, 2014

Cycling in the Pays Basques

French Village Diaries Hotel Bellevue Cambo-lesBains Basque Pyrenees France
Hotel Bellevue Cambo-les-Bains
After Biarritz it was only a short drive to our hotel in Cambo-les-Bains, the very pretty Hotel Bellevue, and our view over the mountains was indeed beautiful. There was off road parking for the car, a quiet swimming pool and a clean, bright and fresh smelling room (with a well equipped kitchen area) and balcony for our glass of rosé in the evening sun. However we needed to earn our apero so set off to explore on the bikes. 

French Village Diaries Hotel Bellevue Cambo-lesBains Basque Pyrenees France
The balcony Hotel Bellevue
I will admit at this point that after five minutes on the bike I lost the plot attempting to cycle the downhill ski runs that were masquerading as roads heading down to the river. I’m not great at climbing up hills on the bike, but a slow plod and lots of rasping breathes and I eventually arrive to crash out on the grass in a sweaty heap, it is difficult, sometimes it feels impossible but it isn’t scary. Fast descents whether on skis or wheels freak me out. I have no sense of exhilaration in freewheeling downhill, I don’t feel in control and I’m scared of falling off. Ade reckons I was born without a fully functioning adrenal gland and he may well be right.

We made the ten kilometres to Hasparren for a refreshing beer, but by sticking to the slightly flatter main road rather than the route we had planned. This made the cycling easier for me, but we had more traffic to deal with than when out and about at home. Cycling here took far more thought and planning than I was used to. Clipping out for junctions on slopes, setting off, clipping in, turning a corner and finding a steep incline, getting in the correct gear, all with a huge truck bearing down behind made me realise my skills, bike handling and confidence need quite a bit of work. It was as much a mental exercise for my brain as it was a physical exercise for my legs.

I was rested, relaxed, refuelled (having eaten a tart Basquaise and a delicious Gateau Basque) and feeling better about our full day on the bikes, until I spoke to the owner of the restaurant. She laughed when she heard of our plans saying she had once cycled the five kilometres to Espelette and would never do it again. This didn’t fill me with the confidence I needed to complete the 50km route we had plotted for the following day.

French Village Diaries Espelette Piments Basque Pyrenees France
Hanging peppers in Espelette
Day two didn’t start as planned as Ade’s bike gave us a moment of de ja vu – an hour spent on the road side fiddling with mechanics and dislodging a foreign body from the gear selector, but we made it to Espelette for a late morning coffee. Despite the hundreds of other tourists who had flocked to this small but very pretty village, we found a shady terrace for coffee that was only 1.30€ a cup. It had even hung out its dried piment d’Espelette peppers on the walls in the traditional way, a sight I had been looking forward to seeing and wasn’t disappointed. Leaving Espelette we climbed the steepest climb I had ever climbed. Until I reached the top, I wasn’t sure that I would make it, but the compact gear on my new bike did me proud. We lunched in Ainhoa, a Plus Beaux Villages de France and just as pretty as Espelette but without the crowds. Our afternoon was spent meandering up and down hills, into and out of villages and enjoying the scenery of the area. We cycled through pepper plantations on the hillsides and enjoyed the scent of the hydrangeas that are as prolific there as hollyhocks are at home. The Basque people we met were very friendly and obviously as proud of their region as they are of their culture. We rarely saw a run down looking house and have never seen so many people out hedge cutting and house painting. My treat for the day was a cherry gateau Basque to go with my beer, yum yum!

French Village Diaries Pays Basques Pyrenees France Cycling Pendleton Initial
Top of the world

French Village Diaries piment d'espelette Pyrenees Pays basque France
Pepper plantations

French Village Diaries gateau basque Pyrenees Pays basque France
A beer and a gateau Basque

French Village Diaries Pendleton Initial Pyrenees Pays basque France
Big mountains
On our last morning we followed the Nive river towards Itxassou and found ourselves a beautiful spot for morning coffee with eagles circling over head. Unfortunately we only managed about 16km as I hadn’t slept too well (the bed was comfy but the room too hot) and the hills were making me wobble.

French Village Diaries River Nive valley Pendleton Initial Pyrenees Pays basque France
The River Nive

It was lovely to experience an area of France I had wanted to visit, but just as lovely to be back in the gently undulating and curvaceous Poitou-Charentes. I’m not sure my spiritual home is in the mountains.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lunch in Biarritz

French Village Diaries Biarritz
The perfect spot for lunch in Biarritz

The same day that the Tour de France boys were leaving Carcassonne and heading to the Pyrenees, we were pounding the tarmac of the dual carriageways for the four-hour journey by car to the same mountains. Our paths were not destined to cross however as we were off to the Basque country with our bikes, to tackle our own mini mountain stage. With friends organised to look after the animals the bikes were loaded into the car and the remaining space filled with muesli bars, walnuts, chocolate, bananas and pasta pots. Despite looking forward to sampling the regional delights of Basque gastronomy, I couldn’t possibly leave home without any provisions; I’m funny like that.

We set off through the sunflower fields that gave way to the Cognac vineyards and that by the time we stopped for coffee had become Bordeaux vineyards. From Bordeaux to Biarritz we drove through the flat forested Landes; baby trees, big trees, fern covered forest floors with pretty purple flowering heather, asparagus fields and huge maize plantations. So different from where we live and where we were headed. Just north of Bayonne we got our first glimpse of the mountains. Huge, looming mountains. Steep, pointy mountains. Mountains that made my short, stubby legs feel weak just looking at them.

With Ade desperate to stretch his legs in the mountains and me pleased to be visiting an area I’ve had on my wish list for a while this was a trip designed to please us both, but lunch in Biarritz was an added bonus for me and a bargain at only 1.60€. We seemed to drive forever on dual carriageways interrupted by roundabouts, through uninspiring out of town areas. Something that seemed even more difficult on empty stomachs, although to be honest wasn’t much easier on our way out of town later. We even found ourselves on the same stretch of road going in the same direction on both journeys. We parked in the Bellevue underground car park and emerged into the sun, to see the sea and all was forgiven until we saw the crowds. After a pretty stroll through terraced gardens we made our way to a waterfront terrace where lunch was served without delay - as I unpacked the homemade quiche and we ate with just the sparrows paying us any attention. A walk along the promenade to see the old fishing port, the rocky outcrops and pretty beach tents and we were happy to leave, although we may return out of season one day. Without the crowds it may be more our sort of place.

French Village Diaries Biarritz
The old fishing port Biarritz

French Village Diaries Biarritz
The promenade Biarritz

French Village Diaries Biarritz
The beach tents Biarritz

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book review of The Hairy Hikers by David Le Vay

French village diaries book review The Hairy Hikers by David Le Vey walking Pyrenees
David and his mate Rob decide to set out on the GR10 hiking trail to walk off their mid-life crisis by crossing the Pyrenees from Atlantic coast to Mediterranean coast. We are planning a short trip to the western Pyrenees, taking our bikes, and this book gave me plenty of ideas of places I want to visit.

It would be easy to lose interest in a book where every day the narrative was - got up, had breakfast, booted up, walked mountains, arrived at overnight gite, ate dinner, etc. but there is always a little something of interest or an amusing tale to keep this book a lively read. One of my favourite funnies was set in the dingy broom cupboard of the Internet café trying to find the @ sign on a French keyboard. Much of the humour comes from him being a self-confessed Mr Grumpy, an insomniac and a social numpty, who spent two months, day and night, in close proximity to his mate, often staying in shared gite accommodation with strangers. I would have found it very difficult and he did struggle at times, but it made a very funny read, especially his description of the orchestra of sleeping sounds from his travelling companion.

As you would expect from two blokes alone in the mountains, proudly growing their beards and turning a little feral, talk often turned to farts and with a spot of wild camping, pooing in the woods got a mention too. While some may find this distasteful it amused me no end. It was one of those books I read with a grin.

The writing gave me the impression they were a likable duo who had fun on their adventure, despite the pains and issues they faced, and came out the other side of their mountains appreciating not only what they had achieved, but also the things that are important in life.

The Hairy Hikers: A Coast-to-Coast Trek along the French Pyrenees is published by Summersdale and available in ebook and paperback versions. From now until the 1st September 2014 the ebook is only 99p on Amazon UK. David also has a new book out this summer, A Tour of Mont Blanc: And other circuitous adventures in Italy, France and Switzerland  that I'm looking forward to reading.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Pendleton Initial Ladies Road Bike from Halfords

We have a new addition to our family who is stylish, sleek and sporty. I’m very excited as she is my first brand new bike since the mint green mountain bike I bought when I was 18 and that I still have, looking sad and neglected in the barn.

I give you the Pendleton Initial ladies road bike from Halfords, funnily enough, the same store I bought my mountain bike from twenty-five years ago.

french village diaries Pendleton Initial road bike Halfords
Pendleton Initial Ladies Road Bike
Cycling has always been important in our French life and even when Ed was only four he was happily riding five km routes with us on the farm tracks, having learned to ride without stabilizers shortly after we moved here. In 2011 we became a family of road bike cyclists, a totally new experience for me. We all started off with second hand bikes and I fell in love with Bluebelle, my 1980’s Mercier bike. Together she and I covered about 2000km a year cycling the back roads of rural France and having fun. We’ve seen fields of all colours, storks, deer, monuments, churches, abbeys, chateaux, forgotten villages, rivers, the Atlantic and more. We even took part in a local event with real cyclists, see here. The decision to upgrade was not an easy one, especially as, until I found the Pendleton nothing had stirred my heart like my old Bluebelle, but for the sake of comfort the time is right to move on. I really hope I have found my forever replacement. I won’t be getting rid of Bluebelle but I think she has earned a quiet retirement.

I have ridden my first couple of hundred kilometres on my new bike and so far, so good. The handlebars are much more comfortable and changing gear is more straightforward, slicker and smoother. Her small frame is just right for my small frame. Ade reckons I have increased my average cruising speed by a couple of kilometres an hour, but I will never be speedy like the real Victoria Pendleton. For me cycling is more about the journey than personal bests.

french village diaries Pendleton Initial road bike Halfords
With my new Pendleton Initial
This post is not sponsored by Halfords, but I spoke to them about their new Pendleton range and Victoria’s input in its design, and they gave me the following information:

"The Pendleton Initial road bike is the first road bike to be added to the Pendleton Collection. The specification, geometry, and design have all been chosen to perfectly suit the female cyclist. The smaller frame sizes were chosen so that the model caters for younger riders too, but the bike has been aimed at any female cyclist who is looking to get into road cycling, or to further their love for the sport.

Victoria played an integral part in the design process; right from the very first meeting her experience as a female cyclist has influenced every decision. As a result, everyone involved is extremely pleased with the final product, and we all hope that the new model inspires more women to start, and to continue, cycling."

I have to admit that although the white saddle it came with is beautiful, I have decided to keep the saddle I bought earlier in the year, see here. I have also taken the big step to progress to cycling shoes that attach to the pedals; something Bluebelle was too old to be compatible with. So far, I have managed not to fall off, but I’m sure that won’t last forever.

I will certainly be putting her through her paces this summer, including lots of cycling in Poitou-Charentes and short breaks in Normandy and the Pyrenees, where I hope her compact gear will help me glide effortlessly up the hills of the Basque Country. She is my little bit of British heritage who, like me, is very much at home cruising in France.

french village diaries Pendleton Initial road bike Halfords
Pendleton Initial Road Bike in France

One of my reads this summer has been Victoria’s autobiography, Between the Lines. I was instantly hit by the drive, determination and emotion flowing through the book that left me gripped and page turning. I also learned a lot about the world of track cycling and what it takes to be a champion and my head was awash with emotions and adrenalin after reading this book.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hot deals for summer Kindle reading

French village diaries kindle summer sale bookworm reading france
The French Village Bookworm

With the UK Kindle summer sale in full swing there are hundreds of great reductions and it seems books set in France are very well represented. I have done a bit of sharing on Facebook, but thought a post where they are all listed would also be a good idea. Many of these books are only 99p and most offers will be available until 1st September 2014, but please do check the prices before downloading.

To make the most of these offers why not treat yourself to a Kindle Paperweight. By using the code KINDLE4SUN at the checkout you will receive a £20 discount if you buy before Tuesday 22nd July. I hope you have a great summer reading about France, there is certainly enough here to keep even the most greedy bookworm very happy - even I've not read them all, yet!

In no particular order, here are the TWENTY-ONE books I've found on offer:

The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain, the story of a hat that belongs to President Mitterrand that finds itself in different hands and where we share snippets of the life of those new owners and the strange effect owning the hat has on their lives. I really enjoyed this book.

The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, a relationship that unfolds between strangers who meet when one of them attempts to identify the people in an old family photograph. There journey leads them along a path with lots of family secrets that need to be unravelled if they want discover the truth. I really enjoyed this book.

Hot Sun, Cool Shadow by Angela Murrills, a book about the food of the Languedoc region in France. I've downloaded this and am looking forward to reading it soon.

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie, part of the Bordeaux Trilogy that I've downloaded and will be reading soon.

Cold Winter in Bordeaux by Allan Massie, part of the Bordeaux Trilogy that I've downloaded and will be reading soon.

Grape Expectation by Caro Feely, a book I very much enjoyed reading about a family move to a French vineyard and the hard work involved in setting up an organic wine making business.

Serge Bastarde Ate My Baguette by John Dummer, a funny look at life working the brocantes of south west France. John is helped and led astray by loveable rogue Serge. A very funny read.

Son of Serge Bastarde by John Dummer, more from John's life in France, more fun and being led astray by Serge, who is back with a son in tow. I really enjoyed this book.

The Dress Thief by Natalie Meg Evans, espionage and romance in the world of Paris haute couture. I've not yet read this book.

Toute Allure by Karen Wheeler, a lovely memoir of falling in love with a new life in rural France. I'm a big fan of all of Karen's books.

Bon Courage! by Richard Wiles, a book following the renovation project of a property in the Limousin region of France. This book is on my book shelf and I will be reading it soon.

Bon Chance! by Richard Wiles, following on from his first memoir this book is about settling into his new life and is also waiting on my book shelf.

Downhill all the Way by Edward Enfield, the journey of a bike ride from the Channel to the Mediterranean. Cycling and France - I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog by Jamie Ivey. I really enjoyed this book about a family looking to put down roots in Provence, raise their young children, train their puppy and try to sniff out truffles from the trees on their land.

Midnight Train to Paris by Juliette Sobanet, love, Paris, France and bit of time travel. I have enjoyed all of Juliette's romantic novels set in France.

Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi a book I haven't yet read, but it's an historical novel set in Paris, 1899.

A House in the Sunflowers by Ruth Silvestre, one of my favourite memoirs about life in France. Different from the others as her family bought their holiday home in the 1970's when rural France was a very different place.

Two Lipsticks and a Lover by Helena Frith Powell, another one on my reading list. A witty look at French chic and that very French je ne sais quoi.

The Hairy Hikers by Davie Le Vay, a funny account of two middle aged men walking off their mid-life crisis by crossing the Pyrenees on foot. I really enjoyed this book.

The Girl you Left Behind by Jojo Moyes. I've not yet read this romantic story, where two women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for the thing they love the most. There is a short story prequel to this book Honeymoon in Paris.