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.