I emerged from the Europa Hotel clutching a banana and an apple (discretely removed from the breakfast buffet for use later in the day) and a replacement CatEye cycling computer. If you remember, the previous one stopped working a couple of weeks ago after about 8 years of dedicated service (no, it wasn’t the battery – I changed that before I left the UK). I have missed using it in the intervening period, mainly for the distance cycled at any one point in one cycling day (the Cyclemeter app on my phone which gives much more detailed information isn’t so simply to access while cycling). In Spain the distance markers by the road have helped fill in the gap but these wouldn’t be so omnipresent on the route north so when I saw a CatEye computer in El Cortes Inglés yesterday afternoon in Pamplona for £20 (I remember paying significantly more for the old one all those years ago) I bought it on the spot. It took me half an hour or so to fit it to Reggie in the main square this morning which delayed my departure slightly but by 10am I was on my way to the hills…
It was a cold start – just 10°c if the pharmacists signs could be believed (and admittedly they usually can’t) – and when I had glanced at the weather forecast for the Pyrenees in one of the newspapers at the hotel I noted with a sigh that there was a 95% chance of rain. Great. That said, by the time I was in the outer suburbs on Pamplona climbing a rather sudden and steep portion of the Camino in order to get past the motorway and onto the N-135, there were large patches of blue sky. Perhaps it was going to be the 5% of such days with no rain.
Using the Michelin Camino de Santiago maps and route profiles that I have delighting in over the past week or so (1:150,000 scale and each page of the booklet shows about 20-25km of the route) I was expecting a tough day of climbing. What I had forgotten to take into account when looking at the altitude profiles was that they were made for the walking route. Today, once on the N-135, I stayed on it and although it was never more than a few kilometres from the Camino, those few kilometres can, and today did, make a big difference. Here’s the Cyclemeter profile that I made:
The maximum altitude was just over 1,000m at a place called Puerto de Ibañeta. This was shortly after my arrival in Roncesvalles. When I arrived in the small town – much smaller than the one preceding it or the one following it, just a huddle of admittedly large religious looking buildings and a couple of restaurants – I mentally and physically prepared myself for what I thought was yet to come; another climb to over 1430m from Roncesvalles at 950m. I fortified myself with a large ham and cheese baguette and a hot black coffee before pulling on my Buff (that could sound so wrong in a different context but I’m referring to the thing that goes round your neck) and securing all other clothing so as to minimise exposed skin. I can hear some of you sniggering; I know it’s only the lower Pyrenees and I’m not Ranulph Fiennes but I do like to milk these things for a bit of dramatic effect… Off I set into the (slightly) unknown. Well, to me it was.
I did climb, but only the rather modest 50m required to get to the Puerto de Ibañeta. I could see the road falling away in the near distance but expected it to climb once again after only a few minutes of cycling so I didn’t stop to take a photo or admire the view despite there being a small car park next to a church for doing just that. The decent started and it didn’t really stop until I was at the doors of Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I could have been disappointed but I can’t say that I was. The joy of the climbing is in the having done it. Over the entire journey from Pamplona I did climb 900m which isn’t bad. I did think it was going to be nearer 1,500m but hand on heart I’m not complaining.
The scenery, as you can imagine (well you don’t have to – just look at the pictures) was sumptuous all the way from Pamplona up into the hills and down the other side, across the border (at a delightfully picturesque bridge devoid of signs saying either ‘España’ or ‘France’ which I can only put down to the political sensibilities of the Basque region combined with the more practical realities of such signs getting removed or at least defaced on a regular basis) and then the short cycle along the valley to my destination (I’m fed of having to type Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port [damn…] which must win the award for most hypens in any name not just in France but anywhere in the world!).
The Rough Guide spoke well of… (insert hyphenated words here)… and it didn’t disappoint. Charming little place full of pilgrims looking fresh faced before they have to climb to 1,400m (ha! they should have been on a bike). The municipal campsite is everything it should be; cheap, basic and near the town centre. Pity the atmosphere in the restaurant that I chose in the centre was all about the loud egos of the two young guys running it rather than about having a nice quiet meal. The pizza I chose was fine but as soon as I had told them about the error on the bill (which was €3 under what it should have been and which I only pointed out so as to make a point that it might be a better idea to concentrate upon the basics of running a restaurant rather than being a stage for them to talk loudly… I feel this is turning into a rant so I’ll stop there), I left and returned to my chair on the campsite where I am writing this in the increasingly chilly evening. Soon I will crawl into my green cocoon of a tent and think about cycling through France a topic which until now has been seriously under thought about.
One country down, six to go! And by the way, it was one of the 5% of days. So far…