“Please remove all the bags, sir.”
“You need to remove all the bags from your bike, sir. We can’t take it like that.”
Damn. Not what you want to hear when you’re checking in, late, for the Eurostar. And when the bags concerned are awkward shapes strapped in a complicated manner to your bike, which will prove difficult to carry by hand.
The rest of the trip down to Pau, in the south of France, goes smoothly despite the collection of the bike at the Gare du Nord in Paris involving hitching a ride on the back of one baggage cart in order to chase another baggage cart towing bikes on a trailer, around the platforms. Stuffing the paperwork in the baggage handler’s hand, I barely manage to grab my bike from its hanging position before the cart speeds off again. I’m clearly not in England any more.
I ride through Paris, passing le Louvre, crossing la Seine, heading for the Gare du Montparnasse and a waiting TGV. One thing becomes apparent on the train journey south – it appears to be raining rather a lot.
A night in a cheap hotel later, I head to the tourist office in Pau to try to pick up a credential – paperwork that I will need in order to gain entry to the municipal pilgrim hostels (Albergues) along the Camino, and which each Albergue will stamp to record my passing by along the Camino. It appears that the nearest place I can collect one is Oloron Ste Marie, the next main town on my route. The tourist office offer to book me a hotel there for that night. I protest that it’s only 18 miles away and that I plan to cover much more distance than that today, stubbornly putting the words that I had read a night or two ago to the back of my mind. The tourist officer persists with the idea and eventually I agree, just as a contingency.
Heading up the road to Lescar, it takes a couple of hours in the rain to locate the point at which the Camino crosses the road. Some backtracking, map consultation, guesswork and Google maps navigation, and I eventually find the magical sign, a version of which I will follow for the next 600 miles.
The route soon leaves the road and pushes up into the forests, gently at first, and then more steeply, following the white and red lines painted on the trees that mark the long distance footpath, GR653, which the Camino follows. The ground is saturated after weeks of rain, unseasonable even for these small hills sitting in the shadow of the Pyrenees.
The surface is, in places, sodden, sticky, mud. There are flooded streams to cross over small bridges, and the trail continually undulates as it leads me between Lescar and Oloron Ste Marie.
My tyres are Schwalbe Marathon Extremes – off-road touring tyres put on in haste the night before the trip after I spotted a missing nobble on the mountain bike tyres I’ve been using for the past few months, revealing the tyre carcass underneath. The hard wearing Extremes roll well and, I will discover over the next two weeks, handle rocks and roots surprisingly comfortably with a suitably low pressure. But not mud. The tread is too tight to shed mud easily and soon the tyres become one slick, filthy, slippery mess. At times I push uphill as riding is not possible, stepping up over big slippery roots, sometimes heaving the bike ahead of me, applying the brakes, and pulling myself up to it. Push, brake, pull. Repeat. Then I push downhill as the trail is a slippery, muddy, rocky stream and I don’t have the confidence I need to ride some sections. Particularly as I’m on my own. And it’s just Day One. I’m reminded of pushing a much heavier bike up wet trails in the Jura. Thank goodness I’ve slimmed down my packing since then.
The forest trails continue for what seems like many more miles than expected, perhaps due to the sore throat, aches and tiredness that have, predictably, come on in the last few days before the trip. This doesn’t feel like a good start. Already I feel that I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Santiago seems a very long way away. Eventually I limp into Oloron Ste Marie, soaked to the skin due to rain and sweat, covered in mud and grateful for the hotel booking that I had been so keen to dismiss that morning. The hotel manager looks me up and down, amused, lets me wash my bike and offers to dry my clothes for me.
The following morning the tourist office directs me across town to a door in a wall, to find a man who can issue me with a credential on behalf of the Cathedrale Sainte Marie. I continue on my way, and the trail heads towards the Vallée d’Aspe and the climb to the crossing point of the Pyrenees at the Col du Somport.
The Camino often offers both off road trail route options, and alternative road routes. Sometimes these are there is only trail, or road, sometimes both. On a mountain bike I want to stay on the trail as much as possible – this is the riding I enjoy. Sometimes this is difficult, or feels foolish. Often the trail will head up a steep, rocky trail which, after an hour of pushing, riding and sweating, descends to rejoin the road just a few miles on. Distance that could have been done in minutes on tarmac. On a journey with a deadline, there is a balance to find between riding the trail and the need to make some progress. The section in the foothills from Oloron proves awkward. I hit dead ends in farmers fields. I find the trail narrow and turn into a rocky stream bed. I detour backwards for some miles to pick up the road again, just to continue heading in the right direction.
As the road starts to climb up towards Somport, the trail becomes difficult to ride. Narrow, wet and rocky. I can’t maintain any momentum. I ride for a few metres, then have to get off and push. The road is often within sight, though with a limited hard shoulder, and lorries growling their way towards Spain, I think of the mistake I made trying to climb the Brunig Pass on the road, and stay on the trail.
The detours have cost me some time, and when I get to Borce, thoughts of getting over the pass at Somport that day evaporate and I decide to stay the night, having covered just 23 miles. The views in this little village are gorgeous. The Hospitalet de Borce is a small pilgrims gite on the edge of the village, attached to a chapel. I am the only visitor, and a sign tells me to make myself at home. In fact, I realise, I have not come across one other person on the trail in the last two days. I handwash my riding gear, hang it out to dry behind the chapel and head to the local shop / bar to pick up some ingredients for tea. The shop seems to be run by a young couple with a slightly hippy vibe. Understanding where I’m sleeping for the night, the girl asks me curiously whether I’m a pilgrim. I feel embarrassed, and unsure what the answer is. I’m not religious, I point out, but I am following the pilgrim’s route. What does that make me? I feel like a fraud, despite the exertions of the past two days.
I sleep under an open window, listening to the sounds of the mountains. Pushing on towards Somport the next day, I stick to the road. The views are typically alpine now. At times the tarmac cuts through imposing rock faces; at others it crosses alpine meadows. The gradient is not too steep until the main road disappears into a tunnel towards Spain, through which walkers and cyclists not allowed, and I turn upwards towards the mountain pass. Just a few miles seems to take an absolute age, grinding slowly up in my easiest gear.
As the terrain starts to flatten out, on top of the Pyrenees, I refill my water bottles from a mountain stream. No need for purification tablets up here; this water is straight from the melting snow. Eventually, finally, I’m at the top. Some tourists offer congratulations as I roll through the disused border post and stop at a cafe just inside Spain. It has taken nearly four hours to cover just 11 miles. I made the right decision to stay in Borce last night.
Lunch in the cafe demonstrates that trying to recall any French I once knew over the last few days has pushed anything learnt in recent Spanish lessons to the back of my brain. I take a look at the trail and decide that I will take the road down to Jaca. The trail looks steep, everything is still soaking, and after the slowness of the past few days I feel the need to make up some time. I’m already worried that the extra distance and slower pace of the route I’ve taken will make it tough to get to Santiago, although I haven’t quite worked out the distance versus number of remaining days.
The 19 miles to the centre of the city takes just an hour on smooth tarmac. Villages and towns whip past to the hum of my tyres. The feeling of flying down the mountain is amazing after the slow, sweaty, muddy efforts of the past two and a half days. At this moment travelling by bike make so much sense. These are free miles, making up for all those slow ones. Soon I am riding on a dusty trail alongside the main road on the outskirts of Jaca. I pass the first walking pilgrims I have seen. A motley crew of strangers who have spent a long day walking from Somport. A mixture of nationalities, abilities and reasons for walking.
I locate the municipal Albergue, claim a bed, shower, wash my clothes and take a wander. Already this feels like an epic journey. Things here are so different. It is warm and sunny, dry and dusty, a world away from the wet, slippy, muddiness just over the mountains. I feel that I have already experienced so much. The hills, the mud, the pushing. Getting lost and finding the way again. The relief of reaching a resting place at night, of crossing the mountains. It’s been 3 days and just 72 miles. Only 456 miles to go.