Cycling the Midi Pyrenees

Previous post: Spain | San Sebastian

The Pyrenees will remain in our memory as being one of the most beautiful places we have visited.  The towering, snow-capped peaks, the valleys luxuriantly green and the roads winding bravely upwards, always upwards.   With the weather stopping us from doing much of the cycling we had wanted to do, this is one place on our ‘we will return’ list.

The foothills of the Pyrenees will stay in our memories for slightly different reasons.  The perpetual hills, the lack of human existence, hill after hill, farm after farm.  We were chased, growled and glared at by feral looking french farm dogs.  We pedaled, we prayed, we perspired – I cried.

It seemed we would cycle for hours without seeing anyone else; even some towns, which comprised just a few houses mostly, seemed deserted. We sat on a hilltop overlooking the green valleys below and felt like we were the only two people left in the world.

Moments stay with us: watching the ripples in the wheat fields stretching over the moulded, golden hills; stopping to eat lunch on a small bridge over a gurgling stream; setting up camp and falling asleep before the sun had set; cresting a hill after a climb that we thought would never end; the patchwork greens and gold of french farmlands. We might forget the days, but we will always remember these moments.

Day One | San Sebastian, Spain to Lourdes, France – (62km cycled, the rest by train!)

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We said a sad farewell to San Sebastian and took the train back to Hendaye in France again.  The weather was predicted to close in again on Monday and heavy rain was predicted in the region until Thursday.  Carl had been very keen to head into the Pyrenees and initially we were planning on cycling to Lourdes, but given the forecast we decided to train there instead and hopefully get just one good day of weather in the mountains.

From Hendaye, we cycled to Biarritz along the coast again which was very beautiful and very hot. A stark contrast to the day we rode the same route in the rain! We stopped a few times to soak up the atmosphere of the beaches along the way and would’ve stopped completely if it weren’t for our need to beat the weather (again).  We bought lunch at the local markets in St Jean de Luz and headed on in the 30+ degree heat up the hills to the Biarritz station.  It was pretty tough going, but we made it!  There the next challenge awaited us!

The trains, unlike the others we have ridden on, had the platforms well below the train doors, with a flight of three stairs to enter the train – even on the ‘bicycle’ carriages!  We managed to get the bikes on okay at Biarritz and off again at our change in Bayonne (one of the passengers kindly assisted us off the train).  But the next train’s door was so narrow we had to remove all the panniers and place everything in the carriage separately.  As our little train headed into the mountains, we noticed with relief that it stopped for around 4-5 minutes at each station, which would give us ample time to alight.  Of course this didn’t happen when we arrived at Lourdes.  I  helped take the luggage for an elderly nun off the train and Carl had gotten one bike onto the platform, when the guard’s whistle blew and the train doors shut and the train started going!  We desperately signalled to the guards to stop the train, and thankfully they got the message and we managed to somewhat desperately get the rest of our bags off,  by this stage both bikes had fallen over (off their stands).  We survived.  It was around 8pm by this stage and we cycled off out of Lourdes to the campsite marked on the map.  We rode on a dedicated cycle path, running up the valley between the mountain peaks, and it was absolutely beautiful…

We found the campsite, but it was very damp and shaded by trees and full of mosquitoes – so we decided to push on to the area of Argeles Gazost, where a number of campsites were advertised.  We rode for about 9 km’s but came to an abrupt halt where the road was badly flooded.   We had cycled along the  Gave du Pau river for quite a bit of the way and it was flowing so fast and at times breaking its banks.  We commented on how just a little more rain would surely ‘tip it over the edge’! It was getting a closer to sunset as we hadn’t exactly been in a hurry – enjoying the scenery on the way and we decided to turn back and go to the campsite in the town.  By the time we got into town it was pretty dark and we decided to stay in a hotel for the night and hunt for another campsite in the morning.  We found a lovely little place and settled in for the night.

Day Two and Three | Lourdes & Haute Pyrenees

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The next morning we decided to remain in the hotel as it was super comfy and we weren’t really in the mood to go campsite hunting again.  The weather was predicted to rain in the afternoon, so we chose to hire a car to do some sight seeing.  It was such a strange experience being in a car again – we hadn’t been in one since Yorkshire on Easter weekend and while we were accustomed to cycling on the right hand side of the road, being in a car was quite different!

We headed out to  the Cirque du Gavarnie, a magnificent mountain ampitheatre, skirting the spanish border.  The 400 metre waterfall in the centre of the ‘cirque’ is argued by the French to be the highest waterfall in Europe, however this fact is validly contested by the Norwegians with their 600m Ramnefjellsfossen waterfall. We then headed to the Col du Tourmalet – the highest road in the central Pyrenees, made famous by the Tour de France.  Sadly, we only got to 1,500 metres and the road was closed due to snow. We couldn’t believe it – middle of June and it was still snowing, in fact we had read a week before that someone had opened their ski resort in the Pyrenees again!  We could actually see some of the snowbanks a bit further up the road.  As we drove through the mountains, the rivers and streams were so close to flooding, and they angrily coursed through the valleys, dragging tree branches and indeed anything that got caught in their path.

The rain started when we were up at the Col du Tourmalet and by the time we headed back into town the roads were covered in thick mist and it was raining steadily.  We wondered what would happen to the rivers’ already burgeoning banks.

As suspected, that night the river broke and floods began.  Statistics say the worst flooding since 1937.  We sat in our hotel room listening to the endless wailing of sirens as various campsites, hotels and low lying areas were evacuated.  Luckily we hadn’t moved from the hotel to the campsite that morning – it would have been a very short stay!  The famous grotto of St Bernadette was shut to the visiting worshippers and those that came to the town renowned for religious healing.

Day Four | Lourdes to Trie sur Baise – 74km

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We rode out of Lourdes the next morning, with the aim of reaching Toulouse in a few days.  Avoiding the route along the flooding river, we headed in the direction of Tarbes on the quieter roads and soon found a cycle path that skirted the city. Pretty soon we started to cross the finger-like foothills of the Pyrenees.  The foothills run south to north, and we needed to go east!  I  found it pretty tiring and it was slow going, but we made it – and still managed to keep our average speed to over 16km/h – which I know is shameful when you think of what the Tour de France guys do it in on the real peaks!! It really tested our fitness, and I was found lacking a few times.

This region of France is Gascogne (or Gascony) – famous for its foie gras and armanac. Being a huge lover of ducks and geese, I found it a difficult area to cycle through, whilst thinking of the force-feeding of the poor animals in the adjacent farms. The scenery was beautiful however, the rolling hills of the farmlands with the ever present shadowy blues of the towering Pyrenees.

We had bought lunch with us – but naively thought we would find somewhere to stop and buy food for the evening.  The area was farmland only and we didn’t really ride through any towns or see any shops to buy food for dinner at all. We rode all day, with a few breaks to stop and admire the patch-worked farming landscape and as evening was coming, after a long hill climb we arrived at our supposed place to stop for the night.  Our destination, the village of Lubret St Luc consisted of a foie gras farm, Mairie (Mayors office), a handful of houses and a campsite – WHICH WAS CLOSED!

As we arrived, the sky had darkened and the rain had started to fall – it was all I could do not to cry.  Exhausted and nowhere to stop.  We would’ve been happy to camp there without showers etc – even in the rain, but there was no food in the town and we were both starving!  We always carry food with us  and stupidly today, we hadn’t.  I spotted a woman outside the Mairie and went to enquire about the closed campsite.  In true french style, she had no explanation – simply that it was closed.  She told us there was a town about 10 km’s away that had one hotel and a supermarket.  We had no option but to keep riding.  Normally 10km’s wouldn’t be a problem, but after an exhausting uphill day and now the pouring rain it was pretty hard to swallow.

We headed off over another couple of hills and finally arrived in the town.  We found the ‘only hotel in the village’.  Relieved, I headed inside dripping wet to ask for a bed for the night, not really caring how much it cost.  They were full.  I stared in disbelief – impossible.  The next known accommodation was 30km away!

I think the receptionist saw the look on my face and said to wait a bit while she made a phonecall.  Her English was limited, as is my French, but we eventually worked out that there was one room that she was holding for someone else who was coming from Argeles Gazost (where we had tried to camp, near Lourdes).  They were trapped by the floods and hadn’t been able to make it the night before, but  she was expecting them that evening.   Perhaps because she felt sorry for us, perhaps because I was dripping all over her floor and was eyeing out the hotel lobby as a potential campsite, she gave us the room, saying that we only had bicycles – the other guests had a car.  Nearly hugging the hotel owners in relief, we wheeled our bikes into the hotel and were shown to the most beautiful room we had seen in months!  Outside it was pouring down and 11 degrees…

Day Five | Trie-sur-baise to Samatan – 78km

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The next day the cycling was equally as hard.  While trying to avoid the worst of the hills it seemed like we only succeeded in finding steeper ones…  We learned a valuable lesson in French hill navigation.  The bigger the road, the more switchbacks, the more gentle the slope – whilst the small back roads simply head straight up the hill!   We rode up hill after hill with little respite, besides the short-lived freewheel down at times, sometimes just another uphill.

We kept at it most of the day, until finding a small campsite in real town called Samatan, it was  well maintained, despite being overrun by a pack of British teenagers.  Thankfully our tent was situated closed to a river with a waterfall and the noise of the water drowned out any teenage sounds!

CAMPSITE: Camping municipal – Samatan
  • Small, well-maintained campsite.
  • Facilities are not that great
  • Super-cheap
  • Right behind the Carrefour supermarket for those last minute food needs!

Day Six | Samatan to Toulouse – 66km

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We awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the cycle to Toulouse.  The day was drizzly and we put on our rain gear and headed off into the mist.  There weren’t too many hills and before we knew it we had hit the main road into Toulouse, which was straight and flat and pretty soon became a cycle path.

In Toulouse, Carl successfully shopped around for a new tripod to replace the one he lost in Paulliac.  For accommodation, we had arranged to stay on a barge moored just outside Toulouse on the Canal du Midi.  This was to be our first experience in using Warm Showers, a “free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists”.  Our hosts Fabien, Clarisse and their son Gregoire were fantastic, and we had a good time with them, learning a bit more about France and the French culture.  Their house, a 100 year old iron barge, was a fascinating and unique place to stay.  Thanks again guys!

Following post: Cycling the Canal du Midi

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