Friday 19th August
On the road by 8:00 as we had to make Portsmouth by late afternoon and we didn’t want to miss our ferry. We made it in plenty of time, although the roads were very busy and much filtering was required.
We were catching the Brittany Ferries ferry to Bilbao – a 24-hour voyage. Our cabin was fine, and dinner excellent – not too expensive either. While waiting to board we’d got chatting to a Spanish couple, he a judge and she a lawyer, and later that evening we were presented by them with a bottle of wine. They’d bought a half-case and decided that their panniers were too small to take all of it!
Had a bit of a lie-in and made breakfast about 9:30. Great to have a full English on a French boat to Spain. Our lunch was also nice, the weather good and the sea calm so all-in-all we enjoyed the trip.
We docked in Bilbao late afternoon and made our way to our hotel, the NH La Avanzada on the outskirts of Bilbao. A modern spacious room and dinner E15 a head for 3 courses plus wine. Not bad at all. Had a short stroll after dinner but it was still too hot to go far.
We’d originally thought we might hit a beach, but the forecast was for a really hot day (it turned out to be 38C) so we decided simply to hole up with a beer or two in Saint Jean de Luz. A lovely little town, and relatively cool in the shade by the sea.
In the afternoon we had a wander through the town, stopping to watch some Spanish children doing a traditional dance, and then headed for our overnight hotel, the Hotel De La Nehe in Dax.
We were absolutely dripping when we reached our room, but a shower revived us enough to go and find some dinner. Our host had recommended a little bistro just round the corner from the hotel, where we had a really pleasant meal, followed by a look at the thermal spring in the town centre (the water was almost too hot for comfort) and a stroll along the river.
Off to the Pyrenees. In order to give us plenty of time in the twisties we took the motorway as far as Pau, then headed straight for the mountains. First up was the Col D’Aubisque
where we stopped for a coffee and some photographs, then a very pretty road across to the Col de Soulor.
The road then took us to the Col de Tourmalet, where we’d planned to have a break. It was much too windy for comfort, however, so we rode the short distance down to La Mongie, where we stopped for a bite to eat and chatted to our waitress who owned a Bandit 600.
Then over the Col d’Aspin and on to Bagneres de Luchon – to the pub with no beer! It turned out the recent weather had been so hot that the bar at the hotel where we were staying, the Clarion Suites Corneille, had run out of beer. We strolled into town to find some, then back a little later for dinner.
Into town on foot and onto the cable car that goes from the town centre to the small skiing area of Superbagnere. We planned on a lunchtime sandwich at the top of the mountain. We felt a bit concerned about a sign at the bottom saying there were no toilets or drinking water available at the top. Fortunately we found both.
We had a good stroll, enjoying the views
and the flowers and being eyed up by the ubiquitous cows. We were feeling the altitude so didn’t venture too far. We then found some sandwiches and cold drinks to eat at a table in the open air, though we had to give up on the sun umbrella as sudden gusts of wind threatened to blow it inside out.
Back to sit in the hotel garden until it was time to go once more into town for dinner. Pat’s dessert of an ice cream sundae was so huge and so splendidly decorated that it had the little boy at the next table open-mouthed in admiration. Pat presented him with the orange butterfly made of feathers. (It kept him quiet for ages!)
Explored the town in the morning, taking in the market, the park and the spa. Found that Luchon is twinned with Harrogate.
In the afternoon we got the bike out for a little ride. Colin had been playing with googlemaps and liked the look of the Port de Balès. It was a really pretty road going up towards the col, but near the top it got very misty. There were also lots of cows wandering about on the road, but we had a nice local man in a van to follow and his passenger was very good at cow-chasing. Quite an adventurous afternoon on the whole.
Early into town to have a drink and thus reserve a seat outdoors in the corner restaurant we fancied. They were showing a Lyon football match both indoors and out so we watched. Mostly Colin watched the match and Pat watched the spectators, especially the man at the next table who grew progressively more agitated at Lyon’s lack of goals. He gave up and stormed off in disgust 10 mins before the end, leaving his poor wife to rush after him. Shame – he missed Lyon’s equalising goal.
A day’s ride out to the Pic du Midi, retracing part of Monday’s route over 2 spectacular cols and through some lovely scenery. The whole region is full of mad men in Lycra pedalling up and down mountain roads. We were passed by one going downhill – all we could think of was bare knees and elbows meeting tarmac.
We spotted several small groups of huge soaring birds which we decided were Griffon Vultures. Their wingspan is 2 – 3 metres. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one.
At La Mongie we took the cable car up the mountain to the Pic and its observatory – a huge stretch that has passengers gasping. Absolutely amazing views
and yet another sunny day. We passed on the bar on account of the goblins
but the restaurant
did us proud.
Rain was forecast for our journey to Albi and rain was what we got. We’d decided to go cross-country, starting off with another col or two. However, the first col was very foggy and wet, with cows in the road, so we let the Zumo re-route us via major roads where we just had the wind and rain to contend with.
We got to Albi mid-afternoon, and braved the rain to wander down to the Toulouse Lautrec museum (he was born in Albi). We also admired the huge brick cathedral, but not the pride its founders took in wiping out the Cathars (in the Albigensian crusade).
Quick wander into town after breakfast to look at the markets. Bought a couple of children’s books, then back to the hotel to check out and hit the road. We’d set a cross-country route and that’s exactly what we got – following the Tarn by going up and down the sides of the gorge (which was magnificent). Stopped for lunch at a boulangerie overlooking the Millau Viaduct (stunning). Then it was more hairpins along the Gorge du Tarn and the Cevennes (the latter covered with gravel washed on by the pervious day’s storms) before arriving, worn out, at the Micklethwaites’ (Colin’s cousin Alison) at tea-time.
Plenty of catching-up to do and food to eat before heading for a concert in Lasalle. More booze back at the house
and very late to bed.
A welcome lie-in and late breakfast, then after washing the bike Colin accompanied Alison into Lasalle for a bit of shopping. After lunch we all headed off for a lengthy dégustation which left us unfit for much else but a swim (Pat), a beer (Colin) and dinner. It was turning into a bit of a boozy stay, as Mick has quite a collection of malts – including, of course, the Longrow which so many of our friends have enjoyed.
We spent most of the morning wandering around Lasalle’s weekly market. We spent most of the afternoon wondering whether we could be bothered to do anything but laze around, finally answering ourselves in the negative. For dinner Alison showed off a newly discovered expertise in Moroccan vegetarian cooking.
On the road again. First task was to see the bits of the Gorge du Tarn we’d missed so far. The Zumo found us a lovely windy route through the Cevennes, ending up with some nice even windier hairpins
(Pat’s height meant she only photographed the top ones over the hedge!) down to the Tarn at La Malène, where we stopped for a coffee. Then back up the other side of the gorge and on to the Pointe Sublime. This is aptly named, with the most amazing views of the Tarn in both directions. In this photo upstream there’s a car park by the river at the bottom.
It also had a nice cafe right on the edge of the cliff, the perfect place for a spot of lunch.
Then it was a question of making our way across country towards Rocamadour. The roads were much straighter, albeit still pretty, and Colin took the opportunity to give the ZZR its head. Soon we were at La Noyeraie, a small establishment just outside Rocamadour, owned by some friends of ours – Jen and James and their small twins Valentino and Louis. We drank beer and were entertained by their 4 dogs until it was dinner time, by which time some other biker friends (Mark and Tracy) had also arrived.
In the morning Jen kindly gave us a lift into Rocamadour. What a place!
We strolled along the old main street, then climbed the steps to the sanctuaries, finally climbing the second series of steps up to the Chateau at the top. After a quick walk along the ramparts we made our way back down to the bottom to find some lunch. We called in to a restaurant Jen had recommended, and when the waitress led us towards the back we asked to sit on the “terrace” overlooking the valley, where there were some empty tables. Sorry no tables available there. When Pat said we’d wait a table suddenly became available. And it was a nice meal.
After lunch James came and picked us up, and we relaxed with drinks while he tried (successfully in the end) to find the owner of a stray dog that had turned up.
In the evening the six of us were treated to a BBQ by J&J, illuminated by continuous lightning in the distance. Great fun, even if James did drop the pork. Still, given we’d had 3/4 bottle wine each by this time it did not seem to matter too much.
Thursday 1st October
Off to Éauze and a couple of nights in the heart of Armagnac country. We decided to take a scenic route down the valley of the Vers and along the Lot. We’d have called in on some more friends, the Haines, but Dave had continued successfully to keep their new address a secret.
We stopped for a coffee in an unexpected biker cafe, then bought some pastries at the adjacent boulangerie for a picnic lunch. Colin, however, had not bothered to check which way the Zumo was taking us thereafter, and given its penchant for main roads we ended up picnicking in a motorway services.
We arrived at Éauze mid afternoon. We were staying at the Henri IV, which turned out to be a really nice hotel with very friendly and helpful staff. The bike was found a space in the small locked alley beside the hotel, then it was time for a quick explore of the town – quick because it was still very hot out, and we reckoned the town was best viewed from a shady bar overlooking the main square. We also found the Tourist Office, where we received valuable advice on the best Armagnac producteur to visit.
We dined in the hotel, taking advantage of the fact that it actually had a proper vegetarian dish on the menu for Pat!
The cave that the lady in the Tourist Office had recommended was only a couple of kilometres away, so we decided to walk it. Not as big as we’d imagined from the brochure, they still distil their Armagnac in an old oak-fired still – and just the once, unlike cognac. From the still our host took us to a little museum he has, and delighted in showing us all sorts of old objects (for example a couple of razorblade sharpeners) and inviting us to guess what they were. He spoke no English, but his gestures filled the gaps in our understanding of his words.
The visit concluded, of course, with a dégustation of several Armagnacs of different ages. We came away with a bottle of the oldest – 20 years.
Walking back into town we had lunch in the nearest cafe, then escaped the heat for a short siesta in our room. Then it was time for a visit to the town’s museum which housed an impressive collection of Roman remains. Back to the shady square where Pat tried some Floc de Gascogne – Armagnac and grape juice. We were glad she did, for it’s really tasty and we managed to squeeze a bottle of that in the panniers as well.
Again we dined in the hotel, simply because it gave us the best choice, and we knew we could rely on the staff to find a veggie dish to Pat’s liking – which they did. During the evening it had started to rain, and at the staff’s suggestion we’d moved the bike under cover. We woke in the middle of the night to the loudest crash of thunder we (and the hotel staff) had ever heard, and looking out we could see it was a real cloudburst.
Off to Bilbao, and by the most direct route as we wanted a good look at the Guggenheim Museum. Almost immediately the heavens opened. After an hour even our efficient waterproofs had pretty much given up, so we stopped in a service station for an hour to have some lunch and dry out. By then the rain had eased, and by the time we’d parked up underneath the Guggenheim it had stopped altogether.
The Guggenheim building is fantastic, and well worth a look.
Unfortunately neither of us could say the same about the exhibitions inside – very dull. So after a cuppa we made our way to the ferry terminal. We were a couple of hours early, but were the last to be loaded. This had also been true at Portsmouth, and we knew the reason why. There were a few bike spaces by the lorries on one of the decks, and being last on meant we would be first off – which we were. We had another absolutely delicious dinner and then read and watched TV in the lounge (Ghost Town) until bedtime.
The sea had been a little rough overnight, so Pat had little appetite. Colin sank a Full English. After the ship altered course the sun came out and Pat felt better. The voyage passed quickly enough, Colin amusing a few kids by showing them where we were on the Zumo.
Promptly off the boat, we were soon holed up in the nearby Premier Inn (cut-price deal). They had a huge party in for dinner, so rather than wait we took a short walk to a Beefeater, which surprised us with its vegetarian choices.
A good breakfast, then on the bike and off home. The weather was blustery with the odd shower, but we made excellent time as the roads were not too busy. After stopping for petrol at Tibshelf we thought we’d grab a bite there, but unclear signposting got us back on the motorway instead. So we ate at Ferrybridge.
Home mid-afternoon. Pat picked plums, Colin surfed. Typical! It had been a great holiday, in particular the good weather and fantastic biking in the Pyrenees. But – time to start thinking about losing some of the weight we’d put on, and perhaps get a little fitter in time for Tignes in December. And for Pat to prepare herself for 3 weeks in the USA with Jean and family.
A selection of the photographs we took on the trip is here.