Cycling the Pyrenees, Atlantic to Mediterranean

 

For our annual vacation of 2005, we wanted do a bicycle tour in the mountains, again. We had heard the Pyrenees were beautiful. Doing a trip from one coast to the other seemed like a nice goal. We planned two weeks of cycling with a few additional buffer days.

Route: Click image for a larger map

Profile: Click image for a larger graph

 

Planning: The Belgian Ardennes were a nice training ground. We spent several weekends prior to the trip cycling up and down those hills with loaded bicycles. During the month before the vacation, I was taking intensive Spanish lessons which I hoped would come in handy in the Spanish parts. We couldn't get all the maps we needed, even through Amazon. We hoped to find them closer to the Pyrenees and we did.

Equipment: We have off the shelf, Trek 7300 and Gary Fisher Zebrano bicycles. They had recently been serviced and had all new brakes. The packing list was quite clear because of our prior touring experience. We stay in B&B or hotels, it has its advantages(no camping equipment to carry) and disadvantages(hotel locations may not be ideal).

Packing List

Approach: We headed out from The Hague, The Netherlands, where we currently live. The bicycles were mounted on top of the car. At the end of the first day's driving, we stopped in the town of Congnac. The next afternoon we were in Hendaye, our starting point. Hendaye is a resort town in France, a stone's throw from the Spanish border. We decided to drive to St.Sabastian(in Spain) for a late lunch and maps of the Pyrenees in Spain. My Spanish helped and we were successful on both counts. We parked the car for 3 weeks in the underground parking garage of the hotel in Hendaye where we stayed.

General comments: The drivers in both Spain and France were very courteous. Not only were we allowed lots of room but received many thumbs ups & cheers. The hotel and meal prices were far lower than we are used to elsewhere in Europe. We spent about € 100 per day for hotel and meals. Transporting bicycles on trains in France was painful. A country with all those cyclists and the host of the Tour de France ought to do better. It's so un-complicated in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Tourist offices weren't always open(lunch, Sunday etc), gas stations often were excellent sources of information. We were very fortunate with the weather, just one morning of rain and one Col(mountain pass) in the cloud.

We criss-crossed the French-Spanish border a few times. We covered a total of 811 Kms and 18 passes in 2 weeks.

Day 1: Hendaye - Olave, 85Kms, Pass: Belate (847m)

Starting point - Hendaye

 

We left Hendaye under cloudy skies. To aid in finding our way out of this busy town, Jerry had mapped our exit route on his GPS the previous evening. We were in Spain within a half an hour. The overcast sky turned out to be a blessing with temperatures rising in the afternoon. The initial part was on a busy "carretera" - that's Spanish for road. A couple of Spanish cyclists pointed us in direction of a small road/trail, parallel to the highway. It was a converted railroad bed with the train tunnels still in place. The tunnels were dark and spooky at times, a flashlight would have been very useful. Our bicycle lights are meant to be seen rather than throw a lot of light. For most of the rest of the day, we were on quiet roads. At the end of the day, we had to overshoot our turn-off and continue on in search of a hotel. We found a road-side "hostal" - this one was a basically a no-frills hotel. Some of the hostals we encountered later were quite fancy. We got our first taste of the Spanish evening scene with a lot of locals stopping for a drink in the hotel bar. Dinner, as would be for the rest of the trip, was fish or meat.

Day 2: Olave - Garralda: 55 Kms, Passes: Egozkue (896 m), Erro (801 m), Mezkiritz (922 m)

It was a gorgeous but somewhat short day. The uphills felt effortless, I guess we had trained well. We decided on spending the night in Garralda where there was a nice B&B. *Man* the Spanish eat late, we had to hang out in two local bars waiting for dinner to be served at 8:30pm, which really meant 9. When I asked whether we could have breakfast before 8:30 I was given a flat "no".

No, Jerry isn't getting an early start! Bars in Spain are a good source of quick snacks and sandwiches to eat in or take away. Of course, there's always the wonderful cafe solo.

 

The scenery was varied, including rock formations such as the one on the right.

Day 3: Garralda - Isaba: 52 Kms, Passes: Remendia (1040 m), Laza (1129 m)

Another pleasant day of cycling. We lunched in the lovely town Ezcaroz in Val de Salazar. Ochagavia was another pleasant town and was bustling with outdoor activities such as rafting, kayaking and mountain biking. Later we approached Isaba and wanted to go further. But there wasn't any accomodation between Isaba and the next pass which was a big one. So, we stopped in Isaba(on the right). It is a lovely village with medieval looking buildings. Jerry got his first and only souvenier of the trip, a tiny, wooden sun dial.

I have to make a special mention of Hostal Lola, probably the prettiest hotel of this tour.

Day 4: Isaba - Lurbe-Saint-Christau: 70 Kms, Passes: Eraice (1578 m), La Pierre St. Marian (1760 m), Labays (1354 m)

We chatted with two Spanish cyclists before setting off from Isaba. They were mountain-biking across the Pyrenees - the rough stuff. It was fun trading stories, these were the first cyclists we actually talked to. The pass up from Isaba was a lot of fun, quite steep but with very little traffic. Got a lot of "thumbs up" from the drivers and in some cases, looks of disbelief. Somewhere along the pass we crossed into France. The ride down was on quiet, narrow and at times bumpy roads. We passed two pretty towns nestled in the valley, Lees-Athas and Osse-en-Aspe. We began to notice buildings called "Mairie" in every French town and later discovered it meant town hall.

Spanish side of the pass - we came from below the bridge and traversed a big loop to get up here

We changed our route a little bit due to availability of hotels. We ended up in Lurbe, in a grand looking hotel which had seen better days. We liked the bubbly enthusiasm of the chef and ate dinner there. During breakfast the next morning, we talked a lot with a retired French couple, the husband spoke fluent English. When we told them about our tour, the man chuckled and said, "You probably don't buy too many souveniers". Later, after we had set off and had been riding for about 10 minutes, they passed us in their car, the man jumped out and took our photo. He said, "This is a good souvenier".

Day 5: Lurbe-Saint-Christau - Eaux-Bonnes: 38 kms

A short day on quiet roads. We had lunch in the bustling tourist town of Laruns and headed uphill. We stayed in Eaux-Bonnes, Col d'Aubisque would be the next morning. Eaux-Bonnes is a thermal spa town, probably was grand at one time. It was exciting to find a coin-operated laundermat - how priorities change!

Day 6: Eaux-Bonnes - Luz-Saint-Sauveur: 61 kms, Passes: Col d'Aubisque (1709 m), Col de Saulor (1474 m)

It was a super climb to Col d'Aubisque. Just one little problem with a spoke breaking - Jerry replaced it in a jiffy. We had spokes breaking during training and were carrying spares. There were a lot of "Bon courage"s along the way. We encountered a tourist bus headed downhill, there was a huge cheer and applause from the people in the bus. Took the obligatory pass photo and relaxed with a cup of coffee. The views between here and Col de Saulor were simply amazing - the most dramatic of the trip. I found myself belting out "Penny Lane" on the downhill, this was to become a pattern. I wish I'd known more of the words, there were far too many la, la, la-s in my rendition.

It was a short uphill to Col de Saulor. We met a lot of cyclists here, touring as well as making day trips. One of them was a very interesting Scottish lawyer turned writer, now settled in France with his family of 7 kids.

Col d'Aubisque. Notice Jerry's shirt...

Views beyond, we would soon be on those cliffy roads

After the two cols, it was one long downhill to Argeles-Gazost and a slight climb to Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Popped into a very nice bike shop in Argeles-Gazost. Jerry wanted to buy a tool which the shop didn't have. The shopkeeper spoke fluent English and sounded very knowledgable. A brief chat with him and we headed out toward Luz. Along the way, we chatted at length with an Aussie-German couple who were touring with heavily laden bicycles. I relish every opportunity to speak German - the woman(from Freiburg) and I yakked it up quite a bit. At 3pm, they still had an hour to Luz and were thinking of continuing to the col the same afternoon! For the next day or two, we kept wondering how far they made it. Luz is very touristy but that has its advantages, for example, many resturaunts to choose from. We had a vegetarian pasta dinner - a real highlight as we were consuming mostly fish and meat. We were quite excited about Col du Tourmalet the next day. We contemplated a rest day but given the fine weather and feeling fit, decided to continue on.

There were many such cheers on the roads. We wondered

if competing cyclists actually get to read it

Day 7: Luz-Saint-Sauveur - Sainte-Marie-de-Campan: 38 Kms, Passes: Col du Tourmalet (2115 m)

It was a nice climb to the top. We'd come to love the mile markers, it was rewarding to see the next one and the one after and the one after - counting down to the top. This is a very popular climb and we exchanged greetings with many cyclists along the way. We chatted with a French couple from Pau who had stopped for a snack. They passed us a little later on their ligh-weight, no-load bicycles. The last part to the top was a bit steep and tiring. At the top we were received with huge cheers by the couple and others who had passed us along the way. I knew this would be a big highlight of our trip. We met a 70-something French couple, the lady spoke English and the gentleman Spanish, we were able to carry on a nice conversation. The lady who is 71 years old has climbed Tourmalet 48 times! The 73 year old husband many more!! Well, we still felt pretty good about doing this at 50.

Mile, or rather Km marker. Shows current altitude, distance to summit and the gradient for the next km - 10% here

Col du Tourmalet - statue of Tour de France cyclist

We stopped for the night in the valley. The hotel looked cute on the outside but was a bit dumpy on the inside. Hey, when you have a hot shower and clean sheets, who cares! Dinner was in the hotel dining room - pretty much the only game in town.

Day 8: Sainte-Marie-de-Campan - Bagneres-de-Luchon: 50 Kms, Passes: Col d'Aspin (1489 m), Col du Peyresourde (1569 m)

Yet another nice climb, this time to Col d'Aspin. We met a young man from London who was touring in the opposite direction. We chatted for a while and snapped photos. It was a scenery filled ride down to Arreau, we ran into some of the cyclists from Col du Tourmalet on the previous day. We had thought to eat luch in Arreau but weren't in the mood for a long sit-down lunch. We nibbled on the bread and cheese and moved on. In the hot afternoon sun Col du Peyresourde was a bit tiring. We wrapped up the day in Bagneres-de-Luchon in a 3-star hotel and a nice pizza/pasta dinner.

Jerry whizzing by

Arreau

Day 9: Bagneres-de-Luchon - Baqueira-Beret : 48 Kms, Pass: Col du Portillon (1320 m)

At breakfast we met an American cyclist from PA who was in Europe on a buisiness trip. From the looks of it, Neil is an avid racer, along with his family of 4 kids. He had some valuable tips to improve the reliability of our bicycles - such as using 36 spoke wheels. We saw him again on the road to the col, he had already been up there and was on his way back! The ride up was in a cloud, felt like rain but really wasn't. It was a tough climb but we made it after a few grunts and groans(from me).

Riding in fog

Col in cloud

On the other side of the pass was Spain. It was an easy downhill to Vielha where we went to the Tourist office and gathered information on hotels in the villages ahead. As it turns out, this is a booming ski area and there were many hotels to be had. At the tourist office, I played translator for two British lads - they were stopped by cops because one of them was not wearing a helmet. They asked me to find out if helmets were mandatory. I learned a new Spanish word, "obligatorio" - yes helmets are mandatory. It was siesta and they would have to stick around till 5pm for shops to open so they could buy a helmet. Needless to say, they were a bit annoyed.

We rode uphill from Vielha to Baqueira, the last village before the next col. It rained hard during the evening. Before dinner, we hung out at the bar and I tried practising Spanish with the waitress who kept responding in English. Dinner was a huge buffet and I tried all sorts of weird looking sea food.

Day 10: Baqueira-Beret - Sort : 63 Kms, Pass: Port de la Bonaigua (2072 m)

It was blue skies after thunderstorms throughout the night. It was a pleasant 5% climb to the top and a very long downhill. We ate our sandwiches at a park bench in Esterri d'Aneu. Two locals started chatting with us, we seemed to cover a lot of topics in spite of my limited Spanish. Conversations with locals sooner or later turned to the current U.S. administration, opinions always unanimous. But that's a topic for another day.

Our intended plan was to go past Sort but we decided to stay there as it had been a long day. After showering etc., we watched some kayakers training, with Jerry's play-by-play. Dinner was a regional affair. Plates of food started to appear, we hadn't ordered them. Hmmm. Then there were these table decorations of raw garlic and tomatoes, or so we thought. Patrons at the next table said eating bread rubbed with raw garlic aided in digetion. It was a colorful and an adventurous meal indeed.

 

Day 11: Sort - La Seu d'Urgell : 54 Kms, Pass: Port de Canto (1725 m)

Another nice, gentle(5%-6%) climb to the top. Met a Swiss couple who were just starting their tour from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and back, full with camping gear. The woman complained about the French trains and bicycles, we would discover later what she was talking about. Fast downhill to Adlar and a very nice lunch at a roadside resturaunt. Looking and smelling the way we do after a morning's hard cycling, I'm very pleased when we are received with smiles and are seated at nice tables. Overnight in La Seu d'Urgell in a very colonial-looking hotel with antique furniture. After reviewing menus at various Spanish resturaunts, we ended up eating at the Pizzeria next to the hotel.

Day 12: La Seu d'Urgell - Puigcerda: 51 Kms

This was the day we were to head up to Andorra. We had read and heard all along that the traffic was horrendous and there was tons of construction and the trip to Andorra wasn't really anything. Well, this morning after breakfast, with rain pouring down, we chatted with 3 Dutch motorcyclists. They argued strongly against Andorra with recent first-hand experience, putting the final nail on the skip-Andorra coffin. They said everything short of "Don't go". Jerry was a bit disappointed but I convinced him Andorra doesn't make their own beer. This is one day I was glad to have my Gortex parka. I had wondered on the steep hills before whether it was worth lugging that heavy thing. I guess it rains in Spain outside the plains too!

We spent the night in Puigcerda, just short of the French border. In the evening, we walked around town, enjoyed the town centre and listened to an outdoor concert. One last night of Spanish culture.

Day 13: Puigcerda - Ille-sur-Tet: 82 Kms, Pass: Col de la Perche (1579m)

Within a few minutes of starting, we were in France. The first part of this road had a lot of traffic. Then we started the climb and traffic seemed to thin out. The ride down was along a beautiful gorge. Villefranche-de-Conflent on the downhill was an amazing walled-in city at the confluence of rivers Cady and Tet. After a little sightseeing in Villefranche and a lunch of salads, we moved on. By now traffic was bad again. The motorists were very nice but the noise and the fumes were very unpleasant. After an hour of riding we were able to turn off into a quiet country road - what a relief! We pushed on to a town called Ille-sur-Tet and stayed at another below-par hotel. There are a lot of Brits that vacation in this area, we chatted with some of them while enjoying a beer/wine.

Train bridge across the valley

Villefranche-de-Conflent

Day 14: Ille-sur-Tet - Collioure: 52 Kms

Pleasant ride down to the Mediterranean. Traffic was intense through the town of Angeles-s-Mer but we found a scenic bike route. The ride along the bluffs as we approached Collioure was beautiful. More cheers from other cyclists and motorists. Collioure was the right town to end the trip, very picturesque and ok a bit touristy. After taking some pictures, we stopped at a paella resturaunt for lunch. Some of the Brits from the evening before were there also and recognized us. In an unfamiliar place, it felt like meeting old friends. We splurged on a nice hotel right in centre of town.

Ending point - Collioure

Conclusion:

What a superb tour this was! Great cycling, spectacular scenery and a lot of wonderful people we got to know along the way. Here is a tidbit on our small accomplishment, the Cols and the Tour de France they were a part of in recent years.

Col d'Aspin - 2003,2004

Col d'Aubsque - 2005

Col du Portillon - 2003,2005

Col du Peyresourde - 2003,2005

Col d'Soulor - 2005

Col du Tourmalet - 2003

There are more photos in the Gallery.

Return to starting point:

We loved Collioure and spent two nights. We returned to Hendaye by train and drove home the long way, stopping to see "Chateau Goulet" and the "Westvleteren" monastery.

One final note: We would love to hear from you, feel free to write to Lisa or Jerry. If you recognize yourself in this text, do write and let us know how your trip went.