Day 10: Tuesday; Bayonne:
This morning I awake to the sound of only a few infrequent drops on the tentís outer skin. By the time I rouse myself completely and emerge from inside, there is a discernible watery sunshine in evidence. So much so that I head for the pool and shock myself completely into life in the barely temperate water which I suspect no sane continental camper has graced for three weeks or more. I feel good though and, with reawakened optimism, I return to a boiling kettle to dine on a very enjoyable breakfast of muesli and yoghurt and scrambled eggs.
The afternoon finds me in the cloisters of Bayonne cathedral, where I sit and write for some time in the beautiful and tranquil surroundings. It's a long time since I've been moved almost to tears by the magnificence of a building, but here I get a true sense of being in the presence of something greater and almightier than man, which man has tried to evoke and capture in this place. And to his credit I think he succeeded.
A new serenity has come over me. Perhaps it is due to the quarter carafe of red wine I had with lunch in a pavement side bistro, where I sat and watched life passing by. The picture was the epitome of France that I'd aspired to for the past ten days. Around me people eat and gesticulate in animated conversation. Through the foliage of a leafy pavement tree I can see a sign for Bordeaux. And I reflect that this is how it should have been from the start, as around me I sense a manifestation of so much that I find enjoyable about France, cocooned in the relative instant of a dining experience.
Tuesday Evening - San Sebastian (Donosta), Spain:
Probably the best experience of a true traveller is to arrive in a place unassuming and unprepared for what to expect. Cheered by the experience of my final hours in France, I cross the border into Spain fully intent and expectant of liking the country. Even as I trawl through the chaotic evening traffic, with dusk falling, I am not afflicted by the customary nervousness that normally accompanies such a trial. My legs toned and attuned by now, pound like pistons, warming to the task of attacking hill after hill.
My singular goal for this evening is to pass through San Sebastian to the all-year campsite, which is situated to the west of the city. I descend a hill into the city, cross the Rio Unema and don't stop to consult my guidebook until I find myself on the magnificent sea promenade of Playa de la Concha. However by this stage I have already fallen in love with the city and all I want to know, when I finally consult my Lonely Planet, is where I might stay for the night.
Later I sit and write in the city's youth hostel, situated up a rather steep hill back from the esplanade. As I write I am on my third can of dispensing machine beer and life is good and I like it here.
I watch Four Weddings and a Funeral dubbed into Spanish, and even still I laugh at it periodically, from a combination of on screen gesticulations and expressions. But also from recalling particular sections of dialogue from memory. I was barely across the border when I vowed that I should learn to speak Spanish. So far they've been very tolerant of me and my absolute failure to utter anything Spanish beyond Buenos Noches. Their tolerance is probably to a large part due to the fact that I have been very complementary of their city. I tell the receptionist that I think the city is very beautiful and already I love it dearly. She replies that she is also quite fond of the place herself.
I like the people here too though, I think they are part of what makes the city so attractive.
They are people that I passionately long to communicate with much more so than the French. Somehow they seem much more approachable and friendly, certainly less aloof and egotistical and arrogant. And then I think that perhaps therein lies my failure to connect on any discernible level with the French. I guess itís very difficult to make a connection if I have been regarding them as aloof and egotistical and arrogant I suppose. With such an attitude I don't think I probably ever had much hope in endearing myself to them.
Days 11 and 12: San Sebastian (Donosta):
So much am I taken by this city that I decide to take my first rest day of the trip, warranting a second night in the hostel. In the morning I avail of the relatively meagre, carefully patrolled, breakfast and afterwards stroll down to the beachfront. As I wander along the sand at the waterís edge, the sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates the bay. San Sebastian (Donosta) is as charming in the day time as it appeared last night. I head for the city museum in the old quarter of the town. It proves fairly standard fare with an array of tombstones, agricultural implements and the reconstructed interior of a traditional local house of the eighteenth century. It does however also boast a fine collection of art and sculpture by predominantly local artists but including a couple of El Grecos.
And in the midst of all this glory and beauty one could quite easily forget that one is in Basque country, home to and stronghold of ETA and their political wing; Herra Batasuna. One could forget, but precisely ETAís and Herra Batasunaís aim is to ensure that one doesnít forget. Indeed, seen through Basque eyes I am not really in San Sebastian or Spain for that matter but rather in the Basque City of Donosta (Like one finds themselves in the Ulster town of Derry or Londonderry depending on your leanings!). This imprints itself so firmly even on my own mind that I begin to think and write the joint names in the same manner as the local practice. The presence of Herra Batasuna is in evidence on posters everywhere. Walls. poles, hoarding are all plastered with the very colourful and eye-catching literature. I stop to study one which makes a mention of Ireland. From what I can make out it seems to be drawing parallels with the Northern Ireland situation and calling for "UNCONDITIONAL" talks, of the sort that are being painstakingly pursued at home.
The entire leadership of Herra Batasuna are on trial in Madrid, charged with complicity of terrorist involvement by attempting to use ETA publicity videos in election campaigns. Perhaps this is part of the reason for their seemingly heightened postering campaign and publicity drive. Unknownst to me, at the time, ETA have claimed their latest victim the day before. It is only later in the week when I get to Bilbao that I discover the name of the young police man whom they gunned down outside the new Guggenheim Art Gallery when he rumbled their plot to bomb the high international profile opening of the gallery by King Juan Carlos on the following Saturday.
By afternoon I have wearied of sightseeing and the beachfront looks very inviting.
I had long contemplated what book I might bring with me that would prove an interesting an attractive yet informative and educational read. I had briefly considered many of the classics and almost set on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales when, the week before my departure, I came upon a second hand volume in a Castlebar bookshop entitled "The Penguin History of the World" by JM Roberts and this seemed to fit my requirements exactly, And so this was what I carried with me by way of reading material alongside the two guidebooks (A Rough Guide to Europe and a Lonely Planet guide to Mediterranean Europe), A "pocket size" motoring map book of Europe, The Penguin Collected English Verse, The ubiquitous Bible and the Collins Gem Pocket SAS Survival Guide.
In the warm sunshine of the afternoon I sit on Donosta's Playa de Onderreta and bid to absorb myself in "The History of the World". It is proving so detailed and intense that, two weeks into my trip, I have only reached page ninety-five but after the first week had seen me through the Prehistory of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal man and onto the beginnings of agriculture, I have gradually progressed from the Idea of Civilisation through the Sumerians of Meseptonia and the five ages of Ancient Egypt. Today's sitting of two hours, interspersed with breaks for scenery and people watching and an occasional snooze, brings me another twenty or so pages into the work.
Day 12: San Sebastian (Donosta) to Mundaka
On my way to Mundaka, I pass through the Basque town of Guernika. Guernika's unfortunate claim to infamy were the events of 26th April 1937 which saw the town sided with the republican side in the civil war, literally levelled by a German bombing raid, invited by Franco's nationalists. The carnage so moved and inspired Pablo Picasso that out of his sketches made at the time came the full-scale painting aptly entitled "Guernika". Supposedly, when asked at one time, by Spaniards, why he did the painting he replied "I didn't do it, you did".
The famous painting itself is now to be found in room 7 of Madrid's Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. It only arrived in the country secretly in 1981 and was unveiled in the gallery in 1992 after Picasso's insistence that he didn't want the painting in Spain whilst Franco and his cronies ruled.
Out of such drama, I somehow expect the place, which inspired and continues to flame such passion amongst Basques, to offer something significant itself. I had heard there is an oak tree in the town which survived the carnage and which is still regarded as a symbol of all the suffering of the Basques, not just those suffered in Guernika or indeed under the brutal oppression of the Franco era. However, I do a lap of the otherwise, unremarkable town and fail to locate even a signpost directing me to the celebrated foliage. The Basque country, it seems, is afflicted by a lack of signposts akin to Ireland. On the other hand, on reflection, I figure there are many more towns in Spain which bear none of the obvious scars of a tragedy enacted over sixty years ago and there are many reasons for wanting to rid the places of the visible scars. And throughout the continent there are countless other towns which bear few of the awful scars inflicted on them by an even more horrific carnage a couple of years later. Just as in ten or twenty years time there will be presumably little visible signs of the atrocities carried out in Srebnitza or Tuzla.
Mundaka is as unremarkable as Guernika save for it's fortunate positioning on the coast which gives rise to a phenomonim globally recognised and held, it would seem, in considerable awe and relish amongst the surfing fraternity. The "Mundaka" is a celebrated, left-handed wave, occurring because of the combination of Atlantic currents and the curious make up of the bay and sea inlet which, to some surfers, is better than multiple orgasms. It does not much surprise me therefore to find myself sharing a campsite with a bunch of surf dudes who are not at all dissimilar to the characters in the film Point Break.
Particularly obvious amongst them is one sincerely mega-cool, rather ageing, hippie, West Coast American surfer who exudes good karma and a totally laid back attitude. Unintentionally eavesdropping on his conversations it seems he lives and works with one purpose above all else, to enable him to surf as much, and in as many places in the world as possible. Amongst the fraternity, they are all so passionately intent on talking shop that I never really get in on the conversation and so am relatively content to sit discreetly and drink my wine and write, a little way off to the left of the gathering.
Day 13; Friday 17th October; Mundaka to Near Bilbao:
Out of Mundaka I encounter the most difficult and energy sapping climb of my trip to date. Two miles from the town the road starts to rise upward. It continues to do so for four or five miles constant eventually starting the decent when a pass height of 430 metres has been reached and even then itís dulating, requiring three further lesser climbs to take me out of this section of the mountains. On the various ascents the increasing heat of the day serves to further sap my energy and on at least four occasions I am compelled to dismount and push uphill on foot.
By the time I eventually wind my way in through the chaotic traffic ridden streets of Bilbao the various electronic public noticeboards are displaying a temperature reading of twenty-eight degrees centigrade, hot for someone coming from an Irish summer where the August temperatures didnít even nearly reach that.
In the centre of town I pause only long enough to take a look at the controversial new gallery. Itís more like a great big windblown shiny aluminium hayshed than anything else. Even more significant and relevant at the present time however, as I line up the building in the background for my photo opportunity, is the growing mound of flowers at the bottom of my camera frame placed there in commemoration of the policeman shot down on this spot on Monday by ETA. I daren't even consider leaving my laden bike in the vicinity of the building while I pop in for a look. The police patrolling the area are visibly edgy and understandably upset at the gunning down of their colleague. Passers by come up to commiserate and offer words of condolence and support. I offer my own small silent prayer for the latest policeman victim Txaclao Agriculle and observe the united solidarity of the citizens of Bilbao, of whom between 150,000 and 200,000 thronged the streets of the city last night in a protest rally to call for an end to ETA's violence. And amongst them I have no doubt are fiercely pro-independence Basques who proudly display the red white and green Ikurrina flag on their cars or hanging from their apartments and yet they see no connection between the death of this policeman and the dream of independence for their beloved Basque country. So, like the Irish outraged after Warrington bomb, they too have taken to the streets in their droves to call for an end to the senseless violence.
(It is almost a year later before their efforts pay off when ETA declare an "indefinite cease-fire" from 16th September 1998 and claim to have been influenced by the events in Northern Ireland. Sadly of course this ceasefire only lasts till December of 199 when ETA resume their campaign of violence citing lack of progress with the Spanish government or something like that. It sounds all to similar to Northern Ireland... )
On the way out of Bilbao I have to negotiate a huge flood on the road, where a water main has burst and shed over a foot of water onto the street. Tonight I camp in the shadow of a huge oil refinery alongside the sea a few miles west of the city. Even the balmy air is heavy with the intense oily smell. I half consider heading back into the city for the festivities underway to mark tomorrow's official opening of the gallery. There is a huge orchestral and dance spectular planned for tonight on a specially erected open-air stage beside the gallery. However, yet again, I'm tired and sore and just too settled in the campsite to seriously contemplate back tracking the ten or so miles.
Instead there is a crystal clear reception coming through from RTE. I catch the news but there is nothing particularly memorable or significant to captivate. The BBC on the other hand is continuing to be it's brilliant, entertaining, informative, funny, reliable self, my friend and companion.
In the course of this mornings programming I hear, amongst other things, Joan Baez sing a song written by Irelandís Sinead Lohan and a discussion on how badly the potentially benefits and image of the Coaca plant have been tarnished by its most evident by-product, cocaine. Tonight an Australian "Work Of Art" is causing some offence. In an interview the artist quite smugly denies the attempt at outrage, notoriety and shock factor which he has undoubtedly set out to, and it would seem succeeded in provoking, by photographing a crucifix submerged in his own urine.
Now I listen to a discussion on impotency through the ages and learn that pre Viagra, among the traditional and perhaps logical treatments to invoke renewed virility proposed in the past (and probably still tried by some to the present) have been the wearing of Russian fox fur underwear or the imbibing of large quantities of roasted bulls testicles. Whatever about their success for the virility of men, I expect such prospects didn't do much to encourage the potency of either bulls or Russian foxes.
Day 14: Saturday 18th October - Muzkis to Vargos, a distance of 59 miles.
Leaving the odour of the oil refinery behind, I follow the coastline west occasionally heading slightly inland but always remaining within sight of the sea. Along the way I encounter a new motorway, not indicated on my 1992/93 map. The impressive construction also snakes part of its way along the coast, sometime alongside the minor N634 on which I am travelling, but also heading up into the mountains through tunnels and along cliff edges, traversing wide river valleys along huge viaductal bridges while I am obliged to negotiate and pedal my slow way through the extra winding miles along the valley floor down below.
Day 15: Sunday Morning in Vargos
Today, I hopefully expect to reach the psychologically significant landmark of 1,000 miles covered since leaving home. It is an arbitrary figure really. There have been diversions and times when the computer hasn't been counting, but still I feel it will be a quite momentous marker.
I phoned home last night, glad that I could sound more cheerful and report in a more upbeat tone. In contrary to my pessimism of ever reaching Istanbul, my motherís encouragement is brilliant and the instruction is that I should continue to aim for Istanbul no matter what it takes. If it means taking trains part of the way, she feels I should take this option, "Öícos' I don't want you to come back without getting there and continuing to annoy us all with your talking about it" she says, by way of further support for my waning dream. At this stage I myself have already begun to seriously consider the train option as a helping hand, particularly in the hope of transporting me rapidly to more favourable climes further south. However I still haven't made a definite plan or decision on the matter. I'm working on the basis of planning one or two days at a time and the comfort of the Santander or Bilbao ferry to the UK option remains reassuringly open in case I need it.
As I write I am sitting waiting in the restaurant of the Pensione in which I stayed last night, waiting for someone to appear so I can pay for my room and retrieve my passport. I arrived here as darkness was falling and there didn't seem to be much prospect of finding anywhere to pitch my tent. So I figured what the hell, I'll give one of these Spanish versions of cheap accommodation attached to a tavern a try, to see what it's like. And it proved very pleasant. I was shown to a very clean room with comfortable double bed. I had a wonderful hot shower in the bathroom along the corridor (After I'd removed a mysterious tub of cold water from the bathtub!). Then I'd had a couple of beers and some tapas in the bar before retiring upstairs for the night.
When I'd locked my bike outside the girl who'd checked me in invited me to perhaps bring it into the restaurant instead just to be on the safe side, and so now this morning, the door through which the bicycle was brought last night is locked, so I can't get it back out to enable me to load it up.
It being Sunday, it would seem that it is a day for a lie in, the time now being after ten. In the bar next door there are a few early morning punters engaged in loud animated conversation accompanied by frequent jovial laughs. I consider this aspect of the architypical small European town or village which I've tried to appreciate over the past two weeks by drawing comparisons with what I know at home. I think of the men who sit outside the pub on Sunday mornings before and after (and often during) mass. I have seen mirror images of people I know in Ireland whilst cycling down through France and Spain; Tradesmen, Farmers, Housewives, Old Ladies. I just wonder how do they regard this stranger on a bicycle who rides into, or through, a moment of their lives. Do they even notice or think about the foreigner from a relatively far off little unremarkable place called Breaffy in Ireland. I expect, more than likely, that to most of them I don't register more than a momentís thought, if even that. I suppose that's the most I can truly expect. I draw a parallel with a cyclist passing my house at home to see how I would react. I would probably nod in acknowledgement as many do here, but that's probably all. When I was young I used envy them and certainly wonder where they were coming from and going and they always seemed so glamorous and exciting. Now however in the absence of childís eyes, in the words of Paddy Kavanagh I fear; "..through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder".
In the bar last night, I was aware that, standing out from the obvious regulars, I was the topic of some conversation which I'd overheard between the barman and one of the elderly customers as they both speculated where I might be from. In the end the elderly man concluded that I looked, and therefore probably was, ITALIAN.
Well at least they took time to speculate!
Sunday Night: Motaporquera, Northern Spain.
Today turned out to be a true case of counting chickens before they hatched. I guess I should have known better than to commit my dayís aspirations and optimistic intentions to paper.
For the past few day's I have been anticipating with some relish, the prospect of visiting the prehistoric cave painting of Puento Viesgo just 12 miles distant from Vargas. My focus in this direction began as far back as Bordeaux, when I had ruled out the prospect of visiting the Vezere Valley caves some sixty miles to the east of there. My guidebook conveyed the impression that it could be some times difficult to gain admission there because of the numbers visiting. Equally I had eliminated Altimira near Santilla del Mir further north of here on similar grounds. It seems there, that only twenty visitors a day are admitted and unsurprisingly therefore bookings must be made more than a year in advance. JM Robert's has made reference to both the French and Spanish caves in his "History of the World" and this has only served to further woo me and spur me to visit at least one of the caves. I have opted for those that I believe and understand to be the most accessible. Therefore I have followed the route west from San Sebastian (Donosta) in a large part with this target in mind. By the time I reached Bilbao my heart was definitely set on the visit so I opted to continue west rather than head south to Burgos to link up with the Camino de Santiago there.
Even yesterday my anticipation was further heightened by a sign 26km away in Laredo promoting the historic site. This morning in my eagerness to visit the caves, I planned to arrive shortly after the opening time of 10am to give me the maximum amount of time before the 1pm closing (Of course my later enforced departure had thwarted that). I was also very aware of the need to get here before Monday, the day I knew the caves to be shut. In the town of Puento Visgo proper I encounter a sign directing the visitors up the hillside 1.6km to the caves. Another 50 metres along this road is a considerable noticeboard with details of opening times, admission rates and other information which I double check "just to be sure". And so I head uphill, compelled to dismount and push my bike for most of the mile or thereabouts.
Eventually I arrive at a portocabin along side the main CASTILLO cave. The cave is shut; the entrance to it is surrounded by wall to wall railings, which are padlocked. Posted on the window of the portocabin is a casually hand-written notice, which proclaims that the caves are shut for renovations from the 22nd of September. To say I am angry would be an understatement. Not alone am I bitterly disappointed but I am also very pissed off, particularly after having made such a considerably strenuous detour to arrive at this. Other people arrive and depart equally frustrated. In my eagerness to catch even a mere glimpse of the marvels, I scale the spike-topped railings. Of course it proves to be futile. The entrance to the cave proper is through a heavy metal door within and this is securely bolted and padlocked, as are the other five cave entrances along the side of the hill.
Before I leave I scribble out a not-very-polite note peppered with some expletives designed to emphasise my frustration. I shove my protest document under the door of the ticket office. Even though it's in English I do hope they (whoever "they" might be) take the trouble to have it translated to appreciate my sentiments. With my ambition unfulfilled, I freewheel back down the hill and in my head, I begin an initial draft of a letter, which I intend to write to the Spanish minister for culture on my return home.
Over the next ten miles, as I vent my anger further, the letter takes shape. Firstly, I shall explain the time and trouble I have taken to get to the caves. I shall outline the information available to me before my actual arrival at the caves proper, which gave me no reason, whatsoever to suspect that they might not be actually open. I shall admit authorship of the letter shoved under the door, and express the hope that my anger and sense of frustration were adequately conveyed and appreciated by the strength of the language utilised. I shall explain that I literally passed by the Guggenheim gallery to get here, to what I believe to be one of the worlds most remarkable and original art galleries, and indeed a precursor to literally all of them. I can't help but find a bitter irony in the large notices publicising the works being undertaken to improve "ACCESS" to the caves. The project is being of course funded by that great 20th century institution, The EU, (a mere infant compared to this ancient marvel). And of course for this reason it is the fortune of all EU citizens to be exempt from admission charges for this cultural attraction in a bid to make it "ACCESABLE" to all of the communities citizens.
And all I can think is what crap and what irony and it seems that it's the same all over the community. Wherever there's any hint or smell of funds or handouts to be drawn down for "improvements" to tourism related projects there are always local officials and bodies poised and prepared to jump in and grab whatever is going with a complete disregard for any wider view.
Funnily enough, I'm also highly irritated by the casual nature of the scrawled hand-written notice. To me it almost seems to be mocking all us frustrated and disappointed visitors all the more. And I can just visualise the scene on the 22nd of September as closing time approached and almost as an afterthought someone decides that they should probably put up a notice to say "We're closing for construction works today and we don't have a clue (well we don't really care enough to say so in the notice anyway) when we might expect be re-open again" Of course this is only what the person thinks, or doesn't really think actually and the information offered in the notice is all that will become blatantly obvious to every disappointed visitor in the coming months.
I think the least they could have done was offer answers to some more questions as the notice actually raised more questions than it answered. Hence:
1. Of what significance is it that it closed on the 21st September, only to further annoy us that we didn't get there before that?
2. When is it likely to reopen?
3. Who is the authority or stereotypical, self-important civil servant or other person or persons whose casual unthinking decision has caused a big solid padlocked iron door and stupid petty bureaucracy to come between me and one of the most significant and supposedly spectacular bits of artwork on the planet?
4. Did he or she or they give even a momentís thought to the repercussions of their decisions and how wide the spread of disappointment caused by this decision?
Damn them anyway!
After this, the fact that I fail to pass the 1,000 mile mark today is somehow quite insignificant but such is my continuing anger even into the evening that this too becomes a point of some considerable discontent and so I continue to forge on, long after dark, in attempt to get closer to the mark. In the near complete darkness I stop only long enough to put on my reflective jacket and clip the red rear light to one of the bungee cords securing my luggage. Half an hour later, amidst bleak uplands just below a 1,000m elevation, as rain beats down in torrents I stop briefly again to lash my flashlight to my handlebars with insulating tape. I can see a little bit more than in the absence of the light and as it bounces around it briefly illuminated a sign along the roadside, which informs me that I am at an elevation of 987m. After about another three miles the glow of the clouds above a small industrial town appear in a valley, off to the right. After some searching around the deserted streets of Motaporquera I finally locate what seems to be the only accommodation of any sort in the town. It is one of the typical bar come restaurant come pensione arrangements. I enter the crowded bar dripping wet and every body briefly turns to regard the half-drowned cyclist come in out of the wind rain and darkness. My only thought is for a hot shower as my soaking clothes and shoes are already starting me to shiver. However it is twenty minutes before the landlady returns and I am eventually given a key, which I take thankfully and retreat to the adjoining pensione to get out of my sodden items.
After the shower, ensconced and warm in bed, I check the reading of the ODO on the cycle computer. It reads 983.6 miles, perhaps tomorrow will be the day when it turns past 1,000. Before I fall asleep I find myself contemplating the particularly inclement weather. Alister Cooke's Letter from America this morning on the BBC World Service was on this very subject and the apparent very adverse effects of El NiŮo. I reflect that it is indeed an unfortunate and unlucky turn of fate that, after five years planning this trip, I am now trying to cycle through Europe during what will probably be the wettest autumn and winter for 15 years and possibly more. Of some considerable relevance, today in Israel, the West Bank has seen torrential rains and flash floods, which have left at least 12 people dead.
So much for dreams of glorious endless sunshine away from "The Wind and Rain of Ireland".
This site is maintained and updated by Peter Jordan,
Last Updated 24th March 2001
© Peter Jordan, 2001