The Story of our trip in the Pyrenees
We arrived in St. Jean de Luz, France on Thursday, June 13, 1996. We always plan to be at the starting point at least a day in advance. This allows us to leisurely assemble our bikes and make sure that everything works. It also gives us a chance to take a little excursion of the area on our own and settle in before the official tour begins.
St. Jean de Luz is a small fishing town on the Atlantic Ocean near Biarritz, France. Our Hotel was on a high point overlooking the ocean. The grounds were beautiful with magnificent artwork and a spectacular pool. A walking path led down to the beach and into the quaint town. We opted to eat at the hotel tonight since they had prepared a special "jet lag" dinner menu.
We decided to spoil ourselves Friday morning by ordering a sumptuous breakfast and eating it on our private lanai. It was a typical 75 to 80 degree day and we were determined to enjoy it. Afterward, we decided to do the 30 mile warm-up ride. We were surprised by the number of people on the ride.
Quite a few other guests also arrived early and we enjoyed riding back and forth in the pack talking to everyone. We bicycled the seashore path to town and around the lively port area. From there we followed the Nivelle River upstream to Ascain. This is a charming village with traditional Basque houses and a typical Basque church.
Next, we finally got to stretch our muscles on the climb up Col D' Ibardin. At the top of the hill we shopped till we dropped at the Spanish border. Almost everyone decided to try the restaurants, so we had lunch too. The first picture on this page is from the descent back toward Ascain.
Before returning to St. Jean de Luz we explored the town of Ciboure. There are half-timbered houses and balconied town houses, many built by 17th century traders who did their business with the West Indies and the Orient. The composer Ravel was born here (best known for his Bolero symphony).
Friday evening saw the "Get Acquainted" party at the hotel, followed by dinner. It was our opportunity to get as "dressy" as we wanted, so out came the dinner jacket and dress. We had a great time. The other members of our cycling tour were extremely interesting.
Saturday, June 15, 1996 was the official first day of the trip. It was a beautiful sunny day in the 80's and Judith brought out the second sleeveless jersey of the trip. We could be seen from time to time catching some shade under the trees. We just loved the Basque towns.
Of course this is the Pyrenees and we came for the climbs, so we decided to add on the optional ride into Spain with an additional 4000 feet of climbing. Actually it was accidental. We spotted the owner of the tour company riding in a direction not on the route and followed him thinking he would lead us to some great secret cafe. It turned out that he just wanted to go to the Spanish border to get an extra stamp on his passport!
When we looked at the road ahead and scenery (beyond the border) we decided to just check it out for some photo opportunities. The higher we climbed the more beautiful the vista became. At the top we finally looked at the map and figured out that we could do a loop through some more hills and still get back to our original route . We delighted in a fabulous extra downhill.
As the day passed by, however, we discovered that we needed to spend a little less time enjoying side trips, studying the culture, talking to the very friendly Basque people and taking pictures. The stops along the way were eating up time. It's so easy to get caught up in the moment.
A focal point of the Basque town or village is its fronton. This is a tall, wide wall beside a flat concrete pitch where Basque sports are played, especially pelota (pilota in Basque). This is a fast and vigorous ball game similar to handball except the ball must hit within marked lines and travels a much longer distance. Sometimes a long wicker scoop is used. The fronton walls that we saw were almost always part of the town or village church.
The games were extremely interesting to watch. Very young boys were hitting the small hard ball with incredible speed and bare knuckles. I'm not sure I could have returned one with a racket! the players always wore gleaming white outfits.
We finally arrived at our destination about 5:00 P.M - very hot and tired. This is late. Most people were there by 3:00 P.M. and had toured the town of Hasparren. Oh well, a quick shower and we'll just check out this town too! Another great vegetarian meal and we're ready for tomorrow.
Sunday, June 16, 1996 and we're ready for another day of following the foothills of the Pyrenees with the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Another 85 to 90 degree day and we got an early start at 8:30 A.M. We arrived in Navarrenx about 11:30 A.M. and didn't leave until 2:00 P.M. We had a great time there. Navarrenx is a wonderful walled village built in the 11th century is one of the finest surviving examples of a fortified city.
We entered through a huge Roman arch and followed the cobblestones to the center of town. We bought some food and drinks, tossed them in our packs and took a tour of the entire enclosure. We finally picked a shady spot under a tree to eat our lunch. I guess we thought that if we waited long enough, the temperature would cool down, but no such luck.
So we decided to head out to Oleron St. Marie. Oleron is known primarily for the manufacture of the traditional French wool beret. And we did not buy one - definitely a mistake. We did go to the cathedral (Eglise St. Marie - dating from the 12th century) and marveled at its magnificent Romanesque doorway.
That evening we were rewarded with an exquisite vegetarian surprise!. Dinner began with a great salad followed by a sweet potato souffle, broiled tomatoes, sauteed zucchini and scalloped potatoes. Ummm, yummmm... I'm there again. I can smell and taste the souffle.
It's Monday, June 17, 1996 - time is going way too fast. Today we headed out at 8:15 A.M. If it wasn't for the huge incredible breakfasts, we could get going earlier. It's unbelievable how many calories we can sock away before we get on the bikes. We must be gaining weight.
We made fairly good time today. We stopped in Bruges and "pigged out" on pastries and refreshments, and checked out a few other places but arrived at our Hotel in Lestelle Betharram a little after noon. This was a mistake. The hotel had a fantastic pool with a view and plenty of cool beverages. It was another hot day and we enjoyed the pampering.
The idea of getting there early was to visit the Betharram Caves (grottos) among the most beautiful in the world. Like a five story building, the caves consist of five tiers hollowed out in different periods of geological time. The most interesting feature of the caves is their porous roofs, which have led to the formation of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. We started out to see them and finally ended up just taking a short hike instead - maybe next time...
Speaking of time - it's dinner time! Another wonderful vegetarian dinner for Fred, but what about Judith? Let me see...this area is known for its delicious fresh salmon...you got it. Judith went for the fish and the incredible cheese selection too.
Tuesday, June 18, 1996 already and it's over the river (the Pau river valley actually) and through the woods (beautiful, cool woods). We are on our way to Lourdes. Lourdes is a small town situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Although the town has just 17000 inhabitants, 5 million visitors go there each year.
In the hotel trade, Lourdes is second only to Paris in importance. There are several narrow streets leading down to the Grotto. These are full of souvenir shops and although these at first seem tacky and out of character, they soon become an integral part of the visit to Lourdes.
Mention the name "Lourdes" to anyone familiar with this famous place of pilgrimage in Southern Frances and, immediately, the image of miraculous cures comes to mind. Best known as a place for such Divine intervention, Lourdes is, in fact, a source of far greater and more frequent spiritual renewal and strengthening than the occasional supernatural cure.
Indeed, since the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, only 65 certifiable miracles have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. However, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, millions of people have been touched and healed by visits to this spiritual wellspring.
The entire sanctuary of Our Lady Of Lourdes is amazing. The Upper Basilica can accommodate a congregation of 2000. There are 21 altars. The underground basilica can hold up to 20,000 pilgrims. We of course drank the water and purchased some for friends back home.
We all met for lunch at a very interesting hotel (more like a bed-and-breakfast). The owner had an awesome display of bicycle jerseys from years of famous Tour de France riders. The walls were literally covered. We ate on the patio and watched the interesting people pass by. Unfortunately it was another hot and humid day and Fred became dehydrated so we didn't do the optional ride.
This allowed us to arrive at the hotel very early (2:00 P.M.) . Luz St. Sauveur is really two separate towns. Old Luz dates from the twelfth century while St. Sauveur was developed as a fashionable spa town in the eighteenth century.
Luz itself is a complicated network of narrow streets gathered around a double walled, fortified church which was constructed by the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem to protect pilgrims during the crusades. Over the river in St. Sauveur the Victorian thermes have been renovated and are open for a range of treatments.
We had a great time touring the town and ended up at an ice cream parlor with many of the other bicyclists on the tour. We devoured calories. We eventually strolled back to the hotel. It was perched on a hill with a castle just above it - a gorgeous setting.
Our big surprise was at dinner. The ONCE team was staying at the hotel too and we all ate together. They had a very competitive team that year with Laurent Jalabert, Alex Zulle and Neil Stephens. Neil was especially friendly. We thought we had appetites until we saw what they can put away.
We were all there to climb the same passes. The Tour de France was starting in ten days and a lot of teams were practicing in this area. Before we arrived we worried that the pass we were climbing tomorrow might not be open because of snow.
It's Wednesday, June 19, 1996, the day we've all been anticipating - we will be climbing the famous Col de Tourmalet, the greatest challenge of the trip. This has been included in many Tour de France events and has always been the scene of some of the greatest action of the race. It is the highest drivable pass in the Pyrenees.
Breakfast time and we're packing away the carbos. It's a perfect day - 70 degrees, clear, warm, fantastic views in all directions, and we haven't left the hotel yet! The climb was unbelievable. There are pictures above but they can't describe the feeling. Originally we thought we would attack this hill and not stop until the top, but this was quite possibly the only time we would see a panorama this breathtaking and we stopped often for photos and just simply contemplation.
The entire day turned out to be incredible. When we were bicycling up the mountain at what we considered a good pace, the MAPEI team passed us like a freight train. How can they pedal so fast? It was certainly exciting to think about their training rides.
We were so exhilarated at the top of the climb we wanted to do it again. We yearned for more! Then we found out about the Pic Du Midi. It turns out that there was a dirt road that ascended another 1200 feet from the pass to the peak. It just gets better. We knew we brought mountain bikes instead of road bikes for a reason.
Many of the pictures above are from the ascent to the Pic Du Midi. The views were simply majestic. The glacial lake and the changing scenes as the road wrapped around the mountain to the other side and finally snaked up to the top were just fabulous. The clouds moved in before we reached the pinnacle so we didn't get any more photos, but it added another experience - we were as high as the clouds!
Now for the descent! Down the dirt road back to the pass with a short stop for lunch at the cafe and we were ready for the rest of the hills. We managed to kill three and a half hours between our optional ride and lunch.
We finally reached our destination - Hotel Le Chalet at Marie de Campan. When we arrived, some of the other bicyclists were sitting on the front porch watching the people pass by. They thought they might have seen some Tour de France riders. Did they notice that the smiles on our face were frozen?
Thursday, June 20, 1996 has arrived - another day of following the Tour de France route. The first climb was the Col D'Aspin. It was quite foggy at the top so we were deprived of the magnificent view of snow capped peaks and forests, but after yesterday we could hardly be disappointed. We just put on the rain gear and descended into Arreau.
It was sunny in Arreau and also market day. We enjoyed the picturesque medieval scenery and had to sample the Gateau a la Broche, the specialty of the region. Gateau is French for cake - need we say more?
On to the next climb - the Col de Peyresourde. There were clouds and light rain at the top so we missed another great view, but we enjoyed a nice descent to Bagneres de Luchon. We stayed at the Hotel Cornielle with a postcard view out the window of our room.
The town of Luchon is famous for its thermal baths (and resort) as well as its beautiful setting. Even in Roman times it was well known for its healing waters, and excavations have revealed enormous marble pools linked to systems circulating warm air and steam. It's a fair size town and we enjoyed touring and shopping.
It's Friday, June 21, 1996 already - time is flying. This was a day off from the bikes and we explored the area on foot. We discovered that our hotel was located in a quiet private park and quite enjoyable. Everyone else decided to sample the baths but it's not really our thing.
We decided to eat dinner (we're on our own tonight) at a great little cafe we discovered earlier. Little did we know but most of our group had also found it ,so we weren't alone. As we were walking back to the hotel we heard music and came upon a concert in the park. The entertainment was great and everyone was dancing the night away.
It's Saturday, June 22, 1996 - race day! As it turned out there was a bicycle race that used part of the route that we were supposed to follow so we tried to figure out another way to get where we needed to go. We finally gave up when we continued to get lost even with a map and we had lost a lot of time. We didnt even start out until 10:00 A.M. because we decided to wait for the rain to stop.
So we followed the original directions. We soon realized that the race route included the same climb that we needed to do anyway - so we joined the race. We had a great time.
The security people and race marshals realized our dilemma and just encouraged us to enjoy the experience. They flagged us on yelling out instructions to keep us on course. One of the officials stopped Judith and offered her a sip of what he was drinking. It was a cold and misty morning and the sip warmed her up - haha
There is one picture above that shows one of the switchbacks and a couple bicyclists on the climb up the Col Du Portillon . Toward the top each switchback presented another grand view of the valley below and snow-capped mountains. We have a few nice photos from this climb, but they are not on this website yet. When I scanned the photos the quality was poor.
The descent of Portillo (we're in Spain now) was very steep and rough. I think this is where I may have agitated the nerve damage in my wrists and neck as I was hanging on for dear life and bouncing off the bumps and potholes. We crossed over the border at the top of the hill and the Spanish side was very challenging, but hey - this is a mountain bike and I refuse to brake!
We are now in the Valley of Aran. Cut off from the outside world for centuries, the region evolved its own language (Aranes) and is still considered one of the most remote parts of the Pyrenees. The iron gray slate roofs clustered on the mountainsides, the lush green vegetation, and the dormer windows all make the Val d'Aran instantly recognizable as another country.
We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch. Soup and salad tasted great for only 3000 posadas. We finally arrived at 4:45 P.M. We enjoyed a leisurely pace today. Another great meal and we're off to sleep.
All we can say about Sunday , June 23, 1996 is spectacular! This is an incredible region. We began with a climb to the Vaquiera ski area. The ski slopes are at 8000 feet altitude and have snow year round (enough to ski!). King Juan Carlos I and the royal family visit annually.
From there we climbed to Cap Del Port on steep switchbacks with awesome views. At the official top - Port De La Bonaigua - the scene was even more astonishing. The view from the pass was of a magnificent glacial cirque. There were snow covered peaks in every direction.
We have some very interesting pictures from this spot, but again not siteworthy. One is of Fred sitting outside the cafe at the top of the pass. He is wearing every layer of clothing he brought, with full raingear over everything. It was cold. In front of him on the table is a cup of hot chocolate with the spoon standing straight up in the chocolate. We chewed and swallowed the drink.
What could be any better? How about a 34 mile downhill with wondrous sights including waterfalls and wild horses grazing the slopes. We stopped at a few villages along the way to tour the churches, eat the local delights, and try to get warm.
Tonight we are staying in Sort, Spain, one of the premier river running spots in Europe. We watched a lot of whitewater rafters as we followed the Noguera Pallaresa, the most powerful river in the Spanish Pyrenees. The town of Sort was quite interesting. We explored the honeycomb of tiny streets and spent a bit of time in the market as well as photographing the old buildings along the river.
Our hotel overlooks the whitewater rapids that were used for the kayaking event in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The gates are still there and we all watched mesmerized out our windows at the kayaks performing their maneuvers.
Monday, June 24, 1996 morning and we're off on another adventure. Soon after leaving Sort there were incredible vistas of the valley below us and the snow-capped mountain peaks ahead of us. The panoramas were so vast that I tried to take photos of each section, hoping to tie them together when I got back home. It sort of worked but you'll notice they are not displayed on this site.
We passed through small stone villages with narrow streets that make you feel as if you've stepped back into history. It's hard to believe people live the same way as they have for hundreds of years. With no obvious store signs though, it was sometimes very difficult to find food and drink.
Tonight we stayed at a Parador built on the site of an ancient 14th century Romanesque church and convent. The cloister was restored and and has been incorporated into the hotel's architectural design. This is a beautiful hotel.
Next door is the 12th century Cathedral, the oldest in Catalonia. We watched some bocce ball in the adjacent park and walked around the town. The architecture is quite interesting with dark balconies and porticos, overhanging galleries, and colonnated porches.
Its Tuesday, June 25, 1996 and it's market day. We did a little shopping before we left town. This is our last day in Spain, and we tried to snap a few good photos. One photo above shows Judith exiting the town of Martinet. Another shows Fred eating lunch in front of the hay bale just outside of Bellver De Cerdanya. The photo with the field of poppies was also along the road.
We actually took a LOT of photos today but it's amazing what you choose not to put on the website. Many of the pictures we took were of some of the tunnels and varied landscapes. But when you look at them you think," Who really wants to see a bunch of tunnels?" "Gee, that landscape looks like it could have been taken anywhere."
So you try to choose something that is unique, really captures the essential quality of the area, or depicts our own personality and what really impressed us. We hope in the future to get better at selecting photos and also to have more opportunities to find great subject matter. The trips we are sharing now require a great deal of time on the bicycle and do not leave us much time for picture taking.
Okay, it's Wednesday, June 26, 1996, we must be headed back to France. It was cold today. We have learned to carry layers of clothing. You can be in snow one minute and an hour later you're in 80 degree heat. Today we again used all of the layers we were carrying.
We climbed to Mont Louis. The small, fortified town is completely contained by its massive ramparts and protected by its citadel. We explored the town through narrow streets. These fortresses built on strategic points are very intriguing. Of course the views are great.
Today was the epitome of variety. We traveled through the historical Catlan region with its diversity of towns, each with a different personality. We admired beautiful landscapes from above and below. And it's just beginning.
After bicycling over the Col De La Quillane we started a 37 mile descent that required almost no pedaling. It's embarrassing that more than half of today's ride involved coasting. The problem is that there were so many photo opportunities that we just had to put the brakes on once in a while.
We passed through fields of flowers that were beyond belief. We felt like we were on a different planet. These flowers were huge. We passed by picturesque farms and descended through dense green forests.
We sailed by chateaus and villages and came to a screeching halt in the Gorges St. Georges. You must see the pictures ! We could easily add a dozen more. This chasm was simply breathtaking. The road was chiseled out of the canyon walls to allow you to follow a beautiful river down to Quillan. Probably having even more fun than us were the white water rafters and canoers.
Our Hotel for the evening was very informal. The other cyclists were on the patio enjoying refreshments and watching the people pass by. We were on the corner of two main streets and there was lots of action. Judith and I explored the rest of the town and were very successful at shopping.
We all had our share of stories to tell at dinner. We're really going to miss all of this. Gerhard put together an incredible trip and we appreciated his hard work. He managed to allow us to see The Pyrenees from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea without any crowds or trafficky roads, and in the middle of summer. We are spoiled.
It's Thursday, June 27, 1996. Is there anything left to see? Oh, yeah. Less than two miles into the ride, we were snapping pictures like crazy. The picture with Fred in the middle of a bridge was one of numerous photos we took of that bridge. After crossing it we proceeded to follow the road as it circled back under one of the Romanesque arches and continued down the valley.
The valley opened up into vineyards and we had a tailwind! This is fun! The route sheet said, "sun drenched vineyards sloping down the hillsides." That translates to "it's a scorcher today - where's the iced tea?" We stopped everywhere for refreshments.
Even with side trips (that's code for getting lost) and numerous stops we arrived early afternoon, and we pedaled 113 kilometers for the day. Of course we had to officially end the journey by sticking our foot into the Mediterranean. We rode along the beach for a while and finally arrived at the hotel about 4:00 P.M.
It was a great tour. There is an interesting ending to the trip that I may add later. We highly recommend seeing this part of the world if you have the chance.