Day 4: Wednesday June 20th – Back to Plan ‘A’!
Blog log: 378 kilometres today – 1,051 total so far.
Straight to Day 4? Torrential rain began on Monday evening and carried on all night, and carried on drizzling all day on Tuesday . . . making it pointless to ride in the mountains. So so-called Day 3 was spent making do and mending, getting my camping set up better and making a start on this blog and the Adventure Bike Rider forum topic.
The camping had good enough facilities for this, plenty of space in the bar for working with Wifi and even some useful plug sockets – which makes a change. But even I can’t spend all day in the bar, so when Google maps started playing up I gave up and went for a walk in the drizzly village. Ochagavia is seriously pretty – very typical of Navarre. The camping belongs to the village and is run by a loose team of young people, it is also a centre of village life. Highly recommended, even being stuck there in the rain.
But I did have plenty of time to plan Day 4. having learned the lesson on Monday to give France a chance to dry out I decided to do my original route but backwards, staying on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees where it promised to be sunny. I’d also decided to move on and stay somewhere further west along the Basque coast – there are lots of campings along that coastline and I’d been particularly recommended the camping at Mundaka. But even as I was packing up in the morning I changed my mind – back to Plan A!
I reckoned that by the afternoon things would be brighter on the French side and I was right – earlier in fact and as I passed close to the pass at Roncesvalles, which I knew already and was going to by-pass, I decided to take a look over to the other side from the top as it was so close. What a good idea – a thin mist was melting away even as I was photographing he view and I decided to carry over to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and throw all my plans into the metaphysical trash!
I ‘spotted’ an tiny pass that looked too good to miss, the Puerto de Izpegui, that also took me more directly to the Hendaye – via a few Tour de France passes to boot! The Pyrenees really have dwindled in stature in this area but are no less lovely, rising steeply from lush agricultural land – full of scantily clad British holidaymakers enjoying the strengthening sun! up to mountain pasture, seriously pretty!
Back in Spain I joined the N121b and headed north to the frontier at Ainhoa – easily memorable as it’s a Basque girl’s name – and then turned quickly west over the Col de St Ignace, getting quite a surprise rounding the last bend straight into crowd queueing up for a narrow gauge railway at the bottom – how very British it all seemed!
From there the obvious way forward was to head to St. Jean-de-Luz – a French name even I could remember! – and carry on into Hendaye along the ‘Corniche Basque’ as opposed to the boring main road or, perish the thought, the peage autoroute! The weakness in the plan was exposed when I got lost in St. Jean trying to find the beach and the Corniche. I lost time, patience and cool – literally! – OK, so maybe I should have a Satnav, but if I did I wouldn’t have found all these lovely rides after getting a bit lost!
The frontier towns all have a lot in common: the French towns are prettier but rather dull whilst the Spanish towns are visibly profiting from the cross border price difference; fuel, fags and booze never fail to pull the crowds. Both ST. Jean and Hendaye – at least the beach part – are typically French, twee almost, whereas Irun really is an ugly town, or rather puts an ugly face on. Like may Spanish towns and cities you have to right in to the centre to se them at their best as there’s no concept of ‘leafy suburbs’ in Spanish urbanization.
So getting to Cabo Higer (or Higuer in Castilian) was a bit of an anticlimax after an urban street fight to get there. It was also a bit grotty – clearly I’m the only person with big ideas about extremes of geography! But there’s a camp site there – that I was glad not to be staying at! – and a little cafe where egg-and-chips with a ‘sin alcohol’ beer put me right back on form!
I would have liked to have ridden a bit further down the Basque coast but time had really marched on so I decided head straight back to Navarre and back up into the Pyrenean passes on Plan A. The Basque Country is not the easiest place for biking as it is heavily urbanized, with villages and small towns stretching along the highways in the narrow valleys. I realized that I’ll have to explore the Basque County as a trip in its own right one fine day!
The N121 to Pamplona is a serious trunk route and I only used it reluctantly to whizz over to another part of the country. I still wanted to retrace my steps on Monday and complete all those lovely passes – a splendid sunny evening’s riding was in store!
The Puerto de Artesiaga road is little more than a country lane, but definitely a worthwhile ride. It’s heavily used by cyclist and in any event isn’t safe to ride at any kind of speed. The southern slopes are deeply forested – in fact a royal hunting forest – and all trails are closed here. But the road more than compensates, especially once I doubled back up to the France and the Vall des Aldudes and a return to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Then the maximum highlight of the day, the French side of the Irati forest and the pass of the same name. I know the Spanish Irati – you have to walk there as it’s a Reserva Natural – and found the French side equally impressive, especially from a motorbike!
The road is more than fantastic but time consuming and I was also getting pretty tired by then. The past is also immensely vertigenous! More was to come as I retraced my steps up the Puert to Larrou, scene of my encounter in the fog on Monday. Approaching from Larrou I realised that I had ridden almost all the way to the village before I turned round! The views from the top are indeed spectacular – more so havine relised just how terrifying the drops were on the poor verge of the road – that I rode in almost zero visibility!
What a day!