Spain: Criss-crossing the Cordillera Cantábrica, Prt 2

Route: Boñar – Pto. Vegarada – La Pola – Pto. de la Cubilla – Saliencia – Villablino – Vega de Espinareda – Ponferrada
Route Cordillera Cantabrica 2
Second part of my route through the Cordillera Cantabrica.

With food in my bags for three days, I now had to decide what route to take. The weather was still fine today, but the forecast for the next five / six days was pretty terrible. I pondered it over for a while on a bench near the town square in Bonar. The initial route would lead my all the way over the Cordillera Cantabrica, back to its northern slopes, than down, before remounting, to the southern side, quite a lot via unpaved tracks.

Or I could follow tiny roads LE-321, LE-3621 & LE-3505, going right through the mountains, but staying on the south side.

The latter option, I rode already in 2005.

After forty five minutes of thinking, I decided on the second option. There was more rain predicted on the northern side, colder temperatures, and all that on dirt and gravel tracks…. that’s good in the sun, but it could be miserable in the wrong conditions.

Having ridden this route already, I remembered it was “nice”, but I didn’t recall it specifically. And what a good choice I made. The ride through the canyon of the River Curueno is simply super, super impressive. Incredible how this tiny river has cut out such a deep canyon in the barren mountains.

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At the left turn towards Valdeteja, I leave the Rio Curueno. The road starts climbing a little more. I was thinking “where does this road lead to, if I were to go straight ?”.

Of course ! It would lead me Valdelugueros, and then I would be back on the route I planned, going north. This means I made good progress already.

“Should I do it ?”

I kept riding the other direction, the paved option, thinking if I kept doubting long enough, the moment to turn around would have passed.

It’s a nice enough road I’m on. Wait, I just ride a little further up, to that bend in the road, and then I decide. Let’s take a picture… I seemed to have turned the bike around already, and back down I went towards the Rio Curueno and.. going north…

The road climbs only very slowly and once you’re in Tolibia de Abajo, you’re out of the canyon. (If people would ever ride that paved option, the most spectacular part is before the junction towards Valdeteja, so you’ve seen the best).

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After Valdelugueros the road starts to climb a little more, but still nothing terrible. Left and right of me, all mountain tops above two thousand meter; Pico de Fuentes, Pico del Oso, Pico Nogales, ….

The top lays at 1.563 meter, the ‘Puerto Vegarada’. As so often, the top is also a border, this time between Castilla y Leon and Asturias.

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In front of me lays a nice gravel track and the good news is, I will go down from 1563 meter to 200 meter in one go.

The bad news is, I then have to climb back up to almost 1.700 meter, also in one go.

The downhill, smooth at first, soon goos steep, steep into the valley. 12%, 14%, 16%…. 20%. With three days worth of food and 5,5 liter of water (ready to camp if I see a spot), it surely is stretching the limits of my v-brakes on these track full of loose gravel.

I find a spot next to the Rio Aller in its early stages.

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This guy refused to move even one millimeter, so I walked slowly by him.

The downhill remains steep until I hit the asphalt.

I surely hope that climb back over the Cordillera will be easier.

The Rio Aller soon becomes wider. It starts raining, and looking up at the sky, it won’t stop anytime soon. Time for a hotel for two nights and give the legs some rest.

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I now have left the valley of the Rio Aller, and riding upstream in the valley of the Rio Lena. A busy valley with a major highway, a provincial road, a railways and villages and towns all squeezed into that narrow space. Still, I found good options to go almost car free through it.

I am ready for the ‘grand finale’, back over the Cordillera Cantabrica, north to south, with some serious climbs ahead of me.

I start with a mountain, nicknamed ‘The Gallibier off Asturias’; Puerto de La Cubilla to Alto ‘L Palo (1.690 m) / The Vuelta a Espagne passed here in 2019 (stage 16). Jacob Fuglsang won the stage, and also two Belgians were in the top 10, Thomas De Gendt and Philippe Gilbert. Tadej Pogacar did the 17 km long climb at the fastest average speed, 25,3 km/hr ! You can see a resume of that stage here.

Today, my time was a little bit slower as Pogacar’s last year, but there was nobody in front of me when I came to the top !

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‘Il Pistolero’ must have ridden here as well.
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And the new generation.

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As if the climb wasn’t long enough, I was fighting a very fierce headwind.But what a beautiful climb it is, and the gradients are much, much more doable as that downhill I had a couple of days ago.

The region Asturias is famous for producing milk. In all Spanish supermarkets you’ll find the Asturias milk. And I think all the cows producing it, are on this mountain. So, not good for camping, but I haven’t seen a flat piece of land anywhere anyway.

Working my way up, I keep some beautiful tops in view, Siega L’Aba (2.131 m), La Mesa (1915 m), Penon de Vachalampo (1800 m), Quentu Las Planas (1856 m), La Tesa (1900 m).

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At the top, I’m leaving the Asturias region and enter Castilla y Leon again.

The wind at the top was very violent and almost knocked one over.

After Casa Miers (closed), I’m back on dirt for the downhill through the ‘Barranco de la Alcantarilla’ to the village San Emiliano.

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This is where big rivers start.

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After this village, I have a smooth climb over a paved road. If I would keep following this road, I’d go to the Puerta Ventana, but I take the small side road towards Torrestio. After the village the road becomes a stony track, always steeper and steeper, until I’m up the Alto de Farrapona (1708 m).

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Clouds are rolling in, but again, by climbing over another pass, I stayed clear of the clouds.

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There were a few hikers in front of the track who tried to feed this donkey, but the donkey just went away from them all the time. I refilled my bottles at a small stream, while the donkey kept an eye on me. When I was ready, he/she came to me, not shy at all. I stayed with the animal for a while, but every time I mounted my bike and wanted to resume cycling, he bit in my panniers to prevent me from going. Maybe he/she saw similarities between us and thought I was a pack animal as well with that heavy bike ?

From the pass, a little, stony track goes left towards the ‘Lagos Saliencia’. I ride my bike towards the first lake, ‘Lago Cueva’. I intended to visit the first lake only, but it’s so beautiful that I lock my bike and start hiking up to Lago Cerveriz and on to Lagos Calabazosa o Negro. The dark lakes with the sharp mountain peaks all around it are spectacular and worth the effort. I see a small track I can follow to make the loop complete around the back of Lagos La Cueva.

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Looking down into the valley of the Rio Saliencia.
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Lago Cueva
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Lago Cerveriz
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Lagos Calabazosa o Negro
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Another view to Lago Cueva, from the other side this time. The bicycle is somewhere on the right of the picture. I had to hike over the ridge to the left to visit the two other lakes, then looped around back to Lago Cueva here.

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Camping is not allowed here so I ride down, into the nature park Somiedo, where camping isn’t allowed either.

The park is famous for having a large population of wolves and free roaming bears and is said to be one of Spain’s roughest natural areas. The highest peak is Pico del Cornón (2194 m)

I went to the camp site in La Pola. It’s behind the hotel and belongs to them. Before going to the reception, I went to take a look. Instant unhappiness. I don’t want to be here. It’s horror. People, cars, caravans, campervans,… all packed on top of each other on the small field. Even if they pay me, I don’t want to be here.

I rolled back down towards a field I saw just before the confluence of the Rio Somiedo and Rio Saliencia. The tent is pitched next to the river. A lot of grass in the field. If I’m lucky, I might see a bear this evening or tomorrow morning.

But alles, no such luck. Cold it was. Terribly cold, although it’s one of the lowest places I slept recently. Must be ‘inversion’, I remember from school, when it’s warmer high up as down in the valley.

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On the downhill from Alto de Farrapona.

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In the field, much, much better than the loud, busy, expensive campground.

After Pola la Somiedo I have another three mountain passes in front of me. Before the first pass, I first take a side road to the viewpoint ‘Mirador Principe de Asturias’ It’s on a little steep climb into La Peral village, but do make the effort if you come here. It really is worth the view !

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On the climb towards Puerto de Somiedo

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View from Mirador Principe de Asturias.
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View from the office.
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La Peral village.
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Sometimes you have to watch for cyclists, sometimes for deer, here.. for bears.

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Than, over Puerto de Somiedo (1.485 m). Here I leave Asturias and enter Castilla y Leon again. The downhill is super smooth, low percentages.

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I eventually end up again at the busy road CL-626.

Never, ever think it’s a good idea to have a bicycle holiday and follow this road along the Cordillera Cantabrica. It carries way too much traffic.

I think I could have left the busy road already in Villaseca de Laciana and go on the via verde, but I only saw its existence just before Villablino.

Also west of Vilablino is a via verde over an old railway line to the village Caboalles de Arriba. This used to be a mining area, that’s why they had the railway.

Back over the next pass, Puerto de Cerredo (1.359 m) via which I enter Asturias again.

Downhill to the ugly mining town Zarréu where I turn left on a so-called private mining road (built by or for them). it is a very wide road and doesn’t even have an official road number, but the people down in Zarréu assured me I could take it.

Climbing again. On the top, Puerto Valdeprado (+/- 1.350 m), I again enter Castilla y Leon.

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It’s hard to find a place to camp, which is annoying when you’ve climbed three passes and daylight is fading, but eventually I’m lucky to find a splendid place.

Resuming the decent next morning, also on this side of the mountain, there are regularly signs that it’s a private mining road, but I see a few other cars and nobody is bothering me cycling here. The power plant I pass a little later seems permanently closed, so I really think it’s ok to use this road. Slowly I’m leaving the Cordillera Cantabrica behind, riding down along the Rio Cua. Some steep parts back up again too, but mostly down for me. I’m in a bit of a hurry. It’s Sunday and I need a bakery before siesta time. I find it eventually in Fabero.

In the next town, Vega de Espinareda, I could go straight south towards Ponferrada, but that would be a major road, so I searched for a better alternative. I go east towards Berlanga Del Bierzo on a quieter road, on to Tombrio de Arriba and to Torina, where after a short stretch and the wider (but not busy) LE-463, I exit the road to take a small, unused road of which all the asphalt is crumbling, along the Embalse de Barcena, the big reservoir in the Rio Sil. Nobody else here and I have brilliant views to the lake and to the old railway line with its bridges and tunnels.

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Embalse de Barcena, just outside Ponferrada.

Just as I’m leaving the borders of the lake, I see yellow signs again, and it appears I’m back on the lesser used Santiago route ‘Camino Olvidado’ (remember, near the town of Bonar, I was already sharing this route for a while).

On my way into Ponferrada I pass a big windmill factory. They were just loading the wings on trucks. Unreal how large they are. From the ground, you could never see the edges of the wings are like a saw.

Next report, I’ll be leaving Ponferrada behind and head towards Portugal.

Spain: Criss-crossing the Cordillera Cantábrica, Prt 1

Route: San Martin de Losa – Hierro – Medina de Pomar – Espinosa de los Monteros – Reinosa – Cervera de Pisuerga – Guardo – Boñar

It was sweltering hot the day I left my campsite next to the potato field. Via San Martin de Losa I rode, all via super quiet country roads and tracks, to Quincoces de Yuso. There’s a bakery and a small fruteria where you can buy all the necessary, provided you are willing to wait long, very long. Service is super slow and, untypical, and in both shops, very unfriendly.

Next up was the ‘Ermita de San Pantaleon de Losa’, a small church built on a high rock. I left my bike at a house with some friendly locals and hiked to the top. The Ermita itself was closed, but the views definitely worth the climb.

Route Cordillera Cantabrica 1
First part of my route through the Cordillera Cantabrica.
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The ermita is on top of this hill.
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Ermita de San Pantaleon de Losa

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View from the Ermita

Following provincial road BU-550 along the Rio Jerea, I come at a fork. Right will bring me directly to Medina de Pomar, but I drew my route to the left, via the small settlement of Hierro. Nothing to see there, only the fact that I think it is a nice stretch, with a climb over a completely deserted, small, worn asphalt road. Which option to chose ?

It is so hot, and the direct road to the right would be easier. The junction is a good point with river access if you’d like a swim in the river and think it over, but some local youth was already in there.

I went left, the harder, but probably much nicer option. Good choice. The scenery, with high rocks coming out of nowhere is really beautiful.

Just before the start of the climb, I take a left turn and ride in the hamlet of Quintana-Entrepenas. I need shelter from the heat and sun and it is provided here with a fountain with drinking water, and a deserted building giving shade. The faintest of internet signals even allows me to catch up on some news on the phone. Close to 7 pm, when the temperatures dropped a bit, I start the climb. It’s nothing huge, going from 590 meter to something like 850 meter, but there are steep parts of +10%.

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I find a good camping spot just under the collection of houses which is ‘Hierro’. Shade, now in the evening and also in the morning, and a small breeze. Just too many flies and I have to wait till after the sunset before I can prepare diner (flies go to sleep).

Next morning, riding through Hierro, I see that probably only one of the ramshackle houses is still inhabited. The church has partly collapsed. The road turns to gravel. Again, I have splendid vistas to the surrounding valley and mountains. The top of the ‘pass’ is about hundred meters above Hierro. A splendid downhill on good gravel follows. Still vultures everywhere I look up in the sky. Also a young deer on the track. And a fox.

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From Villavedeo I found a gravel track all the way to Medina de Pomar. Excellent, excellent riding.

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Medina de Pomar is an ancient town, with some interesting historical buildings, an ‘alcazar, old church, etc…. good for a couple of hours. The guy who founded Ascuncion in Paraguy is from this town (but born in Espinosa de los Monteros). He was only a couple of years older then I am now, when he died. Damn, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me if I still want to found a capital within a few years….

What have I done, after all, in my life ?

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Alcazar de los Velasco at Medina de Pomar
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Medina de Pomar
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Medina de Pomar
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Gate to the old town, Medina de Pomar
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Statue of Juan de Salazar y Espinosa, founder of Asunción, capital of Paraguay

I leave the small town in the afternoon. It’s burning hot. Luckily, villages are at short distances from each other and I always find a bench somewhere in the shade. Often a water fountain to refresh myself as well.

But the inevitable happens after a couple of days off sweltering heat; a thunderstorm. I dive into a side track and find a good place in a field to pitch the tent. Temperatures drop immediately with ten degrees and I have a much better sleep as the night before.

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Still seeing the yellow Camino de Santiago arrows from time to time.

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Up to Espinosa de Los Monteros, a friendly little town. I lose an hour by queueing for the little supermarket and for the panaderia. Now I have a few kilometer on the provincial road BU—526 in front of me, but it’s mostly downhill.

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Espinosa de Los Monteros

I arrived around 2pm in Cueva, the village just before ‘Ermita de San Bernabé’. It’s a famous thing, a church and some stuff in caves, but it is closed for siesta between 2 & 5 pm. I decide not to wait for it and resume cycling along small backroads until I rejoin the BU-526 in Entrambosrios to climb over the saddle. I’m now cruising down next to a spectacular rock face. It seems the top is just above me but little do I know the Sierra de Dulla is much higher than what I see now.

When I look back on my way out of Perosa de Valdeporres I can really appreciate how spectacular Mt. Dulla really is. It will remain in view for quite a while.

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Sierra de Dulla (1.143 m asl)

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The little tertiary road works it’s way up to Ahedo de las Pueblas. A very beautiful village. Must be a nice thing to live in these surroundings. I’m riding at the top of a hill. A barren place with a lot of semi-wild horses. It would be brilliant to camp here, but a very fierce wind starts to blow and I see dark grey clouds rolling in from the north.

Suddenly, I am already descending, the huge Embalse (reservoir) Del Ebro is in front of me a few hundred meters below. I find a very good spot to camp behind some trees, well sheltered for the violent winds. A big thunderstorm is rolling over.

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I ride south along the Embalse Del Ebro. After the village Arija I leave Castilla y Leon region and ride into Cantabria.

It’s a Sunday, and quite a bit of Spaniards have found there way to the lake for a refreshing swim. I keep my eyes open for a small, private beach. Once I think I found it and descend with my bike to the little tiny beach. Nobody here.

Ooh…. one guy is sitting there. Cross-legged. Talking to himself. Totally naked.

I go.

I find another spot allright later on to enjoy a swim in the lake.

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Railway bridge over one of the arms of the Embalse Del Ebro.

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Embalse Del Ebro
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Embalse Del Ebro
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This time, a road bridge over the Embalse Del Ebro
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Embalse Del Ebro
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Mornings start to be misty from time to time, and chilly.
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Small roads into Reinosa.

Reinosa, a bigger place at the western side of the lake is nothing special, but it has a big Mercadona supermarket on the outskirts and a Repsol gasstation where I can refill my fuel bottle for cooking. I use about one liter of fuel per month.

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About six kilometer west of Reinosa is the spring of the Ebro, the second longest river in Spain. The river Tajo is about 100 km longer but the Ebro is the longest running its entire course in mainland Spain (The Tajo goes on to Portugal). Instead of running its waters north for about 50 kilometer to the Atlantic Ocean, the Ebro choses another path, downhill, all the way to the Mediterranean, more than 900 kilometer away. The spring is at about 900 meters asl, so on average it’s losing one meter per kilometer. Although it will be much less in the last half of its trajectory I’m sure.

There is a hiking trail all along the river and I follow the first six kilometer upstream on the bike, from the city to the spring.

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The spring of Spains 2nd longest river, the Rio Ebro.
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This duck is swimming in the earliest, cristal clear water of the Ebro.

After Reinosa, I had two options in mind to continue my trip. The northern option through the ‘Picos de Europa’ or a southern one via the Montana Palentina. The first option for sure would be the more spectacular, and also much harder.

Possibly too hard with too much bike pushing over rocky hiking trails.

Consulting the weather forecast, the decision was made easily. Rain for the next eight days if I were to go north, only for two days if I go south.

South it will be.

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I make a small mistake pushing my bike up a dry, rocky, steep stream bed. I should have just followed the nice gravel track to Poblacion de Suso, and join the main road CA-280 there. Now I pushed my bike for 45 minutes over rocks, through thorny bushes. My legs are bleeding at a dozen places. If I don’t forget it, I’ll clean up my gps-track so if anybody downloads it, you go the better way.

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This is the good way to go, towards Poblacion de Suso. I accidentally went this way, than turned back, because I had the illusion the shorter way would be better….
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Better ?
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Defintely not better !

Very beautiful mountain scenery again. I see dark clouds rolling in again from the north over Reinosa, but if I hurry up, over an unnamed pas, 1.352 meter asl, I’m pretty sure these clouds will get stuck behind the mountain.

The mountain range that forms the border between Cantabria and Palencia province (back in Castilla y Leon) is 1900 meter high. On the downhill I reach my highest speed so far on this trip, 74,86 km/hr, the cyclometer says. That was with laundry flapping from my front and rear rack. It’s been years since I managed to go over 80 km/hr. Maybe later.

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You can see the clouds rolling in over the hills already. They never managed to get over the pass from where the picture was taken.

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The town of Brañosera which I passed on the descent is considered to have the first town hall in Spain, granted in 824.

Today I also see the first storks of this trip.

After Barruelo de Santullan, I take the small PP-2125 road through the Montana Palentina. A signs tells me this is one of the few places in Europe where bears are still roaming around. Maybe I’m lucky to see one late evening or early morning when I’m camping ?

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After San Cebrian de Muda, I’m back on gravel. Or stones sometimes, but always well rideable. Very enjoyable route, with plenty of camping options. As those two days of bad weather are coming up, I ride into Cervera de Pisuerga, a little town I visited already in 2005, to buy provisions, then ride back into the hills to the same place above Rabanal de los Caballeros where I camped the night before, to sit out the rainy weather, read, rest and eat.

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@ Cervera de Pisuerga
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inside the church in Cervera de Pisuerga. Nowadays, almost all churches in Spain are locked. The few that are open often ask entrance fees…

In the afternoon an older gent suddenly arrives in the field near my camp. He was very friendly and came to repair the beehives a bit. He tried to warn me for something, but I couldn’t understand the words. He mimicked an animal, with wings it seems, and a horn.

I didn’t get it. A flying dinasour ?

The devil himself maybe ??

Next morning, when I was back on the track down to Cervera de Pisuerga… i realized it, when I saw the bear poo. That’s what he was trying to warn me for haha.

The road out of town is a bit too busy for my liking but soon I can turn on a smaller road towards Resoba.From this village, a stony track climbs into the mountains of Parque Natural de Fuentes Carrionas Y Fuente Cobre – Montaña Palentina. Often steep, sometimes a bit gentler.

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Steep down- and uphills.

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The ‘Valle de Pineda’

A steep downhill to the valley of the Rio Carrion follows and I find a very nice spot to pitch the tent next to it. From here, I follow the ‘Ruta Valle de Pineda’ towards Vidrieros. A shame they allow 4WD’s to use the track. There are a lot of hikers and mtb-ers. If I were to drive a 4WD, I would very uncomfortable riding my big, loud machine among these people. Why not go out yourself ??

In Vidrieros, I see on a sign it was actually forbidden to camp where I did (natural park). Sorry, but there were no signs the route I entered the park. I am riding next to one of the region’s highest peaks, ‘Curavacas’ (2.526 m)., which means ‘heal the cow’ (or ‘cow healer’ ??).

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Riding ‘Valle de Pineda’

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Pico ‘Curavacas’ , the cow healer at 2.526 m the highest mountain of Palencia province.

At Triollo, I arrive at the big Embalse de Camporredondo. I cycled along this reservoir in 2005, but that is such a long time ago, I remember nothing. And I’m riding in the other direction anyhow now. This road is super, super spectacular. I follow a little side road for a while, to have views towards another giant of the region, Peña Prieta (2.539 m). But, the most spectacular of all, I have all the time in sight. It’s Peña Espigüete (2.451 m).

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What a nice spot for a final resting place, isn’t it ? Eternally looking at the Embalse de Camporredondo.

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To the right, you can see the road that’s going along the lake.
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Peña Espigüete
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Peña Espigüete

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The Camporredono dam in the Rio Carrion.
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Embalse de Compuerto
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Compuerto dam.

After Camporredondo, they’ve built another dam for another reservoir in the Rio Carrion, called Embalse de Compuerto.

From here, I roll into the towns, Velilla del Rio Carrion and Guardo. both have the air of old easter European towns where the time have stood still. Nothing charming here.

I was heading from Guardo to Cistierna. Busy road CL-626 runs between this two places, so I decided to take a quieter option, going further south, more or less out of the mountains towards Calavares de Arriba and even a little detour further south to the town of Almanza, to visit the local bakery. Almanza claims to be on one of the Camino de Santiago routes, but the track I have from the Camino Olvidado runs further north. More small roads bring me into Cistierna. Here I am definitely sharing the track with the Santiago route again. A very pleasant road through Yugueros, and towards Barillos de las Arrimadas and eventually to Bonar a little town with again supermarket, etc..

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Pitching the tent again in sunny, warm weather.
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But waking up to cloudy mornings.
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In the town of Almanza.

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The Iglesia parroquial Sta. Marina in Barillos de las Arrimadas, 12th century. It was possibly serving as the headquarters of the Military Orders of Santiago and Templars.
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But it was locked…

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Approaching Boñar.

Part 2 of my meanderings through the Cordillere Cantabrica to follow soon.

Spain: Navarra & Basque Country / Euskadi

Route: Etxalar – San Sebastian – Lekunberri – Vitoria-Gasteiz – Berberana

Waking up in spain the next morning, me, and the hill tops around me are bathing in a sea of clouds. What a sight. It is if I were a couple of thousand meter above sea level, while I’m standing at barely 400 meters asl. I take it very easy in the morning. The last days have been hectic enough, and I intend to take a hotel for one are two nights in Lesaka.

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The Route I rode in this blog post.
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It’s good to be back in Spain, back in the country with the worlds best car drivers. Nowhere else on my travels I found the big majority of the drivers giving you so much space when they pass you, or just waiting patiently behind you when they can’t pass you safely. Often, I’m not even realizing a car is behind me because, contrary to other countries, they don’t speed into you, almost under your rear rack, braking at the last moment, revving the engine…. no, they come slowly, unnoticed. Spain is also one of the few places in Europe where you can spend winter comfortably AND it’s a country with an immense diversity of landscapes.  Downsides… yes, there are a few…. Spaniards are loud.  There are way too many dogs.  You seldom will have a night in your tent without hearing dogs barking, especially in the southern half of the country (but they are almost always behind a fence or on a chain, so not attacking you).  And Spanish kitchen is overrated. You can eat very good here, but the typical ‘menu del dia’ some people are so enthusiastic about is 99% of the times a disappointment. Meat, potatoes, no veggies.  
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Back in Spain, where you will always notice this semi-wild horses in the mountains.

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France is at the other side of the hills.
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Unzipping my tent in the morning, heating water for a coffee. Not a bad view at all.

The downhill over a good track into Etxalar is very steep. This is were the difference between v-brakes and good disc brakes show. I’m torturing my rims. Etxalar is a very neat little town. A tv crew was just making some shots, even of me enterig the village. Who knows I will appear on TVE 🙂
There was a sign outside the tourist info, about Carmen, and an opera, and a girl from this village. I don’t know anything about the famous opera, and I wonder whether it is about that one and whether the story starts here ??

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Lesaka, the next village is a bit bigger. but has a nice center also All the hotels are full. I should’ve stayed in Etxalar. Alas, no rest days for me. After my siesta I leave town and climb back in the hills. Back up to 400 meter. Down I go via the track under the power lines. 16 to 19% the cyclometer says. Ouch, my rims 😦
From the Presa (reservoir) San Anton, another climb follows. The sealed road NA4000 (‘NA standing for the region of Navarra) is very quiet, but nevertheless, I opt for the continuation of the climb for a goat track, again under the power lines. My progress is too slow for the cyclometer to measure any inclination, but it will be in the 16 – 19% range again (I’m pushing of course, not riding). Instantly my shirt is soaking wet again from the extreme effort. Shoulders, knees, everything hurts from pushing that heavy load up the steep track.
Pure joy 🙂

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In the distance you can see the steep track I came down, than passed the Pressa San Anton, and the steep uphill track again.

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Up at the Aritxulegi pass (500 meter), I am standing above the the tunnel of the NA4000. This is the border between Navarra and the Basque (Euskadi) regions. There is a side track where cars can come up to a picnic area. No good to camp here, so I go back down a bit to a place where I ‘m less likely to be disturbed, and better sheltered from the wind. The weather is changing.
At night, I hear fools, probably drunks, yelling and screaming at the picnic area, flashing strong lights and they are racing cars, braking through curves and the tunnel, wearing out their tires in one night. Good decision to come back to the place I am.

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On the via verde into San Sebastian.

Under very grey skies, with some rain, I ride down the hill and briefly hit the coast in San Sebastian, also called the world most gastronomic place. Not any city on this planet has more Michelin Stars per square kilometer then San Sebastian.. The city was Europe’s cultural capital in 2016 and has 186.000 inhabitants. People, people, nothing but people and cars, so after a stop of 30 seconds, I say goodby to the coast and head back inland. Inland, that’s the ‘Montes Vascos’, the Basque Mountains. They form the eastern section of the Cantabrian Mountain Range which I hope to cross east to west. The Basque coastal range forms the water divide of the Mediterranean and Atlantic basins. The Bay of Biscay causes great weather changes in this region. This is the ‘green Spain’.

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Beach in San Sebastian.

I could already ride the whole way into San Sebastian on bike paths, and leaving town, I prepared a route all along bike paths as well. Splendid.
In Urnieta, just out of town, I take my first hotel of the trip. It’s getting late, all mountains are covered in dreary, dark grey clouds, and I just feel liking having a good shower instead of keeping my eyes open for a camping spot.

Soon after leaving Urnieta, I can take the Plazaola-Leitzaran Greenway, starting in the Basque town of Andoain to Lekunberri in Navarra region. It’s 41 km long and there are no fewer than 32 tunnels to negotiate on the Basque part of the trail alone. Also multiple viaducts, some over a hundred meter in length. Slowly, slowly, like an old diesel engine, I climb from sea level to 660 meter asl at Uitzi, the highest point of the line.
The first half of the Greenway follows the Leitzaran River.

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On my second day on the via verde, I meet a Belgian couple with their son, riding the Vuelta de Vasco, the route I picked up after San Sebastian as well. This via verde is the easiest part of it. Some good climbing, on and off-road, is awaiting.
But first, I have to wait in Lekunberri for the end of the siesta and the (small) supermarket to reopen at 5 pm.

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This little cups on a string are still present along trails, to help hikers have a drink. I guess soon they will all disappear forever due to corona virus, and a permanent change in our habits (I never used them anyhow, but still, it was a friendly gesture).

Upon leaving Lekunberri, I meet another Belgian couple from Brussels, riding part of the trail on hired bikes. It’s amazing. Every other hiking or cycling tourist I meet along the way seems to be Belgian this year.
Out of Lekunberri, I have to climb to a hight of approx. 1.200 meter via a quiet paved road. But the weather is turning, and it is turning rapidly.
Violent head winds, darker and darker clouds. Soon I dive into a forest and prepare a spot to pitch the tent. The winds is still increasing and the trees are swaying violently, dropping branches, dead and living ones. A big one falls right next to my tent and I opt to break it down again and move asap. A broken tent means big troubles for me, and the tent is way too new to have it destroyed like that. And if it’s a big branch, maybe not only the tent will be destroyed…

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The field where I woke up, after replacing the tent from the forest in last nights storm.

I move to a field a bit further on. At night, I hear the relaxing sound of the tawny owl (bosuil). I think that must be the most successful owl in Europe, because I hear him often at night in various countries.

Next morning the sun is out again, and I am on my way before 9 am. Partly because of the heat (the sun was on the tent), but mostly because I was being attacked by hordes of aggressive horseflies.
First up the paved road to the Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar. Today, after about 1750 km, I climb for the first time on this trip above a height of 1.000 m.
The Santuario stands at about 1.220 m asl. There is a cafeteria where I eat and drink something. I also buy a big chunk of typical basque cheese from a vendor at the top.

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Monte Beriain (1.494 meter), seen from Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar.
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Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar, built at this spot to thank Saint Michael the Archangel.

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Then back down again to rejoin the Vuelta de Vasco for an off-road trip through Aralar Nature Park. It definitely is the highlight of my trip so far. An ‘adventurous’ gravel road, spectacular mountains, blue sky, temperature around 34 degrees C. Just perfect. I’m crossing the Basque/Navarra border a couple of times.

I make it a short day. From here the road descents into the valley of the Arakil River, and from the top of the Santuario earlier today, I could see that’s not a place I want to be stuck for the night. A highway passes thru, one village after the other. No, better quiet up the hill.
Well, quiet it never is over here. All the animals, cows, horses, sheep, goat have heavy bells around their neck, and they are all over the place. But that’s still better than traffic noise.

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The weather will turn around completely the next days. Temperatures will drop by more than 10 degrees and there will be rain. Main thing is to get down to the village before 1 pm to buy provisions before siesta starts. After that, quite some climbing and no more chances to buy anything before the capital of the Basque region, Vitoria-Gasteiz.

But….. nothing worked out like that.
Opening the zipper of my tent in the morning, I saw a flat rear tire.
After breakfast, I took off the rear wheel. Going with my hand through the tire, I found two thorns inside. I mended the two holes in the tube. But then found another one.
And another one.
After using almost half my repair patches and half the tube of glue, I was good to go.
220 times pumping to bring the tire on pressure, loading all the luggage, including a soaking wet tent only to notice…. I had a flat tire in the back again….
Aaaghrrr !!
Off-loaded everything again.
Started to rain harder.
More wind.
I now put the spare tube I have inside, but that’s a tube with a small leak I can’t find.
220 times pumping to bring the tire on pressure.
It is completely hopeless I will make it in time to the shop before siesta.
The descent is much harder as expected. It’s basically through a dry river bed with big rocks. Unrideable.
I have to pump the rear tire a couple of times before I’m down in the valley.
It’s 2:05 pm.
The shop in Arbizu closed at 2 pm.

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Too stony for riding.

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I ride eleven km to Alsasua where I find a supermarket that’s open.
The bike shop is closed though.
Till Monday 10 am.
There’s a Chinese shop. They tend to sell everything, so… who knows, they have a tube ?
They do. 28 inch tubes, 27,5 inch tubes, oh…. and one more 26 inch tube.
I grab it, happy I am saved.
Outside, while cutting the package open, I’m thinking … “o-oh, I didn’t check whether the valve is presta and not schraeder”… Schraeder of course.
Aaaaaghr… won’t fit in my rims.

In the drizzle, I rode up the hill in search for a place to camp, with food for two days and nine liter of water. Found nothing suitable so it is back down and I ride to a small pine forest squeezed in between the busy highway and the provincial road I’m on.
Not the nicest place, but it will have to do for two nights until the bicycle shop is open.

Monday morning, 10:20 am I am standing at the bicycle shop. The paper with opening hours which was there on Saturday, is now replaced by another paper. It says the shop is closed until next Monday.
Can you believe that ??
Forty hours I am waiting in my tent, meters away from a busy highway, and now this ??

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This means I cannot ride through the Sierra Andia and miss out on the Parque Natural Ubasa y Andia. That’s a real pity. Luckily, I find a reasonably interesting, and quiet route all the way to Vitoria-Gasteiz (250.000 people), the capital of the Basque Country. The last stretch into town, I rejoin the ‘Vuelta de Vasco’. It’s a via verde (greenway) all the way into town.

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It is said Vitoria-Gasteiz has the second highest standard of living in Spain. Between 1950 & 2020, the population exploded with a factor five ! They’ve got a club playing in the Primera Division; Deportivo Alavés. The well know cyclist Mikel Landa was born here.

I check into a hotel and spend the afternoon strolling through town, buying two new tubes, a slime tube and a regular one, and have diner.

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Leaving town, still on the off-road ‘Vuelta de Vasco’, The route is initially nice. You pass a big shopping area a few kilometer out of town with a big Decathlon, a Carrefour supermarket and a Chinese shop for all your needs.
Now starts a really hard stretch, which I had to push the bike almost all the way. You reach three hill tops, and the last one is so steep I could hardly hold the bike and push it up. But your reward is expansive views over the country side, no people and multiple excellent wild camping options. Up on the ridge, or a bit down towards Jugo. I camped a few kilometer before Jugo, with only 2.2 liter of water in my bottles. I just wanted to stay here and enjoy the views to Olazar mountain from my tent.

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With empty bottles (but still enough water for two big cups of coffee in the morning), I rolled down to Jugo, filled up, and continued to Murgia, where you will find a small supermarket and bakery. I now left the ‘Vuelta de Vasco’. Initially I wanted to go all the way to Bilbao. It’s supposed to be a nice town, but in corona times, I prefer to skip towns if possible.

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The alternative I created was probably better than a visit to Bilbao.
Ok still some bike pushing on some stretches because it was so steep, but mostly excellent riding. The two big rewards of the day were ‘Salto del Nervion’, three hundred meter deep cliffs, and ‘Mirador Esquina Rubén’, both in the ‘Monumento Natural de Monte Santiago’. Lots and lots of Griffon Vultures (Vale Gier).

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Salto del Nervion
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Salto del Nervion

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View from Mirador Esquina Rubén.

Via quiet villages like Berberana and Villalbla de Losa, without any shops, but with water points, I finish the day next to a potato field, not picturesque but nicely sheltered from the sun.

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Next episode, I will continue my ride further west through the Cordillera Cantábrica.

France: Via Lemovicensis & the Landes

Route: Vézelay – La Charité-Sur-Loire – Nevers – La Châtre – Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat – Périgeux – Bergerac – Léon – Bayonne – Espelette

Route Via Lemovicensis
I thought it might be a good idea to put a map of the route I follow above each post to give a clearer picture where exactly I rode. I’ve edited the last post with a map as well. The bold blue line is always the current post.

Initially, the Via Lemovicensis has two possible varieties: a northern one via Bourges and a southern one via Nevers. Looking at these options, as always, I could not decide which one to take, so, as always, I decide to do a bit of both. I start on the northern section, allowing me to ride to La Charité-Sur-Loire. From here, I can take a hard option, the GR654 towards Nevers, or an easier option along the Loire River. This way, I think I will see the best of the northern and the southern options on the Via Lemovicensis. The off-road tracks I’m following are marvelous, but there’s some pushing to be done. 16% up, towards La Charité even 26% down….
A little stretch of about hundred meter was overgrown with thorns and fallen trees but mostly it was super pleasant

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In the collection ‘towns with beautiful names’ (The House of God).

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Along the Canal Du Nivernais
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Briefly, I cycle again along the Canal Du Nivernais.
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And in the collection ‘streets with beautiful names’ (Lost Time Street).
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Brilliant views. My track goes over the grassy edge on the right side of the picture.
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Hmm, ten pancakes for breakfast. Life is good.

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In La Charité-Sur-Loire
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The Loire River in La Charité.

After La Charité-Sur-loire, I could ‘ve taken the bike paths along the Loire River towards Nevers, but I rode these already in 2017, so I took the track through the hills.

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Nevers
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Nevers
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The Loire River outside Nevers.

After a visit to Nevers, my route followed a dirt track along the southern shore of the Loire river until I reached the ‘Canal Latéral A La Loire’ and the spectacular bridge which leads this canal over the L’Alier River just before it’s confluence with the Loire. It’s here my current route intersects with my ride through France in 2017.
This time, I headed to another canal, the ‘’Rigole d’Alimentation Des Lorrains’ which runs parallel along the L’Allier. Soon, I reached the tourist village Apremont-Sur-Allier. The whole town, but one house, belongs to the owner of the castle. He built the whole village in the same style and it is now on the list of one of the most beautiful villages of France.
Also the forest through which I ride for several kilometers after the village, belongs the the master of the castle.

I soon reached the Canal du Berry. This canal is not used anymore and at some places, between certain locks, completely dry.  At other places there is plenty of clear water, perfect for an afternoon swim.
There’s no paved cycle way alongside it, but most of the time the riding over the grassy borders is pretty good. After Sancoins I met a Belgian hiker from East-Flanders who walked every year a bit of the Santiago Way, this year from Vézelay to Limoges.

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Camping on a grassy spot just outside Grossouvre.  As you can see, I’m back in a Hilleberg tent, and love it.

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Canal Du Berry.
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This picture was taken in Saint-Amand-Montrond (Département Cher). I read somewhere this little town is the third biggest producer of gold and jewels in France (Cité de l’Or). I went to the cistercian abbey of Noriac, outside of town, but it was late afternoon and I found the entrance fee too heafty to justify a quick visit so I went back to Saint-Amand-Montrond and ate a big early diner in the McDonalds instead.    Three times, a stage in the Tour de France cycling race finished here. Twice the winner of the ride was disqualified. Lance Armstrong (later disqualified), Fabian Cancellara won (after Stefan Schumacher disqualified) and Mark Cavendish won in Saint-Amand-Montrond. It is also the birthplace of current topper Julian Alaphilippe who also goes to this McDonalds after his training ride.
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Just a fighter jet on a roundabout (Saint-Amand-Montrond). It doesn’t always have to be begonias. I think it’s a French Mirage made by Dassault. It is the ninth fastest fighter jet in the world (2.336 km/hr).

Next day, before Le Châtelet, I passed another Belgian hiker, this time from West-Flanders.
After Le Châtelet, it starts to get a bit hillier again. The last days have been cloudy, with a few drops of rain Actually perfect cycling weather, around 20 degrees C. But the legs feel tired. Still the result of six months living life as an office clerk, I guess. I ride shorter days of 25 and 45 kilometer. I’m not in a hurry and better to give the body some time to adapt again.

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Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) always has here statue at a prominent place in church.

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I can’t remember exactly what this place is, but I do remember I was listening to a podcast about cyclo-cross at the time I rode by.

La Châtre (département Indre) was bigger as expected with some nice old buildings, well stocked super markets and a very friendly and helpful tourist information. I considered for a moment staying in the city, famous for having Chopin walking around with his girlfriend George Sand. There’s a whole museum about that in the donjon of the town.

The advantage of being on a ‘historical pelgrim route’, is that it’s steeped in history and you reach it via the smallest ways. On this day, I visited the special church Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre, built in 1045 on the model of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem, the castle ruins of Cluis, I rode over the immense, old railway bridge outside Cluis before arriving in Gargilesse, another old, attractive village where the northern and southern lines of the Via Lemovicensis join again.
The steep climb out of Gargilesse is just a start of what’s to follow (climbs and descents in the range of 12 to 15%).

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The ‘Abbaye de Varrennes in Fougerolles (12th century)

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The church in Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre. The shrine contains two drops of the blood of Christ.
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Drain pipe of the basilica in Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre.
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Castle ruins in Cluis.
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The super beautiful old railway bridge outside Cluis.
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The bridge is open only to hikers and bikers (I guess you’d be allowed on a horse or a donkey as well).
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I’ve been told they do bungee jumping here as well. My  weak back hurts just thinking about it.

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The artists’ village of Gargilesse-Dampierre (département Indre). Writer George Sand lived here with here husband (not in this castle, but in an ordinary house). I guess Chopin came here secretly as well.
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Gargilesse
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Gargilesse
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Gargilesse

In Cuzion, I kept following the hiking trail, but it would be better to take the D45 here, because… well, the hiking trail is a real hiking trail here, steep down to the borders of La Creuse river. Between Eguzon and Crozant (département Haute-Vienne) is another hard stretch through the forest where mosquitos are eating me while I push the bike up the ridge again.

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Slowly I’m riding into the Limousin region. At the town of La Souteraine I went to the car wash to give the bike a quick cleaning. It looked awfully dusty from riding the past weeks on trails. You couldn’t even read the brand name anymore. At the church in the next village, Saint-Priest-La-Feuille, I met two Chzecs who were hiking from their home country to Santiago de Compostella. But as a virus delayed their departure, they had to take some trains already.
In the small hamlet of Chamborand I sat in the church for 1,5 hours. One may think “what on earth is happening to him that he retreats that long in a church on such a beautiful day ?”.
But, my reasons were more earthly than spiritually. I happened to find a plug in the church, and I needed to recharge the laptop, shaver and give the powerbank a little push, as it was emptied the last days and without sun, a solar panel doesn’t charge too much.
The same day, I still rode on and visited the 12th century Roman church église Saint- Barthélémy in Bénévent-l’Abbaye

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Church in Chamborand.

Saint-Goussaud is the highest point on the Via Lemovicensis. On top of the hill (670 m asl) stands the ‘Lanterne des Morts’ That same day, in the church in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, I met two Belgian hikers and a Belgian cyclist, both on their way to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  Have Belgians become the only international travelers nowadays ?  (or are we all fleeing a staggeringly badly run country ?)

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The ‘Lanterne des Morts’, the highest point on the Via Lemovicensis.

The Belgians were going to stay in town. I rode out to find a quiet spot somewhere. Riding into Saint-Léonard, you see from the top of the hill already the valley down below with the river ‘La Vienne’, and the next hill you inevitably have to tackle. These heights are not spectacular, say 200 meters, but either I am in a terrible shape, or it is getting old(er), or it’s something else, but I suffer to tackle the hills.
Hope it will improve.

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I skip Limoges. It’s a rather big town and I can’t imagine it ‘d be fun to ride in and out of it. Instead I take small roads and tracks going through places like Solignac and Meilhac to Lavignac, where I’m back on the route. After Chalus, a small town with a few ruins, I am riding on one of the best stretches so far. A few steep sections where I need to push, but a lot of riding is on good tracks through the forest all the way to Périgeux. I left the Via Lemovicensis a bit before town, because it uses big roads.  I go a bit south, towards the L’Isle River, then along a voie verte into town.  Nice town, by the way, Périgeux (capital of département Dordogne in the ‘Périgord Blanc).

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Abbey of Solignac, founded by Saint Éloi, future bishop of Noyon.
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Old bridge over La Briance river, Solignac.  A steep climb will follow.
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Big, fat sunflowers.
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I had excellent trails going towards Périgeux.

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St. Front’s Cathedral, Périgueux.

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The Via Lemovicensis goes straight south from Périgeux, but I choose a lesser used track, a bit further west, because it avoids the asphalt more. It turned out that lesser used also means more difficult so I was alternating a bit between my planned route, and options on bitumen. I couldn’t really alter the route in the gps, because the gps didn’t want to connect with the laptop anymore. I am very careful nowadays to buy only stuff with usb/micro usb connections, to avoid a plethora of cables, but the gps is still mini usb. In Bergerac (very nice town !), the fourth shop I visited finally had one (1 !) mini usb cable left.

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Centre National de Préhistoire, Perigueux
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Bridge for non-motorized traffic over the L’Isle.
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From the valley of the L’Isle, there was quite a climb over a hill towards the valley of the Le Vern.  It was totally worth the effort.  This picture doesn’t do justice to how beautiful it was.  I camped on top of the hill.
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Washing out the previous days’ socks.
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Bergerac, a very neat town.

I rode the steep climb up to Montbazillac, sat myself somewhere in the shade and started fine-tuning my route through the Landes. Three hundred kilometer with only 2.800 meters of climbing towards the border with Spain.

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The little town of Eymet.  I rode through in late afternoon.

Where I rode the last weeks a lot between grain fields, south of Bergerac, the vineyards were back again. Bergerac is a famous wine region on it’s own, and I’m not too far from Bordeaux either.
It’s not only vineyards, but also quite a lot plum trees I see here.

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The water tower, that’s where I’m heading for second breakfast 😀

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At La Réole, I crossed the Garonne River. A bit further south is the Canal Latéral à La Garonne. For a couple of dozen kilometers, I’m now riding the same tracks that I rode in 2018, when I was on my way from Barcelona to Bretagne.
After the town of Langon, I Ieave the river behind and turn more southwest, riding the ‘Piste cyclable Mios-Bazas’. I rode the whole thing in 2018. It’s really good. You can smell the fresh sea breeze already, mixed with the smell of the pine trees.

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Bridge over the Garonne in La Réole.
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Canal Latéral à La Garonne.

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Camping in the Landes. this is maybe not the most spectacular place, but I liked it a lot. It was completely quiet at night and the track was blocked by a fallen pine tree, so no car could come through. I saw it must have fallen quite a while ago, so anybody who would like to come through, probably knew the track was blocked and wouldn’t try, definetely not at night.

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After Léon, which attracts plenty of tourists for the nearby lake, I’m riding on the Vélodysee biketrack. It is crowded, but still ok. As you get nearer the coast, the biketrack leads just along a very, very busy road with a constant stream of traffic, before going into the the Atlantic Coast hell hole of Capbreton. It is terrible and apart from a few short stretches before Bayonne, things won’t improve anymore. But I knew this was going to happen. Head down, control the nerves and push thru it.

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The Atlantic Beach.  You can see the Pyrenees in the distance.

Once I’ve left Bayonne, There’s another car free bike trail along the “Nive” river and all is good again. I tried to find the smallest roads and track to the border, but sometimes I had to go on route départementales. It is astonishing how much traffic they carry. It’s like all the world wants to be in the little hill towns like Espelette or Sare. After Sare, quietness rules. Slowly I climb to the pass which will bring me over the Pyrenees and into Spain. For a handful of kilometer I am riding the same trail as I did when I rode the Transpirenaica in 2014.
Just beyond the border I find a good spot to pitch the tent for the night. The hills around me, the sky turning red as the sun sets, an almost half moon above the mountains….all is good.

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Bayonne

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The villages in French Basque Country make me think of Switzerland.

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Aaaah, the Pyrenees.  Here the lower slopes a bit north of Espelette about twenty kilometer inland from the the Atlantic Ocean.

Some figures between my starting point in Belgium and the Spanish border:

Total distance: 1.607 km
Total meters climbed: 16.702 meter
Highest point: 677 m (Lanterne des Morts)
Total time in the saddle: 121 hours and 18 minutes

Accommodation: all nights wild camping, except one night in the pilgrims gîte in Sommeval.

France: Cycling Along The Via Campaniensis

Route: Marcienne-Au-Pont – Reims – Sézanne – Troyes – Chablis – Vézelay

Some trips start riding away from home, some with a flight and this time with a train ride. I didn’t fancy riding through the built up northern part of Belgium again where it is so hard to find a wild camping spot. So, a train ride to Marcienne-Au-Pont it was. I never heard of the place before, but it happens to be the last train station before the city of Charleroi. A not very appealing city with all the problems of a place in decline. The suburb of Marcienne-Au-Pont did not escape it’s destiny.
A place to leave a.s.a.p.

Route Via Campaniensis
Map of the route I followed in this post from Marcienne-Au-Pont to Vézelay.
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Marchienne-Au-Pont, a grubby suburb of Charleroi, Belgium. A place as good as any to start a new adventure.

It was only a kilometer or so the Samber River and the bicycle path alongside it. Some works at the electricity plant forced me of the track and on the first hill after a few kilometer. Much sooner as expected. Months of sedentary life off the bike and in front of a laptop have taken their toll, resulting not only in eleven kg I gained, but also in my condition that has disappeared completely. It’ll take a few months to solve that again.

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Bike path along the Samber river.

Descending back to the Samber river, the next hours were easy riding along the bike path and later on the Ravel (old railway lines turned to bike paths). I passed Chimay, where the abbey is famous for making beer and cheese. I read somewhere it can’t be visited, and anyway, on my first day out, I didn’t have ‘time’ for that. The Ravel ends just outside Lompret. I have to tackle some typical steep Ardennes climb before arriving in Couvin where I stop to eat my last Belgian fries for a while. Upon leaving Couvin, a very steep climb leads into the ‘Bois de Petigny’, a forest where I planned to camp. 97 km on day one after that train ride in the morning. Tired, but happy I reached the place.

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The bike as it looks loaded up for this trip. No front panniers to allow easier access to narrow trails.
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Almost reaching the hills of the Ardennes.

There is a track going right south through the ‘Bois de Petigny’ towards the French border, but it’s private property. I have to descend towards Oignies-En-Thiérache, where I pick up the last part of the ‘Via Monastica’, a hiking trail in the network of Santiago-de-Compostella routes. The track climbes back into the forest, first sandy, than muddy due to the recent rains.

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This region was the scenery of heavy fighting in WWII. Even Hitler himself stayed in a bunker near hear for a while. This is an information board about the allied forces. I wonder how they would feel now, knowing they gave their today, for politicians and other complete imbeciles messing up the region, the world a good half century later.
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Still in Belgium, along the Via Monastica.
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Forest tracks in the Ardennes.

Back on a small asphalt road, I almost missed the non-descript sign marking the Belgian-French border. This is also the end of the ‘Via Monastica’ and the start of the ‘Via Campaniensis’ one of the trails through France towards Santiago-de-Compostella in Spain.

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I am not on my way to Santiago, but in my search for a quiet route through France I stumbled on this one, and why reinvent the hot water ?
Still, I invested a lot of time in researching the route, as it is important to be on dirt roads, away from traffic, but also to avoid the places you can’t pass with a bike.

Rocroi (also written Rocroy) is the first French village on the route. A fortified village in the shape of a star. No more easy Ravels, no more smooth Greenways. From now it’s up and down, just as the terrain goes. I exchanged the Belgian for the French Ardennes. The topography is the same.

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Rocroi fortifications

A few kilometer outside L’échelle, a village with a beautiful church and the ‘mairie’ in the castle, I already leave the Via Campaniensis for a while and pick up the GR654, the old and now lesser used hiking trail. In Signy-L’abbaye both routes join again and I continue on the Campaniensis.

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What a beautiful place name.
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Pleasant wild camping evenings in the French countryside.

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I will see plenty of different styles and architecture in the churches as I’m heading south. Many will be shared here 🙂

The landscape is slowly flattening a bit and the forested hills of the Ardennes make place for huge agricultural fields with sometimes amazing views but where the wind blows hard in the face.

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I’m sure you can imagine what the wind can do to you here, blowing at full force right in your face.
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The hundreds of wind mills I see all around are a proof strong winds must be common throughout the year here.

South of Hauteville follows such a stretch. Beautiful riding over good gravel, but that wind…. Camping places are hard to find here, let alone places that are a bit protected from the wind.

Sunday, quite some rain is predicted and I want to take a rest day, so need a good place for two nights. I find it in a small forest on a hill top just outside L’écaille.
The rest day is spent with resting(-) and reading a Poirot novel, ‘Appointment With Death’.

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You don’t have to go to Kazachstan, Mongolia or Australia for ‘big skies’.

Riding towards Reims, I am also leaving the French Ardennes and enter a new department: Marne.
Reims, a town of 185.000 people is a royal city. In the past, kings used to be crowned here. I cycle passed the first Champagne houses, passed the Porte de Mars, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame with her 2.300 statues. Ten para-commando’s, walking in pairs are guardening the cathedral against those who like to bring terror to our region. I also paid a visit to the Basilique Saint-Remi, with a statue of Clovis who was Christened in Reims (but that happened at the Cathedral, not here).

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Porte de Mars, Reims

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Reims
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Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Reims
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Basilique Saint-Remi, Reims
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Clovis

After Reims, I started riding through the vineyards that produce the famous champagne. Gradients are steep, 10, 12, 13%.
The village of Hautvillers is very touristic. Car drivers suddenly are aggressive. No time to lose, I guess. There ’s a church with a tomb for Dom Periginon, the man who supposedly fine-tuned the champagne making process. I think the Dom Periginon champagne house is next to it, but it was closed.
I am descending steeply through more vineyards towards the river Marne, and climb just as steep back up. Epernay, the ‘capital’ of the champagne region is to my left. It doesn’t look very inviting from up in the hills, so I don’t visit it. For the first time this trip, I climbed more than a thousand meter in a day, namely 1.001 meter.

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I ride through the outskirts of Sézanne, but don’t really visit the city.
There’s some really nice riding following now, first through a forest, later through endless fields with good views all round. The farmers are hard at work harvesting all the grain. I should have stopped here to camp somewhere. I still had some food, but wanted something nicer, so rode into Anglure where I find the first supermarket since quite a while. Problem is, after Anglure, you soon hit the ‘Canal de la Haute Seine’. Probably the easiest riding I will have in the foreseeable future, but also a bad place to find a spot for the night. One side is the canal, the other side commercial forest with impossible ground to pitch a tent. Eventually I find something next to a corn field. Should ‘ve continued riding a bit longer, because I see better options the next day.
I’m reading Peter Sagans book ‘My World’. I don’t think he really wrote it himself. It has some good bits, but most of it is…. well, just not well written.

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Troyes, the capital of Aube departement, is an old medieval town. Stunning cathédral, and way, way too many tourists in the small streets. I rode around a bit, looking at the sights, face mask and my bandana over it, than left town.

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The Cathedral in Troyes

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Typical houses in Troyes.

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Bang !!
That strong head wind I had the last days is back again as well.
After Laines-aux-Bois the road climbs towards Montaigu. Good views again towards the surroundings. A nice long ride through the forest follows, where I have to negotiate the bike passed or over dozens of fallen trees. Than, as you finally ride out of the forest, again, a nice view to the surrounding land below you.

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Monument aux résistants fusillés, Laines-aux-Bois (Monument to the Resistance fighters shot at Laines-aux-Bois). I passed this statue on the top of a hill, after a steep climb out of the village. The ‘Maquis de Montaigu Monument’ was erected in 1946. This place of memory called “Aux quatre de Montaigu” returns tribute to the Libé-Nord resistance movement during the Second World War.

I make it a short day and stop in the pelgrims gîte of Sommeval. Time to do some more laundry, recharge the things I can’t recharge with my little solar panel (laptop & shaver), make a nice meal and sit in the sun.
I redraw the route for tomorrow a bit. There’s an interesting highlight, a bit away from my original route, that I don’t want to miss.

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Early stop in charming Sommeval, where I would spend my only night along the pilgrims route in a gïte. Really enjoyed the place.
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Trying to keep a healthy diet (from time to time).

Crossing the ‘Canal de Bourgogone’, and a few hundred meters further on the ‘L’Armançon’ river, I not only left the Aube department and entered Yonne department, I also entered the ‘Bourgogne Franche-Compté’ region.

I’m heading towards the largest cistercian abbey in the world, which stands in the village of Pontigny. I found out about this place only a few days before my departure, and thought it worthwhile to make the detour. I left the Via Campaniensis in Ervy-Le-Chatel and rode via quiet country roads to the abbey. It’s a big thing, but not as big as some cathedrals I saw along the way. Definitely go out and have a look around the back for best views of the building. Inside, it is almost empty.

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Look at the little bee just flying into the picture at the right time.

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The Cistercian Abbey in Pontigny, the worlds’ largest.

After my visit to the abbey, I rode towards another famous place to pick up my original route again, Chablis. After the famous Champagne places, I am now in the most famous place of the Bourgogne wines. Vineyards on all hills, as far as the eye can see. Steep hills. Leaving town I have multiple hard stretches, up and down about 15%. It’s hard in what is the hottest day so far on this trip.

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‘Le Serein’ River, just outside the town of Chablis. Ice cold water to refresh yourself on a hot day.
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Steep, very steep climbing and descending through the vineyards.

I camped in the forest a few kilometer after Saint-Cyr-Les-Colons. It opened up to some fields with splendid views the next morning. An initially easy descent, becoming steeper and steeper led me into Cravant, a town that doesn’t seem to like cyclists as virtually every street has a sign specifically warning it s prohibited for bicycles.

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From Cravant I had two options to continue to Vézelay. The hard one, following the Via Campaniensis with, looking at the elevations, some more steep climbing, or an easy one for cyclists along the Canal Du Nivernais. Given the very hard work yesterday out of Chablis, I thought I earned a bit of a relaxed day and chose the latter option. Flat riding, picnic tables, the odd village…. a complete different experience then what I had the last days and a nice change. In Châtel-Censoir I left the canal and climbed over the hill towards Vézelay.

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Easy cycling along the Canal Du Nivernais, with good scenery.

Around the year 1.000, the relics of Saint (Maria) Magdalena were kept in the towns’ basilica to save them from the hands of the Saracens. In the 16th century, the most important relics were burned after all by the Huguenots (= Protestants). There are splendid views to the Morvan region from the park behind the basilica.

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The Sainte Marie-Madeleine Basilica from the 12the century in Roman architecture. It’s already on the list of historical monuments since 1840.

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View to the Morvan Region from Vézelay.

This is the end point of the Via Campanienses. Vézelay is also a start point for many ‘pelgrims’ on their way to Santiago de Compostella. There’s a popular route going via Le Puy-En-Velay, but I’ve been there a couple of years ago, so I go west of the Massif Central, following the ‘Via Lemovicensis.
More about that in the next part.