Part IV: Bask country (FR/ES)

To Saint Jean de Luz I have cycled 1,800km. I cross the Spanish border from Hendaye to Pamplona, starting with the Eurovelo but going off it after a few kilometers to take the national/departmental roads instead.

The rain comes down unforgivingly, turning the roads into rivers that soak my feet as I cycle. In St Jean de Luz the rain is so intense, so thick that it might as well be snowing. The wind causes the rain not to fall vertically but to come from all sides. I stop and sprint to take shelter in front of an appartment building, watch the spectacle of an angry sky throwing lightning at cars which stop midway in the road and surfers and kids and dogs all in a strange chaos.

I meet a man from Bask country whose name is Ignaki. He has a black earring and a rough smile, he is my gateway to Spain. He tells me the beaches in Spain are dirty which is why he comes to St Jean de Luz, we drink red wine and try to communicate through drawings as we don't speak a shared language. He teaches me Bask, kaixo for hello, ura for water, and kampainako denda for tent. His eyes become wide when I tell him I tend to sleep in people's gardens. In Spain this is not done, he warns.

He warns me for danger, without using words.

Heading for Pamplona a strange sadness comes over me, a home-sick feeling but not for the Netherlands but for France, even when technically I still am in France. Bask country is a place of its own, it isn't France or Spain.

The Pyrenees are with me, not a distant promise but a present looking to test my strength. Often the road is too steep for my to cycle as I don't have enough gears. So I walk, soaked in sweat and with painful shoulders not made to push this weight. I get water from a farmer who warns me to camp close, as higher up it will be very cold at night. I stop at a public parking place and look over the valley and the highway very far below.

I share the parking with two Spanish families, one of the girls brings me a bottle of beer and asks me if I am sola , all alone. They invite me to eat with them and teach me that to call your mother a whore is something good when eating and we laugh at my attempts to speak Spanish. It's a warm welcome to a country that is a complete mystery to me.

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Col de Belate

The top of Belate is fields and cows. Symbols and signs indicate the Caminho to Santiago passing by here. A man walks towards me and asks where I am going, I tell him to Pamplona and he raises his eyebrows, that's very far away. Two hours later I enter the city, she welcomes me with industry, trucks, roundabouts and apartment complexes. The harsh ugliness makes me uncomfortable, like every time I enter a city, and I hope I will get out soon.

Pamplona

The center of the city is beautiful, small roads with colorful houses and wooden shutters, purple red and orange. Shops display Ernest Hemingway and people are kind here. In cafe IRuna he spent many days with red wine, I do not look for the cafe as I want to keep the image from The Sun Also Rises , and eat at a tavern imagining how my favorite writer spent his afternoons here. Outside an avalanche of chaos, now the streets are empty and no one dares talk to each other.

The air is unbearably dry and warm, my skin a sticky mess attacked by thick flies. The bites from the night in the skatepark have become red and bloody.

But there is a promise of life here; people drive by and laugh, some honk and clap. There are many cyclers here, they wish me a buen camino - a greeting I will meet more often as I make my way west.

Er loopt een eenzame hond over straat, verder is er niemand. Bij de fontein was ik mijn gezicht en mijn lichaam met het ijswater uit de berg. Lapoblacion licht boven op de berg, vanaf hier is het dalen en zal ik het landschap worden, nu kan ik haar observeren.

A man with a dirty blue t-shirt and a polka dot dog looks across the valley and laughs at a farmer stuck with his tractor in the field. He has greasy hair and thick lines in his face, much he has seen. He smells of sour wine and smiles a toothless smile. He talks without me having to understand, he's drunk and happy to share the weight of his soul.

I explain to him that I would like to camp on the mountain and he is glad to take on the mission. We lift my bike and bring it high up the mountain. The bike is very heavy and brambles grow everywhere, cutting my ankles each step we take. I am not really enjoying the quest anymore, as I'd seen many places fine to camp but the man is taken with excitement,

"look here!" "or here!" "or HERE!"Mira, mira

Then I stand in a field of brambles and thistles. It's a terrible place to put a tent but I cannot get my bike out of the field alone. I descend to the village, get the man, and together we take my bike down again. I get to the place I had been a few hours earlier, set up my tent, exhausted.

Night valls over the valley
Breakfast in bed, outside storm
The storm floods over the valley

The storm makes biking difficult but the landscape is so beautiful I hardly notice the wind. It's cold and each lovely village I meet tempts me to stay. "Tomorrow it will be worse," a man called Fernando tells me. He lives in Baños de Ebro with his wife, they give me food and speak a lot, I say si and the conversation carries on without me understanding much of it.

"In Rioja the wine is not as good as here in Bask country," Fernando explains.

He gets a bottle out of the garage and tells me not to drink too much while cycling. Later I send them a postcard, receive a reply from the municipality that said persons do not live in the village.

After Vicente I go under the highway and in the blink of an eye the landscape is robbed of all her diversity to become a monotonous ode to industrial agriculture. The grapes look miserable, they get no love and thus no life. I cycle pas brick structures, never finished. The smell of corpses overtakes me and I am reminded of the north of France, though that was a more organized death than here. Between the rubble, a few dozen sheep stand on, through, by each other covered in shit. Two men stand by them, talking, seemingly angry at life and anything still attempting to live.

A few scattered houses form a village and I ask for a place to sleep. The man looks at me with an air of reproach and tells me to go to Santo Domingo, there's place for pellegrinas like you he says. I take it as a sign to consider the Camino to Santiago path and cycle to Santo Domingo where it rains and people hurry along the streets.

Two bitter faces await me at the albergue. They are not happy to see me, or anyone perhaps. I pay and need to be gone by 8am. There is no food and in one hour the doors will close. My bikebag is broken, I am broken, and do not feel like going on so shove my clothes into the garbage bags the two faces hold out for me. They spray my shoes against Corona.

In the bathroom I meet another biker with broken bike-bags. He comes from Switzerland and speaks of loneliness, he misses people to talk to and wants to stop cycling.

The chickens of the albergue stink. They cry in their small cage and also do not want to be here. I tie knots around my broken bike bags with the straw rope I had carried from the Netherlands and say good-bye to the Swiss boy. He will go seek known acquaintances, I will go forward to the unknown. It sounds romantic but it isn't. It's wet clothes, a wet stinky tent, broken bike bags, a broken body that got no sleep, and a bitter taste that only a city can give. Even so, I wouldn't have it any other way. albergue