Is the Camino del Norte tough? Yes! Yes it is. Long days and lots of up and down. Add to that some rocky, muddy, rain soaked trails and you have long days that feel even harder than 15 miles/24 kilometers should.
We had cloudy weather, but still mild. We hiked in some light rain, and some nice sun. It warmed up as our week went on, and by the time some of us hiked all the way into Bilbao on Saturday, it was warm. 80f/26c
Wait, some of us hiked into Bilbao? Yes some of us. One of us, me, Cheryl, ended up with tendinitis in my left foot. The day from Guernica to Zamudio was increasingly painful so I took a train the last short day to Bilbao, with Cecily.
When we decided to leave San Francisco and travel it was our hope we would be able to meet up with friends and go on adventures together. This was an adventure, and we were so happy to share it with such good friends. Christine and I met the first day at University a good many years ago. The joy of long time friends.
Rich and I will be in Lisbon next, after a few days enjoying Bilbao with Christine and Cecily, and on to New York City and New England. Visiting friends and family there and in Chicago, and then, Thanksgiving with family. Looking forward to that very much. Happy fall.
It’s been over a year since we’ve been nomading, vagabonding, wandering – whatever it is we’re doing. The transitions can be very challenging, city to county side, country to country, bike touring to backpack travel again. How do we do it without burning out, or driving each other bonkers? Our secret superpower is a home base in France, thanks to wonderful friends who hopefully know how much we appreciate it. There we can swap gear, relax in familiar and comfortable surroundings (Oh, comfy couch, we love you.), and actually be in different rooms from each other! For hours!
We are super fortunate to have a private home where we can recharge, but we also have places which are familiar and comfortable that provide the same mental break. Bristol, in the UK. A city we love and have been to three times. Hove/Brighton will be one of those places as well. Both have good public transit, lots to do and see and good for getting around the area. Izmir, Turkey is probably one of the places we’ll go back to again and feel happy knowing our way around, and what we like to do and eat. Our home town of San Francisco, of course. A place where you can navigate without a map and know the bus routes and bike routes. That feels great, wherever it is.
But wait, how did we get here? As Rich mentioned in the previous post, Hove to the Haute Savior takes about 13 not always easy steps, with loaded touring bikes. Trains, a ferry, rides to and from hotels, to and from trains, trains to trains, and finally a lift the last few steep miles. We love the UK, but the French have really zoomed ahead of the British with safe, comfortable bike facilities, especially in urban areas and to connect town and cities. From getting off the ferry in the dark and rain, and directly on to a protected cycle way to our hotel, to the next morning riding the riverside path that led us into Caen for our train to Paris, it felt easy and relaxed. We both breathed a sigh of relief. Oh yeah, this is fun! Bike touring with no safe route is so stressful. Bike touring with lovely pathways and signage? A joy.
Let’s take a moment to recognize what an amazing transformation Paris has undergone. 10k at rush hour with loaded touring bikes and it was not at all stressful. Even though we probably caused some near misses as we stopped at red lights and the cyclists behind us kept going – there was no cross traffic so they were being safe, just not expecting the big old loaded American touring bikes to actually stop! We got the hang of it. The quiet of Rue de Rivoli was like a forest bath. The sound of voices and bike tires. No loud engines. No car horns. Just the lovely sound of people. I’ll say it again, cities aren’t loud, internal combustion engines are loud.
So, now that our legs, backs, and bottoms are totally adapted to bike touring, after four months of travel by and with bikes, let’s mix it up!
While down in town at the weekly market, where we walked with our packs which have scallop shell Camino patches on them, a young man said to us – you have a long way to go. And then after I used my one good French phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”, he said it again in English. (Oh, to be bilingual.) Why thank you for thinking we could and would walk all the way from the French border with Switzerland to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, but no. We will actually fly to Bilbao.
We try quite hard to not fly places. This will be our first flight since returning from Turkey in May. Unfortunately, avoiding air travel means you must have time, and more money than the cheap flights cost. But, we do what we can, and sometimes our chosen lifestyle means airplanes.
With packs on and trekking poles in hands we started walking. And walking some more. Hopefully we’ll be in good enough hiking shape for the long Camino days.
What a place to be able to train for the Camino. The Lower Alps are simply stunning. Varied terrain, nicely signposted routes, amazing views. And beautiful cows. Making all that delicious cheese.
By the time you read this we will be headed to Spain. We’re meeting dear friends from California to hike part of the Camino del Norte. Adiós y Buen Camino!
Welcome back and sorry for the delay! After our wonderful 6+ weeks of exploring Ireland, we left Dublin under the threat of rain to catch an early boat to Holyhead, Wales. Our ultimate destination was a house and cat sit stay in Hove, on England’s historic south coast, and part of the lively Brighton and Hove municipality.
Luckily the rain managed to hold off while we rode to the massive Dublin port and terminal area, and the Irish Sea was thankfully calmer than predicted. We also decided to try out Irish Ferries instead of Stena Line, but we’ll fill you in on all the nuances of our year of ferry, train and bike travel in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.
Since we didn’t have time to ride all the way from Wales to Hove, we decided to train from Holyhead to London and then spend 3 relatively short days cycling to Hove via scenic back routes and footpaths. So we boarded the train in Holyhead, and after one transfer arrived in London.
But unlike our last ride across London, which was on a quiet Saturday morning, we had 17km of pure evening rush hour riding from Euston Station to Wimbledon. I had found a nice guest house in Wimbledon that was bike friendly, walkable to dinner, and much cheaper than any part of Central London. It also got us a bit on our way towards Hove, and allowed a bit of the stretching of the legs after the ferry and train time.
The irony of our ride was that Central London was still easy peasy due to light traffic, great bikeways, and smooth pavement. But as soon as we left the core and headed southwest into SW3, 11, and 18, the roads got a lot busier and the bike accommodation was less. The reimagined cores of global cities are now often ahead of their more suburban car oriented neighbors. Regardless, we made it to Wimbledon just fine, and were pleased to have a long 13-hour travel day over! It was then an easy walk to a great pub (The Alexandra) for dinner and some libations. We liked that the Alexandra had a sports side, non sports area, and upstairs loft, so you could choose your setting based on your mood. (Or passion for Arsenal or Liverpool!)
We had been to Wimbledon a few times when staying in London, as the area is nice, and walking though Richmond Park via Wimbledon Common is lovely. With easy train connections to central London, it’s a good alternative neighborhood to stay in if you want a bit less hubbub and cost than central London too.
There is no single “route” from London to Brighton and no National cycle network route that gets you there directly unless you divert fairly far east or west. You can head west via the NCR4 and 223 (rail trail-flat!) or east via the Avenue Verte, which is a good route to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS Ferry. We still went fairly directly and used Komoot, and a route on the Cycle.Travel site. I then tweaked each daily route to try to avoid busier roads, take in some sights, and hit sections of quiet lanes tagged by Komoot users. The big advantage of cycle touring on a leisurely schedule is that it is always easier to lengthen a journey and day as desired, but not the opposite. If you’re more time pressed, then you often have fewer choices and can be forced to take busier roads and ride through the worst of the weather.
The main roads south of London and in Sussex are all pretty busy, so we were happy to have the time to explore via smaller routes. It was also supposed to be rainy, and rain it did, so our schedule allowed us to duck under cover for showers, and not fret about excessively long days out in the wet. About 40-50k a day, but it did feel much longer on wet hilly roads, muddy paths, and stops at little sights along the way. Slow travel for sure.
One challenge of routing via Komoot or OS maps is knowing what the real condition of a footpath or bridleway will be. They vary widely! Smooth forest floor, decomposed rock or grass can be easy. Roots, mud, briars, and kissing gates or stiles can be a real challenge….your best bet is to look at notes/markers people have tagged in Komoot and be ready to turn around and divert back to paved roads as needed.
Even with our planning; we inevitably were on some busy stretches of A and B roads to connect up the quiet lanes, but they were not too bad for short stretches, but not recommended for longer distances, with large trucks and often mixed/no shoulders. Some A roads have bike lanes indicated on Google (light green solid lines), but these can consist of 2-3 foot shoulders, and with grit, wet roads, and high speed traffic, are not really anywhere you WANT to be. There is still a lot of work to do in the UK to make safe cycling networks complete and practical for those other than hard core sporty types. Or those with a lot of time (like us-:).
The other variable on footpaths is how they are maintained, as clearly some landowners don’t really seem to want to accommodate the rightful access. But don’t get me wrong, the public footpath and bridleway network in the UK is an amazing thing and really allows unfettered and peaceful walking almost anywhere you want to go. We really missed this in Ireland. So as we build our perfect country, we’d take the footpath system from the UK, and the cycling access from the Netherlands.
All in all, the three days were very nice despite the rain. Sussex countryside is beautiful and the rains of the past few weeks had regreened the landscape from the late summer drought. (But not enough to fill the reservoirs again!)
We arrived a bit early for our house sit, so decided to head to Hove Park, which is a very nice central park with a great cafe. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly cyclist who inquired about our travels and told us that would love Hove. Which we did.
Brighton and Hove have a temperate and pleasant oceanside climate, long established LGBTQ community, art scene, good restaurants , a walkable grid, and connectivity by bus and train. It’s hilly with both broad slopes and steep valleys that frequently reward you with views. It’s also flush with parks and borders the large South Downs National Park. It really reminded me of San Francisco and is a place we would consider staying awhile.
The rail connectivity means you can be at Gatwick airport in 30 minutes, and London in less than an hour. And you can even go all the way through London to Cambridge in 2 hours without a transfer. Getting to France is easy via Eurostar (from St. Pancras) and ferries from Portsmouth and Newhaven to the Normandy Coast.
So, with such great connectivity, we met friends from London on the Thameslink to hike, a friend in London for the day, and other friends in Worthing, an easy train ride west. It was also fairly bike friendly, especially along the coast. It was wonderful to get so much social time with friends.
The great waking and SDNP adjacency came in handy as we mostly parked our bikes and walked and hiked from our house sit in every direction (except the ocean). The comfy double decker bus system, with USB ports at every seat and easy contactless payment via credit card or Apple Pay (capped day fares!), was the most fun, especially along the coast.
The two weeks flew by, and we had to pack up, clean the apartment, and say goodbye to the sweet cat we had bonded with over two weeks. So we caught a train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Caen and another 3 day journey via train and bike to the Valleé Verte.
But where to next you ask? Let’s just say we’ll need all the walking fitness we can muster. But another update from Cheryl is coming soon. Bon Voyage!
We moved on from lovely Liverpool late last week and arrived Keswick by train and bus (locally pronounced Kehz-ick) on a spectacularly snowy day in the Lake District.
We were very glad that our professional bus driver was plying the slushy mountain roads, especially on the sheer edges of deep lakes; nevertheless, we did take note of the emergency window systems on the bus! (avoiding what I called a double decker bus watery grave…-;)
Our decision to base in Keswick was based on a number of factors, but primarily that we could get there by public transit, and numerous lines route from there to other parts of the National Park. It also has a few museums, nice shops, and many services in town, including a great regional supermarket, Booth’s.
Oh, it also happens to be very quaint, with a lovely pedestrianized core and footpaths heading in every direction, including along the large Derwant Waters, what we in America might call a lake!
We actually wavered a bit about whether we “needed” to rent a car, but then read about many others visiting car-free and thriving with the great regional transit system. After 6 days here, we know it was 100% the right decision for us.
Our decision also considered the fact that this area is heavily impacted by car traffic, much like the National Parks in the US. Nevertheless, the car parks and road are still surprisingly busy here mid week in January, as driving is still seen as the easiest and best way for most to experience the park. Despite some pay parking in many of the towns and villages, the roads are still free and there is an abundance of free parking available.
But it’s not just about the carbon footprint of driving for us. We’ve seen the impacts automobile congestion, noise, and pollution have on communities. When practical, we don’t want to contribute unnecessarily to the problem. Although traffic is fairly light in the middle of winter now, it apparently is extremely congested most of the year, and a nightmare in holiday periods.
The typical scenic two lane roads barely fit two bus widths (they slow to pass) or even some large cars and trucks! Luckily most people in the UK still drive pretty small cars, but they still impact the safety and experience of the bikes and walkers that also use most roads. Many drivers here go too fast for conditions and it can be nerve wracking even on small unmarked country lanes.
National Parks and holiday areas have specific problems, and many have now taken to managing traffic through various methods, such as fees, closures, parking management, and shuttles/transit. The Lake District National Parks is no different and really is trying to address the problem by providing a really good bus system at fairly reasonable (but not cheap) prices.
The buses are reliable, extensive, clean, and even a joy with double deck service on the some lines and 1/2 open top double deck service on two shorter lines through very scenic areas. So the buses really do double as sightseeing and transit for locals and visitors alike.
The other key is easy payment. The Stagecoach bus system offers payment by any tap cars/Apple Pay, etc for single/day trips or you can buy a loadable smart card right from the driver £1 fee for week or month passes.
We bought the 7 day gold pass form £29 each, which allows unlimited travel on the entire systems, which extends to the coast and all the gateway/border cities of the whole district.
The only suggestion we would make to the Stagecoach bus system is to make the pass an 8-day or 7+1 trip pass, as many holiday rentals are 7-nights, so you generally have 8 days of travel. We are going to have to buy another day pass for our last day out of the park…. a minor annoyance. Let’s make this an even easier decision for people.
So we highly recommend coming to the Lake District in the winter. Although the transit system runs a little less frequently, and a few of the lines to very remote areas are peak season only, you will have a lot of the typically crowded places to yourself. Just make sure to always bring your waterproofs, and leave the car behind.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel …a name hard to forget, especially in Bristol, England. As a professional Civil Engineer, it was so refreshing to see an engineer given their proper dues, as it’s usually the Architects that get (or take?!) all the credit for innovative projects. And boy did I K Brunel do it all: Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain, and my personal favorite, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His designs are credited with revolutionizing public transport and modern engineering.
We started our Brunel tour at the fantastic SS Great Britain, which is a magnificently preserved and restored steamship that Brunel designed in the 1830s and was the largest steamship in the world when it launched in 1843.
I think the best way to see the ship is to start below the water in the dry dock. It allows you to appreciate the scale of the ship, as well as understand how the unique hull was constructed and is being preserved. It takes a massive array of dehumidifiers running 24/7 to keep any further corrosion of the steel hull at bay. The array keeps at about 20% relative humidity, similar conditions to “the deserts of Arizona”, and paralleling the path of millions of other retirees being preserved in the Sunbelt.
You also can see how they moved the ship from its near demise in the Falkland Islands in 1970 and dragged it all the way back home to Bristol on a special barge. But the dedication to restoration didn’t stop at the exterior of the ship. The cabins have been fully restored with the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the ship when it served as a passenger ship to the US and Australia.
The Steerage class quarters are strikingly small, but as a docent pointed out, still offered those crammed in 4 1/2 foot bunks a chance at better conditions and more opportunity in the New World. Life in the early industrial revolution days of Britain was hard. The crew barely had it better, as had to toil all hours shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the ship going over grueling 3 week to 6 month journeys. Of course first class was quite grand and the Titanic-like dining hall is now available as a wedding venue, minus the swells and nausea of the open seas. (As it turns out, Brunel’s hull design was a little unstable…until a later wood extension was added to to the keel)
Bristol and Bath were both a pleasant surprise. The crisp fall weather and foliage were perfect for exploring on foot and both cities offer fascinating sites, museums, culture, and vibrant food scenes.
Bath is like a living Georgian museum, pleasantly frozen in the 1770’s, while Bristol offers a modern revitalized waterfront, lots of history, and more diversity, all supported by a large University population. The American Museum has beautiful views and a offers a unique British perspective on American history and culture. The Roman Baths are the big attraction and surprisingly engaging with brilliant holograms in each room and an audio tour featuring humor of Bill Bryson.
After 3 nights up the hill in Bath near the Royal Crescent, we decided to stay just 7 minutes away from the Temple Meads station in Bristol. The Station itself is worth a look, and yes, I K Brunel provided the base design and inspiration for the main station as the terminus of his Great Western Railway from Paddington in London. How was he so many places? (4 hours of sleep helped apparently)
After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we decided to explore more neighborhoods and walked out through the pleasant and upscale Clifton village. We walked back through the University and along Gloucester Road, which is full of an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants. 8 miles overall and great walking up and down the undulating hills, with constant surprises and new views.
But the hands-down thrill of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. A structure that highlights the need for visionary technical leadership and perseverance. Brunel’s original design took over 35 years to be built. He succeeded in a design competition in 1830 with his proposed bold 700- foot steel chain suspension span. This span allowed a full span of the gorge, which was key to the intrinsic beauty of the structure in the unique context of the Avon River Gorge. But many, including his father, doubted that such a span could be built. Unfortunately, cost overruns and contractor financial trouble (sound familiar) put the half completed project on hold by 1843. Luckily, the bridge was finally completed in 1864 with the assistance of other designers, but sadly 5 years after Brunel died. And like many of his bold designs, the ultimate bridge required some design modifications to the deck to make it stiffer, as his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.
But his vision survives and his grand engineering projects are still serving millions of people today. So anytime someone doubts that a large infrastructure project can ever be finished or if a new design innovation can really work, just shout out the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or say it three times if you can!
For years we’ve been thankful that we live a city life that makes travel less frightening than it is for some travelers. Three things we do on a regular basis here in SF make our trips easier, less daunting, and help us have a wider variety of experiences.
Buses. Being transit friendly makes getting around a joy. My favorite transit app is Citymapper. Citymapper has opened up a world of transit that used to be quite challenging to figure out. In London, like most tourists, we would be tied to the underground, with the confusing but understandable and always available map, but now, with Citymapper we use buses a lot. You can plug in your destination and be directed to the best bus routes, shown where the stop is, and the app will ping you before it’s time for you to get off the bus. No worries about missing your stop. The best part about riding a bus is being above ground and getting to appreciate the city – especially from the top of a double decker.
Bikes (of course!). Ever since I first used the Washington DC bikeshare while there for a conference years ago, and had my eyes opened about what a game changer bikeshare is, I believe that bikeshare, especially electric assist bike share, is the ultimate urban transportation. Fast, convenient, clean, space efficient. We’ve ridden bikeshares in SF, Boston, Glasgow, London, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Honolulu, Aspen and are looking forward to many more rides in many more cities. Similar to being comfortable on public transit, being a confident and safe urban cyclist opens up a lot of experiences you might otherwise miss. If you aren’t a comfortable urban cyclist I highly recommend taking an urban skills bike course.
Walking. Here in San Francisco we think nothing of walking a mile or two to dinner and home again. Yesterday we walked 1.2 miles to our dentist (Thank you Nikki! You rock!) had a Ramen lunch, and walked home again. While traveling we cover a lot of miles sightseeing. Our base level of walking fitness serves us well. Before traveling it’s a great plan to walk a lot so you’re ready to do 6 or 7 miles exploring a new city, and to make sure that your walking shoes are up to the task of helping you explore. And have your Citymapper app ready to help you get home if you need a boost!
Being flexible with your transportation will help you have so many more experiences than when you are limited to driving or taking taxis. And, having those options will give you the confidence you need to get out and explore. Some of our best times have come not from a planned destination, but from a serendipitous find while out on bikes, buses or foot.