Category Archives: Europe


Creepy sanctuary

Aketegi, another Spanish provincial highpoints in a really Basque part of the country, was my last peak before flying home. Waking up in our weird hotel, Mike and I drove north and west through the mountains toward the north coast, at first on the autovia, another spectacular alternation of bridges and tunnels. It cut straight through the hills from the dry southern side to the permanently wet and dreary north, under villages, farms, and fields. Once on the side-roads, we wound crazily in and out of valleys on a narrow strip of unstriped pavement, traveling much farther and more slowly than the straight-line distance on the map would suggest. We briefly saw some limestone cliffs through the clouds and mist, but for the most part the drive was free of scenery. The road signs were all in Basque and Spanish, with the towns having seemingly unrelated Basque and Spanish names, and the latter were usually crossed out in green spray-paint. Spain is more of a passive-aggressive agglomeration than a nation…

Creepy in detail

According to Peakbagger, the place to start hiking for Aketegi is Arantzazu, a large Catholic sanctuary and tourist attraction, and a vision straight out of a horror film. The sanctuary’s architecture would be disturbing even in the best conditions, lacking only the twisted, screaming faces of sinners on its spindly, spiky, hostile towers. When we arrived mid-morning, ours was the only car in the large lot, and we were the only visible people. The local businesses, one of which I hoped would sell food, and the supposedly full guest house where we had tried to make a reservation, were all closed and locked, and the open public restroom was foul and unlit. The thick mist and thin drizzle made it impossible to see more than 100 yards.

Arantza zu?! Gipuzkoa, LOL!

Tired and suffering from caffeine withdrawal, I almost stayed in the car, but Mike convinced me to go for a walk in the rain. Thanks to a downloaded GPS track, we managed to head in the correct direction through town, where we found the only open business, a bar that seemed to be serving both breakfast (coffee and pastries) and dinner (beer and salty snacks). I ordered coffee and some food, and felt much better about the day as the caffeine hit my brain. Again following the track, we found the correct dirt road taking us out of town, which wound through mossy woods toward who-knows-what, slowly deteriorating into a trail. A couple of signs along the way featured cartoon Basque people doing characteristically Basque things like being friars, herding sheep, and pronouncing words with too many k’s, x’s, and z’s.

Forest track

The trail/road eventually led to an open plateau, where we continued along some confusing roads in the general direction of the summit. We eventually reached another bar/cafe, again showing some activity, but it seemed like a locals-only joint. Somehow vehicles reach this plateau, and I was a bit concerned that we would get in trouble for crossing someone’s land or harassing their sheep. After following the main road a bit too far, we cut cross-country back toward the track leading to Aketegi, passing through rolling territory dotted with limestone outcrops looking a bit like tombstones.

Summit views

What is apparently the correct track ends at someone’s house, where we saw a car, no people, and an aggressive but thankfully chained dog. Passing quickly by the barn, we eventually picked up some braided trails with occasional pain markings leading toward a ridge. It had been drizzling for awhile, and the limestone, mud, and grass were all slick, making for careful going in my worn out trail runners. The sheep had made a maze of tracks, which became much more confusing on the other side. Navigating purely by phone, we made our way up the best sheep-paths toward the summit, trying not to slip and coat ourselves with a mixture of clay mud and sheep droppings. We finally reached the narrow ridge crest near a summit marker, from which we could see a bit of grass to one side, and mist and a cliff to the other. I visited both the marker and the red dot on Peakbagger, marked the latter green, and considered my work done.

Basque horses

Returning down the slick sheep paths, we found a trail that worked its way above the barn and angry dog to join the driveway lower down, and took something more like the correct path back to the cafe/bar. Life was finally emerging as we returned, and we saw a few hikers in raincoats, plus some short, stocky horses with hairy fetlocks and long tails, apparently domesticated but serving no purpose. Back in Arantzazu, the clouds had lifted enough to see the tops of the creepy towers, and a few tourists were wandering around. The businesses were still closed, but there was a table selling local goods near the parking lot, where Mike bought some filled doughnut holes. There was no ticked on the windshield, but someone had cordoned off the car with tape and bollards. We packed up, then I quickly took down and replaced the tape for us to drive out. The clouds had lifted enough to see more of the surrounding valleys and cliffs, but this did little to dissuade me that Gipuzkoa is a real-life horror movie.

Tourmalet and Tres Reyes

Tres Reyes summit castle

I had to make some miles to meet Mike in Tarbes (best pronounced in the most American way possible, with a strong “r” and voiced final “s”), but thought I might be able to squeeze in Mount Rouch, a prominent peak on the Spanish border. I rode up narrow pavement and rough dirt (closed to cars) to where the trailhead was supposed to be, and found the trail, but it looked overgrown and steep, and I was too tired from the previous two days’ unaccustomed hiking to fight it. I instead took a nap under a bush, then headed down ever-larger roads to the north. After following a mix of roads and bike routes to Salies-du-Salat, I avoided the main highway on some rolling country roads to the south, arriving in Tarbes with some time to spare.

Road to Mont Rouch

Mike arrived from Spain late that evening, and we took off from the hotel at a reasonable hour to ride the famous Col du Tourmalet. The road goes from nowhere to nowhere, connecting two roads that are not major highways, so I was not expecting much traffic. But for some reason the road through Bagnères-de-Bigorre was solid cars, as was the road on down the other side through Lourdes, with its famous cathedral. The pass itself was impressive enough, winding and fairly high, and it attracted plenty of cyclists, but it was probably my least favorite day of riding in the Pyrenees. The Col de la Pierre Saint Martin and Port de Lers to either side are much more fun to ride, despite being lower and less famous. I felt bad for dragging Mike far from home and over to the expensive side of the border for such a disappointing checklist ride, but I had no reason to anticipate it.

Evening on Pierre Saint Martin

Returning to Tarbes, we somehow crammed both bikes into his new car, then drove back over… the Col de la Pierre Saint Martin! It was evening, and the sun cast long shadows and illuminated the cloud deck below us on the French side. The refugio on the Spanish side of the pass was nearly empty, so we got a whole dorm room to ourselves for not much money. The hosts and clientele all spoke Basque, and while they were not hostile, it did feel like a different country, a feeling reinforced by their early hours — the restaurant and bar closed at 9:00! Mike asked the host about how to reach Mesa de los Tres Reyes, the highpoint of Navarre and our goal for the next day.

Tres Reyes from hostel

Uncertain about the afternoon weather, we started fairly early the next morning, hiking down a sort-of trail where the map and refuge-keeper had indicated. However the area is lousy with cows, and the grass grows quickly, so the trail was impossible to follow initially. We eventually found one of several paths leading toward the peak, intermittently marked with painted stripes on rocks and trees. Different colors and patterns indicate different levels of trail, from main GRs to local routes, but none seemed especially popular. The terrain is immensely confusing, with small defiles leading between short limestone crags, and dense deciduous forest. Fortunately the map continued leading us in the right direction, and we eventually emerged in an open valley below a long ridge leading to the summit.

Tres Reyes scramble

We passed a couple of other hikers on the faint trail to the ridge, then continued along the rolling crest. Once the ridge turned toward the summit, it became sheer on its right side, dropping off to rolling country and the plain of northern Spain (in which, by the way, the rain does not mainly stay). Some sort of eagle cruised by below us, seemingly oblivious. The summit looked far away, with some scrambling along the ridge. I would have enjoyed it, but after two days without caffeine the withdrawal made everything seem pointless.

Tres Reyes summit castle

At the last notch before the summit we found a much better trail, probably coming from another refugio to the south, along with a minor crowd. We continued past the summit, then followed bits of use trail up a minor scramble to the top, where we found a group of young Spaniards, who were characteristically loud and self-absorbed. We found a spot amidst the noise to eat lunch, I took a few photos, then we descended more directly to the trail before returning mostly the way we had come. Mike had hoped to tag Aneto, the Pyrenees’ highpoint, the next day, but with the forecast calling for thunderstorms, we decided to settle for Aketegi, the highpoint of what turned out to be an even more Basque province. We drove for awhile toward Spain’s northern coast, then found another cheap-ish and very strange motel for the night.

Pic des Trois Seigneurs

South from Trois Seigneurs

[And now back to the Pyrenees… — ed.]

Waking in my cold camp downstream from the Port d’Envalira, I swiped around on my map, looking for an interesting way to get from where I was back to Tarbes in the right number of days. The quickest route would head downstream to the plains at Foix, then turn west to grind out the miles, but I could hike again, and had time to do a few final peaks. Looking around for prominence points on Peakbagger — usually a good way to find summits with a view — I spotted the Pic des Trois Seigneurs a reasonable distance to the northwest.

Ariège mine

I followed the N-20 down the Ariège River to Tarascon-sur-Ariège, where I resupplied, then turned west on a side road up another river valley to Viadessos. There the road splits, with most branches dead-ending at various villages or ski resorts. However one branch continues over the Port de Lers to the Arac River, passing the trailhead for Trois Seigneurs along the way. OpenStreetMaps has surprisingly good coverage of shops and water sources, so I was expecting to find water in Viadessos, but the fountains and taps it indicated were all shut down. I had first noticed this in the French Alps between Alpe d’Huez and Grenoble, where signs explained that this was due to the hot, dry summer. Presumably the same was happening in the Pyrenees, a sad loss of hospitality brought on by climate change.

Port de Lers road

The road on this side of the Port de Lers is narrow and seldom-used, making it popular with cyclists, and I saw several on their way down. It was painfully hot lower down, so I was on the lookout for water, and soon began seeing seeps and rivulets emerging from the limestone hillside. I stopped at one, walked into the woods with my bottles, and found a piece of hose forming a makeshift tap. There were clearly livestock in the area, but the water appeared to be flowing straight from the ground, so I trusted it enough to drink. Water problem solved, I continued up the narrow, winding road, barely more than a lane wide. The few times I met a car going the other way, we both dodged with room to spare, but the prospect of oncoming traffic kept me alert.

Upper Port de Lers

I found a trailhead a couple of switchbacks below the pass, locked my bike to the trailhead sign, then waited for a break in the hikers to change into my hiking clothes. I have little interest in lakes, but apparently the area’s main attraction is the Étang d’Arbu, a decent-sized lake in a bowl south of the Pic des Trois Seigneurs. I followed a well-used trail that traversed across the bowl out of the woods, then climbed an open bowl to the lake. It was brutally hot and humid, and I quickly went through my single bottle of water. A teenage kid from one of the families headed for the lake left his parents to hike with me on the climb, and I was hard-pressed to keep up in my out-of-shape state.

Étang d’Arbu

The lake was scenic enough, in a bowl filled with white rock outcrops surrounded by peaks, and the warm day was good for swimming. Most people were content to sit around on the rocks, but there was the expected middle-aged shirtless Frenchman standing waist-deep in the lake. The trail becomes much fainter past the outlet, but I found a path continuing around the left side, then winding between rock outcroppings toward the ridge. I filled up again with water at one of the streams, confident that I was above all the livestock and most of the humans. I passed a few people headed in the opposite direction, but mostly had the climb to myself. There was even a brief passage of third class scrambling, where I cautiously tested my toe’s edging capacity.

Trois Seigneurs ridge

Near the ridge I joined a slightly stronger trail leading from the pass to the Pic, and turned right to follow the ridge to the summit. The breeze made it pleasant or almost a bit cool, and I could see an impressive spread of higher peaks to the south, as Trois Seigneurs stands somewhat apart from the main chain of the Pyrenees (yay, prominence!). Unfortunately I shared the summit with enough young French people to be loud, so I did not want to stay for long. Rather than retracing my steps, I followed the ridge over to the Pas de Lers, crossing a couple of other minor summits and passing quite a few people. I even saw some paragliders, who launch near one of the switchbacks just on the other side. It was a pleasant stroll, but I was mindful that I needed to descend and find food and water before dark.

Back at the pass, I hike-jogged the road back to my bike, then hid behind someone’s parked car to change back into bike shorts. I rode over the summit, then descended to the first sizable town, Massat. I had intended to stock up and find a place to camp off the road, but it seemed I was back in the more-settled regions where finding an out-of-the-way place would require effort. So I followed the signs to the town campground, and paid a few dollars to sleep on the grass next to too many other people. There was some sort of gypsy-folk-rock concert going on that night, and while I did not want to mingle with the crowd near the band, I did enjoy going to sleep listening to it at a distance.

Andorra and Coma Pedrosa

Back in normal shoes

At last the big day had arrived. After a month cycling around in an orthopedic shoe, and a few days trying out a normal trail runner, it was time to hike to an actual peak, and a country highpoint at that. I have done very few of those, having been denied access to Chimborazo, failed on Huascaran, and never been interested in Denali or Logan. However Coma Pedrosa, the highpoint of Andorra, is a straightforward hike of about nine miles with 4300 feet of elevation gain. With higher neighbors clearly visible to the north and west, it is not particularly impressive or prominent, but then neither is Andorra.

Into Andorra

Taking off from La Seu d’Urgell fairly early, I had a cool ride into the country from the south along the Riu Valira. The country more or less consists of the headwaters of this river, whose valley provides its only year-round access to the outside world. Entering this way during the morning commute felt like riding along a highway through an outlet mall, with big-box stores, lots of traffic, and few places to urinate in private.

Dirt road approach

The Principality’s main city is Andorra la Vella, located in a wide junction of the Valira del Nord and Valira d’Orient. It looks like a mini-banking metropolis, some towers, luxury shops, and public artwork, but retains its European character with a maze of narrow, one-way streets. I was glad not to be in a car, but even being on a bike, and therefore able to use sidewalks and flout traffic laws, it was a challenge to reach the highway up the country’s left branch to Arinsal. The road up the valley climbs consistently, and steeply in places, and the metropolis gives way to a ritzy resort, full of hikers and mountain bikers this time of year.

As is often the case in Europe, it is unclear how far one is allowed to ride a bike, but I stopped at the main trailhead to lock my bike to a tree, then hide behind another to change into my neglected hiking clothes. I tied my shoes, then began tentatively walking up the trail, trying not to limp or bash my toe. The route I chose starts with a narrow, root-y, sometimes muddy trail next to a steep stream, then joins a steep gravel road coming from somewhere to the right. I felt slow, weak, and sometimes unsteady on rough ground, but better than expected given my time off.

Meadow with sheep pen

The route leaves the road at a sign, returning to a steep, rough trail. Despite being the path not only to the country highpoint, but to a nice hut and much of Andorra’s hikeable terrain, the trail is only slightly developed and admirably steep. There is some haphazard signage, but I found the map on my phone helpful in navigating the minor trail maze. I split off right shortly before the hut, descending to cross a meadow with an abandoned stone hut and sheep pen, then climbed up along a heavily mineralized stream, following a smattering of fellow hikers along the braided path.


Just before the one significant lake along the way, Estany Negre, I turned right along one of the two alternate paths to the summit. This one picks its way through a talus field, then follows the peak’s southwest ridge. I met a few people along the way, and found a bit of easy and optional scrambling by staying closer to the ridge. I was leery of the talus lest I bash my toe or shin, and pathetically slow, but managed not to get passed. The summit had a big, flat map, and a crowd of people talking loudly in Catalán. Not feeling sociable, I stood off to one side and the other to take in the view. I could see the whole country to the south and east, including the Port d’Envalira, my exit route. To the north and west were higher peaks in France and Spain. In the distance I could even see some glaciers on what I believe are the high peaks around Aneto, the range highpoint.

View into Andorra

For variety I took the other trail on the way down, meeting more people either because they are essentially Spaniards and keep Spanish hours, or because it is slightly easier. A trail-running kid bombed past me before stopping to relax at Estany Negre, inspiring me to jog a few of the smoother sections. My legs were feeling the unaccustomed activity by the time I reached the steeper sections below the hut, so I had no trouble patiently walking back to my bike. I changed behind the tree again, then carefully descended back into town, with a stop for food along the way.

The fun part

From Andorra la Vella at the junction of the country’s “Y” it is a 4500-foot climb to the Port d’Envalira, but there is a two-mile tunnel connecting the two branches about 300 feet higher, and I was determined to take it. Fortunately it is not only downhill in this direction, but features a dedicated bike lane. This was probably my favorite part of cycling through Andorra, flying down a well-lit highway tunnel in top gear.

Upper Port d’Envalira

Soon enough, though, it was time to grind out the climb. There was a fair amount of traffic, but thankfully far less than on the road in from La Seu d’Urgell. The road winds well above treeline to the location of the speed-skiing world championships, where it splits to a toll tunnel and the old, free road. This road has a number of sharp switchbacks, but is wide and well-paved, feeling somewhat Swiss. It was windy and cold on the top, so I huddled in the lee of a gas station with another cyclist to put on my warm clothes before descending to Pas de la Casa, a cluster of big-box stores just inside France.

It was forecast to be a cold night, and the northeast-facing valley would be even colder, so I needed to lose quite a bit of elevation before I camped. I passed the intersection with the Col de Puymorens, another interesting route leading in the wrong direction, then scouted an old service road before settling on a grassy road to an abandoned hut farther down. The hike had gone well, so before I went to sleep I spent some time looking at the map, planning my route back to pass by some other easy summits.

Collegats to La Seu d’Urgell

Collegats access road

The previous day I had wondered about climbing activity on the limestone cliffs of this Spanish backwater. Soon after starting, I had my answer: the Collegats gorge is a well-developed and moderately popular sport climbing area, with spectacular scenery and routes on both sides of the river, the ones on the far side approached by an intimidating Tyrolean traverse. While the current road goes through a long tunnel, the old road remains as a bypass open to pedestrians and cyclists, with signs along the way explaining the area’s geology and demonology. My first clue that this was a climbing area was the larger-than-usual number of camper vans, including one American-style hashtag-vanlife Sprinter. I saw one pair of active climbers as I passed through, but the area was mostly quiet.

Somehow demons are involved

Beyond the gorge, the road continues climbing slowly along the river to Sort, a decent-sized and very crowded tourist town. I stopped there for water and supplies, then began a long and winding climb of nearly 3000 feet to the Port del Cantó. This section is popular with cyclists, and since I was somewhat tired and loaded for touring, got to see several as they passed. One blew by me like I was standing still, impressing me until I realized he was doing hill intervals and almost caught him again during his recovery. Another was a young guy in the middle of a long day, who was riding at about my speed and spoke English well. He turned out to be doing his longest ride ever, something over 100 miles between his family’s and his girlfriend’s house. We chatted for the rest of the climb, then stopped to eat at a scenic picnic table at the pass.

Port del Canto

He quickly left me on the other side of the pass, as I had to be cautious before the turns with my less-than-excellent brakes. I eventually made it to El Segre, the river leading southwest out of Andorra. This is the main road, and in winter the only road, in and out of the postage stamp-sized country, so it is broad, crowded, and unpleasant to ride. Though it was warm down in the valley, the night was forecast to be cold and rainy in Andorra, which is mostly much higher. I waited out some squalls in La Seul d’Urgell, first at the Spanish version of a Costco, where everyone from Andorra apparently shops, then outside the tourist office.

I was hoping to make some use of the rest of the day, but it became increasingly clear that camping in Andorra would be cold, wet, and hard to do. Hotels there were also predictably overpriced, so I found a cheap place in La Seul d’Urgell, spread out all my things to dry in the room, then returned to the mega-market to buy supplies for a long and long-anticipated day. For my first hike in over a month, I hoped to tag Andorra’s highpoint, Coma Pedrosa. On either side of that, I had to first ride into the country and up to the trailhead, then back out into France via the Port d’Envalira, the Pyrenees’ highest pass.

Aínsa to Collegats

Slot canyon

As a highway, I expected the N-260 to be relatively boring and crowded, and so far it had lived down to that expectation. That began to change as I continued east. The road is also called the Eje Pirenaico (Pyrenaean Axis), and while it stays mostly below treeline, it comes closer to the mountains and becomes narrower and more interesting as it approaches Andorra. Leaving Aínsa, it remains a high-speed highway as it makes a long, steady climb through open fields past a bizarre monument consisting of a bunch of giant iron spears and an iron placard saying something about the history of Foradada del Toscar.

Spear monument

Beyond this climb, the road drops to the Río Ésera near the town of Campo, then follows the narrow river valley north. Here I may have been able to follow a series of local roads directly east, but a combination of uncertainty and my need for food and water led me to continue on the N-260. This was a fortunate accident, as it turned out to be one of the road’s better parts. Following the river, the road climbs through a narrow limestone canyon with many tunnels and Italian levels of determined engineering. There was ongoing construction (this is sadly being turned into an autovia), and a good deal of traffic, but the scenery was enough of a distraction to make the ride pleasant.

I stopped in Castejón de Sos for lunch, eating my low-quality grocery store food next to a local market. The town seems to be the base of a skiing region, and is the departure point for the dead-end road to Beñasque and the trailhead for Aneto, the Pyrenaean highpoint. That means I must have driven this way in 2018, but it all seemed new to me on a bike. From town, the road makes a winding climb to the Coll de Fadas, then a long and often twisty descent to the Isábena and Baliera Rivers, losing all of the day’s hard-won elevation. Though officially a highway, this section felt more like a country road, narrow and without much traffic.

Cliffs near Pont de Suert

The road became busier where it joined the N-230, heading south for the sizable town of of el Pont de Suert, at the head of a large reservoir. The town is surrounded by orange-and-gray limestone cliffs, making me wonder about the local climbing possibilities (more on that later). It was hot down low, so after buying dinner and breakfast in town, I continued east a short distance, rested in the shade, then continued on looking for a place to camp. I eventually chose an abandoned road to a collapsed stone cottage, where I found a cool, shady spot next to the Riuet del Convent, where I rinsed my feet and face and relaxed on my air mattress. The area had the abandoned feeling common to rural Spain, and camping in the trail of humanity’s retreat felt natural. I thought I was sufficiently out of the way, but I was embarrassed to have a couple of walkers pass on the faint trail next to the river. I was of course camping illegally, but they did not report or chastise me.

Ansó to Aínsa

Rio Ara

With no hiking to do, I had a lot of time in the evenings to stare at the map on my phone, trying to find the most interesting route east. I had limited time remaining in Europe, but no real objectives, and substantial uncertainty about whether I would be able to hike and run before flying home. Beyond Aínsa it appears impossible to stay in the mountains since, as in Austria, the main roads sensibly avoid them, connecting to the hamlets via dead-end side-roads. I could make good time down in the plains, but that would subject me to heat, boredom, and highway traffic. I eventually decided on a compromise, following backroads to pick up highway N-260 at Jaca, which would allow me to reach Andorra. There I could hike the easy country highpoint, Coma Pedrosa, or at least ride the Pyrenees’ highest pass, the Port d’Envalira.

I started with a quick descent past Hecho, then turned onto a promising side-road leading through the foothills. This was paved but not well-traveled to Jasa (not to be confused with Jaca), a tiny town with a market that seems to be a tourist spot on one of the GR trails. Beyond, the road turned into rough single-lane pavement, then dirt as it crossed an unnamed pass, where it became paved again. I met a few motorcycle tourists, but otherwise this road sees almost no use. I descended to another tourist town, Aísa, then continued on a windy, rolling road to the N-330 highway. I found the names of and encouragement for pro cyclists painted on this stretch, leading me to believe that the Vuelta a España or some other race had passed through.

Jaca ruins

The road down to Jaca was more heavily trafficked, but at least fast, and I reached the city in time to visit the pharmacy and grocery store before the siesta. I ate in the city park near the ruins of an old fortification, then set off east on the least pleasant riding of my visit to Spain, a straight, hot highway to Sabiñánigo. I rested in the shade there for awhile, then continued grinding up a long, gradual climb to some east-west divide. I had not been paying close enough attention to the map, and was surprised to find a mile-long tunnel at the top with no bypass. Biking through highway tunnels is generally neither safe nor approved of, but it was too late to do much about it, and fortunately downhill, so I claimed my lane, put my head down, and cranked through at close to 30 MPH. The descent to Fiscal afterward was even faster.

Rio Ara crags

The road north from Fiscal leads to some of the Pyrenees’ highest peaks, but it is a dead-end, and I was on a mission, so I continued over another climb, then descended an interesting stretch along the Rio Ara to Boltaña. The river and road cut through uplift layers of limestone which are eroded and partly forested. I was ready to camp there, and did not want to hunt for a hiding-spot, so I rolled up to one of the campgrounds ready to pay. The girl working at the reception desk was embarrassed when she told me the Swiss-level price, shockingly expensive for Spain, and was not surprised or put out when I declined. I instead continued a few miles to Aínsa (not to be confused with Aísa or Ansó), where I found a cheaper campground outside town to the northeast.

Pau to Ansó

Pierre Saint Martin

[This is catching up on the tail end of summer. Also note the new map of my “Alps bike tour”. — ed.]

I was tired of cycling, tired of rain, and just plain tired, too much so to enjoy riding more in the Alps. After a final climb to Alpe d’Huez, I rode down to Grenoble and recovered for a few days, then took a series of trains to Pau, at the base of the Pyrenees. Unlike my train-warp across northern Italy, which had been cheap and easy, this one was unpleasant and expensive. Europe’s high-speed trains, like France’s TGV, do not have bike compartments, so you must partially disassemble your bike and transport it as luggage. The accepted method is a specialized bike bag, which I of course did not have. I instead took off the front wheel and bars, then wrapped my bike in bubble-wrap, which was against the rules but got me to my destination, at the expense of several miserable transfers. Once finally in Pau, I bought some food and rode south until I could find a stealthy spot to camp.

Lush climb to Pierre Saint Martin

Weather comes from the north in the Pyrenees, and their northern side is remarkably humid and mossy even when it is not raining, so I wanted to get to the south side as soon as possible. Plus, Spain is much cheaper than France. There are a couple of passes over the mountains near Pau, and I chose the Col de la Pierre Saint Martin at random. This turned out to be one of the better passes I rode in the Pyrenees, with a long climb through lush woods and old towns culminating in a narrow, winding road through limestone channels. Since it does not lead to a major Spanish city, and there is an easier highway pass to its east, it does not see much traffic outside the ski season.

Erronkari fountain

On the Spanish side, the road plunges impressively through more limestone crags into the Ezka valley, with a rare curlicue along the way. This is Basque country, so the towns all have both Spanish and Basque names, with the former sometimes crossed out in spray-paint. Basque is a linguistic orphan unrelated to its neighboring Romance languages. While it is impossible to puzzle out the meaning of its words, one can often see the correspondence between them and their Spanish equivalent place-names. Beyond that, though, they’re a salad of x’s and k’s, often starting with an “a” or “e” and ending in an “i.” They seem more pronounceable than Polish or Welsh to someone who speaks neither, but what I heard in my head was probably completely wrong.


Unlike the Alps, which are a complex blob, the Pyrenees are a fairly simple range with an east-west spine. By chance, I had started near the western end of the highest part, with the range quickly falling off into the Basque Country to the west, and also getting much wetter as they approach Spain’s northern coast. Wanting to stay dry, I decided to follow the foothills east, then cross back over to France when I ran out of time. I therefore descended the Ezka valley to Roncal/Erronkari, then turned east along a provincial road. My friend Mike had made me aware of the miles of quiet, paved roads in the Spanish countryside, and this one did not disappoint. The pavement was rough in places, but I found a pleasant, rolling ride through the foothills. I stopped for supplies in Ansó, an ancient town closed to most cars, then rode on to camp off a forest road with a view of the foothills tapering off into the plains to the south.

Izoard and Galibier

I like the term “motards”

Unlike the Col Agnel, the Izoard and Galibier are frequently on the Tour, and therefore much more popular with cyclists. I had enjoyed merely driving over the Galibier on my first trip to the Alps, seeing in person something I had only seen in television Tour coverage as a kid, so I definitely wanted to ride it this time. The Izoard was merely the natural way to get from my “campsite” below the Col Agnel to Briançon. As it turned out, both were swarming with cyclists on a weekend, including several boys (no girls) on small bikes that cheered me up and reminded me of myself at that age.

Chateau Queyras

From camp, I descended to the Guil River, then followed it past Chateau Queyras, an impressive fortress that recently sold for a mere $660,000. Past the fortress, I turned up a side-valley toward the Izoard, and began ticking off the kilometers and elevation on the cyclist-friendly signs. Each one had a tidbit of Tour history, usually about someone who had won a stage over the pass. There is also supposedly a Tour museum at the top, though the whole area seemed to be a construction zone when I was there.

Izoard sign

The Izoard starts climbing gently up a valley, eventually reaching open fields and a ski area at La Chalp. (I was back in the part of Alps where small towns are named “The Mystery-French-Word.” I don’t know what a “Chalp,” “Draye,” or “Praz” is, or what “Houches” are.) The road steepens through town, then climbs in a series of switchbacks through the woods and eventually above treeline. The final section is narrower, and features a descent across a chossy slope before the final climb to the summit. I hung out for awhile, then carefully descended the other side with my worn brakes.

Lautaret is boring

It was Sunday, but Briançon is large enough to have a few stores open until 1:30, so I was able to find lunch and enjoy it in a shady park before continuing. For the first part of the afternoon I climbed the Col du Lautaret, a useful but boring pass connecting the exit valleys leading to Gap and Grenoble. Most of the pass is a gentle climb up a valley on a too-crowded road, with only the final bit having any character.

Galibier from Lautaret

The Galibier connects the Gap-Grenoble divide with the Arc River valley and Chamonix, and is the fifth-highest pass in the Alps. It is much more fun and interesting, with more switchbacks and even a silly tunnel just below the summit, and not particularly large on the south side. (edit: Wikipedia informs me that the tunnel was actually the original pass, with the switchbacks over the saddle added later while the tunnel was under repair.) I was once again racing the weather, so I pushed as much as I could on the climb. I stopped in the crowd at the top to take photos and put on my hoodie before I got chilled. It looked like the storms were worse on the other side, so I chose to return the way I had come. I was thinking of heading out when a man asked if I wanted my photo taken. I politely declined, but he insisted: “You’ve just climbed the Col du Galibier!” He unfortunately took a short video by mistake, but the camaraderie cheered me up for the chilly descent.

La Grave

I returned to the Lautaret, then dropped down to La Grave (“The Serious?”), a tourist town where I found a shop open Sundays with sufficient food for dinner and breakfast, then continued down-valley, admiring the steep walls to either side and looking for a campsite. I eventually found an abandoned-looking dirt road with some pallets stacked at the end, which suited me fine. I had a quiet night, and had just finished breakfast when I was again interrupted, this time by some people harvesting herbs. I felt less embarrassed this time, since I was out of the way and not obviously on anyone’s property, and they did not mind my presence. I was still far enough up in the mountains to find free places to camp, but felt that was coming to an end.

Col Agnel

Agnel slabs

My train-warp to Turin saved me from either 2-3 days of flat riding in the heat, or another trip through Switzerland, landing me back near the French-Italian Alps from whence I came. However, it also left me a reasonable distance away, and not far above sea level, so I had some flat rolling to do, then over 8,000 feet to climb to cross the Col Agnel back into France. After the Stelvio and Iseran, the Agnel is the third highest paved pass in the Alps, and one of only three over 9,000 feet. Despite being near Briançon and on the French border, the Agnel has only been used in two Tours de France, in 2008 and 2011, and two Tours of Italy, in 2007 and 2016.

From downtown Turin, I navigated my way out of the city with occasional stops to make sure I was on the right road, and constant uncertainty about where I should ride. The major city streets have a central, multi-lane part with fast traffic, one-lane “frontage roads” on either side to park and access businesses, and multiple sidewalks or bike paths. I tried to follow the occasional local, but would lose him and/or get confused at the roundabouts, which threw the division of traffic into confusion.


The city finally trailed off, and I was riding through farmland and small villages in the increasing heat. I headed generally southwest then south, with a deviation around a palace at Stupinigi, and sections of well-paved separate bike path around Vigone. I stopped at the base of the mountains in Saluzzo to refill water and eat lunch, then began the gentle climb up the Varaita River valley toward the pass. The climb followed the gentle grade of the river to Casteldelfino as the mountains rose above it to either side, then somewhat more steeply up a side-stream to the lake and the tourist town of Pontechianale.

Steep when loaded

Slightly above town the climbing begins in earnest, with switchback and grades up to 10%. The road climbs above treeline into a broad valley full of rocky uplifts, then meanders its way up the right side before traversing back to a saddle. The forecast called for evening rain on the Italian side, so I was highly motivated to get to France. Riding into the evening, I saw several other cyclists headed in both directions. I finally reached the pass, pausing just long enough to take a few photos and put on some warmer clothes. It was not quite raining, but I had to descend at least 3000 feet before I was low enough to sleep comfortably with my meager gear.

Totally quiet campsite…

The descent was a bit sketchy with my worn-out brakes, but the French road was more sane than the Italian one, and I managed not to crash into anything. Finally, shortly above a small village, I found a rough and unused-looking side-road ending at some beehives, and pulled a polite distance off the highway to camp. I found out in the morning that the road was in fact used, but the guy who bounced his van down to the beehives did not seem annoyed or angry, pausing while I quickly moved my things out of the road before continuing by. Liberté, egalité, fraternité!