Sometimes I battled along EuroVelo 3 - Pilgrims Route when I was in need of some speed. Most of the time I was pushing my poor bicycle (almost 30,000 km of rough terrain in Africa and through Asia thus far) on hiking-only tracks for the much-needed shade.
It was the Summer of '21...
I was standing on top of the Pyrenees (finally) with France below me, and no clue what next, other than a very slow meander along EuroVelo 1 - Atlantic Coast Route north, along the wild western French Atlantic coast. At the end of this summer (decided on when my sleeping bag would fail me during five-degree-Celsius nights in early October), the hope was that a functional plan would have unfolded to end my homelessness and merge me back into normal life, after my Covid-aborted Cape To Kapp cycle adventure, in Cameroon.
Right now, it was mid-July, and no border I wanted to cross was open to me, so more of the same in Europe it would be.
It was the Summer of '20...
I had crossed France along EuroVelo 8 - Mediterranean Route into Spain from Italy, having merged from EuroVelo 7 - Sun Route going south from Denmark. These routes were just too easy, wonderfully thought out and lazy-tourist-in-me enabling (at a time when everything else is up in flames), that I never bothered with alternatives for the longer stretches across quite a lot of Western Europe.
Now I was on my way back East.
How did I end up here?
Hilariously the reason I had gone up and over the epic Pyrenees mountain range with my bicycle - instead of cruising across the Spain-France border with the cars on smooth tarmac - was because in May of 2020 in Basel (a city split in three by Switzerland, Germany and France), the handsome French police had folded their arms and scolded me as I dared to wheel my bicycle closer across their bridge, to enquire what the new rules were. I felt I had the right to information, and not just rejection. Maybe in two weeks, I was gruffly told.
So I cycled into Germany instead from Switzerland, where the only extraction plane in any direction willing to take me, had landed. Sudden border closures were still a thing at this time, and I did not feel like (nor could afford) any more rejection, nor did I want any more time in Spain either. I figured no guard would be posted on a mountaintop, and further down I could hide, wait, and then sneak around somewhere else, right?
As luck would have it, the Pyrenees are just a giant sloped lawn, and the border was wide open this week anyway. Whooop! Until now, there had been no sure way of knowing what/where/when/why, as cases were constantly flaring up here and there, with closures as a consequence.
What a relief, oh sweet sanity!
After what felt like forever, I was mask-free once again, in no drama, friendly, fresh-food-everywhere-with-zero-hours-long-afternoon-siesta France.
What a dramatic change.
The French hikers had skin like porcelain, their mannerisms were gentle, their voices sweet and calm, and smiles... ohhh they were back. And just like that, people were engaging with me. It had been a long while.
Imagine my shock after mask-at-all-times-everywhere-by-everyone-enforced-by-police Spain, when I saw noses, lips and teeth again.
And the views from above. Ohhh what glorious splendor. It felt like France was pulling out all the stops to welcome me back after nine months of just Me, Myself, and (my imaginary friend) Irene (Jim Carrey movie). Thanks for (legally) having me, Portugal and Spain, but... would it have killed you to be a tad warmer? A touch human? A teeny bit inclusive? Being blonde had marked me as other, and as such unwelcome. I wasn't the only blonde to feel that sting.
The fun, it is baaack!
The closer to St. Jean Pied du Port I swooped downhill, the more confusing it became. It felt like my brain was playing tricks on me. What was all that movement at the bottom of the mountain? As this pretty town came into focus, so did the swarms of humans. I had not seen a crowd or gathering or humans close together since Yaounde (Cameroon) April Fools 2020, the day of my extraction/repatriation flight dumping me somewhere random in Europe (I really do love you Switzerland for taking me along). And not just many people together, but also unmasked. The weirdness of it all! Surprising how fast one gets used to things.
I stayed at a local campsite for two nights soaking in all the flavours of everything bio, healthy and fun I could get my hands on. Ohhh, the delight. I spent far too much on foodie treats, that were far too heavy for a cyclist to schlepp. Worth it! I had crossed into France with not even a grain of salt. I had refilled my water bottle at the mountain top from a spring fountain some legend had erected for hikers. That was it.
And just like that... normal was back!
An easy cycle along the southern coastline of famed surfer beaches was due. I had heard a lot about Biarritz. Even Metallica surfed there when on tour in Europe. What I saw was a touristic crowded mess. Heaven forbid after a year of cycling through 11 countries in uncrowded Western Europe, I'd now have to... what now... share? Uh-huh.
I headed north to Hossegor, but was all mass surf tourism in full swing. It looked like fun, but I needed peace. I was still in recovery mode from that bout of killer malaria.
I have never seen campsites as huge as those along this coastline. One gets maps of the sprawling grounds, while your teeny tent section is just a spec somewhere. At €25-40 you do this once, for a dinner at the very first Michelin-starred plant-based organic sustainable restaurant: ONA (origin non animale) en route. What. An. Epic. Birthday. Treat. I was lucky that I got a reservation just as they reopened, so I got nice and ready, pitched my tent and left my stuff safe, as I ate like a (vegan) King for that one special night.
I was even luckier that a follower of my Instagram had insisted I see the coastal route further north. This then scuppered my plans to head east to Bordeaux, and ended up being a dream of endless wild beach, nude bodies and bleached blonde hair (mine).
France, you wild wonderful beauty!
Cycling up EuroVelo 1 was smooth, easy, wild and free. That perfect summertime mix of cool vibes and sandy feet.
One morning as I set off along the bicycle-only path going north (cars can only access these beaches perpendicular at a few points, whereas bicycles can cycle along the coastline a whole 120km, blissfully undisturbed by human tack), I saw a handful of bodies heading down a sandy path towards the large sand dune separating the cycle path from the Atlantic. On an impulse I followed, only to see no one was wearing much. Ahhh, no need to rummage in my panniers for my long forgotten bikini. No need to later dry it while dangling off my handlebars in motion.
A quick dip will do, I said.
My total time along the French western coastline ended up being a whopping three months. I would meet up with a Belgian touring bestie I had met in Cape Town, and cycle north as far as La Rochelle for a week. Oh what fun to have a human that speaks not only fluent English, but my 'big city language' too!
Learning the grass was not greener north, I headed straight back south to my paradise: Medoc Atlantique. Once every five days or seven, I would cycle 20 km north to Lacanau back into civilisation, to feast, buy supplies, and charge everything at a local bio shop that had been curious about my surfer vibe bulk purchase on a budget sessions, in my slowly improving French. Once I had done the rounds of groceries and such in town, a charged phone, camera and powerbank awaited me for my 20 km ride back into uncivilised heaven.
I had found a few stealth camping spots away from the nature conservation efforts, yet close enough to the endless beach. In all that time I was never spotted, and I made sure to never leave a trace. No fire, no matches, no candles, no cooking. If you're going to bend and even break the rules and laws in a host country, best to show as much respect as you can, bar one: being there.
Eat, sleep, surf, repeat.
Although I didn't have the funds to hire a surfboard and wetsuit, bodysurfing is free. Bodysurfing naked (even the lifeguards at Plage La Jenny were clothing optional) is hilarious. At the beginning of my 'stay' near that beach (with an epic shower on top of the endless sand dune leading down on wooden planks to the bicycle-only parking lot), I was a bit more timid. Halfway through my time there, I was free as a bird, and couldn't imagine a life with clothes on as standard.
All too soon, it all ended.
I made my way across France on a variety of local bicycle-friendly trains to get to Germany, and try to be normal.
No such thing as failure, only lessons to learn.
What I once accepted as a lovely experience (at the start of my very first tour cycling EuroVelo 15 south along the Rhine Valley and then east along the Danube river on EuroVelo 6 in 2017), is no longer 'good enough'. I have experienced such a wide variety of cultures, attitudes, lifestyles, acceptance and welcomes in various shades of warmth, that sometimes I felt that the European way (as standard) of mistrust, fear, entitlement, and arrogance was a bit too much.
I come from southern Africa and many times I had to rebuff ignorant responses to my origins. It was so debilitating and hard to process that I stopped telling people where I was really from, instead choosing my dual nationality European counterpart. While it is true that everywhere has plus and minuses, I felt Europe still has lots to do to get rid of its 'privileged' arrogance.
We really should know better, behave better, be better. We should leave our judgmental bias for good.
I for one, can't wait to get back on the road, back to where warmth, openness, trust, and generosity of spirit reign as cultural standard, where I am accepted as me by others in faraway lands.
Experience more. Open your heart. Be the change you want to see in this wonderful world. The love starts with you!
Author and pictures: Birgit, aka RawCandyRides.