Touring like a Tourist

Europe part 2 | France, Switzerland & Spain | Day 421

Destination: Paris, Objective: See ALL the art. We were going to put as much art in front of our faces until our eyes bled and we begged for mercy. With so much to see in Europe, we were going to assume the role of ultra tourists. Our days were packed from early morning to evening with museums, churches, and strolling around quaint European villages. Slap a fanny pack on me. I’m done.

Thank god we were already in good shape and had plenty of endurance training, we were hitting the mecca for art nerds, the Louvre. The Louvre is about 15 football fields full of some of humanities greatest creations. Plus we spent $20 on this ticket, so we were going to get our money’s worth. Up by the crack of dawn and running around like maniacs, we spent eight hours straight in a pitiful attempt to, “see as much as we could…” It was a great experience to finally see the master’s we had long learned about and marveled at in books. Finally, a Rembrandt close enough to touch. 

At first, I was highly irritated by the infamous crowds of tourist; standing five feet from the artwork, arms fully extended with smartphones in hand, working their long practiced selfie-angles (seriously, what will you do with these photos, I HAVE TO KNOW?!?). I ruined everyone’s photos and selfies by actually standing in front of the works and looking at them with my eyeballs.The point of coming to a museum is to see these masterpieces in person, up close, to make out the brush strokes or pores of the marble. Maybe that makes me a jackass, ok it definitely makes me a jackass, but I have really had it up to “here” with selfie culture, most notably in museums. </end rant>

Aside from all the incredibly delicious French pastries, it was our adopted Parisian grandmother, Dominique, and her sweet 17 year old grandson, Mael, who really made our Paris experience perfect. Dominique is the mother of a friend of a friend who generously took us in for a few nights. We spent many of them laughing over a few beers and swapping stories from around the world. Domonique told us about her early travels through the Americas, learning Spanish, and how she settled in Senegal briefly before returning to Paris. When we think of Paris we will always think of Dominique and Mael. 

Being amongst the greatest architectural and artistic feats of Paris was far more inspiring than I would have guessed. It was one city I had a lot of preconceived notions of, and it didn’t let me down. But my favorite way to see Paris was at 5:00AM. As we cycled through the empty streets to catch a train out of town: the streets were deserted, the sun had barely lifted its’ head, and we had the Eiffle tower and Arc de Triomphe all to ourselves. Pro tip: explore early, worth it. 

"The Swiss really do subsist mainly off of melted cheese, beer, chocolate, and Andrea made sure we complied."

If you’ve been following us since the beginning, you might remember one of our first riding partners in India, a faithful Swiss chap named Andrea. Like a reliable Swiss clock, Andrea let us visit him with minimal notice. Lausanne is a casual little city on the coast of Lake Geneva with the Alps dominating the horizon, and world heritage vineyards cascading down to the lake. I can understand why Andrea never plans to leave his hometown. After four days on the lake we realized the Swiss really do subsist mainly off of melted cheese, beer, chocolate, and Andrea made sure we complied. It was so great to see an old friend. As we struggled with our next destination steps, Andrea decided on a whim it was time to cycle through “the best place on Earth” again, Iran. Happy trails!  

After all our sightseeing and museum-going, we happily set off on the bikes and gave our eyes a rest. We decided to cycle the Camino de Santiago Norte route, a classic trekking route that spans the entire northern coast of Spain. The first day we hit San Sebastian, a popular beach town set on the Bay of Biscay. The sun was shinning and we decided to take a dip; this may have been the last time we saw the sun so it’s a good thing we took advantage. 

"It is an on-going tradition for hundreds of years..."

The entire northern half of Spain seems to be dotted with, “albergues,” super cheap hostel accommodations or campgrounds for people on the Camino. We came across groups of pilgrims trekking to Santiago and it seemed everyone had their own reasons for tackling the walk. From what I gathered, the Camino de Santiago originally was a pilgrimage to St. James, who’s remains are believed to be buried in Santiago de Compostela. It is an on-going tradition for hundreds of years, and over time certain routes have became more common than others. It reminded me of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage we came across on the Shikoku island of Japan, they too get a stamp in each church they visit along the way.

The Spanish lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to our typical cycling schedule; the siesta is alive and well and foiled most of our plans for an early dinner. But we quickly adopted the tapas tradition and found it difficult not to have at least two or three glasses of wine a night. In some smaller towns we’d even get lucky with a free tapas per drink, not exactly the makings for an early morning, but better the makings for a good evening. The chilled out vibe of Spain was growing on us.

"The chilled out vibe of Spain was growing on us."

Spain’s Northern coast is beautiful, and the Norte route had us riding along cliff edges and winding roads. Starting in the Basque country, an autonomous community with a very difficult past and present. One of our Basque friend’s, Marta, tried to explain the difficulties of the area. The Basque people have been trying to retain their independence since the late 1970’s. Out of this regions desire for more independence formed a terrorist group called ETA. Only this year did ETA agree to stop killing, kidnapping, and attacking specific figures of Spain and France. They were one of those, if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us types. Marta, who previously worked at for the newspaper in Bilboa, explained how common it was for the important male members of the newspaper to have bodyguards 24/7 to protect them against the ETA; media organizations were frequently targets of kidnappings. 

As with most Atlantic coasts, there was a considerable amount of rain. Not being in much of a hurry we took our time, taking short days when the clouds just wouldn’t let up and enjoying the tiny towns along the way. Rain has a way of taking all the fun out of riding, and we were getting dumped on every day, all day. Around Santander we decided to divert from the coast and leave the Camino and make our way inland to get some drier weather. We visited the lesser known, Palencia, for a couple days and enjoyed even cheaper accommodations and food. Gradually we started hoping on local trains with our bikes that would take us a few cities closer to the end of our ride in Spain. 

"The Norte route had us riding along cliff edges and winding roads."



Once we finally made it to Madrid we stayed with Jose and Marta, a Spanish couple whom we had befriended in a hostel in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan a few months before. These two had just finished an awesome six month travel-bender. They have been traveling the world off and on for most of their lives, and were full of great stories and advice. We were immediately welcomed into their home and invited to picnic with them and their friends, grab drinks at the oldest cafe in Madrid, etc. We felt like old friends, I wish we could have spent more time in Madrid!

Culture-wise, we really fell in love with Spain. The ease and generosity of the people. The slow paced and joyful rhythm of the day. It just felt different than it had in other parts of Europe. And it gave us an opportunity to practice our Spanish. Everything in Spain felt pretty damn good.

But something was off, something had came undone. After fourteen months of riding we were beginning to languish. Had we grown tired of cycling? Hopping on trains, or busses had become too easy, and we were enjoying having more free time and not feeling so exhausted all the time. We were starting to look forward more and more to days off, and staying in a place for more than a single night. Even with out the rain, something inside us was missing, it was becoming more of a mental struggle than it should have been…



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