5/11/2018 Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward is nomadonanomad.
France v Spain
A bit of a disclaimer first. This is about my experience only. I will be as truthful as I hope I always am, albeit with some licence to allow me to exaggerate stuff purely for the purposes of humour. It is about the route I travelled and there will be marvellous parts of both countries that I didn’t get to. My apologies, in advance, to all and every French and Spanish person if I poke some fun at you. I had a great trip and I love you all. Well, nearly all of you.
The Eurovelo route itself is not about France v Spain. It is a route that starts in Northern Norway and goes through Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England before it gets to France, Roscoff to be precise and which is where I picked it up, before going South through France, Spain and finishing in Portugal. I hope to ride the more northern part, however many thousands of kilometres of it, at some point, but this is about the bit I have done so far.
To begin with Eurovelo, your signage stinks! At first, in France I would have given you high marks but the further I went the worse it got. Now I just plan my own route. Not interested any more, although I do wonder how the signage is in the more northerly, Norway and the UK, parts of the route?
I must also mention that France is at a distinct advantage as I have a reasonable grasp of the language and so can communicate pretty well. I did a crash course in Spanish 2 years ago but have forgotten almost everything which meant I was struggling to come up with the words I needed at a reasonable speed. This made me feel a little foolish at times.
Now. Roads. Both French and Spanish roads, for me as a cyclist are bloody wonderful. I have been enjoying a feeling of being very safe, and also being given a massive amount of courtesy and respect that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed by all the drivers I’ve encountered. You are all wonderful and I want to have your babies! Top marks for you both! Also, the surface of your roads in both countries is amazing! French and Spanish roads are just so smooth, well, outside the cities anyway, I just got fed up with the ‘Camino’ which, after all, is more for hikers than bikers.
Road infrastructure in respect of cyclists is just that tiny bit better in France. More segregated cycling paths mean that you just get the vote although both countries I love from a point of I’m not wondering if I’ll make it to my destination safely. Didn’t feel in danger once, and even the wannabe Alain Prosts and Fernando Alonsos do their ‘high octane’ stuff well out of your way.
Costs are a difficult one as the difference I experienced was massive, and contradictory in pretty much all ways. France was a wild camping paradise whereas in Spain wild camping will get you shot, literally, as hunting goes on everywhere, and campsites are very thin on the ground. Consequently, the cost of an Albergue, Hostal or Hotel has to be added on to the cost of food and drink. In France you can pitch a tent almost where you like as long as no-one’s about. Even if you are spotted they don’t seem to care very much, if at all.
But, having camped without cost, and if you’ve read some of my earlier blogs wild camping can be done, out of season, at camp sites very easily, the cost of everything else in France is astronomical. Well that’s when the shops/bars are open anyway! Food and drink, my main costs, are at least 75% more in France than Spain. More often double, and as mentioned before the ‘tapas’ culture in Spain means it’s possible to eat for free as long as you can drink enough! I only went into one restaurant in France (that was open!) and the cheapest dish on the menu, just the one course and only one beer, was 15 Euros. In Spain that equates to 12/15 small beers and 12/15 tapas plates, again as long as you can eat and drink that much!
Costs overall were therefore somewhat more in Spain because of the accommodation issues of not being able to wild camp. (I did it once and had virtually no sleep, ripped my ankle open on some rusty barbed wire and just wasn’t able to relax at all) So having to pay for lodgings couldn’t quite be balanced out by the lower price of everything else. Europe generally is expensive and I really can’t wait to get to South America which should be a lot less expensive, and was the original aim anyway.
Regarding shops being closed, indeed, an earlier post was entitled ‘France is closed!’, this is a big issue in the contest between the two countries. It’s a question of priorities. In France it would appear that there’s a worker’s culture of ‘I have to have two days off consecutively or else’. These days off can vary depending on which part of the country you happen to be in.
Sometimes it’s Saturday and Sunday and then it can be Sunday and Monday. Even the big multi nationals are not immune with the hypermarkets keen to proudly proclaim that they are willing to help you stave off starvation on a Sunday morning, but don’t think turning up on a Sunday afternoon will work though as an hour before closing the staff will all go out of their way to make you feel unwelcome as you are personally responsible for messing up their entire weekend!
To me the irony is that, while it’s nearly impossible to get food and drink on a Sunday in France, all the garden centres are open! Want to buy a garden gnome this Sunday? No problem, which place shall we go to? Make sure we take a packed lunch though as you know there will be nowhere to get any sustenance.
Now Spain is completely different despite what you may have heard about ‘Siesta time’. Yes, some places do close in the early afternoon but with the EXCEPTION of bars and cafes! Priorities sorted! It would appear that it didn’t matter how sleepy the village that I rode into appeared to be, there was always a bar open at whatever time it was. Full marks to Spain, zero points to France! Please do remember that I was not on a pub crawl, but hydration and sugar intake are vital to all cycle tourists. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)
Bread. Ok, so we all know about the French and their bread yeah? I actually think that it’s a criminal offence in France to be caught ‘walking without a baguette’. And it’s not just baguettes, but a massive range of all different sorts of bread even available in very small shops. I was in heaven, and on many occasions my lunch would be half a loaf with pate, normally eaten in the town/village square, and the other half with jam for dessert. Wonderful!
Spain, on the other hand prompts the expression re bread of, ‘what are you doing and what’s going on?’ It is possible to buy great bread but where and when is still a mystery to me. The default loaf or baguette is hard, tasteless and ‘plasticky’ (if that’s a word?) I could have hammered my tent pegs in with some of their bread it was that hard. Get it sorted ready for my next visit please?
Now onto people. Forget stereotypes, I met fabulous folks from each country. There were two people however, both bar owners, one French and the other Spanish who were probably short listed for ‘Miserable Bastard of the Year’ and viewed me as practise fodder. Honestly though, it didn’t hurt and that was it. Two people out of hundreds so not a bad result! The rest of the time I was made to feel most welcome even when making language mistakes which, most frequently, were me saying stuff in Lao language, which is just automatic after so long there, but did get me a few funny looks!
Lastly a particular passion of mine is music and, quite frankly where the French take something of a nosedive. Sorry but French jazz is awful and it seems to be pretty much ubiquitous. It just drives me nuts! In Spain I was amazed at how much British and American rock music gets played alongside the traditional Spanish music. I distinctly remember my first visit to a Spanish supermarket and hearing Simple Minds over the PA system, and it was one of the songs I was listening to only an hour or so earlier on the bike.
So now we go onto the tricky, but necessary, subject of toilets. Big disparity here. The French have some sort of issue with ‘natural functions’ I’m sure. It’s almost as if they’re trying to deny that any of us ‘have to go!’ Consequently, ‘facilities’ in France can be dire or very much worse. Always, always, take paper with you as the likelihood is that there will not be any supplied. I’ve even been in places where there’s no chance of even being able to wash your hands. Yuck!
Spain, step forward and take a bow. Just a different world, and one where I quickly discovered that I didn’t need to take my own paper with me. This was somewhat ironic as I was still lugging around 3 and a half rolls of the stuff, purchased in France, and as any cycle tourist will tell you, space and weight are always at a premium. I did even briefly think about setting up a business selling individual toilet rolls on busy cycle touring routes. I’m sure it would have been a winner!
Overall, I had an absolutely wonderful time in both countries. Spain just takes the biscuit, but only just. I do hope that I get a chance to revisit both in the future, particularly when my language skills are a lot better. It really does help and I have good memories of conversations I had with random folks in France that, with practise, I will eventually be able to replicate and enjoy in the Spanish speaking countries during my time in South America.
I am currently in the UK waiting for my date to set off on the next leg of my adventure/disaster. I’m really missing riding the bike and during my time away I lost 7 kilos in weight and have had to buy new trousers and shorts. Size, 34 waist, which I haven’t been able to fit into since I was in my thirties! All this despite eating massive amounts of food and blowing the froth off a few cold ones as well! As well as the weight loss I have to admit to a sense of achievement having cycled from Roscoff to Malaga. I’m sure there are folks who doubted my ability to do it and at times I did wonder myself! Now I can’t wait to get to Argentina and set off again.
I have realised from my ride to Malaga, from Seville, that I have to shed as much weight as possible from the bike with regard to equipment carried. (The weight I’ve lost is a bonus, but more has to go!) Those were serious hills/mountains and yet I’m sure the Andes will be a totally different and far more demanding proposition. I can guarantee that there will be a lot of stuff sent to the local charity shops in the very near future. At least another 10 kilos has got to go, hopefully a bit more than that.
As always, thank you for reading this far and I hope your God goes with you.
Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward.