For the past 12 months we have roosted on the 9th Floor of a communist era apartment block on the edge of Cluj Napoca. We face east, rising early as the sun slits open the sky and illuminates the hills of Ardeal, Erdely, Transylvania; this is a land of many tongues where history is far from finished. A short bike ride up the hill takes you from this modern Romanian city to the village of Gheorgieni where the weeded widows and their blue-eyed grandsons greet you in Hungarian. It has been a relatively still year, with many false starts. A house in the countryside, a community project, a potential writing commission, a life; all failed to fruit and we find ourselves unrooted in the behind-the-scenes shadow glow of sunset. I grew up on a Lancashire fell facing West and watched the sun ease into the Irish sea in psychedelic glory. I miss that view and the people I shared it with. That’s not to say sky living hasn’t suited us, stillness has provided many opportunities to read, to write, to do yoga, to indulge in lazy pleasures. We share the sky with seemingly endless regiments of rooks, whose spectacular nightly return from the over-flowing dump on the edge of the city never ceases to awaken in me a magical gratitude. And from up here we see the most glorious rainbows. But always there is a sense that back there, behind me, life is witnessing something without me.
In June word reaches me that a friend will be holidaying in the south-west of France, not far from where another friend lives. We are also invited to join my whole family for a holiday in northern Italy at the end of July. The convergence of all these dear souls in a nearish location was too good to miss, so I planned a trip. Planes make me feel guilty, but I fly. To lessen my guilt I complicate journeys by adding an arduous and cumbersome cycling element. I look at the map. I consult the oracle of our collective selfish-doom Skyscanner and, ever optimistic, cross reference it with LoCo2, which shows you how cripplingly expensive and slow it will be to make similar journeys by train. (Let it be noted that flights are only cheap because they are subsidized, which is actual insanity given the furnace we are turning earth into, but I won’t go there right now because I am a hypocrite!) We could fly to Paris and cycle down to Bordeaux but Paris-shmaris…We could go to Bucharest and then fly directly to Bordeaux …wait a sec….Cluj to Zaragoza direct….’Ioan we’re going to Spain‘. ‘Aren’t they in France?’ ‘Yes, we’re going over the Pyrenees!’ I announce with glee.
There’s a new fad in town – Bike-Packin – it’s like Cycle Touring with 3/4 of the crap. Cluj was in the grip of a once typical Lancashire summer (cold and wet) when I packed and, as a concession to not taking my down sleeping bag, I packed: a thermal top and bottoms, a long-sleeved merino top, a down jacket, a fleece and a large woollen shawl from the Himalayas! All this because of a fear of being chilly at night; needless to say this summer Europe, like the rest of the world, has seen record temperatures – again! We took four panniers less than our trip to India, but we are still a long way from being light-tourers.
After a night in Zaragoza and a morning spent searching for fuel for our camping stove, we jumped on the train to Huesca. It’s a rattley 2 carriage-affair that trundles up to the French border. A friendly old guy strikes up conversation and Ioan stares wide-eye in bemusement. ‘What?’ I ask. ‘Nothing. It’s just you can kind of speak Spanish‘. I can’t really speak Spanish, I can make myself understood in basic phrases and I can understand people – a bit. But it is more than I can do in Romanian. It is a source of great shame, which I do nothing to address, that after living in a country on and off for nearly 3 years I can barely introduce myself and ask for a kilo of carrots. I lived in Spain for 18 months, over 10 years ago, and here I am blabbing away (mostly incoherently and with a lot of sign language) with an old geezer discussing how the train can’t continue into France because of the change of track gauge, how many Romanians there are working on the farms around here and how quickly they pick up Spanish.
I selected Huesca as the start point of this cycling journey and it is 5pm by the time our train arrives. It is a 100km straight line from here to the French border but I have planned a little detour through the Parque Natural de la Sierra y Canones de Guara. We have failed to locate any fuel and end up buying 4 litres of kerosene from a hardware store on the edge of town, which Ioan straps to the back of his bike. Emergency snacks are bought and we set off into the frontier lands. It is hot and we are uncomfortable, having failed to change into appropriate cycling gear. We feel like rookies, why the hell have we so much stuff, why have we no proper food for tonight; it is day one and alread there is friction of all kinds. And yet here we are cycling down a road in northern Spain as the sun begins to lessen its grip and the breeze of twilight blows in. Ancient stone villages, sit amongst fields of almond trees and ripening wheat, framed by the limestone walls of the Sierra de Guara; this is the latest canvas upon which we will mark a path.
It is dark when we pitch our tent at the welcoming campsite, it is late but this is Spain and there is food available so we sit down to a simple yet delicious plate of food. I am restless that night, convinced that the route I have plotted is too far. We only have 5 days before we rendevous with my friends at Contis-le-Plage on the Atlantic coast between Biarritz and Bordeaux. I suspect I have the start of a urinary tract infection (seriously already!), I take one of the many potions I’ve packed for such eventualities and I lie there fretting. We can’t make it, we will have to rethink the route, retrace this evenings’ 30km and take that straight line to the border instead. But I know we won’t go back and on yet another trip to the toilet block that night I look up into the starlit depths of the moonless sky and see a massive shooting star and I know no matter what this journey throws at us it will be worth it.
Note from Liz: I appreciate this is not the most riveting read but all journeys start somewhere.