Tag Archives: France

28-day Field Test: Osprey Stratos 36 L backpack

The pack rides well and holds a decent amount without the overburdened, hunched-over Boy Scout look that 50+ L packs can lend their users.

I mentioned in my last blog that I wasn’t thrilled with the way my backpack performed on the Camino. The pack I used is an Osprey Stratos 36 L, though I think because I bought the larger size to fit my height, it really has a capacity of 38 L. Speaking of this, I’m not particularly thin, but toward the end of the Camino, when I’d dropped some weight, the tighteners on my hip belt nearly touched, leaving me little leeway if I lost any more weight. Basically, if you’re tall and thin, check the fitting on this pack very carefully – you may not be able to tighten the hip belt so it carries the weight of the pack as it should.

Osprey lists this pack as a day hiker/overnighter. In my opinion, 36 L is overkill for a day bag, unless you’re climbing with ropes and can make use of the ice axe loop and clip on the back. That said, it carries a full load nicely, and I suppose if you had back problems and wanted something with a little more support, this might work as a day hiking pack. The suspension is great, and they’ve designed the bag to carry the load away from your back, allowing for a lot more ventilation and more comfortable carriage.

Though she’s not as hard on her gear, Anne-Claire’s pack of the same model took a full summer of abuse in 2011 at the hands of baggage throwers on three continents and bush taxi middlemen throughout North and West Africa.

I bought this bag because Anne-Claire got the same model before our trip last year, and it held up well to the traveling we did. Being limited to 36 liters is actually a plus for a long trip because you’re less likely to pack stuff you don’t need. The pack by itself is exceptionally light and has some well thought out features, like access to the main compartment through a zippered door, as well as the main draw string entry at the top, and two roomy pockets on the hip belt for easy access to things like a pocket knife or a camera. There’s also another one on the right shoulder strap big enough for a small cellphone. Like pretty much any backpack for sale these days, there’s a hydration sleeve in the main compartment and rigging for a drinking hose.

After less than a week of hiking and only a couple of (carry-on) flights, the strap that attaches the top compartment to the main part of the pack just pulled free.

Osprey’s also created a convenient trekking pole holder with a bungee at the bottom of one side of the bag and then another on the left shoulder strap. I used this attachment frequently on the Camino, as it was nice to have my hands free when we were going through towns, and to just hold my arms in a different position for a change of pace.

This system doesn’t work well once you take your pack off, however. The attached trekking poles then become a sort of sliding weapon, and more than once I nearly took out elderly Spanish women as I was taking my pack off with the trekking poles stowed in place. For long term storage of the poles, I collapsed them to their smallest size and affixed them to the back of the pack with the ice axe holder.

Shoddy quality control. My guess is a simple inspection at the factory (and one by me at the store before I bought) would have revealed a prematurely fraying piece of webbing. Every other Osprey owner I’ve talked to really likes his/her pack.

Unfortunately, about 24 days into our hike, the fabric in the trekking pole attachment on the shoulder strap broke through, rendering the system useless and irreparable without some heavy-duty sewing equipment.

The biggest issue with the pack cropped up much earlier than that. Around day 5 or 6, I went to tighten the strap that attaches the top pouch to the main part of the pack. Without warning, the webbing pulled loose from its stitching. A simple fix involved tying the fraying end to one of the compression straps that goes around the water bottle holder. I did this once, and it held for the rest of the trip, causing no further problems.

The real issue I have with this pack is a lack of confidence in its construction. Yes, the broken webbing was easy to fix, but I’ve been concerned ever since that something else might break. To Osprey’s credit, they responded quickly when I sent them photos of the problem. They said they’d replace the pack when I returned and that I could make field repairs, presumably authorizing me to do something that would ordinarily void the warranty.

I haven’t gone through this process, as I plan to just return it to REI and get a different pack all together. I’m not suggesting Osprey’s not a quality brand. On the contrary, I think their lifetime guarantee sets a standard for the industry, and if I wasn’t as hard on packs, I’d be inclined to try a different model.

Wearing in the boots: Roncesvalles through Pamplona

We left our pristine hostel attached to a stunning 12th century church in Roncesvalles. The signpost at the edge of town says Santiago de Compostela is 790 kilometers away, though by foot it should be a bit shorter.

After crossing the Pyrenees the day before, we spent much of our second day ambling through pine forests and in and out of sleepy farm towns in the Basque countryside. The island of Euskadi (Basque Country) straddling the mountains is fascinating, in part because it’s so tough to find out much about the people who live here. A language resembling neither French nor Spanish in any discernible way presents the first barrier. I get the impression that there’s a secrecy to the culture, a pride that depends little on what others outside think. But this is just a gut feeling, as I’ve done little primary research.

Adding to the air of mystery is an undercurrent of witchcraft and mythology. I’ll try to look up the story about the statue to the right welcoming pilgrims into Roncesvalles.

Aches and pains have started to pop up that either weren’t an issue or were masked by adrenalin and excitement. Still, it’s a privilege to watch the landscape change with each step. After lunch, we climbed through the rather ugly industrial town of Zubiri to one of the countless hillside villages paved in cobblestones with walls lined in rose bushes in full bloom. Often you can smell the villages before you see them.

We spent the night in Larrasoana. Just a few days in, we’ve picked up on a bit of frustration with the pilgrims, which is understandable. In general, we’ve found most of us are pretty respectful, but mob mentality takes over a bit and we can be a selfish lot, descending in huge groups on tiny towns, demanding dinner and beds and then taking off the next day. So I’m a bit resigned to the idea that most of the people we meet will be fellow travelers not locals, with a few momentary exceptions here and there.

Let’s start with the travelers. Speaking English makes walking the Camino easy (and traveling in general, I suppose). But Anne-Claire’s French has opened us up to a larger swath of pilgrims. We had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick from Paris and Claude from Quebec at dinner. Claude speaks English, so we had a nice mélange of that and French and enjoyed sharing a meal with them. They both start from Le Puy in France about a month ago. They’d walked together their first three days, then had been separated until just a few days ago, when they ran into each other at a tiny stopover on the way over the Pyrenees called Orisson.

They passed us on the trail the next morning when we’d stopped for breakfast. This is how the Camino goes, I’m told – you see people, make flickering connections and only providence will allow you to meet again.

Much of the rest of the day was spent hiking up to, through and past Pamplona. After the countryside, the bustle of the town’s cars and people were a little overwhelming to us, so we didn’t linger too long, though once again, I was impressed at how beautiful Pamplona is – parks, monuments and a festive atmosphere beg for another visit.

We stopped for lunch in a suburb 5 km outside of town, only to realize we had little cash and were headed to an even smaller town up in the hills for the night. Even what the guidebook calls an “affluent dormitory community of Pamplona” didn’t have an ATM, so Anne-Claire walked a few kilometers to remedy the problem.

We arrived that night in a tiny town that was little more than the hostel and a massive church to find a near-empty hostel (one of the benefits of going just a bit farther each night than the guide suggests). The two other occupants

were none other than Patrick and Claude. We laughed off the day’s toils and shared a bit about our families over beers and the ham and chorizo that Patrick always keeps in his pack, before embarking on a tedious dinner, thanks to a few late-arriving guests. I’m striving to keep snark and cynicism out of this blog, so if you want to hear the story, perhaps we can share a few beers (and some cured meats) in person.

First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.

Ryan Air and Tribulations

Since leaving Bruges, our travels have been a whirlwind, leaving me little time to write. Even though our time until now has felt like a prequel to the main thrust of our trip, I’ll try to hit a few of the high points in the next post or two since coming back to France and setting out on our hike. Visiting Anne-Claire’s friends was, as always, a pleasure.

Flying into Marseille with Ryan Air was easy, though seeing how a cattle call boarding system flushes away people’s consideration and manners is demoralizing (and more than a bit humbling when you yourself get caught up in the pushing and shoving). It’s a bit like the Southwest Airlines system used to be in the States, except that you can only bump yourself up to the priority line by paying more, not by checking in earlier. I’m convinced Ryan Air’s staff deliberately make the path wide enough for four or five people, and that they snicker when the real elbowing begins as you approach the jetway and hand over your ticket.

Anne-Claire carried her bag on, so as soon as she saw people begin to queue up to board, she politely went around the barriers and would’ve been third or fourth in line had a few fellow passengers not slipped under the lines. It’s an interesting psychological experiment: the barriers for the line are set up well before a flight takes off. I suppose if the boarding time does approach, Ryan Air’s ticket takers would call for everyone to get in line, but I doubt this has ever happened.

It’s sort of like game theory, in that each passenger is balancing their comfort waiting for the flight with their desire to have a good seat and overhead space for their bags. But as soon as someone decides the latter is more important and grabs the first place, his/her fellow passengers cascade into line. It might be interesting some time to pick an arbitrary Ryan Air flight, wait until there’s a critical mass of people and then jump into line at a ridiculous time just to watch the line form quickly.

But as I said, we arrived safely in Marseille, just like everyone else, whether they were first or last in line.

Bicycle Heaven

No matter how many times I’ve visited cities in Europe, I’m always impressed at the conventions in place for bicyclists. This is especially true in Bruges, Belgium. We took a short detour there between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. It’s out of necessity, to be sure. Driving is so expensive – parking, tolls and the cost of gasoline (some would say the true cost) add up quickly, as we found out on a 500-km trip from Aix-en-Provence to Cahors on Saturday. Highway tolls for the journey added up to roughly €35, and even in our fuel-efficient, manual transmission Corsa hatchback, we spent about €65 on gasoline – that’s more than $7.50 a gallon, even with the declining value of the euro. Only a weekend special at Hertz (one day for €25) made it more economical to rent a car instead of buying two train tickets.

But to get back to the question of bicycles, cycling is often the most practical way to get around. Cities like Paris and Bruges (which we visited after Paris) are mostly flat; Montmartre in Paris is of course a big exception. Tightly concentrated city centers often make it quicker to pedal than get behind a steering wheel for short trips. Undoubtedly, the role cycling plays in mobilizing all segments of the population makes it easier to justify concessions to cyclists. Paris is dotted with ingenious bike rental stations – just swipe your

credit card and you can ride to anywhere else in the city where there’s another station for a euro or two an hour. In the States, well-established bike lanes and “sharrows” indicating that bicyclists can “share” the road with cars are heralded as pinnacles of bike friendliness. But what often happens is that sharrows are ignored and drivers often see the white line as a restriction to keep cyclists from impeding vehicle progress, rather than as a protected space for the cyclists, which they’re allowed to leave if they need to turn or there’s something in their way. Drivers in the U.S. show little consideration for bikers, I think because they’re seen as more of a nuisance rather than travelers on the road with equal rights.

To be sure, cyclists as a group bring a lot of this frustration on themselves. When bikers don’t follow the rules of the road – for example, ignoring stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, riding the wrong way – drivers have little choice but to expect the worst from every two-wheeler they see. I wrote an article several years ago about an experienced cyclist who made a fatal mistake in not leaving his bike lane when he should have.

To deal with the ambiguity in how bicyclists behave and drivers react to them, Paris has detailed markings on the road to indicate exactly where cyclists should go. In the picture at the left, the arrows continue, leading bicycles into a safe left-hand turn at a busy intersection.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s difficult to retrofit streets designed expressly for cars with bicycle lanes, but this doesn’t hold much water when you realize that much narrower streets in Europe built centuries before those in America now support many times more cyclists than those in the U.S. probably ever will. In Bruges, they’ve managed this by giving cyclists more rights than drivers. On narrow, one-way (for vehicles) streets, cyclists zip in both directions. When things get clogged up and there’s no room to pass, drivers just wait. Outside the walls of the city, cyclists have a dedicated section of the sidewalk and their own lights to allow them to cross busy streets.

Obviously, this is something I feel strongly about, perhaps for a couple of reasons. One – cycling is just plain fun and great exercise. It’s no coincidence that Europeans, who rely more one walking and biking for transporation, have lower rates of obesity than we Americans (though this is changing). Two – few forms of transport are as egalitarian as cycling. For a fraction of the cost of an automobile, most of us can buy a bike that we can ride to work and use for errands. That means, with the right support system in place including good public transporation, the bicycle can be a tool for upward mobility between classes.

I think there’s a tendency when traveling to want to believe that everything new and different is better than the way you know. I certainly fall into that trap from time to time. In fact, exposure to new ideas one of the reasons I love to travel. After some reflection, you decide what practices are worth keeping and which you can do without. But in their approach to bikes, I think Europeans have it right.