Thursday, 30 June 2011

Les Cabannes to Axat

Les Cabannes to Axat

Ian went the direct Route des Cols, over the Col de Pailheres (second highest pass in the Pyrenees), and then into the Aude valley.  Again having to travel north, then east, then south, I arrived not long before he did, at a lovely little campsite at Axat, high up a forest track.  The foret dominiales here are massive and go on for miles!

After lunch I went for a cycle up the valley de Rebenty, across to Aunat in the hills, to the Col de Notre Dame and then back down the Aude valley.  It was a superb 27ml circuit, following rivers, through towering gorges, out onto plateaus and farmland, and then steeply back down to Axat.  The weather took a turn for the worse whilst I was out, with thunder rumbling around the tops of the hills and lightening flashing too close for comfort.  At Bessedes, I thought about pulling in for a while, but pulled myself together and pedalled as fast as I could down the valley.  Steam rising from the rain-soaked, hot roads, gave the appearance of descending into hell, which did nothing for my nerves!

Anyway back safe and extremely wet again!  That evening we sat under the awning watching the lightening flashing in the hills, and the storm clouds moving up the valley from the south.  It was dramatic, and the sky was a strange colour of metal grey and pink.  The rain poured down in buckets, and in fact I did a bit of recycling and filling large buckets up with rain water, which poured off the awning, and then syphoned it into the van, a la Ray Mears!


Marie climbing to Route des Corniches
Ian’s second “day off”/ Caves of Niaux twinned with Creswell, Mansfield!!!

Ian’s day off started with an early morning cycle with me, up a quiet lane out of Les Cabannes, on the Route de Cornichons, through little hameaux and hills above the road to Andorra in the valley below, and with views of the mountains in the distance.  Steep to start with, and then very pleasant, skirting meadows and plateaux, through little villages, and up to the Chateau, remains of a Cathar stronghold, set high on a hill.  Montsegur is not far away, but will have to wait for another visit, but we’re hoping to see the chateau of Peyrepertuse, which is supposed to be stunning.

After lunch, we set off for the caves of Niaux, a few miles back down the road to Foix.  Visits by appointment only, and I’d previously called in and arranged that yesterday.  Famous for its wall drawings in black and red, about 800m deep inside the cave in the Salon Noir.  Extraordinary, sophisticated drawings of bison, horses, and  ibex, so accurately drawn with perspective, using the cave wall features to depict shoulders and tails, they could have been painted yesterday!  But they’ve been carbon-dated at 14,000 years ago, in something called the Magdalenian period.  There was a dramatic moment, when the guide turned off all the torches and we left in total darkness, whilst one of our American visitors sang Amazing Grace, to demonstrate the acoustic beauty of the place!  We all stood there in silence in the dark, for a few minutes.  I realised I’d never been in total darkness before, and it was quite special.  To stand in the same place where 14000 years ago, homo sapiens  had been depicting animals, that they worshipped or at least revered!

Entrance to cave
The guide asked us where we were from, and told us that there were some cave carvings found about 7years ago, in, get this, Creswell Crags, just down the road from us at Worksop.  He was so enthusiastic about them, gave us a leaflet and everything.  It was bizarre to travel all this way to the border with Spain, to pick up a leaflet advertising a cave, about 30miles away from home.  So we promised we’d pay it a visit.  It was so important to him, and he added that it had initiated a whole new era of reference called the Creswellian period in artistic and cultural history!!  Well, well!

Enough culture!  Back to the aire for a beer in the sun and catch-up with the blog stuff!  Still haven’t managed to post blogs yet, without Wi-Fi in all locations up to now!  But we’ve managed to catch up with the girls and find out where they’re up to.  Haven’t seen Lily’s face for a while now and I’m missing here, or as I like to call her “Lickle Pickle”!  Kate and Michael skyped Andrew and Lizzy a few days ago, and said Lily looked great!

Seix to Les Cabannes

Les Cabannes
From Seix to Les Cabannes, still in Ariege

Gradually working our way through the Midi-Pyrenees, and still in the Ariege region.  Ian set off over the Cols de La Trappe, D’Agnes, and the Port de Lers before dropping down to the village of Vicdessos and later Les Cabannes.  I followed the easy road to St Girons, and its massive paper-making factory, then on to the medieval town of Foix, with imposing castle, and then Tarascon-sur-Ariege and on to a “aire” at Les Cabannes, another tiny little village.  Today was good – a visit to a artisat cooperative to buy goodies like home-grown herbal tisane, home-made chocolate from Foix, elderflower digestif of 12per cent proof, and best of all some lovely hand-crafted buttons, made from local birch and fruit woods and finished and drilled locally.  A little chat with the owner confirmed that houses in the area are bought up as second-homes by English and Dutch.  The town, Castelnau Durban is full of traffic and people for a few short months in the summer, but closed from the second week of September onwards.  So glad to be here when it’s so quiet and people have time to make conversation, but absolutely dead at night.  Good job we’re not interested in night-life, and are quite happy with a glass of wine, The Wire dvd, and an early night.

Much hotter today, and sunny all day.  The landscape changed to more Mediterranean almost upon leaving Foix.  It was such a clear change, or was it just the weather.  Forecast for the next few days – hot and sunny.  At last!!!

Into the Ariege

Into Ariege/ Seix to be specific

Woke to a miserable 15deg and rain!  Ian’s got a long, hilly but not dramatic day ahead, which is as well, because he’s not going to see anything!

They’ve had a lot of rain recently, and the drive north to St Gaudin and east to St Girons was miserable and uninviting.  It was a relief to be heading south again into what I can imagine would be pretty countryside, if it weren’t so miserable!  Little site just outside Oust near the river Salat, and quite expensive at 19euros, plus 7 for the washer/dryer- which we need now!

I did a cycle on my own up and around the Col de Serrailles, but not to top.  Just as I set off, Ian arrived absolutely frozen, so I left him to it, soup in the pan, and cup of tea brewing!  My cycle was very scenic up to a lovely meadow/plateau called the Prat de Cominac.  Absolutely beautiful but miserable weather, and very wet.

We went for a wander early evening into yet another sleepy, empty village with posters of yet another fete we’d missed, the night before- the fete of Sent Joan, with a bonfire and all that!  It seems that a lot of these little villages are filled with people/second-home owners, between the months of July and August, and are closed for much of the remainder.  Local shops advertise that they will be open from the rest of June, 7 days a week, until early September, but there like ghost towns until then!

Col de Peyresoude

Col de Peyresourde and Bagneres de Luchon

A short but steep day for Ian over the Col de Peyresourde, and a convoluted drive for me north to Lannemezan, east and then finally south to Bagneres-de-Luchon, another town celebrated for its “Therme” or spa.  Most of the towns around here are once-famous spa towns with “eaux vives”.  Lovely grand hotels, many sadly now closed.  Sanitation isn’t such a big deal now and clean water’s everywhere, so these once much visited places seem quite sad and empty!

Talking of “sad and empty”, I had a long conversation with the proprietor of the camp site before I left.  He’s been running the site for over 20years and has never known it so quiet.  We were the only people on site last night, and nobody booked in for some time.  Now we like it like this.  We’ve never booked a site and they’ve always been extremely quiet, in contrast to the aires which have been surprisingly full!  The guy was really depressed about the future, saying that the economy has put most people off going on holiday, and I didn’t tell him about the situation re: aires!  He even suggested that we could do with a war to give people work and prosperity!  Interesting! 

Anyway off to an aire near centre of Bagneres-de-Luchon.  Free overnight accommodation (but last night’s site only cost 13euros), and good to be in town tonight, as we’ll be in the middle of nowhere tomorrow.  As usual aire nearly full!  We aim to have a meal in town, if we’ve got overnight stay for free, and anyway, we’re ready for a meal out by then!  Ate quite cheaply at a local brasserie.  Great, fresh food- salmon, fennel, pepper and rice and fruit salad to follow. 

That afternoon, I went for a cycle just up and down the valley, a fast 20miles, averaging 14.6mph, fastest I’ve done so far, thanks to go-faster bib-shorts, or pervy-pants as I like to call them, which Ian bought me for my birthday some months hence!!

Col de Tourmalet

Col de Tourmalet- Col d’Aspin and Vielle Aure

Ian set off at about 9am, whilst I took my time and re-filled supplies at the local Carrefour.  Then off north to Lourdes, Tournay and then south towards the high Pyrenees and Spain again.  I could have taken the same route as Ian, and would have done but the weather was poor- misty, drizzly and cold.  The route directly east goes over the Tourmalet and then over Col d’Aspin and then on to the campsite at Vielle Aure in the Aure valley, just beyond Arrau.  The drive over was a delight in spite of the poor weather.  Rolling wooded hills- a bit like an expanded version of Monsal Dale!

Ian arrived pretty promptly- 43 miles and 6800’ climbing, and was frozen.  A couple of cups of hot tea and lunch later and he was feeling a lot better.  I set off to do some of the Aspin climb, but found it a nice gradient and continued on to the top, 1470m.  But it was cold and raining near the top, and the warmth of the success of getting to the top at a good pace, without stopping wasn’t enough to stop me shivering!  The route down was a bit scary because it was really wet, but at least not so steep, occasionally 8%, but mainly 6%.  I tried to exorcise my demons of downhill fears, but still had to stop a few times to hug my hands and get some feeling back in them.  It’s really taken me aback, how hard coming down is.  I think I hate it more than going up!!

Luz Ardiden
It was my turn to need hot tea and took ages to warm up.  It’s so cold, but our friendly host assures us that it will be sunny tomorrow.  Very warm and friendly in this area.  Ian is about half-way though this year’s odyssey.  I’m amazed at how strong he is at climbing this year.  He’s really improved, but the down side is I’ve lost my cycling buddy!!

Meeting cousin Martin

Meeting up with cousin Martin and Jo and their family

In the morning, we decided to have a go at Luz Ardiden climb, before travelling down the Gave de Gavarnie to meet up with Martin and Jo at Arras-Lavedan.  For me a challenge, but for Ian a day off, “leg-turner”!  14k and 1000m climb through wooded hills, and gradients of 9%!  I’d forgotten how hard these horrible ski station climbs are.  The weird thing is that coming down is easily as painful, with hands straining to grip the brakes!  I had to stop just to get sensation back into numb fingers.  Bit more frightened after falling off and that’s made going downhill much tougher!!  May be being negative, but it was a crap route!  Chased up by hundreds of flies, who were going faster than me and had to stop once to recover from swallowing on of my companions!  Once on summit, what could you say about it- it’s a ski station- not much to look at, no facilities, no celebration orange juice and fizzy water!  Rubbish!

At start of walk in Gavarnie
Once recovered from the stinky downhill, we set off to Arras-Lavedan to visit my cousin.  I haven’t seen him for about 36years, and he and his twin brother were only about four years old when I last saw him, running around the tent on one of the joint camping holidays in Norfolk we had together with my uncle and dad’s families.  He , Jo and their three children have been living out in France for eight years, in a lovely old house in the Pyrenees.  It was great to catch up with them, or really get to know them from scratch.  It was great that we seemed to get on so well and had lots to talk about.  We admired the way they had taken up residence in France, both being able to speak the language really well, in spite of little before they went out there, but they have put themselves out there, and circulated with the locals.  Their daughter was born out there, and so they have that necessary contact with other parents, pushing them to communicate in French.  Ian and I had also forgotten what it’s like to have a young family, and how there’s always something to do.  All too soon, we had to be off, but promised that we would come back and see them all again.  There’s so much still to do in this area, particularly walking and cycling.  So we’ll definitely be returning. 

We returned to Luz-St-Sauveur and changed into Sunday best to go and watch some Pyreneean Singing, which had been advertised near the old church.  I’d hoped it would outside in the open-air, with the mountains in the background, but the performance was in the church, which is beautiful but sombre.  We hung around outside to measure whether we were up for sitting inside, only to hear the durge-like tune of “Auld langs Syne” sung in French.  Didn’t hang around!  They’d highjacked that famous Scottish anthem, and tried to pass it off as Pyreneean.  Ian needed no second chance.  He never wanted to go anyway!  So back to the van, and a “digestif” still dressed in best frock, and smart shirt!!

After 3 days here, it’s starting to feel like home and we’ll definitely re-visit “Les Cascades” and its welcoming owner.

Aramits - Luz

Aramits- Luz-St-Sauveur

Big day for Ian (and me!).  Ian set off as usual at about 9am with two big climbs ahead- Col de Marie-Blanque (1300m) and Col d’Aubisque(1710m) and a long day (74miles) to the campsite at Luz St Sauveur.  A total of 8800’ ascent!  And it proved to be no picnic for me either, with a scary mountain route!  I had the choice between driving north to Lourdes and then south to Argeles-Gazost, or the more direct route with half the distance, but over the Col d’Aubisque ahead of Ian.  I chose the latter.  Mountain passes in the Alps had been exciting, with fabulous views and I’d felt totally safe on wide, well-surfaced roads.  The Pyreneean roads are entirely different, being very narrow with few spread out passing places.  So my heart was in my mouth!  It was just about OK as long as I didn’t meet any more campervans coming the other way.  The scariness was compounded by swirling mist and cloud at the summit, so I was heartily glad to be over the other side and back down the valley to what seemed like an interesting place to stay at Argeles-Gazost.  But we couldn’t .  We were to camp further down the valley, past where my cousin, Martin, lives at Arras –Lavendan, and to a great little site perched up the hillside at Luz-Saint-Sauveur.  Very quiet with one bar/restaurant open and several others closed!  Another very sleepy but pretty village, with a chapel dating back to the 11thcentury.  The Tour de France will be coming through here on July 14 and its another staging post on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  A sign at the Cirque de Gavarnie informed that Compostela was 915km away!

I arrived and “pitched” the van and set off on a gentle but definite climb up to the Cirque de Gavarnie.  Uphill all the way, in worsening weather (Ian later told me that it had been lovely back at the van), but when I finally arrived 13miles/one and a half hours later, the view of the cirque was awesome- a magnificent grey, mountainous barrier separating France from Spain.  Towering mountains and waterfalls, which you couldn’t see the top of because of clouds and mist.  Can’t wait to bring Ian back here tomorrow.  Back down the hill and really cold by the time I reached the site, but hot showers soon sorted that out.

We have now left the Basque area and are in the Haute Pyrenees – signs are in French only! After  a hard day we decided to eat out at La Tasca in Luz – very good food but ate too much and suffered all night! Ian said that chicken was almost as good as his “Sunday Tea Special”!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

France 2011

France  June 2011

After overnight at the Black Horse Farm site near Folkestone, we were off on the early ferry to Calais.  Although going west, and Caen being considerably nearer, the ferries to Caen seemed very expensive, so we opted for the cheaper route, which meant a long drag across the north of France, before making real headway.

First overnight saw us on an aire in Vouvray .  Toilet but no other facilities, but free.  On the banks of the river Cisse, running alongside the Loire. We’d driven down overtaken by hundreds of Morgans, Porsches, Jaguar to name but a few famous makes of sports car, all heading down to the Le Mans 24 hr.grand prix, on 11/12 June.  Recession- what recession!

 First impressions- not much to do in Vouvray,  other than visiting palatial old vineyards, which are lined up one after another alongside the Loire.

After a long drag the day before, we lined up a much shorter day to La Rochelle, and were there just in time for a moules and frites late lunch.  We parked the van on a busy little aire on a large car park just 10mins walk from the city.  Great spot and again free, but no facilities at all.  We really enjoyed our time in La Rochelle- walking through the park, and then near the impressive three towers in the port.  They used to stretch a chain across between the two towers either side of the port entrance, to stop undesirables arriving at night.

The third stage of our journey was towards Bayonne, in the Basque region- different, indecipherable language, which looks nothing like any of the “romantic” languages.  Lampposts plastered with protest posters showing photos of young political prisoners.  Road signs where the French alternative (given precedence) is scrawled out in favour of the basque.  For all that, we found people extremely friendly and welcoming and unused to speaking English.

I dropped Ian off on the first stage of his Trans-Pyreneean cycle, from a cul-de-sac in Bayonne, and arranged to meet him at another aire in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Donalbane Garatzis in Basque, in a car park at the back of a Carrefour supermarket.  Fantastically close to town but absolutely no facilities- Ian having to use the local “pissoire” before setting off on the next stage of his tour!  So we don’t always stay in beautiful locations!  We really like Saint Jean with its Vauban garrison fortifications, and its 13th century buildings and its steep inner streets.  Lovely relaxed, quiet feel to the place, and would go back again.  It is a stop on the Santiago de Compostelle pilgrimage and only 5miles from the Spanish frontier.  Road signs for Pamplona and Zaragoza to be seen along route.