Tuesday, 21 October 2014

En passant : days 18-25, Bagneres de Luchon. Le fin de cette voyage

I'm in the geographic centre of the Pyrenees. My French guide book eulogizes Luchon. But its more dodo than bo-bo. I lose track of the number of grand hotels that are closed / under renovation. One street doesn't seem to have any enterprises open any more. This is a quiet spa town that has seen better days! But it's a good place to be for a few days rest, writing and recuperation before taking on the long haul (1200 km) back to BXL. Time to swap my white summer panama for a black winter trilby!

Une maison a retaper?

Friday, 17 October 2014

En passant day 17

Andorra la Velha - La Seu D'Urgell - Sort - Puerta de la Bonaiqua (2084 m) - Eth Portillon (1298m) - Bagneres de Lucheron (195km)

The longest day's drive yet- as this is the biggest gap between road passes along the whole of the Pyrenean chain (80km or so as the crow flies). Also the most scenic - on a gloriously sunny autumn day and my fisrt glimpse of snow clad 3000m+ peaks. I'm posting more than my (self-imposed) 6-7 photos a day!

En Passant days 15 and 16 - andorra la Vella

Two days outside of the EU! It was overcast and rainy and I felt claustrophobic amid the designer labels shops and stuck deep in a narrow valley - where for my stay at least the sun never seemed to shine. But I got to see an international football match (for free!). And I found a wine that won a gold medal at Biofach (the world's largest organic trade fair) for less than 3 Euros a bottle. I took the last three!

Monday, 13 October 2014

En passant- the Pyrenean Trip day 14: The day of the high passes

Llivia (1200m)- Col de Puymorens (1920m) - Pas de la Casa (2085) - Porte d'Envalira (2408m) - Andorra la Vella (ca. 1050m) 73 KM

Today is the day of high passes. Three big ones - including Porte d'Envalira, the highest road pass in the Pyrenees and one of the highest roads in Europe. The prognosis is not good. The cloud level is about 200 metres above Llivia - the lower peaks around the town are visible, but the higher ones - visible most of the last two days - are masked. Carpe Diem.

About 5km out of Llivia the road starts to climb following the River Carol and though I'm going into the cloud there are encouraging breaks in it too, revealing the magical interplay between land and sky that I have been watching in the Cerdagne for the past two days.

As I continue climbing the clouds grow thick, the rain heavy and then - at around 1600m - I break through the clouds - into sunshine and rain - and a wonderful auspicious sight for the journey ahead.


And I needed auspicious omens. Last night I read that British citizens need a valid passport to enter Andorra. While my passport is valid –it’s 'only just valid'. It runs out in two days time and I am planning to stay three days in Andorra. (There is a reason for this lapse that goes beyond mere oversight on my behalf! In May the Passport Office had a huge backlog of passport applications with a return time of three months - a situation that was so badly managed that the Director General of the Passport Office was asked to resign. I didn't want to be without a passport for three months and kept monitoring the wait-time and figured that things would get better after the summer holiday rush - without realising I would prolong my stay in France until after its due date). That may have a pay back now - but it shouldn't be an issue. I have a valid Belgian residence permit - and ironically the only time I need my passport in Europe (even when visiting former satellites of the USSR) is when I go back to Britain. But you never know.

I make the top of the first pass under skies that changed in rapid succession from blue to cloudy, but never turn into a full-on mist or cloud. About 200m below the pass I go above the tree line - just a few shrubs hanging on in here and there. There are some really exposed stretches of road with truly vertiginous drops - but equally inspiring views to the peaks above and the valleys below. And the road surface shows the effects of repeated exposure to expansions and contractions caused by being frozen for 4-5 months a year. This is white knuckle stuff.

The massive hotel cum restaurant at the top of the pass is for sale – too many hard winters maybe? And then it’s a 4km cruise down to a pass where two national routes join up. The one I've been one was almost deserted. The one I join is like the road to Brighton on a sunny bank holiday, crawling with cars going to and from France and Andorra. Geez - I know Andorra was a popular shopping location - but I didn't realise it was that popular (although it is a Sunday). So I join the multitude of cars heading up the mountain in search of tax free earthly delights. A few more kilometres of delightful (or desperate) hair pin bends and we're at the Andorran border: a moment of truth. I slow down to wind my window but the border guards just wave me through. The same isn't true in the other direction. The French customs seem to be taking seriously their job of ensuring people don't abuse their tax free shopping privileges. There's a three kilometre tail back / traffic jam (at 2000 metres altitude in the mountains) to get through French customs - and this at 12.30 in the morning. One can only guess what it's like on a Sunday evening.

Three kilometres over the border stands the village of Pas le Casa - possibly the world's highest tax free shopping zone? Its rampant consumerism: shops selling tax free everything : booze, smokes, electronics, perfumes, sports kit, kitchen items, pharmaceuticals (apparently Andorra is rather more lax in its laws than its neighbours about what can be bought over the counter). It’s like being in Oxford Street on Christmas Eve – except it’s the lights aren’t up yet, its on a one in three hill and they haven’t pedestrianized it yet. Oh - and if you look above the buildings you a surrounded by a wonderful vista of 2500m + peaks. But it’s not wise to look above the buildings – because the roads are choc–a- block with cars dawdling and looking for somewhere to park and with weary shoppers who have forgotten the basic rules of the Highway Code– who just wander out into the middle of the road with their armfuls of tax free shopping expecting oncoming traffic to stop for them. Everybody seems to be in blind junkie-like state of consumerism. Which is possibly not surprising – they probably mostly got up very early in the morning – drove one, maybe two, hundred kilometres in a major traffic jam to an altitude of 2000m and are now confronted with all the goods they ever wanted (and many they never even thought they did want) at silly knock- down January sale prices.

It takes me about three quarters of an hour to navigate through about 2 kilometres of Babylon. Second time around I get lucky and find the road to Porte d'Envalira. Yes, there is a tunnel that cuts off the pass and it’s far quicker, less fuel-consuming (and in winter more reliable) but what’s the point of trying to traversing every Pyrenean road-pass if you don’t do the highest one? Twenty minutes later my car is at 2400m (with the temperature gauge still only three quarters towards ‘hot - you should pull over now’) and I‘m gazing down into the one valley that really makes up Andorra. And sitting there for a moment I think what an ecological idiocy it is that all this stuff is being freighted in (probably from Barcelona - the nearest sea port) driven up to 2000m altitude so that french tourists can create a traffic jam in the mountains in order to buy the stuff 20% (or so) cheaper than they can at home. Ah the ways of the world!

A few minutes over the brow of the pass a herd of horses who have decided to come and look at the traffic. They are massive. I’ve never seen such big horses, both in height and girth. And they are so Zen. They just stand there in a group, hardly moving just looking at the cars while the people in the cars take photos of them. After that very welcome distraction (I spend fifteen minutes glued to the spot) I continue downwards to Andorra la Vella: thirteen hundred metres of descent in some 27KM. The weather, which has been kind to me today until now, turns. It rains heavily all the way down the valley: so much so that I decide to skip a couple of attractive looking churches and vistas on the way down. It’s just too wet. Andorran towns and villages seem much larger on the ground than the Michelin map suggests, but perhaps that’s because I am dropping down into them and have a panoramic view. I coast slowly down the valley- which sometimes seems like more than a gorge - into Andorra la Vella - the highest capital city in Europe and definitely a candidate for the prettiest.
(View from my hotel window!)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

En passant - the pyrenean trip -days 12 & 13- Llivia and environs

Llivia is a small (12 sq. km) Spanish (Catalonian?) enclave a few kilometres within French territory- the result of ambiguously worded C17th treaty that ceded the villages of northern Cerdeyna / Capcir to France, but not Llivia - as it was recognised to be a town! Seemed like an interesting place to hang out for couple of days.

Pressing the apple harvest at Err

Saturday, 11 October 2014

En Passant- the Pyrenean trip day 11

Ripoll - Ribes de Freser - Nuria (1910 m)(by rack and pin railway) - Queralbs (by foot - 7.5km distance -900m of descent!) - Ribes de Freser - Llivia (69 car km)

Ribes to Nuria