Heading Into Spain: Gothic Bridges and Pyrenean Chamois

29/10/18 – 30/10/18

We weren’t really sure what to expect from the Spanish Pyrenees. The French side of the mountains seems much more talked about in the motorhoming world, but people are generally quiet about the southern side. So we left our campsite on the coast and made our way back towards the snow dusted mountains with very little in the way of expectation. We knew there were mountains, we knew there were walks and we knew there was motorhome parking. But we didn’t have the enthusiastic input of fellow travellers to bring the area to life. 

Our route took us over the Col d’Ares on the border between France and Spain. At first the road followed the valley taking us past farms and vineyards, then it rose gradually up to the pass. The snow that had fallen while we’d been hiding in the campsite made the landscape of the pass almost monochrome. Grey skies, dark trees and white fields stirred a strange excitement in us as we contemplated walking in the snowy mountains.

Our first overnight stop was in the town of Camprodon, liberally decorated with the yellow ribbons supporting Catalan independence. The motorhome parking here was in an oddly circular parking area where the signs, according to google translate, proclaimed that we should park like barrels. The weather had turned a bit grim and grey in the afternoon but we still enjoyed a walk around the town, taking in the ‘Pont Nou’, a gothic arched bridge that delighted me with it’s steep cobbled span over the rushing river Ter.

The Pont Nou, originally built in the 12th century
The town runs alongside the river Ter
Looking across the town from our parking area

The following day the weather was improving and we decided to head up the Camprodon valley as far as possible, we drove past the various villages of the valley with their attractive stone built buildings, some ancient and some modern but all conforming to an attractive standard.

At the head of the valley is the Vallter 2000 ski area, but we were still a few hundred meters short of it’s altitude when the road became impassable (to us anyway) with a layer of icy snow.

Turning spot on the road to Vallter 2000

We turned around slowly and carefully before heading back down the road a short way to a corner where we had spotted an information board and signposts for walking trails. There was enough room for us to park up off the road and point Bertie’s solar panels roughly south. We weren’t going to stay the night but we wanted our batteries to be as charged as possible.

A quick look on the map and wikiloc found that a couple of paths, including the GR11, set off from here and could be joined in a circular walk. Our chances of completing the circular route were pretty small given the amount of snow lying on the ground but we decided to follow it as far as we could manage.

So we set off, initially up the GR11 until we turned left towards the river. We hadn’t realised that we would need to ford the river, expecting either a bridge or a stepping stone crossing, so we were a bit nonplussed when we found a raging torrent that seemed to offer no safe passage. We wandered up and down a few times, looking for the most obvious way across. Eventually we decided on a crossing slightly downstream of what must be the usual point, the river split into a couple of shallower streams which reduced it’s flow and made us much more comfortable with the crossing.

Beautiful icicles adorning the trees over the river
River crossing point, we were glad we had walking poles to aid our balance

After this we followed a path that roughly ran along the bank of the river through trees laden with snow. It wasn’t easy to stay on track, with plenty of snow on the ground covering the obvious signs of the path. Luckily we could use the GPS on our phones along with the wikiloc route to ensure we were heading in the right direction. 

After about 3km the route left the woodland and brought us out on the open mountain where the valley opened out. We sat here and drank our flasks of hot drinks, very welcome in the cool weather. As our eyes roved around the views of the valley we realised that there was a herd of animals on the grass above us. These were Pyrenean Chamois, known as Isards, small deer (well ok, actually they are ‘goat antelopes’) with short backwards curving horns. As we continued our ascent we watched them browsing on the grass, occasionally starting and dashing off for reasons we couldn’t make out.

Isards – not the best picture!

It didn’t take long before we had to turn around. The increasingly strong wind had blown the snow into deep drifts that blocked our way. After slogging through one of these drifts, up to our knees, we decided that it wouldn’t be sensible to continue and so we turned and retraced our steps. The return route was much quicker being downhill but also because we didn’t have any route finding difficulties. When we reached the river it proved embarrassingly easy to ford in this direction.

Snowy drifts
Increasing amounts of snow

That afternoon we moved to a parking spot in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, it took a couple of manoeuvres to make the sharp turn into the car park, but it was worth it for it’s tidy motorhome services and spotlessly clean public toilet. We still had plenty of time left to explore the tiny medieval town which had yet another gothic bridge as well as the remains of medieval walls and the monastery that had given the town it’s name.

The gothic arches of the bridge – this one much more heavily restored.
Doorway from the church of St Pol

Taking Shelter

27/10/18 – 28/10/18

When the forecast says heavy rain and snow then we start looking for electricity. Neither of us are particularly keen on hot hot weather, so we find we cope well enough in cool temperatures (down to about -4 overnight) so long as the days are sunny and we can replenish our electricity with solar power. In those sorts of temperatures we usually just use our gas central heating for a short while before bed and first thing in the morning. The van is insulated well enough that we don’t drop below freezing inside, and most importantly our water pipes are internal to the van and don’t freeze.

But if it’s going to rain or snow all day and the skies are overcast then we find our solar doesn’t replenish our leisure batteries fast enough to allow us to have the heating on (and we cant increase our leisure battery capacity without a bit of an overhaul of our old electrical system). And of course if it’s grim during the day then we’re not out and about raising our body temperatures with exercise, nor is Bertie getting warmed up through the greenhouse effect of the large windows, so we want the heating on for longer.

All in all it adds up to a need for electricity or to escape the drab and dreary weather.

So we ended up doing a bit of both. We were already well progressed towards the eastern end of the French Pyrenees with the coast in sniffing distance, and we knew that down on the coast there would be campsites or aires with electricity.

We settled on Argelès-sur-Mer as our destination. It’s probably the biggest resort on the coast between Perpignan and the border, it’s not that pretty or cultural, but it does have a large municipal campsite with good cheap prices (13 euros a night plus tourist tax of 0.66 cents per person per night – what an odd figure!) and it wouldn’t take us too far out of our way.

So we drove to Camping Les Roussillonaise, checked in with the friendly staff, drove around the HUGE campsite to find a pitch we fancied and settled ourselves in to weather the storm.

Obviously now we were out of the Pyrenees the weather wasn’t as wet or cold as we might have experienced, but it was still a bit dismal and high on the hills we could see the snow starting to settle. We whiled away our time doing the usual stuff, cleaning and tidying, planning the next stages of our travels, cooking, chilling and getting out of the van whenever the weather brightened up.

Argeles Plage is a long expanse of beach, but the coast to the south looks much more interesting – one to flag up for another time.

We decided that actually the town was quite nice out of season. All of the other campsites were closed and many of the tourist attractions were boarded up, but there was still some life about the place, probably helped by it being French school holidays. The seafront had a steady stream of pedestrians, the cafes and shops that were open had enough customers to make them seem friendly and welcoming. 

On the esplanade there was an interesting exhibition of undersea photography.
The town got steadily more salubrious as we moved away from the campsite and south towards the harbour.

 

Tourist Attractions at Villefranche de Confluent

26/10/18

With aching legs from our previous days drive we decided that this should be a day of sightseeing. We settled on Villefranche de Confluent as our destination as it had a selection of interesting looking tourist attractions, it was also the bottom station for the Train Jaune although we decided that we would save that for a future visit in the summer when we could try to get a seat in one of the open topped carriages.

With that destination in mind we actually drove a little way past the town to visit the Grottes des Grandes Canalettes, a tourist cave complex that appealed as we hadn’t visited any caves since Portugal last year. There was motorhome parking here, as part of the extensive parking for the caves, somewhere we thought about staying but decided against in the end.

We payed our €10 each to get into the caves, rather an expense for us, and proceeded through the tourist tat section of shopping and café into the caves themselves. The entrance way was not very dramatic and we looked at each other as if to say ‘what have we just spent our money on’. The tunnel showed the evidence of drilling by whoever had opened it up for tourists and was just rather drab brown rock. Soon, though, we were into spectacular large chambers with all sorts of formations. Unlike many caves we didn’t have a guided tour but were left to our own devices to explore the caves and read information boards, this was a blessing as it was the French school holidays and children were running around having a great time with the UV torches they had been given. We could let them get ahead of us and then take in the surroundings in peace and quiet. It must have been great for the kids too, not having to be quiet and listen to a tour guide, it definitely reduced the whinge factor.

It took us just over an hour to get our fill of the caves, as you exit there is a bit about the water cycle and the history of the caves, including the sad tale of a cave diver who died during exploration (one of THE most risky hobbies) but unfortunately it’s all in French, unlike the information boards in the caves themselves.

After our visit to the caves we lazily drove down to the walled town, using the paid parking area at the western end of the town. The parking costs weren’t extravagant so we were happy to pay up and wander into the town to take a look around.

Looking into the towns medieval streets

Paul declined a visit to Fort Liberia which perches on the cliffs above the town, he said his legs were aching far too much to tackle the ‘thousand steps’, and I wasn’t willing to pay for the 4×4 to ferry us up there. So we contented ourselves with a walk around the fortifications (4 euros each). These fortifications are one of the reasons that Villefranche de Confluent is a UNESCO world heritage site. Originally built in between the 11th and 13th century they were improved by the famous military engineer Vauban in the 17th century. Although Vauban designed defensive improvements for hundreds of French citadels, it is the 12 in this contested area of Catalonia that make up the UNESCO world heritage listing.

Inside the covered walls

We wandered around the fortifications, taking in the remaining medieval tower, the covered fortifications and occasional views of the rooftops. Because the fortifications are covered, not that high and set in the valley you don’t get far reaching views, I expect those are to be found at the top of those thousand steps. Nevertheless it was an interesting perambulation, helped by the English language information sheet we were provided at the ticket office. 

More views of the citadel
View into the citadel
One of the many fortified towers along the city walls

After getting our fill of the pleasant and very tourist oriented town we returned to Bertie and decided to move on. The weather was due to turn and we decided to wait out the rain and snow down by the coast. That afternoon we did a bit of grocery shopping and then settled into motorhome parking near Ille-sur-Tet. The parking was for another tourist attraction – the gorges of Les Orgues – but by the time we turned up the rain was falling and we didn’t have any desire to get out for a look.

Wobbly Bridges and Historic Paths in the Carança Gorge

24/10/18 – 25/10/18

We left Les Angles behind and continued south and east along the N116. This road is wide and well constructed and makes sickening large swooping turns. The tables were turned from our gorge drive a couple of days ago. Paul was thoroughly enjoying himself on the wide bends whereas I was holding on tight on the turns and unable to do anything but look ahead. The road follows the valley of the river ‘La Têt’ as does the rail line for the well known Train Jaune, a canary yellow tourist train that runs up the valley and has open topped carriages in the warmer months. In the earlier stages the road is high above the river and the rail line can be seen below, further downhill the train crosses on viaducts above the road. 

We had considered a number of places along here to stop. The area is peppered with forts, built during the period when the area was hotly contested borderland. We drove past the citadel at Mont-Louis in two minds whether to stop, but the weather was forecast to be cold and we decided to go a little lower for the opportunity to have a warmer night’s sleep.

We decided that the motorhome parking at Thues-entre-Valls would be our destination, on the map we could see a few options for walking routes and the parking had good reviews. We indicated to turn right and immediately saw a sign for a 3.5 tonne limit on the bridge, so Paul pulled back out before committing to turning and we continued a couple of hundred meters to the parking area on the main road. A discussion ensued, should we stay parked on the side of the road, ignore the weight limit or proceed onwards to another parking spot. In the end we decided to ignore the weight limit, whether we were sensible to do so I don’t know but we had observed a couple of weighty trucks driving across the bridge while we were deliberating.

The drive to the parking was a test of our nerve, across the bridge with the weight limit and then steeply up through the village, following the signs for parking through narrowish streets. We didn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction and our short drive finally rewarded us with the entrance to the car park and clear signage for the motorhome parking. The parking here has services and is €9 for the first 24 hours and €5 for each subsequent 24 hours, you take a ticket on entry and then have to pay at the machine (cash only) before leaving. We parked up in the level motorhome area under chestnut trees and breathed a sigh of relief, we’d made it!

Parked in dappled shade under the chestnut trees

By this time it was only early afternoon, but the sunny weather and sheltered position tempted us to relax outside the van rather than do anything energetic. We watched the yellow train go past a couple of times, full of holiday makers enjoying the scenery and waving from the windows. The train stops here (on request) and is another good reason for choosing this parking spot if you aren’t inclined to long walks. When we got bored we collected fat ripe chestnuts and took a wander down to the notice boards and café/kiosk to see what walks we fancied doing. We even got the BBQ out for a change although by tea time it was cooling down rapidly and so we ate inside.

The following morning we set out to walk the Carança gorge. We knew this walk was going to be exciting and exposed because of the many warning signs at the entrance to the gorge. Little did we realise just how exciting it would be and that we were at the start of one of our favourite walks in the French Pyrenees.

Entering the Gorge de Caranca

The entrance to the gorge is through an archway carved through the rock under the railway line and next to the river. The path starts quite gently, a part concrete and part rock path alongside the gorge leading to a concrete bridge where you can cross and walk up the other side of the gorge, up into the hills, or back via a hilly route to the car park. We were not crossing the bridge but continuing onwards, staying on the same side of the river and following the path as it tracked uphill becoming more rocky and exposed and then back downhill again to rejoin the river. Along the way we could see the path along the other side of the gorge, a corniche dug into the rock and realised that we were going to miss out on this spectacular section of the walk. If you are going to do the long loop like we did, I would recommend crossing the river at the first concrete bridge and proceeding along the corniche for maximum excitement, rather than the Roc de Madrieu route.

Rocky pathways along the Roc de la Madrieu side of the gorge
Pathway cut through the rocks
The corniche on the opposite side of the gorge

We reached the next bridge across the gorge about an hour from the start, this was a metal walkway with a single rope hand rail. It wasn’t that exposed but it was a taste of things to come. This is also the point at which we could have done the shorter 8km loop, by crossing this bridge and turning right we would have found the route back along the corniche to the concrete bridge and our start point.

But we weren’t heading back, we were pressing on across the bridge and further into the gorge. The path now followed the river closely, moving from one side to the other and using a selection of suspension bridges, walkways and ladders to navigate the sheer sides of the gorge. At every point there was at least a single rope handrail – the suspension bridges were very wobbly but at least had handrails on each side to help keep your balance. I let my darling husband go first across most of these obstacles as he had a habit of shaking the bridges if I went first! On the map this path was marked as ‘Sentier sur passerelles’ which interpreted as trail on gateways – I suppose the walkways were a bit like gates, laid on their sides and attached to sheer rock faces. At least I will know what this really means if I encounter it again.

Wobbly bridges
Walkways above the river
Climbing ladders

We really enjoyed this unexpected but adrenaline fuelled section of the walk. If you’ve ever done Via Ferrata this was like the very easiest of Via Ferrata without any safety equipment. It’s no surprise that dogs are not allowed on this walk, and I would caution against bringing small children this far unless you are very confident in their ability.

After the passerelles the path resumed it’s rocky course along and above the river gorge. Beautiful in it’s own right but feeling rather tame following the more adventurous section. At one point a small stone bridge and pathway seems incongruously placed in the middle of nowhere, but historically the river was used to transport logs down from the forests to the village sawmills and the stone path would have joined up with wooden walkways where the passerelles are now.

After about 10k and three and a half hours we reached a signpost. Twenty minutes further on would have taken us to the refuge but we were turning right and heading back along the Cami Ramader, a Catalan name meaning Farmer’s Way. This cattle tracked path led back towards our parking spot but much higher up the side of the valley. Along the way we found traces of the original farming communities who bought their livestock up to the high and steep pastures above the river. A small hamlet of ruined dry stone huts remain where once whole families would have migrated in the summer. The steep ground has been terraced by many generations of herders to create flat grassy areas held back by stone walls. It is amazing what humans will do to try to eke out a living in areas that seem inhospitable.

Pathways around the rock pinnacles
Dry stone huts of the high pastures

The path stays high for some time here, winding up and down between stone pinnacles – the ‘Campanilles’ mentioned on the map – and providing fantastic views across to the hills on the other side of the gorge. We started to get apprehensive about the downhill section as we were still so high up, and when we left the deciduous woodlands and entered the pine forests the path started it’s downhill trajectory and we started to feel the strain on our calves. Beside the path were what looked like metal bathtubs – evidence of the charcoal burning that once took place here. 

Looking back down at our original path
Autumn was here – beautiful colours on the hills

This path took us eventually to a junction where we could have turned right onto the corniche, but instead continued downhill along a section of 14 switchbacks to the original concrete bridge. This section of path had been shored up using stone walls again, improved at the same time as the creation of the corniche by the SNCF engineers who built the railway.

It had been a long walk, but an incredibly beautiful and exciting one. We will be coming back at some point to walk the corniche and explore other aspects of this historically interesting area. For now we took our aching legs back to Bertie and decided to stay another night in these beautiful surroundings. 

Walking the Gorge de Carança and Cami Ramader
  • Distance: 21.8 km
  • Total Elevation: 1604 m
  • Time taken: 7hrs 05mins
  • Type of Route: Difficult – long and with significant exposure
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Following the Aude

22/10/18 – 24/10/18

Following our morning of sightseeing in Carcassonne we decided to crack on back into the Pyrenees. Our target was Les Angles, a large ski resort in the Pyrenees Orientales. Originally we had identified it as a destination due to it’s extensive mountain biking area but as Paul was still waiting for his mountain biking part we had a look for some walking routes instead.

The D118 road down to Les Angles followed the upper reaches of the Aude. After Carcassonne there was very little sign of flooding and as we got further south the river was constrained by the rocky walls of the Gorge d’Aude and Gorges de Saint Georges. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the drive, the fabulously scenic road twists and turns through the gorge with the river rushing below. At times it’s single track, although there are plenty of passing places, the main difficulty was navigating around working vehicles who were making repairs, clearing hedges and removing overhanging branches from trees. At times this balcony road is cut into the side of the cliff which made me reflexively lean towards Paul, but the overhangs were never too low for us.

Overhangs, never too low for us at 3.5m
Narrow section of the balcony road

Paul, it has to be said, found the drive highly frustrating as he crawled around corners and past other vehicles. The amount of concentration and patience required took any joy out of the drive and he was relieved when suddenly the valley widened in front of us and we were in a completely different landscape.

Our first parking spot here was near the ski lifts at Pla del Mir. This designated motorhome parking is priced depending on the season, for us it was €6 including 16A electricity. It rises to €11 during the ski season but still seems good value for money. We settled in for the evening and while we had electricity I trimmed Paul’s hair and reduced his stubble to something a little neater.

The following morning we took a walk up from the parking area into the mountains. The character of the hills here was significantly different than the jagged peaks we had become used to. The hills slope gently away from the valley floor with large boulders peppering the grassy sward. We walked in the sunshine, enjoying a recovery walk that was a little less strenuous than usual.

Boulders in the meadows

The route was on a track at first, running to the north of the Animal Park, and was well signposted as we wandered up through meadows and open woodland. We followed the signs to the Lac d’Aude, the source of the river that had caused so much trouble recently, keeping left where we had the option, which took us under the cliff face of the Roc del Filipe before we made our way to the southern shore of the lake.

Rowan berries and Lac d’Aude
The cliffs of the Roc del Felipe

From here we walked around the lake eventually finding our return path leading vaguely southwest from the north west corner of the lake. This path was on the map but was poorly signposted and there were very few tracks on the ground. We eventually realised that we should be following the wooden posts with dark green paint that were sparsely distributed along the route. Thankfully the day was clear and we could navigate using the posts, our map and the infant river Aude to guide us in the right direction. We met our outward route again roughly where we expected on the initial section of track. It hadn’t been a long walk, and navigation issues aside it had been a pleasure to walk in such different scenery.

Views across pathless, featureless grasses

That afternoon we drove down to the Lac de Matemale where we parked up in a specific motorhome parking area (no services) with lovely views of the lake. An easy mountain biking route circles the lake, but with Paul’s bike out of action we were a bit stuck. The following morning we saw lots of people jogging past the van and so I decided that I would jog the 9k around the lake, Paul would give me a head start and see if he could catch me using my bike. He did! It’s been some time since I went for a run and although my legs were fine, I was mentally unfit, obviously far too used to walking and stopping for a break whenever I feel like it!

Our view across the lake, just beautiful
Walking Pla del Mia to Lac d’Aude
  • Distance: 13.24 km
  • Total Elevation: 411 m
  • Time taken: 3hrs 35mins
  • Type of Route: Easy/Moderate – some route finding difficulties on the return leg
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Carcassonne, Following the Floods

21/10/18 – 22/10/18

We nursed a mild hangover on Sunday morning, relaxing in the Lagbruguiere aire until Paul felt fit to drive. We needed to make our way back to the Pyrenees, this time to the  Pyrenees-Orientales, the easiest route would be following the Aude river south, but only a week previously there had been severe flooding along the Aude and we weren’t sure whether the roads were back open again. A bit of online research didn’t help us so we stuck with our original plan, hoping that any diversions would be clearly marked.

One of the things I find difficult to get my head around is the fact that the Aude river flows south to north. For someone who has mostly lived in the south of the UK this feels unnatural. As it drops out of the Pyrenees it carves gorges and gathers tributary mountain streams to contribute to it’s power. Just north of Carcassonne it bends east towards Narbonne, it’s Mediterranean destination.  

So we drove southwards with Carcassonne our destination. We stopped for lunch at Lac des Montagnes, a very attractive spot high in the hills. There was motorhome parking here and we were severely tempted to stop for the rest of the day, but after a walk around the lake we decided to move onwards.

Calm waters at the Lac des Montagnes

It was at Cuxac-Cabardes that we encountered diversion signs, sending us westwards off of the main road and via the very attractive village of Montolieu. Unfortunately I was too busy worrying about the signage to take pictures and enjoy more of this ‘Village of Books’, there were 3.5 tonne limits, one-way systems, narrow roads and bridges that made us slightly stressed as we tried to navigate our way through without ending up in some cobbled back street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we escaped out of the village, having ignored a 3.5 tonne limit in order to stay on the main thoroughfare.

We later realised that the reason for the diversion was the badly flooded village of Villegailhenc where sadly people had been killed by the highest floods since 1891. 

We approached Carcassonne intending to use the aire outside the municipal campsite, but I had read a recent review that it had been closed due to the flooding, and as we approached it we could see it was barriered and taped off. It looked unaffected by the flooding but I could understand the caution as it is on level ground near the river. We drove around the southern part of Carcassonne a couple of times looking for an alternative parking spot, but on-street parking doesn’t appeal to us so we ended up driving slightly out of the city to the Lac de Cavayère where there is parking (no services) near the lake and park. We had another little leg stretching walk and then settled down for a blessedly alcohol free evening.

If we both had working bikes we could have cycled a long the cycle track from here back to Carcassonne, but Paul’s bike was still out of action. So the following morning we decided to drive to the bus and motorhome parking on the outskirts of the medieval city of Carcassonne. You can park overnight for free (between 10pm and 8am) but at other times you have to pay, the first half hour is free, but then the price goes up in 30 minute increments. You take a ticket on entry and then pay before you leave at a machine that takes credit cards as well as cash. I can see why they charge for parking as entry to the city is necessarily free, so this is their way to recoup the cost of maintenance of the ancient and heavily visited city.

Walking into Europe’s larges walled city

We walked around the city, first of all taking the route between the two sets of city walls, an area known as ‘le lices’ where medieval knights would have trained. Parts of this area were blocked off, so we moved into the centre of the ‘cité’ where tourism abounds; restaurants, hotels and gift shops make up the majority of the buildings here. I wonder if anyone actually lives in the cité. We popped into the basilica to listen to the beautiful choral music that was being performed (‘you can buy a CD as you leave’) and generally wondered at the many towers and turrets of the citadel. It’s amazing to think that this city was once so derelict that it was recommended to be  demolished. It’s now so perfectly restored that it feels almost sterile and Disney-esque.

Towers and turrets
Art installation on the walls of the city – they were peeling off the yellow while we were there
City streets

However as we wandered around we found evidence that all was not well, the recent massive amount of rainfall had caused the collapse of a couple of small walls inside the cite, and had badly eroded some of the gravel paths through le lices and out to the town below. As we walked around the outside of the city, taking in views of the walls from below, we could see that parts of the mound that supports the city had been washed away. Workmen were busy shoring things up and making good. This is where our parking fees go.

Collapsed wall inside the city