The Big Trip, Day 5: Into the Pyrenees to Andorra

Distance covered today: 121 miles

Total distance covered: 927 miles

I can’t say I’m sorry to be leaving Toulouse, but the next stretch looks challenging – I’m going up an actual mountain range. Given that the van doesn’t do well with hills, this is a bit of an intimidating prospect. On the bright side, I’m expecting some spectcaular views.

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What I wasn’t expecting was passengers! I stopped off at Toulouse Sud services for a quick bite to eat (even service station food seems pretty good in France), and as I was pulling away a quartet of eager teenage girls holding cardboard signs rushed up to the window. A couple of them spoke some English, and i managed my usual bit of French – eventually we determined they were going to Foix.

I had no idea where Foix was, and told them I was heasding to Andorra. But no, they assured me, Foix was on the way! I considered for a moment, then thought, why not? I’ve got a big van, they need a ride, I’m going that way anyway.

So they all pile in, three sitting in the back, one in the passenger seat next to me. And obviously she’s the one I spend most time talking to. And typically she’s the one with only a bit of English. But with my bit of French, we manage. Her name’s Mathilde, two of the others are her sisters, the other one a friend. They’re students at Toulouse University, from Bretagne originally, and on their way to some hot springs in the Pyrenees, somewhere near but not actually at Foix.

It’s about 120 km to where they’re going. I mull it over, and think ok, I’m in no hurry. I’ll take them exactly where they need to be. I tell Mathilde, and she programmes it into Google Maps. We’re going to a little place called Merens les Vals.

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As we crest a hill, I get my first sight of the Pyrenees. They’re big. So big that at first I think it’s a huge bank of grey clouds on the horizon. Then I see te actual clouds and realise those are actually mountains. I can’t take a pic cos I’m driving, but this time I’ve got help – Mathilde snaps a couple for me.

Driving into the mountains is indeed spectacular. Though it reminds me of something. I comment to Mathilde, “tu connais la movie The Shining?” Yes, it feels like I’m in that s[ectacular opeing sequence from the movie, as the helicopter pans over Jack Torrance’s Volkswagen driving through the Rockies. I don’t know how the Pyrenees compare in size, but they look just as beautiful.

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When we get to Merens, Carla asks me if I’d like the address for the hot springs, in case I want to visit. Yes, that would be cool – but as it turns out there isn’t an address as such, because the springs are just halfway up a mountain.

I mull it over, and think, well, I’m still in no hurry. I ask Mathilde if ot would be ok for me to join them there, and they all enthusiastically agree. They seem to have really enjoyed the journey in the van, and like me, so that’s cool.

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As we head up a mountain, it’s steep. None of the toing and froing of a road, this is straight up. It’s beautiful, but exhausting. Even the girls have to stop for a breather now and then, and they’re more than twenty years younger than me.

There’s an electric fence to duck under on the way, and at one point there’s a scream as a snake is seen, but it’s no danger. There’s plenty of wildlife here; the chirp of cicadas is everpresent, geckos scuttle across the rocks, and a praying mantis obligingly stands still enough for me to take a picture.

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It takes the better part of an hour to get up the mountain. Well, I say up, but really it’s no more than halfway up. I’m cursing that I forgot to bring any water, but on one of the occasional flat parts where we cross a road, there’s a handy water fountain, although “eau non controlee”. I don’t care. I stick my head under the flow and drink deep.

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I almost don’t make it to the springs. Once more I find myself having to stop and rest, and think, I’m going to have to turn back. I’ve never hiked up a mountain before, and I’m terribly unfit!

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But Mathilde assures me it’s just round the corner, and it turns out she’s right. We arrive at some small but inviting looking pools, where a family is already happily bathing. It smells of rotten eggs – they’re sulphur pools. At least nobody will notice if I fart…

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The girls and I get in, and get to relaxing, which this is. I chat a bit to the family; the dad is French, the mother English, and their son some of both. Turns out we arrived at a good time to get in, as more and more people start to arrive both from down the mountain and up it. This is obviously a popular spot.

I take on the role of ‘phone guard’, as we all keep snapping selfies but leave our phones next to the pool, where people step worryingly close to them. I also have to retrieve some tobacco and papers from one of the bags when an attempt to roll a joint in the pool doesn’t go to plan.

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Some teenage boys turn up, noisily, and splash around a lot. But they’re ok company too, as are the various older guys, some with obvious heart bypass scars, who’ve also made it up the mountain. I’d guess they’re fitter than me.

After a couple of hours, I realise I really have to go, if I want to reach Andorra la Vella before dark. I get dried and change out of the underpants I’d been wearing in the pool to just my jeans – wasn’t really prepared with a swimsuit, so I’ll have to go commando for now.

Hiking down the mountain is a sight easier than going up it, but takes even longer. This is because round every corner is another breathtaking view.

I would usually have popped my headphones in to listen to music, but this it too tranquil for that. As I make my way down, I just listen to the music of the stream flowing next to me, the chirp of cicadas, and the occasional church bell in the distance. It’s idyllic. I think this is probably the best thing I’ve done on the trip so far, and wonder whether I should have spent less time visiting cities.

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But it’s on to Andorra, if I want to keep my schedule. I soon discover that Merens les Vals is merely in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The road climbs higher and higher, switchback upon switchback as I climb. There’s much gear changing and revving as I try to keep the van to some sort of sensible speed, but people still queue up behind and overtake whenever there’s a chance.

I pass what appears to be French customs in the other direction – a huge queue of vehicles waiting to have their documents checked by a couple of overworked looking gendarmes in a van. Andorran customs, on the other hand, consists of driving slowly past a bored looking policeman in a booth just in case he decides to flag you down.

He doesn’t, and I drive on into Andorra. Andorra is more than just a city, it’s an actual country – a sort of ‘microstate’ sandwiched between France and Spain. It has a curious relationship with the EU, not in it but still part of the Eurozone.

As I soon find out, the relationship doesn’t include the handy data roaming I’m used to. I get a text from Three welcoming me to Andorra and informing me that calls are now very expensive and data services ‘unavailable’.

That’s a problem, because I’m relying on data not just for navigation but also for translation. The national language in Andorra is Catalan, but I’ve got enough on my plate brushing up my French and learning basic Spanish, so I’m not going to try learning that.

Fortunately Google Maps has stored my route before the data was cut off, and I arrive safely at my chosen spot in Andorra la Vella, the capital city. Getting out of the van, I realise I may have a problem soon. The left front wheel has been making occasional grinding noises for a while, and now I find out why – one of the hub oil caps has come off somewhere, and the wheel bearing is losing grease.IMG_0333

That needs fixing, but I’m betting my RAC cover doesn’t apply here in Andorra. I’d only told them I was going to France and Spain, forgetting there’s a little country in between them. I’m going to have to cross my fingers and hope the van will get me the final stretch to Barcelona tomorrow. Or at least past the Spanish border.

In the mean time, I find a quiet bar which has wifi, where I’m sitting now enjoying a coffee. Last night I also discovered how cheap beer is here – 1.50 a glass. Of course it’s a tax haven, but I don’t remember Luxembourg having cheap beer!

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So now – on to Barcelona. Everything crossed that I make it there, and more when I do.

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