Our Pyrenees Trip in 2006

millau-viaduct-from-view-point.JPGIt was after watching a television programme about the building of the Millau Viaduct in southern France that we came up with the idea of a five week adventure along the length of the Pyrenees taking in the crossing of this , the highest bridge in the world.

Our trip started with the Euro-Tunnel crossing from Folkestone (smooth, like being on rails ) in early September. Our van is a trusty high-top Avalon; a 2 litre petrol ,non assisted steering, 14 year old motor-home. Sylvia handles the navigation while I look after the driving. We spent a week going along the north coast of France, down through Brittany then south along the west coast to reach our start point for our Pyrenees adventure. On the way one of the memorable over-night stopovers was at Honfleur; we stayed on the old inner harbour aire overlooking a lovely square-rigger, all for 7 euros. The town itself is always a joy to visit with its water side cafe’s and restaurants.

After a wrong turning which saw us visiting Biarritz, rather a busy place, not our usual type of destination, we headed into the western Pyrenees to settle for a few nights at ancient St.Jean Pied-De-Port. We stayed on the very convenient municipal campsite near the river and only about three minutes stroll to the lovely old medieval town; cobbled streets, outer walls, hilltop citadel, the lot. Several of the front doors in the old part of town had scallop shells above them to indicate they took in guests as this was on the old pilgrims path into Spain.


After this rather pleasant first taste of the Pyrenees we drove further east and then down the Aspe valley to the unique mountain village of Lescum. Sylvia described it as being glued to the hillside, it is so steep. The drive there was quite challenging with tight first gear bends using all the steering lock. We were glad our van is small, as I think a larger motor-home may have thought it not a good idea. On the way over we had seen a lot of painted messages or sayings on the roads, often signed with the letters E.T.A. (the Basque terrorist group ), in large print, a bit unnerving.The site itself is on the edge of the village, a pleasant half mile walk away. Clean showers, toilets and washrooms. The GR10 (the trans Pyrenees French long distance trail) passes through the site so I would expect it to be busy in the summer months. We visited in mid September and it was closing down that week for the winter.The local terrain was quite steep and made for some great walking; with high mountains and deep valleys it was a dream few days. Probably the highlight was on a high path overlooking a gorge a pure white Egyptian Vulture slowly drifted along beneath us. Also over the next few days we were fortunate to watch huge Griffin Vultures soaring on the thermals.


All to soon it was time to backtrack out of the valley and over the Col du Souler; at 1475 metres an awesome drive, sometimes in the clouds, which was a bit scary. At the summit there were pigs and a donkey roaming free, oblivious to us travellers.


Our next place of note was at the southern end of the Luz valley at Gavarnie.The drive was along a twisting uphill gorge with overhanging rock walls, blasted to give height clearance, even so several large vans were using the road.

Parking for Motor-homes was at a designated area overlooking the valley, at 4 euros including the nights stay it was good value. The main attraction to the village entails an hours walk along a lovely trail to the Cirque, a bowl shape head to the valley. If walking isn’t your game then there is a herd donkeys that are used to carry the wealthy at 22 euros a go to view the dramatic scene. On our visit it rained almost continuously, but once when the cloud did drift away we could see the peaks covered in their first dusting of snow of the season. The temperature dropped overnight with snow falling to just above the parking area. time to move lower.


Once again we drove back on our tracks out of the gorge to head eastward before going south to the ancient town of Tarascon, the centre for several caves containing prehistoric Cave Paintings and relics. It was from here we decided to walk the six kilometres to Niaux to book a cave entry visit for the next day as they need twenty-four hours notice. On the approach to the hillside cave we could hear rather loud music; after climbing the steep hill the huge cave mouth came into view and in its centre was an orchestra playing. It transpired they were celebrating the centenary of thr caves opening. A very musical bonus to the walk. At the appointed hour the next day we entered the cave complex through double air lock doors armed with small torches to walk the half mile into the bowels of the earth with our English speaking guide. Eventually you reach the wall paintings they are Fourteen Thousand Years Old.They are not as primitive as expected. You feel quite humbled to be allowed to see them, all of animals, some large, some small. Further on there are another two miles of tunnels and more paintings but not for general viewing. Entry 9.4 euros. Unfortunately no photos allowed. It’s one of those places you feel you ought to visit if nearby, and really pleased afterwards that you did.


Another medieval town we stayed at was Ax-le-thermes a spar centre with an unusual outdoor puplic thermal foot spa, which we and several other people used after energetic walking in the mid-day sun.Set in the centre of town it is about thirty feet square stepped down to about a foot deep, spring fed and forty degrees. There is a plaque dated 1250. A very refreshing diversion.


Although we had planned to carry on and go into Andorra, as so many people had said it was so touristy with no natural appeal, we decided to give it a miss. So when the road divided we took the left fork where we intended to go through the new tunnel but alas it was closed. So we changed down a gear and went up and over into Spain via the Col de Puymorens at 1915mts. Whilst parked here for lunch we watched a pair of Golden Eagles flying below along the valley. This adventure seems to be one rare treat after another. The views from up there are out of this world, into Spain one way, down to France the other. After reaching the valley below we were stopped by the Douane (custom police). In a very brusque manner they wanted to know where we came from. The reply of “England” was the wrong one, they meant that day. It seems that with Andorra being a tax free haven a hard line is taken to people bringing freshly bought goods out of it by both the French and the Spanish police. Then we resumed our drive to go through the pot-holed roads of the Spanish border town of Puigcerda, not a place to dwell in, before crossing back into France.

Before returning to our Pyrenees walking areas we stopped off at a couple of interesting places shown in Rough Guide to the Pyrenees. First we went to the ancient walled garrison town of Mont Louis. Set below the inner walls is a huge solar oven gererating enough heat to melt bronze and other metals. It was made up of two forty-foot square mirrors facing each other about fifty feet apart, one was flat and tracked the sun sending its reflection across to the other concave mirror which in turn sent it to the oven.


The other place on our way was at the tiny village of Vals. Here there is an eleven century church which is a masterpiece of building. The lower level is carved out of solid hillside rock with the entrance through a cleft in the side. The inside is small and basic but with twelfth century frescoes, and like all the churches we have come across in France the doors are open. As has happened many times this trip the detours have come up trumps.


Now after nearly four weeks we were nearing the eastern end of the mountain part of our trip with only the magical double walled city of Carcassonne to see before our rendezvous with the spark that ignited us to plan this tour, the Millau Viaduct. We stayed at the modern clean site of Camping-de-la-Cite, just a pleasant ten minute riverside walk into the old city with splendid views of pepper-pot towers and ancient walls. Because it’s floodlit at night it makes for a lovely evening stroll. Carcassonne itself is a time capsule which even all the tourist trappings cannot hide. As we were now in late September it was fairly quiet,just a few fellow visitors, an ideal time to explore every nook and stony side street.



After a pleasant few days chilling out with some lovely walks and local wine the time had come to start our steady journey northwards and over “The Awesome Bridge”. We thought we were prepared for the visual impact of seeing this beautiful, majestic constuction, but it literally took our breath away. Driving slowly round a long bend it comes into view, more a work of art, a sculpture, than a bridge. We were lucky the sun shone on its seven brilliant white masts which elegantly hold the twin carriageways centrally. By being supported this way it leaves the viewing to the right of you clear, except for the low slatted safety barrier,(put up later as many drivers were suffering from vertigo because of the feeling of exposure). With its seven towers underneath down to the valley floor it is The Tallest Bridge in the World at 343 mts. Driving along the 2500 mts.(1.5 mls.) feels more like flying than driving with nothing except clouds and sky out and above. A very unreal and dreamy experience.



The roadway either side of the bridge is toll with a charge of 7.7 euros ( 5.2)for our small camper. On the northern side of the gorge there is a visitors centre and a large parking and viewing area. When we stopped (Oct.2006) they were installing electric hook-uo points so maybe overnight staying may now be possible. Down in the old town of Millau below the bridge is a museum with models and the story of the construction of it. Due credit being given to its English designer Lord Foster.

When our cameras had cooled down with all the photo taking we carried on northwards along the A75 with a few days stop near Clermont-Ferrand. Here we met up with our youngest son and daughter-inlaw (Julian and Jan)i.e.the 2 Js. Who were spending an energetic year cycling the length of Italy and most of middle Europe, also climbing in the Dolomites. This was the second time we had met them on their trip, the first being in Austria during an earlier tour of ours around central Europe in the summer. After takling the local classic walk up The Puy du Dome and some climbing under their tuition at a nearby rockface it was time to say our goodbyes and head homeward.


Memories of that gleaming white spider of steel and concrete will stay with us for a long, long time to come…….THE END

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