Tour de France at an Aire

Tour de France at an Aire

Wednesday of our holiday was more of a travelling day than an adventure. We drove from Biarritz east through Pau and Tarbes with the Pyrenees making their presence felt to our right the further we sped by. After Tarbes, we continued on the Toulouse road until we reached our destination which was St. Gaudens. Saint what I hear you ask? Yes, St. Gaudens which is French for…. St. Gaudens! A remarkable little town (I hope you understand sarcasm) whose long list of highlights includes an Ibis Budget Hotel and a McDonald’s. We slept in the former and ate in the latter. On Thursday morning we tried to have breakfast in our friendly American Fast Food outlet at 09.30 but they weren’t quite ready for us early birds!

Something I never say!

Something I never say!

Admittedly, the previous evening, we had regaled ourselves with a long visit to the giant Leclerc hypermarket. This chain scored 1 point to Scott on the “spot the shop” game the boys would play while we drove them through France in the 90s. I had always felt sorry for son Greg who had drawn “Monsieur Bricolage” DIY store and remained optimistic even though deep down he knew there were always going to be more supermarkets than French B&Qs on our path to the Vendée. Gavin had a racing chance with the expanding “Super U” supermarkets while, on the sole occasion he came with us, George was 15 and far too cool to join in, a coolness he finally lost when his favourite “Alice in Chains” hat blew off when he petulantly stuck his head out of the front passenger window as we raced past Gateshead on the way home!

St. Gaudens’ Leclerc provided us with a couple of hours’ distraction after we had spent a whole 5 minutes exploring the town itself. Believe it or not, that included 3 minutes in a second-hand charity shop just as it was about to close, from which we emerged with a designer rucksack for Mary. But the huge Leclerc had so much in it that it was quite impossible to get bored. I examined the food and hardware while Lady Burton checked out the fashion aisles.

The best fun was trying to locate the petrol station whose cheap fuel announced itself to shoppers as they entered the vast car park but whose actual whereabouts was a mystery to all first-timers to St. Gaudens. After four unsuccessful attempts, four being each side of the superstore, I gave up and asked. Yes, it was there, on the side I’d initially investigated, except down a wee road, first left, first right and 500 metres further, basically in the middle of a field! The consolation was watching several others with French number plates do exactly what I’d been doing for the previous quarter of an hour.

But all good things must come to an end – and so had our flying visit to St. Gaudens, Ibis Hotel, McDonald’s, Leclerc and all! As we drove off on Thursday morning, I knew where we were heading but was still unsure as to how to get there. I had decided to take Mary to a place beginning with “F”. Figueres back in Spain would be our destination, selected purely because this town holds the Salvador Dali museum, a final slice of culture to balance our visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao at the start of the holiday. An abortive attempt to book a hotel in Andorra had led to me finding a place just outside Figueres, a hacienda of pink stone rather than a traditional hotel this time. But I had spent a fairly sleepless night wrestling with a dilemma. Which route was I going to take?

The Pyrenees were the problem, you see. Oh, they were perfectly avoidable by taking the motorway to Toulouse then Carcassonne, Narbonne on the coast, Perpignan, across the border and down to Figueres. Job done! But that struck me as the wimp’s way of getting there and would totally lack any sense of adventure. No, this was not for George and Mary as you might imagine. The alternative was however a challenge. Mr. Google let me read his map then described a route through the mountains that left me with a tingle (No, my foot hadn’t gone to sleep!).

The N152 in yellow

The N152 in yellow

The map showed a route across country from St. Gaudens to Foix in the foothills then a long climb up the mountains to L’Hospitalet près L’Andorre from where the road split, right to Andorra itself and left through a long tunnel to Puigcerda. That’s where the fun would begin because next was the famous N152 to Ribes de Freser, described by “Top Gear” ex-presenter and icon Jeremy Clarkson as the best mountain road in Europe. The road on the map had not a single straight line on it and there was a warning sign advising you that the road ahead was “S” bends …….. for 48 kms! But would I take it? There was still snow up there and driving with a rock face to the left and a thousand feet sheer drop to the right had me doubting my bottle and worried about a possibly petrified Lady Burton.

Foix. Nice castle, nothing else!

Foix. Nice castle, nothing else!

I decided to drive to Foix then up to Puigcerda, knowing from the map that the N116 would take me gently back to Perpignan if I lost my nerve. And that’s why we found ourselves in the town centre of Puigcerda, at 4000 feet up in the Pyrenees, having a lunch of cheese, chicken and taboulé, washed down with a cheeky red wine (Nah, only kidding!) while we pondered on which route to take. But it dawned on us right there and then that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive the mountains, so off we went on an enormously twisty downhill rollercoaster of a trip through the forests and valleys of the Pyrenees. It was wonderfully exhilarating and not nearly as difficult or as dangerous as I had imagined. Mary’s head twisted and turned at every bend, taking in as much scenery as her senses could manage while I looked straight ahead and concentrated on staying on the tarmac. The fact that you are reading this tells you we made it in one piece.

We reached the snow

We reached the snow

Spot the road we've just been on

Spot the road we’ve just been on

The only snow we encountered was up near Andorra where we had to drive through three or four ski stations. There was plenty of the white stuff up there and it came right down to the edge of the road, but there wasn’t a single flake of snow on the road itself. So you got all the advantages with none of the drawbacks. Perfect! The beautiful people were having a ball up there, skiing, skateboarding and generally sliding around on the snow in the sun. It’s not our cup of tea but they looked like they were really enjoying themselves. We made a mental note to go back one day and stay in Andorra if even only for a night, just so we can tick that box.

Interestingly, as we meandered earlier through the foothills of the Midi-Pyrenèes, Mary had pointed out some birds’ nests dotted throughout the surrounding trees but then studied them closer, revealing a ball-shaped plant which seemed to inhabit several different types of tree. That was strange! Once again, via Mary’s iPhone and the ubiquitous Mr. Google who can search by image astonishingly well, we discovered that the clusters were actually mistletoe! Talk about learning something new every day! It appears that mistletoe is a parasite which grows happily on whichever tree its seeds land on. There now. I hope the question comes up at your next Quiz Night.

You'd get kissed under that tree!

You’d get kissed under that tree!

You’d think finding mistletoe in trees in the Pyrenees was a bit of a surprise but wait for this. We had left Foix and started through a wide valley towards the road that takes you up the mountain to Munro height and then some, when we passed a quaint railway station on our right. That’s when I did my first ever emergency stop abroad. Why? Well, admittedly the station was cute, even very cute, but just look at the nameplate. How could that be? So far our research has found out almost nothing to explain our name with apostrophe s and then the French for “station” on this building.

I never get above my station

I never get above my station

Once we had reached the low hills, the road took on a more normal perspective and we cruised across to just outside Figueres where Victoria once again took control and guided us safely to our booked accommodation. This was a new venture for us, staying in someone’s big house and not in a traditional hotel and I was a wee bit apprehensive as to how it would be. As always, I ought not to have worried because the owners were lovely, their hacienda beautiful, our room perfect and the following day’s breakfast delicious.

Our bed that night

Our bed that night

We of course had to eat that evening so the owner directed us to the only place in the village where food was served, a pub sitting on the square. We strolled up there, had a couple of beers/Baileys outside then went inside and ordered dinner which surprised us with its high quality. In particular, Mary’s goat’s cheese salad raised the bar of quality by a couple of notches, even inspiring us to take a snap of it.

Ensalada queso de cabra

Ensalada queso de cabra

We slept like logs that night after a very exciting day and woke refreshed and ready to take on all that Salvador Dali would throw at us, melting clocks and all!

A taster of Dali

A taster of Dali

Advertisements