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Knobbly Pyrenees....

In which Tigger makes his way over the Pyrenees mountains and back into French-speaking territory.…. Zut alors!

 

By Jon Newey (retired Architect, Blood Bike rider, Adventure traveller) with Tigger (Triumph Tiger 800 XRX)

 

I have enjoyed my stay in Jose’s flat in Cordoba. Now it is time to move on. Today Tigger and I are continuing northwards, heading for the World Heritage Site of Cuenca. This tour seems to be developing into less of a ‘World Tour’ and more of a ‘Tour of World Heritage Sites’. I guess that’s OK. I started by going from Edinburgh (a WHS) to Liverpool (also a WHS) so I guess the modus operandi for this excursion was probably pre-determined from the very outset.

 


Winner of the knobbly Pyrenees competition....

I’m on the road by 08:45. The road out of Cordoba is a dual carriageway but before long we turn off onto some long straight rural roads. This is farming territory. There’s a thriving olive oil industry here with huge olive groves and large storage vats at the roadside. We go through Los Angeles and past San José (sing along with me now… ‘Do you know the way to San José?’ Yes, I have sat-nav, what’s the problem?) At around mid-day I spot an interesting-looking castle up on a hill. It looks like a nice place to go to eat my packed lunch. I follow the signs to ‘castillo’ which take me through the narrow streets of the small town of Belmonte and up onto the crest of a wee knoll. I park Tigger in the shade of a large information sign. There are panoramic views from here back over the fertile plain that I’ve just crossed.

 



Castillo de Belmonte

This is the Castillo de Belmonte and it is truly remarkable. It was first built in 1456, a typically tall medieval fortification with round turrets, crenelations, arrow-slits and a draw-bridge. It fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1800’s by the local Duke’s wife, who built some fabulously lavish baroque apartments inside the medieval courtyard. It fell into disrepair again, became state-owned in 1936 and was completely renovated in 2010. In my opinion - being an Accredited Conservation Architect don’t you know - it’s been done to a really high standard. I loved wandering around it. There’s a café and an armoury and state rooms all furnished with period furniture.

 

In one corridor there’s a big portrait of the Duke. He has a slim pale face, short white hair and a bit of a frown. A group of Spanish tourists bursts out laughing as I walk past and they ask if they can take my photo. Apparently he looks just like me. Obviously I tell them to clear orf and get out of my castle, but they don’t speak English. Turns out the Duke is actually part-Scottish, goes by the name Fitz-James-Stuart and is also the Duke of Berwick. I always knew I should be treated like royalty….

 


El Duque (and some old bloke in a painting...)

A short time later Tigger and I are riding into Cuenca. The hotel’s receptionist is there to greet me. We have exchanged messages via Google Translate. Her name is Magdelene. According to Google Translate her name translates as Cupcake. Cupcake shows me to my room. Clean, comfy and perfectly fine......... The room's not too bad either. I unpack quickly, change my shoes and head off into the old town. The centre of the old town is a steep 30-minute walk away. It’s worth the effort. Cuenca old town is built on a rocky outcrop where two rivers diverge. The buildings go right out to the cliff face on all sides, with a few narrow streets and plazas in the middle. There’s a spindly steel bridge across the gorge for access into the town, the San Pablo bridge. It’s pretty scary standing in the centre of the span – the railings are definitely not high enough - but it’s a good vantage point for a sketch and I’m pleased with the result. The sketch neatly captures the vertiginous character of the place I think….. Don’t look down!

 


Cuenca, Spain, from the San Pablo bridge

Back at my hotel I scout out a tapas bar, feed myself tapas and beer and retire early to bed with a good book and a bit of Mozart. Well, a man has standards to keep, you know, especially when he's a Duke.

 

Breakfast the next morning is waffles and coffee at a trendy café a short distance from the hotel. In all the time I’ve spent in Spain I still haven’t worked out the typical opening times for anything. It seems that breakfast cafes don’t open until after 08:00 (ish), then they close until mid-day (ish). Then they open for ‘comidas’ (food) until about 16:00. After that everything is shut except pharmacies and supermarkets. Then the restaurants open again at 20:00 for ‘cena’ (dinner) and all the local shops open up then too. At least, I think that’s how it works….

 

After breakfast I pack Tigger and we head off. We’re going to a simple stop-over hotel in the industrial town of Zaragosa tonight. It’s nothing more than a convenient stop on our way to Andorra the following day. There’s nothing in Zaragosa that I want to see. Today is all about the ride and not the destination. I move Garmin’s slider to ‘Level 3 Adventurous’ and we set off. The route takes us straight out of Cuenca through the nearby gorge with its high sandstone cliffs on both sides of the river.


Puerto de Portillo, Spain. 1,775m

In places the gorge is almost as spectacular as the Todra.  After a while we pass through a wide agricultural valley and then onto a narrow mountain pass which wiggles through the hills up to a height of 1,775m  - the Puerto de Portillo. Part-way along the route Garmin directs us off onto a gravel track for 6 km. It’s an easy one for Tigger and not too bad for me either. We startle a small group of deer among the trees and watch them gracefully glide away over the nearest hill.

 

I stop for petrol in a small village and am flummoxed by the system. Turns out it is a self-service pay-at-the-pump kind of thing. What I thought was an ATM is actually where you pay for your fuel. Two helpful locals point me in the right direction. An interesting point to note, if you’re ever going to do this kind of thing yourself: You need a credit card for the pay-at-the-pump fuel stations. My pre-payment Revolut card won’t do. It has to be a bona-fide credit card. I had the same issue in Norway a few years ago where pay-at-the-pump is more common. I also found the same on the isle of Harris where everything closes on a Sunday so if you need fuel pay-at-the-pump is your only option. Using my credit card in Spain is expensive because I get 3% fees added on top of each purchase. I would much rather use my Revolut card or even my Post Office Travel card, both of which are pre-loaded with Euros with no charges for using them. But the credit card is the only option in this situation.

 

A short distance later I need the help of a friendly local again. There’s a barrier across the road and a big sign saying 'carrado' – road closed. No problem with that except there’s no obvious detour. An artic driver toots his horn and waves at me to follow him, then pulls over and points down a narrow track which ducks under the railway and doubles back to join the main road a short distance beyond the closed section. Perfect. I would never have found that without his help. Honestly. Would it hurt the works team to put up a couple of diversion signs?

 

As we near Zaragosa we have little choice but to use the big dual carriageways. It’s that kind of town. Before long we’re parked outside the hotel El Cisne, right beside a busy expressway. There’s no access into the hotel until 16:00 (although the door is open and the receptionist is sitting at her desk….Rules), so I have half an hour to spare to give Tigger a once-over in the car park. I lube the chain, clean a few bug splats off the windscreen and oil a few other bits and pieces that seem to have got gummed up with Saraha dust. I check the tyres for defects and I make sure none of the nuts and bolts are coming loose anywhere. Then (looking slightly grimy now I must confess) I check in.

 

Once I’m in the hotel I can relax. No need to go anywhere tonight because there’s a proper restaurant attached. My only bugbear is that the wifi is non-existent in my room and there’s no mobile signal for my hotspot there either. I have to keep wandering down to the café to check my Abnb bookings, Whatsapp messages, to upload stuff to Dropbox, and to plan upcoming routes etc etc. It’s a bit of a drag but it’s a first-world problem I suppose.

 

For most of this trip I’ve been booking accommodation one day (sometimes two days) in advance. That lets me keep the route flexible. But as I head towards France I know I will have to plan a bit further ahead because France is busier. I book a night in an apartment in Carcassonne, and I book three nights in an Abnb in Paris. I make sure both can be cancelled if necessary, but now I have the makings of a proper schedule for the final two weeks of the trip. The final two weeks. Is it coming to that already?

 

Dinner tonight is a burger and a beer in the hotel’s restaurant, then early to bed with a book. It’s my last night in Spain. Next morning there’s a croissant and coffee, then Tigger is packed and we’re on our way towards Andorra.  The roads out of Zaragosa are big dual carriageways, just like the roads on the way in, but after a while we turn off onto some B-roads snaking though farmland. I stop twice to clean bugs off my visor so that I can see where I’m going. As we approach Andorra the Pyrenees mountains start to fill the horizon. Before long we’re climbing and we soon arrive at the border. The old customs office and passport control kiosks are still there, but this is all part of the Schengen area so it’s not a manned border these days. Crossing into Andorra I notice a few subtle changes. Andorra is a wealthy little tax haven. The roads are all perfect. There are no roadworks. The buildings are shiny steel and glass. The cars are mostly Mercs, Porches and BMWs. Yup, this is not like the north part of Spain that we’ve just ridden through.

 



Andorra is a tiny principality, so within just a few minutes we’ve arrived at the campsite in Andorra La Vella. It’s a nice one with its own restaurant, shop, indoor pool and games room. Like most campsites these days it is dominated by giant RV trucks but there is a small area specifically reserved for bikers with tents. I pitch my tent next to a Dutch biker with a Yamaha Tenere. He strolls over for a chat. He’s from Amsterdam, heading to Barcelona to stay with friends. He’s keen to try touring Morocco one day so he quizzes me for a while about where I’ve been, what the roads were like and how safe it has been travelling solo.

 

By now it is getting late. I should eat, but for the first time on any of my long-distance trips I’m feeling distinctly ‘under the weather’. Something I ate in the last day or two has disagreed with me. I suspect the paella marinara I had in Cordoba.



Normally I’m very careful. I only drink water that I’ve sterilised myself. No ice in my drinks. No salad. I brush my teeth in sterilised water. I eat nothing that hasn’t been properly cooked. I only eat fruit that I’ve peeled myself. And -normally - no seafood. But somewhere along the way my defences have been breached. Curse that marinara! I manage to eat a cold tin of tuna (one of my favourite foods normally…..) but I soon retire to my bed. I get a broken night’s sleep with frequent excursions to the nearby toilet block.  Oh dear. Not sure I’ll be capable of riding very far tomorrow. Fortunately I don’t have a big distance to go the next day anyway, so I opt to stay in my tent for as long as I can drinking water frequently and waiting for 'natural processes' to compete themselves......

 

By noon the next day I’m feeling much better. I manage to eat a few mouthfuls of dry bread and I decide that it’s time to get going. My Dutch friend has already packed up and gone by the time I emerge from my tent. An hour later I’m all packed up too and Tigger is on the road.

 

The first part of today’s ride is typical Andorran roads, wide, smooth, busy and built-up. But within a few km we’re up in the mountains. The highest pass in the Pyrenees is not far away. There’s a modern tunnel that you can use to bypass the twisty-turny hairpins, but where would be the fun in that? Avoiding the slip road that leads to the tunnel we pirouette our way this way and that all the way to the top. The pass, Port d’Enlavira, is at 2,406m. That's a few metres higher than anything Tigger tackled in the Atlas Mountains so this is our highpoint for this year’s adventure.


Port d'Enlavira, Andorra. 2,406m

The view is spectacular, with snow-capped peaks forming a ring right around us. There are a few hardy cyclists making their way up to the pass. The summit is marked by the presence of a petrol station. I pause for the obligatory photo and then we’re off again, heading down towards the French border.  Before long the (now redundant) border post appears. We barely slow down as we slide through and Voila! We’re into France.

 

The Dutch biker that I met in Andorra recommended a nice road that would take me from here to Carcassonne. His recommendation turns out to be spot on. A small backroad takes Tigger and I up into some of the French Pyrenees, up to a small col at 1,400m with a viewing point offering panoramic views back over the Andorran peaks. This is a national cycle route and it is Sunday afternoon, so the lycra-clad specialists are out in force. The French do love their ‘velos’ and a steep hill climb attracts them like bees to nectar. I stop for a meagre picnic, still slightly wary of how my peristaltic processes might react to being fed. Before long we’re back on the road and soon approaching Carcassonne. This has been a relatively short ride, just 150km, but given my state of health today that’s probably a good thing.

 

My accommodation for today isn’t available until late afternoon, and I’m early, so when I see an Auto-Lavage at the side of the road I decide to stop and spend ten minutes giving Tigger a bit of a clean. For a princely 4 Euros Tigger gets a full shampoo, set and blow-dry. The Sahara-dust is gone (shame) but Tigger now looks more like his shiny self again.

 

Despite my dallying I still arrive at Carcassonne almost an hour early. I have a keycode for the apartment so I park Tigger, climb up to the third floor and let myself into the flat. The (slightly startled) cleaner is just finishing up and leaving so that works fine for me. There’s a balcony, a kitchen, a bedroom and a sofa. There’s also a washing machine – the first I’ve seen in a few weeks! Within thirty minutes all my dusty sweaty clothes are washed and hanging on the balcony to dry. I even iron some shirts. Ah, domestic bliss! By 5pm I’m ready to spend the evening exploring Carcassonne.

 

My miscalculation is that I’m here on a Sunday. Shops are shut. Cafes are shut. Supermarkets are not allowed to sell beer (when did France introduce that rule??) I wander through the old merchant town. It is a medieval walled town of gridded streets and neat plazas. There are cute pavement cafes – all shut. But this isn’t everything that Carcassonne has to offer. Beyond the merchant town is the Vieux Pont (the old bridge) and beyond that, up on a hill, is the Carcassonne citadel, a walled, turreted castle/town which is also – you guessed it - a World Heritage Site.



It’s a steep twenty-minute climb up to it, but it has to be done. There’s no grid-pattern of streets up here! There are small alleys and meandering ginnels and all the cafes here are open (Hurrah) but the castle itself is closed (Merde!) I sit for a quick sketch. Then, feeling much better than I did yesterday and now in need of some serious sustenance, I decide to treat myself to steak and chips at a smart-looking bistro. It comes at a price that could probably buy me an entire restaurant in Morocco. Sitting at the next table are a British couple about my age, Tom and Susan. We strike up a conversation and we set the world to rights between us. Susan can’t believe that my good lady wife has allowed me to go on an adventure for a couple of months without her. ‘Don’t you get any ideas!’ she says, wagging a finger at Tom. ‘Hmm’ says Tom, ‘It sounds pretty good to me….’.

 


Carcassonne citadel

Back at the apartment my laptop has been busily uploading the day’s videos to Dropbox while I’ve been out. Perfect. Time for bed said Zeberdee.

 

Next morning I have to move quickly once I wake up. It is Monday morning, and Tigger isn’t allowed to stay in his parking space beyond 9am. I grab some breakfast, pack my stuff, leave the apartment keys in the lockbox, and by 9:05 Tigger and I are on the road. Today is a bit different to most days. I have a major detour planned and for once it is a detour that can only happen by using the big, fast toll roads. Why? Well, I want to ride over the Millau Viaduct. It is the tallest bridge in the world, it isn’t too far away, and it was designed by British super-Architect Sir Norman Foster. The toll road takes us south at first into Narbonne, then turns north towards Millau. I fill Tigger up with fuel, coping with the French version of pay-at-the-pump. Not far from Millau I see a cavalcade of police vans, motorcycle outriders, fire trucks and coaches going past on the opposite carriageway, all blue lights flashing. This, I understand, is the Olympic Torch, making its way today from Millau to Montpellier.

 

Suddenly there it is, the Millau Viaduct itself. It is impressive. And it is long. And it is very, very tall. Just beyond the viaduct there’s a service station where there’s a viewing point, a café and a whole audio-visual visitor experience. There’s even a fully-immersive 360 degree video with Sir Norman himself explaining the principles of the design. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it!

 



My ultimate destination today is a campsite close to the caves of Lascaux, central France, where there are some unique cave paintings that are 17,000 years old. The caves have been called the stone-age equivalent of the Sistine chapel (and yes, they are another WHS). My detour to ride across the Millau viaduct has turned what would have been a 150km ride into a 450km ride. That’s probably insane, just to ride across a big bridge, but sometimes you’ve simply got to do stuff when you get the chance.

 

Beyond the Millau visitor centre I turn Tigger off the toll road at the first available junction and we spend the next couple of hours buzzing in and out of small French towns and villages. I notice a curiosity. Each town has a sign telling you its name as you approach it, and a matching sign to tell you that you’re leaving town.



And more often than not both signs have been turned upside down. I noticed a few of these yesterday  and assumed it was just a local prankster, but now I’m seeing the same thing all over the place. It must mean something, but I don’t know what! (Later I Google it. It is a gesture of protest by French farmers about the upside-down thinking of the French Government when it comes to countryside regulations……So now you know).

 

By 4pm we’re approaching our campsite in Lascaux. It is overcast and the skies are grey, but it is hot and muggy and I am feeling a bit sweaty in my motorbike leathers. But we’re here, and once again I am reminded that the French really know how to do Le Camping. The site is small, quiet and peaceful. It has an indoor pool and an outdoor pool. It has an on-site restaurant and a bar. There’s wifi across the whole site (including inside my tent!) There’s a shop for groceries and there are fresh croissants for breakfast. Parfait.

 

Dinner in the site's restaurant is followed by a couple of beers and then a couple of hours in the sunshine with my  book. Unfortunately that’s the last of the sunshine. In the night the rain starts. Oh boy does it rain. The warm dry campsite has become a soggy mud-bath by the time I peek out and sneak out to get my breakfast croissants. Inside my tent it is dry, though, so I sneak back in and hide in my sleeping bag for as long as I dare. Eventually it is time to get up, get out and get on with my day.

 

Today I am visiting the Lascaux caves with their famous pre-historic paintings. Actually, the caves themselves have been closed to the public since 1960 to prevent them deteriorating but there is a modern visitor centre - completed in 2016 - where detailed replicas have been created from digital 3D scans. This is the newest visitor centre, the fourth in a series of tourist attractions at the site. It is known (imaginatively) as Lascaux IV, Lascaux 1 being the original caves. After just a short stroll from the campsite I’m approaching the building. Never mind the caves, I’m already impressed by the contemporary architecture. The building presents itself as a huge angular cliff-face set into the hillside, with frameless glass slots making a modern interpretation of trogladytic cave entrances. It is all very a-la-mode. The ‘experience’ begins with a guided tour through the replica caves. The tour is in French but I’ve been exercising the French bits in my brain consistently for almost a month now so I manage to follow most of the speliological spiel. The replica caves are spectacular. If you didn’t know they were replicas you would never guess. The paintings on the ceilings and the walls are gob-smacking. They depict a wide range of animals, horses, deer, cows and bison – but oddly no plants (although apparently that’s typical for prehistoric cave paintings).

 



There are more than 6,000 individual figures.  Some are only visible using ultraviolet light because the paints have faded over the centuries but others are as bright and clear as the day they were created. The part I like best is the wall where a horizontal change in the colour of the rock has been used to suggest a river, with the heads of five deer depicted swimming in it. Pretty good I reckon for so-called ‘primitive’ people…

 

The paintings survived through so many millenia because of a few quirks of geology. First, the original caves were dry by the time the paintings were made, with no water running in them and no water dripping from the ceiling. There are no stalactites or stalagmites at Lascaux, just dry tunnels and chambers deep underground. Second, there’s only one entrance so there’s no through-flow of damp air. Third, a rockfall at the entrance many thousands of years ago sealed the caves, complete with their artworks, in a totally dry and airless environment.

 

The caves were rediscovered in 1940. By chance a falling tree had opened a small hole in the ancient rockfall at the cave entrance. Four teenage boys were walking a dog. The dog disappeared down the hole. The boys followed. They had pocket torches. What they found amazed them and they swore each other to secrecy. They managed to keep it secret for…. three days. After that the caves became a big tourist attraction. However, over the next 20 years the effect of a million human visitors breathing out moisture and carbon dioxide into an environment that had been hermetically sealed for seventeen centuries soon started to cause problems. Mould, fungi and acid crystals all started to form. Hence the decision to close the caves to the public in 1960.

 

Lascaux IV includes some very slick modern exhibition halls. There’s a hand-held computer for each visitor which automatically describes whatever object you’re standing next to, doing so in any one of twenty languages. It’s very smart and it means the exhibitions are not cluttered up with display boards with groups of people all trying to read them, and the information is always up to date. Someone has really thought this through.


Lascaux IV

I can see that it’s raining outside so I spend a few hours exploring every room of the exhibition and devouring every page of information that the digital system has to offer me. Eventually (and reluctantly) I have to leave. It’s that or they’ll need to take me on as a permanent member of staff. I stroll down to the town for a late lunch and then I head back to the campsite.

 

Next morning the tent is still wet but the rain is only coming in brief showers. In between showers I pack, knowing that on this occasion there is no way I can get everything dry before I leave. I don’t have far to go today, just 100km to a friend’s cottage in Lusignac. He’s a fellow architect and is constantly making changes to the place. I know that his most-recent change is to add a new laundry room. In my mind that sounds like a useful space to get a small tent dried….. As I’m packing I get chatting to Paul, a fellow Brit who is travelling solo through France in a big camper van. He’s a digital nomad, touring, cycling, surfing and working all at the same time. His wife works in London, he says, and she flies out to join him whenever he gets to somewhere interesting. Sounds like a fascinating lifestyle. Maybe I should trade Tigger for a camper van….?

 

No, Tigger, you didn’t hear that. Never!


Lusignac, France

 

Hitting the road we swoop through small French towns, crossing the Perigord region in the direction of Bordeaux. We stop for fuel at another self-service pump (no problems this time, I think I have it sussed) and before I know it we’re sliding through Riberac (sign upside-down), Allemans (sign upside-down) and into the tiny hamlet of Lusignac (sign all correct and proper and the right way up).  Ed has given me lots of instructions for finding his cottage. I retrieve the keys, let myself in, turn on the water and the power, pause, and take a deep breath. I unpack the wet tent and string it up in the new Utility. Ha! Perfect. Then with the panniers now empty I hop back onto Tigger and nip to the nearest supermarket. I plan to be here for three days so I stock up on camembert, wine, coffee and croissants This is France. Do I really need anything else? Back at the cottage I start to unwind. The past few days have been a bit hectic one way or another. I’m looking forward to having a few days of doing nothing before I set off for Paris…..

 


Lusignac castle gateway

 

 Tigger miles in 2023 = 8,024

Tigger miles in 2024 so far = 5,144

 

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