We woke to thick mist at Lac du Payolle, and it looked like it’d be a pretty dreary day. We debated whether it would be worth going ahead with our planned route driving over the Col du Tourmalet (the most often used col on the Tour de France) or not. But you never know, sometimes the weather’s better higher up… so we set off anyway. As we progressed the weather varied – sometimes in mist, sometimes reasonably clear but overcast. I had a running commentary from Ignatius about how hot it had been when he cycled it last year.
Up at the Col there was not much of a view, still being in the cloud. We had a coffee, then Ignatius wondered about walking up to the top of the Pic du Midi, where there’s an astronomical observatory. I googled it and discovered it’d be about a 4 hour walk up and back, and we decided to go for it. We made a picnic, packed rucksacks and set off. Once round the back of the mountain suddenly we came out of the mist and had glorious views. The climb got steadily steeper, taking us well above the cloud level. Amazing views all around by the time we reached the summit, so it had been well worth taking the risk!
Drove down the other side and along a gorge up to Gavarnie where we found some parking for the night just outside the village.
We walked up through the village of Gavarnie and along to the Cirque – a magnificent semi-circle of enormous rock faces. Truly impressive. The tops of the mountains form the border with Spain. Much of the walk was on an easy track up to a hotel where we had coffee, but after that it was rougher and very steep up to the foot of a waterfall (said to be Europe’s highest). I’d love to see this cirque in spring when the waterfalls are swollen by melt-water. There was still some ice over the stream and an ice-cave.
This walk turned out to be a little longer than we’d expected due to going up to the waterfall, but well worth it!
We did a bit of shopping in the village on the way back to the van, had lunch and drove on, through spectacular scenery (isn’t it all in the mountains?) over more Tour de France cols (Soular and Aubisque) and ended up in a small town Eaux-Bonnes for the night.
From Eaux-Bonnes the route took us south, over another col and into Spain. The border was right at the top. Usually at the top of a col there’s a cafe, a gift shop, a signpost stating the height and a load of exhausted cyclists. At the top of this one, on the French side, that’s exactly what was there, minus the cyclists (it was early). On the Spanish side there were numerous shops, a large supermarket, petrol stations and all sorts of businesses. Yep, Spain is cheaper than France. People from France must drive up here to do their shopping.
We headed on down, and did a bit of a detour to visit a monastery (San Juan de la Pena) near Jaca. Built into the rock face, it’s pretty impressive but was a long old drive to get there.
Headed east again from there, retracing part of our route down and finally spending our first night in Spain at a picnic spot near Sarvise. Park4Night reviews said that often the Guardia Civil come round and move campervans on in the mornings – this part of Spain does not seem to like campervans much. But we took the risk along with a dozen other vans and all was well. Pretty spot to spend the night anyway, and although the day had been hot the night cooled down nicely.
Another day with a lot of driving. First stop though was at Ainsa, not too far from where we’d spent the night. This is a pretty little medieval hill town – you’d think we’d seen enough of those in Italy but always nice to see another! There was a small church, a ruined castle and a wonderful little bell tower with the steepest narrowest steps up it that I have ever negotiated. We had lunch in the medieval town square.
Onwards, heading more or less east, through the Pyrenees. There were no major cols but certainly a lot of up and down, and some very twisty roads, used by articulated lorries. Fun when an artic in front of us met two campers coming the other way, just at the entrance to a narrow tunnel…
Once again we had a bit of trouble finding a suitable place to spend the night. It was all a bit like Switzerland with lots of ‘no campervans’, ‘no overnight parking’ signs everywhere. We’d planned to stop in Viella where we did some food shopping but the parking was in full sun and noisy. Using Park4Night we finally got to Rialp where there was a dedicated campervan aire beside the river. Very hot all evening and all night but peaceful and shady in the morning.
More scenic driving, and into the tiny principality of Andorra. There was a bit of a queue at the border though I’m not sure why. And a lot of traffic. There is really only one main road running through this tiny country, along a valley and over a pass at the French border, and our plan was to follow that.
We stopped at Santa Coloma for a visit to a 10th century church, and had a picnic lunch in its shadow. Then on to Andorra La Vella, the capital. This place is a shopper’s paradise, if you are into the big brands. It’s all duty free. We bought a bottle of Baileys, had a wander round the historic parts of town and then left. Got stung for data charges – I hadn’t realised Andorra was not in Vodafone’s roam-free area and our few hours in Andorra racked up a fair bit of usage, downloading detail on Google maps, receiving a few emails etc. 26MB, at a charge of £39. Had I realised I would have turned data off for a few hours. Grrr.
Anyway, after leaving the city we headed on towards France, over a high pass (over 2400m). On the Andorran side were loads of shops and petrol stations and nothing on the French side. Another border where obviously the French come to shop! Not the prettiest of passes – the road was too busy, the shops too ugly. We dropped down into the backwaters of France, and turned eastwards again.
For tonight we are in the tiny Spanish enclave of Llivia. This is a little bit of Catalonia which is entirely surrounded by France. So today we’ve driven from Spain to Andorra to France and back into a bit of Spain. Tomorrow we’ll drive Spain to France and back into Spain, to finish our Pyrenees travels and head south. Gonna need a campsite soon. Thankfully ACSI discounts kick in again at the weekend in some places!