Pyrenees

I have put up the route page detailing our journey through the Pyrenees.

From Saint-Girons in France to Ribes de Freser in Spain we covered roughly a 1,000km c-shaped route through the heart of the Pyrenees. We  went over 18 cols (mountain passes), climbed a total of almost 22,000 metres and averaged around 45km/hour. We spent 8 nights free camping in the mountains.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail. For non-bloggers, click here and then ‘Pyrenees’ for the detail.

Flowers in P

Ignatius

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Across to the Pyrenees

13th August

I wrote the last diary blog parked somewhere up a mountain where we spent a few hours enjoying the sunshine and the 4G coverage. From there we drove on through the Cevennes and into the Gorges du Tarn. Very dramatic gorge, with the road running along the bottom (this is more impressive in many ways than roads on the top looking down as at Verdun). There were endless minibuses towing racks of canoes passing us – seemed like everyone was there to canoe the gorge and be picked up downstream.

tarn gorge
On some sections of the road through the Gorge du Tarn we just had to hope we would not meet anything coming the other way…

We found a lovely free camping spot beside the gorge for the night.

14th August

Finished driving the gorge, and headed across country towards Carcassonne. We stopped to shop etc on the way. Stopped also at Viaduc du Millau, an elegant modern bridge across the Tarn gorge. There’s a huge visitor centre, audio-visual presentation etc, and a cafe where we had a very nice lunch. Drove on, along roads marked as scenic on our road atlas. All very pretty. We ended up not far from Lac des Montagnes, though not actually at the lake as all parking spots were taken. August in France is very busy! We found a layby further up the road which we had to ourselves.

viaduc de millau
Le Viaduc de Millau behind us

15th August

Drove the short distance into Carcassonne. This is a town I have always wanted to see. We’d picked out some free parking across the river from the citadel via the Park4Night app and were lucky to find space there. Once organised, we set off into the lower town first for coffee and to visit the tourist information, then across the river and into the citadel. We visited the castle, walked along some of the walls, had lunch and explored some of the narrow streets – but as to be expected, it was absolutely packed with tourists. Like Dubrovnik and Avignon – too many people want to visit and it’s hard to get a feel for it in the middle of the day.

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Walls of Carcassonne

In the evening we went back into the lower town and had a meal out, then spent the night with a magnificent view of the citadel. I loved it when people passed by the spotlights and their shadows were cast on the inner walls – looked like the ghosts of the past patrolling the fortress. A noisy night as is often the case when we stay in towns.

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Our evening view of Carcassonne

16th August

Time to head further west, towards the Pyrenees, especially as the forecast for Carcassonne was very hot today! Once again we picked a route designed to be as scenic as possible, but we never expected the road to actually take us through a cave, once inhabited by mesolithic tribes.

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Driving through the cave – a natural cave not a tunnel!

Sadly we’d missed the English guided tour of the day and you can’t go in to see the cave paintings without being part of a tour. Never mind, we had a picnic just outside, then drove on into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

cave2
Picnic outside the cave – the road emerges just on the right of the cave entrance

Much cooler as we got into the mountains. Spent the night at St Beat, where I had a short walk to explore a ruined castle and church overlooking the town.

17th August

Ignatius had found a ‘best driving route of the Pyrenees’ description online so we decided to follow parts of that. It includes many of the high passes, some of which Ignatius cycled last year and which are used in the Tour de France. So we picked up that route and headed over some spectacular mountain passes. At Lac de Genos-Loudenvieille we parked up, began a walk around the lake and decided it was too hot, then had a picnic by the stream. A very pretty spot but once again, hordes of people here.

Drove on over the Col d’Aspin. At the top I went for a walk (I always want to get a bit higher and see the views into the next valley!). Then headed down to Lac du Payolle which is a very pretty spot among so many very pretty spots. There was a free camperstop here, so we parked up for the night. In this area animals roam free so we had to share the campsite with horses and cattle.  Lovely evening barbecue and it was cool enough to enjoy sitting outside in the sunshine.

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Campsite friend

18th August

Glorious weather this morning so we walked around the little lake, then decided to drive up to a nearby col that Ignatius knew from cycling. As we drove the mist rolled in. Had lunch half way down in weather that made me think of the Lake District. We decided to spend the night again by Lac du Payolle, so this afternoon is all about catching up, relaxing, reading etc.

Route des Grandes Alpes

The Route des Grandes Alpes is so spectacular it deserves a route page of its’ own!
Over 5 days from Chamonix to Nice, we covered 670km, went over 12 cols (mountain passes), climbed a total of almost 17,000 metres but only averaged around 40km/hour.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail if you’re interested. For non-bloggers, click here and then Route des Grandes Alpes for the detail.

Ignatius

Up and Down the French Alps

28th July

As we’d got to the Argentiere campsite early yesterday we’d managed to get all the washing done, leaving today free to go walking. We packed some sandwiches and took the bus towards Chamonix then the Flegere cable car up the mountain, after queuing for tickets for far too long. We knew from our previous visit in 2013 that this side of the valley offers stunning views across to the Aiguille du Midi and to Mont Blanc itself.

chamonix
Looking down on Chamonix

We walked part of the Mont Blanc circuit path which basically contoured along the mountain, up and down a bit, and eventually arrived at the Plan Praz ski lift which we took down. It wasn’t a long walk -we took it at a leisurely pace with a picnic half way.

This lift takes you down to Chamonix town centre so we wandered around the shops for a while before taking the bus back to the campsite.

29th July

Another trip into Chamonix today – this time by bike. There’s a good network of mountain bike trails in the valley and those along beside the river are relatively flat – or so we thought. Remember we have town bikes that weigh a ton and don’t have many gears! Anyway it was mostly downhill into Chamonix on mostly well-made gravel tracks. Got there to discover it was market day so we had a look round that and then a very enjoyable lunch out.

bikes
If only they had pedalled themselves!

Cycling back was somewhat harder work – some parts were steep and rocky and our bikes weren’t at all suitable.

30th July

I’d have stayed in the campsite longer but Ignatius wanted to move on. Lots more mountains to see, he promised me. So we headed out of the Chamonix valley and picked up the Grande Route des Alpes which runs approximately north-south from Lake Geneva down to Nice. The plan for the next few days is to follow this.

I will leave the details of exactly which passes we drove over and their heights etc to Ignatius in a future blog post.

Today we got as far as Val d’Isere, where we have skied in the past. We’d hoped to stay at a camperstop in the town but didn’t like the look of it so drove on and found a lovely car park at the foot of the Col d’Iseran. No sooner had we parked there than a huge thunderstorm came over, including hailstones. Once it had passed the sun came out and I went for a short evening walk to see what was up the valley…

31st July

…up the valley was a gorge with a path running alongside it to a mountain refuge. This morning Ignatius wanted to see it too, and we ended up walking all the way to the refuge where we were served coffee by a Nepalese man. Lovely place, in a very beautiful spot. On the way back we spotted some marmots – having been on hundreds of ski runs and lifts called Les Marmottes but never actually seen them in the wild in the Alps this was an exciting moment!

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Cute marmots out to play!

After walking back to the van we drove on, up the Col d’Iseran, trying to spot where we’d skied in the past.

Lots of dramatic driving in the afternoon on roads used by the Tour de France, and we ended up at the top of Col du Telegraphique where we parked for the night.

1st August

Over the Col de Galibier which Ignatius declared easier to drive than to cycle over. He’s probably right. We saw lots of cyclists though!

And on via more wonderful passes, gorgeous scenery, fabulous gorges, still following the Grande Route des Alpes. Free-camped again somewhere on the Col d’Izoard.

2nd August

More of the same. Firstly the Col de Vars, where we stopped for a picnic lunch at the top and then went for a walk. Then our route left the roads that are used by the Tour de France. The great thing about roads the TdF uses is that they are wide and well-surfaced, even if they are very twisty. But today the Grande Route des Alpes took us up the Col de Cayolle which hasn’t been used by the Tour since the 70s, and which was very narrow in places. Not quite as bad as the Passo di Gavia in Italy about which I still have nightmares, but still very scary. There seemed to be a lot of traffic coming the opposite way, and every passing was tricky. At the top I was considering running away with a German motorbiker rather than face the drive down.

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One of the many passes

It turned out the road down was (thankfully) better than the road up and we found a nice free-camping spot on the descent.

3rd August

(Today is exactly 4 months since we left home, and exactly 2 months until our wedding anniversary which will be our last night away on this trip. So, exactly 2/3 through!)

All this driving from col to col and free-camping had left us in need of water, fuel, food, and to dump waste so part of what we’ve done today is satisfy those needs. We’ve also had coffee in a gorgeous village, lunch in a pretty spot by a river, and driven along even more dramatic narrow gorges and twisty roads over passes.

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He’s not a bad driver…

We have ended up on the Col de Turini which is only about 1600m. As we’ve gone south the mountains have changed – lower now, more forested – and the weather is substantially warmer. Temperature in Gertie reached 37 degrees while she sat in a supermarket car park. We’re spending the night fairly high so it’s cool.

 

(I wrote last time about problems with the gas fumes from the fridge. This had improved but not completely, so we did more online research. The great thing about the internet is, someone somewhere will have had the same problem and will have written about it in a motorhoming forum or blog or whatever. We began to suspect our problem was dirty LPG- the fume smells began after the last fill-up, which was in a remote Swiss petrol station a couple of days before we left the van at Bergamo airport. We were down to half a gas tank, so we filled up yesterday with (hopefully) cleaner LPG, and indeed the problem is much better now. We’re still getting occasional whiffs but few and far between now.)