Now I know several people were betting on when our van would die, and those who picked France almost got lucky. After Andorra, we had two more high passes until the terrain finally flattened out somewhat. After the last pass, we were coasting into a village when the van started making a disturbingly loud thunk thunk. I pulled it over and looked at the engine to see if if anything obvious had gone wrong. I’m not a totally shit mechanic, though having your own garage and mechanical team when I was working at the mines encouraged laziness and a cavalier attitude to driving in what I considered a personal rally park. I know how engines work and what each part does, but things that go wrong under the engine case I hold my hands up, and it sounded like it was coming from inside there. I adjusted one of the air intake seals that had slipped down and gingerly tried it again. The sound briefly went away, possibly because of cooling down, but returned under load after a few kilometers. We decided to coast downhill to the bigger village of Limoux and look for a mechanic. It was about half past eight on a friday night but we saw one open and still working who agreed to take a look. He reckoned it was the piston valve that wasnt closing properly on our forth cylinder, and said (at least I thought he did, he spoke only French) he could try to adjust it in the morning. The oil was low which was probably the cause. Id been checking every couple of days and it had stayed steady for a two weeks between the high and low marks, but something must have happened in the last day or two to make it lose quite a bit, grumbling up hairpin bends can’t have helped. He was a talkative bloke, Francoise, who rambled for hours in french with barely a comma, despite the fact that we have only the basic grasp of the language, telling us about his divorce, his two girls in university and something about cancer. It doesnt pay to offend your mechanic so we listened politely to almost midnight and then slept in the van on his lot.
The next day we waited to after lunch when he got underneath and fiddled while cranked it off an on for him. He said the valve wasnt closing and it would need the whole engine out. He could start next week. 80 euros lighter for just two hours work Karina and I drove out to the camping ground promising to come back monday. As we pulled into the entrance doubts began to creep in. The noise had gone away and the van actually didn’t seem to have lost any power. The prospect of hanging out for an indeterminite number of days in the village while he tinkered away with the meter running didn’t exactly thrill us, so we decided rather adultly:”fuck it”, and to drive to Carcasonne, about 30km away to the north. If the sound returned so would we. As fate would have it, the van seemed to cruise to Carcossone in good order, though at one point I thought I heard a phantom noise that turned out to be cicadas in the fields nearby. Carcassone is a beautiful fortress on the hill from the outside. Inside it’s like medieval world at Disney. I had a beer to calm the nerves and quench the thirst as the day developed into a scorcher. We typed the coastal town of Agde into our GPS, and I followed the pink line through the baking vinyards of the Roussilon. It looked like our Capybara would live to fight another day
As we drove north up the river gorge that led to the border, Karina asked me how a country like Andorra can exist, and without being able to wikipedia the history, I reckonned it was like a deep crack in the floor that no matter how hard you sweep you can’t get the dirt out. A slightly offensive metaphor, but Andorra does seem wedged up a mountainous narrow valley with only two roads in or out: one up the gorge and the other North over a high pass.
After hardly seeing the officers of law enforcement, in Andorra they were everywhere and they were busy. Questioning us at the border, giving out parking tickets, directing traffic (even though there were funtioning traffic lights), it seemed like a big employer in the country. The other big industry is shopping, like being in an endless airport duty free. Huge hypermarts selling chococalate, cognac, cigarettes as well as the obligitory Body Shops, C & As and Quicksilvers. My brother Campbell had told me years ago that Andorra was a good place to buy ski mountaineering gear, but after browsing a few shops I didnt find the prices now particulary cheap. Cheaper than england, granted, but that’s like saying warmer than Greenland.
After a couple of days in the mountains, we wanted a campground, but after driving through half the country I started wondering “even if there is one, where would they fit it”. About 10km north of the capital, we found an unlikely one in a field you had to drive through a petrol station to access. But it was cheap, had showers you could leave on without coins or pressing buttons, and we found free wifi nearby.
We drove out of Andorra under beautiful blue skies past the ski resort of Soldeu. This was the only one I’d heard of in the Pyreenese prior to coming, and though bgger than I’d thought I reckon of all the ones I saw the area around the Pic du Midi in France looked the best terrain. The region doesnt always get the best snow, as well, and being south I reckon it’s going to be one of the early ones to suffer as global warming sinks its teeth in.
In my mind Ive always dismissed the Pyrennese, that mountainous seam that welds Spain onto France, as kind of pissy. Not a proper mountain range like the Alps, the Andes or the You Yangs. But after slowly chugging up, over, and down seven passes around the 2000m mark in 2 days, I have a new found respect for them. Steep, lofty, and extensive, I seldom got out of second gear in the van.
The road hairpins its way past ski resorts, high alpine meadows with herds of goats and cows with their bells dinging, waterfalls and rocky crags and bluffs. The French side is a bit greener, with resort and spa towns nestled in the valleys. We took a couple of hitchers up to a mountain lake, Lac Estaing, and cooked lunch next to a busload of Paisley parish penshioners crooning ‘Flower of Scotland’ and other party pieces.
I guess the other thing to note is that we were following the route of the Tour de France, two weeks before they were due to come through. The first give away is the amount of graffiti on the road tarmac, done in large letters with the hope of being picked up by the TV helicopters. A lot was about the Contador team that I couldnt always translate but I think was suggesting that they were a pack of cheating druggie scum. The other stuff varied from the personal “LOIC 2008″ to the imaginative “CUNT CUNT CUNT CUNT”. The road was also full of riders, generally middle aged guys in full cycling gear, no doubt reviving boyhood fantasies of winning La Tour as they labour up 1 in 8 degree slopes. We saw quite a few that were gasping and looked close to tears or total mental breakdown, still with a fair bit of the hill to go. It brought to mind the film Belleville Rendevous (Les Triplets de Belleville) and the scenes of the gasping riders. If you havent seen this one I thoroughly recommend illegally downloading it.
Eventually, we crossed the border backover into Spain again, where the grass is yellower and fuel is a lot cheaper. Having been through Luxembourg I thought it would be unfair if having come so close we avoided Andorra. It’s feeling might be hurt.
The road east to Pamplona cuts its way up over and through steep forested mountains with almost no signs of human habitation. The city itself is famous for its annual ‘Running of the Bulls’ festival where the bovines are let loose down the streets and locals and kiwi backpackers are photographed with looks of sheer terror on their face as they scramble over one another trying to get out of the way of them, and later make macho claims of patting the bulls head. The festival kicks off in a couple of weeks. Karina doesn’t think much of the whole thing, as the bulls are killed at the end in the arena. I pointed out that they don’t have a fun time at the abattoir either, and at least they get a fair chance of horning some pesky humans before they become sirloin. But I find arguments based on moral equivalence hold little water with most people.
We parked up and had a stroll down Pamplona’s narrow streets that the bulls will run down in a couple of weeks time. I was surprised to find that they contained fairly upmarket shops, like letting the bulls loose down Bond St. There were a lot of stores selling the white with red sash bull-running pajamas, bull souvenirs, bull labeled wine etc, i.e. classic bull shit. We walked past the colosseum-like stadium the bulls eventually run into that was all locked up at the time, had some lunch then hit the road once more.
East of Pamplona, the road followed a wide dry valley between two mountain ranges, along a river and past drystone hilltop villages and monasteries, most of which appeared abandoned. We eventually came to an inviting long reservoir, its green waters lapping rocky pine-clad shores. We stopped the van and had a dip, which in the heat of day was just the ticket. The water was fresh and cool we stayed for a couple of hours just splashing about. There was a monastery village on the next point, with numerous boats anchored in front of it. Though the only signs of life we saw was a topless Spanish woman driving a powerboat standing up with one hand. She powered across to each part of the lake in turn as if it say, “check out my knockers” to the region. In the late afternoon Karina had a snooze in the back while the clouds that were stacking themselves over the high Pyrenees to the north suddenly let loose with quite chunky hail stones. I thought it best to call it a night, and so parked next to a man-made stone river channel just before the high mountain pass into France we would take the next day. In the distance we could see patches of snow clinging to the rocky peaks.
After sun, sand, surf and saucisson in Anglet, we headed south across the border into Spain, though inter-EU borders now seem to consist of a small blue sign on the side of the road with the country name on it surrounded by gold stars, and not a lot else. I say Spain, but we were heading deeper into Basque country, or Euskatel as the locals have it, and many of them would rather it not be part of Spain. They express this wish with lots of Basque graffiti, flags that looks like a union jack negative, and the occasional car bomb. This aside, San Sebastion looks stunning with it’s natural harbour protected by two mountainous headlands, and an elegant historic centre by the rivermouth.
We drove around aimlessly looking for a parking spot but the city seemed full of couples and families out walking on a balmy Saturday, and none materialized. After so long in Anglet, Karina had valiantly gone without a proper shower long enough, our solar water bag shower being more of stop-gap measure, and plumped for the only caravan park the city had. This turned out to be 6km to the west and up a windy mountain road. After a proper scrub, (though the blokes showers only worked in 2 second bursts of scalding hot water) we decided to get the bus down into the old city rather than navigate our way back pissed. We strolled along the promenade that ran behind the golden horseshoe of the city beach, and had a glass or two in one of the well patronised tapas bars in the maze of alleys of the old city. The last bus left at 11pm, so we headed out just as most people seemed gearing up for a big night out.
The next day we scored it for a good parking spot right next to the rivermouth. Spain were in the Eurofinals, though the atmosphere was fairly muted for their first big final after years of disappointment. I put it down to the Basque thing, like being in Glasgow if England were in the final (that might be overstating things, the locals weren’t actively supporting the opposition). We decided to spend another night here and watched the final, which Spain mostly dominated and deservedly won. It was a pretty international crowd in the bar, with some australians, some dutch surfers, a subdued german couple, a middle-aged English foursome who stood in front of everyone after halftime and belligerently blocked the view of the telly, and some Brazilian bar staff who Karina got chatty with. There were a few car horns in the street both that night and the next day, but I remember when Brasil won the 2002 world cup while I was in London and packed out Trafalgar square samba-ing by comparison. I read El Mundo the next day and it seemed other cities like Madrid were far more festive. We slept that night in the van and I awoke just after dawn and wandered the waking city streets and beach looking for a toilet that was open. By the time I got back Karina was up, so we had ourselves a coffee and tortilla (potato omelette) in a café bar before battening down the hatches and hitting the road eastward. After actively going away from it for 3 weeks we were now vaguely heading in the direction of Australia.
I wanted to drive along the coast down to biarritz, but a few roads led to a dead end at a french missile base. Instead we came across the worlds tallest sand dune just south of arcachon. We walked to the top and though skeptical at first (i once worked in the Great Sandy Desert in australia and some of the dunes there were pretty damn big) I had to admit that this takes the bicuit for bigness. I think it looks even more impressive as it sticks out like dogs balls from the surrounding pine forest.
We picked up a couple from the french alps who were hitchhiking their way down south. We really enjoyed their company and had a few beers with them in Capbreton before we parted company. The guy gave us a very generous gift about the size of a dice. Having done a lot of hitching i try and pick them up when I can and they generally turn out to be cool despite the paranoia about axe-wielding rapists. And it goes both ways, with people who pick up hitchers being the nicer sort in my experience.
We went through the surf towns of Hossegor and Capbreton before settling on Anglet, which has six beaches in a row just north around a rocky headland from Biarritz. They are mainly shifting beach breaks, the only point break coming south of biarritz in a break called le surf that has long peelers more suited to longboarders and goatboats when I saw it. We camped in a carpark next to the beach, and the next day hired some boards and went for a surf where the swell had picked up a little bit. karina was keen to do a session at one of the many surf schools there, and after 10 years in london I thought I could definetely use some improvement. The lesson started off him telling us to put our boards down and go for a bodysurf, and I thought to myself, “I cant believe i payed 25 euros to go for a fucking bodysurf”. However in the end he gave me a couple of things to work on that I reckon will make an improvement to my surfing.
The next day the wind was still onshore but the swell was much improved, closing out a few areas with big heavy tumblers. I began to see why the area was rated highly, and there were some good surfers out pulling off ripping moves. The water temperature, though not as warm as Brazil, was fine with or without a rashie, though I did cop a lot of sun as I stayed out a fair while before coming in. I took a few short surfing vids that I´ll post as soon as I´m able.
We ended up staying 5 days all told, and rode our bikes into biarritz a couple of times. It was good to be in one place for a while, though we do have a lot of miles to cover. On the last night we had mojitos on crowded and informal clifftop bar in biarritz, and watched the sunset over the atlantic.
The next day we made our way through the foothills of the Pyrannese to San Sebastion in Spain, where im writing this now. I can see my euros drain away with the clock, so i reckon that´s enough writing for now. more later.
After Nantes, we took a windy route along the coast, alternating between rocky holiday towns and marshes used by the salt industry and oyster farms. We headed for lunch at La Rochelle. I’m running low on adjectives to describe some of the good french towns, but i guess elegant and salty would do it for La Rochelle. The old city has great markets and boutiquey shops and the waterfront bobbles with ships in the sun.
The scenery as we went further south changed to the typical French atlantic type of pine covered dunes behind long straight sandy beaches, that continues all the way down to Biarritz. We camped alone for the night in one of them, and had a nice (probably illegal) campfire on the beach while a fat full moon rose up in a starry sky. We had a private ceremony where we burnt the remaining cheque books from visa-side of the business we sold.
The next morning we crossed the gironde in a pricey car ferry, that great downward cut in the side of France. On the south side of the bay are the world famous bordeux wineries of the Medoc and haute-medoc, that have lodged in my consciousness thanks to James Bond ordering the Chateaux Lafitte Rothchild in one of his many movies. On the hottest day so far, we piloted the van down small laneways beween row after row of ripening grapes, in a countryside dotted with chateux and villages. We stopped at a village fete of sorts at a small village, where the locals sat on long trestle tables listening to a one man band belt out synth french pop. Seeing us empty handed, some of the woman quickly put a cake and glass of rose in front of us. It was saturday, and most of the Vinyards were closed to visitors, but we stopped at a local wineseller who was happy for me to taste the lot of them. i noticed at the BYO fete that most of the locals had plastic bottles of wine, instead of labled bottles, and it became clear that it is far cheaper to buy the wine from great steel vats than by the bottle, though I did splash out on a local Grand Cru bottle as gift for some friends of ours. Suitable refreshed, we continued to the city of Bordeux.
After parking it soon became apparent that there was some kind of music festival going on, with bands of every description playing in the streets and squares of the old city. Reggae, techno, military brass bands and some remarkably good indie rock bands were all in the mix, so karina and i got into the swing of things with a glass of punch and dancing in a night I’ve only vague memories off. I remember us crawling into our van that was like a sauna after the heat of the day, just as a big thunderstorm hit and thankfully cooled things down as we drifted off to sleep. We both nursed fair hangovers the next day.
We arrived in the pretty Brittany port of Vannes on it´s weekly market day of monday, and it was packed with shoppers. We parked on the point near the boneyard, and rode our bikes down into town. The food on display was mouthwateringly good, with charcuterries (butchers), fishmongers, bakers, and local artisanal producers diplaying the local tasty tidbits. Karina really rates French fashion, and happily browsed the stalls and clothes shops with a knowing eye, dragging me along in her wake. We had had a plate of delicious brittany oysters in a bar that seemed to be popular with the fishmongers who had finished hosing down their stalls, washed down with a tasty crisp chardonnay. After cruising the plains of northern france and the low countries, we were finally on the Atlantic coast and faced a happy stretch ahead of us of sun sand surf and the odd bottle of wine.
We pushed on south that night to the big university town of Nantes (pronounced something like ‘not’) where we decided to splash out for a camping ground so we could have a shower and recharge our equipment. It was a stately town of impressive building and squares, but with a modern feel to it, and also had trams which coming from melbourne I have soft spot for. The campground had its fair share of goth and emo looking kids, in town for a nearby death-metal music concert called Hellfest. We had a beer and watched a disappointing Euro football match without sound. The next day we awoke to drizzling rain, so we decided to have an easy day of working on the Van and battling to get any signal out of the campground wifi.
I have some childhood memories of campgrounds on Victoria´s various surf beaches, but, our old vw aside, modern campers are a new beast entirely. They pull up and then use a remote control and servo-motors to position it perfectly, something my dad relied on child labour to do (though after hours in the backseat in the australian summer, anything to stretch the legs was appreciated). Most have hot and cold showers, sattelite tv with plasma screens, and everything to make sure you dont strain yourself. And europe has hordes of them lumbering around the countryside. Its enough to give me an inferioty complex, until it comes to fitting in a parking space or squeezing under the 2m height bar that france has erected in a lot of places to block the big campers from staying there. That´s when our nimble brown van comes into it´s own.
I remember seeing pictures of this of the fairytale little island of Mont St Michel in books as a nipper, and in the flesh it looks just as unlikely. You see the top spire and then town underneath before you even see the sea. It was kind of on our way to Brittany, and the weather had finally turned up the thermostat. A long spit of land joins the mountain to the mainland on the normandy coast. This can be submerged on big high tides, but on our visit the tide was out and it was mudflats going way out into the bay. The spit of land was used as a carpark, and i´d guess at at least 400 cars and 40 buses lined the entrance. Upon entering the gate a single road spirals up to the abbey perched on top, and the road is packed with gift shops, museums, restaurants and lots of people. We had a beer and a crepe, a normandy speciality, on a terrace looking northeast across the bay while the blazing sun pinned me to my plastic chair. We climbed the steps to abbey, but decided not to pay the entrance fee. I´ve always found active churches charging admission a bit cheeky, not to mention against their own tenets. Canterbury catherdral springs to mind. Defensively, you can see why the fortress slash abbey was always a tough nut to crack, though as Bill Bailey points out, the weak point is always the gift shop.
After the mont, we headed south through the regional centre of Rennes, with the aim of staying in the Forest of Paimpont, which is supposedly of king arthur fame, though quite a few other countries have laid claim to him in what I thought was a tale of medieval fiction. Anyway, we arrived at the village but there was no forest to be seen, so we drove around a bit looking for it before camping in a pleasant village municipal park replete with ducks and a welcome toilet block. i had a fish without luck on the lake at sunset off a little jetty while karina read and we tried a nice bottle we´d bought in lorraine, while eating saucisson, pate and bread. I saw the lake was covered with hundreds of insect skippers. somebody had told me once that if you alter the surface tension of the water with detergent the buggers instead of skimming will sink. So in the interests of science i took a bottle of zapf or whatever the belgian equivalent of fairy or palmolive is, and then had a buddhist remorse as just a few squirts seemed enough to capsize the lot of them. Ces´t la vie
We had to be in Paris on Monday as karina had some visa buisness to do and i had some post. I took the backroads through slightly rolling farmland east of Paris as far as I could, but eventually we hit the Periphique, the ring road around Paris, and with it the bumper to bumper traffic. An hour of crawling later, we camped in the big park just outside Roland Garros. We rode our bikes in the next day, crossing the Seine river and did our chores close to the eifel tower. Both Karina and I dig paris, and have been here quite a few times. Like Amsterdam, bike is a good way to get around. The arondissements around the Eifel tower arent my favourite. I find the shops a bit overpriced, but wandering the streets you can still find the odd gem or insanely specialised shop selling violin strings or teas labelled “tahiti mix”.
As we drove out of Paris we started talking about Eurodisney, and karina mentioned there was an ‘Asterixland’ to which my response was “Why has no one told me this before?!!”. But it was too late to turn back. We swung past Versaille and then Chartres on our wayout, both with impressive edifices, a palace and cathedral respectively. But we didn’t go in. We pulled over down a lane, cooked a tasty dinner of saucise, rice and lentils and tomatos, then fell quickly asleep. I managed to reverse into a grassy embankment while maneuvring the van in the dark, leaving our exhaust pipe hanging off the muffler. I cut it off rather than leaving it dangling, and our van now sounds considerably more farty. I might stick it back on with bog and muffler tape when it comes time to sell for it’s rapidly decreasing resale value.