Sunday, 28 September 2014

En passant- a preview

‘En passant’: le prevu For a couple of weeks or more I have been thinking about a grand adventure: traversing every road pass that crosses the Pyrenées: the great chain that divides the Iberian peninsula from the rest of Europe. It is probably the biggest climatic and biodiversity barrier in western (if not all of) Europe. The Spanish side is dry arid, sparsely populated and falls away slowly to the Iberian plains. The French side is green lush, sharply descending – also depopulated but with many more villages than the Spanish side. It has been experiencing a demographic transition: the young move away in search of better opportunities – but it is has been partly repopulated by the generation of ’68 and many have followed in their footsteps since. The Pyrenean departments have almost as many organic farms as the rest of France put together!

I have been studying maps, making itineraries, researching the interesting cultural and natural sights to visit along the way. It’s a route that will take me through Collioure, where Matissse painted and claimed the light was better than anywhere in the Mediterranean. There’s one hotel there L’Hostellerie des Templiers where Dali, Picasso, Matisse, Dufy and Maillol all stayed and gave a piece of art in lieu of rent. That must seriously threaten New York’s Chelsea Hotel as the hippest and coolest artistic residence of all time. Oh and there’s Figueres (Dali’s birthplace and home of his museum) and Ceret (where Picasso stayed for three summers when he was still living in squalor in Paris and which many Spanish artistic dissidents made their home in the days of the Franco regime) and that’s just the first three days! Later it passes through Pamplona – whose bull runs were immortalised by Hemmingway and Aramits (home one of the three musketeers – the one who said ‘paing et ving’ - in a typical Béarnaise accent) - and where I first fell in love with the Pyrenees, thirty-five years ago. You can see that there’s going to be an artistic theme to, and maybe some nostalgia in, this trip.

My (1989) 1:1000000 Michelin Road map suggests that there are 20 road passes over the Pyrenées so I had been planning around that. Some (particularly at each end of the chain) are very close to each other. Some traverses would be 40km or less and it will be possible to do a few in a day. In the high Pyrenées the passes are much more spread out and one needs to go deeper into Spain or France to find a linking road. These traverses are sometimes 150km or so (the longest 166km). That’s as much –or possibly more - than I want to do in one day.

In the mountains it can easily take 3 hours to drive 150km, especially if one stops to take in the view and some photos. I’ve been doing detailed research about the most interesting places to visit. In Bordeaux I bought a Geo-guide to the Pyrenees (in French) which has been helpful but – mysteriously completely excludes the Pyrenees-Oriental Department and much of the Pyrenees- Atlantic, but extends all the way to Toulouse (hardly the heart of the Pyrenées) and is unashamedly Franco-centric in its treatment of the Pyrenées. So, I have no idea of the attractions south of the border although I have been drawing on Wiki travel to help a bit there. But I don’t want to be guide book-driven. The Geo-guide has helped identify (or remind me of) a few of ‘must-sees’ (most notably Bagnerres de Luchon, the Cirque de Gavarnie and a few gorges, monasteries and churches). But I also want to leave time and space for serendipity. I hope to stay with WWOOF hosts, couchsurfers and Air B’n’Bers, as much as possible to catch the local colour.

Then I started looking at the more detailed (1:150000) maps I realised that there might be quite a few more passes than I anticipated. The Spanish and French maps don’t quite agree on what is road, a track or a footpath. Googlemap suggests that there might be five driveable passes between the two most easterly road passes identified on my 1:1000000 map. Exploring those would take me into the heart of lost mountain country and it was a fascinating prospect. It reminded me of the days in Wales when I used to take an unofficial short cut through the mountain roads, take the road over the dam and then cut through the forestry tracks that linked Ponterwyd on the A44 to Cwm Einion (or the other way round). It saved me about 40km and about half an hour’s travel time. It scared the shit out of any passengers who might have been with me (part of the attraction?) and myself when the weather was foul (if it was too foul I took the long route). But to be in the middle of nowhere - and yet going somewhere -was an incredible buzz.

I figured that this plethora of forestry roads only exists in the lower parts of the Pyrenees. In the higher mountains the passes just won’t be traversable by car (even a 4x4 which is not what I am driving). So pursuing this angle wouldn’t complicate my trip that much. Then I put the idea aside. I realised I didn’t want to spend endless hours navigating forest passes that may or may not exist or be blocked. Far less did I want to have to explain – mobile connectivity allowing - to my breakdown service (in broken French) why I have two wheels in a ditch on a private forestry road in a Spanish national park. So I am going with wisdom, prudence and the marked roads - and will buy 1:150000 maps along the way (I have the ones I need to get me through the first five days). I think the trip will last just over two weeks (with a break in the middle to do some laundry and catch up on myself) and that I can be back in Brussels in time for a rural development conference. In all it should be around 1800 kilometres. The road trip of a lifetime?

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