This was always destined to be a unique trip. I'll be the first to admit that I'd rarely invested less preparation into a bike tour for a start. How Rob found the time to plan so much of it whilst simultaneously planning a wedding and dealing with various other family dramas remains an absolute mystery to me. Needless to say, an hour or two before our intended departure and I'm still scampering around trying to pick up the last minutes odds and sods we might need (namely; extra gaffer tape, liquid metal, cable ties and super glue) when I get a text from Rob informing me that due to adverse weather conditions in the Bay of Biscay our sailing had been delayed until later and we couldn't expect to be boarding until 1100 that night.
Starting a bike tour on a two day ferry crossing... or as P&O like to describe it – a mini cruise to Bilbao was also a strange change to the normal leap across the channel. Other than the damp and windy blat down the A3 to Portsmouth we weren't to touch rubber on tarmac for two days! The sailing was a real eye opener. Not leaving until three in the morning we'd eagerly awaited our induction to the 'Pride of Bilbao' with our fellow passengers in the port terminal. The wait was horrific, with families of inebriated northerners and equally sloshed Welsh – mainly abusing each other about their ethnicity (I was fast tiring of uninspired sheep jokes and the theme tune from the Hovis advert). This was obviously an indication of things to come, with the prospect of spending two days on a boat with these people looming I was cursing the fact that an ASBO apparently does not preclude European travel.
With many aboard experiencing a 'Mini Cruise'; a trip involving two days sailing from Portsmouth to Bilbao, followed by three hours wandering around the Spanish port town and then a two day sail back to the point of origin, I'm sure that the guests were thankful of the many entertaining distractions onboard such as a medley of show performances (including exerts from Hairspray, Les Mis, Miss Saigon etc.) in the 'Show Lounge'. In the 'Posh' bar one could enjoy the solo singer/pianist – in summation; a Spanish speaking female warbler murdering classics by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Beatles, Dusty Springfield or even the Beach Boys. It wasn't that she was out of tune, she just insisted on singing an octave above the original and leaving out a large number of the consonants... a little like listening to Tweety Bird serenade Sylvester the Cat in a Mexican cartoon. Expecting to find a plush, palm lined garden area at 'The Terrace Bar' I was a little surprised to find myself sat on cheap B&Q garden furniture chained to the rusting deck. Supping warm beer served through a window on the aft deck, it felt good to have the sun on my face and a beer in my hand all the same and seeing Rob tapping his toes away to Oklahoma in the 'Show Bar' the night before was an eye opener in itself. Several restaurants, ranging from 'prison canteen' to 'trying to be posh' served reasonable food at unreasonable prices so at least we ate (although missing breakfast on the first day almost proved disastrous until we got a meat pasty at the bar). We were sure to rise in time for a proper full English on our final day, neither of us keen to hit the road missing that tradition.
Back on the bikes and we finally disembark into the port of Bilbao. Directions are a little hazy, I know Rob has planned a route avoiding as much motorway as possible but it takes some aimless meandering and innumerable roundabouts before we finally submit and get on the first road out of town just to get some miles down. Even with our late start and tour of Bilbao's fabulous roundabouts the fast roads, largely empty, saw us at our first planned stop by lunch time, even if our full English aboard the 'Pride' had negated any need for lunch itself.
Pamplona is chock full of bike bays so after parking up the bikes we wandered into the centre of town for a coffee and a coke before exploring the cobbled streets so infamous for the 'Pamplona Bull Run'. Picturing a teaming throng of guys in red neck ties hurtling down these narrow streets being chased by several ton of prime beef, my first impression was "gulp! that's not a lot of room!". The town really embraces the tradition though and Torro paraphernalia is prevalent everywhere. That said, it does not distract from the gorgeous architecture and sleepy laid back atmosphere of the town. It would have been nice to spend more time there but that's another trip.
From the civilised urban back drop of Pamplona it wasn't long before the adventure started for real. A few rural 'N' roads to the enticingly quaint village of Longas where we knew the first trail started. That said, a Google Map at a scale of 1:25000 makes for poor 'on-the-ground' navigation. There was always going to be a little guess work involved in riding the route less traveled. We found something that looked like a trail at the back end of the village and, blowing caution to the wind, went for it. The track was a little tighter than we imagined, quite rutted and only went as far as some dog kennels. Arse! Not the most auspicious of starts. We performed an awkward about turn and headed back to the village for a cold drink in the shade.
Once refreshed we tackled the task again but attempt two was also soon aborted when we realised that we were on a trail heading north when in reality we needed to be on a trail heading south. From the vantage point we'd gained we could almost make out another trail heading in the other direction. Third time lucky and we were away! The trail itself was challenging enough on fully ladened bikes but fun all the same. It climbed and spiralled up the wooded mountain, feeling like real wilderness. About 10km into some gnarly but manageable off road sections, including some pretty exciting and rutted forest fire tracks we came to a junction. Our next way point was Biel and luckily enough there was a wooden sign with Biel marked on it. Unfortunately Biel was right, down a significantly steep concreted slope. There was a strong likelihood that this sign was intended for ramblers, or even be wrong. Either way, we conceded, getting the loaded bikes down this apparently near vertical decent would be a mammoth task so we opted for route two – left.
We pressed on, the trail winding up the mountain for another 2-3km to the very top of the mountain. The view was breathtaking, it honestly looked like we could see the rest of the world as the panorama spread out for miles beneath us. It was a terribly picturesque scene in fact; cream coloured cows milling around a green pasture, bells ringing and a ramshackle stone building with thick wooden doors (open) against a bright blue sky. Alas, all too apparent that this was not the trail to Biel. In fact this trail ended just here in this amazing spot. The temptation was to pitch up and stop the night in the shack and had we the supplies (even clean drinking water) I'm sure we would have done just that. It had already been a big day though and I for one was starting to show the tell-tale signs of dehydration (a school boy error). We were going to have to man-haul the bikes down the steepest slope either of us had ever experienced.
One at a time we nursed the bikes down the 'Demon Drop' on the very brink of the breaks. Even the engine breaking wasn't enough on this treacherous hill, there would have been no hope in riding the bikes down this, especially fully loaded as they were. On reflection, logic should have dictated that the luggage come off and be taken down in a series of trips but a reconnaissance soiré had already proven one climb on foot too many and I had very little fluid left to sweat. Traction toyed in and out, causing some uncomfortably hairy moments. By some rationale, known only to me and Rob in the heat of the moment, the decision had been made that I should go first – safely at the bottom of the slope with my engine now off I turned with a resigned sense of relief to watch Rob descend. My sense of ease started to wain as I watched the ungainly mass of a fully loaded GS1150 sliding down after me, teetering on the very edge of upright and straight. Amazingly he got it down amongst scenes of sweaty jubilation.
With the day ebbing away we pressed on... well, Rob pressed on. In a fit of relief I'd turned my engine off with the kill switch and promptly forgotten I'd done so. After some exasperating minutes of wondering why the hell the XTX wouldn't start followed by a forehead smacking moment of clarity I rode on. Off course, by the time I'd got going Rob was well gone so when I happened upon a fork in the trail (a fork that Rob had, by chance, missed) I had no idea which track he'd followed. I opted for the high road, reasoning that should Rob have taken the low road, at the very least I'd see him or he'd hear me beeping my horn. Par for the course really, he'd taken the lower route and after an awkward, cliff top u-turn I got back on the trail to find him walking back up to find me. Presumably with the intention of dragging me out of which ever ditch I'd apparently crashed into. Give him his dues, he had walked about 500m back up the trail in a blistering late afternoon heat wearing full bike gear.
Back in convoy the urgency to find the elusive Biel was even further up our agenda and we soon happened upon another wooden sign marking the way as right, down a dubious looking path. Significantly different in it's nature to the trail we'd thus far been following, it was more narrow, more over grown and much more rocky. That said we'd already experienced the effects of ignoring signs so we dutifully followed the sign this time around.
OH MY F**KING CHRIST! WHAT A MISTAKE!!!
Grass and stones gave way to ruts and rocks, which in turn gave way to huge ruts and boulders with steep inclines/declines to boot. The bike was taking a real beating and I wasn't faring to well myself. On one particularly difficult and technical descent we ground to a halt whilst Rob had to dismount and clear a fallen tree from the ever narrowing path. The trees and undergrowth were encroaching more and more, tearing at our jackets and stabbing our arms. the rocks were doing their very utmost to unseat us from the bikes, tossing us about or flicking up from beneath the wheels. Now dripping with sweat and exhausted we came to a slight clearing in the trees with the continuing path, essentially becoming a ramblers climb. It was easily as steep as the 'Demon Drop' but without the comfort of being concreted offered only more rocks and stones. More out of morbid curiosity than a genuine belief that it could be ridden, Rob climbed down to asses our options. About 20 minutes later he re-emerged, shaking his head – no chance.
I'd like to describe this as the point of no return, but quite obviously, we had no choice. I really didn't want to ride back up the nightmare we'd just experienced. Especially on a fully ladened bike. But we had no water and it looked like the clearing was festooned in Bear shit. We caught our breaths and remounted our bikes. Dehydrated, extremely fatigued, lost and dejected it was no less of a task to get back to the junction we'd obviously got it all wrong at. Coming down the last slope, almost within sight of the wayward signpost, the XTX dropped heavily from one rocky step. The sound of an almighty metallic clang echoed through the landscape as the rock hit the underside of the bike. I kept the bike rolling and upright but back on the trail again I had to stop to asses the damage. A cigarette packet sized dent in the right hand header pipe was to be my endearing keep-sake from the day it would seem. Luckily, the dent was the extent of the damage and it hadn't pierced the pipe or damaged the bike in any other way. Nothing was blowing and, amazingly, the little XTX was running as well as ever. A clear sign that a bike with a bit more ground clearance might have been more appropriate though.
We reasoned that the sign, rickety old wooden thing that it was, must have been on the wonk. Not wanting to go back the way we came (i.e. several hours of sweaty terrain including the 'Demon Drop) we opted for the left hand fork. This proved to be infinitely more rideable. Actually, I would go so far as to say, quite enjoyable. A series of wide gravel switchbacks led up into plush wooded national parkland. Before long down the other side of the mountain and alongside a lazy meandering river, eventually popping out in the sleepy village of Biel. With long shadows signalling the impending day's end we'd ridden enough. We surrendered ourselves to the sat nav, set to the nearest camp site and hit the road. There then ensued about 20 miles of gorgeous sweeping rural lanes with beautiful smooth tarmac running atop amazing mountain passes. An amazing way to finish a day. We finished in Aguero, a great little spot in a stunning valley. As far as I could tell, Aguero had absolutely nothing going on other than a campsite full of grown men playing soldiers (airsoft to be precise). It all seemed a little over-the-top and unnecessary to me – that said, I'd spent most of the day lugging a fully loaded road bike over a series of mountains which probably had perfectly good roads running around them so what would I know?
As the daylight left us we wandered into the village to confirm that absolutely nothing was going on. Not even a restaurant, so we ate at the camp site bar (as did most the locals). Calamari and several cold beers devoured like only a man who's witnessed his impending doom can do. It was a noisy camp though so regardless of the physical exertions of the day neither of us slept brilliantly.
Tour de France
We had a slow and relaxed camp down, struggling to get back into our routines. Some Tostados from the camp bar for breakfast and we hit the road. Immediately we're back into the winding rural lanes. Largely traffic free, the sticky tarmac had me grinning, relaxed and happy to be in the saddle once more (as opposed to up in the pegs I suppose). Before long the road joined and ran along side a fast flowing river with canyon walls. People were enjoying the rapids; white water rafting, canoeing and kayaking. It looked great fun.
The scenery was amazing and boundless. Olive groves, lavender and herb bushes adorned the road sides. It felt like we had the roads to ourselves and the relaxed riding soon had us in a small town for a fuel stop. Fully fueled the fast flowing roads press ever on, up into alpine style ski resort towns with huge mountain back-drops. Even stopping for a cold drink, it all merges in the mind. After a challenging and incredibly fun mountain col we find ourselves emerging in Bagnere de Luchon, traffic had been picking up as we drew closer to this town for reasons soon to become apparent. An exciting place to be, particularly on this day, as one of the stages of the Tour de France was due to end there. The place was absolutely buzzing and consequently there were road closures.
Several futile attempts to find a route through ended with submission to the inevitable. Our detour probably took us another 20 miles which, although great roads, meant another longer than anticipated day on the bike. We wound our way down through more valleys, past Fos to a planned camp near Arres in the Val d'Aran. Camping Vernada had us perfectly placed for a series of trails in the area and also happened to be a beautiful camp site. By the gently flowing river Aran we pitched up on plush grass in the shade of a tree and headed to the bar.
Back on the trail
On our arrival at Camping Verneda we'd been handed a local map with some vaguely marked trails on them. The kind lady on reception had even offered her advice on local beauty spot to visit, including Saut Deth Pish which was coincidentally situated some way into our first intended trail. It felt decadent to be riding un-ladened bikes for a change and we were both raring to get into it once more. A couple of coffees and a croissant down and we set off.
As far as I can gather Saut Deth Pish is Spanish for 'waterfall of outstanding beauty which can be found up a great twisty tarmac single track'. Inexplicably Rob had a few issues getting his bearings so early so I took the lead up to the falls. once there we had a thorough look around. It truly was a picture postcard scene. In actual fact being two or three tall waterfalls on top of each other plunging down into the rock pools below. There was a smattering of tourists that had braved the single track road up there but none were returning the way we were going.
Up a stony ramp the trail rose out of the back off the car-park from where everyone else turned to head back. The trail was ours, not another soul in sight for miles, every bone jarring rocky precipice. Slowly twisting up the mountain side, through the towering pine trees into open mountain vistas and alpine grazing land. The trail was largely single rutted tracks, strewn with rocks, tree roots, dust and gravel : and beautiful in every way. With such awesome views, it was difficult to pick out a route whilst taking in the landscape at the same time and the urge to stop and take it all in was only just out-weighed by the enjoyment of the riding itself. Every now and again the temptation was too great and we'd stop to take pictures (and take on much needed fluids – learning from our mistakes).
The switch-back climb up one side of the mountain lead to the same down the other side, calling for a different riding technique and adding a new challenge. The scenery continued to wow us though. Drainage ditched had been built across some parts of the track and jumping off these was proving immense fun. Whilst relatively arid at the top, noticeably more rocky, as we descended it became much more rural and towards the bottom we traversed a small stone bridge. We stopped for a breather and some more fluids. I always consider downhill much more taxing than the climbs. It really was one of those "take a look where we are!" moments. With the engines off it genuinely was a beautifully tranquil spot.
Rob did some rough calculations and summarized that we were not far from the trail end... and lunch! Essentially just a small farm track away. With a justified hunger we pressed on and soon found ourselves at what looked like a very small, out of season, ski resort. We started to park up the bikes in the town centre, by the first café we saw when we were approached by Roy. Roy was a sun kissed hippy New-Yorker who'd lived in this small Spanish town for 30 years running a 'Ski Store'. He had a pleasant stoned drawl and advised us not to eat that that café, but better to venture up round the next corner to another place he knew.
I'd understood the directions but had misheard the name and soon found myself parked outside 'a pool' looking for a place called 'Aboo'. Rob was obviously mystified why I might be wandering around our intended destination with an expression of abject disappointment. But Roy was quite right, at the pool-side diner I had chicken and chips washed down with several very cold cokes. It also came with a lovely salad containing ingredients that neither Rob nor I could name (and I would describe us as relatively metropolitan men who know their way around a kitchen – the beers are in the fridge right?). Roy came and joined us for a chat, it soon transpired that he was also a motorcyclist and was a proud owner of a Harley. I doubt it was much cop over the trails but I could imaging him swooping around the mountain col roads with a huge toothy grin. He told us how his ethos was to always help fellow riders – an admirable sentiment. We picked his brain about our intended trail for the afternoon.
"It's like 'dis..." said Roy, holding his hand out sideways. He seemed pretty adamant that it shouldn't be ridden.
"Nobody takes care of dat one, it's just not used man"
We put it down to his soft Harley riding ways and decided to give it a whirl regardless. This trail started a little way back down the farm track and appeared to be of a similar ilk to the mornings trail. The climbing was a little less gradual and as it climbed the trail got slimmer. Still rideable but slightly more taxing it wound up into the mountain immediately adjacent to the one we'd ridden over that morning. We crossed little water run-offs and tiny streams as the switch-backs grew increasingly closer in frequency. It was getting harder as it got tighter. It was also becoming more rocky which was especially tricky on the steep accents, particularly on road tires. We passed a small farm with a ford. It was muddy and pretty churned up, the XTX fishtailing out and into another loose stony climb. Three or four more switch-backs and there ensued an aggressive long climb up a rock strewn section, my only choice on the XTX to pin it and hang on. At the top of this hill was an old burnt out farmhouse and a trail that seemed to peter out.
Perhaps Roy had been right after all. It certainly didn't look like we'd make it as far as the lake that was supposedly at the end of this trail. Reviewing the map, the trail seemed to morph into a path for hardy ramblers around-about where we were. Neither of us were looking forward to sliding back down that last slope, not on these bikes. We took in the views and caught our breath. The trauma of getting up there aside the scenery was once more stunning and incredibly isolated. It was another impressive place to be. Once ready we turned our thoughts to the rocky slope down. Going one at a time again (should one of us fall it would be a fair bet that we'd need a hand getting the bike upright again on such an uneven slope) we crept up to the edge. This time Rob went first.
Watching Rob wrestle the GS sideways down the gravelly incline was not instilling me we much faith. On a more suitable bike perhaps we could have slipped it into first and rolled down but on these we had too much weight behind us for that. The huge GS kept sliding and veering to the left, into the mountain wall and drainage ditch leaving Rob little option than to just go with it and pray it didn't drop into a mess it couldn't drive out of. I could sense his relief when he finally succeeded in getting to the bottom without dropping the unwieldy beast. Now it was my turn.
The lose rocks pretty much negated any serious braking and the sheer angle ruled out much of the engine braking too. Using a little of all three I trickle fed myself down towards Rob. There was also a muddy turn into the ford at the bottom so either way you wouldn't want to be carrying much speed when you got there. It squirmed beneath me as I covered the rear brake and teased in a little front letting it roll on it's lowest gearing. But it was markedly easier to man-handle down that Rob's massive GS, the weight difference alone giving me a massive handling advantage as I could physically hold it up when I needed to. Back up in the pegs for the last five-ten meters I let it roll and I was down with only the rest of the mountain left to descend. Covering the rear brake like a trials rider off we went, back through the muddy ford (sideways again), down the narrow track and over the streams once more.
As we progressed and the trail started to open back out we began to relax again even stopping for a bit at a gorgeous rust red waterfall. The colour must have come from the ore in the mountain but it was a shocking burnt orange scar through a vibrant green scene. The roar of the water, birds and insects offering the only audible addition to the scene. I sat on the ridge in the shade of a tree whilst Rob clambered down the bank to explore and dip his feet. Above us a clear blue sky and this idyllic peaceful spot, I took a sip of water and savored the stillness.
Finally back to the start of the trail Rob decided that he fancied returning to camp via the same trail we'd crossed that morning. I on the other hand was craving some tarmac so opted for the road way. As per the norm I did get myself a little lost in Viehla but it still proved to be a much faster way back to camp and I think I needed it to blow away the days dust. The sweeping roads flowed down the valley, following the river as it meandered it's course. Before too long I was chilling in the pool back at camp. Rob joined me an hour later when I was already well into a cold beer. Later we ate Pizza at the camp bar.
We could afford a lazy start to the following day. Camp staying exactly where it was we were out again on un-ladened bikes into the local trails of which there were many. We indulged in a coffee and some fresh bread before heading off. Today's trail started in a few miles past the town we'd lunched in the day before so a quick blast up the valley on those lovely sweeping tarmac roads was a great way to get warmed up for the days ride. From the valley floor the zig-zag climb up the mountain side to the ski lift and car-park (where the trail was to start) was ear-poppingly steep. Fast wide roads sweeping back on themselves around steep, tight hair-pins. The climb afforded us a spectacular view of the valley spread out beneath us.
I was expecting to see the ski lifts empty, even unused or not operating but as we approached the massive car-park mid way up the mountain we could see lazy ramblers traversing above us, walking boots and all, taking in the views from the comfort of their cable lift seats. That said the car-park, large as it was, was empty of cars. In a surreal twist a herd of mountain cattle was lazily roaming across it in an orderly line, bells clanging. They seemed happily oblivious to the concrete beneath them. The start of the trail was clear and we could see a large portion of it stretching out before us. Similar in terrain to the previous terrain but much straighter with slight undulations. For the first half an hour or so we did encounter a few hikers as well as the ubiquitous live-stock. they were all good natured about the noisy interruption – if a little surprised by our presence.
We soon rolled down a small grassy slope to a trickling stream and a tiny stone church. This solitary little building appeared to be the main goal of the hikers aspirations. We stopped and had a little look around. Incredibly quaint as it was it was very small and therefore little to look at, I think if I'd hiked all that way purely to see it I may have been a little under-whelmed – nevertheless it was a lovely little distraction. Other than a bit of wildlife and more cattle we pretty much had the trail to ourselves from here. Over the little stone bridge and up into the wooded hills. The climbing more gentle than the day before and the trail cutting a relatively smooth line through the trees. There were some small ruts and a few rocks but far tamer than the day before and it was soon turning out to be a beautifully scenic and shady route, trees abound from every side. Little streams washed down from higher in the hills, carving little damp gullies for the bikes to drop down and pop back out of. Following the trail around the mountain we passed a miserable old man trundling around sheepishly on a quad bike a few times – passing him in full flow but him passing us when we stopped for a picture, film a small river crossing or just admire our surroundings.
All to soon the trail started to swoop down to another valley floor. The river now picking up a bit more momentum and finally feeding a reservoir. It had already been a full day in the pegs but it had been noticeably easier and we were sad to see this pretty little trail through the wooded parkland end. By way of consolation the trails end marked the start of possibly the most exciting winding road ever. Racetrack smooth, empty, winding track. Not too wide but stunningly scenic. Carved into the cliff walls with the reservoir or river on the other side. In the dry heat of the last few days the tarmac was as sticky as glue – it was hard to fathom why on earth it wasn't absolutely crawling with other bikers. We opened up the throttles, playing a little recklessly (the effect of tarmac after loose stuff), chasing tail ends and cranking the bikes right over in the sweeping bends. A pre-lunch adrenalin fix.
Lunch was found in a tiny, picture postcard, village at the end of the road. By the time my pizza had arrived my heart rate was just returning to normal after our little hooligan antics on the sticky tarmac. The pizza was exceptional, just what we needed. We ate fast though as our clear blue sky was now looking more brooding and foreboding. Guzzling some fluids and settling up quickly to try and beat the impending downpour. As it happened, our haste was unnecessary and the storm soon past in the other direction. We were back on the road faster though for more stunning mountain col roads. From this adjacent valley we swooped up the wall, over the top and back down into the Val d'Aran heading back to near where we'd picked up the trail from the morning on the south side of the valley.
In the small village down an innocuous looking back street was the start of the next trail; or at least the small single track lane up to the trail proper. The trail was once again out the rear end of a car-park albeit a much smaller one with, quite inexplicably, attendants. One of whom informed us that the trail was shut to bikes for the time being as it was a terribly busy time of the season for ramblers. Incredulity was replaced by disappointment but we were at least in the perfect position to repeat the Saut Deth Pish trail in the other direction. An exciting alternative route back to camp.
If I had to describe our riding style this time around I might go so far as 'cocky'. A new found confidence seemed to have taken hold and we were blazing up the track. The day was drawing in but it was still dry and the trail was completely empty apart from a huge dump-truck about one third into it. The truck was dropping huge piles of shale in specific spots to repair certain parts of the crumbling trail. Passing him was easy enough, the driver even sharing a wry grin as we skirted past and the newly lain lose rocks simply added to the fun. Towards the highest point of the trail I watch as Rob raced over a raised cattle grid, launching the huge GS skyward in an impressive jump. 'If he could jump THAT monstrous lump of a bike, I'm going to have to do the same or I'll never hear the end of it' I thought. I hit a steady but aggressive throttle and hurled myself towards the jump. In all likelihood it was a minor feat but it felt like I'd achieved several feet of air. Certainly when the XTX came down with that all too familiar heavy thump. On reflection it was probably all a little fool-hardy but great fun all the same – like I say 'cocky'.
Further towards the end and I was starting to feel the effects of another great day on the bike. As the trail end drew closer we pressed on, not stopping again at 'Saut Deth Pish' as the last evening visitors drifted back to their cars to head back. Off the trail and back on the narrow winding lane we soon caught up with the tail end cars. Still with adrenalin coursing through our veins these cars felt as if they were crawling down the mountain. The lane was to tight to pass on so we just had to endure this irritation until near the bottom at Arres and our first opportunity to pass.
The Val d'Aran had earned a warm spot in our hearts, so to mark our final night in style, after showers we opted to eat in the restaurant next door to Camp Verneda. Indulging in an extravagant Paella and a few beers. We were acutely aware that a big day lay ahead of us the following day so, after a little night-cap at the campsite bar we attempted an early night. Sleep was elusive though as our quiet little camping spot had suddenly become a kids' play-ground, screaming little brats running around the tents until past midnight. About an hour after the little oiks were finally tucked up in their beds, just as I was drifting off, a huge storm crashed in with all the pomp and grandeur a mountain storm can muster. The skies lit up brilliant white followed quickly by the deafening crash of thunder. Rain hammered down on the strobe-lit tent. Sleep was a hard task master that night.
Our best intentions at an early start laid asunder by a couple of extra strong continentals and a site full of screaming kids sans curfew. Not to mention the weather playing it's part, we tried our best to get a coffee and some bread down us and get camp down in an efficient manor. Today was brimming with potential, promising to be a massive adventure in every sense. The intention; to enter Andorra 'dark' using Rob's cunning 'back way' route into the small country. Quite fortuitously, taking into consideration our dubious night's sleep, it was a nice easy start through sweeping tarmac roads as far as Llavorsi where we picked up our final trail of the trip – the very thing we'd been building up to.
From the mini village of Llavorsi we started up into tiny rural lanes up to the even smaller hamlet of Berg and then on to the smaller still Ferrara before heading down, what looked like, a rutted farm track. Immediately the terrain was far removed from that which we'd experienced thus far on the trip. The rocks were mainly slate and the trail was carved into the bedrock of the mountain giving it a slight camber to the out-side of the mountain. The going was a challenge but manageable and even with the bikes once again fully loaded we were comfortable and enjoying the ride. Within an hour we found ourselves at a summit and a fork in the road. What little signage present was little help. Intended mainly for hikers, ramblers or the odd lost sheep they offered little use-able routing. Rob reasoned that it had to be the right hand fork, heading downwards. Based on the carefully calculated formulae of 'left must be = to a 50% possibility of being wrong if right is = to a 50% possibility of being right... blindly we forged on, now descending the other side of the mountain.
The incline was relatively steep so we dropped quite quickly into plush farmland. The riverbed at the bottom flowed along to an old working farm with livestock roaming about. I'm sure the chickens didn't appreciate the noisy interruption to their clucking around so we didn't hang about. Around the farm-yard the river bed had spread and merged with the field slightly. The cattle and farm traffic had also added to churning it up; on road tires the XTX was proving to be a handful, the exact sort of terrain I'd wanted to avoid really but where there's a will, there's a way. The track meandered back over the river once more, this time without the aid of a stone bridge, fording the sloppy mess. We both crossed OK though even if I was breathing a little heavier. The trail turned into a grassy path but pretty straight and as it picked up from the river again it was dry enough.
About 100 meters from the sloppy river ford we had another crossing, a muddy, but pretty small looking tributary stream feeding into the river below to our left. I wasn't really watching Rob, distracted by something, but from the corner of my eye I just caught his exit from the stream. A little dab of the foot and the GS a little sideways. A hairy looking near miss. The slippy exit duly noted I rolled forward into the murky unknown. As these things have a habit of doing, it all happened so fast. I was acutely aware that the world seemed to have fallen away from beneath me and that I could no longer see my bike which was completely submerged. Conscious that it was very important to not let the engine take in water or stall I wound on the throttle. I must have taken a different line to Rob though and the exit from my position in the abyss appeared to be up a near vertical bank. We shot out of the muddy puddle in a tide of noise and cow piss. There was never going to be a graceful save from this, my only real goal at this point being to be left with something I could still ride after I pick it up! I took some solace in the soft grassy verge that broke my fall.
I jumped up and started to asses the trail of carnage from the ocean of slime to where I'd finally landed. Rob was intently scrambling for his camera to document my fall (from grace). Mud covered luggage strewn the path in hap hazard waves of indignity and everything, including myself, now had a thick coat of sticky mud and excrement. We righted the bike, repacked and gathered my thoughts. Then, like the brave little soldier I am, we pressed on like true gluttons for punishment.
The terrain changed once more, less arid or rocky and far more green. It also started to narrow. From two wheel track with a grassy centre to a single track. Before long this then changed to a soft footpath of worn grass. the lack of motor-vehicular evidence was disconcerting but reluctant to admit defeat we pushed on in the hope that the trail would once again open out. Our route followed the river, the bank undulating precariously above it and getting steadily narrower. It ultimately led us into a small meadow where the river now tumbled over a series of rocky waterfalls surrounded by dense woods. There was no where to progress on bikes, it would have been difficult enough on foot so our only option was the loathsome about-turn. I had a little tantrum – more at the prospect of having to go back up THAT path than anything else (even though I was wearing about 20lbs of cow shit and had no idea how water-proof my panniers really were).
My bike being the least equipped for this kind of terrain Rob gallantly let me go first. Being the most likely to have it with the rubber pointing skyward he would be right behind me to lend any necessary assistance. I gunned the engine, made a shaky waterfall edge u-turn and started the precarious climb. Though the scenery surrounding us was truly beautiful my riding was not pretty in any way or form. At points the only solid ground was either under low tree branches or uncomfortably close to the vertical drop to the river below. As the route climbed it started to open out and I felt I could breath again. I was now covered in a heady mix of drying cow turd and sweat. By the side of the path I noticed the decomposing carcass of a dead cow – missing it on the way down was a great indication to how intense our concentration must have been – I felt it would make for a great picture, really illustrate the isolation and in-accessibility of the areas we were visiting. I turned off the engine and was immediately enveloped in silence. I was struck by the desolate solitude of the place. Only the sounds of the birds, insects and the ever flowing river could be heard. Then the thought occurred to me 'why can't I hear the ever present rumble of the GS?'. I shouted;
Nothing. Uh oh! I started back tracking on foot, shouting as I descended.
Still nothing. Shit! I pondered the possibilities; maybe I missed a turn. Worse still, maybe Rob crashed. Badly! SHIT SHIT SHIT!! We were pretty isolated up here, not even a phone signal (not that we'd have been able to tell anyone where we were. The thought terrified me.
He was a good half a kilometer back down the path, GS on it's side, luggage all neatly piled up a couple of meters behind him. Rob was in one piece, a little shaken with a few bumps and very tired. A choice between cliff edge, tree and deep rut had got the better of him. Looking at his crash forensics (i.e. the deep gouge the bike had scarred in the earth) he'd been mere inches from plunging to his certain doom before saving it in a deep rut. I think the width and weight of the bike in the rut had toppled him but with the power on it looked like he'd spun round. Trying to right his bike on his own he'd also managed to slide it around so it was a disorientated scene. Hence why, from this day forth, that place will be known as 'The Meadow of Death'.
It took an immense amount of effort from both of us to get the GS upright again. Rob had slid it around but it remained on the lip of the rut and we had to resort to walking it out into a more open space in gear. Thank goodness it started first time. It looked like the luggage frame had taken a knock and he had to use tie-downs and bungees to secure the luggage back on then he rode back up to the XTX and the dead cow, panniers a little wonky; I eventually joined him, sweating and panting. The stench from our dead friend was pretty horrific though so we didn't hang about.
As we approached the scene of my previous 'get off' it was clear that a different approach was required. Rob had apparently sailed through unscathed using a left hand channel and was signally for me to do the same. My intention had been to get of and walk it through in gear (messy but safe). But Rob gave a convincing argument so I gave it a go – curse my limited ground clearance again! About half way through and I'm beached on a rock, slimy mud and shit spraying out from the back. I jump off and the XTX stands there upright unsupported. I start to rock it, reverting to plan 'A', and walk it out of the quagmire, consequently re-coating myself in the brown filth. As we passed the farm again the farmer and his little daughter came out to wave at us, they looked quite happy to see us, smiling as they waved. Our victorious return from 'The Meadow of Death'. Then again, they may have just popped out to laugh at a couple of lost idiots – I was covered in cow poo after all.
Back on the trail proper we back track to the only point we could have gone wrong (right is = 100% bloody wrong). I pulled up at the junction just in time to hear the tail end of Rob's torrent of expletives before looking up at the source of his anguish. There, carved quite clearly on the back of the sign 'TO ANDORRA'. I will remain forever bemused by the logic of putting important information like that ON THE BACK OF A SIGN!!!! Looking in that direction the trail continued as for as the eye could see and beyond. No sooner did we circumnavigate one mountain pass it was immediately surpassed by the next. Luckily the only traffic appeared to be some rather stubborn and perplexed looking cattle who, not being in any rush to be anywhere, were quite happy to stand in the middle of the track and simply stare at us.
After a seemingly endless succession of climbs and descents through bone rattling trails it finally looked like we were returning to civilization. A small conurbation in the middle of nowhere in the midst of rural nothingness seemed to suggest the merest probability of a road – surely? Alas it was not to be and to add insult to injury at the very last minute I notice the loose rocky assault that was the only way through up to our left. On these tires I had little option, leg out by the front wheel to get the weight over it I pinned the throttle and steamed up the slope, the back end sliding wildly wide in an attempt to catch up with the front. I squirted past Rob, dangerously close, who had stopped with the misconception that there was still going to be a road, or at least a bar. At the top a series of equally lose switch backs ensued, right then left, climbing ever up. On a straighter part I stopped to get my breath and let Rob, obviously faster and more comfortable on this terrain, past. I didn't want to hold him up.
It was starting to feel like an endless endeavor, as enjoyable as the riding had been our previous 'deviation' had taken a lot out of us physically and I was certainly feeling the effects of a poor nights sleep. Fatigue was making the job a whole lot harder, my concentration waning and decision making slow. Inwardly I was cursing this unforgiving terrain. At the top of yet another climb Rob stopped – I didn't need asking twice – turning to me with a smile he told me that the sat-nav was showing a town. The town we were heading for. Although we had no way of know just how far it was, the lack of 'off-piste' mapping meaning that the technology could not tell us where we were, it was, needless to say, a good sign.
After some exploration Rob summarized that there was a restaurant 500 meters away from us serving ice cold sugary treats – the only problem being that it was 500 meters vertically below us down a further half an hour of bone juddering, bouncing, rocky, rutted forest trail. Pulling into the car park of this incredibly posh looking mountain retreat felt a little odd. Covered in crap, sweating pure petrol on two rather loud motorbikes was a stark juxtaposition to the suited gents sipping G&T's by the garden fountain. I felt it prudent that Rob went in and ordered our drinks – him being considerably more presentable than myself. The cokes seemed to evaporate in our mouths, they were polished off in seconds along with some odd corn based snacks.
The run up to Andorra is an otherworldly blur to be fair. There's traffic, something we haven't seen in days and no less frustrating after it's absence. But the roads are fast enough once we're past the clueless tourists stopping on roundabouts to read maps and we're soon outside the campsite at Soldieu.
'Ferme' the sign read although to see it all overgrown and abandoned was enough to tell us we wouldn't be reliving our previous stay here. We'd stayed here over five years ago when we did TransMed Enduro, my first ever big bike trip, and it was a real disappointment for us not to be able to stay again. Instead we formed a plan to head up to Pas de la Casa (Andorra's main ski resort) and navigate to the nearest camp site from there. The final push up to the summit was great fun with it's smooth wide open series of hairpins, but these two riders were done. Realising at Pas that the nearest camp-site was a further 20 miles or so we decided to find a cheap hotel for the night. Fortunately it didn't take long and the cost was only mildly more than what we'd been paying on campsites (being off-season, I think, helped).
Unloading the bare minimum from the bike we filled the service lift and hauled our stinking stuff up to the lofty forth floor. Everything stank so even with our boots precariously balanced on the outside window ledge the tiny room was not the most pleasant of environments to be in so we showered quickly and headed straight out into the town to get a well deserved beer or two down us. I think we were both a little sad to have finished our off-road section of the trip but it felt an immense achievement none-the-less, we reminisced over the last few days as we sat out in the cool evening. After a little mooch about town we settled on a quaint looking wooden chalet style establishment to eat. Tarteflette all round and a couple more beers. I suspect that the combination of a massive day, altitude and a few to many beers may have been the catalyst that caused Rob to develop a case of Dyspraxia. To be fair, by the end of the meal neither of us were particularly lucid, Rob had smashed a couple of glasses and spilt a beer and walking seemed to be a real effort for me. Regardless of the unpleasant fug now emanating from our room we turned in quite early. Completely spent. What a day.
Back on the road again...
Our inclusive breakfast consisted of a coffee and a croissant which I struggled to digest after my mammoth supper. The Tarteflette had laid heavily leading to a disturbed nights sleep once more. The weather was looking promising though, that was until we dropped down through the cloud cover. Below, the day took on a completely different hue. The solemn gray overcast sky seemed to reflect our moods and we struggled to get into the ride. To all intents and purposes the adventure was over – ahead lay a long tarmac slog to Caan but at least Rob had figured out why his panniers weren't fitting after his 'off' – in his disorientated state he'd put the left on the right and visa-versa.
Splitting the remaining miles, as the crow flew, placed us in Limoges. A place I'd driven though whilst visiting relatives on holiday near there. A lot of motorway miles ensued once the mountains were behind us and we raced from shower to shower, the weather doing little to improve. From the windy (twisty) joy of the mountains to the windy (gale force) trauma of the monotoway. The wind tearing at my helmet, trying to separate it from my head. It felt like my cheek bones were the last remaining bastille holding on to this slim layer of protection.
Lunch in a motorway service station was chaotic. Now unaccustomed to traffic and people it was a grating experience. Vending machine coffee warmed us through a little though and a decent enough sandwich hit the spot before pressing on. The day was a relentless battering of weather and mileage. My neck muscles so tense that my vision was blurring and my head pounding. Through the traffic of Limoges (which was only mildly less traumatic than our battle though the grid-lock of Touloues), we soon found our site for the night. Run by an efficient anglo-franco couple – a meek mild mannered Yorkshire lady and a boisterous cigar smoking Frenchmen – it was an amiable site with clean and well kept facilities. Our neighbors, a elderly group of Belgian guys on German sports tourers weren't especially chatty though, odd for a fellow biker I thought.
Dinner was under-whelming; expecting the finest cuisine, all be it for an all inclusive price of €24 the foi grois was average and the faux filet de beouf a beaten lump of nondescript shoe leather. The pichet di Vin made for a welcome change to the usual beer though and with the aid of my headphones I enjoyed a relatively good nights sleep (I suspect our Belgian guests may not have appreciated the nocturnal racket coming from Rob's tent though).
Breakfast, the following day, was interrupted by showers. As I hunkered under a tree by the tent, eating my croissant and drinking my fast-cooling coffee my thought turned to the road ahead. The prospect of packing up a wet camp followed by riding three hundred damp miles of miserable gray roads did not appeal. I could only take solace in the final destination – Caen. A place I have repeatedly enjoyed in past visits. As it happened a break in the showers proved long enough to get camp down only mildly damp and although for some of the day the showers persisted it definitely got brighter as the day progressed. The miles weren't as hideous as expected either, although interjected with bouts of rushing motor-way, large parts of the route carved through fascinating French towns and villages. Leapfrogging huge rivers, we crossed the Dordogne, the Loire, names to conjure the imagination. The day dried but stayed cool. We stopped late for lunch at a café in a small town only to be told they had 'terminé' – we grabbed some bread, cheese and juice from a supermarket and had an impromptu picnic in the car-park with the lump of Chorizo I'd had strapped to my bike for a couple of days.
By late afternoon the sprawling outskirts of the city started to envelope us and before long we were at the Caen Memorial Museum – which, quite by chance the sat nav thought was where a camp site cold be found. Ironic though as this was one of our intended visits. Luckily Rob remembered a camp site near Pegasus bridge in Ranville so with the evening drawing close we headed there and pitched up for the night for the last pitch of the trip (although we were to be there for two nights). Once settled we walked down to the café bar overlooking the bridge for an evening potation.
Lest we forget
It was a wonderfully quiet and peaceful camp-site and after a fitful nights sleep we were ready for our full day in Caen. Our first stop the Memorial Caen Museum were we had a coffee and some breakfast before entering the exhibit. Architecturally it was a brilliantly well thought out museum. The journey spiraling down through the history of World War II; from it's causes to the liberation. Plunging down into the darkest parts through emotive installations. Mixing real footage, photography and illustration it told of great personal sacrifice as well as the monumental overall legacy of the war. It was staggering. One section, telling of the plight of the many Jewish – in particular Jewish children – was especially moving. Try as I might to choke back the emotions the sheer magnitude of it got the better of me and I could no longer contain my grief. It was a poignant illustration of the suffering endured and the sacrifices made for the freedoms we enjoy today.
This may seem like a somber way to spend the last day of the trip but actually I see it as a sobering reminder to be thankful for this freedom. To never take for granted that we can experience this and to celebrate the very freedom so many died to preserve. We went into the harbor at Caen to book our table for our night's 'last meal' and grab a kebab before heading along the coast to Arromaches.
Aromaches was the scene of the Allied Forces' massive make shift harbor after D-Day. the remnants of which are still clearly visible today. From the eastern cliff top rising above the tiny harbor town is an amazing view. As we pulled into the carpark a paraglider was enjoying some extra elevation, swooping around on the ridge currents. Also from this viewpoint is the D-Day 3D Cinema Experience. For a bargain €4.50 this beautifully arranged piece of surround cinematography takes you back to the chaos and drama of 6 June 1944 whilst simultaneously transporting you through the tranquility of the same area today. The way one piece of grainy black and white footage could echo yet melt into the present was brilliantly executed and the added effect of incredibly convincing audio made for a real sensation. Moving and yet brilliant fun.
We headed back to camp via the scenic route. Through open fields and tiny seaside villages. Lost in my thoughts, the rain held off once more and made for a lovely ride. We returned to Caen by taxi that night, it would have been sacrilege to finish this most austere and momentous of nights sober and there was far too much fun to be had in our favorite restaurant (it's now becoming a tradition to finish all our European trips there). Not to mention – THE KAKO!!!!
As ever the meal was superb (Kako, cooked for seven hours in cider... YUM!). The booze flowed. The electricity cut out (to much applause). Stag and hen do's danced on tables. More booze flowed. By the time we left we were both suitably sated. We headed next door to the Irish bar where even more booze flowed and fat naked guys danced on the bar. At the point where walking in a straight line was becoming a challenge we decided to call it a night. Quite by chance the taxi rank was right next to the kebab shop – go figure. After a long wait the first cab cruised past me just slow enough for me to slur our destination through the open window before speeding away, leaving me staggering and bewildered in the street. Ten minutes later the same taxi driver did the same again this time shouting something back. I quickly came to the conclusion that French cabbies were a breed apart. Some time later, probably a minute before I was about to give up all hope of ever getting to bed the taxi driver that brought us into Caen that night turned up and cruised by – we jumped into the back before he had a chance to gauge our sobriety 'Maison James!'.
In hindsight a drunken late night before an early ferry wasn't the brightest of ideas.
Packing up camp was extra taxing and the ride to the ferry a little wobbly to say the least. Once boarded we reverted to type and sat, like the jibbering wrecks that we were. Both quite thankful that we could simply sleep away the four hour crossing. I consider our general demeanor on that ferry a perfect reflection of the trip – and oh boy, what a trip!
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