Archive for November, 2010


We awoke to a dry day with the sun gamely trying to burn off the mist that was rolling down off the mountains. A quick check of the weather forecast revealed that we were due some rain today, no, having read the forecast properly, lets make that lots of rain, and strong winds moving across the country later on in the day…

When we set off my father hadn’t been very well. He had insisted that we still make this trip as, in his words, “It’s bad enough that I’m not well, but I don’t want it on my conscience that I prevented you from making a trip of a lifetime”. Something for which I am very grateful. Thanks Dad.

Because of this, we knew that at some point we would have to come back home to see him, hence our decision to have a shakedown trip through Europe first before going to the Americas. That way we could be close to home in case we were needed. I’d had a telephone call from the consultant, and it was apparent that that time needed to be soon.

We had booked a ferry from Santander to Portsmouth in three days time so, with the bad weather looming, we decided that we were going to make a push and try to get as far as possible before it set in. This gave us the added benefit of being able to ride the last of the twisty N260 in the dry, particularly as much of the road sported ‘Slippery When Wet’ signs, and the regular cliff faces and drops didn’t give us much room for error on some of the bends!

Well I’m glad to say that the N260 lived up to it’s reputation, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves yet again.

At one small town the road was temporarily blocked by a procession of Morris Men dancing with their sticks, followed by a band.

We parked up to enjoy the spectacle and have a quick look around before setting off again, finding an artisan baker who had an interesting sign, and an ancient AMC two stroke motorcycle fitted with the biggest crash bars in the world!

Further on, we couldn’t resist stopping for refreshment at a beautiful bar restaurant in the curiously named town of Gavin.

Next stop was for petrol, and whilst filling up, we noticed some interesting cars across the road in a restaurant car park. We went to take a look and discovered it was a French sports car club, obviously out for a Sunday drive in the last of the sunshine. After a nosy at the cars, we  thought to have a bite to eat at the restaurant, but the owner was a miserable sod who refused to serve us. I think that he just didn’t like bikers as he was happy to serve a family that had arrived after us in a car. This was the only time that anything like this had happened since we had left the UK and I was pretty angry, however we left quietly and denied him our business.

A few kilometers further on we came across the La Trobada restaurant which was very friendly and cheaper to boot, bonus!

As we rode on westwards the scenery changed quite dramatically, with the ground being very barren and appearing to be made up of large pale grey rocks and scree.

Imagining it without the patchy vegetation, it looked as though it could have been a moonscape, or even a stage set from a Science Fiction movie.

Nearby was a lake with very low water levels, and I think that there must have been some hot springs somewhere as we occasionally got wafts of a strong sulphurous smell, and neither of us had been eating eggs (S: the odd sign for thermal spas was a bit of a clue, as well!).

It was late afternoon when we joined a motorway, and as we rode along, the skies were getting darker and darker. We were doing the old “Shall we, shan’t we, stop and put our waterproofs on” thing, when the first few large, heavy rain drops hit us, so it was straight onto the hard shoulder. Unfortunately not quite quickly enough – by the time that we had waterproofed up, it was lashing it down and we were both rather damp. We should have stopped earlier, but then hindsight is always 20/20.

The winds were picking up but that wasn’t too bad, it was the sudden gusts that actually pushed the bikes across the road which made riding a bit fraught and tiring.

It was getting late and we decided that the best thing was to find somewhere to stop for the night. It was a good call as I’d had enough wind induced moments for the day, having had a particularly close call on a bridge when the wind nearly gusted me into the armco barrier. I don’t mind admitting that it scared me, which caused me to tense up, which of course just made things worse.

Without Mip to help us with the finer detail we took a wrong turn in the confusion of a multi-motorway junction just outside Pamplona, and ended up on a scenic tour of an industrial estate whilst trying to work out how to go back on ourselves. Eventually we made it back en route, and started looking for a promising place to pull off and find somewhere to stay for the night. Pamplona is the city famed for it’s annual spectacle of the Running of the Bulls, which meant there should be a lot of hotels around the town and it’s surrounds, but deciding on the best exit from the motorway to find them wasn’t proving to be the easiest of things, what with the rain, traffic and our general tiredness. Eventually we just picked an exit, left the motorway, and started looking for somewhere to stay, but with no luck, everywhere seemed to be closed.

In Iza on the outskirts of Pamplona, we saw a small sign for a hostal pointing up a side road. After a bit of a trek and a few wrong turns, we eventually came across a converted barn and farmhouse which looked lovely. The owner heard the bikes and came out. They had no guests, so we were welcome to stay and park our bikes in their garage. Excellent.

The Hostal Rural Huartearena was built into the hillside and their garage was basically most of the ground floor. It was massive and just the sort of thing that I dream of having one day, being immaculate, painted, heated and lit. I was feeling bad about us and the bikes dripping water all over the floor, but they weren’t bothered and let us hang up our gear to dry.

Our hosts were very friendly, the accomodation superb, and the home cooked evening meal wonderful, so when we retired to bed, we were both very happy, warm, dry bikers 🙂

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We slept like logs at the Borda El Vilar Casa Rural and awoke refreshed to be greeted by another fantastic sunny day. Throwing open the windows revealed a wonderful view of the Pyrenees with the sun burning off the morning mist from the wooded slopes. Beautiful.

Suddenly there was movement outside the window and a cute kitten jumped onto our windowsill, purring and investigating everything, as cats are wont to do.

The previous night we had done our usual washing of socks, etc and, as they were still slightly damp, Sarah decided to lay them out on the window sill to dry in the morning sunshine.

In a flash the kitten forgot it’s search for Rich in Rabbit and snatched a sock off the window sill. It was only Sarah’s quick reactions in grabbing the other end of the rapidly disappearing sock that foiled it’s plan. There then ensued a right royal tug of war with neither contestant willing to give in easily. Luckily Sarah’s persistance won the day and I had to stop laughing long enough to remove the other sock before the kitten grabbed that one instead.

Our friend’s cat treacle used to have a penchant for catching and killing socks. She recently passed away at the ripe old age of 21 if my memory serves correctly, and it was great to see that her spirit was living on in this Spanish kitten.

After a delicious but simple breakfast of local produced ham and cheese, we re-loaded the bikes, were waved off by our friendly host and rejoined the N260 towards Sort.

Its fair to say that after the fun that I had had the previous day I was eagerly looking forward to riding my little V7 along the next section of the N260.

After a few kilometers we saw a beautiful valley with a stunning bright blue lake, that gave us a wonderful excuse to stop and stretch our legs.

A short distance further on there was a wild mushroom market with stalls selling all sorts of wierd and wonderful fungi. I love the taste of wild mushrooms and so we just had to stop and investigate. We had a coffee at a nearby cafe and learnt that the whole area was in the throes of a gastronimic festival to celebrate their local produce, these very mushrooms.

We set off again and, after refuelling with cheap petrol at only 1.13 Euros a litre :-), we threw ourselves into enjoying the ride.

The N260 is a fantastic biking road with everything from motorway quality wide tarmac to twisty mountain hairpins, with some truely amazing scenery.

I think that the pictures speak volumes.

After another tiring but exhilerating day, we stopped in the town of Fiscal and found a room at the Hostel Rio Ara, where the staff were very friendly and let us put our bikes into their secure garage free of charge.

Not the best or cleanest place that we have stayed at, but it was certainly the cheapest so far and totally adequate for us to get our heads down and have an early start in the morning. Well, early for us, anyway!

Andorra

We left Limoux without the assistance of the SatNav. MIP had not come back to life, despite Sarah searching the manual and Garmin website to find a solution to the problem, along with leaving it on charge overnight. Not particularly impressive for an expensive bit of kit that was less than two months old. Fortunately it was more of an inconvenience than a disaster as we had a map of France that included bits of the adjoining countries, and the laptop still had the Garmin mapping software working on it. It highlighted that we always need to have a map and a compass as a backup, particularly for when we are going to be in the more remote areas.

We set off heading for Andorra and found the wonderful twisty D613 heading into the Pyrenees.

After many enjoyable miles with hardly another vehicle in sight, we stopped for a break at Col de Chioula (altitude 1431 metres), and grabbed something to eat at the nearby refuge.

Sitting there in the sunshine I was struck by how different the place would be in a few months time, when the green slopes would be covered in snow and skiers, and how much our experience of the places that we pass through are just snapshots of those few moments in time and could be very different on another day.

Suitably refreshed we set off, joining the more major N20 at Ax les Thermes, and continuing on into Andorra.

I didn’t know much about the Principality of Andorra other than that, as it is not part of the European Union, it has gained fame as a giant duty free shop and as the alleged source of smuggled goods into Europe. The font of knowledge that is Wikipedia informed me that it is the sixth smallest nation in Europe, that it’s capital, Andorra la Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe, being at an elevation of 1023 metres, and that it’s citizens have the 2nd highest human life expectancy in the world — 82 years. Of course I had to look up who had pipped Andorra to number one, it’s Macau at 84 years.

One thing that Wikipedia did not say was how wonderful the Andorran roads are. Mile upon twisty mile of perfect tarmac, marred only by having to dodge the occasional herd of horses and stray cows standing in the carriageway halfway around a hairpin bend, and avoiding the steaming momentos so kindly left by those beasties.

We stopped for the cheapest fuel so far, 0.94 Euro per litre, but the experience was marred by the pump attendant short changing me by giving me change for 15 Euros when I had given him a 20 Euro note. As soon as he saw me looking at my change he hurridly gave me another 5 Euros and made himself scarce. His whole manner made me suspect that it was deliberate, particularly as the Euro is not our home currency (S: and who’s ever heard of a 15 Euro note?!).

The capital was incredibly busy, with mile after mile of roadworks and heavy traffic. Even though the time was getting on we didn’t see anywhere that we fancied stopping for the night and so kept on going.

Before we knew it we were at the border with Spain. There was a massive queue of cars being searched by lots of customs officials, obviously after the smugglers as there are quite strict limits on what can be brought into an EU country from outside. I can only presume that, as we were on bikes, our restricted carrying capacity meant that we were of no interest – we were waved straight through without a second glance.

We rode into Spain, and after an inadverdant circuit of the first town we encountered and a minor meltdown from a tired Sarah, we headed off Westwards. We hadn’t decided whether to stay in Spain or to go back across to France, so took a road that would allow us to choose several miles further along at the aptly named Sort. Thus we stumbled upon one of the best roads of our trip, the fabulous N260.

Sarah had got her second wind and was riding brilliantly, it was great to see her obviously having a great time. She just seemed to flow the V7 effortlessly from one bend to the next, which was beautiful to watch but hard work to keep up with. (S: of course this had to be the one time that the camera wouldn’t film as it was full, darn it!). Despite the ride being so enjoyable, eventually we were both starting to feel tired and wanting to stop for the night – it had been a long day.

After several more kilometers of uninhabited and gorgeous twisties, we had just about resigned ourselves to have to push on to Sort to find a hotel for the night when we spotted a ‘Casa Rural’  sign as we flew past. We had no idea what a Casa Rural was, but the picture of a bed on the sign looked promising!

One U-turn and a small backtrack later, we turned into a very steep track and rode up up to find a beautiful house which overlooked the valley. It turned out to be a wonderful little B&B – the owner came out, was happy for us to stay the night, and even rustled up an evening meal for us as we had next to no food.

The place was lovely and had a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere, just what we wanted after a long, exhilarating, but tiring ride.

It was a fine sunny morning that started innocently enough with us managing to get all packed up and the bikes loaded quite quickly. Things started to go wrong when I decided to finish off a pork chop left over from the BBQ the previous night. As I bit into it there was a load crack! I very soon realised that it wasn’t a bit of pork bone that I had crunched but that I had damaged my tooth. It felt a bit strange but I wasn’t in any real pain, so I kept my fingers crossed and just ignored it.

We said our goodbyes to Rob and Martina, who set off heading north, as they were intending to overnight in Sarlat in the Dordogne.

Sarah had been having problems with her bike to bike communications so before we set off I fitted a new Push To Talk (PTT) button to her bike which cured the problems. Unfortunately, by the time that we were ready to leave my tooth was hurting a fair bit so I had to resort to some pain killers before we got going.

Within half an hour it was so painful that my riding was being affected. I tried to tell Sarah over the Comms system that I needed to stop but got no reply. When I got a chance I rode alongside her and, after some good old fashioned sign language, she pulled over in the beautiful little village of Saint-Hilaire. It turned out that we had stopped outside the abbey where, in 1531, Benedictine monks had created a sparkling white wine called Blanquette de Limoux, long before the Champagne region became world renowned for their sparkling wine.

After a bit of digging I traced the Comms problem to a broken wire in the power lead  on Sarah’s bike, which I was fortunately able to repair.

Unfortunately by now though I was in agony with my tooth and asked at a nearby bar cafe where the local dentist was. They were very helpful and gave us directions, but when we eventually found the surgery it was shut. As we were not too far from the town of Limoux, we decided to look there for another dentist and found Sandrine RIBES surgery on the road into town. Luckily she was able to fit me in as an emergency at 4pm that day.

We went off and found a little hotel nearby called Les Arcades which was situated at one corner of the town square, La Place de la République. They had secure garage parking nearby where we were happy to leave the bikes and gear.

Sarah spoke with our travel insurers who confirmed that I was covered for emergency dental treatment and at the alloted time I presented myself for treatment. The dentist was very pleasant and told me that I had broken my tooth. She treated it and advised me that as there was some bruising beneath the tooth I would need to take some pain killers for three or four days. All for only 20 Euros.

After a walk around the town we went to a bar in La Place de la République and had an Irish Coffee for purely medicinal reasons.

The bar was full of pictures and framed photographs obviously taken in the town square outside the bar of lots of people in white clown make up and outfits. We found out that The Carnival of Limoux is an Audois festival which takes place in the Place de la République every weekend from mid-January to late March, and is characterized by bands in Pierrot costumes that are known as ‘les fécos’.

Fountain in La Place de La Republique

Art or Graffiti?

We went back to the hotel to discover that MIP the SatNav was dead and would not charge up. Ever hopeful, we left her plugged in and went to sleep hoping that she would be okay in the morning.

We had been looking forward to visiting Carcassonne for quite some time. The fascination with the place started a few years ago when Sarah had a regular Games night with her friends Pam and Ari. As three is an awkward number, she went to a local specialist games shop looking for a game that would be fun to play with only that number of players. They recommended the award winning (yes, they have awards for games!) tile building game ‘Carcassonne’, which fast became their favourite.

Next we both read an excellent historical fiction called ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse, which is set in Carcassonne and the surrounding area.

Because of all this, Carcassonne had featured as a definite destination in our travel plans from the start. We were over the moon that our first view of it was magical, with it looking as splendid in reality as we could have hoped for.

Sarah found a campsite called Camping La Cite within sight of the old city walls, which had plenty of space and was quiet as it was approaching the end of their season. We booked in, and it was good to be able to hand in my RAC Camping Carnet at the reception instead of having to surrender one of our passports. We picked a spot amongst a stand of walnut trees near to a stream, set up the tent, and settled in.

That evening we received a telephone call from our friend Rob, who was in Bordeaux with his girlfriend Martina. We had previously talked about the possibility of meeting up, and they now decided that they would travel south and meet us at Carcassonne. I was blown away as they only had a few days of their holiday left and we were quite a distance further south than they had been planning on travelling, particularly given that their ferry back to the UK was sailing from Calais.

They were tired of camping, so we decided to ditch the tents and share one of the mobile home type units that were available on site. The fact that the mobile home had heating was a big decider as the nights were definitely turning cool! They arrived early the next evening and we all chatted and caught up over a meal.

We had heard mixed reviews of Carcassonne, with some saying it was wonderful, and others saying is beautiful but over commercialised, being full of bars, cafes and souvenir shops. We decided to walk there along the riverbank and find out for ourselves.

As we approached the old city of Carcassonne my first impression was one of awe, as the fortified city is huge, very imposing and in excellent condition. It is obvious that various parts have been renovated, but I found it to be impressive and beautiful. Yes there were a lot of businesses inside that were aimed at the tourists, but there were also normal shops, and to my surprise some private houses. I had no idea that people actually still lived inside the walled city. We had the benefit of seeing the place out of season on a weekday, but I can imagine that our impressions would have been quite different had we been there on a busy Sunday in August.

After we had looked around a little, we headed for a bar. How unusual I hear you cry, but for once it was not just our desire for a drink, but a rather more sad occasion. Wayne, a friend of ours who had celebrated with us at the Wed-n-Fled rally (amongst others) had been killed by an allegedly drunk driver who failed to even stop at the scene. Whilst I would like to rant on about the sort of despicable person who would do that, I had better not as this is really not the time nor the place and the matter has yet to go to court. We coincided our drink with his funeral so that we could be there in spirit to celebrate his life. Ride free Wayne!

Of course one drink led to another, and after we had polished off a couple of bottles of wine I had my first taste of Grog, a drink made with rum, hot water and sugar. I think that interesting is the best way for me to describe it, needless to say that I won’t be rushing to order it again. Martina had moved on to Irish Coffee, which was like none I have seen before. It came in a large glass and was multi layered, with hot whiskey and brown sugar at the bottom, espresso coffee in the middle and cream on the top. It came with a straw so that she could sup from any of the layers at will! A better choice than the grog, methinks.

After we left the old city we decided to finish off the day with a BBQ and made use of the one of the communal BBQs that were scattered around the campsite. It took some time but was delicious!

On our way to Carcassonne a couple of days previously, we had passed a very picturesque marina on the canal du Midi, and as the next day was beautifully sunny, we decided that this would be a good place to visit. We parked up near to the marina and walked, as the road that ran down the side of the canal was closed by an armed Police officer whilst workmen were tarring and stone chipping patches of the road surface. Hot tarred and chipped feet anyone?!

As we approached we saw a number of the boats which had “Le Boat” written on the side, which I thought was particularly helpful for the landlubbers amongst us.

We made enquiries and discovered that Le Boat was the name of the local boat hire company, which prompted us to go for a pleasant and relaxing boat trip along the canal midi.

Our final full day in Carcassonne was rounded off with another very pleasant evening at the campsite.