With a day to spare after our two planned Yellow and Red train trips, we decided to spend a day city sightseeing in Perpignan.
We took the SNCF train from Prades to Perpignan. This is a 40 minute journey, which cost us less than the fare from Lymington to Brockenhurst (€2 return per person). Once again this highlights the stark contrast in attitude to public transport between the UK and most of Europe.
We walked from the train station to the tourist office in the historic city centre and collected a map showing the highlights to be visited.
But, first we decided to take the 50 minute tourist ‘Petit Train’ tour around the city streets. We were amazed at the way it was steered around narrow streets despite car parking adding to the obstacles. There was a very good English language pre-recorded commentary via earbuds.
We then walked around some of the city highlights, noticing that it was very Catalan with a long history associated with Spain until the treaty of Rousillon made it part of France in 1659.
A highlight of our tour was a grand mansion (Hôtel Pams). Created in the late 19th century, it was a tour de force of ‘money no object’ Art Nouveau and Fin de Siècle decoration with an excess of naked ladies in giant classical style wall murals. The money came from JOB cigarette papers manufacturing. The company used Mucha for some of their advertising posters and there were Mucha style ladies painted on some walls. The materials and features used throughout were also extravagant from onyx and marble staircases to a large interior first floor arcaded patio garden.
We briefly left Catalan France for a Sicilian lunch in an Italian bistro!
Increasingly as the day went on the Tramontana wind grew in strength until before we left town we were suffering from dust in our eyes and noses.
The line of “le Petit Train Jaune de la Cerdagne” climbs dramatically from Villefranche de Conflent to the highest SNCF station in France at Bolquère (1593m) and then meanders across the plateau of the Cerdagne to La Tour du Carol. It is a lifeline in winter to the communities in it’s path and in summer a must for the tourists. It’s useful for skiers, walkers and mushroom pickers too!
It is so steep that if it had been built even 15 years earlier it would have had to be constructed using the rack and pinion system, but during construction, the concept of the an electric powered “multiple unit” (with an electrified third rail) and where instead of having one powerful locomotive at the front, the electric motors are spread along the whole length of the train, on every other axle, was becoming etablished, most notably on the Paris metro and on the Metropolitain District Railway in London.
This 63km long narrow gauge line is operated by SNCF, the French National Railway Company. Construction started in 1903 and the line was fully opened in 1910 from Villefranche de Conflent to Mont Louis. An Extension to La Tour du Carol completed in 1927
With gradients up to 6% this is as steep as an adhesion railway can climb, and for reassurance when coming down the trains have three independent braking systems,
It is claimed that there are 650 engineering masterpieces including 19 tunnels, and two major bridges, including the Viaduc Séjourné. And an amazing suspension bridge which is a unique way to carry a railway line. The 850 dc electricity is supplied by hydro-electric generators on the river Tét.
On the way we saw spectacular gorges, climbed onto high meadows filled with wild narcissus, and then dropped down to the Cerdagne plateau (which is exceptionally sunny, with 3 solar energy plants), before arriving at La Tour du Carol station. This station is unusual in having three different gauge railway lines – the 1m narrow gauge of the yellow train, standard SNCF mainline 4ft 8.5inch track and the wider standard gauge used in Spain. Most definitely a railway trip we would recommend.
TUESDAY = RED TRAIN
Le Train Rouge normally runs from Rivesaltes to Axat. But because repairs to the eastern part of the line we were only able to take a return trip from Caudiès to Axat.
It is a standard gauge SNCF line now preserved and run with the help of volunteers. After the Yellow Train yesterday this was a bit of a disappointment. Much time there were no views because the line being heavily tree lined and there was no great drama about the line’s engineering.
In addition we had been led to believe that two places were available for lunch before making the return trip. They were not open (and it turned out this was known to the operators before we set off). Even ignoring the lack of refreshments and not much to see during the two and three quarter hours wait for the return trip, this is not a tourist train ride we would recommend.
Today’s guest blog post editor is Sheila (John’s iPhone is having a rest while being recharged)
Today was our transfer day but we didn’t abandon our col climbing activities. For the last time we negotiated the multi-point turn outside our chambre d’hôtes and then the five way junction where the traffic lights have been permanently turned off, and left St Girons.
We set off once again on the road to Foix and somehow found ourselves threading our way through ‘centre ville’ before locating a Leclerc hypermarket on the other side. We did some essential shopping: food for lunch and supper today, a sponge to clean the car windscreen (as Sheila declined to sacrifice hers), and chocolate. Then we stood looking at rows of bottles of wine with as little as idea of what to buy as we always have when faced with this decision in France.
We stopped for coffee in Quillan and being tourists ignored the hard to understand blue zone parking rules.
Having told our satnav to use the fast route without tolls, we were a little surprised to find ourselves negotiating the extremely narrow , deep and dramatic Defile de Pierre Lys, as spectacular a gorge as any we have cycled through, causing us involuntarily to duck when driving under various rocky overhangs. We managed to squeeze just off the road to stop before entering a tunnel and change drivers from John to Sheila, because John’s impaired eyesight is not much use at night or in unlit tunnels.
It is hard to believe we had been driving on a major road (red on the Michelin map), but we were then taken onto a yellow road to pass through a second and even twistier and narrower section, the Gorges de St George. We paused for lunch in a lay by.
We then forked left onto a white and even smaller road to climb out of the gorge. We didn’t use our lowest gear but climbed for kilometres in second gear through numerous hairpin bends. Finally at 1508m we reached the Col de Jau. The long and twisting descent was steep enough to demand second gear for much of its length.
At last on a road that did more than 100 metres without a bend, we drove on to the railway station in Villefranche de Confluent to buy our tickets for the Petit Train Jaune for tomorrow.
A short run back into Prades should have delivered us to our chamber d’hôtes. But, missing a turning allowed the satnav to take us twice round increasingly narrow and at times vertiginous streets before we finally reached it.
We settled into our cool garden room adjacent to the swimming pool and wasted little time before enjoying a leisurely swim – possibly our first and last as the steamy weather is due to break later tomorrow and the temperature may drop from 34 to less than 17!
We then found our way up convenient flights of steps to the centre of town for a glass of wine in a busy café, and planned to dine there tomorrow. Back to eat our picnic supper at a table and chairs strategically placed outside our room, and then to get organised for our train ride tomorrow.
Today was our last cycling day on this holiday. The plan was to cycle up the Col de Port via the Col de Four and the Col des Caougnous.
Just to be kind to us this climb was consistently graded with no seriously steep sections thrown in. We made steady progress through pretty wooded scenery threading our way up a valley. And in contrast to the other climbs where we would have liked to have lower gears, we spent quite a bit of our time today in the middle ring. The kilometre posts certainly came along a bit more quickly!
We still took some breaks on the way for bananas and/or water, or just a comfort stop. There was more traffic and being a weekend quite a few motorcycle groups overtook us and most of them gave us a friendly greeting. There were also quite a few sporty cyclists who had sensibly started out in the early morning cooler air who whizzed past on there way down, no doubt eager to start their next climb (we were once again on the official Route des Cols)
The final couple of kms were only an average climb of 3% so it was an easy finish with no nasty surprises. And just over the top was the Auberge de la Sapiniere. Cold drinks!!
Feeling refreshed we returned to the Col sign for some photos then started down. We both thought it felt a lot steeper than 3% as we accelerated away.
Much of the way down we had a fabulous panorama of snow topped large mountains in front of us. We paused in some shade just off the road for our picnic lunch.
We had set off steeply downhill before starting to climb so we knew we would have a bit of a final climb at the end. It was 34 degrees in the shade and we were not in the shade.
Finally, having put the trike away, we strolled slowly to a café for cold drinks. Other cyclists stopped their too. Having sat in the shade we then went inside the café where it was cooler for valedictory ice creams.
In our blog posts for the Col d’Agnes and Col de la Core we should have mentioned that on both of these Cols there are signs commemorating their use as a part of Le Chemin de la Liberté between Spain and France from 1936 to 1944.
This cross country Freedom Route over the Pyrenees was first used by Republican Spaniards fleeing from the Spanish civil war and Franco, and later in the opposite direction as a way from occupied France to Spain.
After the German offensive in May 1940 and the division of France into two parts – an occupied zone in the North and a free zone in the South – many civilians and military servicemen fleeing from a world of persecution, imprisonment and death now unleashed by the Nazi brutality, sought refuge where they could in the free southern zone which remained a symbol of hope.
Among the military personnel were escaped prisoners of war, recently enlisted men, army cadets and shot-down airmen, all driven by the same desire to rejoin the Allied forces and continue the fight. Among the escaping civilians were victims of discrimination of all kinds, foreigners, Jews, resistants and anyone who had been denounced for one reason or another.
Their common denominator was the vital need to get away from the unbearable oppression in France and reach Spain by crossing the Pyrenees. At the beginning of this exodus, all those who were captured by Spanish frontier guards were unfortunately returned to France, interned by the Vichy regime and subsequently handed over to the German authorities. Later, although General Franco was an ally of Hitler and imprisoned all new invaders in extremely bad conditions for periods of between two to six months (depending on age, nationality and status), he later freed his captives under various economic conditions arranged in secret with the opposing Allied powers. During the early years of the war the occupying forces had left control of the free zone to the government of Vichy, which meant that for a certain time many routes were made more accessible by the variety of people who were willing to lead evaders across the Pyrenees. These guides included shepherds, professional smugglers, forestry workers, hunters of isards (the Pyrenean chamois) and frontier farming families.
But from the 11th of November 1942, the date on which the Germans occupied the free zone following the Allied invasion of North Africa on the 8th of November, the Nazi noose tightened and surveillance increased dramatically. Frontier guards, mainly Austrians, were posted along the whole length of the mountain chain and enemy patrols intensfied. A forbidden zone twenty kilometres deep was also set up along the Pyrenees into which access was only allowed with a special pass.
From then on it became vital to develop more structured, more efficient and certainly more secret ways of reaching safety in Spain. The result was the founding of many well-organised escape lines run by British, Belgian, Dutch, Polish and French groups whose aim was to pass not only men but also important military information and documents.
To make matters worse, early in February 1943, after the introduction of the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire, or obligatory forced labour order) under which all young men were to be deported to work in Germany, a flood of draft evaders decided to either join one of the increasing Maquis resistance groups or flee across the mountains to neutral Spain. Faced with such an abrupt exodus of its prospective manpower force, the Nazi crackdown was swift and harsh. Arrests multiplied, escape networks were infiltrated and broken up, passeurs and guides relentlessly hunted down – so much so that of 2,000 known guides more than half were executed immediately or died later in German concentration camps. But in spite of these many setbacks 33,000 men, women and children escaped successfully along the entire length of the Pyrenees and realised their dream of freedom.
It goes without saying that many evaders lost their lives and many others endured untold hardships on these perilous journeys across the high peaks. The guides and passeurs in the Couserans area of the Ariège also paid a heavy price, many being executed, many others deported. But thanks to their intimate knowledge of the terrain and local information provided on the movements of German patrols, they were able to lead approximately 3,000 people to the safety of the frontier. A record of prisoners held briefly in the Spanish prison of Sort lists 2,674 men and 158 women, to which can be added many more who also escaped but managed to avoid imprisonment in Spain. All an epilogue, perhaps, to the twenty or more wartime escape routes through the Ariège. Among them is the most symbolic and representative of all, “Le Chemin de la Liberté” or Freedom Trail route between Saint-Girons and Sort via Mont Valier.
Today for a change we thought we might try a 60m descent instead of an ascent first,
The first time we visited an underground cave system in France was because it was raining heavily all day and we thought it might be drier underground. Today we thought it might be cooler than the unrelenting savage heat above ground.
The underground river of Labouiche, discovered in 1908 was the object of numerous explorations, some of which turned out badly, the current of the water being much too strong for the explorers. By dint of perseverance, it is in fact 3,800m of galleries which were thus discovered! Today with a length of 1.5km open for the public to visit it is possible to make the longest underground cave visit by boat in Europe. Our guide propelled the boat by hauling on a fixed cable running the length of the cave. It was suitably spectacular with towering galleries in part and needing to crouch down very low in the boat to preserve one’s head at others. The cave is permanently at 13 degrees, which was a very agreeable temperature.
From there we travelled on to Foix, which the capital of the department of Ariège and is the smallest departmental capital in France. The city is famous for its three towered castle that can be seen from far away high on a rock. It was Friday market day and very busy so we had to do a bit of driving in circles to find a car park with a space.
We had a galette or omelette for lunch and probably ate a bit too ju much for a hot middle of the day, but did manage to stroll slowly around some of the narrow medieval streets before plonking ourselves down for cold drinks in one of the halles from which a market had been cleared.
In the evening we drove out for a Bio meal at a Bio farm who only do pre-booked meals on Friday and Saturday. We found the sign and turned off on a narrow land that went on and on (with a few encouraging signs to keep going). The road got narrower rand we ended up in a sort of farm cluster, but this was not it. We went on and the road became a narrow track. We kept on……we arrived at La Table de Gaya.
It was very rural and charming in a tumble down rustic way. The meal was very bio and organic and was excellent. Dessert included acacia flower fritters. A good decision by Sheila.
Another day another Col. This one is also on the official ‘Route des Cols’. We were going to climb from the Audressein side.
Again a relatively easy start as we went up the valley passing through small villages. In a couple of places we went downhill and commented to ourselves that we would have to do some climbing on the descent!
Like yesterday we were in for temperatures rising into the 30s. At first there was some cloud cover which was welcome. It increased the humidity, but we were going to be sweat sodden soon anyway.
We climbed steadily again stopping for drinks and bananas and breaks on the way. It was a scenic ride climbing one valley and then another after we turned onto a more minor road. Sheila commented that there was not a lot of flat. That is hardly unusual when cycling UP to a mountain Col.
Judging our rate of climb and the altitude of the Col we realised that things had to get progressively harder and in fact the last 6km were an unrelieved full-on climb.
Various passing motorcyclists greeted us and a few descending cyclists waved. Only one cyclist overtook us on the way up and he was a proper non-electric cyclist who managed to take a photo of us without pausing before standing up on his pedals to accelerate away.
It was one of those climbs where you seem to be aiming for a huge blank mountain wall at the head of the valley with no way out. The glint of sunlight on a car on the summit rim did confirm, “Yes that is where we are going, right to the top on some sort of hair pin bend ladder”
Super views in various directions.
Picnic lunch once more and some photos of us, the trike and the Col sign. A few more metres to add to our “Ordre des Cols Dur” tally. We have never submitted our results to this organisation but we added them up once and worked out that we just qualified for the lowest level of membership. Seems fitting that cyclists who are daft enough to cycle over eligible Cols may join a club called OCD.
Coming down was exciting, especially the first part. Lower down we climbed the ‘ups’ that we had previously come down without really noticing them. This uphill stuff is obviously all relative.
Nearly down we stopped in a village with a café for cold drinks that were very welcome.
Home, showers, write blog post….,you know the routine. Sheila had also been phoning around to book some evening meals out of town for the next few nights. St. Girons is a rather sad and run down place where there are quite a few places to eat if you want pizza or pizza, but not much else. And the CBD shop selling legalised cannabis might explain the appearance of some of the town’s youth.
Breakfast with Swedish couple who are also staying here. He talked a lot and then some more. She did not speak, but there wasn’t really an opportunity.
The plan for the day was quite simple – cycle up the Col d’Agnes, approaching from the Massat side.
The climb was not too difficult at first, but fairly soon the serious climbing started. As always a post telling the average gradient for the next km can mean climbing at that rate or it can disguise some considerable variations.
It was seriously hot and we seemed to run out of shade from trees quite early. As much about the orientation as a lack of trees.
We made several stops on the way for drinks, comfort breaks or just to give the legs a bit of recovery. 11s was a banana stop (we had no PAR purchasing opportunity before setting off)
We knew we had gained altitude when we first spotted gentians growing by the road side. Sheila claimed that we had climbed above the snow line once we had gone by a rather dirty looking remnant patch of snow. She was wrong. We also spotted an Ibex on some rocks by the road. We stopped and looked at it and it looked at us. As it climbed a bit higher we saw a second one coming down to meet it.
At the top we took the usual Col sign photos and then being a bit keen climbed to the top of a nearby ridge to admire the long views of snow topped mountains, trying to work out which was which from the orientation table there.
Lunch at the top was chewy bars, fig rolls and apricots.
Looking down our prospective descent was scary. As always when plummeting down a mountain you can’t believe that you actually cycled up the other way and you realise that it is no wonder cycling up was a bit of an effort.
Back home, shower, collapse in a heap. This seems to be pretty regular behaviour for us.
In the evening we walked into the town centre for a pasta supper, and offered a 10€ or 12€ version John opted for large. A large group at a long table next to us turned out to be the Amicale Cycliste Canetoise. This group does non competitive cycle tourism and we assumed they were on one of their two trips a year. They are a bit like Lymington Tuesday Cycling but have a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer and Press Officer ( perhaps we need a bit more formality in LTC). Their slogan is: “A vélo tout est plus beau”.
The plan was to get away fairly early after breakfast and drive to St Girons to arrive in time to assemble the trike for a bike shop to look at the rear mech.
We set off, driving via Condom on main roads to start with so as not to get caught in the same route barrée as yesterday.
As we bowled along Sheila phoned the bike shop to check times. They now decided they could not see us until Friday. We needed another plan,
We reverted to Plan B, to contact ‘SOS-GERS CYCLES’. Sheila phoned and spoke to Jean-Jacques. He said that he could look at the trike but not until 2.30 in the afternoon. J-J is based in Beaumarchés, which was in the wrong direction for us getting to St Girons, but we agreed and turned around. Sheila also checked bike shops in nearby Auch but they were all fully booked or not interested. We also phoned our B&B to say we would be arriving late.
In the short term this meant we had time on our hands to complete the journey of about 60km to Beaumarchés by the afternoon.
We drove to Bassoues for a coffee stop. This gave us a bonus bastide that was quite interesting including a market building with the road going straight through its centre. Sitting in the café we got talking to Craig and Kate who are an English couple and long time residents in the Gers. He was on a sporty Cannondale and she was riding an e-bike, while sporting a flowery bike cycling jersey. We talked about cycling and cols. Craig had a planned trip including Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez,
From there we went to Beaumarchés to make sure we could find J-J’s house, before going to Marciac for some lunch. Attentive readers will remember that we cycled through Marciac on our tour. We have not tried Gascony Armagnac while here, so Sheila rectified this with a pruneaux and Armagnac glace.
We returned to meet J-J who was an exceedingly proficient bike mechanic and exuded justified confidence. He runs a mobile bike rescue service for various hire bike fleets. He sorted out our problems doing a bit of tidying up as well and gently lectured John on the need to replace all cables every two years with good quality ones. Not being impressed with the lack of an online adjuster on our front mech cable he gave us one, although the front mech is working OK.
Everything done and the trike once again taken apart and put in the car J-J said ‘no charge’ he was pleased to assist, but Sheila insisted.
We set off southwards once again. On the way we stopped at an Intermarché to pick up ingredients for a picnic supper. John waited outside and failed to help a man who wanted advice on working the self service launderette! Not sure I could even do this in English. Then because Sheila had been so long he went into the supermarket to discover that she had completely disappeared. A bit disconcerting. It turned out that she had walked out simultaneously with John walking in.
We continued South to eventually reach our B&B and met Fabian the joint proprietor. A very different place and not up to our previous grand chambre d’hôte, but we will be OK. Car parking was on the the busy and none to wide street and the kerbside spot indicated was not much longer than our car and edged with a gulley beside the kerb. We were not going to manage to parallel park from the wrong side of the road!! John set off to find somewhere to turn around and return in the opposite direction. This took him straight into a late rush hour in the town centre. In desperation he turned into a small car park to try to three point turn and come back out to go the opposite way. On trying to leave a woman driving in very firmly said it was no exit and he could not do this. John pulled out of her way and then went for the idiotic foreigner gambit, waiting for a gap in the traffic to exit with an illegal turn. Returning to our B&B Sheila was still guarding our space and with her kerbside assistance the car was squeezed in!
Showers, clean clothes, picnic supper in the conservatory, then a wander around the town centre and coffee in a café.
Then to bed – too tired to think about writing a blog post, so this is being published a day late.
A hot day to let the car take the strain. The plan was: a leisurely breakfast, then a short tour to visit some nearby hill top defensive villages, and return to pack the trike into the car ready for our transfer day tomorrow.
We visited St Oren Pouy Petit with some difficulty because a ‘route barré’ took us on a detour longer than our intended journey only to bring us back the wrong side of major roadworks (two articulated lorries, big machines etc – and a coach in the middle.) John discovered this after a short walk to assess the situation. While there he observed one lorry backing over the bridge and on up the road, and also a car coming the other way which turned off into the grounds of an Abbey. Walking back to our car he saw what looked like the same car emerge. Instructing Sheila with a ‘trust me’ message he directed her to turn into the abbey grounds and travel around a bit, then through their car park and eventually out the other side. We continued on our way.
Next was Blaziert, followed by Terraube where a café provided cold drinks after our sightseeing.
Onward to Marsolan whose church steeple was visible from a long way off.
Finally we went to La Romieu, which is on the pilgrim route and has a large religious building with two towers. We thought we might get a lunch snack here, but the only restaurant was in full lunch mode. We were not the only ones looking for food. There were hot and hungry pilgrims as well. Eventually we found a bistro a short walk to reach on the edge of the village, where we had a pleasant lunch together with some pilgrims.
La Romieu is also famous for its cat statues celebrating Angelina and her cats. you may read all about her here: