Three Cows

I love discovering interesting things about the paces that I visit on my trips. In particular I like the “human” things and on that note The Tribute of the Three Cows is right up there!

Harls snarled up Col de la Pierre St Martin, scraping metal on the asphalt as we climbed and me? I had a big stupid grin, I really hadn’t had this much fun in ages!

The Road to St Martin


At the top of the pass we did the customary thing, stop and take it all in.

This is a special place, a place where on of the oldest treaties in the world is ceremonially marked.

The ceremony takes place every 13th July on the summit of the Col de la Pierre St Martin and brings together the people of the neighbouring Pyrenean valleys of Barétous in France and Roncal, Spain.

Translated into English, Col de la Pierre St Martin means the Pass of St Martin’s Stone and for centuries this has marked the border between France and Spain at this point. Every year the people of Barétous, in France hand over three cows to the people of Roncal, Spain at the Col.

The Tribute of the Three Cows is frequently regarded as the oldest international treaty still being recognised. Although it is thought to date back to the 13th century it’s exact origin is unknown, the first written record of the Tribute was recorded in 1375, it believed to represent a peace settlement in a dispute over grazing and border rights.

The ceremony has only been suspended twice, in 1793 during the War of the Convention between France and Spain, and in 1940 during the Nazi occupation of France. In both cases, the Barétous people were prevented by regional authorities from attending the ceremony out of fear they would escape to Spain!

These days the ceremony is both culturally and economically important as it draws large numbers of tourists from around the world.

On the morning of the 13th July, the representatives of Roncal, wearing traditional costume, gather on the Spanish side of the Col.

The representatives of Barétous, approach the boundary marker from the French side. Traditionally, the Mayor of Isaba would hold a pike against the Barétous representatives, and these would also be held at gunpoint by the rest of representatives of Roncal; fortunately this custom was dropped in the late 19th century!

The Mayor of Isaba, presiding over the ceremony, asks the Barétous representatives three times whether they are willing, as in previous years, to pay the Tribute of the Three Cows of two years of age, of the same coat and with the same sort of horns, and without blemish or injury. Each time the Barétous representatives answer in Spanish “Si Senor.”

Following this, one of the representatives of Barétous places his or her right hand on the boundary marker. A representative from Roncal follows by placing his or her hand on top of it, and so on, until all representatives have placed their right hands on the boundary marker. The last one to placed his hands is the Mayor of Isaba, who then proclaims:

The Boundary Marker Stone


“Pax avant, pax avant, pax avant!” – “Let there be peace!”

All those witnessing the ceremony repeat the same words.

Traditionally the representatives of Roncal were then presented with the three cows, but I understand that these days, due to animal welfare and livestock importation controls, the equivalent value in money changes hands.

Needless to say, the rest of the day then descends into feasting and celebration!

That sounds pretty good to me…!

“Everyday is a winding road,
I get a little bit closer.”

Catch you soon,

Dookes

Une Canicule Mk2 and So Quintessential

It’s been a scorcher in France today, officially “Une Canicule,” a heat wave!

Last night the television news was full of the expected temperatures for the next few days. Throughout the country temperatures are expected to be in the range of high 30’s to low 40’s Celsius.

I can report that the meteorologists were incredibly accurate.

It seems to me that I’m getting pretty good at attracting weather extremes when I’m on my road trips. There was snow over the Grimsel Pass one June day, snow on the Silivretta Alpine road in September 2107, not to mention on that same trip minus 9ºC over the Albula Pass! Oh and the high temperatures of the South of France last year, plus the other “Canicule” that you can read about by clicking here.

In many ways today was sort of a transit day, just over 200 miles in total from Cahors to Soulac sur Mer. We passed through lovely countryside, but honestly I couldn’t wait for it to end, so energy sapping was the heat.

I drank a few litres of water and just sweated it all out of me…you really do not want to smell my riding gear this evening!

On one of my water stops I took a photo of the air thermometer on Harls; it was a bit hot in the Medoc!

Thats about warm!


Finding roads with shade was a bonus and at times I had to smile about a standing joke that Mrs Dookes and I have about French roads.

Many years ago on a Brittany Ferries sailing we were reading an article in their “House” magazine. You probably know the sort of publication, glossy and with little articles to pass a few moments before – Pow! – Here’s another advert for something you can/must buy on board!

Anyway what the article was about I cannot recall, but there was a nice photograph of a tree lined road with the title’ “A Quintessential French Road.”

I fell about laughing, it just caught me in a silly mood, but honestly in all the years that I’ve been visiting France I’m still trying to find that “Quintessential” one.

No, only a junior tree lined avenue…


Now it is true that in France you can find many roads lined with trees, often Limes or Planes. They may be lovely, but if you consider just how many kilometres of road there are in France the tree lined ones make up a very small percentage and they certainly cannot be accurately described as “Quintessential.”

Do towns count?


Incidentally, there seems to be no clear source of where the trees lining the road idea came from. Ask some folk and they say Napoleon Bonaparte, others will tell you it was the Romans, whilst many swear that the nobility were responsible. It’s a lovely mystery.

That’s more like it!


All is not good in the world of tree lined Avenues though.

The French “League Against Violence on the Roads, ” yes honestly, claims that trees are responsible for one in eight road deaths, because they reduce visibility and cause greater injuries when people crash into them and they want them cut down!

Needless to say the many of rest of the French population have a different view. My mate Gilles thinks that as you pass trees they make you slow down because you then realise how fast you are going….hmm, I not sure of that Gilles, all I know is that I enjoyed the shade of them occasionally today!

Very shady, nice!


Vive les Arbres, Vive La France!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

We Have Inversion!

Stick with me, you’’ll see what I mean in a few minutes….

I woke early again.

It’s not hard to do when the sun is streaming through you window at four thirty in the morning and one of the farmer’s goats is rubbing it’s alpine bell on a gate post almost underneath the same window!

I quick glance at the clock showed that it was far to early to think about getting out of bed. I couldn’t resist a glance out of the window though.

In a way I wished that I hadn’t, really I wished that I had not done that, because with what I could see outside there was absolutely no way that I could go back to sleep!

Spread out before me was one of my favourite mountain phenomena, cloud inversion.

Normally as you gain altitude the air temperature drops, but during an inversion warm air finds itself held above cooler air so meteorologists say that the temperature profile is “inverted.”

What then happens when warm air lies in a layer over cold damp air is that it traps water vapour in the form of cloud, mist or fog.

The result if you are in the valley is miserable foggy conditions, but if you are lucky enough to be above the division line between the two air masses….well, it’s just magical!

Anyway, enough of the chatter, look at the photos to see what I mean.

I did get out of bed, grab the camera and the results are before you now!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Back on Land and How I Hate Motorways!

Right, lets get straight to the point. Motorway driving/riding is boring, period!

It doesn’t really matter if the motorway is slicing through wonderful scenery, hugging a coastline or plunging through alpine tunnels, the basic truth is the same…it’s a motorway! Autobahn, Autoroute, Autostrada, Freeway, Interstate…all the same by another name and all boring.

OK, I know, they get you from A to B reasonably quickly, that is assuming that some idiot hasn’t rearranged the central barrier and several other vehicles at the same time on your carriageway, but in essence they are tedious…or am I being a little over the top?

Take yesterday as an example.

We rolled off the ferry in Santander and for once the Spanish Border Police were in pragmatic mood; no need to take off helmets or stop engines, just show the passport and off we go then.

Straight onto the Cantabria Motorway, which runs along the North Coast of Spain and into France. Speed restrictions and road works galore; added to which is the somewhat dubious pleasure of having to pay tolls for the privilege, oh and most of it is only two lanes in each direction!

Progress was steady, if only through gritted teeth and ever grittier eyes. Truck traffic was quite heavy and seemingly all controlled by aspiring Formula One drivers.

After two and a half hours of punishment we crossed the border into France where the motorway suddenly grew extra lanes! We turned off and headed into the hills. Bliss.

Hey, wait a minute…after that motorway punishment, here’s our reward! The most wonderful windy, undulating little road ever, plus a couple of hairpins and our first Col of the trip. My angel, or late little brother G, must have been smiling on me!

For the map watchers amongst you, the road in question is the D4 from Ascain to Saré and the pass is Col de St Ignace, which at 169metres isn’t going to set any records, but it’s the first this trip and that’s good.

We stayed in a nice family run hotel in Saré, Harls had use of the owner’s garage and I had a great night’s sleep.

Hotel Room View, nice.


This is Basque Country, which for very complicated reasons doesn’t really like to think of itself as either French of Spanish. Basques are Celts, like me, so I really am feeling quite at home; there’s a vibe that reminds me of parts of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. I cant exactly put my finger on it, but it’s definitely there and I like it, a lot.

Many of the buildings here are painted in a traditional red and white scheme that is very smart and gives things a unified feel, without being overpowering or monotonous.

I’m making a note to come back here…

Catch you soon with more from down the road.

Dookes

24 Du Mans, Getting Twitchy!

I’m getting twitchy…less that 24 hours to go before Harls and I set off again on other adventure.

The same old weird feeling is beginning to grow; apprehension, excitement, impatience.

Harls is ready, bags are packed and I’m killing time.

Killing time watching Le 24 Heurs du Mans on television, possibly the greatest motor race on the planet…well it is in my view anyway!

Located in Central Northern France, the city of Le Mans is a splendid mixture of the old and new and is also a magnet for motorsport petrolheads the world over. The city hosts an annual 24 hour motor race over an 8.4 mile long circuit that encompasses public roads as well as a dedicated circuit section.

Le Mans Bentley Speed 8,
Winner Le Mans 2003


Over the years all the major marques have made their name at Le Mans; Porsche, Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar, Audi and Toyota have all tasted victory there.

Wow!


….and Harls and I have had our own little bit of fun there on he famous Sarthe circuit!

Oh my, wonderful!


Last year, on the way to La Route des Grandes Alpes, we had the opportunity to ride the Mulsanne Straight, scream under the Porsche Bridge, flick through the Indianapolis Curves and then howl around Arnage and fly down to the Porsche Curves.

Indianapolis


Needles to say, it was beyond magical and will remain with me forever….right up there with my spin around Monza on Baby Blue!

Porsche straight

Yeah, I know, I’m a lucky old geezer!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

RDGA Finalé – Up With The Big Ones!

I’ve written about Col de la Bonette on several previous trips, I fact it was the first big Col that I ever took Harls up and in many ways the one that got me hooked on “Col Hunting”.

In a way it was ironic, because it’s been downhill ever since I made that first ascent of “The Big One!” Strictly speaking Bonette isn’t the highest paved pass, that honour lies with L’Iseran, Bonette lies in 4th place, but what makes it crazy-special is the Cime de la Bonette; Cime translates as “Summit.”

The Cime de la Bonette is probably the most wonderful folly that the nation of France has ever constructed. It’s a road that just loops around the mountain from the Pass and back to the Pass reaching an elevation of 2802m/9193ft and that makes it technically the highest paved through road in the whole of Europe.

On the South side the road climbs steadily from Isola, the big mountain taunting you from miles away. The grandeur of the scenery is almost overpowering as the ribbon of asphalt snakes skywards and leaves trees and waterfalls far behind.

Wide vistas open as the hairpins steadily kick in, but in a civilised way; although this is a high climb it isn’t savage.

Remains of high altitude barracks from over a hundred years ago straddle the road. Soon after comes the first Pass, Col du Raspaillon at 2513m and then things start to get really serious.

The mountain begins resemble a lunar landscape, bare black and grey rocks dominate, very little grows up here. There is always snow lying, what ever state of the summer, this is probably the hardest country that you can take a road vehicle and definitely not a place to come in bad weather, if you value your life. This mountain has claimed many unwary visitors.

It’s because of it’s unique, wild, dangerous beauty that I love the place.

The last kilometre from the Col de la Bonette at 2715m to the summit at 2802m is like taking a ski jump to the clouds as the gradient hits 15%!

I kicked down Harls side stand at the summit stone and just drank in the majesty of the place and the moment, we were back.

Looking South I could just about make out the Mediterranean Sea, over 60 miles away, we were down there earlier. All around I was surrounded by high peaks, many snow-capped and all stunningly beautiful; it made me feel both very small and also incredibly lucky to be there to enjoy it all.

It was one of those moments that make me feel so alive and glad to be so.

When you hit a high, both figuratively and also in this case literally, it’s easy to think that it’s only downhill from here. Well, ok, geographically it is, but riding amongst these mountains you’d be crazy to only look on the downside. Also I had a “rest day” tomorrow and as the weather was looking good I wanted to do a bit of exploring whilst I was up here.

First off I took a stroll to the real summit of La Bonette which stands a further 58 metres above the road. Walking in motorcycle gear is never much fun, but believe me doing it at altitude is really not to be recommended. At 2860m/9380ft the effects of altitude are very noticeable if you try to do any strenuous exercise without allowing your body time to adjust; riding a motorcycle from sea level to this height in just a few hours is not adequate adjustment, I can assure you!

I like to think that I’m pretty fit for my age, true I don’t spend hours in a gym, but I do live an active life, I’m not overweight and I don’t smoke; but that eighty metre climb to the summit was something else! Never before have I found a short stroll to be such hard work and whilst I wasn’t struggling unduly it was clear that nature was giving me a gentle reminder as to who exactly was in charge up here!

It was worth it though, the view just got even better and I had the place to myself.

With a tinge of sadness I turned to start the descent down to Jausiers. RDGA had been a blast and it literally was going to be downhill all the way from here, but in the back of my mind I knew that I’ll be coming back one day.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I do. Looking back on that adventure last summer much has happened since and people dear to me have been lost to this world. I sometimes wonder how much longer I can keep doing these trips, because believe me they don’t get any easier with age! I’ve got a wonderful family and small network of close friends who support my crazy yearning to travel and explore the high places, so whilst I can I’ll keep going; you are, after all, a long time in your box!

What next?

Well, if all goes to plan, I’ve got some unfinished work to do in the Pyrenees in June this year. Then whilst perusing some maps the other day, I spotted some lovely looking passes in Switzerland and Northern Italy…!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

The whole of RDGA is dedicated to the memory of G, my little brother who left us too soon.

“Escaping the ghosts of yesterday,
you were behind me following closely, don’t turn around now.”

RDGA 9 Heading South, Getting Hot and Following a Mini.

The bells of the church in Jausiers work me early, oh the joys of a Catholic Country as the priest called the faithful to early morning worship! Back home in the UK we have a fine tradition for Church bell ringing, we do it melodically, ringing the bells in order and to predetermined patterns, but in most places on Continental Europe the bells are just rung haphazardly, frequently clashing in a cacophony of tonal mismatch and timing; you’ve got to love the difference!

I sat on the windowsill as the sun rose above the mountains; today was going to get a bit warm if the early rays were anything to go by. Time to grab breakfast and hit the road, we had a lot of Cols to climb again.

Today we were back on the classic Route des Grandes Alpes, right down to the Mediterranean Sea. First up was our biggest climb of the day, Col de la Cayolle 2326m/7631ft.

I’d ridden Cayolle before. From the North, where we were coming from, it’s a really pleasant if quite long climb of just over 29km. Leaving Barcelonette we turned onto our old friend the D902 road and slipped into the Gorges du Bachelard. This is quite a road, as it negotiates the narrow, rocky gorge, which is full of roaring waterfalls, tight tricky bridges and towering cliffs. The steepness and height of the cliffs often cut out direct sunlight, the place is cold, even on sunny mornings like we were enjoying and the narrow road makes it difficult to safely stop and take it all in. The road frequently swaps back and forth across the tumbling waters before gaining altitude and passing into delightful high woodland before emerging on the open high alp. The climb isn’t particularly demanding, but satisfying nonetheless and at the summit has a delightful stone marker, plus some wonderful scenery giving a glimpse of the way ahead.

After pausing for the obligatory photographs I eased Harls onto the downhill slope and set off South. The road here is much more technical with sweeping hairpins, tunnels, tight squeezes and just more fantastic scenery. In the small village of Guillaumes we turned left and immediately got into “Ski-Station Land” for our next four Cols…actually, that’s I bit unfair of me; it’s just that after the wonderful isolation of the really high passes having to share the mountains with civilisation gets a bit hard!

The road was fun with enough variation to keep things interesting, passing through the Tinée valley we paused at Ouvrage Frassinéa, one of the remaining forts of the Maginot Line Alpine extension. The Maginot line was an attempt by France to fortify its eastern border immediately after the First World War; the project saw the construction of hundreds of miles of defences, gun emplacements and bunkers. It never really got finished and for the most part was rendered useless when in 1939 the German army invaded and simply drove around the defences; nice try though! Many parts of the old defences can still be seen today and some, like Fressinéa, have been preserved as museums. Sadly, it was shut when we called in!

Col de Valberg 1672m/5475ft, Col de Sainte Anne 1550m/5085ft, Col de la Couillole 1678m/5505ft and Col de Saint Martin1500m/4921ft, are all respectable passes, they certainly have their place in the history of the Tour de France and RDGA, but after the big ones that Harls and I had grown used to, they were…well, just a little tame!

What wasn’t tame was the temperature. I stopped in Roqueillière, which lies in the delightful Vesubie valley, to buy some lunch and noticed that the thermometer was spot on 100ºF!
We were definitely into Mediterranean France now, even the scenery screamed that at us.

We had been travelling for a few hours now and together with the heat, I thought it wise to take a break on the climb to our next Col, the legendary Col de Turini 1604m/5262ft.

Just for once, here is a Col that isn’t legendary in Le Tour de France; it’s only featured three times. No, Turini gained it’s fame from motor sport and specifically the wonderful “Monte Carlo Rally” which is usually held in mid-January each year. More specifically, it really rose to wider notice in 1964, when a young driver from Belfast, Northern Ireland, named Paddy Hopkirk together with co-driver Henry Liddon, won the rally driving a BMC Mini Cooper S and a legend was born.

Paddy Hopkirk winning the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, photo Auto Express.

The Minis were back to win in 1965 and again in 1967, to cement their place in motor sport history.

I’ve never owned a Mini, but back in the day one of my Aunts did, it was a red Cooper S, just like Paddy’s, I thought it was so cool!

The famous red 1964 Mini Cooper S, photo DeFacto, used with thanks.

These days the Turini is crossed in daylight, but back then it was also infamous for being a night stage and amongst enthusiasts was known as “The Night of the Long Knives,” on account of the high intensity headlight beams cutting through the darkness; it must have been some sight!

In places Turini is best described as “artificial,” but it’s probably more impressive because of that, because the engineering effort that has gone into building this pass is beyond impressive. The road formation is supported by solid, beautifully formed stone block walls, the bends are generously wide, but the short gradients are savage…it’s just great fun to ride!

As we topped Turini, low cloud hugged the high trees and it looked like our scorching weather was over for the day, but no, it was just a temporary reprieve from the heat. Passing through Sospel we started to final climb, to Col de Castillon, which at a mere 706m/2316ft barely registers as a pimple against it’s higher sisters on La Route des Grandes Alpes. That’s a little unfair, because where Castillon fails in the altitude stakes it hits back by being the first/last climb of the RDGA, the only one in the Côte d’Azur and if you are starting in Menton, it’s 706 metres straight up!

We paused at the Col, no fancy stone monument here, just a rather tatty metal sign and then a steady roll downhill in the warm Mediterranean breeze.

Menton is often called the pearl of the Côte d’Azur and in it’s own way it’s an OK place; just not my sort of place. In fact, not much of the French Riviera is my sort of place; it’s just too busy, to built up and to pretentious for my liking.

We rode through the bustling town and at a suitable spot on the sea front I pulled over, kicked down Harls side stand and took the obligatory photograph; we’d done it!

Years of plotting and dreaming, then a few months of planning had brought us here.

What now?

Well, apart from finding our hotel, having a swim in the warm Mediterranean, grabbing a shower and a beer…I honestly couldn’t think of much else to do!

There was finally a monkey off my back.
From finding that leaflet about La RDGA all those years ago, to executing the dream, it was over.

I felt a little empty.

What next?

Where now?

Later, after a nice meal and a night-time stroll around the marina, I reflected more on our journey. It was a job well done, no dramas, no mishaps, just a solid team effort; man, machine and the road in perfect harmony.

Did I ever tell you that I love that bike?

…. and tomorrow?

Well, we’d better start to go back home and find some more hills to climb.

“There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough…”

Catch you later.

Dookes