The Abandoned Station of Spies, Gold and Refugees.

I like finding and exploring interesting places and if I can do that by motorbike, then I’m a very happy Dookes.

When I do my trip planning I am always on the look out for places that hold history or fascinating stories. Last year in the Pyrenees a golden opportunity presented itself that was far to good to miss. OK it did entail an additional 50mile diversion, but hey that’s what a riding trip is all about, the ride!

We had a leisurely start; our overnight farm accommodation was basic but comfortable, with the added bonus of stunning views and an outdoor swimming pool!

It’s a dirty job…

Harls and I trundled happily through the low Pyrenean foothills until we reached the valley of the Gave d’Aspe and turned South towards Spain.

It didn’t take me long to pick out the course of the single track railway line that winds up the valley almost parallel to the N134 road. This was the remains of the former Pau to Canfranc Railway.

Down in the Valley

Built by the Chemin de fer du Midi after a French government convention with Spain in 1904 this was intended to be a figurehead infrastructure scheme linking the two nations over a totally undeveloped new route.

The only problem was that the Pyrenees lay in the way.

The construction of the new line gradually wound its way towards the mountains, in July 1912 ground was broken for the excavation of the Somport Tunnel, three years later construction was completed, the tunnel is 7875metre long. Unfortunately the new line had to wait until 1923 before an station was built just over the Spanish border at Canfrnac and a further five years before it was opened!

From the start the route was always going to be difficult to operate, severe gradients added to the cost of construction, whilst the most fundamental problem was that the French and Spanish railways both had different track gauges!

France has the “Standard” gauge of 1435mm, whilst Spain has the “Iberian” gauge of 1668mm, neither country’s trains fitted the other’s track; Canfranc was always going to be an interchange point!

The Spanish were determined to make a bold statement with the new terminus, the main building is 240metres/790ft long, it has 365 windows and 156 doors; in it’s day it was the second largest railway station building in Europe, only Leipzig was bigger.

Although located high in the mountains, it must have been a busy place with the need to transfer all the passengers, baggage, parcels, mail and freight; not to mention all the Customs and other bureaucracy that fed from it!

During World War Two the station entered strange period. Nominally “Neutral” Spain extended it’s operating agreement with France to the Vichy Regime, puppets of the occupying German Nazis. Trains of French grain headed to Canfranc, whilst Spanish tungsten headed North to feed the Nazi war machine. Looted gold was also a noted wartime cargo. The station became the haunt of spies, where secrets were traded and clandestine deals made. Refugees from war torn Europe trickled through, particularly escaping Jews and escaped allied military personal were not uncommon passengers.

By the 1960’s Canfranc’s glory days were long gone, but it’s fate was sealed on 20 March 1970 when a runaway freight train on the French side of the Somport tunnel derailed and demolished one of the largest river bridges. The French Government decided not to rebuild it but to truncate the line some 11km from the border at Bedous.

In Spain, Canfranc Station is still open, if two trains a day formed of a single car can be counted as open!

The main station building after years of neglect and standing derelict is currently under gradual restoration. The local government of Aragon plans to turn it into a hotel and visitor centre and at the same time build a more modern station alongside, because international trains are coming back! On the French side work has started to rebuild the line and with modern “Gauge Changing” technology through trains will now be possible.

In the meantime, Harls and I purred over the Somport Pass, 1632m/5354ft.

Somport Pass

We paused to take in the view and then rolled down the hill to Canfranc, just to see with our own eyes what all the fuss was about.

Canfranc Sation


We weren’t disappointed!

I think I’ll come back for a train ride one day.

Catch you soon.

Dookes

An Ancient Bridge and Black Wine

Do you ever find yourself reading about a place, or maybe seeing something on T.V. and thinking, “I’ll go there one day?’

Only that day never seems to arrive.

Other things get in the way, maybe more exciting challenges or destinations come along, but that first place is still there in the back of your mind.

It nags at you, always there and maybe every now and then says, “Hey, how about it?”

Sometime on my travels that moment comes when I answer with an emphatic, “Yeah, why not?”

Special places, places I want/need to go are always in my mind.

After arriving in Mazamet, fresh from the Black Mountains I turned my thoughts further North and zeroed in on the ancient city of Cahors.

Cahors has been one of my special “Go To” places for a long time, a very long time.

In many ways the town is very special. It is the capital of the Lot Department and lies on the river of the same name. It’s location is pretty dramatic as it lies on the inside of a sweeping meander/mini-gorge. It’s old, very old, there was a settlement here before the Romans arrived in this part of France around 50BC. The Romans developed the settlement into a thriving city and evidence of them can still be found today in the form of various remains and monuments.

I wanted to visit Cahors for two reasons, an ancient bridge and the region’s wine.

The decision to keep to minor roads was spot on and we were rewarded, having the tarmac pretty much to ourselves. Following a leisurely trundle through delightful countryside, we arrived in Cahors mid-afternoon.

Being an other tourist magnet, though not anywhere near on the scale as Carcassonne, I expected the place to be a bit busy, it was, but nice busy and not affected by awful tatty souvenir stalls; clearly the City elders have much to be thanked for!

We checked into our Hotel, the aptly named Hôtel Terminus, right by the railway station. The place was wonderful, a real piece of 1930’s nostalgia with stained glass windows and wood panelled rooms; the service was right up there too. Add in that my room had a perfect view of the North end of the railway station, it couldn’t get much better; well actually it could as the owner let me put Harls in the garage for the night!

1930’s elegance.


Once sorted it was time to explore, specifically down by the riverside and the bridge I mentioned.

Pont Valentré stands on the Western flank of the city and spans the River Lot. Construction began in June 1308 and the bridge was opened for use in 1350, with the final work being completed in 1378. It has six arches and three square towers. Originally it was fortified at both ends, but sadly today only the Eastern tower survives.

There is a great piece of folklore surrounding the building of the bridge:

It is said that the Engineer in charge of construction was greatly annoyed at the slow progress of the work. To speed things up he made a pact with the Devil to get things moving. The pact said that if the Devil promised to carry out all the Engineer’s orders then the Devil could claim the Engineer’s soul.

Once progress was being made and construction was nearing completion, the Engineer began to regret engaging the Devil. As a last instruction he told the Devil to collect drinking water for all the workers using a sieve; the Devil had been tricked and the Engineers soul was safe.

In revenge for being tricked, it is said that each night the Devil send a demon to loosen the final stone in the central tower to ensure that the bridge is never truly finished and must be repaired everyday.

Between 1867 and 1879 a major restoration was undertaken and the then architect, Paul Gou, had a small Imp carved in stone and set high on the Centre Tower. This ensures that if the Devil should check to see that his instruction has been carried out he will be confused that the stone image is one of his team doing his nefarious work!

Well, it’s a lovely legend.

The Imp is set right up at the very top of the Middle Tower, I couldn’t get a shot of it, but fortunately by the power of Wikipedia I have this image to share; thanks to MathieuMD.

Walking across the bridge was quite magical and reminded me of my visit to Pont du Gard, many years ago. Here was an incredibly old structure still doing the job it had been built for and you can’t ask more than that.

The river was busy, there was a mini maritime festival going on, though it struck me that it seemed more about selling speedboats than anything else! People were having fun though and really that’s what is most important. I loved watching a couple of chaps who were kitted out with water jets and took turns in thrilling people with their gravity defying antics.

On the riverbank I found a lovely collection of model ships and I spent quite some time admiring them and chatting to their builders.

A beautiful model of the old SS France, a ship I remember seeing in my younger days.


Also on the riverbank were grape vines and that nicely brings me onto the famous Cahors Black wines!

Cahors has been a centre of viniculture since medieval times, in fact it was famous for it’s wines long before neighbouring Bordeaux developed it’s wine making industry. The signature wine for the region is the famous “Black Wine” which has its own AOC. The term “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,” AOC, translates as “Controlled designation of Origin” and was developed as a way of certifying the geographical origin for wine.

Cahors wine must be made from at least 70% Malbec grape and this is usually supplemented with Merlot and Tannat varieties. As is usual with wine, climate, location, geology and that famous French phrase “Terrior” all play a part to make the wine very, very, rich and gives it it’s deep maroon, almost black look.

It is absolutely gorgeous, velvety and full of dark berry flavours, but don’t drink too much if you want a clear head next morning!

“Gotta keep rolling gotta keep riding…”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

La Route des Cols

I think I may just have found a little bit of heaven, but I’m not going to tell you about it because then everyone will want to go there….

Or as the Eagles wrote; “Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye!”

Regular Blogonaughts will remember our adventure on La Route Des Grande Alpes last year, when we rode North to South from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea, via all the high French Alpine Cols.

This year we have changed geographical area and are in the Pyrenees, the chain of mountains that separates France from Spain. And this time we are heading West To East on what is locally called “La Route des Cols.”

My French chums claim that this is a tourist route that traverses 34 remarkable mountain Cols, or Passes if you’d rather.

Now, I my mind it’s pushing it a bit to claim that all 34 fall into the “remarkable” category. Indeed as you get past Andorra it’s a little hard to actually identify too many passes anyway, the land just falls away towards the Mediterranean, but top marks for trying.

The Route is a recent innovation to boost economic tourism and is to be applauded for that. It’s origins lie with a much smaller route that was first developed in the mid 1850’s la Route Thermale des Pyrénées which linked together four Spa resorts for which the region is still famous.

My plan is to ride from the Atlantic coast to either Andorra or Ax Les Thermes following the route as much as possible. If you want to follow us on a map, then look for the D918 road, which is largely the route, but it does vary in places.

Anyway back to the riding…

We left Saré this morning and headed straight back into Spain, crossing the Puerto de Otxondo 602m before hanging a left and attacking Col d’Iséguy 672m.

From Ispéguy, the call of the far away hills.


Somewhere on the climb to Iséguy the penny dropped…this is all very lovely!

Then, as the day went on and got hotter, a lot hotter actually, the riding just got better and better!

I’d ridden bits of the Pyrenees before, but this was way better than either I remembered or had expected.

The view from the office.


Firstly was the lack of traffic, true there were some other road users, but nothing like the chaos that can prevail in the Alps.

Then there was the road surface, generally very good indeed with no nasty surprise.

Finally was the road geometry and that can only be described as heavenly, really heavenly! Or it could be that I’ve just got better at riding hairpins?

Really, do I have to explain why?


The truth is, that Harls and I have had a ball sweeping around the bends and just enjoying being “off the leash.”

I knew I was really going for it when I grounded Harls rear brake lever going round one particularly enjoyable right-hander…I haven’t done that for years! This evening I’ve still got a big stupid grin on my face after that!

Somewhere down there I rubbed a bit of Harley metal on the road!


Ok, this is definitely not the Alps, the mountains are not anywhere near as high, nor are the passes, but they are still both impressive and challenging in their own right. The roads are definitely narrower than the major Alpine Cols and without guardrails in places you certainly need to concentrate.

Wiggly and lovely!


The lack of traffic is what I love. I may just have caught it right and missed the busier times, but I’m certainly not complaining.

In addition to those already mentioned, today we crossed the following Cols:

Col d’Haltza 782m
Col de Burdincurutcheta 1135m
Col Heguichouri 1284m
Col Bagargui 1327m
Col d’Erroymendi 1362m
Port de Larrau 1573m
Portillo de Eraice 1578m
Col de la Pierre St Martin 1760m
Col de Soudet 1540m
Col de Layae 1351m

As always, the star of the show!


Not bad, not bad at all!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

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

La Route des Grandes Alpes – The Beginning.

All road trips have a beginning, it’s one of those things that just have to be; like the sun coming up in the morning or that eventually rain has to stop.

The thing is though, “The Beginning” is often not where you’d think it is…

In the case of my Route des Grandes Alpes trip, let’s just call it RDGA from now on, “The Beginning” happened quite a few years back in the lobby of a small hotel in Jausiers, right in the heart of the French Alps.

I was waiting to pay the bill and was idly scanning the leaflet rack on the hotel reception desk; you know the sort of display with all the local tourist attractions and suchlike?

My eye was caught by an interesting leaflet, it was about something called “La Route des Grandes Alpes.” I picked it up and immediately became fascinated. The document contained a map and description of a fantastic itinerary that stretched from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea.

This was all new to me, but something I resolved to look into once I got home.

….and then began a bit of an obsession!

First though, a little bit of background:

The construction of the route started in 1909 at the instigation of the French Automobile Touring Club. At this time the Alps were quite an isolated region of France, roads were poor and access very limited. By constructing the new road the French Government recognised that the potential economic benefit for the alp region would also assist mobilisation of military units to defend high alpine border areas.

Construction of the road was completed in 1937 and for two years it became an important arterial route from North to South, but then in 1939 came the Second World War and thoughts of alpine tourism disappeared. Post war, the development of French motorways saw the route slip back into it’s original purpose, tourism and I’m very glad that it did too!

It’s fair to say that the route has been adjusted over the years, but I guess that’s the organic nature of it. Originally it took in the Chamonix valley and ended in Nice, but today has been diverted over the scenic Col de la Colombière and terminates in Menton. I’m quite glad that Chamonix is now avoided; traffic there is very heavy these days and no fun at all if you are in holiday mode!

Anyway, back to the leaflet…

Once I got back to Dookes H.Q. I studied everything I could about RDGA. I’d already ridden bits of it, but to string the whole thing together in one go was an enticing and mouth-watering prospect!
I resolved to ride it, one day…

The trouble with “One Day” is that often it never comes!

I had other places that I wanted to go explore; new places, new adventures.

“One Day” was put on the back burner.

I returned from the Dolomites last September and pondered what could be the next trip. I quite fancied a long expedition to Scandinavia, but at over 5000 miles perhaps it was just a bit too far and slightly, well very, unfair to Mrs Dookes if I disappeared for a month!!

RDGA was looking like a pretty good option.

Fast forward to a hot sunny day in mid June this year.

After two days of hot heavy-duty mile munching, riding from Roscoff in Brittany and covering 650 miles across France, Harls and I were in Thonon les Bains on the Southern shore of Lake Geneva.

We found the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, and turned onto the cobbled square in front of it.

We were finally about to start “La Route des Grandes Alpes.”

The town of Thonon les Bains has embraced La RDGA and pride of place in the square is a lovely bronze plaque that marks the start of the route.

Strictly speaking the square is for pedestrians only, but no-one seemed too bothered when I trundled Harls over the cobbles and parked her by the plaque for a quick photo!

Then it was time to go, La RDGA was finally happening. I wasn’t excited, no, this was far more than that, this was the beginning of fulfilment!

Stick around for more of the story.

“The mountains call us all, the only difference is what we say back.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Where Have I Been?

Well, that’s a pretty good question at the moment…

Certainly since I got back from my last trip I’ve not been anywhere near a motorcycle nor had the opportunity to sit down and write anything for my blog….which is bad for lots of different reasons!

I do seem to spend a fair bit of time apologising to you regular Blogonaughts, but what else can I do when I neglect you so much???

OK, I lied a little…I did give Harls a good wash and polish shortly after our “Route des Grande Alpes” trip, but honestly that’s it. Today I promised myself a short ride out, but crappy weather and roads busy with holiday traffic have put me off. I know, whimp!

So why the absence?

Well, it’s a short four letter word…work!

Yes, I know, I’m supposed to be retired, but sometimes when something “interesting” comes along I’m a bit of a sucker for saying, “Sure, I can help you with that.” I’m a particular soft touch if it falls into my sphere of expertise of transport or heritage stuff, or worse a combination of both.

I have a little rule not to discuss these business things in my blog, it’s part of my confidentiality thing with clients, so you’ll just have to bear with me; one day I’ll tell all though! In the meantime, be happy for me, because I’m doing something that I both love and feel is very worthwhile.

Meanwhile, life is stupid-crazy-busy, very tiring, a bit stressy, yet bloody fascinating at the same time…!

Then in the odd quiet moment I close my eyes and let the memories flood in; I’m back on Harls as she growls at the mountains and we conquer yet another high peak. Memories can be fantastic things and probably the greatest single confirmation of our human existence. Sure, I know that there are bad memories too, but hey, the good ones can be great!

That whole “Route des Grande Alpes” trip filled my memory data bank with so many great moments; I’m going to have a wonderful time re-running it all in the coming months here in the blog and I do hope that you all stick around to read it.

In the meantime her’s a taste of what’s to come….
Cool eh?

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Route de la Grandes Alpes – From the Start

Some years ago I was in Jausiers, at the very heart of the French Alps with my beloved Harls.

Passing an idle few moments whilst waiting to pay my hotel bill I noticed an interesting leaflet about something called “La Route des Grande Alpes.” Being an inherently inquisitive chap I picked it up and in a fleeting moment my life changed.

You see, here was not only a route map, but a reason to return to these enigmatic mountains again and again!

It was also the start of a mini obsession.

To explain; La Route des Grandes Alpes is a tourist itinerary through the French Alps between Lake Geneva and the French Mediterranean Riviera passing over all the high passes of the Alps within France.

For years, since picking up that blasted leaflet, I’ve pondered over maps planning to one day ride this iconic road and today, dear Blogonaughts, Harls and I have started to do just that!

Of course Harls was always going to be with me, she’s part of me.

I’ve decided to enjoy the whole experience without feeling the pressure to recount every detail each evening on this blog. That will follow when I get home.

For now, each day I’m just going to give you a status report.

RDGA Zero Kilometre, the start.


Today we stood at the Zero Kilometre marker outside the Town Hall in Thonon les Bains, started Harls engine and headed South on La RDGA.

Six Cols later we have paused for the night in a typical alpine hotel near Val d’Isere and are thoroughly pleased with ourselves.

On top of Europe.


Tired too, the technical term is “knackered” actually, but happy, very happy.

Our odyssey has truly begun.

Catch you soon.

Dookes