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

Off Air – On Air, Still On the Road

OK Dookes, where have you been?

Well, first up many apologies for the blog stopping mid-way through my last trip. Secondly, many thanks for the various messages I received from folks worried that something had happened to either Harls, myself of both.

Fear not dear Blogonaughts, we are both fine!

What we did have though was mega Internet connection problems that have continued even since I returned home. This makes Dookes a very unhappy Hogrider!

The good news is that we are now back on air and I’m going to set about catching up with the blog.

So where was I when I last reported in? Oh, yes Carcassonne.

Carcassonne old city at dusk.


Carcassonne was OK. Just OK.

I know that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, but I have plenty of those back home. Yes I know that millions of people will disagree with me about Carcassonne, but this is my view and my blog and like the Eagles sang, “ You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.” For my part, the best thing about the place was the road out!

And what a road it turned out to be…

When I was doing my route planning, it must’ve been a late night when I did this bit. For some reason I overlooked the bit on the map that said “Montagne Noire”. or in English, The Black Mountains, between Carcassonne and Mazamet on the D118 road.

The Black Mountains from Carcassonne.


I hadn’t slept very well, it had been hot and stuffy and I don’t like the drone or air-drying effect of air-conditioning, so that had stayed off. The morning air was still and heavy and to be honest I really wasn’t in the mood for much motorcycling. That’s the thing about serious road trips though, you may not be in the mood for it, or the weather may be crap, but you just have to suck it up and get on with it; which is what I did.

Eventually the strong breakfast coffee began to hit in and I began to wake up to things a bit more. No actually it was getting cold, quite noticeably cold actually, cool enough for me to pull up and put on another base layer.

The Montagne Noire may not be as high as the Pyrenees, but at over 1200m/3900ft that’s high enough to feel the cold!

The D118 meanders for around 30 miles North from Carcassonne to the busy town of Mazamet, famous for the production of cloth and leather goods. Unfortunately much of the road is in fairly dense forest and only offers very fleeting views of the impressive scenery, but from a motorcycling point of view it was delightful; lovely sweeping bends, smooth tarmac and little traffic. The region is quite off the normal tourist routes and quite charming for it, in other words it’s unspoilt! I made a mental note to return one day and do some more exploring.

We paused high above Mazamet to take in the view and also take off the extra layer, things had started to hot up again; then it was down more sweeping big hairpins into the town below and the usual French town traffic chaos that I love!

Mazamet


From Maz we turned a bit North West and skirted Castres, famous for a pretty good rugby team and headed cross-country on delightful roads to Gaillac.

Gaillac is really the start of serious French wine country; they’ve been producing the local stuff here for over two thousand years. The town has an appellation that carries it’s name and I can confirm that the stuff is very good indeed!

We carried on effortlessly rolling over the back roads towards Caussade and our destination for the night, Cahors.

Bruniquel Château


The ancient town of Cahors is yet another famous wine producing centre, but I’ll tell you more about the place next time, for now it’s just good to be back on air again!

“On the road again,
Goin’ places that I’ve never been.”

Catch you soon

Dookes

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

These Pyrenees Are Funny

They are almost predictable for being unpredictable and if that doesn’t make sense, let me explain.

The geography of the Pyrenees mountain chain is interesting. They run roughly West to East from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and effectively cut the Iberian Peninsula off from the rest of Europe, according to some of my Spanish friends this is good, but for now we will ignore that bit!

By lying where they are, they act as a very effective weather-triggering machine; the damp winds blowing in off the Atlantic have nothing better to do than to drop all their water on the Pyrenees! This then creates what today is fashionably called the Foehn Effect, but when I was studying geography we called it a rain shadow. The most interesting thing about the Pyrenees is that their rain shadow can move from one side of the range to the other.

In other words, as my mate Gilles who is Pyrenees born and bred says, ”If it’s raining in France, go to Spain!” Of course the opposite applies if it’s raining in Spain.

I’ve always humoured Gilles on this but the other day I had the opportunity, no make that need, to test his theory out.

I woke to low cloud and swirling mist. The previous days jaunt over the big legendary Cols was a pleasant memory and thank goodness I wasn’t planning to try to ride them today.

Col d’Aspin


I did need to cross three other big ones though, Col d’Aspin 1489m, Col du Peyresourde 1569m and Col de Portillon1320m; the trouble was the cloud base was down to around 1000m!

Col de Peyresourde, legendary and wet!
Respect to the cyclist.


When you are doing a road trip in the way I do, in such circumstances there are two options.

1. Give up and go somewhere else.
2. Suck it up and get on with it.

Obviously if conditions were to make things really dangerous I would apply option 1, but as yet I can’t over the years really remember having ever done so! I’m not a “give up” sort of chap.

Peyresourde, apparently there’s a wonderful view here!


On that basis, it was option 2, as it always is!

Handlebar Cam. Yep, sometimes I wonder why too!


Yep, it’s not worth dwelling on what the roads over both Cols were like; it was foggy, it rained, it was slippery and not much fun. We did it though and can always remember that in spite of adversity the job was completed; anyway it’s a good excuse to go back when the sun is out!

The last bends on Portillon.


Portillon lies slap bang on thee Spanish border and once we dropped down into the valley one thing was noticeable, no rain! Gilles may be right after all.

I had a banker in my pocket, there was a pass further into Spain that I had considered climbing, Port de la Bonaigua 2072m, seriously higher that the others; lets go see if the theory really stacks up?

It does.

This is more like it!


A couple of kilometres down the road and out popped the sun. We had a glorious couple of hours wheeling around the slopes of Bonaigua and taking in the views an all in fantastic warm sunshine.

Port de la Bonaigua


Gilles, I owe you a beer!

Port de la Bonaigua


I think the photos speak for themselves, but I wanted to show the handlebar cam shot, because that was really all I could see!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

I Have a Small Confession to Make

The other day I reported that I’d grounded Harl’s rear brake lever when whooping it up climbing Col de la Pierre St Martin.

I must regretfully no apologise for telling a small lie….
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The bottom of the rear brake lever. That isn’t how Harley Davidson made it!

It wasn’t the rear brake lever…..
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Ooops!

It was the exhaust pipe as well!!!!

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

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