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

It’s Just a Date on The Calendar!

I’m going to get straight down to it…I hate New Year!

It’s just a date on the calendar.
For example, when was the last time anyone wished you “Happy 28th March” ???

I know, lots of things have happened on the 28th March:

In 1801 the Treaty of Florence ended the war between France and the Kingdom of Naples. – Interesting.
In 1802 the second ever asteroid was discovered, it was named 2 Pallas. – Cool.
In 1910 the first seaplane took off from water. – Also Cool.
In 1942 British Commandos raided St Nazaire and disabled the Normandy Dry Dock. – Legendary.

….but my point is New Year is just another date on the Gregorian calendar and really has no special significance. You can choose any one of the other 365 and find significant things in history, yet for the most part we just ignore them.

Around the world tomorrow, on each local stroke of Midnight things go silly; bells ring, fireworks are let off and people jump into fountains! Then for the next month or so we have to put up with cheery “Happy New Year” from everyone we speak to whether we know them or not!

I even got wished “HNY” today, a full 38 hours before midnight on the 31st/1st!!!

I guess if it makes you happy, go for it.

Me? I’ll be tucked up in bed and asleep, dreaming of Harley days to come….which leads me on to today.

As a bid to take my mind off the impending date change I got the two girls out of the workshop. Hettie needed a wash and polish.

Hettie

Harls just needed checking over and telling how much I love her!

Harls

Once Hettie was beautified, I started them both up and let them warm through before tucking them up safely in the workshop again.

Yes OK, there is a New Year coming and yes I’m looking forward to it, if only to get out and do some Harley miles again!

Catch you soon

Oh yes, I nearly forgot…..Happy New Year!

Dookes

Remembering Teresa, Ellen and John who rode on ahead in 2019.

Time Passing

“Time is but the space between our memories; as soon as we cease to perceive this space, time has disappeared.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

I rather like this quote

It’s a funny thing is time.

In some ways we view it as an abstract, then in other moments it’s the source of stress and pressure.

One thing is for certain, for all of us it is passing by and then one day, on a very personal level it runs out!

Time is the very embodiment of our being and the one central indelible cog of the universe, the fourth dimension.

Time is, as Albert Einstein observed, relative.

When we are young it seems to be infinite; a day, a week a summer holiday…all can seemingly last forever.

Then as we age, time takes on a different face, it becomes urgent; “Time Flies” is the saying and suddenly those same days and weeks are stolen from us like ice melting on a hot day.

We realise that time is indeed infinite, but our time is limited…

I recently enjoyed celebrating a pretty significant birthday.

Over two weekends, yes that’s right two, Mrs Dookes and I were hosted by a gin distillery, dined in one of the UK’s best restaurants, watched a Welsh Rugby International Game(yes we won!) and generally celebrated me getting older by greatly enjoying each other’s company!!!

All was, however, tinged with just a little sadness for loved ones who are no longer with us; their time having previously run out…In fact, whilst at the rugby match I pondered the friends I had attended that particular stadium with previously; one is dead, one paralysed from the neck down, one too ill to attend; I really did feel like the last man standing.

All is not doom and gloom though.

Life is Ok, good even, apart from the inevitable aches and pains from a lifetime of sporting and other activity!

I’m still here and just to celebrate I went out a bought myself a survivor’s present; I bought a watch, so I can keep an eye on all that precious time!

“If I could keep time in a bottle…”

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

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