Sunnier Days

I’m sitting in our log cabin at Dookes H.Q. and looking out at the world.

The view from the cabin.


All is quiet, still and largely silent, save for the birds singing and the odd noise from sheep in the field.

Our Planet is getting quite a bit different from what it was a few short weeks ago.

Are we managing what is happening, or are we looking at extinction from the wrong end of the telescope?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that thinking of better days helps!

Earlier today I was scanning through some photos taken on my Pyrenees trip last year, they made me smile. Sunny days, people mixing freely, people enjoying themselves.

I spent my first night in the Pyrenees in the small village of Sare, which apart from agriculture and lovely scenery doesn’t have much else except campsites catering for the annual summer influx of visitors.

Just back down the road though at Col de Saint Ignace was the reason for me passing this way and after breakfast I set out to investigate “La Petit Train de la Rhune,” The Little Train of The Rhune.

This is an historic metre gauge rack railway at the Western end of the Pyrenees, which over 4.2km/2.6miles climbs to the summit of the Rhune Mountain.

The plan to build the line was first drawn up around 1908 and local Government law was passed soon afterwards with construction starting in 1912. Opening didn’t happen until 1924 though, World war One got in the way!

The railway climbs 736metres/2415ft from the base station to the summit and for the technically minded is equipped with the Strub rack system, which allows the train to literally pull itself up the mountain by a gear wheel engaging with a rack that is laid between the rails. Normal railways are pretty useless at climbing steep gradients, as the coefficient of friction between steel wheels on a steel rail is not high! The rack and pinion system gets round that problem.

One feature that makes this railway pretty special is that it is powered by three-phase electricity and there are only three others like that in the world! That’s pretty cool for an engineering geek like me!

The Complicated 3 Phase Current Collection Gear.


Services are operated by a four wheeled electric locomotive that pushes two passenger coaches up the mountain, peculiarly each coach has a four wheeled bogie at one end but only a two wheeled axle at the other; I haven’t been able to figure out why!

The railway normally operates from Mid-March until the end of September.


I considered having a quick ride, but the first train of the day was fully booked and I really didn’t feel like hanging around to see if I could get on the next one…but hey I saw it and got a few nice photos!

Just the thing to look back at and raise a smile to sunnier times!

“There is no more new frontier
we have got to make it here”

Catch you soon,

Dookes

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

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

A Gastronomic Pilgrimage

My old and late lamented mate, Floyd, once said that a Cassoulet could be made very complicated or very simple, but to get the best out of it keep it simple…..and go to Carcassonne!

Well after years of talking about it, I’m here in the medieval city of Carcassonne.

It’s a place that Mrs Dookes loves and somewhere that I’ve planned to visit for years, but now that I’ve made it, I’ve got to say that I’m not greatly impressed. Underwhelmed is the word that come to mind.

OK, hands up, the reason I’m not a big fan is that the place is crawling with tourists. Yes I know, I’m here as, gulp, “a tourist,” but I’m a tourist that has ridden the high Cols and looked for solitude not to gawp at countless shops selling the same “Made in Taiwan souvenir of Carcassonne” crap!

That’s better, I got that off my chest…!

I’m here on serious business, Cassoulet business!

For those that don’t know what a Cassoulet is, I suggest you go Google, or better still go try a real authentic one, but you won’t get one like I just had!

I did what Floyd said and came to Carcassonne and more particularly to Le Maison du Cassoulet restaurant.

Now MdeC is like all the very best French restaurants, on the outside it looks plain, on the inside it looks dull….but the food does all the talking!

The place is without doubt “The” centre of the Cassoulet world.

I walked through the door as they opened at 19:00hrs and was promptly shown to the table of my choice. After enjoying a beer brewed in the city of Carcassonne, my order of Cassoulet Gourmand appeared along with a local full-bodied Corbières Rouge.

Fantastic doesn’t come close as a description; Floyd was right!

And now dear Blogonaughts, I must retire to reflect on the velvety glory that a perfect Cassoulet brings to a hungry Hogrider. It is mine to wallow in the knowledge of a job well done, a pilgrimage fulfilled….for you, like my mate Floyd said, “To get the best out of it keep it simple…and go to Carcassonne!”

Here’s to you Floyd, I miss you, but thank you for all the food and the good times!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Legends and Dreams

I’ve come to the conclusion that I really like the Pyrenees and I’m beginning to question why I haven’t been back here more often.

OK, this is the fourth time that I have been here, but it’s really the first visit that I’ve managed to get under the skin of these mountains and feel their life vibe.

Undoubtedly riding on near deserted roads has certainly swayed my view on things and good weather so far has certainly helped. A couple of nice blasts blew away some cobwebs, but all in all, these mountains have a much more relaxed way of life and I’m loving it!

I adore the Alps and as mountains go, in Europe anyway, they really don’t get much grander, but there’s a problem with the Alps, the place is getting full. When I first discovered their delights over 45 years ago, there were a whole lot less visitors about. Then, when I got to start motorcycling around them, again, there were not too many others about.

Fast-forward to 2019 and things are a sight more busy there now!

Yesterday I rode just over 160 miles of stress free lovely mountain roads. They varied from tight single-track twisty stuff to wide-open main routes and they all had one thing in common…hardly any traffic!

The scenery is right up there with the best and the people are lovely.

Then we hit some of the classic Tour de France Cols, plus a few others.

I’ve had a yearning to ride Col du Somport 1650m/5413ft, on the France/Spain border for some time and to, horror of horrors, ride back through the Somport Tunnel as well! Tick those two off and I’m pleased to report that, despite my usual hatred of the things, that the tunnel wasn’t too bad at all!

The blast back down the N134 was fun, except for a bunch of road works, which didn’t really spoil anything.

Next we tackled the Col de Marie Blanque 1036m/3399ft. At that height it doesn’t seem much on paper, but wow, it’s a cracker!

Starting from Escot I was watching the marker boards that the cycle-mad French put on all the main climbs. The average gradient for this Col is around 8%, but for the early kilometres the boards kept saying only 2 or 3%. As the km’s ticked by, still no change, then at 3km from the summit all of it came at once, 8%, 10% and for the final km 11%! What’s more, there are no hairpins to ease the grade, it’s basically a straight road to the stars, goodness knows how hard it is on a bicycle!

We dropped into the small town of Laruns and drew our breath for the first big one of this trip, Col d’Aubisque 1709m/5606ft. This is one of the legendary Tour de France climbs and seems to have featured every year that I can remember.

From Larums it’s pretty cool and a scattering of nice hairpins got us in the groove. Eaux-Bonnes comes after a few kilometres, once a vibrant thermal spa town, but now showing signs that the good days have long gone; it made for a strange interlude on the climb. If I thought that the last Col was steep a 13% gradient soon concentrated the old mind! Over 16km later and through countless hairpins we arrived at the summit, it was tough all the way, but stunningly wonderful and deeply satisfying.

There’s a funny homage to Le Tour at the summit, three massive bicycles, painted Green, Yellow and Polka Dot; that’s the jerseys of the Sprint Champion, General Classification Winner and of course King of The Mountains!

This Col truly is the stuff of Tour de France legend and I was humbled to have ridden it’s hallowed route, but there was no time for self congratulation, we still had more work to do.

From Aubisque the road descends slightly and then turns sharply to the left. If I thought that there were no further surprises, I was wrong, very wrong.

Over the next ten kilometres the road sort-of hangs in space. It’s not really been cut into the cliff; it’s more floating on the outside edge of the mountain. Oh and there’s not really much in the way of barrier either, plus it’s largely single track, so I was glad to have been on the inside!

That line along the mountain face is the road!


Anyway, all this engineering was to lead us to our next pass, Col du Soulor 1474m/4835ft. Two things struck me about Soulor, apart from the road to get there, was the almost vertical drop as the road began to descend and that the place smelt of sheep and goat poo; there were hundreds of four legged woolly things all over the place!

Our final challenge was the daddy of them all in Pyrenees terms, Col du Tourmalet 2115m/6938ft, the highest paved French pass in the mountain range.

I know I can get a bit carried away with superlatives when it come to my Col adventures, but seriously, Tourmalet is beyond a legend to anyone who has half an interest in Le Tour de France. I’ve dreamed about riding it for years and years.

The pass has been included in the race more times than any other pass in France, after the 2018 edition it had featured 86 times and this year will also see a stage finish at it’s summit. I

The road winding towards Tourmalet.


Tourmalet first appeared in 1910 and the leader over the Col was a chap named Octave Lapize who went on to win the race in Paris. Octave is famous for expressing his somewhat forthright views of the Tour organisers for routing the race over the Pyrenees high Cols, on Aubisque he shouted at them,

“Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!’
“You are murderers! Yes, murderers!”

Octave Lapize on the summit of Tourmalet


He can’t have been thought of too badly though, as a statue of him is now mounted on the finish line at Tourmalet; here’s to you Octave!

Just Below the Summit of Tourmalet, the The Star of My Show!


For my part, with 1450cc of Harley engine pushing us along it was never going to be as tough as the cyclists have it, but it was hard enough work nonetheless. In addition it was great fun though!

Talking of cyclists, there was a cycling club from Holland making their annual pilgrimage to Tourmalet. It seemed to me that the plan was to ride to the summit and then drink as much beer as possible. To say that the top was a bit noisy and rowdy would be unfair, they’d peddled up there and in my book deserved all the beer that they could handle!

“Proost!”

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