European Escapades

Conquering the Pyrenees in a Campervan – Part Two




Still green pastures, but not for long
Still green pastures, but not for long

I often wonder what municipal actually means apart from being run by a local council, and from our experience in France, I guess that’s all it means here, and also in Spain. One thing it doesn’t mean is reasonably priced. You need to go to the private sites in Europe it seems. The campsite at ‘St Lary Soulan’ was a municipal and it was the most expensive we had the pleasure of staying in. OK so we could have gone to the private site, just outside of town and stayed for €15 Inc electric & WiFi access, but we decided that it would be nice to be in the heart of the town that evening. It was our mistake, as we then got less facilities and it was €5 more expensive to boot. We also found out at this stage that our chosen tunnel was to be closed for six weeks for repair in two days time. These factors made our mind up fairly quickly; it was only going to be an overnight stop, and then we were taking the plunge into unknown territory for me and heading to Spain.

Ok the campsite was fairly nice and it was smack in the middle of town, but other oddities were apparent. The water was one of them. I finally found the drinkable water supply next to the washing machines in the sanitary block. It seems you had to navigate you campervan, to park just outside the block and then once parked, you entered the communal washing area and took a hose reel from the wall behind the washing machine and trailed it down through the double doors and then to your campervan. A two man operation or in this case a one man and one woman operation. As Frances held the end of the hose in the water filler receptacle, I went to turn on the water supply. Once we had the operation up and running, we had one more problem to deal with, the self closing double doors and the squished hose pipe. I had to keep one of the self closing double doors ajar so that the hose was not squashed thus preventing the water supply from reaching the van. Oh how I long for those nice sites with a small outside tap. Not even a site with a personal tap on you pitch, so you have the luxury of a plumbed in water supply for the duration of you stay. One with a water tap on a wall somewhere, so you can connect your hose and take water in a fluid one man operation would be nice. But it was not to be and I guess we could understand why as we look at the village for our chosen stay. It looks as if we are on the wrong side of France in the Alps somewhere as the architecture of the place is a ski resort if ever we saw one. The ski shops and cable cars tend to give it away but it’s also the pine lodge styles and the pitches of the roofs that scream Ski village. That there was no snow around except in the high peaks above us, and we were not heading that high. It just made the place look somehow incomplete. But if the snow was around us on the ground, a frozen outside tap is going to be a real problem I guess. But then maybe a fair weather camper like me is not going to understand why anyone would use a campsite in the middle of winter for the ski season anyway.

Not sure whether these tunnels give comfort or not
Not sure whether these tunnels give comfort or not

As we wake in the morning and set about packing the van for the final phase of our journey, and my first foray into Spain the day is dim and cloudy. Frances comments that we have a fog this morning, I look out and note that it’s not fog exactly but a cloud. I laugh and tell her we are so far up, we have our heads in the clouds and as soon as we continue on down the Pyrenees we should hopefully get some sun on the other side. The one problem is, no matter if we are going up or down, Frances does not do heights. I’m sure if she was honest she does prefer the downward stretches, if only because she knows her ordeal is ending and we will be out of the mountains soon. So grey water disposed of and our weight down to a minimum we start our final leg. As we pull out of the campsite, the Sat-Nav finally finds us and leads us out of the town and back up into the winding mountain roads that sometimes feel like a knotted ball of string, as we are turned first one way and then the other. The heady mountain range is unfortunately causing our Sat-Nav some problems, as she fights to identify where we are exactly on the map and sometimes like us in the wispy fog around us, she loses her position completely. We are still on the main road, at least we think we are, but something is wrong. I seem to be having to change into lower gears to navigate some of the stretches of road and that can only mean one thing, we are inexorably climbing yet higher as we traverse our chosen route. The number of Campervans we are seeing today is less than yesterday, OK to be honest with you we haven’t seen any yet on our route, only a few lone car coming from the other direction, with light snow covered roofs. We pass though a small village, we take a right hand bend and then a left as we follow the road around and finally we seem to be moving downwards on a gentle decline, with green pastures on either side of us the mountains opening up, giving us a little space to breath again. It is at this point the Sat-Nav finally gets a signal and tells us we need to turn left in 500 metres. We pass the rutted dirt track she suggested, saying no way, but wonder why she wants to take us off the main road? Insistently she tells us to turn around where possible which can only mean we have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but where? We are still on the main road but as we saw in entering the mountains yesterday, a main road can turn into a little more than a path that leads to nowhere very soon. So we heed her advice and pull over to take stock and get our bearings. Checking the small map we have and our current road name, we discover we are on just such a road, as it continues for another twenty miles to a lone ski area and it’s not our route to Spain. It was a dead end in fact, and one that we were glad to find out about now and not when we reach the small ski resort at the other end. We find a turning area near a picnic site and head back down to the village just a few miles behind us. This is where we made our mistake. By following the road around the bends through the village, inadvertently we had changed main roads. Now back where we started, we spot the sign for the tunnel and take a turning right, continuing on our chosen route to Spain.

I'm sure its meant to be spring
I’m sure its meant to be spring.

But this cannot be right, can it? We seem to be heading upwards again and snow is starting to appear on the slopes around us. The ominous sign of snow are returning, from the tall red and white poles lining the roadside. A nice feature in winter, as it enables people to recognise where the road actually is, under all the snowfall. We pass signs proposing snow chains as we take another hairpin bend climbing higher still. A car passes us with skis attached to the roof rack, full of skiers in their bobbly hats, and a heavy four inches of snow on the bonnet and roof of the 4×4. Deep grooved nail marks start appearing on the steering wheel as I start wondering if Frances had something to worry about after all. She is still sitting very quietly making her own fingernail marks in the arm rests, doubling up on those she dug yesterday. We pull over as the Sat-Nav has yet again lost our position. It starting to snow and thoughts of us stuck in the snow covered Pyrenees start flooding my mind and I wonder if we are ever going to get out of here. Should we turn back towards the safety of ‘St Lary Soulan’ and rethink our options, or continue to move forward to the tunnel? The Sat-Nav finally confirms we are still on the right road and we do have a foolhardy driver in the seat so we continue our climb. I turn the windscreen wipers on and we are now getting a nice layer of snow on the screen edges as well as a dusting on the roadway. Three and a half tons of campervan should not be driving in these conditions, but the tunnel is meant to be very near now. From full sun in Lourdes to dim and cloudy in ‘St Lary Soulan’ to what seems like an Arctic winter all in just over one day is too much. We gain some short relief as we break through an invisible barrier into sunlight.

One sight we did not expect to see on our escapade again, SNOW
One sight we did not expect to see on our escapade again, SNOW

We are now through and above the murky clouds and we are blinded by the brilliant blankets of light, as the sun reflects off the snow covered ground around us. Yet higher clouds continue throwing snow at us. But we pass a sign telling us the tunnel is only a few more kilometres ahead. We pass through short squat square tunnels, little more than roofs, to protect us from the possibility of an avalanche of snow, as the road winds around the sheer rock faces. We spot amber lights ahead of us and an inviting black hole into a mountainside finally come into view. We have made it to the tunnel entrance. A large parking area with a few cars is off to our right and we pull in to get our breath back and wait for our pounding hearts to settle a little. As we sit admiring the spectacular views from our chosen peak, we watch as a snowboarder glides down the pristine slope of snow above us, to the foot of our campervan. Foolhardy as this trip may have been to some, this must be one of the most beautiful sites we have seen yet and we now start to wonder what will be awaiting us on the other side of the long Bielsa tunnel in Spain?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at 12:20 pm and is filed under Travel Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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