Spain and France 2008
Once the car had finally dried out after Corsica 2006, I eventually turned my thoughts to what to organise in 2008. Good memories of the Spanish Parador hotels and Spanish roads on Warren Smith’s 2002 trip led me shortlist the Spanish Pyrenees. Feedback from CLUB2004 and Corsica 2006 gave me a clear steer towards at least 2 nights in each hotel and away from one night stands. This would lengthen the trip and add cost if driving out AND back through France, so I decided to use the Portsmouth – Bilbao ferry, go from the Atlantic to the Med and end the trip at Carcassonne, after which everyone would make their own preferred way back to Blighty at their chosen / required pace. Initial planning in 2007 was based on 12 cars, but when initial expressions of interest had to be backed by hard cash, the numbers melted like snow in springtime. Eventually we ran with just 6 cars, after talking the Paradors into maintaining the group rates. This year’s group included Mike and Valerie HOILE (Lincs), Stuart LUNN & Gail COOKSON (Hants) and Neil & Margaret ADDISON (Sussex) as well as Colin & Cathy SWINSON, Peter & Wendy GAY and Gail & myself from the Warwickshire meet.
Our early arrival at Portsmouth on 26th August was “rewarded” with a long wait on the quayside on a cool English “summer” evening as we were the last to embark, but we still managed to fit in a trip to the restaurant and bar before retiring.. The Channel was generally OK except for a real tank slapper in the wee small hours, but The Bay of Biscay was like a millpond the next day and the enforced relaxation gave us the chance to go dolphin and whale spotting on deck. The Pride of Bilbao is a very well appointed cruiseferry and some of us went to the cinema to watch Mamma Mia, while others just chilled - quite literally as the sun was absent, even if the sea was calm.
On arrival in Bilbao we headed northwards for the Vizcayan coast via a transporter bridge similar to the one at Middlesborough. Breakfast was another makeshift affair like Corsica 2006, with us buying the bread , butter & jam and the cafe providing tea, coffee & hot chocolate. After a slightly disappointing trip round the coast we headed for the Hotel Las Rocas at Castro Urdiales. No disappointments here, the hotel was well situated 100 metres from the beach, well appointed , with garage facilities. Not only had we picked the best hotel in town but we then went to the best (and dearest) tapas bar for lunch! Financial indigestion ensued. Most of us took advantage of the beach and some even braved the waters of the Atlantic as the tide came in over the warm sand.
Coincidentally, the last Friday of August sees the flower festival in Laredo some 25Km west of Castro. The parade of floral floats attracts thousands of people, so we left the 7s behind and went to Laredo by coach for the 5pm start. This year was extra special as it was the centenary of the event. Health and Safety considerations seemed cast aside as young girls were lifted 10-15 feet up onto pedestals on these floats and “secured” by a thin chain round the waist, which was about as much as the Brazilian dancers were wearing! Our return home was delayed an hour by traffic congestion, preceded by an impressive thunderstorm.
The next morning we headed 100 miles East for La Rhune (900m altitude) and the funicular railway that takes you to the summit which is the border between France and Spain. After a group photo and lunch in a panoramic restaurant with views of birds of prey soaring using the air currents, we returned to our cars for the second half of our journey to Sos del Rey. Disaster was narrowly averted as several of us failed to notice a large pothole, momentarily distracted by a friendly local in a Lotus Elise. This was followed by a slight detour at St Jean Pied du Port as we failed to spot a signpost hidden by foliage. Even though it was now 3pm, the shade temperature was 30 plus and a good deal more in the sun, but as we came down off the mountains the view southwards was of huge storm clouds. By a stroke of luck we missed them and arrived at Sos del Rey Catolico bone dry inside and out. We soon made amends as the gin & tonics were served in glasses the size of small goldfish bowls!
The Paradors are interesting as they are a state run chain of hotels, that puts mostly historic buildings to modern use. Both Sos and more especially Cardona are inside old castles, while Aiguablava is a modern hotel in a unique setting. Sos and Cardona had predominantly Spanish guests, with hardly another English or German voice to be heard. The next morning some of us decided to take a run out into the mountains via Castle Xavier and the Leyre Monastery. Roads around here are largely deserted, although the main road past the Yesa dam does attract some traffic. Surfaces are of variable quality and quite unpredictable by road number as witnessed by our trip through two parallel valleys, the Anso (rough and rock strewn) and the Hecho (smooth, great surface).
Monday saw us leave Sos for Cardona, a 240 mile run across the foothills of the Pyrenees including some brilliant roads such as the 30 mile stretch that includes the Col de Boixols and the Col de Nargo. Great roads for a 7 and superb scenery. We noticed that Spain uses Armco barriers more to protect bridges and structures than fresh air bends! Cardona has been a salt mining town since Roman times and it was strange to be staying in a historic castle directly overlooking large open cast salt workings. The next morning saw Peter attend to the only mechanical defect of the holiday – a dysfunctional brake light switch, before a bit more local blatting. Some of us also took advantage of the municipal sports centre at the foot of the castle for a spot of swimming and sunbathing before aperitifs at sunset on the hotel terrace / castle ramparts. Dinner took place in the dining hall of the old castle and was an impressive affair both for its content and setting.
To complete our trip from the Atlantic to the Med, we had another 150 miles or so to Aiguablava on the Costa Brava coast. This included some great roads through the Montseny National Park. We made a prompt start to minimise our exposure to the hottest part of the day. Even so, as we came down out of the mountains and onto the coastal plain, the shade temperature reached about 35C and even more in the car. We were well pleased to reach the hotel with its coastal location, sea breezes and swimming pool. Aiguablava is little known but tremendously scenic, so much so that nobody moved their car during our two night stay! Walking, sunbathing, swimming and kayaking were the order of the day.
Friday was the final “official” day of the trip and some of us took the motorway route to Carcassonne, getting stuck at the frontier, while others followed the picturesque but slow coast road (once they managed to find it!). the walled city of Carcassonne is a UNESCO site and the Hotel du Donjon is located within it. There is a curfew on cars entering until 7pm whereupon a convoy of cars drove across the drawbridge over the moat, under the portcullis and through the main gate, following the narrow medieval streets to reach the hotel. The owners of far more expensive exotica had their thunder stolen by half a dozen 7s!
Saturday morning came all too soon and it was time for goodbyes as everyone went their different ways, most taking a leisurely trip up the West coast of France, although I had 330 miles to do to reach Lyon airport by 6pm for Gail’s flight home (via the Viaduc de Millau -where a visitation by about eighty Harley Davidsons interrupted our picnic lunch). The weather deteriorated progressively with rain from Clermont Ferrand, and after Lyon I clocked up another 100 miles or so to Langres before stopping overnight in a Logis. I had kept my options open re the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, but decided against on Sunday morning after looking at the weather forecast. Good job really, as it seems that F1 results are no longer decided on the track.
Sunday’s drive did not go well. Navigating solo, I wrong slotted onto the southbound autoroute, before setting up my satnav which later in the day tried to send me into the pedestrianised area around Amiens railway station! I ended up overnighting at Escalles on the must drive Route des Deux Caps between Boulogne and Calais. The weekend’s driving had taken its toll and I was well tired. After a leisurely breakfast with no particular deadline to meet, I then headed for Carrefour in the Cite d’Europe to fill the passenger footwell with over 30 litres of wine boxes and thence to Boulogne for the lunchtime Speedferry where I unexpectedly met up again with Neil and Margaret. Home again Monday 8th September after about 2400 road miles in 10 driving days, averaging about 35mpg despite the terrain, no real mechanical problems, great hotels and a group that gelled well – I like to think that Sevens Up The Pyrenees 2008 was a success.
Next year is my year off from organising, so I’m wondering what to take part in – credit crunch permitting? 2010 might see a return to the French Alps – much enjoyed as part of the 2006 trip to Corsica. Interested parties please send ideas on a postcard to the author.
Story and Pictures by Philip & Gail Ambrose
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