TRAVEL with pat and lew

* into the Pyrenees

Posted by Lew Weinstein on August 4, 2007


We enjoy the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees every day from our terrace, but we have long wanted to see the higher ranges to our west, stretching along the border between France and Spain.

There are excursions every week in the summer, listed at the Collioure Tourist Office, and each Friday, there’s a bus trip to Villefranche de Conflent, with English commentary. We almost never take bus trips, but the alternatives of driving or taking the train look too difficult (and more expensive) by comparison, so we decide to give it a try.

The bus leaves Collioure at 6:10 am, from the old tower next to the Port Duvall beach. We’re up before 5:00 am, breakfast, and walk over. Collioure in the cool morning is an absolute delight. Still dark but dawn is coming, dim lights casting a romantic glow, the town perfectly quiet except for the lapping of small waves along the beach. A couple is playing on the swings – out early or up all night?

Several others are waiting, and when the bus arrives early, our group is first on. There are 5-6 stops in and around Argeles to pick up additional passengers, and by the time all are on board, only a few seats are left. We’ve been driving north along the coast, looking at each coastal town, all larger than Collioure, more developed, not nearly as beautiful or charming.

We turn west and pass north of the city of Perpignan, the department prefect of our region (population 163,000), drive for an hour to Villefranche de Conflent (population 225). We’ll return to Villefranche as the last stop on our trip, but for now we go directly to the train station.

We’re early, so we have café au lait (pour moi), chaude chocolate (pour Madame), et deux croissants, in the chill of the mountain air. We’ll catch the 9:00 am le petit train Jaune (the little yellow train).

While we’re waiting, we read our books. I’ve brought with me Escape through the Pyrenees by Lisa Fittko, a heart-pounding account of this brave and resourceful woman’s successful efforts to save herself, and then perhaps 2,000 others, from the clutches of the Nazis after the French collapse in 1940. Much of this took place in the towns near Collioure – Port Vendres and especially Banyuls. It’s one of Pat’s favorites, and I can’t think of a better place to read it than driving up the very same Pyrenees mountains which was the escape route to Spain.

The first section of the train jaune route was completed in 1910, linking Villefranche with Mont Louis, which is as far as we will go today. It’s an impressive construction undertaking, including 650 engineering works along the 44 mile climb  – 19 tunnels and two remarkable bridges: the Séjourné viaduct and the Gisclard suspension bridge. 

We board the car set aside for our group, which is just about full. Pat and I sit next to a delightful French madame, who speaks just a very little more English than we speak French. She says she’s an auteur, Pat says so am I, and she is much impressed with Le Hérétique, says she is enchante to meet me.

I just read Somerset Maugham’s comment in The Razor’s Edge that “in France, an author just because he is an author has prestige,” written in 1943 but apparently still true.

As we climb, I realize we can’t see much if we stay in the car, so I move to the platform between cars, and Pat soon joins me. The views are astonishing, great vistas of mountains, rising high in the distance, and as we climb further, plunging away beneath us, some covered with trees, some huge expanses of bare rock. There are little station stops, tiny villages, and single houses perched at unimaginable heights.

The train is run by SNCF as a regular part of the rail system, and was created originally as a link to these mountain places. Now there are roads which follow the same general route, and most of the passengers are tourists. 

We exit train jaune at Mont Louis, which is roughly halfway up, a trip of 1 hour 20 minutes, and we’re back in the bus, which has driven to meet us. It’s 10:30 am, and there are several more stops in the morning, but our guide asks if we will join the group for lunch and she gives the menu of what we understand is their regular place. The alternative – we’ll drop you off somewhere in Spain and pick you up two hours later – is singularly unappealing, so we’ll join the group. 

We stop at a ski resort with a view of the highest mountain in the Pyrenees, and an old chapel with a fountain miraculously created by a statue of the virgin. The chapel features a stunning altar, with statues and ornaments in gold, by the same artist who created the even more sumptuous altar at the church in Collioure. 

We pass into Spain, a half dozen people leave the bus with nothing much in sight, and most of us go to Paller de Queixans, a restaurant situated in a completely new area of modern town houses which are vacation homes for wealthy Barcelonians, about 1.5 hours away.

Even as we enter the restaurant, we feel we have made the right choice. Our group of over 30 are the only customers. We’re seated at 6 round tables, Pat and I at a table where no one else speaks English. A friendly man announces the menu, in French, then gets his guitar and sings in Spanish, asking the group to join the refrain while waving our white napkins high over our heads. It’s fun. 

Waitresses move quickly to deliver plates filled with a thin pasta, cut into short lengths, apparently fried with mussels and other good things, served with sangria and then rose wine. We had seconds. Then came a serving of chicken, vegetables, potatoes, sausage, and who knows what else, some of which was excellent. 

Meanwhile, the entertainer was doing card tricks. Champagne was served, and we were shown the “calva” method of drinking from a long stemmed bottle, pouring a long drizzle from the upheld bottle into your open mouth. Several of our group tried it, more or less successfully.  Dessert was ice cream, with coffee, and then a choice of whiskey, cognac and vodka, all of which we declined.

All in all, it was a terrific meal, 16 euros each.  My credit card, however, did not process and I paid in cash.

The next day I called Citibank and found that they had not flagged the payment. In fact they had not received it, so it must have been a local problem at the restaurant.  

TIP: before setting out on any trip, it’s a good idea to tell your credit card issuer where you’re going to be, so they won’t set up roadblocks when they see purchases made in unfamiliar places. I had done that in May for the entire summer, and this call was just to confirm everything was properly in place, which it was. 

Again, of course, the value of Skype. Call anywhere, at 2 cents/minute. This call, 4 minutes, 8 cents. 

After lunch, Pat and I had a chat with our English speaking guide. She had been in Key West – it’s amazing how many of the French know Key West and have been there – as part of her year in America, based in DC, specifically to improve her English for this job. 

The first stop of the afternoon was a solar furnace, which we viewed from a hillside vantage point. Constructed in the 1950s for research purposes, its 860 parabolic mirrors and heliostat of 546 flat mirrors focus the sun’s rays into a to temperatures which can reach 3500 degrees centigrade. That’s hot! 

We drove down the mountain on a road that paralleled the train, so we could see where we had been, and the views were even more spectacular.  

When we were near the bottom, our guide told us about the maiden run of the yellow train in 1905. A select group of 6 was on board for the event, but the engineer drove too fast around one of the many curves and the train flew off the tracks, landing 80 meters down in a gorge, and everyone was killed. “That was the first and last accident with the train juene,” we were told, but I’m nevertheless glad she saved this particular information until after we had left the train. 

Villefranche de Conflent is a fortified town founded in 1090 by Guillaume Raymond, Count of Cerdagne. The remarkable old church within the walls was built in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. After the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1679, the fortifications were improved by Louis XIV’s ubiquitous military engineer, Marquis Sebastian Vauban, who also expanded the castle in Collioure, all to defend against attack from the Spaniards to the south 

There are only two streets in Villefranche, but our 30 minute visit was well worth it. Old, old buildings, all shops now, narrow streets, water running down open culverts, a church as old as any we have ever been in, and witches, good witches. That’s all I know. Good ice cream too! 

We slept for most of the rest of the drive, back to Perpignan and then letting off the passengers, us last in Collioure at 6:30 pm. It was a good trip, and at 33 euros each, a terrific value.


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