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(>Pictures at the bottom!)
Madrid – Andorra – France – Switzerland
We enjoyed the last evening in Madrid with a fine wine, drew another straight line on the electronic map in the direction of Andorra and were already dreaming of the further eventful paths and tracks off the tarmac. Others drive as fast as possible, we will look for the straightest way and thus venture into somewhat more unknown areas.
Madrid and its eastern agglomerations were already behind us and we were already standing in vast agricultural areas. To the northwest, or in the direction of travel to our right, lay the “Sierra de Guadarrama” with its still snow-covered ridges and steep peaks. But here, where we were moving, the temperatures were very pleasant, and the humidity of the last weeks provided a lush plant growth we would hardly expect in this area of Spain.
Less than a hundred kilometres from the capital, we encountered the first shepherds with their flocks. We immediately felt transported back decades or even in another world. On our journey, we also passed through settlements where presumably only a few people still lived; in most of the houses, the shutters were closed and nature had reestablished itself all around. In other buildings, time has taken its toll; decayed and partly collapsed houses are not uncommon, and this in the middle of the villages.
When we chose the route, we were also aware that there would be hardly any tourist infrastructure along the way and that we would have to look for a suitable spot every evening. In Spain, this is not really a problem as long as you are standing on public land – but this is often not easy to assess; what is public and what is private land? But the spartan camps, where you are only disturbed by the wild boars at night and almost forget to sleep because of admiring the starry sky, also have their charm.
After a few days of spring-like weather and unique landscapes, thick clouds announced a change in the weather. We had not yet reached Zaragoza when Peter opened his floodgates and soaked the earth with lots of rain. Within a short time, the unpaved roads turned into veritable skidding courses, and the greasy, sticky mixture of earth and sand on the tracks wrapped itself around our off-road tyres. These in turn could no longer properly perform their task of tracking and the jeep was – more or less – at the mercy of the law of gravity. So we had to forfeit at a connection that followed a deep stream ditch and started our way back with extreme caution. We set up camp in the corner of a forest and spent a cold, wet night, where the thermometer sank low. Well, the fingers of one hand were enough to indicate the degrees.
What a joy: After the rain, the sun always shines and so it was the following morning. Although it was still very fresh, the first rays of sunshine breathed new courage into us and the next exploits could follow. On a different path we tried to continue our journey again. However, the fresh light and the increasing warmth should not hide the condition of the path. The ground was still damp and greasy and our jeep often slid back and forth on these paths and the rear of the vehicle frequently followed the earth’s gravitational pull.
In Zaragoza, we planned our next big purchases, as there are hardly any shops to be found out in the vastness of the Spanish pampas. Even the Spaniards travel long distances to some discount store instead of covering their basic needs locally. But our plan came to nothing and, due to a church holiday, the doors were closed everywhere. At a petrol station shop we found the bare essentials to avoid starvation and were told by the owner about the many peculiarities of the Spanish holidays.
We quickly crossed the plains of “Los Monegros” with its gentle hills and countless wind turbines. We were already standing in front of the “Sierra de Alcubierre”, which drops steeply and ruggedly on the south-western side. The path was as steep as the flanks and…. we were not allowed to slide down! But the reward at the top was a stunning view and the snow-covered foothills of the Pyrenees were within reach.
The last few days of driving through the vast farmlands was soon behind our backs and the landscape before us piled up more and more.
The backroads that were supposed to lead us in the desired direction were becoming increasingly difficult to find. The initially tame mountain ridges gave way to more and more rugged elevations with steep rock pinnacles and slopes where there were no more paths for our vehicle. But Chantal always found a possible connection that was also rideable.
So we reached places where no one had lived for a long time and everything had been left to its fate. Some of the roofs had already collapsed and nature was taking back its place. It’s really crazy what people once created here: they put a lot of energy into building entire settlements in the barren mountain landscape and now everything is falling apart!
The closer we got to the main ridge of the Pyrenees, the more areas were designated as forests or nature parks. In contrast to other countries, in Spain these paths are open to motorised traffic under certain conditions and may be driven on legally. But we were unlucky! These tracks are only released by the park and forest administrations at a later date, i.e. when the snow is completely free. This forced us to drive the last few kilometres to the border on the asphalt. What a pity!
Andorra is considered something special in the steep mountains in the middle of the eastern Pyrenees, where there are two co-presidents in addition to an elected parliament: The French President and the Bishop of “La Seu d’Urgell”. Our expectations were mixed and we were a bit surprised: very densely populated along the main valley, where urban buildings indicate busy activities; in addition to the many new buildings, there is busy work on new buildings and a deafening traffic that rolls through the narrow streets. And we hardly found the place to be a shopper’s paradise. Even in the many outlets with their tempting offers, we did not consider the prices to be particularly favourable. Outside “Andorra la Vella”, the capital of the Principality, the picture changed somewhat and the concrete and glass buildings were followed by familiar wooden buildings, quite in keeping with the Alpine model, where the most modern architecture is always inserted as a foreign body. At the higher altitudes, it is also immediately apparent that snow sports provide the livelihood of the local population here in winter. We could not make out the ends of the lifts and cable cars in the clouds, but operations had not yet ceased on this rainy day and a few hardy skiers were sliding down the wet slopes.
For us, Andorra was definitely a bit surreal!
In rain and fog, we left Andorra via the Envalira pass, which was still lined with snow walls on both sides above 2,400 metres and catapulted us back into winter. On the north side, i.e. on the French side, snowfall followed and visibility dropped below 20 metres in places. We were somewhat surprised that despite the lack of visibility, the locals drove at a brisk pace and even swerved into the opposite lane for overtaking manoeuvres; they must have faith in God.
At “Ax-les-Thermes” we wanted to follow our line on the map again and continue over various passes. But when we left the small town, a big sign announced all the closed passes. While the rain pattered incessantly on the roof of the car, we looked for other routes in some frustration, which Chantal also found after a meticulous search on our map. Unfortunately, and we discovered this a little later, not all roads in France are open to private traffic and large, round signs forbade us to pass.
Despite the rain and the frosty temperatures, there was a lot going on at the Carcassone town council campsite. We wondered what people were doing here at this time of year and we were the only ones who booked a pitch for just one night. While our heater was purring away outside, our jeep sank more and more into the damp earth. The rain just wouldn’t stop and I (Tom) was fed up for a moment with the eternal “being cold”. But let nothing show, so that we would not let it spoil each other’s morale.
Despite the bad weather conditions, we wanted to stick to our programme, so that a possible visit to the builder of our camping cabin would still be possible. There we wanted to clarify many open questions about the construction of the “Gazelle”. So for the time being we headed towards “Clermont-Ferrand” and soon we were again in wide, lonely areas where many small towns and villages give the impression of a somewhat dreamy and ideal world. If the sun were still smiling; it would be a dream to roam through this area.
After Saint-Affrique, we climbed further into the heights of the Massif Central and the many “Parc natural” kept presenting us with the same problem: we had to turn back on our chosen path. In addition to the prohibition signs, there were often massive iron bars across our path, which inevitably prevented our passage. Other path connections were surprisingly neither blocked nor forbidden and brought us to the next elevation, where it usually went steeply down again on the next side into the following valley cut.
After these many impressive “ups and downs” in this unique area west of the Rhone Valley, we spent the night on a farm overlooking the valley of the same name. The mountains to the east of us were shrouded in thick clouds, but we had an extensive talk with the owner, who is also a forester on the farm. Many of his statements surprised us and the “laisser faire” country turned into a regimented everyday life. After the freedoms we had grown fond of in Spain, we also had to get used to the corresponding conditions again.
Unfortunately, the visit to the builder of our Gazell camping kit came to nothing. So we were able to travel towards Geneva on a new virtual line. For the next big leap of our journey we have to adapt the jeep as well as the living cabin again. The first dealer we wanted to go to has his shop on the outskirts of Geneva. From the renewed experience and adventures of the past months, the wish list was correspondingly long and demanding.
After the many consultations in Geneva, Thun, Zollbrücke and Hindelbank, we took the last kilometres to our temporary domicile under our wheels. Since I (Tom) hadn’t ridden over the Grenchenberg for a long time, we chose this steep route up into the Jura. Those who know this route also know that it is steep, the road often leads along rock faces and at the top you are rewarded with a stunning view of the Alps. But the view came to nothing and the enjoyment plummeted – due to the shock! After another x-thousand kilometres in all possible parts of Europe, a lump of rock slammed onto our bonnet and windscreen on the way up to Grenchenberg. With a lot of luck, the lower windscreen frame protected us from a complete puncture and spared us from possible injuries caused by splinters and stone. It took some time until we recovered from the shock, examined the damage from the outside and were able to clarify what was necessary for the onward journey.
We skipped the enjoyable view over the midlands; we really didn’t feel like it any more!
At some point, later than planned, we arrived in Aesch and were glad that we only had damage to the car body and glass. Or as they say, broken glass brings good luck!
Hopefully the repair of our jeep will work out and the necessary parts are available. Nowadays, many things are no longer a matter of course!
We will keep you informed……
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