Features: Andora & beyond
After leaving Llar 'Joan Trias', we headed back to the Marina for some lunch, but with our pennies dwindling away fast, we counted our money and could just about run to a ham boccadillo - sad isn't it. I set off in search of a sandwich bar, but realised pretty quickly that we were in fact in one of the most expensive areas in Barcelona. The Marina had been the centre of the Olympic village in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the Lobster and Champagne menus at the restaurants led me to believe that our ham boccadillo was looking less likely by the minute. After walking for about 30mins, I found a sort of Pret a Manger style café just selling boccadillo's - crusty rolls to non-Spanish speakers. After lunch, we took Chaka for a walk by the Marina and as we walked along admiring the boats, 2 ladies with 2 small dogs approached. For some strange reason, unbeknown to us, Chaka took great exception to these 2 dogs and started barking, growling, pulling on his lead and generally creating a bit of a scene. The 2 ladies scooped their dogs up into their arms and fled off down the road, checking from time to time to make sure we weren't following. A few minutes later, a security guard from the Marina approached us and said that Chaka must be muzzled whilst in Barcelona. My sweet little dog, muzzled? We decided that we had out-stayed our welcome and left the city en route to France and Neil's parents.
Hearing that diesel was considerably cheaper in Andorra, a duty-free shopping haven, we drove on to the tiny principality which covers just 464 sq km and nestles between France and Spain. We drove into the centre, Andorra la Vella and were immediately transported into a heaving throng of hungry shoppers, diving in and out of the shops eager to spend their money. If you like perfume shops, you would be in your element, they literally line the streets, sending out wafts of glorious scents onto the pavements outside. We had found a camp-site listed in the Lonely Planet guide to 'Mediterranean Europe' in the nearby tiny mountain hamlet of Llorts and being described as the 'most beautiful camp ground in Andorra' we couldn't resist. It was actually a lovely spot with exceptionally good washing facilities including a hot shower. We had some supper, took Chaka for a long walk along the river which ran along the bottom of the camp-site and settled down for an early night.
Around 10.30pm we heard a car arrive and peering out from the comfort of Bumble, we saw 4 weary looking people emerge from the vehicle. The mother and father and 2 teenage sons set about erecting their tent, in the dark, looking half asleep. I have to say, it was like watching an episode of the Krypton Factor with the challenge being, how much can you fit inside your car. Forty mins later, they were still pulling things from the boot, back seat, front seat, you name it. There couldn't have been even the smallest of spaces left untouched by camping gear. When we awoke the following morning, they emerged, bleary eyed and started the whole process again but in reverse.
After leaving the camp-site we made our way into Andorra de Vella and had a brief look around. We bought 6 cargo nets to hang in Bumble as we had found in Morocco that there were certain things that we used every day and rather than keep packing them away every time, it was far easier to have them close at hand. After a brief walk around and then a fill-up at the petrol station, we started our journey back into France. We decided to see how Bumble would perform up to the highest point of Andorra and indeed the Pyrenees at 2407m. After much correspondence with David Ashcroft, we learnt that in 4th gear the clutch engages, locking up the torque converter and with no slippage there was much less heat generated in the automatic gear box. With this in mind, we had a new approach to hill climbing. At the beginning of the ascent we engaged low ratio and proceeded at a top speed of 15 mph and we were able to hold this through all the S bends to the top of the pass. The gear-box stayed below 80 degrees c and the engine oscillated between 85 and 95 degrees c depending on whether or not we were facing into the wind. As we neared the top of the pass, we saw a group of horses who had attracted quite a large crowd of people.
It must have something to do with the altitude!
Around 7.00pm, feeling tired and hungry, we decided to stop for the night and just east of St Girons off the D117, we stumbled across a secluded wooded picnic area adjacent to a small building. Apart from one other camper-van, it was totally deserted and as I prepared supper, Neil went to investigate the area. It transpired that we had arrived at the beginning of the largest navigable underground river in Europe and the small building was the ticket office. It looked fascinating and both wanting to go on the boat trip, we agreed to take it in turns to dog-sit and take the trip individually. The next day, the secluded area we had stumbled across the previous night, was transformed into a tourist attraction although on a small scale. I set off first, following a group of 8 people across the road and down a steep decline to the start of the underground river. We all climbed into the boat and our guide spent the next 50mins or so pulling us along via lines of thick rope which were attached to the rocks and stretched the length of the river. At various points along the way, we had to duck to avoid being struck on the head by a passing stallegtite. Unfortunately for me, my guide spoke French and as my school French has faded with time, I couldn't fully understand his commentary. But it was fascinating to see the rock formations, natural waterfalls, stallegtites and stallegmites, all underground as we glided silently through the water. Neil also enjoyed the trip and as his French is very good, he understood far more than me.
We stopped off in a nearby village for some bread and Roquefort for lunch and suddenly became the main attraction. A group of small children appeared around Bumble and with great interest watched us leave their sleepy village. I forget that Bumble is actually a very unusual looking vehicle, especially painted yellow and sometimes without thinking wonder why people stare at us as we pass by. We made our way to Marciac to Neil's parents, Jenny and Bruce, arriving late afternoon. As we ascended the hill to St Justin, we hooted the ambulance horn and by the time we reached the village, the gate was open and our arrival anticipated.
The first thing Jenny said to Neil was 'you look thin, haven't you been eating properly'. I think I've heard that somewhere before!