It was Palm Sunday, the week before Easter when we were due to leave Jaca and drive through the Somport Tunnel. Before we left, we walked up into town to watch the start of the festival parade through the town. Spain loves a good festival and some of the parades are spectacular, often based on religious feast days but full of fun and nonsense. This one was far more serious, with the local Bishop and several other religious dignitaries in full regalia starting the proceedings off. A huge trolley with massive statues on, hundreds of people in gowns carrying enormous palm leaves, two drum bands and a brass band were all standing ready while crowds of children carrying small palm displays or branches cut from real palm trees were impatiently hopping about. In the meantime, the old men in red robes used a lot of words and the children shivered in temperatures of about 5c. Finally, they lumbered off through the streets, drums hammering, palms waving, kids leaping about, glad to be on the move – the effect was slightly bizarre yet moving at the same time. Ritual and community is strong here in Spain and despite our reservations about gender inequality – so evident in the lack of women taking any major roles in the event – we could clearly see how important that sense of belonging was to the people of the town.
We have taken the Somport tunnel route before – about three years ago to be precise. There were things we had forgotten, lost in the haze of thousands of miles travelled and the rosy glow that descends on past trips. I have recommended this route to lots of people and now I must swallow my words. It isn’t much fun at all – at least not in a big vehicle.
The tunnel itself is fine unless of course you suffer from claustrophobia, which we don’t but we still felt it after several miles of driving through it. It is long. 8km I believe but it feels much longer. Approximately halfway through we heard a wailing sound like a WW2 siren just before a bomb hits. We froze. Other drivers were continuing on their enforced 50mph drive without looking in the least bit fazed by it. We had no choice but to keep going and hope that nothing horrible was about to happen. As it turned out after we were spat out into France, we discovered that the sound had come from a bunch of motorcyclists revving their engines. We can only assume that they did this because of the strange sound effects created by the long tunnel. A few unkind words passed between us about them as we pointed our nose downhill and took on the very steep, very hairy drive down towards Oloron St Marie.
There are moments, going down that steep incline when the rocks stick out into the road at a height that looks as though they could take the roof of the motorhome. Clearly they don’t because large trucks use the route and there are no bits of vehicles lying about. Trucks don’t drive in France on Sundays so we chose that as our day to take on the Pyrenees. This was because one memory had remained from the last time when trucks were actually overtaking us on hairpin bends. The distance from Jaca to Oloron St Marie is 49 miles. Google claims that it takes an hour and a half. In real terms it takes five years off your life – unless you like a challenge or drive a small vehicle – this, of course, is our opinion only and you might love it. The scenery is spectacular, the sight of abundant grass and trees after the much more arid scenery in Spain is a delight but I think, all things considered, we will take another route in future.
France, the Motorhomer’s Delight
First stop in France was Intermarché in Oloron St Marie, closed of course because it was Sunday but the outdoor Laudromat was open and we had two weeks of dirty washing to do. It was raining heavily when we parked up but they kindly supply a small cover over the machines and we could stay dry while we pushed our enormous load into the big 18kg machine and set it going before returning to the van for a late breakfast and a pot of coffee. We discovered that day that using outdoor tumble dryers on wet days is less efficient than indoors. Presumably the machine draws air from the outside and the washing remained stubbornly damp feeling even after almost an hour in the dryer. Giving up we brought it into the van, pulled into the aire de camping cars at Oloron and hung it around the van a la Chinese laundry while running the heating.
We like Oloron – it is a pleasant little town standing on the confluence of two ‘gaves’ (mountain rivers). There are a few shops, cafés, restaurants and numerous florists – the French love their fresh flowers, plus a couple of big supermarkets. From the aire, you can walk along the river bank and marvel at the colour of the water. Even on dull days, it is a kind of turquoise blue caused, I’m assured by my friend Mr Google, by ground rock in the water brought down the mountain by the force of the river tumbling over the rocks. We would have enjoyed our visit there even more if it hadn’t rained, heavily and persistently, all afternoon, evening and through the night.
The next morning, having consulted our favourite source of places to park overnight in a motorhome, Camper Contact, we decided to head for Tarbes. Here there is a motorhome parking place not far out of the town that has electricity. We like to get some electricity every few days if we can, mostly to charge our toothbrushes as, for some reason that is beyond our understanding, Braun toothbrushes can’t be charged on a 12v inverter. The charger turns up its toes and dies if you try it and Braun will not replace the charger if they get a sniff of the possibility that you have abused it by putting it in the aforementioned piece of electronic wizardry. Camper Contact gives up to date reviews about places to stay and the one at Tarbes was given largely positive scores, although it was a bit expensive at 12€ a night. Getting to it involves some complicated town driving, it is in a dismal and run down part of the city and, aside from the 16amp electric supply and good service point, it had not much going for it as far as we were concerned. Yes, it is only a 10-minute cycle into the town, which might be quite a nice pleasant to visit. I couldn’t possibly comment as the rain was still falling in torrents so we walked the dogs, got wet, went into the van and got dry, ate dinner, slept, walked the dogs, got wet again and then left.
From Tarbes we headed for Fleurance, a pretty little town in the Gers region (or Gascony) of the midi Pyrenees. This region was recommended to us by a doctor in a French hospital who was sewing up my elbow. I imagine that’s a claim not many people can make. By the time we arrived it had stopped raining and we were delighted to discover the motorhome parking in a beautiful, neat area with large hedges shielding it from the wind, a river running beside it, a weir, a lake and a selection of lovely walks. This parking area is free of charge, except for fresh water. To get this you need a flo bleu jeton (token) that can be bought in a couple of local shops for 2€. We carry a bunch of them, thanks to a time when I suddenly and unexpectedly began channelling a boy scout and bought a load ‘to be prepared’. We were full up with fresh water and on our parking spot overlooking the water in no time at all. We can recommend Fleurance thoroughly. Here you can spend a few days quite contentedly looking out at the water, sitting outside if the weather permits and wandering into town for your daily requirements. There is even a municipal swimming pool and tennis courts if you have the energy. The local council have not only generously provided free motorhome parking but they even keep it tended by a team of gardeners and provide a small plot of fresh herbs for you to help yourself.
Planning for the Easter Weekend
We were reminded, by Melanie and Biz, that it’s a good idea to plan ahead for the Easter weekend. Traditionally this is the first time out for fair weather motorhomers and a national holiday so the most pleasant areas can fill up quickly. We decided to try a town called Moissac – no we hadn’t heard of it either. The motorhome parking is a smart new facility placed neatly between the Canal du Midi and the Tarn river. We arrived in good time on Wednesday to find a beautifully neat and tended place with electronic gates, proper level pitches divided by raised beds and plants and full services including electricity for 6€ a night.
After parking up and plugging in we went immediately out for a walk along the canal towpath with the dogs who pronounced it a very fine choice. We then put them back in the van to sleep and walked the other way on the towpath into the town. This route took us through the canal basin where numerous colourful and interesting barges were pulled in. The final boat, Carpe Diem, had two men on board who kindly struck up a conversation with us. After the initial confusion about language and who spoke what, we ended up having a nice chat in a mixture of French and English and left feeling quite cheered.
In the town, which is very pretty and interesting to meander around, we stopped at a small café because it had the magic word Glace (ice cream) painted on the window. We wandered in, had another half French half English conversation with the owner and ordered our ice cream and coffee. My choice of dark intense chocolate definitely fitted the claim that sex is a reasonable substitute for chocolate and the owner of the café came out to our little pavement table to watch my face as I tried it, laughing as she went back into the shop. If you have seen the film Chocolat you will get the idea. That woman had magical skills. I might have to return in the dead of night and eat a mountain of that wonderful stuff. Like certain illegal substances, it has resulted in sinister cravings.
In the afterglow of my chocolate ice cream, I announced to Shirley that this is definitely the place where I want to live. The next morning I recognised this for the pure fantasy that it was but it was fun for a while. Be warned, that particular artisan chocolate ice cream is dangerous. I strongly advise that you choose one of the other flavours and leave it all for me.