brushing Andorra, Perpignan via the Pyrenees

A day car-bound, travelling from Carcassonne. Mme D. dispatched us from our top floor gite. We ended up not mentioning les blattes, or cockroaches, in the microwave, in the dishwasher, as well as everywhere else. We decided what her response would have been: Yes. They are a problem. Or: Yes, it is very common with the older style buildings. As if a question of style. As if as necessary of acknowledgement as the clouds in the sky.

Packed into the car, a moment of panic. The camera missing again.

Out, searching under seats, through bags, it was not going to be found. It was at the shop at Les Grottes Niaux, the caves we’d visited yesterday.

Consulting the map, it seemed like we could go via the Pyrenees, Tarascon-sur-Ariege being about midway, on the map, between Carcassonne and Perpignan, where we had to drop off the car. The scenic route.

I rang. For the second time in two days, Have you by chance found a camera? And the difficult part: How can we retrieve it? Difficult, because the guides to the caves work in shifts.

After long explanations I finally got it that if we arrived at or just before midday, we’d get into the shop. If however we were late, we’d miss the guide, he’d be at lunch, short by French standards, only an hour. Thereafter, there’d be someone manning the shop for an half hour of each two hour tour slot. We are departing, I said, At great speed.

We arrived at Niaux at 12:03, to meet a white car coming out of the one-lane road up to the caves. It was him. He gave us the Nobody-Messes-With-Lunch look. (Sarko messed with lunch: now signs up say Strike till Victory! (Which brings to mind the news we saw last night of the death of Georges Freche, Montpellier’s visionary mayor, a French David Lange, apart from his racism, two days before.))

Regardless, up we trolled, hoping the second person I’d spoken to at Tourism Ariege was correct, and there’d be someone up there at 12:30.

No. An hour later, in beautiful clear weather – the drive up to the Pyrenees had already been magical, but for our great haste, would have been enjoyable – out of the caves came the guide and her group.

I have it, she said. We had to wait for an hour, I said. Yes, it was lunchtime for the guide, she said. But you’ve got your camera. That’s a good thing.

Then we drove across the Pyrenees. Higher and higher we climbed, through the pretty alpine village of Ax-les-Thermes, and on, past signs warning chains were obligatory on the Hospitalet, on towards Andorra, the border of which we would not cross, because, I discovered, on repeated consultation of the map, we were going into a tunnel at Hospitalet. I withheld certain information, not wanting to spread undue alarm. We were after all supposed to be returning the car around 2 pm. Or was it 4?

Up we went, the snow getting thicker, the sheer rock-faces encroaching on the road, the distant peaks looming ever closer. We were in convoy with other small cars and still traffic seemed to be streaming down unencumbered by chains.

The road curled and hairpinned back and forth, snaking over the highest point. The road running with snow and ice melt despite the sun, and gritted, and ploughs and brushing-clearing vehicles either parked up on our side, or following the traffic on the other side.

Finally, a levelling-off. One road led to Andorra, the other into a tunnel. It seemed that the chains were for an alternative route into Andorra. Relief that we were passing under the mountain and not over it, sliding down it.

Out the other side, the first section a gentler gradient, the towns and villages had names with double consonants and x’s in them. The Spanish side, but not in Spain.

Time was already getting away on us when we hit the descent to the mediterranean. Unlike the climb, this was an almost continuous ten-percent gradient, on roads dropping sheerly into the gorge. Of this, the French seemed unaware, ignoring the signs to Be Careful, also in English.

Perpignan remained at the same distance, since we were simply going down and not making kilometres. The architecture of the castles and abbeys and priories changes, again the Spanish influence, possibly related to the Spanish possession at the time they were built. The walled abbey of St. Martins was the highlight, right against the road, corner guard towers sticking out like ornaments with red-tiled turrets.

I had to ring again, to explain our lateness with the car’s return. We don’t close until 6 pm, I was told. And again, relief. But little let-up in speed, now that we could make headway.

The temperature had risen to 18 C. And the landscape turned dusty green, the clay visible on the hills, the coast nearing.

Perpignan was the royal seat of the Kings of Mallorca. Our guide said little remained. So don’t stay long. But given our lateness and the lack of anything sorted for Barcelona, we booked a hotel, Hotel de la Loge, in the centre of town. With Wifi, to hunt down our next accommodation.

With directions from the Office du Tourisme, we got to the Citroen centre, having first overshot it, ending up in farmland, by pulling into the first likely-looking Citroen centre. A mad place, humming with people, most of those working permanently attached to earpieces. We felt somewhat out of place.

We’d been on the road since 10:30, stopping only to give the car a quick vacuum and drive-through wash – so not stopping for that even, I guess. We’d been feeding on chicken saved from last night’s dinner and the last of the nougat. We had a car full of luggage. And here we were in the sparkly busy land of car sales.

But we were here. And it took a few signatures and a perfunctory once-over of the car before we were free of it. Corinne did however ring us a taxi.

The hotel. A large room, eccentrically furnished and appointed. The third and greatest relief of the day. Monoprix for wine and vodka. Pizzas to take back to our hideout from a guy who said, Kia ora. We’d been looking at the waiter, wondering if he was Maori. Perpignan, a Kiwi presence apparent at the time of the plane crash. We didn’t ask.