March 24-28, 2016
The plan was to sleep in, except for Matt who stated that if the morning was sunny, he was going to run down to his bike for a “beauty shot” (he just bought the bike, so he’s still in the “Honeymoon Stage”). Fortunately (?) for him, I woke up at dawn and saw that the sun was already making progress into a blue sky. I woke up Matt (and Dan too, in the process) to let him know that his beauty shot was waiting outside.
And so began our day.
This is who greeted us last night at the hotel
A better view of the solar furnace
The plan was to go to some local Roman hot baths last night, but because we had arrived so late and it was dark, we decided to put them off until this morning. We packed up the bikes and made short work of the fifteen minutes it took us to get there. I really do like this area of the country…
The baths were in the town of Dorres, a tiny village further up the mountain from slightly less tiny villages. Fortunately there were signs for “Les Bains Romains de Dorres” as we had to travel through the village and out the other side before we found the parking lot. Sorry: no photos, since I had to concentrate on the GPS and the narrow roads.
The baths are claimed to have been used by the Romans, but if so, there isn’t any evidence. And while it had great reviews on Trip Advisor, I admit that I was surprised that it was such a small place. Fortunately it was more so “quality over quantity”, as the setting of the baths were outstanding. The bathhouse could have used a little attention but it was clean and there were lockers available for my gear.
A bath with a view
Granite bath carved in the 1840s
One of the smaller pools
The sun was bright, the water was about 37 C and the view was captivating; it was all very relaxing. Unfortunately about twenty minutes into our soak, half a dozen children came to the pool and proceeded to play. Despite the mothers’ frequent admonishments to stop splashing, they continued to splash. Eventually we decided that we’d had enough of the sun, the water and the kids, and crawled out of the water. My desire to wash off the sulfurous water was quickly squashed when the realized that the showers had no hot water. Nope, I’d be just fine the way I was.
We got dressed, walked back to the bikes and planned our trek to Carcassonne. Based on the GPS, we would arrive mid-afternoon and could spend the day walking around the city. As Carcassonne was rumored to have a large castle at the top of a hill, I figured that we would have plenty to do.
Post-thermal bath ride
Just minutes after leaving Dorres and heading for Carcassonne I saw the sign: “Llívia.” During my research for this trip I had seen that there is a small “island” of Spain within the borders of France. What?
I had no idea that we were so close but naturally we had to go, considering that it was just down the road. And what a road!
The transformation between the quiet, sleepy French villages and the bustling, cheerful Spanish town was impressive. Traffic filled the main street, people filled the sidewalks and the market was filled with local goods. We had to stop. Besides, it was almost lunch time; what fun to “stop in Spain for lunch.”
Bikes parked for lunch
After a quick stop at the market, where we picked up some very tasty and fresh vegetables, we crossed the street for lunch. We went from trying to communicate in French (with Dan’s help) to having to communicate in Spanish – which none of us knew. We fumbled our way through lunch – which was very good, by the way – and then fumbled our way out of Llívia. The GPS wasn’t clear and we ended up going the wrong way on some one way streets. Oh well – we have tiny little motorcycles, right?
My god but the day was perfect! Just cool enough for the gear we were wearing, a brilliant blue sky and fantastic scenery. And our bellies were full after a good Spanish lunch. It was time to head north!
My fan club
Some skiing was still happening!
Lac de Matemale
Pretty soon the valley became a narrow ravine. We had left the Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes behind and were now rolling through the French countryside – albeit a very mountainous countryside. There was very little traffic here and I enjoyed leaning into the corners much more than I have in a long time.
Oddly enough, for as remote and desolate as this stretch of road was, there were frequent habitations along the way, although to what purpose I am not sure. Often there was a small house or two, and then a large, stone structure wedged between the ravine wall, the river and the road. Are they still in use? Are they just closed for the season? Are they operating and I just can’t tell? What are they operating as? I need to do some more research…
Ok, a little research later and it appears that they were thermal spas, used up until the 1960s. These big buildings seem to be former “établissements thermaux”, hotels for people willing to enjoy hot mineral baths that were popular at the end of the 19th century in the region. Up until the sixties people would come there to enjoy the sulfurated water from the nearby sources. But with the change of vacationing habits and the construction of a motorway to bypass this road, the spas fell onto hard times. Some of the, however, appear to still be in use.
Historical view of the same hotel
Sometimes there was more of a community, but as you can see, even then the cluster of buildings was quite small.
And for long stretches there was nothing at all, except for the trees, the rocks and the river.
The road kept getting narrower and narrower. At one point we came to a red light, the kind that they put up when there’s only one lane due to construction. It was a nice light, with a countdown timer and everything. Shortly after we stopped, the countdown began: 99, 98, 97… and eventually we had the green light! I proceeded cautiously, not sure what kind of construction I would find around the next bend, but there wasn’t anything there. Instead, it was a case of the road naturally having only one lane because the rock walls were too close to allow for more.
Very difficult lighting conditions
Coming out of the gorge I assumed that we’d be riding through wide open countryside, as I understood that Carcassonne was considered to be on a plain. But nope! There were some more curves and mountains to cross through first.
I thought that yesterday’s riding was at the top of the list, but today’s route was giving it a run for its money. So many things to look at, so many corners to enjoy, so much sunshine…
Along one stretch of road I saw a magnificent ruin on the other side of the river. I told the guys that I wanted to stop and since I’m the guide, they didn’t have much choice but to follow me. Sometimes its good to be the tour guide.
This was the abbey of Alet-les-Bains, a priory that was founded in the 8th century. Many changes happened since then, culminating when the Huguenots burnt and destroyed the Abbey in the 16th century. We parked the bikes, shed some gear and prepared to walk around in the spring sunshine.
The Abbey grounds had an entrance fee and since we (I) just wanted a quick peek, we didn’t bother. The photos above were taken from the cemetery and street, which were just fine for me. Then we proceeded to wander the streets of the town.
We had left the mountains behind and were now riding through what I consider “Typical French countryside”, complete with elaborate colonnades of trees in seemingly random places. I really like them
It was later than we had expected, but we arrived in Carcassonne. Our lunch in Spain and a couple of short stops along the way gave us a bit of a delay, but they were all worth it. After a short ride through the less-than-engaging outer neighborhoods of Carcassonne, we saw it: Cité de Carcassonne.
Brilliant! We found our hotel, the last one on my list of pre-reserved accommodations. I admit that I guessed that it was in close proximity to the castle based on Google Maps, but I was surprised when I saw that we were only one block away from the castle walls. A most excellent choice, indeed! And to top it all off, the room itself was the best one of the trip, with a large, modern bathroom, plenty of light through the windows and a separate room for Matt. Perfect!
We gave ourselves a few minutes before heading out to see the castle. While its originations were as a Roman fortified hilltop around 100 BC, the basis of the structure grew with age. The final major renovation came in 1853 when it was inaccurately restored by a man named Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. I am not a historian, so any errors did not detract from my enjoyment. What did surprise me, however, is that inside the walls was an entire town. Restaurants, hotels, shops and specialty stores lined the cobbled streets. I was a little disappointed at the commercialism of it all, but at the same time, I was pleased that the locals were able to maintain the infrastructure of the old citadel. Good for them!
Walking the ramparts of the outer wall
Church inside the walls
So many tortured faces!
One of the quieter city streets
View of the rest of Carcassonne
Modern reconstruction of historical buildings
No idea what’s up with the red light
We were enticed to dine at a newly open “medieval” restaurant, mostly due to the French employee who stood outside the door and my young nephew loving her cute accent. Ah, youth! The meal was pretty good but the wind was really picking up outside while we ate. The streets were still full of people even though it was completely dark and cold by the time we left the restaurant.
The Citadel isn’t terribly large and we had seen just about everything open to us. The modern city of Carcassonne was a bit of a walk from where we were staying, so Dan and I were loath to actually do any more exploration. The three of us returned to the hotel room, where Matt declared that he was going to go out and find a bar and some people to talk with. Fine by us! He came back to the room some time after 2 am, so he obviously found something to do.
The Citadel by night