A ride over a seemingly secluded but spectacular Pyrenean pass. Scenery, history and a relaxing route made for one of my most memorable rides.
Realising the ride!
Having crossed the border between France and Spain many times near the town of Vielha. I would often look up and wonder what routes to relax lay in those high valleys of the Pyrenees. Studying the maps and reading up on the local area; I discovered this classic ride. Using my own words and photos; I will try to explain the euphoric high and the complete contentment that came from being in this natural wonderland.
I read about this route on the website of the Aran Valley tourist board: http://www.visitvaldaran.com. You can find more routes for all abilities in the local area; so be sure to check them out too. Studying google maps along with other reviews the night before; I prepared my mind to know what to expect! Then relaxing by the fire before going early to bed; I was well rested for what lay ahead.
Rising early, I made a strong coffee and ate some sweet biscuits. Then I slipped out of my cosy apartment into the cool predawn air. I had cleaned and lubricated my bike too; so the freewheel purred and the tyres hummed as I made my way to the car. I wanted to start riding by 10am at the latest so I gave myself plenty of time to drive to the start in Vielha. As I carefully climbed the pass out of the Benasque Valley; I ate my four ham and cheese sandwich breakfast roll that I had also prepared the previous day. This saved time in the morning but also gave me time digest as the drive took almost 90 minutes.
As I descended from the tunnel of Vielha down to the town itself; the road was now busy with lorries and servicemen starting their day. Reminding me of my own day job; was a sobering reminder, and gave me fresh impetus to make the most of every day. Driving in to the centre of Vielha; you will see a vast car park, where you can park for free. Choosing a spot near the now gracious but mighty Garonne river; gave me the feeling I was truly going from valley bottom to the highest ridgeline. The Garonne rises here in the Aran Valley and then runs for 329 picturesque miles through southwest France to its mouth near Bordeaux.
Refitting my front wheel, changing in to my cycling gear and stuffing my jersey pockets full of cereal bars and sweets I caught the eye of a sultry Aranese woman making her way to work. She smiled and bid me a good journey which added all the more to my relaxed but ready need to do this route. Locking the car, I carefully made my way through back streets before climbing to a gravelled track.
The Vall d’Aran
As I headed north out of town; the track slowly climbed away from the Garonne below me. At times the track was too rough to cycle, in other places the route went through sleepy villages and for a short distance on the broad shoulder of the main road to France. Yet all the drivers were courteous and gave me a wide berth as they passed. Climbing up past a farm; the path was blocked by a tractor and trailer with hay being manoeuvred into a small barn for winter feeding. Making myself known to the busy farmers; they helped me lift my bike over the tractor and again bid me a good journey. Maybe it was the brilliant but mild September sun, or maybe it was my good mood; yet the world around seemed to be in tune as I passed on my merry way?
After maybe getting too comfortable with the gentle gradients; the asphalt lane that led to a village, suddenly turned away from the main valley into the shaded side valley of the Varrados river. Descending to the valley floor; the real climb began.
Amon! Arriba! Up!
The road here had been washed away by a torrential downpour earlier in the year; so I cycled through a construction zone of vast mounds of gravel and rock. I thought: what takes mother nature minutes to move; takes us weeks to put back! Mother nature it seems; will always be control?
Encountering a solid tarmac road above the flood plain; the road soon started to climb. Traffic was light, so I stopped every time I heard an approaching car; to let them pass safely and to also let their exhaust fumes dissipate before I breathed in the air as I began climbing again behind them. Helpful marker boards every kilometre appeared; showing the altitude gained and what remained of the climb. I noticed sarcastic graffiti on these boards that blocked out the flag of Spain! With Catalonia wanting to break away from Spain; it should be noted that the Aranese people of this valley want to break away from Catalonia in turn! I thought how sad it was that tribalism and separatism exists; when nature does not see such boundaries?
I had to stop a number of times; especially when the gradient could go as high as twenty per cent and take a sip of fresh spring water. I carried two: one litre bottles; which I would refill in clear streams and then treated with a purifying tablet. In the first few kilometres the high mountains and trees shaded me and kept my inner engine cool; yet soon enough I arrived to some beautiful high meadows.
Wild horses peacefully grazed, the birds sang in unison and blue butterflies skittered about in front of me. The valley curved around to the south and seem to never end! After another steep section I arrived to the end of the asphalt road at an old stone bridge. Here the road returned to gravel and mud as I climbed on. The cars full of tourists could go no further and I was on my own.
After passing through a dense pine wood; the tree cover suddenly vanished and the final upper part of the Varrados valley appeared before me! Taking ten minutes to recuperate under a now stronger midday sun; I traced the track as it wound its way up towards the pass through the high mountains. Setting off again, I took my time on the now rough and rutted track. Used occasionally by farmers and four wheel drive enthusiasts; the climbing became more demanding as I had to concentrate on my line.
Another welcome respite came as I met some shepherds herding down their cattle before the autumn snow. In broken Spanish I conversed with the first shepherd who told me not to worry about the rapidly approaching herd of over three hundred cows! He explained to just stand to one side and they will calmly walk past. I explained that in England cattle can become aggressive around outsiders; yet he explained that because here in the Pyrenees they only eat grass and hay and lead a relaxed pastural life they are very placid. Another reason to really call this a route to relax!
Waiting almost half an hour for the herd to pass; I then climbed the last few gradients to the summit plateau.
Coth de Varrados
As the gradient eased, the rough gravel turned to a windswept dust and I eased back on the cadence. It was mid September; yet the sun was so powerful, I was kept warm in just a wicking vest and sleeveless jersey. I kept my eyes peeled for brown bears that live in these high pastures; yet all I could see was lush green grass rolling away to distant hilltops.
Stopping for sustenance on a grassy knoll; I seemed to forget what I was doing as I realised a small dusty track snaking away below me was my route home!
Abajo and down!
I had reached the Varrados pass in good time. It was only midday and it now seemed the whole of the Pyrenees and everything that ever was; lay before me. Alone and up here; none of the stresses of day to day life could follow me. I was on my own; yet surrounded by nature that filled me with an amazing euphoria! It was like I had cycled in to a painting and man made time and society was far away! I felt really relaxed and content for just being in this amazing place. Even now, as I write three months later in a damp and cold English winter; my heart fills with joy and I cannot help but smile when I think of that place.
Looking east and down in to the valley of Bagergue; the track curved like a great snake as it gently made its way down over the contours. Pulling on a long sleeved jersey that I had rolled in my back pocket and covering my throat with a Buff; I checked my brakes and all the clamps and bolts of my bike frame. I am a hesitant downhill enthusiast, preferring the discipline of a climb; so I took care here, far away from help and a hospital.
After stopping several times to give my fingers and brake pads a rest; I looked around and tried to remember every breath-taking view. When I descended so far and thought I was getting closer to the valley floor; from around a corner would appear another deeper valley far below! I met cyclists coming up this way; yet judging by the state of the track, it seemed harder work? After almost an hour, I reached a wide pasture where cows grazed near the cool mountain streams. I passed a café here too, yet it was closed this late in the season. Yet I was more than happy to roll on by; knowing that I had all I need in the form of spring water and oat bars.
Here the asphalt roads began again and I cruised down further; always down in to this new valley of vistas! I stopped under a avenue of trees to let a car pass. The driver so focused on man made issues; could not even acknowledge me, let alone the nature all around him. I thought of that poem by WH Davies:.. “a poor life this; if full of care”.
Aranese villages and the plight of the Jews
The high villages of these Pyrenean valleys were built around the farming communities of yesteryear. Now, these same poor houses have either been knocked down to make space for art pastiche hotels or renovated beyond the ridiculous for rich Barcelonans and Madrilenos to enjoy the nearby ski resort of Baqueira and Beret. Skiing is a brilliant sport which enables one to enjoy the winter landscapes and it has brought many jobs to the local people. Yet one cannot help but think we have blotted this natural paradise maybe a step to far? To plan your ski trip; here is the ski station website: https://www.baqueira.es/
Descending through these villages; I noticed a large information board almost obscured by a poorly parked car. I was fascinated to learn that the route I had just taken was the same one used by hundreds of Jews as they tried to escape the Nazi’s in the Second World War.
Not only did they have to deal with walking in the cold of the night without any lights to avoid detection. They also had to avoid treacherous French that would have returned them to the Nazi’s, Franco’s fascist soldiers on the Spanish side as well as bandits who only cared for their possessions. A truly sobering thought as I rode in complete peace less than 75 years after those awful times. Yet the information board ended on a high note; at great personal risk, local Aranese villagers would take in these poor refugees and feed and hide them from passing search parties. It seems when all hope is gone; a light will always shine on!
So descending from the village of Bagergue; I reached a main road that led once more down to Vielha. Here I had two options: I could ride on the wide open shoulder of the main road or wind my way through villages and farm tracks down the valley.
Choosing to investigate the little villages I explored the beautiful village of Salardu. With its houses of honey coloured stone and shuttered windows with flower boxes everywhere; I felt like I was in a fairy tale! After taking a wrong turn on a farm track and starting to feel tired; I retraced my way to the main road and gently rolled into Vielha.
Arriving back at the car, I was completely calm and relaxed with myself. I was healthy, happy and had everything I really need in life to enjoy the beauty of mother nature. On the way home I stopped at a supermarket and bought some good Spanish food and wine. Sitting down once more that evening after a hearty dinner of steak and chips; I reflected on a true route to relax!
Here is a link to Amazon; to the water purification tablets and bar grips I used on this route to relax.
Please be aware, I will make a small commission from any qualifying purchases.
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