Village streets. Tunnels under sidings. Mountain access roads.
We caught an early train from Arc de Triomf to El Clot Arago. There we changed to the Regional Express and headed towards Portbou. The route out of the station goes down lots of steps. In the village centre, we turned left a couple of times and reached a tunnel under all the railway sidings. This was grand scale railway building. The tunnel carries very light road traffic and is designed to carry serious flood water. It was dry when we went through.
After the tunnel we headed uphill past small holdings. We met a few dog walkers and later some mountain trekkers who greeted us with Bon Jour, Bon Dia. We turned right up a signposted trail and started to climb. This path is traffic free and leads to a coll with Spain on one side and France on the other. It is the only mountain path we have encountered with video surveillance. Presumably this is to prevent vehicular traffic and to keep an eye on crossings between Spain and France.
On the Spanish side, facing south, the vegetation is low growing and drought resistant. On the French side, facing north, there are vineyards and pine trees growing. We headed into France zig zagging down a path with grape vines on both sides. We were not sure if this was a right of way so we went through quietly hoping not to disturb the locals. In fact we were completely ignored and the vineyard route soon joined a waymarked road. We used this to get to Cerbere.
Once again we had to negotiate tunnels under railway sidings. At the station we discovered that, due to some political insanity, you can only leave Cerbere on French trains although it is possible to arrive on a Spanish one. The Spanish trains leave empty. There is a similar state of cluelessness at Portbou where you can only leave on Spanish trains and the French trains leave empty. The only exception is the Talgo train which changes gauge using some mysterious mechanics. This meant we had to wait three hours for a Talgo, pay twice as much, and watch an empty Spanish train depart for our destination.
The ticket booth staff at both stations were surly. Presumably they get incomprehending passengers to deal with every day. This must wear them down as they repeatedly explain an inexplicable rule. It is not their fault. The red-hot pokers need, as usual, to be applied to the politicians. I'd like to pour forth a torrent of abuse here but this site is zero-rated for bad language.
Today we got 30 minutes lie-in as the first train for Port Bou left later on Saturdays. Neil took photographs of mist round Sils as there has usually been low lying mist on this part of the journey. This then rises and by the afternoon there is a huge mushroom cloud over the Pyrenees and it starts to rain. Often by the evening it is clear once more. A man got in the train with an easel and a huge canvas. Then in got our surveillance for the day a man in a trilby hat and red scarf. He left some items in the waste bin as a safe drop and got off at the following station. All very sinister.
Today we exited the valley of Port Bou through an enormous tunnel and along a path and set off up the hill. The weather is perfect and for the first time we got hot going uphill. Neil had said the hot weather was waiting for the day when we would be doing a huge ascent. In fact today's ascent would be less arduous than the previous one as there was only one rather than four and the tracks were much wider.
My knee has swelled up with kneemonia after yesterday's ascents and descents and my left foot has a big bruise where a stone banged into it. Neither of these affected going up the pummock. We met two French people coming down who say Hola Bonjour. We reply with the same. We decided that we would do the same all the way up and then on the way down would reverse it and say Bonjour Hola. As it happens we didn't meet anyone else.
We came over the Coll dels Belitres and the Coll de la Farella at 305 metres. This was the border. I had told Robert Loomes our dentist about our intention to cross the border where there was no official crossing point doing in reverse what escaped POWs did during the Second World War. He said he could see the attraction but was obviously shocked that I would attempt to cross by a route he perceived as illegal. Of course since the removal of passport control within the EU (except the UK of course) there are no crossing points anywhere on the continent. Still it was good to climb up though the arid hills of Spain, covered in lavender and pink cistus and then across to France covered in conifers of a type never seen in Spain or at least noticed. Jane missed a treat.
She will be able to do a similar walk if she joins us in May when we hope to climb up close to the border again and then climb still further to come down on the trans-pyrenean route GR10 in Banyuls. We had thought of doing this even on this holiday but with transfer times being already long and not having details of trains between Banyuls and Cerbère and the problem of the rail crossing and it being silly to get to beyond where your house is before you even get there we decided against it. Now we will do it on our first day next time. Let's hope we are fit. The ascent is twice what we did today. Poor Jane. She balked at the 9.30 start. This one will be at dawn as we have no train journey before the start.
Today's walk was a stroll in the park at just 10.5km all the way to Cerbere. The hillsides were covered with lavender and pink cistus all the way up on the Spanish side. On the French side we saw daffodils, Pyrenean adonis and a blue scylla type bulb.
At the station we find it is true. We cannot get a ticket to Spain on the little train. We had to buy Talgo tickets costing a lot more money. We have a four hour wait for this and used the time to work out how to get on the little train. You must either leap over a barrier or cross the line illegally to the far platform. The French trains going to Port Bou also don't give times for their return. At the ticket office the surly man said Ici c'est la dernière gare de la France. Port Bou c'est la premiere gare de l'Espagne. What a ridiculous comment. They know they're wrong and they know it's stupid. That's why they are surly on both sides of the border.
We shall be using the French trains a lot next time. Shall I get to know this ticket man well enough to be able to say that to an outsider the whole scenario is ridiculous.
Both stations are monstrosities and quite out of scale for the size of the towns they serve. At one time, there were no doubt lots of offices and so on for border controls. Now these are obsolete. Both stations are seedy and run down.
Our entry into France after the cheery Hola Bonjour on the mountain was not happy.
We did, however, meet a very nice French man struggling with his huge case and a lovely pussy-cat. I have never seen so many steps up to a station as in Port Bou and Cerbère. Both are raised up above the level of the towns. There are two tunnels side by side to accommodate the two different gauges of the railway lines in the two countries. There are no lifts and no escalators.
I helped our new friend up the stairs with his case and we helped him again to find his seat on the train. It was fun when his pussy, Bidoudou (I think) escaped and we had to try and catch her and put her back in her box. She was very reluctant to go in but when I tipped the box on its end, gravity helped and she dropped down. Then the string had to be firmly tied and the clips safely fastened. Through all of this a drunk man was holding forth and when we put our friend's suitcase in a little space near the door, the borracho invited me to travel to Barcelona with him. Luckily with assigned seating, I had the perfect excuse to decline.
Apart from our drunk or maybe high or both fellow traveller, the Talgo was full of posh people wearing haute couture. Will we have to get a whole new wardrobe for the French leg of our journey.
At Port Bou, the Police came in force and threw the borracho off the train. Since abandoning him in Cerbère, he had been howling all the way to Port Bou. Was this sorrow that the lovely nymph in Cerbère had forsaken him. If so, he must have been wearing what Neil calls beer goggles. (Apparently they make all ladies look irresistibly attractive). There were two police officers in uniform and a further two in plain clothes. You could tell they were police because their guns were sticking out of the belts. This reminded me of the Roman soldier in one of the Asterix books (check which) who when asked to goo on parade in civilian dress forgets to take off his helmet and then wonders what's wrong when he is bawled out by the sergeant in charge.
Today, because we did not cross the tracks and leap into the Spanish train illegally. We were en règle all the way and indeed we got home with our tube ticket unused. This will atone for other days when we may have the wrong ticket. We called in at Condis to get one last ice cream to share between us. 250 grams each – quite a lot really but it would have been a shame to waste it.