There's a tiny European country nestles between Spain and France that Mike and I didn't even know existed until we bought our map of Spain. Since we had never heard of it and noticed that it contained the highest pass in the Pyrenees, we decided that through Andorra would be our chosen path for crossing into France.

We were expecting a serene countryside dotted with ski resorts and little upscale mountain towns with their exposed wood, log cabin style buildings, cozy cafes and overpriced outdoor equipment shops, but that's not quite what we found. The first town we came to was Andorra la Vella, the main city in Andorra, and as soon as we arrived we were ready to get out. There was nothing cute or cozy about the place, rather, it was screaming with consumerism. It was bustling with traffic and people and there were thousands of stores crammed with electronics, shoes, fancy clothing and duty free alcohol and cigarettes. It felt a bit like we were in Times Square, minus the really tall buildings, so we bought ourselves some groceries and continued chugging away at the 20-mile climb to the pass.

Once we got past the first several towns, which were all more-or-less continuously strung together, the chaos died down though the traffic remained and the rain set in. Andorra is so small we could have made it through in one day, but rather than hoping to be seen through rain-streaked windshields on winding mountain roads, we decided to call it an early day in hope that the next would be better.
Mike in Andorra

Our final day to see the Pyrenees didn't turn out tot be sunny and clear, but at least it wasn't raining. We got some okay views of the mountains towards the middle of the climb and aside from the main city in Andorra I have a feeling this country is utterly spectacular, and it was a bummer not to get a nice day to see it. A dense, cold fog rolled in for the final 2 miles of the climb and just as we reached the pass, at 7,898 feet, the snow began to fall. We've been chasing summer for nearly a year now and this was the first time Old Man Winter actually caught us. Luckily there was a restaurant at the top of the mountain because it was too foggy and the road too slippery for us to safely descend so we went inside to warm up with a cup of hot tea, dry our wet clothes and wait for the weather to improve. An hour later the snow had stopped, I was no longer shivering and once again I could feel my fingers and toes; it was time for the big descent. We put on as many layers as we could possibly handle and still be able to ride; neoprene booties over our shoes, winter riding pants, thermal tops, a long-sleeved shirt, a vest, a down jacket, a rain jacket, cycling gloves, wool mittens and a hat. I felt like a giant marshmallow that had been puffed up in the microwave and though I looked ridiculous with every inch of my body covered except for my nose, I was pleasantly warm for the entire 30-mile, hour-long descent into France.
Cari on the climb.

 Cari in the fog...almost to the top.

At the highest pass in the Pyrenees (7,898 ft) in the fog and snow.

 Sitting inside while the snow falls.

Mike all bundled up for the descent into France.

For the last 7 months we have been in Spanish-speaking countries and had come to the point where we had no problems communicating and no longer had to consciously think about how to say something. We were by no means even close to fluent but we were definitely comfortable. And then France hit us like a slap in the face. The first evening, we stopped at a bar to fill our water bottles for our night of camping, each of us holding 3 liter-sized jugs in our hands. We walked in and pleasantly said “bonjour” to the bartender and immediately afterward were tongue-tied. We realized at that moment as we were going “uhhhhh” with deer-in-the-headlights looks on our faces that we didn't know how to say a single word other than hello, yet and thank you in French. We should have, at the very least, learned “water” before we arrived as it's the thing we most frequently ask for.

Nearly a week has passed since we arrived in France and we've learned a few basic words but this is a difficult language. Unlike Spanish where the words sound exactly as they're written, to us, French words sound nothing like the way they look. We're having a difficult time transitioning languages and often find ourselves saying “hola” rather than “bonjour,” “si” rather than “oui” and “gracias” rather than “merci.” The Spanish words have been in our heads for so long that it feels natural to say these words any time we're in contact with people who don't speak English. We clearly have a lot of learning to do.

Fortunately, the French people have been wonderfully kind to us and in general, it has been a nice change from Spain. We've had more random strangers approach us wanting to know where we're from or what we're doing in one week in France than we had in our entire month in Spain. Even though we have no idea what they're saying and it feels like we're surrounded by a bunch of adults from the Charlie Brown cartoons, at least they're smiling, laughing at the fact that we just say “yes” to everything and if they know any words in English, usually make an attempt to talk to us. In Spain no one seemed even remotely interested in us. They just stared. Even when we acknowledged their staring with a smile, then a wave and then with a bug-eyed stare back, they didn't stop. It was the strangest, most uncomfortable, thing and we're happy that so far in France we have not been gawked at like we come from a different planet.

For now, we're just riding through the southwestern corner of France as we make our way towards the Alps, but we've seen some spectacular things already. We spent a couple of days in Carcassonne which contains Europe's largest intact remains of a medieval city. The walled city looks like a fairy-tale castle from afar and as you pass over the drawbridge your mind takes you to a magical world from long ago. Inside the walls is a fully-functioning, while extremely touristy city that was well worth the afternoon stroll.

At the entrance of the city. 

The church inside the walled city.

A 2-days ride through the grueling, yet beautiful, mountains of the Haut Languedoc and Grands Causses Parks and we arrived at the tallest bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct. Constructed between 2001 and 2004, the bridge truly is an impressive structure with its deck suspended some 885.8 feet above the Tarn river and its 7 pylons extending another 239.5 feet above that. We had high hopes that bicycles would be allowed to ride across it, but alas, that was not the case so we had to settle with viewing it from down below and watching a video at the visitor's center instead.
The Millau Viaduct.

From Millau we headed to the spectacular scenery in the Gorges du Tarn and were greeted with warm, dry weather for the first time in several weeks. After a day of riding along the narrow, twisting road looking down over the sparkling, clear river, through tiny villages built right into the rocky walls of the gorge, we found a camp right on the river where we could swim, also known as bathe, and dry in the warm breeze before the sun set behind the cliffs. It's days like this that we live for, that make all of the bad weather and torturous riding days worthwhile. It's bike touring at its finest.
 Mike riding through the Gorges du Tarn.

Gorges du Tarn 

A village along the Gorges du Tarn. 

Gorges du Tarn


Anonymous said...

I read! Gisela

Anonymous said...

Hello, I wish you a safe journey and good luck.
I am the guide path tupedala club we enjoy the route on 01/05/2011

Mom said...

The country is beautiful. Yes, we need to talk before our next trip to Europe. I am glad you enjoyed Carcassonne. Snow, will snow in the Sierras today. Love you bunches!

NancyE said...

Now you know why the Basques prefer the French to the Spanish. ;-) Alps? Will you be in Switzerland at all? I have relatives there, you may recall. Just say the word and I will call in some of my (many) chits.