To the Pyrenees

We wanted to get out of the village for a few days so we packed up our camping gear and a change of clothes and headed for the Pyrenees. Within an hour we were past Quillan and following the banks of the Aude, where it cascades through a rocky, narrow gorge and offers plenty of whitewater for the hundreds of rafters who were either on the river, or boarding mini-vans to get on the river, or shaking themselves off after being dunked in the river.

We followed the river through the Gorges de St. Georges and then up and up, over the Port de Pailheres. This is a mountain pass that the Tour de France frequently uses, and the switchbacks are covered with painted names—rider’s mostly, but also the names of fans who hope to be seen by the folks back home watching on TV. Parts of this road terrified me, but we made it safely to the foggy top and were welcomed by free-ranging cows and huge friendly horses. Naturally we stopped to pet the horses, and praised the cows for their excellent Pyrenees cheese.

We saw several cyclists along the route and talked with a New Zealander who was riding the Pyrenees from west to east. Some people apparently love to suffer, but as he said, “it’s really a drinking trip.”

From the top of the pass (2001 meters) we drove down to Ax-les-Thermes (frequently waiting for cows to get off the road) and found a quiet campground on a hill overlooking the town. Unfortunately our campsite was on a slant and I spent most of the night clinging with my fingernails to the cliff of air mattress on my right so that I wouldn’t slide down the gully onto Ray. It was also colder than we’d planned for. Neither of us slept well.

The next morning Ray spent an hour talking to a fellow camper—a Dutchman who had nothing good to say about anything. The world was a mess, Lebanon a wreck, Bush a disaster (hear, hear!) the weather in Holland awful, the EU incompetent. He’d come to France on holiday but it was too crowded, free camping could no longer be found, and (gasp) the wine was too expensive. (He clearly wasn’t buying what we do.)

Depression is everywhere.

We spent the morning in Ax, wandering through curving streets and munching on patisserie goodies. Ax is primarily a ski center and we wanted to take the gondola to the top, but alas, it was ferme. Since we were both exhausted from lack of sleep we decided to look for a new, flat campsite that was lower down the mountain and thus, we hoped, warmer.

We found it in the little village of Roquefeuil, in a campground that had only been open one month. This was by far the cleanest site we’ve stayed in. The showers were tiled and polished, with ample hot water. The lawns were mowed and divided by hedges into plots. The lighting was limited and subdued. It was uncrowded and it was flat. Heaven!

But we failed to note that it was next door to the village church. In France the church bells always ring twice, so if the farmer in the field misses hearing it the first time—or only hears part of it—he will catch it the second time. The fact that farmers now wear watches and other electronic devices has no bearing on French tradition, which is unchanging and sacrosanct, so between 10 p.m. midnight. we heard the bell go 68 times (once on the half-hour). And it rained. It began as a light mist about 10 p.m., then pelted down all night. The next morning we packed up our Two-Second tent and all our belongings in the rain and headed for home.