This year, 2018, the summer holiday was all about traversing the Pyrenees with the Defender. On this trip I (Tobias) was joined by Martijn, a lifelong friend from my hometown. This year we had the idea to drive across the Pyrenees from West to East, traversing as many countryside- and gravel roads as possible. We both like hiking, so besides the hours spend behind the steering wheel we would also spend quite a bit of time exploring the mountains by foot. So the plan was set, time to travel South!
Driving towards Southern France
The first two days of the roadtrip were mere travel days, driving the peáge roads (toll roads) towards Southern France. It's definitely not our preferred way to travel, but sometimes it's necessary when your time on the road is limited. Driving on the highway can be quite boring and exhausting. Nonetheless we wanted to do something fun every day! So the first evening was already spend exploring the surrounding countryside by foot. After a ten hour drive we were eager to do something active, so this was the perfect activity to ease our restless legs.
The second day we arrived at our 'destination'. Although I'm not sure if we ever have a real 'destination'. We can better call it our target or our home for the night. Our second night was spend on a camperstop right at the beach near Capbreton, just North of Biarritz! It's always nice to stay at the beach! Spending the afternoon relaxing, swimming and eating. Later during the evening we went into town to score some ice creams and visit the (locally) famous L'Estacade de Capbreton bridge. A small sight-seeing trip like this is always a welcome break from the full days spend on the road.
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Entering the Pyrenees on the West
On our third day we explored the coastline a bit more and went to the place where the Pyrenees enter the Atlantic Ocean. After exploring the stunning scenery over there we started our mission to cross the Pyrenees.
There's no better way to start a mission than to go off-the-beaten-track right away, driving towards an old munitions factory. We were looking for those small grey lines on the map, indicating small roads far from the main route. We went completely into the wild, driving as far away from any village as possible. After following the dirt track for a few kilometers we ended up at a gate. Fortunately for us it didn't mention anything about being a prohibited area, so we opened it and entered the valley. A few hours and a great experience later we had to open another gate to leave the valley again. No problem at all! We drove through amazing fields, through the bush and finally ended up at our destination, the village of a munition factory in Spain.
The Orbaizeta muntions factory was built in the late 1700's for large scale production of weapons and munition. The site was chosen for it's perfect location near forests (for wood), iron ore mines and rivers. And although the location was perfect, it was also close to the French border. After quite some problems the factory was eventually closed after just a century. These days the only thing that's left are ruins. Fun for an hour of exploration.
Hiking on Pic d'Orhy
After spending a lot of time in the car it was time for a proper hike. So when we approached the Spanish-French border we decided to hike one of the peaks in the area. We decided to summit Pic d'Orhy, which looked the most attractive. But oh boy it was tough. There were two ways up to the summit, a shorter and a longer one. We decided to follow the shorter one, at least for a while. We ended up losing the path and just aiming for the peak. Bit of a mistake since it was becoming very steep very fast. Good for us we had all the time in the world. It took a bit longer, but we managed to reach the peak and enjoy the wild views and the vultures flying by.
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Chemin de la Mature
A next undertaking was hiking along the Chemin de la Mature in France. This thrilling path is carved straight out of a rock face, 1200 meters long and 200 meters above the river Gave d'Aspe. Initially build to transport timber from the mountains to build naval vessels, it now is a great getaway for mountain explorers. The Chemin de la Mature has been included in the GR10 long distance walk and is a desired place for rock climbers. Walking the path itself doesn't take long, but it's a fun and thrilling experience we would recommend if you're in the area.
Hiking in the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park
The Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park is situated on the French-Spanish border. The Ordesa valley is an amazing place to hike. No matter your preference or fitness level, there's always a challenging route to take. For us it was a 18km+ route that started with a 800 meter ascend to one of the more upper paths on the right hand side of the valley. After the big climb the rest was easy, we just had to follow the path, which gradually descended towards the waterfall at the end of the valley. The 800 meter ascend was quite a challenge, but well worth it. It made sure we could take it a bit easier during the rest of the day, which was great! We could enjoy the dozens of beautiful vistas along the route and fully absorb the scenery.
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Taking the smugglers route into Andorra
In The Netherlands we have a Facebook page dedicated to 4x4 and rooftoptent camping. It's a cool place to share ideas and ask for more info. A fellow traveler shared a route through the Pyrenees into Andorra on that page. This apparently famous route is called the Smugglers route, and for good reason. In the past this route was used by drug smugglers to quietly get their contraband into the country of Andorra.
Later on we met a guy from Andorra who told us the road in Andorra was way better than the road in Spain because of a conflict. Apparently there were plans to construct a skiresort right on the border. But the four people of the local village in Spain were divided in two camps. Two people were in support of a skiresort, the other two were against it. After a heated battle the outcome was that people got shot, permits were withdrawn and the Spanish road was never constructed. So that's why the Spanish side of the Smugglers route is a paradise for wildlife and outdoor- and 4x4 lovers. It's a rugged area with a challenging gravel road. We wild camped for the night and were amazed by the wilderness and the semi-wild horses that roamed the hills.
After crossing the border into France again we visited Abbaye Saint-Martin-du-Canigou. A monastery on the Canigou mountain near the village of Casteil. To visit the monastery you'll need to walk quite a long and steep path up the mountain, or you can opt for the local Defender to take you up. Built in the year 1005, it has endured a lot ever since. It's been build, destroyed, abandoned and rebuild over the years. Currently it's in rather good condition and houses a Community of the Beatitudes. The building itself is beautifully constructed on top of the rock and is in perfect condition for a visit. It's well worth your time of you ask us.
Villages, villages en more beautiful villages
In the last week of our holiday we left the higher Pyrenees behind us and drove a bit South towards Gerona. It's a vibrant city with a good vibe. It has a lot of small alleys and quite a few beautifully colored buildings. Maybe you'll even recognize some of the larger buildings in the city. It's been the stage for Game of Thrones numerous times.
After Gerona we headed towards the Costa Brava, famous for it's beautiful bays, mass tourism and good weather. A very beautiful area to explore with an immense diversity in landscape. You have beautiful nature parks, including Park Natural Cap de Crues, cozy villages, castles and of course the famous party towns like Lloret de mar.
We won't go into everything. But if you're in the area the city of Pals, L'Estartit, Cadaques, and National Park Cap de Crues are worth your time. Also drive the N-260 if you can. Especially the Northern part beautifully follows the coast.
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Heading towards the Ardeche
From the Costa Brava we headed North towards the Ardeche region in Southern France. But not before stopping on a campsite at the Mediterranean. The campsite itself was a bit strangely situated, but it had a private beach just two minutes away from our camping spot. We went snorkling in the afternoon and morning and even saw some octopuses! Next mission was to reach Vallon Pont d'Arc.
We came to the Ardeche region to hike and kayak. Our plan was to hike the first day and kayak the second. Unfortunately for us the first day started with massive amounts of thunder and lightning. It was a very stormy morning to say the least. We were happy to have the rooftop tent, which held up really well. We were waiting out the storm in style, while watching Pirates of the Caribbean to kill the time. Later it turned out that the rest of the campsite was seeking shelter and saving their belongings while we were just watching the movie. It was raining so hard and the thunder was so heavy we didn't bother to go outside. Had we known earlier that fellow travelers were in a bit of trouble we could've lend some people a hand... but in the end everything was fine. Only a few tents completely soaked and some awnings collapsed. But hey, it proved the Tembo rooftop tent was up to the job! We waited out this storm in pure comfort. Ahrrrr!
Later that day we decided to do a short hike towards a viewpoint on one of the cliffs above the river. The day before we noticed a flagpole standing on one of the cliff, that would be our mission. During the hike along the river and up the mountain we could really see what the rain had done. Hiking paths turned into little waterfalls and (small) debris was everywhere. But it was good to be out there and to reach the top off the cliff!
The highlight of the next day was supposed to be a 24km kayak trip. But after waiting for quite a while we were informed that all kayak trips were cancelled for the remainder of the day. The rain of the day before let the river rise with about 3 meters! The currents were to strong and it was too dangerous to venture on the water. So we decided to hike for another day, which was perfect!
We decided to go for a small kayak trip on the day of departure. It was one of the reasons to visit this area, so we weren't let the rain beat us. Although just 1,5 hours long, the trip was fun all the way.
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Heading home with a conclusion
Me and Martijn talked about our image of the Pyrenees quite a few times. Before we left we thought of it as a remote, grey and raw mountain range. But after the trip it turned out to be quite a bit more than that.
The Pyrenees mountain range is wild, raw and pure. It is clean, wild and remote. The nature is amazing and waiting to be explored. You will find abandoned villages and amazing off-road tracks ready for you to discover.
It's hard to generalise an entire mountain range, but in short you can say the Pyrenees are a mix between the Balkan countries and the Alps. How you say? As we've mentioned in our 2017 Europe Roadtrip recap the Balkan is like the Wild West of Europe, it's not well known to the average tourist, which creates the basis for a nice adventurous experience. The Alps on the other hand are, if you generalize them as well, well known to the tourists of Western Europe. It has everything you need at your disposal and it has quite a population.
The Pyrenees combine best of both worlds. It has the most beautiful mountains and valleys, but is far more remote than the Alps. You won't find a ski-resort around every corner, which is nice. It has all the outdoor activities of the Alps, but in a more remote and adventurous setting. If you're in for a raw and authentic experience you should definitely check out the Pyrenees! And of course, if possible, do this with a 4x4 to get really out there where the magic happens.