When Peter and Anika put the idea of a September Albarracín trip to us we immediately came up with a bunch of reasons why we couldn't do it, like money, time and a possible trip next year. And then, we remembered that we're living in a small van so we can travel, and spend time in beautiful places with good friends. So we made the decision to go, slowly to save fuel, and make the most of the journey as well as the destination. This is our account of the trip.
Angles-sur-l'Anglin / Sport Climbing Le Blanc
Our first night on the road was spent in what must be one of the prettiest villages in France, Angles-sur-l'Anglin. It emerged that I had previously visited this village 29 years ago, as a baby on holiday with my parents. We went for an early morning wander through crooked limestone streets worn smooth by centuries of feet, only slightly spoiled by the closed shutters of the boulangerie, which might be the only one in France to open at a relaxed 9am. The castle dates back to the 11th century and still stands high against the sky, even if it's only a home for crows now – its preservation presumably not helped by a post-revolution decree that it should be a 'public quarry'.
The morning's plan took us fifteen minutes down the road for our biannual sport climbing effort. La Guignoterie is a long cliff above a river in pretty farmland. The rock is pocketed limestone and is the site of the 4th 7b and 1st 7b+ routes climbed in the world, both in 1982 by Benoit Faure. A five minute drive along a track after a series of roads diminishing in size meant that on a week day morning it was completely quiet other than birds calls and the river's murmuring, and an idyllic way to begin the day. We managed a magnificent two routes each (neither ground-breaking ascents) before The Plan meant we had to leave, but plenty enough time for Sam to get hopelessly pumped on a 6b.
From the Dunes to Spain
Four hours further down the road lay our afternoon destination, the Dune du Pilat, the biggest sand dune in Europe and every bit as impressive as it sounds. As we drove along the coast road a wall of sand rose behind the pine trees, impossibly high. Everything we had read about the dune hadn't prepared us for its real life presence. We stopped in nearby a forest car park and headed to the beach, psyching ourselves up for a much needed swim. The sea was freezing, and probably made a poor substitute for a shower, but felt good once we had our breath back. It felt strangely stingy after a while; we suspected there might have been some kind of sea mite bobbling about with us.
There are big concrete bunkers on the beach, incongruous against the yellow sand. It was pretty exciting to find little rocks screwed onto the bunkers as hand and foot holds for climbing, we obliged and spent a happy half an hour pratting about whilst paragliders swooped above. We thought that the bunkers were probably part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall, built as a defence against the allies along the coast of France and Scandinavia. They are slowly sinking, but in the meantime their violent origins are being reclaimed by graffiti artists, beach goers and climbers.
Back at the van in the sandy car park we cooked some veg and pasta amongst the pine trees, holding on to the last bits of seaside time. Exercised, fed and washed, we set off for a bonus couple of hours driving progress so we could make the most of the next day for exploring.
Recently we have started using an app called 'Park4night'. Finding a spot for the night with a safe feel and nice scenery has often taken us over an hour, so we tried embracing technology for a helping hand. It has been great to use, and on this evening took us to a small fishing lake. It looked a little eerie in the dark, but we awoke just after 7am to morning light filtering through the mist over the water, and an island in the centre on which every tree was full of egrets and herons. As we walked round the lake they began to depart, flapping heavily off for their day's business. We made coffee and yoghurt back at the van with some gentle harassment from a small gang of geese that Sam befriended. I think they liked their photo being taken.
In Search of Water
This was an interesting detour after crossing the border into Spain, to find somewhere to swim, sunbathe and freshen up in what had become a 30 ºC afternoon. We had a couple of false attempts, like the milky turquoise waters of a lake in the first photographs, beautiful but possibly not good for swimming. The final spot we found with the help of Wild Swimming was beautiful, with blue-green water pooling and falling over a wide rim. With a healthy 'grass is always greener' attitude we embarked on a hike to an apparently even more beautiful swimming area 5km away; we set off with enthusiasm and got about halfway before losing any drive for hot, sweaty walking along an exposed track and turned back to the original site.
We had a lovely afternoon swimming in the river and sunbathing on a beach of tiny pale pebbles. Access is interesting, involving wading across a shallow point with water 'only' to waist level, shoes, bags and towels in the air and trying not to slip over. All part of the adventure. The only downside to this pretty little swim spot is that it has been quite commercialised, metal barrier fences and red and white tape herding you to a pay booth (happily unmanned on this quiet afternoon) and blocking any cheeky side entrances. Swimming under the waterfall and the jump off are both forbidden, thoroughly, with signs and a floating barrier. The overall effect is not subtle, and is a shame in such a beautiful place.
The town was dark and sleepy when we arrived at 11.30pm, and we joined in by going immediately to bed on reaching the van parking, slotting in next to the van of Peter and Anika. The following morning we said our hello's, breakfasted and coffeed, then followed them up to the bouldering areas for an 'acclimatisation' day, before getting stuck in. The red rocks, blue skies and soft green plants felt warmly familiar from our previous visit, as did the rough sandstone to touch.
Mornings began cold and early to catch the good climbing conditions with lots of layers, shed as the day progressed. Coffee was, as always, an everyday essential. We had a few projects leftover from the previous visit, and were keen to return to these. This was actually something that Sam and I came to regret a little, spending so much time on two boulders (especially as we never climbed them!) and we might expand more on this in a future post. Certainly the days spent climbing random boulder problems in areas that we didn't know so well were some of the most enjoyable.
On the other end of the eating scale, we spent a little time in a huge new Aldi in Teruel which is just the biggest maze of cheap tasty food you ever saw. We went in for bread and cereal, and came out with everything. On the return route there is an embalse, a reservoir, visible on the map and we went to check it out for swimming. It was a worthwhile detour, quiet on this September Saturday, achingly blue and perfect for swimming. Although the banks were a little steep and muddy it was still okay for sunbathing on the edge, and the sun was warm. The quiet was only breached by the odd large fish, and once by a couple of teens listening to tinny phone speakers on their walk past.
One of the best bits of this climbing trip was the down times. Alice joined our party, and after climbing, we would meet back at the vans for lunchtime, goofing around, stretching, finger boarding, eating horrible amounts of nut butter. Rest day walks also became a thing, and the uneven topography ensured that none of us felt at all rested afterwards.
Through the Pyrénées
All too soon our group began to leave, first Peter and Anika, then Alice, then finally us. The drive from Albarracín towards the Pyrénées was a little morose, a feeing added to by the dozens of graffitied, vandalised abandoned fuel stations and restaurants along the route. The overall effect was unsettling, and we were happy to reach Lleida and turn north towards the mountains. Lakeside sleep stop en route, another Park4Night win.
The famous sport climbing destination of Oliana was precisely in our route so we stopped for a bit of climbing tourism. Before that it seemed important to drink some coffee, and there was no shortage of cafés and bars. Random selection took us to a cafe with an interesting parking system that we tried to follow without becoming permanently stuck there. The interior was very clean and white, small tables occupied by elderly gents taking large carafes of red wine with breakfast. We stuck to our coffees.
A little further down the high street stood a warm panaderia where we bought two pastries, something like napolitana crème, but with hints of orange and chopped toasted nuts on top. We thought to eat them whilst looking at the famous Oliana sport climbing crag, but began to realise that this was a bit out of the way about a mile drive down a dirt track. Regardless, the view was stunning and the routes looked impressively formidable, and the hike up and down did a good job of waking the legs for the day ahead. And the pastry was seriously wonderful.
Next stop, Fuel tourism! Andorra is a tax free country and lures people in from Spain and France with crazy cheap fuel, amongst other things. The small part of the country that we saw is bizarre, stunning mountainous scenery either side of a road completely lined with an astounding number of fuel stations and supermarkets. We were totally overexcited by the price and filled up with V-power that was still 40c/l cheaper than bog standard diesel in France. It was a successful experiment.
We continued through the Pyrénées, enjoying the dramatic environment and lush greenery. The area is geothermal. After two weeks of battering our bodies on the Albarracín boulders we felt in need of some recovery and hot mineral waters seemed a perfect remedy. There were internet based rumours of a free natural area near some purpose-built thermal baths in Fontpedrouse. We envisioned secret pools in the middle of nowhere as we followed an alarmingly narrow road up several hairpins to a roadside parking that was pretty packed with an assortment of wagons. Not so secret then.
A path led down through rocks and woodland, small tents and encampments in every grassy glade, to a patch of trees that were steaming. There were about ten pools of varying size, cooling as the water ran down the hill, and lots of naked people sat in them. We surprised ourselves by becoming instantly a bit prudish, and sat in the corner of a pool with minimal nudies. The hot water was quickly relaxing though, and we lay with leaf matter gently swirling round our bodies, looking up at a blue sky through ash leaves. It was a rather magical experience.
The Long Way Home
After indulging in the hot springs and cheap fuel stations, we had to make a fairly direct drive up through the centre of France. The roads are good and fast, but consequently not as interesting as winding through mountainous villages, so we treated ourselves to a night at possibly the nicest aire in France: the Millau Viaduct. The aire is clean, green and has fantastic views of the tallest bridge in the world that spans Millau in elegant pale arches. An old farmhouse has been converted into an information centre, and best of all it has an ant farm.
We finally drew into Fontainebleau Forest with the darkness, settling back into a tree covered bivouac site and the relaxing noises of acorns hitting the van like bullets from a gun. It's good to be back.