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Valira Torrent:   Contents | Subject index

Perforation image from Serif Art Gallery. © Serif Inc, 1996

Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 5, pp10-12 (Mar 1997).

Copyright notice

My First Visit to Andorra (1929) - Part 2

By John Mashiter

As we ate breakfast in the kitchen with its flagged floor, I spotted a small head appearing from a hole in the wall. This was followed by three feet of snake which wiggled across the floor towards us. We yelled and climbed onto our chairs and the boy came in with wooden sabots on and, after dancing on the snakes head, he shovelled it up and dropped it into the torrent roaring past the window. Evidently snakes are common and we saw several crushed on the road.

After breakfast we set off on foot the four miles up to Encamp, passing several mule teams laden with rails and other equipment, for the projected road from Andorra la Vella up the valley. Encamp is made up of three hamlets:- Les Bons; Las Mosqueras; and Encamp proper. The local women were washing clothes in a fountain fed by hot springs and the houses had a peculiar upper balcony or patio round two sides of the building. Mud and melted snow lay thick on the alleys and tracks and it seemed dark and dismal. Benito Más is reputed to have a hostelry here but we did not find it.

Above Encamp the track got ever rougher and steeper and the snow deeper. We came to a shrine with a painted Virgin in a hutch and from a corner there looked up at vast snowfields towards the mountain Casamanya. Then came the preliminary workers on the projected road. They were levering out great boulders on the hillside to our right, and these, spinning down across the road and crashing down to the rocky gorge on our left, were a serious peril. The snow was now knee-deep and rain began to blow down the gorge into our faces, so when we met an old man leading a mule and he told us in bastard French that the track was impassable a few metres higher, we easily gave up the fight and drifted slowly back to Las Escaldas for a late lunch.

The reason for the rejoicing of the Pla family became clear. They took nearly £5 off us and the stamps I had got cost far more than face value.

I tried to reason with them but the daughter had conveniently lost her French and friends and neighbours began to gather round in threatening manner. The Valira was roaring past a few feet away, and we were indeed lone sheep in a wolf pack, so we paid, and in despondent silence walked down the valley towards Spain. We looked in the church at Andorra la Vella and saw the outside of the Casa de Val but it was locked up.

At Santa Coloma a lorry picked us up and we rode back to Urgel.

It was still only 5p.m. so after looking at the cathedral we dropped down to the river Segre where bullocks with head chains were dragging great baulks of timber from the yellow flood. Across the river we climbed through field paths and terraces up the foothills of the Sierra del Cadi, the distant heights all afire with the sunset glow on the snow.

Homing workers with mattocks and spades greeted us, many with mules or donkeys carrying panniers slung across the saddle. At dusk we turned back and Urgel, with its red and white houses in a nest of greenery with a silver streak of river and the blue hills beyond, made an unforgettable picture. By the river in the willow thickets nightingales were in full song.

The shops were gaily lighted in the town as we got back. The narrow streets with overhanging balconies seemed bright as day, but it was frosty chill by 8p.m. and no hope of food yet at the Gran Hotel. We took refuge in a little confectioners and ate sticky honey cakes with a glass of sherry. They had a broad, flat, round, iron dish in which a little smouldering charcoal gave an illusion of warmth. We had to wait till 9.30pm for our dinner and even the twelve courses failed to warm us much.

Lightly boiled eggs in the shell puzzled us but, by observing other diners, we found that they broke the eggs into a tumbler and after stirring in salt and pepper swallowed the mixture like an oyster. Our corner room had an outer conservatory full of plants and a still more outer cloakroom. Later in the night, hotel staff were sleeping on the floor there. Our room was large and well furnished but the floor was tiled and it was bitterly cold.

We woke to hot sunshine and the sound of the bugle and hurried to the window to see the Army move out on manoeuvers. The rear was brought up by a mountain gun battery with eight very mixed mules.

Breakfast of a large porridge basin of milky coffee and hot rolls and honey was a pleasant meal and we were ready for off by 9a.m.; but first we had four flat tyres to battle with and the bill to pay. Our Andorran friends had removed all our pesetas and the Padrona of the Gran Hotel did not fancy french francs so the small "boots" was sent with me to the local tobacconists shop where the proprietor dusted a chair for me and took my pounds notes for a long walk. They were of an unfamiliar new issue and a telephone call to Barcelona was necessary before I got my pesetas. In the interim the natives, who had not so far seen the Ingleses, flocked to the shop to remedy the omission.

I returned to find that Dad, with signs and wonders, had persuaded three mechanics to leave their lathes and try to mend our broken pump with little success. Our little "boots" did better and found a man who blew our tyres to a joyful plumpness with a motor pump and sold me a new cycle pump for five pesetas. We rewarded the "boots" with two handsful of heavy Spanish copper and embarked with cordial salutations for the long ride to the railhead.

After a mile or two we passed the mule battery and orders were shouted after us but finding our speed superior to that of the mule, we rode on ignoring the noise behind us.

The last ten miles in the heat over the shimmering plain were hard going and we were glad to see Puigcerda perched on its rocky eminence. We hammered on the door of the Aduana hoping to recover our deposit. The surly carabinero outside spat on the road and said "Alado" which meant nothing to me and I was getting quite annoyed with him when a young girl appeared and translated Alado into "A las dos horas" in other words, "Come back at 2 o'clock". Too exasperated for words we went off to the station restaurant and nourished ourselves till 2p.m. Then we found the Aduana in charge of a pleasant young man who gave us back all our deposit except two pesetas and gave us a homily on the delights of Paris, particularly the Folies Bergeres, and insisted on coming with us on his own bicycle to the French frontier. My tyre was flat again and to my joy the surly soldier was made to blow it up again.

At the frontier we were politely booted over the river bridge into the arms of two French officers, who took a very poor view of us. I had to talk fast and fluently and only the production of two funny silver badges which the cycle man in Foix had given us, saved the day. We were released only on condition that we went straight to the Police office in Bourg Madame to have our passports stamped. Overcome by panic we did nothing of the sort and instead headed out into the blue over the shoulder of a range of hills leading over to La Tour de Carol on the railway. My wretched back tyre burst on the top and as we mended it our train from Spain came in far below and went on its way again.

The next train was not due till 7.5O and after a cup of tea at a cafe, we slunk uneasily about the deserted station very conscious of our unstamped passports. In the confusion of the train arrival we dodged on to the siding and were in place by the time the travellers from Spain got on board. In darkness we got away without question and arrived back in Foix at llp.m. to walk the four miles in inky blackness to the Chateau de la Forge where we got a great welcome from the Barraus who had waited up for us.

Next morning I poked about the sunlit alleys of Foix whilst Father was operating on jungle ridge above Montgaillard. After lunch we cycled so far through Foix along the road to Pamiers and on the return trip Father insisted on trying to find out something of the Count of Foix who was once Baron of Kendal. After some looking we found a tall building labelled Bibliothique Municipale and after a long climb up stone steps we reached an empty platform with a fine view of Foix, but nothing else. On descending again we found the bibliotheque lurking behind a pillar on the ground floor. An aged savant, who obviously had little time for the English, gave us a poor welcome and told us all the records were at Pau and referred us to the Prefect of Police. I shied off at this but Dad persisted in finding the Police palace and disappeared inside.

A moment later I repented and followed him in but was chased out again by a nasty looking copper, so I sat on the bridge over the river and wondered if I would ever see Father again. After a time his face, very red, appeared at an upper window and I was ordered up to find a very dapper little Frenchman waiting for an explanation of this mad Englishman who babbled of Comtes de Foix. I gave him the story neatly and well in my best French but he wanted our bona fides testing before he would talk. I had to admit that neither of us was a savant but I produced McIntyre's name and gave him plenty of degrees. He wanted the information for his History of Westmorland in ten volumes and Kendal was the capital of the county.

This barely satisfied him but after telling us that the records of Pau and Foix were inter connected and most had been burnt in a big fire at Pau, he got out vast tomes in what looked to me to be poor Spanish but actually was Provençal. He found some reference concerned with Geoffrey of Angouleme but no full story so he promised to research further. We left our card but so far we have had nothing further from him. Feeling very hot and flustered I was only too glad to escape into the fresh air outside.

Part 1 Part 3

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Updated 19 Mar 1998