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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 6, pp1-3 (Nov 1977).

Copyright notice

My First Visit to Andorra (1929) - Part 3

By John Mashiter

After this episode it was nice to be free again next morning to catch the little local train to St. Girons. It was very third class and very slow and very cheap. We chuffed along with long stops at the four stations en route and the thirty five miles took well over two hours. The main interest by the way was misletoe, hanging in great bunches from the line-side trees.

St. Girons left little impression and we went on a good road to Castelman and at Lescure we turned aside by a rutted grit road. In a pleasant orchard we lay on the grass and ate our lunch and watched a shepherd lad. He was controlling sheep and goats on a hill across the valley by flinging stones very skilfully at any strays.

Rolling on we came to Le Saret with fine views of the Toulousain Plain and the Couseran hills near the ruined chateau of Durban.

At Rienbach was a sandstone bluff with grottoes filled with carved figures presumably some sort of route de las Croix. Then we joined the Arize river and went downhill to our objective, Mas d'Azil, where the road and river plunge underground for over 500 yards. In the cavern great stalactites and rock reflections added to the roar of the torrent to give a very weird effect which the feeble electric light hardly dispels. One has to walk through, and every few yards some side turning leads off into blackness. In these side passages great stores of bones and implements of the azilian period were found, the best find so far in the world.

All the relics are divided between Toulouse and Foix museums. On emerging into daylight again, I leaped merrily on my bike again. The bottom bracket snapped shooting me off into the dust. Twenty five miles from home in great deep country with nothing faster than an ox cart for miles!

Walking rapidly through Mas d'Azil village we came upon a signpost pointing down a heavily wooded ravine. Perspiring freely in the blazing sun, I chased Dad, who pedalled slowly as possible. Tiring of this I persuaded him to go ahead to get help in Foix to pick me up, and after his departure, I made what speed I could. In this wild country not even a hamlet appeared where I might have got a drink and the long ribbon of white dusty road seemed to stretch ahead to eternity.

After a time I began the long steady descent which winds down fifteen miles to the gates of Foix. Unable to bear it any longer, I climbed on the old bike. The front wheel went forward and the back wheel backward leaving the middle to sag like a potbellied horse but it moved steadily onwards so long as I kept the pedals clear of the ground. When I failed I sailed neatly over the handlebars and as the road was thick with white dust, I was soon very white and rather chipped around the hands and knees.

All the same I made good progress but as time went on the top bar of the machine went from to proving that French steel is not up to Sheffield standards. As last, on a particularly juicy slope, the bottom bracket hit the ground and so did I, taking more abrasions and bruises than were pleasant and the knees out of my trousers. So once more I was on foot.

Hobbling onwards I came to semi-civilisation at Aiguls Juntes, a two house hamlet and crossing the Pas de Portal found the railway at Baulen but the only train of the day had gone and now I was on the last lap.

On the big hill down to Foix at my feet I heard at last the noise of a car and M. Seguella appeared in the local taxi. I must have looked in poor shape as he took some convincing that I was not "serieusement blessé" but he was an angel of mercy and after dumping the relics of the bike on the old rascal at Foix, he rushed us out to Montgaillard and the luxury of a bath. It was now 5.30 and I had done the twenty five miles in under six hours in blistering heat.

Father had arrived to find M. Barrau out on the estate and his wife having no English had got a very serious impression of the affair and my arrival covered in blood and filth corroborated this. There were many threats muttered about the shark who sold dud bikes to guests of the Chateau. However, bathed and changed I looked little the worse and we had a merry evening at dinner over our adventures here and in Andorra.

For some days now we had been M. Barrau's only guests and I benefitted much from my after dinner chats with him so we were not enthusiastic when an elderly and very clinging lady appeared and obviously expected us to look after her. In reponse to her pleas we agreed to share a taxi to Carcassonne on Saturday and on that day at 7.30a.m. M. Seguella carried us off in his Renault through torrents of rain. As the most likely to benefit, I sat by the driver and passed titbits of information over my shoulder to the others.

M. Seguella pointed out the white crosses on the trees by the road side representing drivers killed and injured due to crashes caused by the hypnotic effect of rows of white trunks on drivers going at high speeds. In nineteen kilos, twenty killed and numberless injured, one a well known doctor, the great friend of M. Barrau.

At Pamiers we turned to the north and by grassy lanes came out into the fertile plain of Terrefort which led us to Mirepoix, a little cathedral city with gates and old buildings of great interest. The great coverts after the style of Chester's arcades, run right round the Central Place and are of wood, 9th century and marvellously carved in the shape of men, beasts and devils.

The Cathedral with the largest nave in the country, was very fine but like all Catholic churches, dark and sombre so in rain still by Fanjeaux and Montral we wandered on until we had climbed two ranges of low rolling hills and come to the edge of an escarpment from which far over the plain, like a mirage, towered Carcassonne on its rocky hill, guarding the gateway of the Aude, while for centuries in this gap between the Black Hills and Les Corbieres, the Atlantic coast peoples met and traded with the Mediterranean folk. Built three centuries B.C. and added to by every age since, this fortress was falling to pieces last century until public opinion in France gave Niollet le Duc the job of restoring it.

It is now the finest fortified city in the world. We went through the Basse Ville where the people live and climbed steeply up to the Porte Narbonnaise where we had to leave the car. The precipitous rocky alleys were torrents of water and everywhere water poured from the unguttered eaves. We saw the Cathedral, the quaint old shops, the Hotel de la Cite, the Theatre Antique where scenes from history and classical plays are given in the open air and then weary of wet, beggars, Americans and aimless wandering, we returned to the car.

It still poured and a lunch of cobs of bread and cheese and bitter wine did not appeal so we left M. Seguella to dine in state and found a cosy little dingy joint where we enjoyed bouillabaisse, chicken and petits pois with good white wine, very cheap. Much cheered we set off again to explore the fortifications; the Basses Lices between the outer walls used for excercise, tilting and carnivals in peace and capable of being shut off in war; the Hautes Lices further in go through the upper walls and passing all the watch towers were used by the sentries and by the defenders in time of war.

Eventually we bought junk we did not need, changed a lot of money into francs at the Credit Lyonnais and returned home by 8p.m. tired but happy.

Sunday was gloriously fine and we got on to the top of a low range of hills opposite Montgaillard through someones vineyard. Up here wild boars are common and M. Seguella claimed to have shot forty nine to date. We saw strange birds and insects and suffered much in coming down through the jungle to the valley floor. Our final lunch was very special with pate de foie; a towering honey cake and champagne with coffee liqueur and Cointreau to follow. In the afternoon we walked out to the Pont au Diavle, over the Sios gorge and climbed up to Monteulieu superieur by a rough track, a lovely but smelly montain hamlet with a fine bell beacon, one of a chain only recently superseeded for sending messages.

At 8.30p.m. M. Seguella came for us in his taxi and we began the long trek for home.

Part 1 | Part 2

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