Friday March 1st, Close Calls over the Pyrenees

We left Zaragoza and headed even further North.  

Down at G&L’s, spring had sprung and perhaps gone over, blossom had turned to almond sets and each day was bathed in warm Mediterranean breezes.  Zaragoza’s trees are bare, the grass is just starting to waken and blossom is a rare flowering entity on the most optimistic of trees.  The air is cold.  We delve into our lockers and pull out the jumpers again.

By the time we’re at the Spanish base of the Pyrenees, 600 miles north and 2000m up in altitude, the world looks like it’s been trapped forever in November.  There’s no snow on the ground, and although distant mountain caps are striped with white, they’re not blanketed as February might expect them to be.

We do a few ups and downs, the van seems happy enough.  It chugs on the ups and when M keeps it in second gear he manages to minimize the amount of braking required.  So far, so good.

There’s a decision point, part-way into the mountain passes.  Carry on straight up, directly heading for the central pass, or divert through the less picturesque tunnel that saves the mountainous undulations but takes all the fun out of the drive.  I show M on the map.  We give it a moment’s consideration.  

“Nah… we’re here now”

“In it for a biscuit”

“Righto…”

We’re set for the adventure and stunning majestic sights; the route doesn’t disappoint. It would if you’d gone up to the highest valleys where the skiing is thin, there were maybe three ice-packed routes to choose from.  You’d be really glum if you in were lower ski resorts.  Then you’d have wanted to bring a stout pair of walking boots and waterproofs because your skis weren’t going to be of much use to you.  But in the cab of our camper, it is glorious.  

Deep blue, semi-frozen reservoirs are fed by icy-cloudy rivers that jumble their way to join the whole.  The sun in it’s hazy sky throws random shots of light across tree-pocked hillsides. Those same rays refract off the snow where it persists, shooting back brilliant gleams of gold, right onto the back of your retina.  It is, not to put to finer point on it, bloody lovely.

Up, up, up we chug.  Over the top, across the French border as we start the 10 miles or so of constant descent. The van is in second gear, or third (when it flattens out a little).  The brakes do squeak a bit, but not alarmingly so.  Just enough to remind us that they’re unhappy.  But they still work.

Or so we think.

The lowest point in the foothills, on the road to Pau is a small but bustling town called Laruns.  As we’re approaching the central square, which doubles as the roundabout we have another decision to make.  The shortest way to reach Lourdes, where M really wants to spend a couple of days, is by turning right here and doing another undulous, tiny, twisty road that will lead us into the heart of that city.  The alternative, flatter but triple-length route is to up to Pau, across to Tarbes and then down the third side of the rectangle to get to our destination. M pulls over.  He’s not happy about the van.  The brakes have started making some alarming noises.

As we move off the main road it creates the most awful sound. Is the entire chassis about to pull away from the van itself?  

“So what routes did you want to show me?”

I pick up the map but say:

“They must have a garage here, what do you think?”

“Yup”

M gets out and shines a torch through the wheel trims.  As he moves from corner to corner, his expression gets darker.  

We’re not going anywhere, we also can’t stay where we are, partially blocking the main access route through the town.  As M puts the engine back into gear, that awful deep grating sound, starts up again. It’s like the wheels are filing down the axles.

A road sign says there’s a camper car park just 200 yards away, it takes us several horrible minutes to grind into it’s entrance.  

Only now do M and I’s joint imaginations relive the past 10 miles of hairpin bends at super-steep slopes.  We realize how incredibly lucky we’ve been.  My head’s full of tales of drivers who’ve careered into pebble beds to save themselves and their passengers, or failed to make a tight curve.  That could so easily have been us; but it wasn’t.

We passed a garage on the way into Laruns.  It’s clear we need assistance, it’s also 4:45 on a Friday evening.  Monseigneur Pierre Casajus, proprietor of the second garage in town agrees, reluctantly at first, to look at our poorly camper.  He and M drive off so that our French ‘Mecanicien’ can listen to the sound of discs slicing through wheels, and by the time they return, he’s on board.

There’s a cynical part of me that says “Well, yes, he would wouldn’t he, given what he’s charging?”  M balks at being fleeced €342 for parts that would cost £40 at home.  But it’s Monseigneur Casajus or the Renault Garage that Google rates as 2½ out of 5.  Pierre seems like the better choice.

The parts can be here by Monday, at the earliest.  He’ll do the van that day, at some point, charging €48 an hour for as long as it takes.  We’re in no position to argue.  The breakdown assistance are much more helpful than last time.  ‘Alan’ (pronounced in a French accent) assures me they will pay for a hire car (but not fuel) and €85 towards a taxi to take us 60km to Pau to pick it up.  So, it’ll all be fine in the end.  

We nudge the van back from the garage to the camper stop, where €21.60 for 3 nights seems a wonderfully fair price to pay.  

Collapsed in a local café, over food that someone else prepared, we count our blessings. We’re not in a crumpled heap on the side of a Pyrenean lane, with no wheels/steering column/brakes left to mend; we’re not in hospital, nor is the dog at the vets/in a dog pound, because of injuries; we’re not sitting in a juddering mess, trying not to cry whilst we cook our supper.

We’re in a warm, busy restaurant, the van and dog are safe. It’s a beautiful place to break down and my French vocabulary is now expanding to include several car parts and vehicular maladies.  All good, by the skin of our brake pads, but good nonetheless.

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