Blocked tracks and abandoned iron mines

Day 1 – Saturday 26th of July – Port de la Selva to Saillagouse (277km)

I had checked online a few places to camp for my first night and had settled on this campsite because it had very good reviews and it was supposed to be a nice, quiet place, contrary to my prejudices of all campsites near the beach being noisy tourist nests. Well, prejudiced I may be, but unfortunately I am usually right, and this time was no exception – the place was indeed full of tourists, it was noisy until well into the night, there were no areas for cooking or picnicking, the bar was way overpriced and the toilets and the showers seemed to have been built in the 70s and not refurbished ever since. Worst of all, I was charged 22,90€ for one person, one tent and one motorbike. When I think that I had stayed at a campsite in Finland for 15€ and I had free WiFi reception in my tent, full cooking facilities, the use of a sauna and of course the peace an quiet only found in civilized countries, I can only describe the price of the campsite in Port de la Selva as daylight robbery.

I had some breakfast and headed for the first border crossing of the day: Portbou, home of one of the two main international stations in Spain. Although it had been raining during the night, the skies were clear in the morning and the views great on the road along the coast to Portbou.

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The international station and its yard are lodged in one of the many narrow valleys overlooking the coast, an impressive complex in such confined space. From the road leading away from the town and into France the trains can be seen manouvering in the station, loading and unloading the many freight containers that have to change trains because of the difference of gauge between Spain and the rest of Europe. There is also a single track that goes through a small warehouse some distance off the main buildings in the direction of the French side. It is there that the few trains with variable gauge boogies are adapted on the go so that they can travel non-stop from one country to the next. It is a seamless process that passengers on the train barely notice and a remarkable feat of engineering for those lucky few who have the chance to witness it next to the rails. Many years ago, when I was a kid, my father took me there and he talked an engineer into letting us go with him and see the whole process from an inspection pit under the train as it took place. It was quite an experience!

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As I approached the last petrol station on the Spanish side, I remembered that it was a lot more expensive to fill up on the other side of the border, but I saw that I still had quite a lot of petrol left and I would be crossing back again soon, so I decide not to stop. On top of the pass there were some customs buildings, souvenir shops and a hotel, all long abandoned, standing on no-man’s land between the two countries as a silent reminder of a time when travelers had to stop and get their passports out before leaving the country.

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The landscape quickly changed on the other side, the slopes of the hills by the sea all covered in grapevines from which the famous Banyuls sweet wine is made. The terrain is very steep and rocky, so it is impossible to use machines to harvest the grapes. Instead, it is done by hand, and the grapes are carried in wicker baskets down to the closest road or track where the trucks are waiting, or in the case of some vineyards which are only accessible by sea, down to little boats.

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I went down to the village of Banyuls, and from there, leaving the main road along the coast, I started heading west across vineyards in the direction of the Coll de Banyuls, a little known pass between Portbou and La Jonquera. The road up the pass was paved even though the map said otherwise, and the ride up the Coll was great: 1st and 2nd gear only, no one else on the road, and uninterrupted views down the valley to the sea. There were no signs indicating where the border was, and on the other side the road descended more gently, allowing for faster progress (and more fun!) as I got more and more used to the new tires.

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I got to the village of Espolla and while looking for the gravel road I wanted to take to Cantallops I quickly found myself on the other side of the village. I turned around and asked a man for directions, he told me that I had to cross the center to take a small track and gave me directions that went something like left-right-left-right-left-left-up-left-down or something like that. Way too complex for such a small village! I was quickly lost inside the village and had to ask again. After getting directions again and having a very nice old man walk me to the beginning of the track, I left the village on a narrow country lane that soon turned into an unpaved road. Great! First offroading of the day.

It was fun until it turned into the kind of mix of rocks and sand I would not dream of driving and SUV through. Thinking it might be a bit too much for my V-Strom, but not wanting to turn back, I slowly made my way through only to find mud and puddles from the rain the night before a bit further down the track. I reminded myself that you are supposed to lean back and go fast through it, and there was no problem. Much better than the last time I had put the bike through mud on road tires; these new ones were starting to prove to be right choice.

Shortly afterwards the track turned into tarmac and soon I was out on a road, but disappointingly not the one I wanted… the track had taken me a bit further south than I was expecting and was clearly not the one I had been planning to take according to the map.

Never mind, back on the main road and heading north to the next crossing: La Jonquera.

I stopped for petrol before France this time and also to try and find a place to buy a Swiss knife (I had forgotten mine), which gave me a chance to appreciate what decadent and depressing places border towns are – basically a cluster of brothels, liquor shops, sex shops, souvenir shops, various outlets and shady import-export businesses. Not a place to linger in.

Right after the border there was the French counterpart of La Jonquera, Le Perthus, a small town through which the national route cuts, making it a permanently congested place. Hundreds of cheap, tacky shops line the main street where there is no place to try and park a car, but still people try to stop and do some window shopping, which turns the place into a 24/7 traffic jam.

In stark contrast to Le Perthus,  there is a small road that starts to the right just outside the town, the D71, and takes you on a circular tour through a thick forest. I was on my own again, and I quickly forgot the hellish traffic I had left behind.

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The D71 took me back to Le Perthus a while later, and I headed up the Fort de Bellegarde, an old border fort that overlooks the town that I wanted to see before heading for a couple more border crossings on what seemed to be dirt roads in the forest.

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There was supposed to be a road leading there from the fort, the D13C, but I did not manage to find it and the people I asked in Le Perthus told me to go further down the main national route. I did, but the only road that seemed to go in that direction had restricted access only for neighbours. I lost more than two hours driving through small neighbourhoods in the forest trying to find the track that led across the border, but kept running against blocked routes, private land signs and cul-de-sacs. Hot, sweaty and hungry, I finally found myself riding down on the French side in the D13F road, not exactly the one I wanted, but it took me to Ceret, which was my next destination after the two crossings I could not do. That bit of road turned out to be quite nice, and I found a quiet spot to rest for a while and have a late lunch. Even so, I was frustrated not to find the crossings, and determined to try again sometime in the future from the Catalan side, which seemed to be easier at least on the map.

After Ceret I joined the D115, the main road leading up to Prats de Mollo, and there were a few other crossings I wanted to do in that area, mostly on dirt roads, two on a loop route to the left of the D115, starting from Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans and two more in Coll d’Ares, but that meant a detour, since my route continued north around the east face of the Canigou to meet the next big valley and the N116 going to Puigcerdà. I had wasted a lot of time trying to find that D13C, so I decided to leave those dirt roads for another occasion (after all, they are only  a couple of hours from home) and took the D44 and D43 up to the Col de la Descargue.

The road does not connect to anywhere else, so there was virtually no traffic. It was mid afternoon, the temperature had started to drop, and there were strands of ghostly fog slowly floating down the mountain making the place look a lot more remote than it really was. The effect was further compounded when I came across the abandoned site of what seemed to be some kind of mines. There was abandoned earth-moving equipment and some warehouses in ruins; a few corners further up the road I found some more empty buildings that back home I discovered belonged to iron mines. I pulled over to take a few pictures and while I was exploring one of the buildings that contained the remains of a workshop for the trucks that had once worked on the mine, I saw what appeared to be an inspection pit. I was looking at all the rubble and dirt that had accumulated at the bottom when I thought that some of it looked a bit… organic. I tilted my head to one side to get a better look and realised what I was seeing upside down: the half rotten carcass of a dead horse. At first I thought the poor thing had wandered into the workshop, fallen into the pit and been unable to get out again, but then I saw that there were stairs at the other end and realised that someone must have killed the horse and dumped it there. I felt a chill down my spine thinking what kind of person would take a horse to a derelict mine to kill it and what other things might have happened between the walls of such an isolated place and did not feel like taking any more pictures. I got on the bike and rode to the end of the road just to find another creepy place.

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The tarmac ended right in front of a building several storeys high on the side of the mountain that looked to have been a kind of hotel at some point in the past, but which had in fact been accommodation for the mine workers. It was abandoned except for a small part at the end of it, which housed a mountain hut. As I rode past the hut to find that the road ended right there, I saw a few people sitting at a terrace overlooking the road, and it may have been the combination of the fog, the looks of the building, seeing that dead horse, and the look on those people’s faces (who may just have been surprised to see a motorbike turn up there) but it looked like the last place on Earth I wanted to be, so I turned around and headed back down the road before I ended up being company for the horse.

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Two corners down from the building the only other way I could go except back down the road I had come was another dirt track, which according to the map and the route I had planned on the GPS, was the one I wanted to take to get to the N116. The track was in very good condition and I indulged my Long Way Round fantasies riding quite fast on the footpegs. Halfway before reaching tarmac again, there was an old watchtower which must have been a great point to admire the views, but it was foggy, so I did not linger there for long.

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Right around the tower there was an electrified cattle fence, and instead the usual gate with a rubber handle that you can open, cross, and close again, there was some kind of electrified pole with a spring mounted across the road and a sign saying that you were supposed to drive through and push it with your car. Well, that’s great if you have a car, but what about a motorbike? That thing was going to touch my leg no matter how carefully or fast I rode through. In the end I decided to push the bike through from the side opposite where the pole would touch it, just in case.

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The rest of the track was also in very good condition despite the damp from the fog, and shortly after I reached the N116 and left the fog behind. The rest of the afternoon was just great – the road up to Mont Louis is brilliant, the landscape beautiful and on clear days, you can see all the way down to the sea from the top of the valley.

By late afternoon I reached Saillagouse and saw a sign pointing to a campsite. I checked in and was glad to see that it was the complete opposite of the campsite in Port de la Selva. Lush green grass to put my tent on, brand new toilet and shower blocks, they even had hairdryers and an iron in the laundry, it was dead quiet at night and considerably cheaper too. To top it all, the terrace where I put my tent up face southwest and I had a wonderful view of the sunset while I prepared some soup sitting on the panniers.

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