Tor, the cursed mountain

Day 2 – Sunday 27th of July – Saillagouse to Refugi de Conangles (203km)

I woke up with the first rays of sunshine a long while before the time I had set in my alarm clock, and a bright morning and clear blue sky greeted me when I crawled out of the tent, announcing a great riding day ahead.

I was very excited about the route I had planned for several reasons: I was looking forward to two very nice mountain passes – Col de Puymorens and Pas de la Casa/Port d’Envalira on my way to Andorra, but most interestingly, on my way out of Andorra I had decided not to take the main road south to La Seu d’Urgell, but to leave the country via the only other way a vehicle can cross to Catalunya – the Port de Cabús, a road that led to a badly maintained dirt track down the mountain and through the infamous village of Tor.

I left Saillagouse and rode leisurely towards the border enjoying the landscape. I already knew this area well as I had been here countless times before both for hiking and for skiing, but for those who have never been in the French Cerdanya, it is a place I recommend, especially in spring-summer on a motorbike. There are lots of small mountain roads to explore and the views are stunning. In addition, the fact that there are no big cities near the region on the French side has kept tourist numbers reasonably low here, and villages still maintain that unmistakeable Gallic look in most places, with their quaint houses and corner shops unlike the Catalan side, where thousands of apartments have been build everywhere for holidaymakers coming from Barcelona and Girona, which are much closer to the Pyrenees.

I turned right in Bourg-Madame, just before the crossing into Puigcerdà, and rode along the border to Latour-de-Carol, which can be reached from Catalonia via a railway that penetrates French territory for a few kilometres, and where passengers can change trains and get on Le Petit Train Jaune, a tourist panoramic railway that winds its way all across the region to Villefranche-de-Conflent. Past the village I stopped to take a few pictures of the medieval towers that give the village its name and then started riding up the Col de Puymorens.

IMG_1200

This pass is 1,920m high and it overlooks the ski slopes, which were now closed and looked a bit decadent compared to the winter season, when they are in full activity. The pass is far from the ones in Switzerland, the top is reached after only a few hairpins, but the great views more than make up for that. At the top there were a few other motorbikes and a bus full of foreign cyclists waiting for their bicycles to arrive in a van, so I took some pictures and left before they swarmed he road.

IMG_1203

After a short descent into a deep valley where the road splits north towards France and south towards Andorra, I started gaining altitude again, this time heading for Pas de la Casa. There were a lot more motorbikes on the road now, and as I was nearing the town of Pas de la Casa, already in Andorra, I saw a fair number of tourist coaches as well. I decided not to stop at the petrol station there, as there were long queues of French cars filling up with cheaper petrol before crossing back into their country, and instead continued to climb towards the top of Port d’Envalira, to find  quieter petrol station where I filled up next to a group of three German bikers (riding GSs, of course).

IMG_1205

It was getting a bit cold (I was at 2,408m now) but I decided to wait a bit before putting on more clothes – I was going back now into Andorra now and the sun was climbing higher in the sky, so temperatures were bound to rise.

The way down was also very interesting, and in a short while I had left behind the ski slopes and was riding into bigger towns. It is always interesting to see the contrast between summer and winter in Andorra. It is a small country and there is only one main road cutting across it as there is no room to build another one, the towns expand up the slopes and new buildings are feats of vertical engineering that cling to the steep sides of the valley. This means that during the ski season thousands of people have to drive through these towns to get to the slopes, and the whole country turns into a nightmarish traffic jam. Visit in the off-season, however, and you’ll find the time to appreciate what a beautiful place it is.

IMG_1212

I left the main road when I reached Canillo and took a steep road that took me away from the main valley. Now, that main valley is the only thing that most people ever get to know in Andorra, and believe me, they have no idea what they are missing. Take any road up and out of there, and you will be rewarded with some of the most impressive mountain landscapes in the Pyrenees, and a lot less people too.

It was not the case this time, though, as I kept finding a lot of cars on the pass from Canillo to La Massana, and as I was wondering why that could be as there are normally some hikers in this area, but far from that many, I ran into the answer: they were holding one of the famous sheep dog competitions in a field by the road.

The rest of the road to la Massana was quiet, and from there I rode up to Pal and to Coll de la Botella and Port de Cabús. This last bit of road was a dream – high above the country, with panoramic views and very little traffic other than the odd cyclist that was brave enough to tackle the formidable ascent to 2,300m.

IMG_1213

The reason that there is virtually no traffic on this road becomes clear once you reach the top: the road leads nowhere. Most people coming up here might wonder why would the Andorrans spend so much money building a road this high for nothing, but I knew the answer, and it was the reason I was here. Allow me to take a break from my ride report to tell you the story of the village of Tor.

IMG_1216

The tiny village of Tor lays on the Catalan side of the mountains and it is one of the most isolated places in the country, only accessible through a long dirt track from Alins, which in turn is connected to Llavorsí via a narrow one-lane country road through a deep gorge, it is cut off the rest of the world by snow most of the winter. At the end of the 1800s, thirteen families lived there, and in 1896, they signed a document establishing a community of co-owners of the mountain where the village is located, which extends to the border with Andorra. It was this strategic location that would prove to be a curse to its inhabitants.

During the 40s, the isolated location of the village made it a good place for maquis to hide, and in 1944, a confrontation between some maquis and the Guardia Civil ended up with three houses being burned down. It seems that there were some accusation in the village as to who had tipped the police of the presence of maquis and who was harbouring them, and this was the beginning of a long-standing feud between two families that was fuelled over decades by isolation and ambition.

The three families whose houses had been destroyed left the village, and the harsh winter and living conditions (there was no electricity, telephone or running water) led to a small exodus over the decades which meant the by the 70s there were few people who still lived in the town all year round.

The document that established the co-ownership of the mountain stated that the inhabitants of the village were those in whose houses there was a fire in the hearth all year round, which meant that the few people left in the village regarded themselves as the only legitimate owners. By this time, two men – Josep Montané, ‘Sansa’ and Jordi Riba, ‘El Palanca’ – were in bitter confrontation over the use of the mountain. Both of them had build dirt roads up the mountain to connect with Andorra, and they were making a big profit with smuggling. There was (and still is) only one road connecting Andorra to Catalonia which meant smugglers had to resort to walking across the mountains or using mules, so having a dirt road on which 4×4 trucks could drive was of great benefit to them. Sansa and El Palanca blocked and controlled access to their roads and demanded money, goods or vehicles in exchange.

Their feud continued, and the fight over ownership of the mountain and the isolation they lived in made them grow paranoid of each other. Both to ‘protect’ themselves and to make sure that their properties were always occupied (and thus securing ownership under the provisions of the ancient law), they surrounded themselves of shady characters that had found in the village a way to escape their past. Sansa set up a kind of hippie camp on his land, and El Palanca hired two gypsies as bodyguards.

By the end of the decade Sansa, seeing the development of tourism on the other side of the border and having been repeatedly and insistently contacted by several developers, had grown more ambitious and started envisioning building a winter resort in the mountain. Sansa was contacted by an Andorran lawyer and developer with a background in doubtful activities (brothels, strip clubs, smuggling…) who put him in touch with British investors and convinced him and three other of the original owners to sign a 99-year lease on the mountain. The rest of the co-owners, and especially El Palanca, who wanted to protect his interests in the mountain, were fiercely opposed to the project, and the situation degenerated quickly. The project stalled for a while, as the investors were wary of the community of co-owners and wanted to clarify the legal situation of the land, and at some point during this time, the paved road was build from the Andorran side to the border, probably with hopes that the winter resort would be built (and making the smugglers’ life easier).

The situation had grown so tense that when the lawyer visited Tor to arrange paperwork with Sansa, he too was accompanied by bodyguards, a couple of retired policemen. It was during one of those visits when they run into El Palanca and his two gypsies, and a heated argument started. Both parties carried guns, and in the confrontation that ensued, the two ex-policemen shot the two gypsies dead. They were later arrested and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

At the beginning of the 80s, the remaining inhabitants started a legal battle for the ownership of the mountain that dragged on for years, putting off the potential investors and an end to the winter resort project. El Palanca and Sansa continued extorting money from the smugglers until 1995, when the Court made a decision and awarded ownership of the mountain to Sansa, on the basis that he was the only real all-year resident in the village. His victory was short-lived, though. Five months later he was found dead in his house.

At first, fingers pointed to the hippies he put up in his ‘Camp Sansa’, but shortly after an eyewitness, Antonio Gil, accused Josep Mont and Merli Pinto a pair of smugglers to whom Sansa allegedly owed money. They were arrested, but later on the judge dismissed Gil’s account on the basis that he had psychological problems and there were several contradictions on his declaration. Mont and Pinto walked free and the case is still unsolved today.

In 2002 and then in 2005, the Court determined that the ownership of the mountain belonged to the heirs of all 13 original families, ending a long bloody conflict. El Palanca still lives in the village, although not all year round, and still exploits the woods in the mountain and breeds horses, and both roads up to Andorra are still open and presumably kept in good condition by him.

TV3 broadcasted a documentary about this story and Carles Porta, the journalist who made it, became so fascinated that he ended up writing a book.

I wanted to do some forest roads, and the story of the town fascinated me, so after having lunch by a fountain on the way up to Port de Cabús, I found myself looking down a rutted rocky track where the road ended, marked by a sign that, having read the story, was a bit intimidating.

IMG_1234

(The owners of the Mountain of Tor are not responsible for any physical and/or material damage that may occur to people transiting inside the property and private track)

The ride down the road was difficult, and I made slow progress to make sure I did not drop the bike, as I was all alone and it would have been hard to pick up, and stopped from time to time to take some pictures. The valley was gorgeous, an unspoilt haven in the heart of the Pyrenees that thanks to its dark history has escaped ambitious development, which I guess is a good thing despite the high price that was paid for it.

IMG_1215

The first part of the descent was quite steep, with a few hairpins going into the forest, and after a while a reached a plateau where the road split in two: the one on the left belonged to El Palanca, the one on the right to Sansa. I knew that they became one again near Tor, and the left one had a river crossing if I remembered correctly what I had read, so I took the right one, and a little further down the road a found a surprise waiting for me: the remains of the camp where Sansa put up his hippies; because of its difficult access and its background, hardly anyone ventures into the valley, so it was still almost intact. I stopped the bike, crossed a small stream and wandered among the remains of huts and tents, trying to imagine what life had been like and what kind of people had lived there.

IMG_1226

IMG_1221

IMG_1219

Just before the two roads met again I saw some abandoned farms that presumably belonged to Sansa as well, since he was known to ask the smugglers for Land Rovers and then drive them until they broke down and abandon them there and then, and there were some littering the fields in front of the farm.

IMG_1231

The roads meet at a bridge and shortly after I arrived in the village, which was little more than three houses and a church.

IMG_1232

Some houses were taken care of and there was people (it was summer) and as I rode through the town I was excited to spot El Palanca in the garden of one of them playing with some kids, probably grandchildren, and across the street, sitting with a few other man in front of an improvised bar, Lázaro Moreno a thug El Palanca had hired as a farmhand and who had ended up marrying one of the heirs in the village.

IMG_1233

After leaving Tor behind, the road remained unpaved and in bad condition for a while, in fact a normal car would have difficulty trying to reach the village (I read a story about a group of students who ripped of the sump of a rental car trying to get there, and the only cars in the village where true 4x4s, not SUVs). Upon reaching the village of Alins, tarmac begins, but it is still a very narrow road that nobody clears in winter all the way down to the main road in Llavorsí.

I rode on to Esterri d’Àneu, now feeling a bit weird sitting down on the bike after such a long while on the footpegs, but I was about to stand up again. The road I was on lead to the Port de la Bonaigua, another famous pass, but I already knew this one and was looking for a more adventurous route, so I turned right towards Isil, a small village on a valley of the Nogera Pallaresa river, where the road ended. From there on, another dirt track started, following the river at first and then going up the mountain – it was the old mountain pass, the one used before the road across Port de la Bonaigua was built.

DSC_0008

DSC_0013

The track got worse (and more interesting) as it gained altitude and left the river behind, and by now I was very confident on the bike and especially on the new tires, which provided very good traction and control in these circumstances and which also worked very well on tarmac, at least for me – I like riding at a good pace, but I do not tend to scrap the footpegs in corners, so I was not missing road-biased tires.

DSC_0012

The road levelled out after a while and I enjoyed a ride through thick pine forests until I came to the Refugi de Montgarri, which I left to my right. Shortly after I found some parked cars and a few families hiking, and then the forest opened and I rode up a gentle slope to find the top of the ski lifts that belonged to Baqueira, one of the most exclusive ski resorts in the country. From there, a tarmac road started that, again, was not unlike something found in the Alps, and I had a great time all the way down to Vielha.

DSC_0019

By the time I got there what had been a sunny and warm day had quickly deteriorated and it was now cloudy and so cold that I had to stop and put on the inner layer on the jacket. What was more, there were rain clouds rolling in and it looked as if it was going to rain soon. I did not want to use the tent if it was raining, as I hate to pack it wet unless I am heading home the following day and can dry it when I get there, so I headed for the tunnel to spend the night in a mountain hut I knew on the other side which was accessible by bike.

It still was not raining yet when I got there, so I parked the bike by the river and walked up to the hut to see if they had bed available. They did, and the guard, being a biker himself, was keen to hear about my trip and allowed me to take the bike up the service road and park it behind the hut instead of leaving it in the car park by the river, which was a short walk down the hill.

I ordered a beer and sat down in the front terrace hoping the weather would hold long enough to allow me to finish it and plan the route for the following day.

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.

IMG_1162

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!

IMG_1164

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.

IMG_1165

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.

IMG_1166

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.

IMG_1171

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.

IMG_1174

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.

IMG_1177

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.

IMG_1183

IMG_1184

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.

1280px-Refugi_de_Vetera_(Cortsaví)

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.

IMG_1190

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.

IMG_1188

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.