Published in the Inter-Comm – Summer 1994
An unconventional trip over little visited country with a light car.
By G.B. Mackenzie. First published by THE AUTOCAR, April 22nd. 1922
A reference to Andorra, by Mr. Freeston in The Autocar, reminded me that I had always wanted to visit the quaint little Republic, and, As I found myself shortly afterwards in the Pyrenees with my Morris Cowley, I decided to take the first opportunity of doing so that might present itself.
Andorra lies up among the mountains of the Eastern Pyrenees, and the only carriage road which the little State boasts, with the exception of a small section which runs south into Spain, is one which has recently been made, and which parting from the French frontier, rises to over 8000 ft. on the Fray Miguel Pass, and then drops down into a valley on the other side, to end in the tiny village of Soldeu.
Many people know the road exists, but few appear to travel it, and there was little information to be obtained from those I asked in Ax-les-Thermes, where I found myself, at the end of a long day’s run in early September 1921.
About nine o’clock the next morning I left this little town – which by the way was very much “on the make” – and started up the valley of the Ariege. Here the road is excellent and the going easy, while the views are everywhere very fine. It was interesting to notice the new railway being build along this valley. It is one of the great new lines through the Pyrenees, and I picked it up again later in the day where it had emerged from a tunnel underneath the Col de Puymorpns.
After about eight or nine miles of this easy climbing, the road turns sharply to the left, and one begins to rise above the railway line and the river. This is the beginning of the real work, and though the gradient is nowhere severe, it is a long and heating second gear pull. Experience had already taught me that, whatever others might be, my engine was a thirsty little beggar in really hilly country, and I was no longer too proud to stop and give it a drink. Although I started from Ax with a full radiator, I had to stop no fewer than eight times to refill during the day, and I reached my destination at Font Romeu with the water well below the safety point. At each time I filled up the radiator took quantities of water varying from about three quarters of a gallon to nearly a gallon and a half, it will be seen what demands the hill made on the engine.
The road winds up to the Col de Puymorpns in a series of loops, and at last comes in sight of a blue direction sign, placed on the right-hand side by some private enthusiast, and pointing the way to Andorra along a little road which joins the main route at a height of between 5,000 and 6,000 ft. From here to the frontier of Andorra, a distance of roughly three miles, the road has been well build, but its present condition is decidedly bad. It is covered with loose stones, washed partially away in many places, and shows signs of great neglect. The bridges are alone excellent, and should stand almost for ever.
I had wondered whether my passport would serve to take me into Andorra, as I had not a special visa for the Republic, but I need not have troubled myself on that score. No band of uniformed Customs officials meets one when one passes out of France – no army of clerks seizes one’s papers, to plaster them with uncouth and meaningless markings. One does not know, in fact, that one is at the frontier until, on crossing a little stream (it is still Ariege), One finds that the road exists no more. There is a small stone hut near by, a few cattle are standing about, button human being in sight – nothing but mountains in every direction, the road stretching behind, back into France, and a great silence.
I restarted the engine, which I had stopped on reaching the end of the road, and continued over the grass for a short distance, until I discovered some boulders placed to indicate the proper direction. Soon the grass gave way to a stony track, and here at last was Andorra’s famous highway. One can see the Pyrenees. If the surface on the French side had been bad, this was much worse. The road was a mass of loose stones and little boulders, in many places it was washed away to such an extent as to make passage almost impossible, and if not soon taken in hand very serious, it will cease to exist as anything but a mule track. A lot of time and labour has evidently been expended in the building of the road, and it seems strange that it should be allowed to go thus in ruin, though the people of Andorra may perhaps prefer it so. If I lived in Andorra, I think I should.
As soon as one starts on this track the gradient becomes stiff, and it was at first gear climb for the Morris for the next three miles, till at last, exactly at noon, the top of the Col de Fray Miguel was reached, and one could look down the other side of the valley, on to the rushing river far below, and on to the great chain of Spanish mountains beyond.
Andorra itself is nothing but mountains and valleys, rocky mountains that rise to 10,000 ft, covered on their slopes with rough grass, on which feed troops of horses and a few cattle and sheep, valleys black with pine trees, with occasional small fields near any houses. A rugged land, pleasant enough with its bracing air on a fine summer day, but a cruel, hard country in the winter. As soon as the top of the pass is reached, the road starts dropping down, and for about three miles to Soldeu the gradient is pretty severe, the next three miles to Soldeu are less steep, and were taken with considerable “coaxing” in second on the return journey. All along the high part of the pass I met nobody, but on getting down into the valley a house or two were to be seen, and one or two old women seated at the doors, while nearer the village men were working in the fields below close to the river. I eventually brought up at the entrance to Soldeu itself, and set to work to explore the few houses of which it consists. There were only one or two old people, and a few children to be seen in the village, and as the inhabitants do not speak French, and I had no Spanish or Catalan, our conversation was rather limited. They were friendly, however, and directed me with considerable pride to the post office. You would never think it was a post office, except for the fact that there is a telegraph. There are no stamps for sale, your letter, if you wish to send one, will be carried into France, and sent off from the village of Porte. There were no dreadful “guichets”, such as one finds everywhere in France, with little mobs of impatient people around each. Apart from the telegraph, there was only the post mistress, an attractive young woman with dark eyes, excellent teeth, and pretty little silver ear rings. She seemed a trifle shy at first, and her French was of the slightest, but we did manage to make some conversation, and she told me one or two interesting things about the place. There are only eight houses, it appears in Soldeu, and my informant reckoned that each would contain about seven or eight people. Everyone works on the land, either tilling it or looking after the flocks and herds and the horses. There is also a certain amount of woodcutting done, there are no proper shops in the village, and families appeared to provide for itself. When I praised the beauty of her country she shivered a little, and spoke of the long and snowy winter, she had never been out of Andorra, and had been born and brought up in Soldeu. I finally suggested that few strangers arrived by road, but with this she did not agree. “Several” she told me, “had been over during the summer, most of them going on by mule to the capital, Andorra la Vella.” I left it at that. Evidently a policeman is not required to regulate traffic on this great national highway. The eight houses of Soldeu lie on each side of an on-even, half-cobbled, twisting sort of lane. They are solidly but very roughly built of stone, and roofed with the same material. Some have little bits of crazy wooden balconies, but all appear to be very dirty inside. Chickens run in and out of the doors, pigs lie before them, and I believe that the people of Soldeu live a life very similar to that of hundreds of crofters in the remote districts of Scotland and Ireland. But there was little to see in the village, and I had a good distance to go before nightfall, I took leave of the place and its inhabitants to make the long slow climb over the pass.
On my way back I met one or two men riding donkeys, one old fellow was really picturesque, and seemed exactly the sort of brigand one reads of in story books. The only unusual incident on this climb, however, occurred when I was just wondering whether I should have to dismount to chase a flock of sheep from the road. Suddenly, without any warning, and almost, it seemed, from below my running board, appeared a shaggy, unkempt figure of a man. From where he had been lying he raised himself on his hands and knees, and then he “barked”, barked as his own collie would have done, at the sheep, which immediately scattered and left me a free passage.
It was half past three before I reached the main road again, and then I continued my way over the Col de Puymorpns (6,292ft), and on to the little village of Ur, where I took a side road and arrived at last after a gradual climb of another 2,000ft at Font Romeu. In all I had probably climbed about 11,000ft that day, and both the car and I were ready for a rest, though, as a matter of fact, the car had run perfectly all the time. I was very proud of its performance, and have no criticism to offer except on the question of cooling.
By G.B. Mackenzie. First published by THE AUTOCAR, April 22nd. 1922