These gorges offer the intrepid walker, cyclist or driver the chance to tackle a few adrenalin-filled kilometres of single track road carved out of the cliffs, bordered with low side walls one side and a terrifying drop to the river far, far below.
This dramatic system of ravines and gorges carved by the river Aude remained impassable until the 1880s when a small ledge was coaxed from the side of the 700 metre limestone cliffs. It is now cheerfully listed amongst the Dangerous Roads of France due to the impossibly narrow road and blasting winds which drive through the network of roads and tunnels. http://www.dangerousroads.org/france/2111-gorges-de-galamus.html
From Bugarach the road quickly rises away from the river to become a single track of barely a car width jutting out from the sheer rock on one side to the a heart-stopping, bowel-clenching drop on the other, bordeded only by a low wall. Signs dotted along the road warn of the dangerously strong winds which lurk around unsheltered corners and are strong enough on occasion to lean into them and be held, easily at a 45 degree angle.
A salient warning when as it turns out when I was nearly blown off my bike – admittedly whilst riding one handed and trying to film the road! some footage here – https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10151579177040837&set=vb.662450836&type=2&theater
I was fortunate that the traffic was light and forgiving as passing places were few for bikes and virtually non-existent for cars. My grip on the handlebars remained white knuckle throughout the 2km ride, never quite getting accustomed to the vertiginous drops or the squalling winds that would appear out of nowhere and knock you sideways towards the edge.
Emerging on the other side I paused with the hordes of cars and camper vans at a lookout point, calming my beating heart and sending a thank you to the universal gods for safe passage!
After that, the snow covered peaks of the Canigou rose before me in the distance. I pedalled slowly, soaking up the calm feel of the mountains and coasting downhill to the pretty town of Sainte-Paul-de-Fenouillet.
Being back on the main highway came as a shock after the quiet glory of the mountains, however I do like road riding in France – despite some dubious manoeuvring around other cars the drivers are generally very respectful of cyclists, not surprising perhaps in the host country of the worlds’ most famous bicycle race.
It helps too that the population, whilst a similar size to the UK is spread across a country many times the size.
‘Le Tour’ stayed with me, or I with it as I reached the town of Estagel and headed off (up another climb) towards Montner on part of the official Tour De France route. Slogging up another steep incline weighed down with panniers (and the majority of the wine bottles from Carcassonne) a spritely Septuagenarian on a lean road bike pulled alongside me. My new companion proceeded to chatter away in French, quite effortlessly as I wheezed my way upwards beside him, choking out the phrase “Je ne comprend pas” over a quarter of a mile stretch.
Reaching the top of the climb, I stopped for a breather to consult my map, procured from the helpful lady in the Tourist Office. Showing my new friend my destination and anticipated route he looked non-plussed.
“I cycle zeez ‘ills for long time’” he muses (please excuse awful writing of French accent).
“I never, ever seez zis route?”
A more intelligent person may have taken that as their cue to rethink their plans, but not I. With (as it turns out misplaced) faith in the woman from the tourist office I grasp my map confidently, wave goodbye to my friend and head into the unknown.
It will surprise few that I never found that road. It either never existed or was closed many moons before I arrived.
As the day dipped into evening after a long, fraught day in the saddle I found myself gritting my teeth against more hills and headwinds. Energy depleted and lost in the mountains, my calm of the morning had disappeared. Even summiting another climb to find a spectacular monastery perched in the clouds at Bélesta failed to lift my flagging spirits. What did however was finally spotting a signpost to the town I was searching for just a few km downhill.
It was with a huge sense of relief that I coasted into the small town of Ille-sur-Têt just as the evening light was fading.
That I’d end up here had been unknown and unplanned until just a couple of days previously. The original plan had been for my friend and I to rendezvous with her family and their car in Spain, they would then proceed to drive the bikes home whilst we flew.
When plans had changed so suddenly it meant there was no nowhere to store my bike until the above could be actioned at a later date.
Amazingly, this is where the wonder of the internet then came into it’s own. Desperate, I put out a plea into the ether on various French websites and miracle of miracles, this was answered by K&F, a fabulous couple previously from the UK and now living near Perpignan. They very generously offered not only their garage to store the bike, but, on arrival in town, scooped me up into their warm hospitality, with food, wine and a much welcomed place to stay.
It was a key moment for me, and looking back the start of the overwhelming generosity and kindness of strangers I’ve been lucky enough to experience so often on my bike travels.
This lovely couple have remained good friends (as have many I have met since) and they were the reason I was again travelling over the mountains to visit them once more.
For the past few days it’s been wonderful to return to France, not only to catch up with old friends, and to consume my bodyweight in bread and cheese. But it’s also been a chance to relive that cycle trip last spring and to reminisce on the beginning of a love affair, one that was born, appropriately in the country of romance and that looks set to be an enduring passion for exploring the world by bicycle.