The 15th Classic Marathon   
  September 21st to 26th, 2003       | Contact |  Back |  CRA homepage |   

Keith Baud's Day-by-Day Route Description
The Classic Marathon
Route maestro, Keith Baud, produces detailed notes
to accompany his route and add flavour and background for competitors. Keith has a truly amazing knowledge of the highways and byways of France and it seems a shame to keep his notes for competitors only so we are reproducing them here for the interest of those staying at home.
UK Starters - Day 1: to Folembray
I will not bother to describe your journey to Dover as I am sure that most of you are very familiar with it by now! Once across the channel, we join the autoroute for a fast exit from Calais.

Despite its flatness, the Pas de Calais does hide some interesting gems that might bear further exploration in the future. However, you have a long way to go so it is best to get a few fast kilometres under your belts before leaving the autoroute near St Omer. It is a pleasant town at the southern end of the Audomarois marshes, a market garden area renowned for its St Omer cauliflowers.

Shortly after leaving the autoroute you pass through the village of Esquerdes which lies in the valley of the river Aa and has been famous for papermaking since 1473. A pleasant run through rolling countryside then brings you to the little town of Thérouanne. It hard to imagine it now, but in the 7c this unremarkable little place was once the capital of the region and Omer, who was a Benedictine monk and not yet a saint, was the local Bishop. In 622 he had a chapel built on a hill overlooking the marshes 10km north of Thérouanne and the small town that grew up around it was named after him.

You are now entering that area of France known as Artois - famous for its beer. It is a sad fact that at the outbreak of the First World War the area had 2,600 breweries - now only 17 are left. And what goes well with beer? No, not crisps. Sport you fools! This area of northern France is renowned for its love of traditional games and sports. One of these is the game of billons which comprises of two teams throwing tapered wooden clubs about 3ft (1m) long (billons) at a wooden post about 30ft (10m) away.

They also play Javelin, a fearsome form of darts using two-foot long feathered arrows that are thrown into a straw target. Try that in the “Dog and Duck” and watch the landlords’ face…

Archery is another popular pursuit in the area since the Middle Ages, although of course the English really showed them how to do it at nearby Crecy and Agincourt! A method peculiar to the north is “perch” shooting which consists of firing arrows vertically into the air to hit dummy birds “perched” on iron gratings suspended above the archers head on a 100ft pole. Right on top of the pole is the prize target of all. No, not a bull, but the “poppinjay” - now you know where the word comes from. The arrows are tipped with balls and, given that what goes up must come down, I assume the archers either wear hardhats or are very adept at ducking. “Watch out, you’ll have someone’s eye out with that!”

South of Thérouanne the route heads south east across country through sleepy villages. You are actually skirting south of the vast coal mining area centred on Bethune that stretches north about 120km to the Belgian border. Not much remains now of the 270 year old industry except for the odd slag heap scarring the landscape - the last pit closed in 1990.

In fact food processing is now the regions largest industry, with sugar beet and chicory leading the way and canning factories producing 30% of the nations tinned vegetables. The Lys valley produces ALL of the nation’s linen!

Interestingly, because of the regions proximity and excellent transport links with both northern Europe and the UK via the channel tunnel, mail order has also become a major employer in the area with 5 of the top ten French companies operating from this area. Ladies, now you know where your “La Redoute” stuff comes from…

You join the N41 just north of St Pol sur Ternois, a sleepy little town better known for its motor racing circuit than anything else. You will continue south on main roads to Doullens before turning south-east into Picardie and onto the drab town of Albert.

The increasing number of military cemeteries as you cross the rolling countryside is a clue to why Albert is so relatively modern. The town was almost totally destroyed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Battle of Picardy in 1918. The town is dominated by a statue of The Virgin Mary and Child atop the red-brick church which replaced the one bombed in 1915. The statue stood atop the ruined church, leaning drunkenly, for the duration of the First World War and was known rather irrelevantly by the soldiers as The Leaning Virgin.

The main battlefields and memorials lie along the valley of the Ancre north of Albert near the small villages of Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval and Pozieres. Given that 73,367 bodies of British soldiers who died in the Thiepval area alone were never recovered, the carnage that was the Somme cannot be imagined. I think it would not be respectful to run an event like the Marathon through an area where so many suffered. Come back another day and reflect…

At Bray sur Somme, the route finally crosses the infamous river and just after the bridge, on the left, is the start of a preserved narrow gauge railway line to Dompierre via the 300m Cappy tunnel. Continuing across country you cross the busy A1 Autoroute from Paris to Lille before joining the D930 near Nesle and turn east, crossing the Canal du Nord, to Ham - a pleasant town on the Somme.

Only a short run remains across the valley of the Oise before we join the Luxembourg starters at the village of Folembray for the first test of the event, a lapping regularity test around the wooded race circuit of the same name.
Luxembourg Starters Day 1: Luxembourg to Folembray

I hope that you enjoyed your short stay in Luxembourg. It really is a very pleasant and “laid-back” city. I met a guy there a few years ago who took me on a little tour which included walking right past the window of the Prime Ministers office whilst he was working inside. I bet there are not many capital cities in the world where you can do that without being jumped on by hefty security guards! My guide also explained that “rush hour” in Luxembourg hardly exists - so you should have no problem at all driving through the city on a Sunday morning…

Your route west from Luxembourg has been carefully constructed to ensure that you do not cross into Belgium --the authorities there are getting decidedly difficult about rallying. Once past Longwy, it is a pleasant drive along the southern flanks of the Ardennes to Longuyon in the valley of the river Chiers and then onto the N43 to Marville.

Although the main road (and your route) bypasses Marville, a short detour through the town might be worthwhile (no secret check - honest!) which sits on a small promontory near the Belgian border. It is hard to believe now, but for 100 years from 1555, the Spanish occupied Marville and left behind a legacy of fine Renaissance architecture, carvings and statuary.

A pleasant short cut on country roads then brings you to the little town of Stenay, where you cross the River Meuse, before continuing north of the Forêt de Belval to a passage control in le Chesne, which lies astride the Canal des Ardennes linking the Meuse with the Aisne. Time for coffee I think!

From le Chesne the route follows the canal down into what is known as the “Vallée d’Ecluse” (Valley of the Locks) where the canal descends through a series of locks to join the Aisne. Between the villages of Neuville and Semuy keep an eye open for a cluster of stone buildings below the road to the left. Judging by the collection of artillery and vehicles around them it would appear to be some kind of military museum. On the grass to one side there appears to be an old Lysander aircraft covered in verdegris…

The road junction at Semuy appears confusing at first sight but just fork left up an incline, and turn left over the canal bridge, and then right at the other side and you will be on the correct road. Just after the canal you cross the river Aisne and then immediately cross what appears to be a preserved railway line that seems to follow the river south towards Vouziers.

Attigny is a pleasant place with a fast road afterwards through a succession of sleepy villages bringing you to the southern outskirts of Rethel. Although the road network south of Rethel looks a bit complicated it is simple enough. Just follow the D946 to its junction with the old N51, turn left towards Reims and in a few hundred metres you will come to the intersection roundabout with the N51 dual carriageway. Go round the roundabout to the west side of the N51 and there is the turning for the D18 through Acy-Romance.

Another fast road across the wheat prairies of this part of France brings you again into the valley of the Aisne which you follow until Brienne-s-Aisne before crossing it once more to Neufchatel. A short cut on the D62 then takes you across the A26 to Corbeny that once boasted an abbey where Kings once prayed to the relics of St Marcou who had the power to cure scrofula. Not many people know that!

Corbeny is also the start of the Chemin des Dames, a road that follows a ridge separating the Aisne from the Ailette to the north. Although originally an old Roman road, it was named thus after the daughters of Louis XV who used to regularly come this way to see their mate, the Duchess of Narbonne, at Bove. However, the Chemin des Dames is better known for the bloody fighting that took place along this ridge during the First World War.

In 1914, after the Battle of the Marne, the retreating Germans dug in along this ridge that made an excellent defensive spot. In December 1916, the French Army under General Nivelle began an offensive on the German positions which culminated in a fierce battle on 16 April 1917 which resulted in terrible French losses from the machine gun nests dotted along the ridge.

Where the D895 leaves the D18 to climb the ridge, an arboretum has been planted on the site of the old village of Craonne. The D895 climbs onto the Plateau de Californie where a viewing table explains the 1917 offensive and a little further on there is an observatory from where Napoleon directed the Battle of Craonne over a century earlier in 1814.

At the junction of the D895/D18/D886 stands the Ferme d’Hurtebise which was fought over in March 1814 and again in September 1914. A little further along the D18 - and extending under it - is the Caverne du Dragon, a 2.5 hectare cave complex that was the main command post for the German defenders - over 6000 of them living here. There are entrances on both sides of the road.

Near the crossroads at Cerny-en-Laonnais stands the Chemin des Dames memorial and military cemetery, whilst near the western end, near its junction with the N2, stands the Fort de la Malmaison which fell in 1917.

Turning north west on the D14 sees you crossing the Aisne (again!) before entering the Forêt St Gobain, which should look lovely in its autumn colours. The massive abbey at Premontre, founded in the 11c by St Norbert, is now a psychiatric hospital. The small town of St Gobain was established by pilgrims visiting the Irish hermit Gobain and is best known for its glass factory. Louis XIV originally set up this factory to produce mirrors, but it is now owned by the PSA group. Look at the windscreen of any Peugeot or Citroen and you will see St Gobain etched on the glass.

A loop to the north of the forest eventually brings you to the D1 where you join the route from England for the final short run to Folembray. This village houses not only the kennels of the local deer hunt - The Rallye Nomade Hunt (good name that) - but the wooded Folembray race circuit where we have our first test of the event.
All Starters - Day 1: Folembray to Evry

After leaving Folembray we head south for a short distance to Coucy le Château. The Château at Coucy was once the greatest medieval fortress in Europe. However there is not much left now on its hilltop site after the German finished off in 1917 what Cardinal Mazarin had started demolishing in 1652.

We take to the lanes to avoid the busy town of Soissons and head south into the Forêt de Retz, another one of the old Royal hunting forests that abound in the area. The peaceful town of Villers-Cotterets stands at the heart of the forest and is famous for being the birthplace of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas. He was born in 1802 in a small house at 46 Rue Alexandre Dumas. (Does one assume that if he had been born opposite the railway station he would have been named Place de la Gare?).

The route continues south west along the valley of the Ourcq through la Ferté-Milon and onwards towards Meaux. The low hills of the Multien to the right saw one of the fiercest battles of the First World War when in early September 1914, French and Allied troops managed to halt the German advance on Paris in the Battle of the Marne. The large monument on the left as you enter Meaux pays homage to the combatants.

Meaux can be a busy place, particularly on a Sunday evening when everyone is pouring back into Paris. However, once through the town you should have a relatively clear run on the A140 and A4 in towards the capital - although the A4 near Disneyland could be busy. Eventually you will join the outer ring road known as “la Francillienne” and head south towards your overnight halt at Evry. We will be providing tulip diagrams for this section to help you.

Day 2: Evry to Vichy
The route looks difficult leaving Evry but our tulips should help you. As it is Monday morning there will be plenty of traffic on the roads as people head off to work, but hopefully they will be going north towards Paris…

In Mennecy you have to be aware that the route does a sharp right, then left before joining the N19 where you turn left towards the centre of the village. The turning right onto the D153 comes upon you a bit sudden – beware!

Once clear of this bit it is a pleasant run south, past the moated Château de Courances and onto the little town of Milly-la-Forêt. The centre of Milly is blessed with a magnificent market hall, made entirely from oak and chestnut, and the area is renowned for the growing of medicinal plants and aromatic herbs. Peppermint is the local speciality.

Judging by the quality of the lovely stone buildings in the local villages this looks quite a wealthy area, no doubt it is popular with Paris commuters. Judging by the signs, the little river Ecole also supports a thriving water cress industry.

A short main road section takes you past Malsherbes and its famous Château, before following the valley of the Essonne south to the first control of the day in the village of la Neuville-s-Essone.

The little café here, on the right opposite the church, epitomises why it is such a pleasure to organise events in France. The owners did not really understand what we wanted but a girl from a travelling theatre company helped us out with some translation so they possibly still don’t totally understand but I am sure will still welcome you and enter into the spirit of things. You should have time so do try and buy a coffee or something to give the owners a little trade in return for their hospitality.

The countryside hereabouts is unremarkable, rolling arable land dotted with small villages and scared by marching rows of electricity pylons feeding the appetite of the city of Paris – hungry for power. There is little we can do but to get through it as quickly as we can.

The colourful village of Bellegarde has the ruins of a 14c moated castle as its centrepiece, whilst Lorris was once at the heart of a Royal hunting area.

South of Lorris the route enters a southern extension of the Forêt d’Orleans and smooth forest roads take you to the very centre where, at the Carrefour de la Resistance are a number of memorials and graves to the fighters who lost their lives here in the Second World War. Interestingly the Commander of the local maquis was British – Mark O’Neill – a lieutenant colonel who eventually lost his life fighting for France in Algeria in 1956. Presumably he was with the French Foreign Legion?

The roundabout is surrounded by giant Sequoia trees and has eight roads radiating off it. Make sure that you leave by the correct one!

You eventually emerge from the forest north west of Ouzouer-s-Loire and follow the broad valley of this most famous of French rivers down to Gien, where you cross it on a fine bridge of 12 arches. Although you will not se any of the famous Châteaux of the Loire on this stretch of the river, do keep an eye open for the pretty Château in Dampierre-en-Burly before Gien.

After you have crossed the river, and turned left along its southern bank, another Château at St Brisson dominates the skyline to the right. However, shortly afterwards comes one of the great engineering feats of the world (well it was when it was constructed in 1890).

This is the “Pont Canal”, an art nouveau iron aqueduct that carries the Briare-Loing canal over the River Loire. Designed by Gustav Eifel it is the largest aqueduct in the world at 660m long and has wide balustraded footpaths, lit by ornate lighting columns, to enable strollers to enjoy the broad vista of river and canal. The road you are on actually passes under the southern end and I assume the massive doors each side of the stone arch are there to close off the road if it springs a leak!

We leave the Loire at the little town of Châtillon and head south again across ordinary countryside past a lovely Château at Boucard to another café TC in the square of the hilltop village of Sens-Beaujeu. You are now in the region known as Sancerrois, its capital Sancerre is just to the east. Of course everyone knows the area for its white wine, but if you are a cheese fanatic like me then try and search out some of the local cheese called crottins which, literally translated, means “goats droppings”! Some of you might even fancy a light lunch at the café…

Once clear of this area there is not much of interest, save for a fine water tower on the left at Croisy, before one reaches the pleasant little town of Sancoins. A little tip here. Sancoins is probably the last place that you will find fuel before you get to Lurcy-Levis so try to fill your tanks. There is a small fuel station on the right of the D951 as you leave the town centre.

If you have time then you might be able to snatch a quick sandwich at the auberge in Lurcy-Levis where we have a TC before the Circuit Lurcy-Levis. The circuit is easy enough to find, just leave the town heading south-east on the D1 and in about 1.5km take a right turn through a small industrial estate. “T” left at the end and the circuit is at the end of the lane.

It is hard to know how some of these small French circuits make a living. Certainly it is doubtful that the one at Lurcy-Levis ever holds any race meetings open to the public. It has no pits, no grandstands or viewing facilities, and no armco (but plenty of run-off areas). But it is well kept with good quality tarmac and a tidy infield so I assume that it gets its money from testing – and idiots like us!

After your first run at the circuit we shall be sending the Sporting Category off for a short loop west whilst we clear the decks for the second run. This short loop will take you through some lovely countryside past a couple of small etangs and into the Forêt de Troncais, one of the most beautiful oak forests in France. Although the first section of forest road is smooth gravel, there might be more traffic than you think as in autumn the locals come here to collect cepes, girolles and other edible fungi.

After returning to the auberge TC the second time, and hopefully completing another few laps of the circuit, your journey continues south through increasingly attractive countryside to the little town of Bourbon-l’Archambault, with a nice medieval fortress with round towers on the right as you drop into town.

There is another fine Château on the left at Pravier, just south of Meillers, whilst railway buffs will no doubt be interested in the small engine and four mine trucks in the centre of Noyant d’Allier.

At St Pourcain you cross the river Sioule south of its confluence with the Allier, a broad river on which stands your destination for the night – Vichy.

Most of you will have heard of this town, if not for its famous water, then for the government that was established here under Petain after the Germans had overrun France in the Second World War. Like many spa towns, it is a graceful place with many fine and ornate buildings remaining from an era when it was fashionable to be see taking the waters.

Hopefully you may get a little time to explore, but I think that most of you will want something stronger than water by the time you get here!

Keith Baud's descriptive notes for Leg 3 from Vichy to Carcassonne
Carcassonne? I thought we were going to Toulouse I can hear you say. Well we were, but then things got changed….

The original plan was to go to Albi, to sample the circuit there. However, when Jeremy started trying to book hotels he found that the hotels in Albi were full. So….

We decided Toulouse was the best alternative as it still gave us the chance of using Albi circuit. A suitable hotel at Toulouse was booked, then a couple of months ago the hotel “bumped” the booking…

Since September 11th hotels have been doing this a lot. They take your booking but then if they get a bigger one they “bump” you. You may think 100+ rooms for one night is a good booking but if the hotel get a booking for 75 rooms for TWO nights….

All the other hotels in Toulouse were now full so we had to look again for alternatives. The only one we could come up with was Carcassonne. Of course the problem is that once you have planned a route around the overnight stops it is very difficult to change it. Not only does a new overnight halt affect that day, but it also affects the route for the next day as well!

So I have had to cut a lot of the loops I had planned simply to get you to Carcassonne at a reasonable time, as it is much further south than Albi or Toulouse. Who’d want to be a rally organiser?

Anyway, we head south out of Vichy, over the Allier (twice) and down into an area known as the Livradois. I had originally planned to do a loop into Monts du Forez to the east, but that had to go, so instead you will have to make do with a tour of the lower Livradois hills instead.

In fact it is very pleasant, many of the hills in this region being topped with Châteaux, and far reaching views both east to the Mont du Forez and west to the volcanic peaks of the Monts d’Or. Dropping into the valley of the Allier (again) brings you to the town of Issoire, and a circuit that many of you may be familiar with as CRA have used it several times in the past.

It is not marked on the Michelin map but lies just south of sortie 13 of the A75, and parallel with it, north of the airfield. You can see it on the left as you approach the autoroute. We have provided tulips to help you find it but basically you take a road south from sortie 13 roundabout (the road is not on your map) which runs parallel with the A75 down to the circuit. When you leave the circuit, continue south on the unmarked road into an industrial estate, turn right at a roundabout, over the railway and eventually you will turn left at a “T” junction with the D909 south of Issoire.

The D909 has been superseded by the A75 and is now a lovely quite drive south on a well engineered road. Look out for the hilltop Château and village to the right – it must be Villeneuve-Lembron. At St Germain-Lembron you leave the D909 and head south-west up the valley of the Couze to the little town of Ardes. The hills are closing in on all sides now, the roads getting steeper and narrower as you climb onto wild uplands of Cezallier.

Don’t be surprised to see camels in the fields after Ardes, there is a small zoo here, but after Anzat –le-Luguet only sheep and cattle inhabit these lonely hills. As you cross the boundary into Cantal a wonderful vista of mountains stretch across the horizon ahead. These are the Monts du Cantal, dominated by the Plomb de Cantal at 1855m. This is where you are heading for next!

I know I have told some of you before the story of how a genuine Cantal cheese can be identified, but for those who haven’t heard it it is worth repeating.

The local farmers make the true Cantal in these lonely moorland farms. In order to squeeze the last bit of liquid from the cheese, the farmer kneels on the cheese in the mould. Cheese connoisseurs reckon that you can tell a genuine farm produced Cantal by the small impressions left on the rind of the cheese by the hairs on the farmer’s legs!

No-one has yet given me a plausible explanation as to why the farmer has to take his trousers off whilst cheese-making….

There is a fine example of one of these isolated mountain farms just after the village of Pradiers.

After crossing the D679 and turning right on the D21, the route crosses a well kept railway line which is a bit of a surprise in such a remote area. However, the secret is revealed at the station on the right south of Landeyrat, where a line of handcarts – like those in old Buster Keaton films – await tourists looking for new ways to explore the countryside. If you have always wanted a go – and who hasn’t – then this is the place to come.

The route winds south, the mountains getting ever closer, until you reach the little village of le Claux, almost at the end of the Vallée de Cheylade. A welcome TC in a café there should provide much needed relief before the climb of Col de Serre, Col d’Eylac and Pas de Peyrol,

I do hope the weather is kind, as the views in all directions as you climb the slopes of these extinct volcanoes are breathtaking. Long valleys stretch away to all points of the compass from the bare flanks of the volcanic peaks. The wooded depths should be particularly colourful at this time of the year. Once over the highest point at the Pas de Peyrol, the road descends into the Vallée de Jordanne before climbing again on the tiny D317 over the Col de Perthus to join the N122. This is what you entered the Marathon for isn’t it?

We chose Vic-s-Cère as a potential lunch stop because it came at about the right point in the route. However, it does not seem to have a lot in the way of facilities, save for a large car park and a couple of shops and cafes. Depending upon where you are running on the road, some of you may prefer to snatch a sandwich at la Claux before you cross over the mountains – or bring it with you to eat at Vic. But you should all be considering what to do about fuel as we could not find a fuel station that was open in Vic, the only one in the area appears to be slightly “off-route” on the old road in the village of Thiezac, about 9km before you get to Vic.

When you finally arrive in Vic, do not follow the N122 through the middle but instead, turn left just after the start of the village and follow a sort of ring road south-east of the village centre. That will bring you to the control in a car park on the left at the junction with the D54. There is a café opposite and another just along the road.

From Vic-s-Cère, the route meanders southwards towards the deep slash of the Truyere Valley, which it finally crosses at Entraygues where it joins the river Lot. I was originally going to take you further west, to the wondeful perched medieval town of Conques, but now we have to go south to Carcassonne, not south-west to Albi or Toulouse…

However, the D904 south to Rodez is a very pleasant and relatively fast drive with few villages or towns to break your progress. The ancient buildings in Villecomtal are built of the local red sandstone, as is the pride of Rodez, it’s massive 13c century cathedral. Apart from that, the county town of Aveyron does not have much to offer – except for fuel perhaps – there are plenty of fuel stations on the ring road.

South of Rodez the countryside gets less populated with far reaching views across countless hills to the south. It does not have much to commend it so you will no doubt prefer to press on until you get to the valley of the Tarn south of Requista – which is the sheep capital of France! You cross the Tarn at the village of Lincou, but before you cross the river bridge, just glance down to your right and you will see a road plunging out of a tunnel below you.

With typical French resourcefulness they have converted the old railway line that used follow the river into an excellent road. Fortunately, very few people realise it is there, so you can enjoy a very pleasant and traffic free drive alongside the river and through the old railway tunnels virtually all the way from Albi in the west to Millau in the east. It sure as hell beats the busy D999 main road between these two towns. I thought long and hard how I could use a bit of it, but as it goes east/west and you are going south we will have to save that experience for another day.

After passing through the village of Plaisance with its pretty octagonal church tower, you cross the aforementioned D999 at St Sernin sur Rance and soon come to the next TC in the hillside village of Posthoumy. It has been a long way from the lunch control at Vic and you will have no doubt built up a bit of a cushion of time. So relax at this tiny café and enjoy the view, you will be well looked after as the young couple who have recently taken the place over cater for Harley-Davidson gatherings amongst other things!

Your route continues south over the Monts de Lacaune to Brassac, a charming town with two Châteaux on the river Agout. A final easy climb through the lanes brings you to the busy town of Mazamet, at the foot of the Montagne Noire, the last barrier before the Pyrenees.

A great little road now threads through the Gorge de l’Arnette and works its way around the flanks of the mountain to Pradelles Cabardes. The descent through sweet chestnut forests into the Gorge de la Clamoux is a little more severe but now you are across the Black Mountains a more Mediterranean climate pervades the atmosphere.

You are now in Languedoc. A melting pot of civilisations originally settled by Greeks, Levantines, Romans and Moors. It is also the heart of Cathar country.

The people of this area have always felt themselves different to the Catholic Franks of the north, indeed they have their own ancient language – Occitan. It was this feeling that gave rise to Catharism in the 13c.

The Cathars believed that the physical world was the product of the Devil, whilst God was responsible for the Spiritual one. Quite an accurate assumption you might think. Unfortunately (for them) the Cathars also repudiated the materialism of the Catholic church and its close political links with the state.

As you can imagine this did not go down too well with the Pope, who in the early 13c authorised a bloodthirsty crusade by Northern European barons, led by Simon de Montfort, to wipe these heretics from the face of the earth. Starting in Albi it was, not unsurprisingly, known as the Albigensian Crusade.

The Crusade lasted for 20 years, and all sins by the Crusaders were pardoned in advance and they could keep whatever they plundered. Looking at current affairs nothing has changed has it?

The Crusaders wiped out whole villages and towns, Béziers in particular losing most of its 60,000 inhabitants when Arnauld-Amaury - Abbot of Citeaux – thwarted by the locals refusal to hand over the Cathars in their midst gave the order, “Kill them all, the Lord will know his own”.

After retreating to the fortresses that they had built on surrounding hilltops, the Cathars were systematically wiped out, many starved during long sieges. Many of the fortresses were destroyed but their romantic ruins still crown many a mountaintop in this area.

However, the most important of all – Carcassonne – survived, and can still be seen more or less intact to this day. The first time you see Carcassonne, you think you are seeing something from a Disney Fairy tale – but it’s real enough.

Perched on the edge of a plateau overlooking the river Aude it can be traced back to the 6C BC. The Romans occupied it in 122BC and called it Carcasso until the Visigoths took ver in the 5C AD. The Saracens ousted the Visigoths in 725 and renamed it Karkashuna but they only lasted 34 years before the Franks took over.

After Charlemagne died the city underwent a feudal period but between 1082 and 1209 became THE Cathar stronghold. This all came to an end in 1209 when the city fell to Simon de Montfort in the Albigensian Crusade but in 1223 de Montforts’ son Amaury, reliquished the city to King Louis VIII who set about turning into the fortress that you see today.
However, by the 18c it was largely derelict, and in 1850 a decree was issued that it be demolished. Fortunately a few farsighted locals, and the renowned architect Viollet-le-Duc, managed to save the city and restore it much as you now see it. Unfortunately, the benefit of hindsight and painstaking historical research has shown that perhaps the restoration was a little over enthusiastic.

Still, if you have not been here before, do try a short walk around some of the narrow streets enclosed within its two miles of concentric battlements. You will never forget it….

Keith Baud's descriptive notes for Leg 4 from Carcassonne to Zaragoza.
We leave Carcassonne heading south-west across country. I had originally hoped to have an early regularity in this area but although it is a nice drive, it isn’t really regularity country.

For those who have not managed to get fuel, there is a large Esso Station at Mirepoix, on the left at the junction of the D119/D625 at spot height 308. Although you will actually bypass the town, it does have a fine medieval centre, the nave of the cathedral is the largest in France.

The town of Foix is the smallest department capital in France. None the less it is a pleasant place situated on the River Ariege with two fine market halls. A fine 11c castle dominates the town, in fact three different towers on top of a pinnacle of rock, not unlike Entrevaux in the Alpes de Haute Provence. It’s impregnability made it an ideal refuge for the Cathars and despite besieging it four times, Simon de Montfort failed to break it.

From Foix a lovely road steadily climbs through woodland into the Massif de l’Arize - it is shown on the map as “Route Verte” and is well named. We actually explored the little D111 that runs parallel to the south, but whilst it started off promising, it deteriorated into a rough track towards its western end. Maybe one day, when we are running events for Classic 4x4’s, we will use it!

The Hotel des Myrtilles sits on the left at the Col des Marrous - not that you can see much through the dense woodland. Although the proprietor sort of agreed to letting us have a control at her establishment, when I suggested that we could have it outside in the garden, enjoying the view down the valley, she threw her hands up in horror at the thought of 100 rallyists sitting all over her lawn. So, we might be inside, or we might be banished to the lay-by across the road - it all depends on what sort of mood she is in on the day…

The route splits briefly after the Col des Marrous, the sporting route taking the narrower D51 and D15 through the forest whilst the Club route stay on the faster D17. However, they both come together again before the Col de Péguère where one crests the top to be confronted by the most wonderful view of snow capped peaks stretching like a wall across the horizon on the other side of the valley. The Pyrenees are a lot closer now.

The D18 down into Biert is a twisty little affair, those of you who did the ’99 Marathon may well remember it. In the village, at the point where the D18 joins the valley road stands a lovely Auberge on the left, in the shade of a spreading tree. We used it in ’99, but when we called on the final recce the place was full of Lycra clad cyclists from Sutton Coldfield, down to watch the Tour de France which had just passed through.

In fact I nearly had a heart attack when I realised that “Le Tour” would be traversing exactly the same roads on the same day that I wanted to have a look at them. Some years ago I had been caught on the Col de Forclaz with Jeremy Dickson on the day before the Tour was due to pass - we could not believe just how many camper vans, caravans and tents were pitched on the grass verges of the climb. I certainly did not want to get tangled up with that lot again.

However, this time we were amazed to find that just one or two hours after Lance Armstrong and his mates had passed, you would hardly have known the Tour had existed. For sure there were banners across the village streets, and the usual graffiti on the road, but the most noticeable and remarkable thing was the total lack of roadside litter. It was amazing, not an empty drinks can, polystyrene food carton or chocolate wrapper in sight! On the climbs, where most people congregate, the organisers had put plastic sacks on wooden “T” shaped poles at frequent intervals. Everyone had dutifully used these and there was not a scrap of litter left on the floor around them. We met the local council road cleaners coming the other way picking up the sacks about 90 minutes after the race had passed. Brilliant - we could learn a lot from the French…

The route divides again after Biert, the tourers taking the valley road to Oust and Seix whilst the Sporting take a short cut across country over the Col de Saraillé. There are some wonderful stone buildings on the south-facing hillside around the village of Cominac. Most are beautiful stone barns, some no doubt converted to holiday homes, with slated roofs and stepped gable ends like houses in Scotland. One even has a thatched roof.

At the top of the Col de la Core there is a monument that records how the footpath that crosses the road at the top of the Col - the Chemin de Liberte - was an important escape route into neutral Spain during the Second World War. As you descend into the Valley of Bethmale after the Col, look out for the large stone church on the left with a wooden balcony around the bell tower, presumably so they can be rung. This valley was once renowned for its bear trainers, although the bears they used were usually Hungarian ones rather than the rare Pyrenean version. Sabots (clogs) are still the traditional form of footwear in these parts and still made in the village of Aret.

After Audressien the road heads west along the valley of the Bougane. The last time we came along here I was struck by the lovely stone cottages and watermills strung along the stream. The Col de Portel d’Aspet, and the following Col de Menté, are favourites with the Tour de France, and the guy in the café at the top of the Col de Portel d’Aspet was just clearing up after what appeared to have been a very successful and lucrative day. He was in a good mood!

So when you are sitting in the café waiting for your “minute” and letting your car cool down after the long climb, just spare a thought for all those amazing cyclists on “Le Tour” who toil up here with the last bit of strength left in their legs - and then begin the dizzying descent down the other side.

It is these descents that occasionally cost the cyclists their lives, as the monument to 1992 Olympic Champion Fabio Casatelli testifies on the right of the D618 before its junction with the D85. When we passed just after the Tour, the monument was covered in flowers, and there were more at the small plaque on the wall just after it where he actually met his end. On the descent of the Col de Menté before St Beat, another plaque on the rock face on a hairpin left records how some years ago, the yellow jersey leader skidded off the road on a mudslide. Hopefully you will be able to keep all four wheels on the tarmac.

Just before you get to St Beat look out for the man-made caves through the rocks on the right. The rock-face is riddled with them. The small river that you cross just before you join the main road is the Garronne, known in these parts as the Garona and eventually joining the Atlantic at Bordeaux.

From St Beat it is an easy and fast run up the valley to the Spanish border and lunch halt just before the village of Les. You cannot miss the control, there is a large service area on the left with cafes and shops selling goods at Spanish prices for the French who flock over the border to take advantage of the lower prices.

One of the first things that I remember as soon as I cross into Spain is why I prefer organising events in France! Nothing against the Spanish or the country, by they just do not have the amazing network of roads that the French do! The fact that there are large empty spaces on the Spanish maps, when the identical area north of the border is full of roads only goes to confirm this. And furthermore, away from the main roads, any lanes that do look promising invariable turn out to be dead ends, rough goat tracks, or even worse - converted to smooth three lane highways using massive EEC grants.

That is not to say we did not find some cracking roads through remote scenery - we did. But you would not want to put your cherished classic along them - a Series 1 Land Rover perhaps - but not a low slung MG or TR! It is all very frustrating and time consuming for the organiser….

The town of Vielha lies at the head of the Val d’Aran, one of the remotest corners of the Pyrenees. It was not until the tunnel of Vielha opened in 1958 that this area, which owes more geographically to France than Spain, began to be opened up. Now Vielha is a busy place, particularly in winter when tourists come to its many hotels for winter sports. It very much has the feel and look of Andorra - ugly!

The tunnel takes you out of the Aran valley and into the Vall del Noguera. A word of advice here to those in open cars. The tunnel would appear to be an old railway tunnel and whilst it is wide enough for one lane in each direction it does not have much in the way of ventilation. They are building a new tunnel alongside and the dust through the cross-galleries, coupled with exhaust fumes from trucks, make the atmosphere inside very dirty and “thick”. If I were you I would wrap a scarf around my face for the 5km journey.

Before Pont de Suert you turn right onto N260 and then the route splits again, the Sporting route heading over the Coll de Espina to a TC at Laspaules, whilst the tourers take a slightly shorter route on the A1605 through rock tunnels and drop into the gorge of the Isabena valley. The road down this valley is being “improved” with EEC grants (that will ruin it for rallying!) so you may get held up for a few minutes by road works. South of Serraduy, the little town of Roda de Isabena can be seen on its rock perch to the right. This is a remote corner of Spain that tourists rarely visit.

At Laguarres you turn south onto the A1605 and start the climb of the Sierra del Castillo de Laguarres. The lower slopes are clad with pine woods but as you climb higher, sandstone rock formations in the shape of bluffs and mesas overlook the road. The view back is good too, the Pyrenees line the horizon - you will not being seeing them again for a couple of days.

The route almost bypasses the little town of Benabarra and then it is a fast run west along the N123 with the blue waters of the Embalse de Barason on the right. Immediately after the lake the road plunges into a Desfiladero a narrow gorge cut through vertical rock strata by the Rio de Esera before it floods out onto the plain to join the Rio Cinca.

You join the N240 briefly to bypass Barbastro and then turn south west again, across increasingly flatter and more arid countryside. To the right, on top of a conical hill appears to be some sort of fortification. It still looks used, I wonder what it is? Ahead you will see the village of Berbigal perched on its hilltop above the plain. It looks more impressive from a distance than closer too but what is interesting about Berbigal is that its village sign proclaims it to be smack on the Greenwich Meridien. A glance at your map will confirm this fact and you now pass from the Eastern Hemisphere to the West!

The land becomes increasingly poor as you head south west . In theory, we have entered the area of Spain known as Los Monegros - one of Europes last deserts. Unfortunately, I think that those responsible for labelling it thus either have a fertile imagination or they have never been near the place - certainly not in the last twenty years anyway! This is not like any desert I have ever seen and if you are expecting something akin to Morocco you are going to be disappointed. Sure, if you half close your eyes and sort of squint sideways then the brown fields and occasional cactus just COULD be desert, but I reckon Blackpool has got more sand than Los Monegros.

The reason why is evident all around - they have irrigated the area and turned the desert (no doubt with EEC money) into prime agricultural land. For sure, there are lots of dusty tracks heading off into nowhere, but it is only once you have crossed the A131, and reached the village of Alburuela de Tubo that you could imagine a spaghetti (or should it be paella?) Western being filmed amongst the mesa shaped rock formations of this area.

So sorry, we did try to find you just a little bit of desert honest, but it all appears to have disappeared. Even the locals we asked knew nothing about a “cowboy town”.

God knows what the people do around here, but the storks seem happy enough if the number of nests on the roof of the church at Polenino is anything to go by. The next TC in sleepy Lanaja was lifeless in the heat when we visited but there is a fuel station next door if you are in need of it.

South of here the sporting route climbs into the Sierra de Alcubierre for the final run to Zaragoza. There are a maze of gravel roads in this area, only shown on the military maps, but we explored a few and decided they were too rough for you, particularly at the end of a long and tiring day. However, the road on your maps is part gravel too, so you will be able to have a bit of fling before the overnight halt in Zaragoza.

Again, we have provided tulips to help you find your way into town - it is reasonably straightforward even though you have to drive over the footpath at one point! I must confess that I quite liked Zaragoza, no doubt helped by the fact that we had to stay here longer than planned in order to get some new brakes fitted to the recce car!

If nothing else do try to find time to make the short walk from the hotel down into the old town to take a look at a most amazing building - The basilica de Nuestra Senora de Pilar. The present building - Zaragoza’s second cathedral - was built about 1677 and stretches almost the entire length of the Plaza del Pilar on the banks of the Rio Ebro. You will see its towers and cupolas as you approach the town. The interior, divided into three aisles by huge pillars is stunning.

On you way to the Basilica, and on the way back, you could always call into Flahertys bar in the pedestrianised Calle Alfonso which runs down to the Plaza. The manager (who was Irish) told us that Flahertys is one of THIRTEEN Irish bars in Zaragoza! But it is the best because it does at least sell Guinness…

Keith Baud's descriptive notes for Leg 5 from Zaragoza to Pamplona.
Getting out of Zaragoza is easy and you will soon be speeding north west on the A68. About 30km into the journey you pass an absolutely enormous wind farm stretching over the landscape to the left of the road. I lost count of the number of wind turbines there are. Just after you leave the A68 look out for the church perched on a hill overlooking Magallon on the right, and also the long communal wash house on the left of the road at Borja.

You should have bags of time to reach the first TC of the day at Tarazona. This is situated at a fuel station/hostal on the left as you come into town so there should be time for a coffee before heading on. Although you bypass the town, Tarazona was for a brief period in the Middle Ages, the residence of the Kings of Aragon. The Royal Mansion still exists in the old quarter of town.

Now you are probably getting a bit worked up about the next bit of route because we have not clearly defined it in the route book. The problem is that they have built a new reservoir on the Rio Queilas west of Tarazona (it is marked on your Michelin as a dotted blue line – E de El Val), and as a consequence some of the roads in the area have been re-aligned and are “not as map”. So here is what you do…

1.3km after leaving the TC turn left on a minor road signposted Santa Cruz de Moncayo. 3.15 km after that junction you will pass the Santa Cruz de Moncayo village “in” sign. 2.2 km after that you will come to a new roundabout, not marked on the map, but I reckon it is approximately under the “O” of the word (Los) Feyos on the map. Go straight on SP. Vera de Moncayo (the road to the right goes down to the dam). Approximately 250m after the roundabout take the first turning right SP. Agramonte, a brown sign saying Parque Naturale e la Dehesa del Moncayo 8 will confirm that you are on the correct route.

This is a new, fast road that seems to run roughly on the line of the one on map and after approximately 7.5km you will reach the SO 383 where you turn right towards Vozmediano. There you are, back on the map! You will know when you have reached Vozmediano because the ruins of a fine ruined castle dominate it.

After rejoining the main road briefly at Agreda, we leave it again to head across country to the north of Soria. The roads are not particularly demanding, but care will be needed with navigation, particularly around the village of Trevago. Narros has a sweet stone church on the left, and a cluster of pretty stone buildings and also look out for what appears to be a fine monastery at St Gregorio (not on map!). West of the N111, the road has obviously been recently improved and it is now a fast run to the next TC in the village of Vinueasa.

We spent a lot of time in this area exploring absolutely everything including the all the forest tracks north in the Sierra de Urbion. But again, great in a 4x4 but too rough for you – even the twisty little road shown on the map from Covaleda past Congosto becomes rough gravel after about 10km. I was very disappointed.

So we have to head north from Vinuesa, parallel with the SO830 for the first few km until we reach the Puerto de Sta Ines where hopefully we will be able to run a short test for you in the ski lift car park. The stream that keeps you company as you climb the pass is the infant river Duero, one of Spains longest rivers, but perhaps a bit more famous once it enters Portugal where it becomes the Douro and its banks become covered with the vines that produce Port wine.

The pass is quite easy but once you are through the pretty village of Montenegro de C. the next climb is a bit tougher. The barren tops of limestone mountains surround you as you climb over the pass on a narrow road. The north side is gentler, a green valley leading down to the LR113 through the valley of the Rio Najerilla. The TC here will probably be in the car park on the LEFT at the junction. We would have liked to site in the hotel opposite but it was most definitely closed when we called. However, if it is raining on the day of the rally we may still get the marshal to set up in the hotel if he can – so keep your eyes open for the control boards!

After a short stretch on the LR113 the route re-crosses the Serra de Camero on the LR332. Again, this road looks like it has been “improved” but it is still a stiff climb from Brieva de C. to the top of the Puerto Hincado. Great views though. Dropping down the other side takes you past the interesting looking village of Ortigosa in a steep valley to the left before we skirt the blue waters of the Embalse de Gonzalez de Lacasa.

Now I have to confess that we have not arranged a suitable lunch stop for you today. It is not that we did not try – we just could not find anywhere suitable in these lonely hills. We thought we had struck lucky when we saw a sign pointing to a Club Nautica at the Embalse, but investigation revealed something akin to a school camp so that definitely was not suitable. Depending on where you are running in the order, some of you may get time for something at Vinueasa, some might get time at the next TC at Villanueva de Cameros. But if I were you I would do what Willy Cave does. Carefully remove the plastic bag from the glass in the bathroom of your hotel in Zaragoza, take it down to breakfast, and stuff it with what you fancy for lunch!

The tiny road over the hills through Muro de Cameros affords more extensive views over range after range of mountains before dropping you into the valley of the Rio Leza. The tree lined valley bottom provides a vivid contrast to the limestone cliffs on each side and after Soto, these cliffs close in to make quite a dramatic gorge.

There are some wonderful birds to be seen along here. As we were driving along an eagle rose out of the gorge on the right and glided parallel with our car for a few moments. Well it looked like an eagle to me!

Further down the valley on the right, quarrying activities have removed about half a mountain. In this area we also saw what we thought were vultures circling in the sky.

Soon, the road drops to the level of the plain and it is a fast run to Logrono on the River Ebro, and capital of La Rioja. You may notice a few vines coming into town but the main vineyards are further west, in Rioja Alta.

Getting around Logrono is very easy, just follow the LR250 straight into towards town until you come to a big roundabout with Pamplona signposted to the right. Then just follow signs for the N111 Pamplona/Viana.

It is a fast run now towards Pamplona, the road edged by the vineyards of Navarra, and the craggy mountains of the Sierra Urbasa filing the horizon to the north. Look out for the Castillo de Monjardin on a hill on the left before Estella. You may see a lot of walkers in this area as the town is a major stopping place on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella (The Way of St James). You can usually tell which are the pilgrims by the scallop shells tied to their rucksacks.

Those on the touring route continue on the main road to Pamplona, but the sporting competitors have a final section around the Embalse de Arroz before they can rest. The N111 is a fast road so do take time looking for the correct turning to Lacar. It is one of those strange ones they use in Spain where although the village is to the LEFT of the N111, the signpost points right, into a sort of lay-by. This ensures that you cross the main road at right angles and do not sit in the middle of it trying to turn left across the traffic. Very sensible.

The final section before Pamplona is surprisingly interesting, and judging by the graffiti on the road, much favoured by local rally organisers for closed road special stages…

Despite its worldwide fame, at first sight Pamplona is not a particularly inspiring place. Designated a model town during the Francoist era, wide avenues and modern high-rise buildings dominate the streetscape of the direction that you will approach from. The Rally Hotel is in the midst of these.

It is the main town of the Spanish Pyrenees, and from its period as capital of the Kingdom of Navarra, there still remains an old quarter around the cathedral overlooking the Rio Arga. The town dates back to Roman times and is said to have been founded by Pompey. The Moors occupied the town in the 8c but were thrown out with the help of Charlemagne.

However, it is most famous for the Festival of San Fermin between 6-14 July when thousands pack the streets to see the early morning running of the bulls. The beasts that have been selected to fight in the evening are let loose to run through the streets on an 800m course to the bullring. Youths, clad in white with red berets and sashes run with them, the crowds (and shop fronts!) protected by stout palisades of timber.

Anyone can run with the bulls but 13 people have been killed since 1924 so unless you are fleet of foot I would advise against it! The official start is in the Plaza St Domingo, but runners may choose their own spot to start from. To mark the start at 8am two rockets are fired, one to get the bulls running and the other when they have all left the starting pen. As soon as the first rocket goes up you can start to run (bloody too right!), but this means you will probably arrive in the bull ring well before the bulls and you will be jeered by the crowd. If the bulls get a bit close and you try to escape, then the crowd will just throw you back in again! Nice people the Spanish. The festival is broadcast live on Spanish Television and is watched eagerly throughout the country. All I can say is that I am glad it will be September when we are there…

Keith Baud's descriptive notes for Leg 6 from Pamplona to Pamplona.
This is it, the final day and a little sting in the tail perhaps…

Once you have got out of Pamplona, the route heads north-east up the valley of the Arga towards the French border. You will have noticed by now that the place names have weird spelling, lots of “X” “K” and “Z”. That is of course because you are now in Basque country, that part of Spain and France which is home to a distinct people who even have a different blood group distribution to the rest of Europe.

Not much is known about the Basques but their language, Euskera, is one of the most ancient in Europe and predates the Indo-European languages of 3000 years ago. Some experts feel that the Basques are directly descended from Cro-Magnon man of 9000 years ago. Whatever, they have a strong identity which manifests itself in their unique language, culture and architecture, and of course ETA, their separatist movement…

They also have their own pastimes and games, the most well known of which is pelota. The game is played on a high sided court called a fronton and involves the players smashing the ball against the wall with either their bare hands, a wooden bat, or in the fastest version a wicker scoop lashed to their forearm. This can launch the ball at speeds of around 200km per hour making pelota probably the fastest and most dangerous ball game in the world.

Another local sport is harri-jasotzea or stone lifting. In this bizarre, and hernia inducing sport, heavy granite boulders are lifted up the front of the body, then passed across the shoulders around the back of the neck, before being put back on the ground again. Inaki Perurena is the World Champion with a lift of 315 kilos! This “sport” has now been introduced in Japan (they are the only other nation daft enough to do it) where I assume they call it harri-kirri!

At Zubiri, you turn off the N135 and onto the equally as good N138 which gently climbs into the Pyrenees past the waters of the lovely Embalse de Eugi, overlooked by the pretty village of the same name. The road to the top of the Collado de Urquiaga and onto the Spanish/French border is an easy drive, but once over the border (no border control) one remembers why France is so good for rallying. It just IS!

The little town of St Etienne-de-Baïgorry stands at the foot of the valley, the main street lined with whitewashed houses with red timberwork, very much the Basque vernacular. It has a lovely bucolic feel about it, no doubt helped by the local Irouleguy wines, the only red and rose wines produced in the Pays Basque.

St Jean Pied de Port 11km to the east on the other hand made its money from tourists. Originally the religious sort on the road to Santiago, now the town is a popular tourist resort with its old quarter encircled by pink sandstone walls. St Jean stands at the start of the valley of the Nive, an increasingly narrow valley that burrows its way deep into the hills along the Franch/Spanish border.

Eight kilometres up this valley is the tiny village of Estérençuby, which those of you who did the 1999 Marathon will remember as the final control after that fabulous maze of roads along the border. We are again using the same hotel although this time of course you will be approaching from the opposite direction.

A word of advice for the tourers here. The Hotel is on the right over a small bridge at the start of a narrow mountain road – this is the way the sporting route is going. However, your route lays straight ahead on the D301, so park on the D301 and cross the bridge on foot to get your time card stamped or you will have to reverse back across the bridge and cause chaos.

Those of you who were here in ’99 will remember the little gravel road that descended into Estérençuby. Do you want the bad news or the good news first?

Bad news: This time you are going up it, and it is very steep. - Good news: It is now A1 tarmac!

The EEC has a lot to answer for, they are ruining the mountain roads with their improvement grants!

But apart from that, the rest of the roads in the area are as you remember them, although this time we are taking you a different way, back down to the D933 before turning south to a TC at the Bar Clementania in the little village of Arneguy on the Spanish border.

You don’t actually re-cross into Spain but stay to the east of the river to take a tiny, twisty road back up onto the windswept heights. I hope that the weather is good for you, as the views from up here are truly magnificent. I say that from memory of the ’99 event, for on our recce we had fog so thick that we could only drive at walking pace for 40 kilometres. Even with the headlights full on you could not see the car from 20m away. I have truly never seen fog like it…

This part of the Pyrenees is one of the main migratory routes for birds heading south for the sun and Africa. As the French and Spanish like to blast everything out of the sky, the hillsides are dotted with gun butts, fortunately for us they will not see much use until October. Then, they will be blasting thousands of wood pigeon, honey buzzards, kites, and cranes out of the skies. It is estimated that a third of the four million strong flocks of pigeon fall foul of the guns on these hills.

However, one bird that you might see in this area is the Griffon vulture. These are fairly easy to identify with a wingspan of 2.5m (about 8ft) with fawn leading edges and black trailing edges to the wings. They hunt in colonies of between 4 and 12 pairs covering a large territory. The vultures only eat carrion, especially dead sheep of which there is a plentiful supply in this area, and once one is spotted the troupe of vultures’ spiral above it, keeping it under surveillance for up to two days. They do not like fresh meat!

When they finally land to feed a strict pecking order is established with the dominant bird going first until it has had its fill, and then handing over to its subordinate and so on…

At the eastern end of these barren hills lies the Forest of Iraty, a vast broad-leaved forest whose wood was once much prized for boat building down on the Atlantic coast. There are a small cluster of mountain huts and refuges at Chalet, but not much else lives in this remote corner of France and Spain.

At Chalet the route divides again, those on the touring route continuing east, direct to Larrau, whilst the sporting competitors do a loop to the north around Mendive and Ahusquy. On the way down to Mendive it was lovely to see a small herd of pigs foraging beside the road, just like sheep. They looked a lot happier and healthier than they would if they had been cooped up in a pigsty.

At Ahusquya tiny road heads south across the mountains to rejoin the touring route at the Col de Bargargui. It was all gravel in 1999 and guess what? It is tarmac now!

Larrau used to be the old border post on the French side of the Porte de Larrau, I can still remember it being manned. Now the post is deserted and you have a clear run over the col, with some wonderful views to the south as you cross back into Spain.

Effectively, the pretty little village of Ochagavia at the foot of the pass on the Spanish side, marks the end of the rally. All that remains is an easy run back into Pamplona for the final control, a welcome drink and the Gala Prizegiving this evening. I am sure that you will be able to find a few minutes to


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