Day 1- Saint André
Arriving back into France from the beautiful Costa Brava, we settled quickly into our village aire in the small town of Saint André. Really no more than a shared car-park on a quiet street, it was still quaintly comfortable and inviting, and somehow very French; we were happy to linger here, alongside the grey buildings and the badly parked cars.
We had a slow afternoon, with most of the remainder of the day taken up with the mundane jobs of laundry and food shopping in the local Intermarché supermarket. We had a short walk around the village to stretch our legs and get a feel for a French village again, which was just interesting enough to lure us from the warm comforts of Benny.
Day 2- Argelès-sur-Mer
The next morning was clear, bright and cold; the weather was now becoming quite predictable. The air was crisp and cool, and hurt a little to breathe at first, but this was weather we knew how to dress for, especially when the day involved cycling. We got out our bikes, wrapped up and headed east towards the coast. This was a smooth, easy rolling exploratory cycle to Argelès-sur-Mer on flat, quiet roads. The cycling required little effort, yet allowed us to explore much quicker and further afield than on foot. We first circled the town centre, looking up and down the little streets passing cafés and bars, before finding the local Tourist Office where we were given a lot of information to help plan our next moves in this region of France.
Argelès was a quite lovely town with a great, relaxing feel to it, even when this far out of season; we took a liking to it instantly. We cycled to the beach promenade on the south side of town, overlooking the stone harbour walls. We enjoyed beautiful views from the beach to the distant snowy peaks of the high Pyrenees, then almost calling out to us from afar. We rolled gently along the wide cycle lane running parallel to the expansive beach frontage for the full length of town, as far north as we could, before cutting back in and returning to the town centre by the empty roads.
We covered over 20km without breaking a sweat, a nice way to feel we got some exercise and fresh air and to see the extents of the town. Our long term plan has always been to buy a small place in this region of France, to settle into a community and to use it as a base for future travels. We had always dreamed of finding our dream home somewhere equidistant from the coast and the high mountains, and convenient for airports. This was the first prime spot in the Languedoc area that we had visited, and although on the coast and far from the Pyrenees, it was certainly alive with many glorious possibilities for us putting down roots in future years; we have much to consider.
Day 3 – Perpignan, Prades and Les Angles
We had a last wander around the centre of Saint André village, mostly to utilise the free WiFi we discovered at the town hall, before driving north to the outskirts of Perpignan. We visited a motorhome dealership to purchase a pigtail connection for French gas bottles, then bought an expensive Butagaz cylinder from a large Carrefour on the eastern side of the city. It proved difficult to find parking in or around the city, and after several futile attempts and with no actual knowledge at all of what Perpignan centre had to offer, we decided to push on rather than persevere. We have plans to be back in this area a lot in future, so skipping the city left some surprises for us to discover later.
We took the road west out of the city and drove to the hub town of Prades, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We parked on the side of a narrow road in town and walked to the centre, finding the main square with the town hall, pretty church and tourist office. Arriving during lunch, we slowly wandered around the local town streets until the tourist office reopened. Here we received some good information on ski resorts and weather forecasts, and made a snap decision not to linger in Prades on the back of this. We had originally planned to overnight at Casteil, a local aire in the mountains south of Prades, but instead we pushed on up the winding mountain pass towards Mont-Louis and onwards, ever climbing, into the high mountains.
We picked the ski resort of Les Angles as our target destination, rather than the originally favoured Font Romeu. We arrived, through roads lined with snow, amazed to find the ski aire was (we thought) free and with electricity points available for all to utilise; signs suggested it would be payable soon. The aire sits at 1804m above sea level, most likely the highest we’ll be in on our travels. We were a little nervous to be at this altitude without first acquiring snow chains and shovels, but the tourist office in Prades had assured us there would be no snowfall until the following Monday or Tuesday at the latest, so we were content to trust this advice. We may well have been the only visitors in the ski resort who were hoping there would be no snow during their visit. We parked up in an empty bay, away from large mounds of ice and with great views of the slopes, settled in and ramped up our heating to fight off the high altitude chill.
Day 4 – Les Angles Town visit
We awoke to a chilling -8 degrees outside, a little frightening but not exactly unexpected. Ignoring the free navettes, the ski buses that ran up and down from the aire and the adjacent ski lift to the town centre, we instead walked down the road into town, a distance of around 3km one way. We explored the town a little, enjoying the very familiar feel of a high mountain ski resort, and scoped out the best prices for ski hire in anticipation of partaking the following day. We later walked back up the hill to our aire with a long baguette in hand, feeling very French.
Day 5 – Les Angles Ski Day
After awaking to a further cloudless day, the pink dawn light clipping the tips of the distant mountains, we decided that today was definitely a ski day. The early morning temperature was -14 degrees, the coldest we’d experienced, but we were still cosy inside Benny. We ate breakfast, dressed up warmly and readied ourselves for the pistes.
We caught the first navette early morning down into the village centre, where we hired boots, poles and skis and walked, unsteadily in our ski boots, over to the main télécabine lift to begin. Here we bought our day lift passes and got on the empty gondola lift with slightly nervous anticipation. For various reasons we had not skied at all for three years, and it was four years since we had skied downhill, so we were not quite sure how our legs and skills would hold up. We need not have worried; a couple of shaky moments in the first run as we slowly warmed up were the only slight concern, and we soon got back into smooth turning and sliding, then settled in and enjoyed the views.
The resort had had very little snow recently, so a good portion of the normal runs were closed. There were still a few natural slopes on the dark side of the mountain, but the majority of open pistes were formed from artificial snow. This gave the strange appearance of wide ribbons of snow snaking through areas of grass and trees, rather than the usually expected sight of a fully blanketed resort. The advantage was that the snow quality was very good, smooth and lightly powdered, with only some very small areas where a crispy ice top had formed. With only one day of skiing we thought we’d struggle to see all of the resort, but with some speedy descents and thoughtful planning, we skied every run that was open at least twice, some many more times, ensuring we experienced all that Les Angles had to offer us on this visit.
Only once, with the lift momentarily stopped, did we have to wait to access a chair lift, and that was for no longer than a minute. All the pistes and lift queues were clear, so you could return to the top as fast as you could descend. We recorded a top speed of 57km/hr on our GPS tracking, not too shabby for shallow slopes that we were cruising purely for enjoyment. It was a fantastic day, and a great reminder that decent access to skiing areas remains a key priority for us.
Day 6 – Les Angles and return to the valley
The next morning, after three fantastic days around Les Angles, we readied ourselves to leave and return to the valley below. Having a leisurely breakfast and neatly packing up, we lingered for around twenty minutes too many, as at around 9.30am the local Gendarme arrived on site and requested payment for our nights in the aire. We had thought it was too good to be true, with the ‘free’ electricity, navettes and incredible, direct access to the slopes. They insisted we had been there for two nights, so we didn’t contradict and paid the €22 they requested. Many other fellow motorhomers looked to have escaped the aire without payment, as there were thirteen vans the night before, and only four remaining this morning. We certainly couldn’t begrudge the cost, but gaining a freebie in any fashion is always something that adds a warming glow and a certain je ne sais quoi…