We finished strimming the garden, reclaiming our pool from winter algae and tiling our cottage bathroom. With cut hands and tired bodies we threw together some clothes and provisions, locked our shutters and drove south. We needed a break, and the blue seas of the Costa Brava were calling to us. Stopping only for a quick lunch at a farm aire whose shop was closed during our short stay, we inched our way along the map on straight roads. We collided with rush hour traffic around Toulouse, snarled and static, causing us to reach our chosen destination after 6pm.
We parked in the free aire at Auterive, ( 43.351670n, 1.476547e ) on the banks of the Ariège. The aire was pleasant enough, but the town itself, despite its grand historic undertones, looked scruffy and unloved. A Netto was the sole remaining shop open, and buying milk and potatoes we watched as a disappointed chap had his card declined. With no other means of payment, he sadly handed back his large basket full of vodka, wine and beers. That moment of stolen promise, the disappointment, no easy out tonight, summed up the town for us.
After a night where we began re-watching Game of Thrones from Season 6 in preparation of the final instalments, we left early with the intention of lunching in the principality of Andorra. We were crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and visiting there, especially when it was only 6km out of our way, was the least we could do. The day began grey and monotone, not the warming blues we had hoped for when heading south. We followed slow hairpins and narrow roads up into the mountains, climbing steadily through stone villages towards bluer skies and snowy peaks. The occasional car coming down the mountain was layered deep with snow, fresh from a recent dumping.
We turned off towards El Pas de la Casa and soon reached a customs border checkpoint that wasn’t manned and drove straight through. We parked simply in a huge car-park to the side of a long row of buses and walked up into town. I had been here once before, on a skiing trip more than twenty years ago. My memory was hazy yet little seemed to have changed, but I certainly had. I remembered being impressed then, but soon reached different conclusions this day. It was full of shops selling tobacco, booze and perfumes, like an open-air departure lounge. Some shops even had giant Toblerone that I thought only existed in airports. We walked the grey sludgy streets, avoiding the copious drips from melting snow and smiling wryly at the fact we had planned a trip to sunny climes and sandy beaches and now found ourselves in a seedy ski resort. But despite our reaction to the resort we availed ourselves of the tax-free shopping, snapping up 4 litres of choice spirits and a litre of port all for less than €25.
We arrived in Camprodon around 4pm, after a winding and tiring drive. The aire ( 42.312331n, 2.362839e ) was empty of other motorhomes, with only a few other cars as company for Benny. We headed out immediately for an evening hike/run up to Sant Antoni, a chapel on top of a local hill. It was only meant to be a six kilometre loop, but we had failed to notice the 425m of height gain it contained, so the way up was more a slow walk through steep forest trails over gnarled roots. At least we were rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside from the abandoned chapel grounds before a really enjoyable 4km downhill run back to town, a great leg-loosener.
That night we were awakened around 1am by a huge crashing sound. Just behind us a boy-racer recklessly driving loops of the circular aire had ripped the entire front grille and right-hand wing off another parked motorhome. We felt so sorry for them, the fright of the collision must have been incredible. The assailant made a speedy getaway in the darkness and they were left to deal with the wreckage, the police and the ensuing insurance issues. Nightmare.
After a lie-in in Camprodon, we arrived in nearby Olot under an empty blue sky, bright and clear. We were here to visit the Garroxta Volcanic region and enjoy some day hiking. We found easy parking just south of the centre, adjacent to the river ( 42.180199n, 2.493597e ) and walked in town from there. We were hot and sticky in shorts and shirts, yet many locals were still wrapped in duvet jackets or thick woollen jumpers. A quick stop in the tourist office gained us a map of a 2-hour walk of all the sights, including the extinct volcanoes we had come to see. We set off through the town, finding the base of the nearest caldera, it set in a sea of black volcanic ash, like Tenerife.
The path spiralled around the hillside as it rose, opening up different vistas over Olot and its surrounding countryside. We passed several defensive towers, built in 1845 to protect the town against a repeat of a year-long occupation it suffered after the Third Carlist War. The 120m diameter Montsacopa crater is unique in the area for having retained its circular form rather than having being eroded by later eruptions or disruptive lava flows. The rim was once home to three separate chapels, of which only one, Capilla de Sant Francesc, now remains. It is mostly a ruin, its walled courtyard home to a very modern, sharply detailed cafe that contrasts deeply with the wasting chapel stonework.
We dropped back into the town and crossed to the next volcanic lump, rising up many steps to pass the monolithic 1950s church Parroquia Sant Pere Mártir. The path then led around the edge of Volcá Montolivet through shady forest before opening out to a wide vista over the south-west portion of Olot. Here we passed a group of local artists searching for the ideal spot to set up their easels. As we returned along the river, we noticed rows of tents ahead and discovered it was an open air, one day only craft beer festival. Yes, it would have been rude not to. There were a dozen or so producers displaying, each with four to eight beers each on offer. We blagged a few tasters in our new glasses before committing to spend each of our four pre-paid beer tokens.
The sun was blasting, everyone was relaxing and chatting. The noise of rapid-fire Spanish was almost overwhelming, but a welcome contrast to the tranquil reflection of our walk. With plans turned upside down, we sat sipping beer and munching chips in the glorious sun, enjoying the cheer. These impromptu moments, unplanned and spontaneous, are what make life on the road special. Thirsts quenched and keenly aware we had a 10km race in the morning, we tore ourselves away and slowly returned to Benny. We later moved to a campsite close to the start of our race, Font de les Tries ( 42.189736n, 2.509779e ), a rather scruffy and noisy spot not really set up for short touring stopovers, but we soon made our small corner of it into a cosy nest and enjoyed some afternoon downtime.