Through the Pyrenees in Pink Pyjamas
Paisley Scouts’ Adventures in Andorra
[First published Paisley Daily Express, Tues, Sept 1, 1964]
Grinding down into a still lower gear, the driver worked the bus round yet another hairpin bend on the mountain road. As the vehicle groaned and protested, and stones dislodged by its wheels cascaded down the mountainside, he gesticulated wildly with his hands and announced that the French Frontier Post was round the next corner. Rounding the turn, the bus drew to a halt by the barrier, and the passengers dismounted to have their passports checked by the French officials. Fifty yards further on, the words “Andorra Control”, and the blue, yellow and red flag fluttering in the slight breeze indicated that in a few moments we would be entering one of the smallest and strangest countries in Europe: Andorra, set high up in the Pyrenees between France and Spain.
As we stood shivering in the cool air at 7.500 feet, while the irksome frontier formalities were carried out, our party - fifteen Scouts and three Scouters from the 7th Paisley (John Neilson) Scout Troop - thought back on the months of planning and the three days travel which had culminated in our arrival at the Andorran frontier, the Pas de la Casa.
A large gathering of parents, friends and well-wishers had assembled at the Scout Hall in Arthur Street on the evening of Friday, July 31, and while the Scouters ensured that everyone’s kit was correct and passports in order, tea and buns were served. Finally, with bagpipes giving us a real Scots send off, the expedition was transported to Glasgow by car, to board the train for London. In London, we left the rucksacks at Baden-Powell House, the international Scout hostel, and after breakfast explored London and managed to sleep through a demonstration in the Planetarium. After an evening meal at BP House with some Dutch Sea Scouts, we installed ourselves in the Paris train at Victoria. The sea-crossing Newhaven-Dieppe was without incident, and by 6.30 on Sunday morning we had arrived in Paris. Spending the rest of the day in the French capital enabled us to see the usual round of tourist sights, and we left from the Gare d’Austerlitz at 8 pm.
By morning, the train was climbing slowly up one of the valleys leading into the mountains, and we eventually alighted at the station nearest to Andorra to await the bus which, according to our information, connected with the train. However, half of France seemed to want to go to Andorra at the same time, and it was the fourth bus before we managed to load the rucksacks on to the roof pile inside, and begin the long haul up over the mountains. The frontier was a mere five miles distant, but it took the bus the best part of an hour to negotiate the snake-like bends and steep gradients of the road. Cars with over-heated engines were parked along the verges every 250 yards or so, testifying to the difficulties of the highest pass in the Pyrenees open to motor transport.
And so to the Andorra-France frontier...
As the bus moved across and was waved through the Andorran side without any formalities whatsoever, continuing to climb up into the clouds, we realised why such a small country had managed to survive in this modern world.
Dot on the Map
This tiny, triangular country, which appears on most maps only as a dot with a name, is less than twenty miles across, and a mere sixteen miles from north to south. It is shaped rather like a saucer, with the highest mountains around the rim, and at only one point does it fall below 3,000 feet, where the road runs into Spain. Andorra was founded, according to legend, by Charlemagne in the year 784, and was a feudal possession of the Bishop of the Spanish town of Seo de Urgel, and the Counts of Foix - whose successors are today the Bishop of Urgel and the President of the French Republic. It has been governed since 1278 by a General Council formed by twenty-four Councillors, four for each of the six parishes. Both her neighbours have cast longing eyes on this little state of 12,000 souls for many years, but its leaders have carefully played off one overlord against the other, to the advantage of Andorra. In 1879, the French began to circulate manifestos tempting the Andorrans with a Post Office and the money with which to build a road, on condition that Andorra became a French Department. The Bishop protested to the French Government, and the manifestos were pulled down. A little later the Spanish authorities offered them a Post Office if they became part of Spain. Today, Andorra has two Postal Services - one French, one Spanish - but still remains defiantly independent. The country enjoys peace; Spain may be torn by civil war, France may be occupied by enemy troops, but Lilliputian Andorra remains aloof. Its official title is “The Valleys and Suzerainties of Andorra.”
It is, at one and the same time, (a) a Suzerainty, as it is an independent state with a feudal overlord, (b) a Co-Principality because its two Co-Princes are the Spanish Bishop and the French president, who both have a representative in the capital, and (c) a Republic, as it is self-governed by an elected Parliament with a President. Tobacco, agriculture, chocolate, timber products and the grazing of sheep are Andorra’s staple resources, and its probably the only country in the world which has no National debt!
By now the bus had crossed the pass and was beginning to descend. Below us stretched a splendid vista of deep, green valleys, steep wooded slopes, terraced field dotted with farmhouses, and cattle and horses grazing in stone fenced pastures. We left the bus at the first Andorran village, Soldeu.
Soldeu was smaller than we had anticipated, and it was with some difficulty that the three patrols managed to stock up with food; but eventually the expedition set off up the valley, whose steep sides were clothed with pine and chestnut forests. The depth of our valley ensured that the sun would disappear early in the evening, and so we were not slow in selecting a camp site and pitching our small tents. As we sat round our cooking fires in the darkness that night looked up to see the awesome mountains outlined darkly against the star-studded sky, we began to feel that strange call of the wild which all who venture into wild and lonely places experience.
Protection against Sun
And trials there were. Soon after we struck camp, the mule track we had been following lost itself among the rocks and all that day we clambered up some 2500 ft of steep gulleys and boulder-strewn ground. By this time the sun was burning some of the boys, and one was so badly affected that he wore a pair of pink pyjama trousers to protect himself. As he kept these on until we reached the first village on the other side of the mountain, it can truthfully be said that he crossed the Pyrenees in his pyjamas.
A small piece of flat ground by the edge of a tiny mountain loch afforded us just sufficient room to camp on the Tuesday night, and by Wednesday we were picking our way slowly through a veritable tangle of sharp-edged rocks and frost-shattered boulders. Save for some short, tufty grass, no vegetation survived at these altitudes, but the rocky hillsides were the haunt for semi-wild sheep and goats. Although we had been warned to look out for them, we so no bears and must confess a certain disappointment. The gradient had steepened to such an extent by this time, that on two occasions we used the rope to safe-guard us as we scrambed up the loose rock. Just before reaching the top of the pass, we stopped for a much-needed rest by a larger loch, and most availed themselves of having a high-altitude swim in the ice-cold water, while a small party made a ‘recce’ of the last 500 feet to the pass itself.
A final haul up the steep slope, and we were on the narrow ridge at 8800ft. Ahead of us we could see the deep valley into which we would soon plunge - and beyond, mile after mile of mountain peaks, some flecked with snow. Never again at school would we draw a line on the map between France and Spain, and write “Pyrenees” along it without realising just what the thin pencil line stood for.
Ropes Over Torrent
On the other side of the pass, the party descended almost 2000 feet by a track which had obviously been made many years ago to transport ore from the mine, and camped that night at the beginning of the tree line. The Thursday saw us continuing our descent through the forest with storm clouds chasing us round the hills, and thunder growling in the distance. The path once again became indistinct among the pines, bushes and boulders, and we decided to cross to the other side of the stream whose valley we were in. This was not easy, and the rope had to be used as an additional safeguard as we crossed the rushing mountain torrent. On the other side, a path of sorts was found, and as spots of rain began to fall, we quickly moved down on to a high pasture with chest high grass and flowers. Just as the storm broke, we could smell a wood fire burning somewhere and, as we rounded a corner, were ushered into an isolated farm building by an Andorran peasant on a mule. Here we sheltered for thirty minutes, then, led by our friend on his mule, toiled down the remaining 600 feet of rocky path through a narrow gorge to emerge into the village of El Serrat.
During the rest of Thursday and part of Friday, we passed along this dusty, unpaved road through small villages as far as Ordino, where we were welcomed with open arms at the camp site of the recently formed Andorran Scout Association. This site we made our headquarters for the weekend. On the Friday evening (Scout night!) we were entertained by the Andorran Scouts to supper and enjoyed a long sing-song, which was joined by some German Scouts who had arrived for the night.
[To be continued....]