Toni and I had really enjoyed our time in Carcassonne, but as much as we wanted to stay forever in a medieval castle, it was time to start heading to Barcelona. It was at this moment of departure from Carcassonne and the inevitable circling around French roundabouts, that Toni and I decided to, as Robert Frost put it, take the road less travelled.
Smart thinking would have told us to take the A-61 East in the direction of Narbonne and then head south toward Barcelona by way of the French A-9 and Spanish A-7. Although this was geometrically sound and efficient, it seemed quite boring. Frankly, I was tired of straight French autopistes and I wanted some adventure.
I had mentioned in passing to my wife before even getting on the airplane to go to France that I had always really, really wanted to go to Andorra. My wife's seemingly appropriate response to this was to ask, "Why?" I really didn't know why; I guess the main reason was because "it is there". There is just something intriguing about a little country sandwiched between the mighty European countries of France and Spain.
Now I had the opportunity to pass through Andorra on the way to Barcelona. On the trusty Michelin map that I picked up in Chamonix a couple of days ago, I saw that going to Andorra would be just a "minor" detour. Instead of heading due east, we would head south west a bit. I noticed that the roads were colored yellow, instead of the usual red. I knew this meant that they were secondary roads, but I figured that as long as they weren't composed of dirt that it wouldn't take too long.
Boy, was I wrong.
Things started out okay. I took a pretty country road (D-118) to the little town of Limoux. Great, so far. I had slow, but continued success on the same road to the next little town, Quillan. It was at Quillan that a terrible mistake was committed. We took the winding, mountainous road, the D-613.
This road was full of hairpin switchbacks, steep climbs, and blind turns. The road ruthlessly meandered and wandered with no end in sight as if it were some long drinking story told by an inebriated sailor. Occasionally, I would get stuck behind a truck and have to begin the harrowing ordeal of trying to pass it without being struck from traffic coming the other way. Even more discouraging was the fact that there seemed to be no civilization to be found anywhere. Sometimes we would see a sign that said, "Due to snowfall road may be closed" or similar (in French). It was pretty discouraging to imagine having to turn around and go back to where I started earlier in the morning.
Civilization came into view as we made a roller-coaster descent down the side of a mountain with beautiful vistas into the very charming town of Ax-les-Thermes. It seemed like a great place to stop and it obviously had thermal baths, but we were on a mission to go to Andorra, so I kept moving on.
From Ax-les-Thermes, we picked up N-20, which would have been a faster road if it weren't for the ridiculous traffic. Tons of trucks emitting black exhaust and slow vans full of skiers filled the roadway, making it nearly impossible to pass. We continued this way for quite some time, even as we turned the car onto the N-22 to make our ascent into Andorra.
On this road the terrain became almost vertical again. I was fortunate, however, that the road was constructed so that slower traffic could pull to the right on the very steep parts; I revved the engine of our Volkswagen as we struggled to pass on the left. We finally made it to the border at El Pas de la Casa, where you could see the ski run and lift right next to the customs and passport control. My nerves were completely frazzled, but I was exhilarated to have made it to my destination: Welcome to Andorra!