Fromage to Catalonia: following Clancy’s route over the Pyrenees into Spain
For the first time since leaving Belfast in the snow, the temperatures are consistently in double figures
Le Perthus: Pyrenean frontier village “shopping hell”. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Peter Murtagh (centre) with “jolly French bikers”.
When Carl Clancy rode his Henderson motorcycle over the Pyrenees from France into Spain 100 years ago, it's a fair bet that Le Perthus was just a tiny border village – a few earthy locals, probably, and an officious policeman or two.
That’s certainly the impression he gave in his account of his visit. The “chief of the frontier”, as he called him, announced that his pass was no good and then, as Clancy put it, aided by a young assistant, held him up for $54.40 duty on his machine.
“Gold was demanded as essential,” he reported in Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review , “but as this was not forthcoming, French paper was finally accepted – change being rendered in Spanish paper and silver, which is about 3 per cent below par.
“An elaborate document was then prepared, stamped and signed with many a flourish, in return for which I was told my deposit would immediately be refunded upon leaving the country, but if I lost the paper, the money was lost!
“I was also informed it was customary to tip the inspector, so after bestowing six cents on this veritable brigand, I started off for Barcelona . . .”
Clancy had not gone a mile before Spanish police twice stopped him, demanding to view his papers before allowing him proceed.
Shopping town from hell
Today, Le Perthus is the frontier shopping town from hell. While duty free has been abolished in the European Union, hoards of French people still flock to Le Perthus for what one can only assume are lower prices than elsewhere in the country.
It is gaudy and manic and awful . . . and, for no good reason, the toll booth-style border post still straddles the road at the Spanish end of town.
The original road up from the valley of the Aude on the French side is wonderful – full of those sweeping curves that bikers adore; far better than the motorway on stilts favoured by most motorists. On a sunny day, teams of jolly French bikers are sweeping up and down the route nationale.
Apart from the insane shopping (Le Perthus’s main street is clogged with cars as coaches disgorge passengers in search of cheap fags, booze, cheese, meat and clothes) and the quality of the roads (excellent), the whole area is probably very similar to when Clancy rode through – the topography the same, the snow-topped Pyrenees as majestic now as then.
The French side through the flat-bottomed Aude valley and the towns of Narbonne and Perpignan feel curiously un- French – not quite fully Spanish but certainly different.
“To all those who are planning to motorcycle in Spain, let me give you one word of advice – don’t,” Clancy declared.
All changed now, thankfully: Spain is a fantastic biking country – great food, friendly people and smiling weather. For the first time since leaving Belfast in the snow and ploughing through freezing Holland and Belgium, the temperature is consistently in double figures. And as we cruise towards Barcelona, the sun shines, creating a balmy 15°.
Clancy stopped at Figueres, prompted by a knocking sound coming from his Henderson. The town’s yet-to-be most famous resident, Salvador Dali, was a mere eight years old but, despite that, Clancy had the surreal experience of asking for a garage and being shown to a hotel “with half the town at my heel”.
When Gary Walker, Geoff Hill and I drop by there is a swarm of Spanish students outside the Dali museum and theatre with its walls, painted cardinal red, topped by giant castellated hard-boiled eggs.
In an adjoining square, the figure of a pondering elder gentleman sits on top of a column of old tractor types – sort of Rodin's The Thinker meets Michelin Man.
Near by, we pass a huge flattened field full of dead caravans, row upon row of them, 1,000 or more perhaps. Dali would surely approve . . .
His bike repaired, Clancy proceeded to the small town of Tordera – a crumbling village with an “imitation hotel”, as he put it. It’s not the pulsating heart of Catalonia, for sure, but the 1803 entrance door to the Església de Sant Esteve is pleasant enough in the sunshine.
Clancy liked the Spanish but was wary of the Catalans. He wrote of them: “they wear an habitual squint, acquired from constantly winking at the sun. They seem more languid than the French and to value time very cheaply.”
Mañana: Barcelona and the end of the road.
Online: Dr Gregory W Frazier, the man who rescued the story of Clancy from oblivion.