Anyone travelling down from Toulouse on the route to the eastern Pyrénées and Andorra would have, before the bypass was built, gone though the spa town of Ax-les-Thermes.
Ax-les-Thermes is well known for its multiple naturally occurring hot springs, emanating from the ground in a range of temperature from 25° to 78°C. The sulphurous waters were used by the Romans, to treat rheumatism, skin diseases and other ailments. The springs were developed in the medieval period on the orders of Saint Louis to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades afflicted with leprosy. From the 19th century, the town exploited “taking the waters” and a spa tourism developed.
Our plan for the day was to unwind in the main thermal baths in the centre of town.
Les Bains Couloubret is the centre of Ax-les-Thermes, based on a hot spring where sodium sulphide water naturally emerges at 38°.
We were lucky to choose a time when most others were having their 2-hour French lunch so it was pretty quiet. As we entered the first part with the red columns (the red columns are supposedly designed to transport you to an atmosphere of Roman thermal baths – remind anyone of Knossos) we were immediately hit by the warmth of the water and a slight smell of sulphur.
Did you know if you spend too long in the water your fingers and your toes go wrinkly? Well wouldn’t you after being marinated in boiling water for two hours?
With both indoor and outdoor pools of hot thermal water all with multiple powerful jets to massage your neck and shoulder we gradually worked our way round spending time in the steam room, sauna, vaporarium,
frigidarium and caldarium. Lesley missed out the fridge bit and we both skipped the ice-cold bucket tipped on the head after the sauna.
Most people book the two-hour spa session. So, when we came to leave, Lesley had her shower, thought she’d emptied her locker, got dressed then realised she’d left her glasses behind…. Meanwhile the next user had found the locker empty, put their stuff inside and went off with the key! And yes, you’ve guessed it, didn’t come back for, another two hours. Not a big disaster, Lesley was ultimately reunited with her specs and lunch turned out to be rather nice, although admittedly a bit longer than planned!
Ax-les-Thermes is also a ski town with a gondola giving access up to the 3 Domaines ski area above Bonascre. There’s a variety of intermediate and on and off piste skiing and boarding with 80km’s of pisted runs. We thought about it but decided to continue on towards Spain.
Not wishing to repeat the expensive (58€) route choice we made a few weeks ago when we used the Frejus Tunnel to get to Montgenerve, we elected not to go through the tunnel but to go over the Col de Puymorens instead. They had a big dump of snow here a week ago which was still in evidence, but the roads were clear and we had no problem going over the Col.
One over the top we drove down onto the beautiful high plateau of the Catalan Pyrenees. This sheltered spot is surrounded by peaks with cultivated fields as far as the eye can see. The impression is of a closed world, island-like in character.
Sometimes referred to as “Tibet” of the Pyrenees”. because of the difficulty in getting here and surrounded on all side by high mountains, one imagines the people living here feel the isolation and have developed the necessary self-reliance, which in turn has fuelled the fierce pride and sense of independence in being Catalonian.
If the road up from north via the Puymorens to this high-plateau is tough. To go east, you have to undergo the long decent down to Villefranche-de-Conflent. This is a driving test under most conditions. Safely steering a 3.5 ton motorhome with dodgy brakes certainly “kept me on my toes”.
Ur, Err …… no, that’s not me lost for words, but just two of the mad names of the towns we passed by on our way to the aire at Vinça.
Toodle Pip for now