Le journal – Chapter 4 – Monday 4th August
We rose with huge appetites only to be confronted by a plate of dry bread and a cup of coffee. Somewhat disgruntled, we dealt with these short commons and prepared, with not very good humour, for our day’s trek. Such food as we had, we shared up and spare clothing was discarded before gathering outside for the Great Start. Shorts had now taken the place of trousers and skirts and some very peculiar nether extremities were revealed to the public gaze. White was the colour and pasty the word. Those ladies who possessed no shorts raised their skirts high in order to catch the rays of the sun; this in spite of the fact that the modest male contingent were obviously deeply embarrassed by this overwhelming show of bare leg. After a while we asked them to cover up. A man can only take so much.
Down to the stream near the mine we dropped and crossed the border into Andorra. Then began a strenuous climb up to the Port Dret via the Rie St Joseph. It was only accomplished after several stops for water and snacks. Keith, who was showing himself to be our tame dynamo, grumbled at every stop and finally kept going without any pause at all. Clearly a tough guy.
Just short of the summit, we gathered together and sat down to lunch. Two of the Welsh ladies, Kathleen and Emily, had made a detour and were too far up the side of the mountain to come back down again for lunch. Keith offered his services as food carrier and climbed up to them with refreshments. Jeff passed him on the way back without seeing him (how, Heaven only knows) and found that his lunch was halfway up the mountain. Scotty and Bristol were still in difficulties a long way back, so we started without them. Cheese, cake, dried banana, meat and all sorts of oddments were carved up and distributed. Water of a rather muddy nature was procurable at the source of the stream and we ate and drank heartily. Scotty and Bristol came up shortly afterwards with a Spaniard whom they had picked up en route. To our amazement and amusement, we saw that he was attired in a pin stripe suit and gaily coloured shirt and tie. I half expected an orchestra to strike up at any moment. In spite of the incongruity of his spivlike attire, he could keep up with us quite well and gave no sign of being exhausted after the climb.
We re-started at about 2.00p.m. and slowly climbed the remainder of the pass, to be rewarded at the top by a glorious view of Soldeu and the valley. The panorama stretched for miles and offered a myriad of photographic opportunities and I really did not know where to start. Keith rushed on down the other side with the intention of stopping the bus, while I hung back, struggling with my muse to decide what views to capture with a snap.
I walked down with Marjorie, who was so amused by my yarns of Yorkshire folklore (?) that she contracted a violent attack of hysteria and descended in a series of staggering falls down the hillside as a consequence. We reached the village, breathless with laughter but without mishap, only to discover that there was no bus until 6.00 p.m. We decided that a drink was of major importance and entered the Hotel Bonell, where an obsequious little man placed drinks before us with greasy smirks and many gesticulations. A number of cigarette deals were put through; stamps were bought and postcards written, including one to Edna, the first of many, I hope. We passed the time thus until 6.00 p.m., when the bus arrived – full.
The driver suggested we climb up on top onto the luggage rack. Six of us decided to accept this somewhat novel form of transport and piled up on top – Maureen, Pat, Joan, Scotty, Francisco (the Spaniard) and myself. Clinging tightly as the bus set off, we passed the rest of the crowd, cheering, waving and taking snaps as we went.
That journey was an experience I will never forget. I shall try but I don’t think I shall succeed. The bus driver took corners like a madman and careered along without any regard for the “upstairs” passengers, who thought that, at any moment, they might be flung down through the void onto the rocks below. (A drop of several hundred feet.) The frequent expectation of an early demise among said rocks was not calculated to enhance their beauty in our eyes whereas the driver’s carefree attitude was calculated to cause a twinge of apprehension, not to say panic, to the over squeamish. (And the not so squeamish, come to think of it.)
Scotty, who was, I don’t doubt, as frightened as the rest of us, insisted on discussing the mortality rates of Andorran bus passengers with a light heartedness that was highly unfeeling. Maureen was unashamedly terrified and screamed like a small child, whilst Joan hid her face in her hands and trembled in a ladylike manner. Francisco and Pat maintained a stoical calm throughout, although, once or twice, I thought even they looked a little strained.
For myself, I found that, by swallowing hard at the worst points, and there were many of them, and laughing uproariously whenever my heart left my mouth long enough for the purpose, I could manage to present a fairly nonchalant exterior to the company, which might, with a following wind, be mistaken for courage.
In spite of the nerve-wracking nature of the trip, we did manage, on the few occasions when we opened our eyes, to enthuse over the glories of the valley. As we arrived in the pocket town of Escaldes, the natives came out to greet the mad English, headed by Mme Pla, our hostess, who dealt efficiently with the driver and shepherded us into the hotel with much ceremony. Mme spoke English, which rendered conversation much less of a penance than hitherto and we were able to ask all sorts of questions regarding the town, which normally had to be left to Scotty or Peter. Scotty and I were housed together in a nice little hotel room, which was very clean and equipped with its own little washbowl, which relieved pressure on the shared bathroom along the corridor by quite a lot.
We also had a balcony, which Scotty had, of course, to examine immediately, in order to try our his French/Spanish on a lady who was hanging out her washing from the balcony of the house next door. The complex and clearly excited result of this exploration was a dissertation on Catalans and how they differ from the rest of the Spanish types. For once, I was grateful to be unable to speak the language.
Peter and the rest arrived in due course and dinner was fixed up for 7.45 p.m. Scotty and I went out into the town for a look round. It didn’t take long. As we passed out of the hotel, we found Francisco sitting inside the hotel doorway, talking to a couple of girls. Receiving no answer to our friendly nods, we passed tactfully on, so as not to queer his pitch.
Escaldes, while very small, was found to be a positive centre of luxury and well served with goods which are either unobtainable or very expensive in England. Perfumes and leather goods abounded, as did certain alcoholic beverages. We were, however, stung to the tune of 50 francs for a glass of bierre and so, discouraged, we returned to the Hotel Pla for dinner. To our surprise, we were not intended to eat at the Hotel Pla. Instead, Mme Pla collected us around her like a mother hen her chicks and led us. Clucking excitedly, to the Hotel Palacin, about 20 yards down the road, where we were delivered into the tender hands of an obsequiously Jeeves-like head waiter. This servile personage indicated our table with some local slang, I believe, and many welcoming gestures and, when we were seated, proceeded to serve us with an excellent, if rather strange, meal.
We began with a thin looking but tasty soup and the ubiquitous, tough brown bread. The meat (unrecognisable as to type) was served on a plate laden with tinned garden peas and nothing else, and was followed by a similar plate of fried potatoes with onions and garlic. This was followed by a vile smelling, strongly flavoured cheese, which the ladies, without exception, abhorred and the men, also without exception, thoroughly enjoyed. (With more brown bread, of course) Dessert was a very small spoonful of ice cream with half a fresh peach. Wine was served at 40 francs a bottle and we all did justice to this, if not all the other dishes. I regret to say that I may have been thought to have left the table more than a little under the affluence of incohol.
Everyone was preparing to attend a fiesta on this particular evening, so Ian and I, somewhat conscious of our unsteady and irregular gait, meandered blearily down the street, one on either side of a slightly embarrassed Bristol. Outside a watch shop, Bristol stopped and, seeing us safely propped against the wall before leaving us, went back, somewhat dubiously, to fetch a coat. Scotty and I gazed earnestly into the shop window and, gripping the wall tightly, did our best to give the impression of absorbed interest and , at the same time, tried very hard to remain perpendicular in what we liked to think was a dignified manner.
While we stood thus staring glassily into the interior, a figure in khaki drill and sporting a magnificent moustache, appeared on our left. This character was smoking a huge pipe and, from the interest he took in our, admittedly desultory, conversation, it was obvious that he understood English. At first, I suspected that he might indeed have been an Englishman, until he spoke, when his alien extraction became obvious. With an apology for intruding, he announced himself as a Swiss but his accent was so thick and my hearing so uncertain, that I thought he said Swede and remained under that impression for some time, asking him questions about fiords and the like without getting a satisfactory answer.
He claimed to have knowledge of several languages and from time to time burst into French in order to illustrate the point. Bristol returned at some point shortly afterwards and Scotty departed in search of Francisco, leaving Bristol and me to continue the conversation, which was, quite frankly, wearying for all concerned. Scotty eventually returned, sans Francisco and we ventured forth to the fiesta.
We found Peter and co. seated outside a cafe and we joined them for a drink before heading off to sample the arcane delights of the fiesta. I was relieved to be able to turn over the Swiss to Peter, only to discover that Scotty had, meanwhile, acquired an aged Andorran and was busily churning out rapid but probably inaccurate French into his willing ear. More wine was procured and our procession formed in a disorderly manner, before setting off. Maureen, also, I suspect, affected by alcohol, hung onto Peter and myself in an ecstatic mood and it seemed that the wine had exacerbated her natural girlishness to an almost overwhelming state of giggling coyness. I almost nicknamed her “Naive” but that name belongs exclusively to a well honoured friend of mine and Maureen, with all her ingenuous naiveté has yet to achieve the extreme lack of worldliness which the original enjoys. At one point, Maureen admitted without shame that she was ready for anything. A rash statement, in my opinion, in a country where the men are noted for their amorous proclivities. We assured her that she was safe with us. I am not convinced that this was what she wanted to hear.
The town of Andorra, capital of the Republic, was lit up in readiness for the festivities. A piece of waste ground, officially know as the square, had been cleared for dancing and a dance band was expected, for a raised dais had been erected at one corner. Children ran about screaming and the adults stood or sat about exhibiting mild excitement. Altogether, things looked very romantic and Maureen got gigglier by the second. We composed ourselves to wait and looked interestedly around, expecting to see any moment, some voluptuous Spanish dancer, complete with castanets and swaying hips.
At about 11.30 p.m., the band assembled and my excitement rose to fever pitch and at 11.35 I subsided like a pricked balloon, as the band burst into the latest and foulest effort straight from Hollywood. To fill my cup to overflowing, no voluptuous Spanish dancer but a greasy looking specimen rose and mooed, in an attempt, no doubt, to mimic Sinatra, into a mike. Here in this gloriously romantic setting, in the cultural centre of Andorra, a third rate English gig was in progress. Civilisation had pipped us to the post.
Maureen was probably the only member of the party who thoroughly enjoyed herself and she danced blithely with one Andorran after another until the amorous males were almost homicidal. After standing about for half an hour or so, we packed up and took ourselves and our wine towards Escaldes. It took some time to extract Maureen from the clutches of a particularly eager local and, indeed, there was some doubt as to whether she really wanted to be extracted but we knew our duty and drug her off home. We straggled about and argued about one thing and another until we reached the Hotel Pla and I realised that I still had my bottle of wine in my hand. The evening had not been entirely wasted.
I remember that I slept like a log.