Border Love: Crossing the Heart of Pyrénées from Barcelona to Lourdes
Traveling to another country by plane is like boarding on a (flying) elevator. You go in, and poof, you’re in another place in another time zone. While I do that all the time too, for me the best way of traveling is by land, crossing the border of one country to another, and seeing how everything transforms little by little in front of your very eyes. Landscape, building, people, changing as you go nearer to the border, morphed into another as you cross.
I have done quite a few border crossings in my traveling life. In the first year of my living overseas, I crossed border between Malaysia and Singapore many times by bus, I crossed border to a small Thailand town Hat Yai from Malaysia, and I crossed border to the small Indonesian island Batam from Singapore. So even from the beginning, I have always preferred traveling by land.
In Europe it’s even more prevalent, as so many countries share borders (unlike Australia uhum..). Popping on a train in London for 2+ hours gets you to Paris, or 3 hours to Brussel, Belgium, or add another couple of hours to Amsterdam, Netherlands. Then from Amsterdam to Germany: Munich, Frankfurt, Heidelberg. From Munich to Vienna, Austria, and Vienna to Prague, Czech Republic.
Exciting! But not all of them have interesting stories. London to Paris for example is a tunnel train ride, so really you can’t see anything much. Back to the elevator concept. (I do plan to do ferry journey between England and France in the future – the old school way, before Eurostar and high speed train.)
But then some borders are really interesting. So the series I’m starting is about those. The highlights of border crossings that I’ve been through that are the most memorable. Hope they inspire you to do the same or find your own border crossing stories!
The first in the series is when I crossed border from Barcelona to Lourdes through the heart of Pyrénées – a range of mountain that forms a natural border between Spain and France.
It is memorable because of two things
1) It was a risky journey because I gathered the information from a few forums/websites so I wasn’t 100% sure that it would be feasible. On top of that I traveled with my mom and aunties – all of them completely depended on my brilliant plans, and we had limited trip time so if I messed it up let’s just say we would be in big trouble in terms of itinerary.
2) It was a fantastic experience
Why was it a tricky journey?
There’s no straightforward route from Barcelona to Lourdes. If you try to look from either the Spanish of the French train websites, there’s no train going to either way! It seemed that what most people do is flying to Paris from Barcelona, then take the train to Lourdes – which is in South of France and would take 6 hours! As at the time we were finishing the trip to London via Paris, it seemed silly to me to go back and forth between Paris and Lourdes, not to mention the amount of time and money wasted. Another popular route to cross to French border is via the East coast, but that would also take too long for us to get to Lourdes. Some buses available, all seemed to take forever.
After surfing for a while, I got to gather pieces of information from various forum threads. There is a little station at the heart of Pyrénées, just on the Spain side before crossing French border.
The station is at the end of both Spanish and French train tracks. In fact, it is the end of three train tracks for three different train systems (two French, one Spanish). The train websites show no direct route between the two countries, but you can literally go to the end of one line, hop off, cross the tracks, and hop on the other country’s line.
Meet the Station: Latour-de-Carol (French) / La Tor de Querol (Catalan)
(Yes it even has two slightly different names on each side to add to the uncertainty.)
So how do we get there?
From Barcelona, check schedule for Spanish local train R3 and make sure the train you are boarding gets all the way to La Tor de Querol (some of them don’t, only up to Puigcerda which is a station before La Tor de Querol). It takes almost 3 hours, but it does take you all the way through forests and mountains it’s fantastic!
Then check the schedule for the French train (another site to check) from Latour-de-Carol going to Toulouse (about 3 hours) or Lourdes (also via Toulouse – it takes another 2 hours from Toulouse to Lourdes).
There might be a small part of you that is kinda scared (I was!). What if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with no sight of the other train?
Have faith! The trains have been running for ages and they still are! (I did my journey in summer 2012 if you’re wondering.)
I’m sure you can do the other way around if you want, from France to Spain. Just that you can’t buy the Spanish train ticket in advanced because it’s a local train. I did buy the French train tickets in advance.
Another tip is try to bring your own lunch. La Tour de Carol station is so small that there’s literally only one small shop that has this little fridge with some sandwiches inside.
I must say this train journey was one of the highlights of our trip. The view of Pyrénées was majestic. Though it took us almost the whole day to reach Lourdes from Barcelona, we did take the best route. The trains were great on both sides and on time just like scheduled. Some people kinda complained that Spanish side of train isn’t good, but I had no problem whatsoever. I guess when you have traveled in Asia everything in Europe just feels so high in standard.
Pyrénées – Mont Perdu is a natural UNESCO World Heritage, inscribed in 1997. Fantastic view, great adventure, and another World Heritage site to tick off the list. Can’t be happier!