Over the Alps

Apologies for the long wait between blog posts but finally here is our latest instalment…

Having spent a few great days exploring Lyon and visiting our friend Victor, it was finally time to get on the road proper and to finish our whistle stop tour of free accommodation around the UK and France. To everyone who has fed, hosted and put up with us spreading our belongings EVERYWHERE, thank you. Lyon was a fantastic city and Victor a fantastic host. The only thing to spoil it was the horrendous traffic and traffic system. Even with GPS we got lost escaping the sprawling city and it was almost dark as we made our way up dirt roads to the hills overlooking Champier, where we made camp.

 The next day we headed for Parc Mercantour which Victor had suggested. On checking the map we realised that we could aim for Gap and then take ‘le Grande route des Alpes’ south to the national park. This would be full of twisting alpine roads and high passes, perfect for testing our nerve and the bikes abilities at reasonable altitude. En route we stopped in to investigate a monastery retreat, Notre-Dame de Salette, and fill our bellies as well as our souls.

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Back on the road it wasn’t long before we started noticing signs informing us of closures on the high passes that we had intended to take. A quick confirmation from a suitably outraged Frenchman, led us towards the Col de Larche and our wild camp for the night, down a gravel track underneath the picturesque Condamine de Chatelard. Having filled our larder earlier, this camp was the best yet; tasty chorizo and bean cassoulet washed down with ample cheap wine, on the banks of a glacial river under a bright sky full of star and moonlight. This is what we had hoped being on the road would be like. Unfortunately it wasn’t to last…

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Here we go…

It all started so well. We woke to a dry morning with the sun threatening to come out. We were feeling good about the day’s plan to cross over the Alps and head for Genoa on the Mediterranean coast. At this point it is important you understand that the Mediterranean coast has held a mythical status in our heads. Throughout the cold damp days spent in the basement in January and February, we reminded ourselves that it would all be worth it when we were drinking a nice glass of rose, watching the sunset over crystal clear Mediterranean waters, basked in a warm evening sun. This will be important later.

 After packing up the tent and bikes in record time (practice makes perfect) we were ready to get on our way. The obvious way out was over a boulder field, up a small but moderately steep hill, down the other side into another boulder/mudfield and then through the trees. Despite being nervous about the challenge due to her stumpy legs not being able to touch the ground, Lottie went first.  Unfortunately she forgot to stop accelerating at the top of the hill and went flying over the top and doing a breath taking stuntmanesque roll, crashed the bike, twisted the handlebars and put a great big dent in our beloved cooking pots.

After brushing her down and finally escaping the boulders,  it was inevitable that the rain would start. We unpacked our rain gear, Ryan looking cool, Lottie looking like an obese 40 year old man, and finally got on our way. About 10 minutes later and a few hundred meters higher, the rain turned to snow. This forced us to pull over at the last and apparently highest bar in France for coffee. Luckily they sold amusing postcards so we occupied ourselves by writing and warmed up with some tasty coffee.

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On the ski slopes at the top!
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Twisty Italian road

After hearing ominous tales of doom from local truckers regarding the snow situation, we decided not to heed their warnings and ventured out into the snow. As we drove higher we began to notice ski lifts and runs, then people actually skiing!! What were we doing?! As we entered Italy we left the smooth tarmac of the French mountain roads and continued onto twisty, broken roads with some terrifying drops should we not keep to the tarmac.

The road out of the mountains was stunning, and we eventually found ourselves on flat plains heading towards Cueno. Lottie managed to drop her bike again, just whilst standing still, before we found our route on the map and headed towards Genoa. On the way we happened upon the beautiful old town of Mondovi, complete with hidden cathedral, bicycle race and even a nice man who give us free coffee. Maybe our fortunes were beginning to change.

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The road to Genoa, via Savona and the Mediterranean coast, was desperately slow as the traffic steadily increased on the narrow twisting roads. This as only made worse by motorbikes for some reason having a slower speed limit than that for cars. Having just been notified of a speeding offence on our route out of the UK we were in no mood to collect any more points or fines.

It was much later than anticipated when we finally entered Genoa, but also nothing like our dreams as previously mentioned. It as noisy, full of crazy drivers and very expensive for 2 bikers on a budget. Like country bumpkins, afraid of the big smoke, we ran for the hills. It took us 2 hours of dodging traffic and trying to make sense of the sign posts but finally we found a quiet track that led to a popular fly tipping site that we could call home for the night. Frazzled heads from such a long day on the bikes didn’t need much in the way of home comforts to be able to fall straight asleep.

Thankfully the next day wasn’t quite so stressful though problems with one bike, closed camp sites and rumours of immigrants making camping ‘dangerous’ in the area all led to it being another long one as we pushed north all the way to Lake Garda. The breath taking scenery, hot shower, great pizza and beautiful swim in the lake made the extra saddlesore worth it.

 

A nice surprise along the way was racing enduro bikes down the mountain as they took part in a round of the Italian enduro Championship. Between stages, the bikes would race along the roads to the start of the next stage having to weave their between pedestrians, traffic and sometimes even saddlesore nomads. After the previous days tumble, Lottie was keen to get some tips and watch how it should be done!

 

With an eye on crossing the border to Slovenia, we headed east after enjoying the beautiful drive up the shore of Lake Garda. The mountains looming over us were magnificent whetting our appetite for the Dolomites that we would soon be driving through.

DSC00253 It was quite embarrassing therefore when we asked in a climbing shop “how far to the Dolomites” to be told that we were already in them. For climbing enthusiasts to not recognise these massive pillars of rock erupting from the valley floor all around them, is really a bit stupid. It doesn’t take anything away from the area though, it is truly stunning.

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Hmm.. where are the Dolomites??

The next day was spent negotiating the twisting roads that wind their way through, over and under the Dolomites. They made for some exciting riding as we descended some high passes beside skiers making the most of the late season snow.

DSC00242It was only once we got to Piave di Cadore and settled down for the evening that we realised how exhausted we were. The run of long days on the saddle, cold wet weather and fairly poor sleep in the tent, were taking their toll and resulted in tempers flaring. Life on the road is not solely made up of postcard pictures of sunny roads and smiling faces.

This brings us to the border of Slovenia and the promise of clear rivers, still lakes and deserted mountain peaks. Western Europe had been fun and relatively straight forward. The great food, wine and friendly locals will be fondly remembered, less so the extortionate price of Italian petrol and Lyon’s one way streets. Slovenia and its Balkan neighbours are unknown to us and hold a lot of intrigue as to what we’ll experience in the coming weeks. Hopefully we’ll be back soon to tell you its all good.

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Leaving Italy a few stone heavier!

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