That Friday morning on the balcony of the hotel in Valloire will be remembered forever as where I heard that the UK started Brexit. We’ll have plenty more of that in days to come, meanwhile “Keep Calm and Carry On” comes to mind.
A memorable morning for riding too, putting on my leathers and crash-hat for the last time on this trip and concentrating on the mountain road up to the Col du Galibier (2645 m.), firstly through alpages (Alpine pastures). I came round a bend to disturb two marmottes on the road. They froze, I slowed down and they ran off in to the lush grass and fields. I think they were basking on the hot tarmac, understandable behaviour but not a good survival strategy. Onwards up as the road climbed through the familiar phases of the middle mountain, alpages giving way to bare rock or gravel, finally walls of packed snow either side of the tarmac. The weather changed, misty clouds attaching to the peaks of the Écrins to the south, the peaks I’ve now left behind to the north hidden in hazy mist. Mont Blanc massif not showing.
The road to the Col du Galibier isn’t a fast biking road but it’s spectacular for the views and for the situation. You’re on the frontier of the old kingdom of Savoie (annexed by France after an infamous plebiscite in 1860, ie referendum) and viewing the geological boundary between the Écrins and the Alps. It’s a famous stage on the Tour de France although happily cycle traffic wasn’t the issue it has become on Mont Ventoux.
Riding down to the Col du Lauteret (2058 m.) the road passes wild flowers blooming profusely.
The Col du Lauteret would, on any other trip, be a spectacular destination, the col faces a glacier and is surrounded by many peaks well over 3000 m. But it’s only just over two thousand metres, the last of my trip this time and so it seemed just-so! A pause for a coffee and then the fast long ride down the valley of the river Durance from Briançon, across the bridge spanning the Lac du Serre-Poncon and past Chorges where the GLME 2012 summer camp was based.
Suddenly the mountains are no longer tipped with snow and then the valley I am riding down is no longer closed at the end but is open to blue sky. The breeze from the ventilator on the speed bump on the back of my leathers becomes no longer cool but hot like a hair drier: I am back in Provence.
Roughly 1750 km., six nights out. It wasn’t the trip to the Eastern Alps I had been hoping for but I didn’t get soaked and I did see the mountains. I managed to make a highly memorable trip making the fullest use possible of the weather.
Dawn in the high mountains, then an Italian breakfast and super coffee. Riding down from the col, gathering speed as the road improves but still with scary drops and hard landings at every turn. The Italians have this road in good shape, as did the Swiss on their side.
Finally down in Aoste and feeling the full heat of the midsummer sun. My route takes me back up the Vallée d’Aoste to Courmayeur, the valley headed by the magnificent south side of Mont Blanc.
Brilliant ride round the three Swiss passes around the watershed between the Rhône, the Rhine and the Po. Each pass is different, they’re all well higher than 2000m and to ride again the trio one after the other has been difficult to arrange. Yesterday’s precipitation fell as snow on the peaks so the views are as distracting as they come. Glaciers, deep valleys and many, many tetrahedral granite peaks with relief outlined by the new snow.
The Susten pass (2224 m.) is the most obvious choice for “best ride”, both the brilliant road engineering of the climb up the valley of the river Aare from Meiringen and the deceptively fast curves on the long run down the mountainside to Andermatt. Deceptive: even more than usual it’s one missed apex and it’s light out or back to the wheelchair, game over.
Up to the Furka Pass (2436 m.) from Andermatt, the route hasn’t been “improved” like the Susten. So a more rustic surface and old-style granite or concrete markers on the edge of the precipice. The vertiginous drops affect the car drivers too, meaning they don’t stay on their side of the road.
Starting from the Alpine spa town of Saint-Gervais, my ride was under the flanks of Mont Blanc (4809 m.), showing brilliant white with lots of fresh new snow from the previous night's storm..
A lap of the historic road race route around and over Mt. Ventoux (1912 m.), it’s a challenging route of 55 km. As well as a number of hairpin bends and a lot of altitude loss/gain there are a number of truly scary straight runs which end in either a blind curve (or multiple curves) with either hard rock, a sheer drop or just forest to greet you if you get it wrong. Not really time to appreciate the views of all of Provence from the Alps to the Mediterranean. A few opportunities to feel the breeze down the inside of the back of the suit from the intake on the speed bump but generally, sharing the road with so many Lycra fetishists (ie cyclists, and there are thousands of them) makes it difficult to imagine how the route would feel as a bike road race, like the TT. Anyhow, the villages were bustling and atmospheric, especially Bédoin on the south side.
You'll have to imagine the girders of the railway bridge over the Rhône here at Arles as it hasn't been reinstated after being blown in World War Two. You could equally imagine the Roman river crossing here, a large number of boats were lashed together with a pathway precariously proceeding across. The lions atop the piers recall other (permanent) Roman bridges in the area such as the Pont Flavain at St Chamas.
The barge cruising empty downstream the heavy river flow looks capable of carrying at least 32 containers, which saves at least 32 articulated lorries from the roads along this route.
Maybe this isn't entirely the meaning of “Conceptual Photography” although Arles is home to the renowned Rencontres d'Arles formerly known as the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d'Arles) as well as the highly-regarded L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie - ENSP.
Lunch time in the pretty port of Cassis: a classic retreat to the Mediterranean sunshine from storms further north. This should be about a sit-down meal at a harbour-side restaurant featuring seafood or Provençal cuisine. Increasingly the French tourists appear to be abandoning to the foreign tourists the over-priced restaurants serving “prettied up peasant food” (like Soupe de Poissons or Bouillabaisse) and themselves settling down to a rather cheaper picnic direct from the boulangerie artisanale.
View of dawn over the river Saône at Macon, a major tributary to the Rhône. Our motel room and terrace opened directly on to the river banks: it's surprisingly reassuring the way a major river “just keeps on rolling” past. The textures of the surface constantly changing but always moving steadily and incessantly downstream. Local wine excellent... we chose and enjoyed a bottle of Azé (Maconnais) as we had driven amongst the vineyeards.
Hiking on the Mont Dore massif in the Auvergne region of France. Much dairy agriculture here with many local gastronomic treats employing local cheeses such as St. Nectaire and Bleu d'Auvergne. The Mont Dore massif is described as stratovolcano that has been inactive for the past 220 thousand years. During that time, the area has undergone several episodes of glaciation so much of the topography doesn't immediately strike the eye as "volcanic", at least until alerted to imagine a main peak much higher than the eroded stump which remains. My previous winter hike, on snow-shoes with the peaks still fully covered with snow, revealed the distinctive cone shapes of some of the susuduary peaks of the same massif: see Puy de l'Angle, 1738 m. The Auvergne area still has geological activity, there are hot springs in the spa towns and the west tower of the cathedral at St. Nectaire was severely damaged by the earthquake of 1842. We talked with some French scientists who had been using muon tomography to image some the local features.
“Streets of London” was one of the background songs to my time at university in Nottingham, the first track on Ralph McTell’s album “Spiral Staircase” (1969). The song’s a mainstay of London buskers even now - I heard it played and sung very creditably by a busker at Leicester Square tube station just yesterday. Not a hit until a rework in 1974, the song has a timelessness with its poignant words and simple tune.