Looking across to the snow capped alpine mountains seen from the back seat of a motorcycle
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Home Travel StoriesFrance 2013

The Stunning Alps

By Ren Withnell

By golly it was cold last night! By some miracle I avoid having to get out of the warm sleeping bag to go for a wee until an acceptable time this morning much to my relief (sic). It was cold but it did not rain and that's all that matters. The skies are a little misty and the sun is still behind the steep mountains as I wander around the campsite. There's a little playground. The pool is crisp and clean. The toilet blocks are nothing special but OK, they appear to be having some work done to all except those behind reception. I can't help but be constantly distracted by these magnificent surroundings though.

mist covered alpine mountain tops with wooden chalets in the forground
It's not a bad place to start your day really is it, the French Alps.

Things are afoot here. A skinny work weary man, close to retirement, keeps on moving stuff around. A piece of wood here, some pipe there, a board here and a sheet there. He's obviously making improvements, repairs and preparations but at his pace things won't be ready until next year. He looks content but I'm getting so frustrated at his lack of speed I almost offer to help. I don't. Instead I wake the gf with another cup of tea. The light skies and lack of rain rattling the tent has put her in a different mood. She's not keeping a stiff upper lip now, she's genuinely happy.

wood being made into railings for a chalet at la piscine campsite in the alps
Improvements and preparations are underway at the campsite...slowly...

We are survivors. And as survivors I decide to treat us and not push on too hard today. I don't know what time we're supposed to be off the site but I reckon before 1200 and we should be OK. We walk for 10 minutes to a small supermarket at the edge of town and furnish ourselves with luxuries like chocolate chunk granola, real milk, croissants and extras for tea later. A massive man greets us in English pushing a laden trolley. I'm confused for a moment, I don't recognise Franz from last night without his hat on. He's even bigger and even more like a big happy puppy in the daylight. His massive hand engulfs mine in a firm shake as we part.

valley floor and mountain sides walking to bourg d'oisans
This is just the walk from the campsite to the local shop. I wonder if it gets tiresome if you see it every day?

After a chocolaty breakfast we take to the showers. We're a bit giddy with ourselves as the sun is up, the day is warming and all is well with the world. One cubicle is larger than the others so we share a shower, oh how daring! It's good to see the gf naked and clean and I try to suck in my stomach to return the compliment. We refrain from inappropriate actions but revel in the "normality" of getting dressed together somewhere other than the tent. I leave her to her preening while I wash lots of clothes, today may be the only dry day and the only chance I have.

I hang the clothes anywhere I can, initially on a drying rack outside an empty chalet but it's in the shade so we move them to the tent. We look longingly at the pool as the temperature rises, I take off one of many layers. We play on the playground. This actually feels like a holiday today, not an endurance test and trial by rain. It is however getting on for midday and unless we're to stay another night we really ought to decamp and get on with it. It's after 1230 before the bike is loaded and as we roll out of the site the roads are starting to fill with cyclists making the most of the warming weather.

We could just return to our original route and carry on, the road from Grenoble to Gap looks very twisty on my already well worn map. But then this is the Alps and it would seem a shame to just get out as soon as possible. I decide we'll head further east as the road looks good and so does the weather. On the main road I turn left towards Briancon.

I've been to Scotland many times and it is a truly awesome, beautiful and breathtaking place. The roads are a biker's delight, tiny little hamlets and small towns offer refreshment, lochs and the sea are everywhere and it's all so quiet. This still does not prepare me for what this road brings. I've seen switchback turns on TV and even ridden a few, but not so many and so high as this road. I've seen snow capped mountains but not so angular and sharp as these. Everything has been turned up to 11. It's bigger, vaster, higher, wider and filled with superlatives that leave me wanting for words. I'd take another 20 days of misery and rain just to see this again if needs be.

a shuttered building in front of alpine mountains and sunshine on the road to briancon
Just another view. Just another place that leaves me wanting for words.

Scary is another word. I've watched TV programmes with names like "most dangerous roads" where a thin track is cut into the side of the mountain and the road often falls away. This road is secure and mettled but to my left sheer rock rises and in the gutter lies shale where some of it has fallen, signs warn of more to come. To my right however are small concrete blocks that are the only protection between us and a fall to the nothingness of infinity. Riding on the right causes me to ease off the throttle, those blocks look awfully close.

Tunnels too. Dark tunnels. Dark tunnels that don't suit a rider wearing sunglasses to protect from the glare of the snow on the mountain tops. Dark tunnels where I can't see with puddles where the snow melts through. Until I work out how to rip the sunglasses down my nose these tunnels are more terrifying than the sheer drops to my right. I'm in a bewilderment of emotions. Beauty and nature, fear and excitement. I'm not always happy, but I feel alive and wide awake.

No matter how my emotions are being toyed with the deep-rooted logic circuits in my mind are keeping me aware of the worn out front brake pads. This is perhaps a good thing overall, they encourage me to keep my speed down and to keep everything smooth. I'm also making great pains to read the road properly rather than attack it as to avoid harsh braking. I try to practice all those advance techniques except the stupid one about being on the wrong side of the road. As I learned in Scotland too, I make sure to slow right down when the road's clear to take in the surroundings. It's a shame to not ride such a good road hard, but it's equally a shame to flash through the most impressive eye candy that nature has to offer.

As we roll into Briancon I wonder about the possibility of finding some brake pads. Surely I'll have to find a large city and spend an hour or two asking directions, getting lost, struggling to interpret and fighting with traffic. After the last couple of hours pleasure this thought does not appeal at all. Briancon is OK, quite big and with traffic but not too bad, we slip through easily following the signs to Gap. Then there it is, a golden beacon of hope, exactly what I've been looking for, just what a man in my position needs. A large "YAMAHA" sign above a shop. Hallelujah!  

Perhaps I've been a bit premature. What in fact I've found is a petrol station with a small bike shop attached. Inside a dear old lady takes payment for fuel while a range of mostly scooters and a couple of larger Yamaha models stand behind her. Using a combination of sign language, pointing at brake callipers and my broken French she works out what I need. We peruse the catalogue together and find my part. She then spends some time looking under desks and in cupboards to no avail. She disappears into the garage and mutters something to the mechanic, to no avail. She has that French manner, she is providing the required level of service but with no smile. She offers "Gap" as the next place to try, and no more.

It's no use, but I'm not going to let this spoil my day. The road from Briancon to Gap is far less aggressive but still beautiful in another manner. This time broad open ranges with campsites and long views lead us down towards a lake. This lake, seen from above on the high road is deep crystal green and blue. Up here the water is untainted with such things as soil or sheep pooh. Kite boarders and canoeists take pleasure in their sport surrounded by hills and mountains. We pass through Embrun and into Savines-Le-Lac and I need fuel.

I tuck my sunglasses into my jacket zip, fill up and go in to pay. Ahem..."Eeee a teeel oon magazan du moto a prey d eee cee?" I've been practicing in my helmet you see, how to ask for a bike shop nearby. My French, I decide, must be perfect as the kind faced gentleman behind the counter babbles some direction to me. I explain I'm English so in broken English and French I work out I've to go back 10 kilometres to Embrun, to the McDonalds we'd passed and there's a bike shop there. Perhaps I've got these French all wrong, he was most helpful above and beyond the call of duty.

As I ride the 10k back to Embrun I get another view of the mountains from a new angle. I also feel something hit my boot, probably just a stone or a critter of some kind, no matter. I spot the complex with the McDonalds, supermarket, building suppliers and a few other shops. It takes a while, I'm looking for a bike shop, big glass windows, motorbikes and familiar names like Honda or Triumph. The only thing that makes sense is a scruffy workshop that mentions something to do with quads, this does not look promising at all.

I park on the gravel car park next to a few clapped out old cars and a dirty quad bike and enter. Inside it's really a light, dusty, airy and spacious garage with a handful of scooters, old bikes and several quads, some looking a bit newer. A short and slightly overweight chap in overalls greets me with some French babble, I explain I'm English, he laughs and babbles something else. I now know brake is "Frein" and soon we're looking at another catalogue and I find my make and model. He gets the number and walks to some shelves.

Come on, if Yamaha Briancon don't have this pad then surely some backwater bike bodger isn't going to have them either. He reaches up and pulls down a pack from the shelf and places it on the table without fanfare or smugness, as though a thousand bikers ask for the same thing everyday. I recognise them, yep, that's them! Mind you, it'll cost me €32 to have them. I'd say he's a robbing frog but there's the price, in the catalogue, plain to see. I guess that's just how much they are. I pay, begrudgingly, but he's got them and I need them and that's that. Yippee!

I get back to the gf holding the pads like I've won the world cup and these are my trophy. She's unimpressed, she's probably more relieved that we can get on with our travels without me harping on about looking after the bike and the pads and how these blooming foreign places and opening hours don't make any sense. We head to the McDonalds and I celebrate with another cup of god-awful tea. Still, the view through the windows here is great and the weather map looks a little less daunting than it has done over recent days. It's looking rough over Germany though.

looking through the window in mcdonalds embrun to the snow capped mountains of the alps
It's a fair old view from the McDonalds in Embrun.

There is one thing missing. My sunglasses. I can't find them then I realise what must have hit my boot when we left the petrol station. My sunglasses. I'd left them in my zip, probably zipped them up until they fell onto the tank bag then later onto the road. Dammit. Well, they were only cheapies and dangerous in the tunnels anyhow. As we ride back towards the station the gf taps me, she's seen them at the side of the road. I turn around and sure enough, there they are lying forlorn and abandoned at the road side. They are also broken. The gf almost sheds a tear at the poor broken sunglasses, deserted and lonely by the road as I ride away. Goodbye dear sunglasses, we knew them so well.

We finally skirt around Gap and rejoin the original route I'd planned to take. What a diversion though. Previously I'd wanted sat-nav as I was sick of being lost but that piece of being lost was the best kind of lost I could ever have imagined. The road now is busier but not too busy, the mountains are further away but visible. It's still a good road this and a delight to ride. I push a little harder now safe in the knowledge I have pads so if these do wear out I can replace them. Time is getting on. We set out late and messed around getting pads so I'm starting to think about finding a campsite. 

large rock formation with houses at the foot at sisteron france
We stop in Sisteron just to get some more snaps and to catch our breath.

The next town is Digne-Les-Bains. My phone app suggests there's a campsite nearby which we find. It looks OK, nothing magical but it's time to stop, make camp and settle down for the evening. Following what is now becoming a routine the tent goes up swiftly, the gear is spread around appropriately and we're done. Following the routine further we jump back on the bike and find a supermarket to buy something for tea then more milk and chocolate granola for breakfast. This is our 6th night on the road and we are establishing a pattern. 

Humans love the new and exciting, it's what makes life worthwhile. Yet, like it or not, we need our routines. They make life easier, manageable and predictable. There's safety and comfort in the familiar even if it's boring. The key is to find the right balance, enough new to keep your interest, enough routine to keep you secure. Smart guy that Robert Pirsig. It's getting cold and so it must be bedtime. What a day!

my motorcycle next to the tent with clothes drying on a cord between them. big 4 by 4 behind and people talking
Even wild adventuring bikers need to clean and dry their clothes at some point.

Forming a Plan The formulation of a cunning a devious plan to take on Europe is formed in the tiny mind of our intrepid explorer...
The GF Question Do I take the gf with me to France? Can she come? Will she like it? These are all very difficult questions...
France...I wanna go but can I...?? Can Sharon make it to Europe? Will the kids survive? Will the bf behave? Is there any space for makeup? All these questions and more...
The Load Getting everything we NEED and a few items we WANT onto a motorcycle can be a problem. Now I have to work out how to get 3 WEEKS worth of gear onto the poor donkey(aka bike)
Camping In Cambridge The start of our Epic Adventure...or bike holiday around France. Cambridge is surprisingly nice really.
France - Day 1 Sharon's first day from her point of view. Cushy Cambridge and dry weather...what more could a girl want?
The Chunnel The Chunnel, I'm excited but also stressing because the bike's already broken before we leave the UK. I worry too much...
France - Day 2 - Bikes, Trains and Tents Sharon leads us through sunshine, hair issues, the Channel Tunnel and into France. But France is eerily quiet...
Here Comes The Rain Bike fixed...bike broken. Rain, endless dull roads, miserable towns and more rain. Oh the joy of travel! At least Epernay welcomed us with a huge smile :-)
France Day 3 - Crying Through The Rain The rain plays tricks with Sharon's spirit but a stiff upper lip and giving herself a good talking to see her through.
Rain Into Dijon Rain, rain and more rain. Just how long can it last? Would we be better off with a Jet Ski? Can we continue to keep our Great British Stiff Upper Lips?
France Day 4 - We Are Mustard We Are Dijon is the destination and we're surviving the rain...that makes us well mustard! We're happy in spite of the rain but how long can we keep smiling?
The Joy Of Being Lost As we head south the rain lightens but will it ever stop? I get lost which is no surprise, but lost turns out to be the best part of travelling. Are things finally taking a turn for the better? I do hope so...
France Day 5 - Biker's Paradise Sharon's day 5 in France starts out rough but improves considerably. What delights can put such a joyous grin on her face?
The Stunning Alps We are both facing a very strange situation...that of sunshine, warmth, beauty and pleasure.
France Day 6 - Magnificent Mountains Sharon shares the delights of the Alps. Sometimes life is good!
Highs And Lows From the stunning Alps to our ultimate destination...MONACO! Is it all I expected? Will it be as I imagined?
France Day 7 - Scooter Mayhem Sharon describes the best and the worst France has to offer. Ride on the back with her from the beauty of the countryside to the mayhem of Monaco
Resting And Deciding Today we stop to take a breather and recuperate. It's also time to make a decision about the rest of our journey. I used to be indecisive, I'm not so sure now.
France Day 8 - Chilling In The Pool A day off from the journey sees Sharon and Ren doing something very silly, breaking things and achieving very little. What a splendid way to spend a day!
Going West Day 9 sees us heading west from the coast. It's finally dry, but it's still windy so not too hot. The gf's not well and Ren is relentlessly lost. Overall not a bad day then!
France Day 9 - Poppies, Vines and a Wet Lettuce Feeling poorly rather spoils Sharon's day today. Still on she must go on and survive what might have otherwise been a good day.
Biggest Bridge In The World In glorious sunshine and fine health we make our way from Nimes to Millau complete with it's Viaduct. Sometimes life is good, occasionally it's great!
France Day 10 - Deflated to Elated Today is a good day for Sharon. Today the sun shines, the scenery is beautiful and the people are pleasant. Join her as France puts a smile on her face.
The Wettest Bridge In The World The Millau Viaduct ought to be impressive. It is, but nowhere near as impressive as the amount of rain falling from the skies.
France Day 11 - Grim Not every day can be filled with sunshine and smiles, even on holiday. This one certainly was not for Sharon!
False Hope Part One Ren would like to invite you to a joyous report about the delightful weather in the South of France! He'd like to. Instead it just rained and rained and rained and rained...
France Day 12 - It's Gloomy Inside And Out Sharon freezes her butt off during the night then is treated to a cold and wet ride. The Ren sure knows how to spoil a girl.
False Hope Part Two Is this the end? Has Armageddon arrived? Is this the Apocalypse? It sure as hell feels like it.
France Day 13 - Quietude For A While Sharon's report on another day of mixed weather. There's peace and beauty then there's mud and cold. Adventure...no-one said it would be easy!
Sunshine After Rain A night of rain soaked delirium. Will the day be any better? Will our travellers ever dry out?
France Day 14 - A Bit of 5 Star Luxury Sharon has a much better day on the road and a luxurious 5 star campsite. It's amazing what difference a little dry weather can make.
Back Into The Flatlands A quiet, simple and easy days ride through France for Ren. Pleasant enough but the flatlands are getting a little boring now.
France Day 15 - A Bit Of 2 Star Delight Sharon has an ordinary day and a frustrating battle with the weather.
Not Far To Chinon It's a short, easy and peaceful ride this day in France. Ren gets all philosophical too.
France Day 16 - A Historical Walk Around Chinon Sharon enjoys a hint of sunshine and the history of Chinon, France.
Shopping To Mamers Ren's airbed's leaking now. No problem, find a shop and buy a new one...easy? I don't think so...
France Day 17 - The Gift Of TIme Even though the weather is cool Sharon's heart is warmed by the people she meets in France today
Don't Go To Ault Ren has a grim, long, dull and uninspiring day in France. The accommodation doesn't help.
France Day 18 - Is This Misery Or Joy? Sharon finds sunshine, ancient caravans and ponders about hapiness.
Looking For Luxury With time on their side Ren looks for the perfect campsite for the next to night. Not finding it makes him a very grumpy boy.
France Day 19 - Campsite Conundrums Although the wind blows the sun is shining while Sharon looks for the perfect pitch.
Resting In Ambleteuse Ren philosophises too much on the final day of his trip around France.
France Day 20 Sharon's in a reflective mood on the last day of our French trip.
Back Into England Ren recalls the final day of the French Adventure. It's all over far too soon.
What Did We Learn? Ren sums up his thoughts about France and the French trip.
France On Reflection Sharon sums up her her experience of the French Trip. Damn those Alps.
Home Travel StoriesFrance 2013 Random Link

Reader's Comments

kath brooks said :-
Looks like a beautiful place to visit
UTC
 

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