Touring : Alp to the Alps, France !

We didn’t rush down to the French Alps, and in fact it was 12 days after leaving Kent that we finally reached them. We had the luxury of a month away, so we were able to follow a leisurely route down through northern France, stopping to admire the scenery in the Champagne and the Jura and explore towns like Laon and Besancon. The plan was to head south over the mountains, down through the Alpes Maritimes to the Med then back again, taking in plenty of cols on the way and hoping that our Transalp would live up to its name.

Col de Madeleine was our first objective; 16 miles long and with 30 hairpins, it’s a great mountain pass, quite narrow and steep with one or two tiny settlements perched on slopes that seem impossible to build on. We had the whole pass to ourselves, except for the many cyclists emulating their favourite Tour de France heroes. The route down was equally good and eventually brought us to the town of St Jean de Maurienne where we found the road up to Col de la Croix de Fer, another great pass with a series of tight switchbacks taking us to the summit at 2068m. The Col de Glandon followed, and a precipitous descent took us to the village of Allemond where we camped, though only for the second time in the trip so far.

Next day we were heading for Alpe d’Huez and I was looking forward to tackling the 21 hairpins to the summit, but with heavy, slow-moving traffic it was a disappointment, though the much quieter descent made up for it.

At Grenoble we picked up Route Napoleon – the N85 –which carves a sinuous route through the foothills of the Alps as far as Gap. Then it was on the N94 for Digne, and to the Serre-Poncon lake. This was an amazing turquoise, with a very impressive bridge crossing it to the town of Savines le Lac where we turned right onto the N100, which skirted the southern shore of the lake. All fine biking roads, but when we finally made it to Digne, the temperature (already sweltering in Gap) was still hovering in the 30s.

Gorge Yourself

We were being spoilt by excellent roads, and Route Napoleon, twisting and undulating along the valley of the Asse, was the best of the trip so far. But Castellane was heaving with traffic and people, so after a short stop we headed straight for the Grand Canyon du Verdon. This was more like it – a canyon of spectacular proportions, the river occupying a narrow strip at the bottom and a vertical rock cliff soaring up above us. The narrow road twisted this way and that following the river – sometimes under rocky overhangs, sometimes through tunnels blasted in the rock – often too narrow for cars to pass and busy with ramblers, cyclists, cars, motorhomes and even coaches.

The route starts off at river level but gradually gains height until it bursts out of the gorge, with the river about a thousand feet below. That’s when the gorgeous Lac de Sainte-Croix comes into view, and the canoes and rafts that have beenwhite watering burst out of the gorge onto its serene waters.

That night we camped at Draguignan, which is the French equivalent of Salisbury Plain, a vast military training area. We survived that, and being less than 20 miles from the Med, had to see the sea, so ended up in the youth hostel at Frejus, spending an expensive day hiding under an umbrella on the beach. From here, we were heading home, but we still wanted to cross as many cols as possible, so headed up back-roads to Grasse and past some serious tailbacks before rejoining the Route Napoleon, now numbered N6085.

This was the road at its best – sweeping curves, long straights and a great surface. The scenery was fine too with forested hills as far as the eye could see. But the icing on the cake was the lack of other traffic, which meant we could really press on again. This time we didn’t stop but took a right towards the Barrage de Castillon and the valley of the Var.

But this wasn’t the highlight of the tour. In the valley, the river we’d followed for some distance now funnelled into a narrow gorge while the road skirted the side of a vertical cliff. The reddish brown rock forming the gorge was devoid of vegetation; quite stark and stunning. Then came nine tunnels in quick succession, with the stretches in between livened up by the valley side dropping down vertically to the river far below, and only a low wall separating us from open air.

After the village of Guillaume, the highlight somehow got better. We followed the headwaters of the Var until the road started to climb. It was quite narrow – just wide enough to pass an oncoming car – and the surface was poor, especially along the edge, but the switchback turns were fabulous. What gave it that extra frisson of excitement was the remoteness of it all. In the 20-odd miles from Guillaume we’d seen two tiny hamlets, then no other sign of habitation and no human beings. The summit finally arrived at 2327m, our highest so far, while Mt Pelat towered above us at over 3000m.

We started down. It wasn’t as steep as the way up but loose chippings, the narrowness of the road and the lack of any sort of barrier between us and the steep slope all made it a bit fraught. At the bottom, the road hugged the riverside and we made good progress to the town of Barcelonnette, having covered 160 miles of the most amazing roads and scenery.

Col de Vars and Col d’Izoard came next day, the latter with a sight that we would not forget. The mountain ridge had been weathered to such an extent that the scree slope stretched across for a good kilometre – a smooth, steeply sloping surface of sand-like material in pinkish grey, down to the road and beyond, with pinnacles of rock sticking up through it like giant stumps. It looked like something you’d see in a desert and is aptly named Casse Deserte. Mind blowing.

We bagged Col du Galibier next day; another scary one with a narrow, rough road leading to the top, more vertiginous drops to our right and no barrier between us and oblivion. After a traffic light-controlled tunnel, we turned right for the final road to the summit, which had been recently resurfaced but was even narrower and steeper. I prayed that a car would not meet us, and luckily none did. Mind you, the view from the top, at 2462m, was superb.

There were many more cols on the route home, with a diversion through Italy and Switzerland, where we camped at the foot of the Eiger for four days. Back home, I made it over 2700 miles and up (and down) 25 cols. I reckon the Transalp had lived up to its name.