Day 6 already – where has the time gone?!
Starting at the beginning, Sunday 5.15am started far too early but we still managed to leave half an hour late. Heavy rain overnight so, although we had a dry ride, the bikes already looked as though they’d gone half way round Europe by the time we reached Poole. Not that many miles covered and already one near disaster as a couple of deer leapt out between us near the Ox Drove, one falling in the road with legs thrashing whilst I had something of a nosedive and hasty swerve; there was more than fog clouding the air!
The ferry was very straightforward and fortunately something of a mill pond crossing as we had no sea sick pills and apparently in France you can’t buy any kind of medicine other than from a pharmacy – none on board. Fortunately time passes quickly when you fall asleep on the heli pad!
The first few necessary miles were boring dual carriageway roads but we were soon off them and stripped of our extra layers as the temperature, and humidity, soared. Aah, the joy of the French D road system. The scenic route through Le Mans industrial estates (!) took us to our pre-booked Campanile; apparently they’ve done them all up – but it seems they forgot Le Mans Sud! Somehow the French always do food well and this was no exception – and to be honest, the room wasn’t bad either.
The morning of Day 2 was all about flat country, D roads, sunflowers and herds of ginger cattle and sheep sheltering from the sun. Also my first ever sighting of a wild boar family – something of a rarity in France as they are hunted down to every last piglet (or is that boarlet?). The afternoon brought with it fantastic roads that took us to our second night – in Villereale. The Hotel Europa was undoubtedly the place to be in the 20s and its faded glory was a delight. We spent the evening in the 13th century covered market enjoying the local produce with a Dutch lady from Goes, her Belgian husband and their friends from Brittany – great music too. A storm raged as we wined and dined with thunder, lightning and torrential rain – very atmospheric!
After a much longer day than anticipated we reached Plagne where we met up with friends and a very pleasant, but somewhat boozy, evening ensued. The plentiful mosquitos were pretty lively that evening but probably had hangovers the following morning – and we all had mosquito acne to one degree or another!
Breakfast was coffee and Cognac (it had to be done!) in Mirepoix, the nearest ‘big’ town, and genuinely medieval. We then spent the day in the ancient city of Carcassonne wandering the narrow streets, suffering vertigo on the ramparts and listening to a section of the Moscow choir in the Cathedral. A good stock up on mosquito repellent on the way home gave us all a better night and it would have been a better start had the packing routine been sussed!
Heavy rain overnight and a few motorway miles to start but we were soon in the Alps. As we climbed the northern approach to Mt. Ventoux the villages shrank and horizons widened. A coffee and photo stop at the obligatory summit café (with some fantastic old hill climb photos) and we were soon on our way down through the southern lunar landscape, bereft of trees. (For the cycling enthusiasts we found the Tom Simpson memorial and paid our respects) There were still a lot of cyclists and watching them grind their granny gear reinforces how fit the Tour de France guys really are.
Two more Cols and our anticipated hours ride took two and a half – but well worth it! We spent the night at Dingy Bath (Digne Les Bains) before heading for a couple more passes and the Col de Bonnette (after which my Transalp is named); the highest pass in Europe. It was a morning of wild flowers, fresh cut hay, shaded gorges, cold blue streams and innumerable switchbacks – fantastic!
We reached the top at the same time as a group of sponsored cyclists who made our ‘peak photo’ look a bit pathetic! The Col de Lombardie took us into Italy and Cuneo for the night. The Hotel Ligure was hidden in the cobbled alleyways of the old town; quite Bohemian and a real gem … as was the restaurant the Locunda La Volpe Con La Pancia Piena which specialised in regional food and wine (Barola anyone?!) The main town square was filled with classic cars taking part in the Rally Jean Behra – that would explain why supper was a bit late then!
Day 6 – here we are at last. Not the best intro to Italy; too built up, too much traffic, too much litter – and waaaay too much rain. Between Parma and Reggio we rode through a torrential thunderstorm with bruised skies, lightning and the road under so much water it might well have been a 30 mile ford. On the positive side it slowed the drivers down – but didn’t stop the tailgating! Shortly before Modena (home of Ferrari and Balsamic) we finally rode through it and found a hotel on the outside of town. It was a four star duff choice but the local Roadhouse Grill was an unexpected good find – the best Nero D’Avola since Sicily in 2006. Funnily enough, it was from the same area as our best ever Nero so all in all a good evening. To top it off, we walked back into the hotel grounds to see our two dirty bikes in pride of place outside the front door.
Next up Ancona and a ferry to Greece where our daily mileage should drop considerably and we get into ‘explore’ rather than ‘get there’ mode.
(All images are copyright to Noeline Smith)