I initially allowed three days for this leg of the trip. It looked like the weather was going to close in, so I decided to do it in two. They were to be the toughest, but also most rewarding two days of the trip so far.
Leaving Joe’s was a straightforward autoroute blast along the coast to Menton, where the Route des Grandes Alpes begins. Unfortunately the French love arbitrarily closing things, like the tourist information office, which is where I had hoped to find a map and some advice about which passes were open. In a presse I found a map that covered at least the first part of the route and turned towards the mountains.
My first Alpine pass was the Col de Turini. I reached the top through a hailstorm where I took shelter in a café. The proprietor said that the pass between me and the next petrol station was closed. I didn’t have enough in the tank to go around it so chose to double back towards Nice, hoping there would be one along that road. There wasn’t, but I just made it to the outskirts of Nice where I filled up. I chose a different route back into the mountains and had the interesting experience of filtering through the rush hour jams at 80km/h with all the maxi scooters.
In some cases, like riding through Nice, it’s impossible to stop and photograph what is going on. It’s also hard to stop when the weather is bad because it’s no fun standing around in the rain getting wet hands, which leads to the misery of wet gloves. I have less photos of this leg of the trip than I would perhaps like. But at the same time I have as many photos as I was happy taking. There is a tension between photographing a journey and taking part in it. I probably spend the most time with the camera once I’ve stopped and set up camp. That’s when the light is best, in the mornings and evenings, plus I find it easier to concentrate once the riding, navigating and campsite locating is done or yet to begin.
I found my new favourite campsite at the foothills of the Col de Cayolle, a flat grassy spot completely surrounded by mountains. The altitude was about 1400m so I knew that under my sleeping bag I’d have to wear the full complement of leggings, a long sleeved top, wooly jumper and socks, plus a down jacket to get a good night’s sleep. As I climbed the col in the morning the snow line was only 200m above my camp so I’d estimate the night time temperature would only have been a degree or two above freezing. As usual I was up with the sun (at about 6am) but didn’t mind at all. It was fantastic to have the road all to myself, and I was so excited about the day ahead that I wouldn’t have got back to sleep anyway.
To take the above photo I removed a glove and set it on the ground beside me. It swiftly slid its way into the lake and I spent half an hour throwing lumps of snow into the water to push it backwards or forwards towards one bank or the other. I was unsuccessful and—probably wisely considering the temperatures—decided against stripping off and paddling in. I still had summer gloves at least, and on the way down saw some animals more suited to the climate than I now was.
There were loads of these little creatures on the road down from the Col de Cayolle.
It was Saturday and there were lots of bikes—with and without engines—in the mountains. Near Briançon I joined at about 100 cars and 50 motorbikes at a Police roadblock because there was a cycle race taking place on the road ahead. 45 minutes later the road reopened, and somehow I ended up being the first bike to leave. It was very surreal passing the few leading cars then having so many bikes in my mirrors, the road empty and flanked every now and then by a policeman or two.
Heading up the Col de la Croix de Fer I ended up in the middle of a group of Norwegians on very shiny sportsbikes. We all stopped at the reservoir pictured below. I talked to them briefly: they had trailered their bikes across northern Europe for 4 days just to ride the Alpine roads for a weekend.
It was still tricky picking a route around the closed passes, especially since I was now off the map I’d bought in Menton. I pulled over next to some German bikes and asked them if they had a karte that I could look at. They obliged, and seemed to think that although the next pass was officially still closed it would be possible to cross it. I tagged along and indeed, we reached the top on a snow-free road.
Coming down the other side of the pass the road was completely blocked by a huge digger. With a bit of manhandling we got all five bikes around it and we went our separate ways shortly afterwards. Many thanks to Kai and friends.
There were a few more passes to do, then a short stretch of motorway in order to get to Péron, where my cousin lives. The final couple of hours of riding were on the easiest roads, but I was mentally drained by the time of my 8pm arrival. 14 hours of riding in one day, and all of the cols in the second picture crossed in less than 24 hours. It felt like the rest of the trip had been training for this day. A month previous I would have found it too difficult.
It may not sound enjoyable to push so hard but sometimes that is the adventure. It goes back to, and deeper than, the tension between experiencing a journey and photographing it. There is some joy that doesn’t start until all else pulls out of focus, leaving only the sharp edge between the tarmac and the rest of everything, that cuts a line from one moment to the next.
Bad Photoshop job because I didn't take enough pictures of the map.
An hour or two on the autoroute left me hungry, in need of fuel and ahead of schedule. I stopped at an aire, after which I didn’t much feel like getting back on the bike. I scouted around and I realised that if I climbed on top of a picnic shelter I could sleep right by my bike but without anyone being able to see me. It was more homelessness than camping, but I still woke up with a view of the snow-capped Pyranees back in the direction I’d come from and the sun rising in the direction I was going. I swung down to the ground, surprising a French van driver, loaded my bag into my box and set off for one of the more interesting bits of French motorway, the Milau Viaduct.
The trip could easily have ended at the following scene. I arrived minutes after it happened (there were only two vehicles ahead of me, neither of which were damaged, thankfully) but had I been immediately behind the truck…
There were lots of UK-registered bikes at Milau. I talked to one group of guys who’d ridden all the way from Yorkshire to Italy to watch the MotoGP. Funnily enough they’d also had to sleep at a motorway aire a few nights previous after getting stuck at a closed pass and finding all the hotels occupied. They said (and I can imagine) that it was pretty cold in just their leathers. I felt very glad of my sleeping bag and mat, and glad I wasn’t rushing to get back to a desk by Monday morning.
In the exhibition at Milau there was a large-scale map on the wall and I realised I could make my onward journey through the Gorges du Tarn, which I hadn’t researched at all but turned out to be pretty spectacular.
I climbed out of the other side of the gorge towards Cervennes National Park. There was a sign for something called "Aire Naturellement du Camping" which sounded promising, but turned out to be a rather depressing field that charged €5 to set up a tent—non merci.
Less than 15km down the road I found the best campsite of the trip so far: well hidden from the road, and with a soft bed of pine needles for insulation and comfort. It was so quiet that I could hear the rush of wind under the wings of a buzzard as it swooped overhead. The view into the national park was a bonus; it’s nice to watch the landscape change as the sun goes down and then wake up as the reverse process is happening.
My next destination was Joe. We’ve known of each other for many years and have mutual friends but have only met once, again during our 2009 BMX trip. So it was really generous of him (and family) to put me up for a couple of nights and show me his BMX trails/vegetable garden hybrid. He’s put a few photos of my stay online as well.
I thought the hard pard of the trip was over at this point, but, as you’ll find out in the next update, that turned out to not quite be the case…
P.S. I registered quis.cc 10 years ago today. Happy birthday old website.
One place I wanted to visit on my way out of Spain was the Fonts d’Algar. Australia had made me a bit of a connoisseur of waterfalls and while it lost points for the €4 entry fee and landscaping there is little better than swimming in fast-flowing water on a hot day. Being 20km from Benidorm I identified a fellow English speaker by their vest tan and asked for a picture of myself:
The landscape here was still mountainous, and my riding—as it had been throughout Spain—was improving all the time. While there is a part of me that is still surprised it’s something I enjoy there is a pleasure in progressing at anything.
To find somewhere to sleep that night my tyres got a different kind of workout. I had found another campsite on the same website that led me to the Balcon d’Alicant. It was fairly late when I got near it, and the signs pointed off down a gravel road. I thought it couldn’t be far, and thought the same after the first 1, 5 and 10km, eventually arriving not at a camp site but a hiker’s refuge. I wasn’t about to turn down free shelter, plus a fire is a comfort I can’t usually have wild camping (though I found in the morning that only one of the three windows had any glass remaining so it hadn’t been doing much to keep me warm). I’m unsure of the ettiquette of sleeping in one when not actually hiking, but I at least replaced what I burned by collecting dead wood.
I woke up with a lot of kilometers ahead of me and had learned my lesson from my previous experience in Northern Spain: long days with uncertain weather are much better with somewhere to stay afterwards. I was glad of this foresight when I crossed the Pyranean mountains, from a cloudless 25˚C in Spain, to 5˚C and limited visibility the other side of the Col de Somport, and something in between the two once I descended into France for the Hotel F1 in Pau.
I’d been to this area when I was about 6. I remembered (and wanted to revisit) the Kakuetta Gorges and the Holzarte footbridge. At the former I parked up next to a UK-registered KTM 990 Adventure. I found its owner walking back up the gorge, a guy from Bournemouth named Adrian. Turned out he’d been following a similar route to me and it was really nice to not feel totally alone—I hadn’t seen a single UK-registered bike in the rest of Spain. Even nicer was to come back to my bike and find a friendly note from him saying to give him a call if I had any problems along the way. It sucked to check his website again while writing this up to find that he’s back in the UK temporarily because of mechanical issues that started a day after we met. I feel very thankful for my own mechanical fortune, and guilty that maybe I could have helped if I’d been friendly enough to give him my details straight away.
I was hoping to stay in the Pyranees longer but at least two of the high mountain passes I wanted/needed to cross were closed because there was still too much snow. So with some regret I picked up the autoroute in a westerly direction, which is where I will also pick up the next post…
Leaving Granada I took the highest road in Europe (3380m, though closed to the public after about 2600m) up Pico Veleta. Even in southern Spain that’s enough altitude for snow to still be on the ground, yet within 250km I would also visit somewhere that only gets three days of rain/year, and somewhere to go for a swim in the sea.
The road up (a dead end, so also back down) the mountain was fantastic: smooth and sweeping at the bottom then with altitude steeper, narrower, but no less well-surfaced. Across the rest of the Sierra Nevada mountains the roads were universally great. I had a couple picked out (including the one mentionned in this MCN article which I’m not sure if I found) but really you could point your bike at any hilly country and the road would be empty, scenic and fun to ride.
The far end of the Sierra Nevada range is Europe’s only desert, with whitewashed villages tucked into the folds of the landscape. Interestingly it is also where some of the finest Western films were shot. Certain to be safe from rain I experimented with the camp setup a bit.
From the desert I headed towards the coast. A barren landscape still, but draped, here and there, in polythene sheeting, under which fruit and vegetables are grown and no doubt, in some quantity, exported to the UK. Since it ticks the sun, sand and sea boxes the primary import was English tourists, though not quite in the expected quantity: every sea view opposed an apartment block, villa or hotel complex, half-constructed then abandoned to the economic downturn. There was a desperate aspect to it; it felt like Las Vegas-on-sea, the kind of place that 99% of people wouldn’t visit had it not been developed.
Back up into mountains a little way was the Balcon de Alicante, a viewpoint with an area where you can camp, legally, for free. Not having to be so sneaky I spread out the tarp and used my bike cover as a ground sheet. Nice to have somewhere to sit, cook and read while a shower passed overhead, and was lucky enough to see a deer shortly before night fell.
Southern Spain was striking, very different from anywhere else I’ve been in Europe and I hope to return. Next time: my route back to France.
I arrived in Granada mid-morning and found a budget hotel. I needed a day off the bike, somewhere to charge electronics and wash clothes, and there were things there better seen on foot. So I went full tourist and set off for the Alhambra. It’s one of the few places I’ve been (and not just on this trip) that feels like a sort of paradise and is where all of the following pictures are from/of.
Long sections of this part of the trip are already forgotten, whispers lost in the wind noise of 500km+ days across open country. On such days the focus tends to be on the next destination, and the good experiences don’t become cemented until they have the context of a past and a future built around them. The worries, boredom and sore throttle hand are forgotten quickly—by being surmounted they amount, in hindsight, to nothing.
One memory was delivered fully-formed: leaving Oviedo on the AP66 up into the mountains under moody skies, entering a tunnel and emerging, on the other side of the pass, into glorious sunshine. Shouting inside my helmet; it felt like I’d arrived.
My mood at this stage of the trip would vary greatly with the weather. On the bike and camping you’re out in it all the time. But after this section of the trip I was getting back into the routine of stocking up during the day, finding somewhere to camp with an hour or two’s light remaining then getting up with the sun, driving until I found a warm cup of coffee, and somewhere to sit and trace the previous 24 hours onto the map. Being methodical with even the most simple things helps.
Stealth camping tip: radio masts often have access roads which are dead ends with lots of potential spots.
Finding time to edit and upload the photos on the go isn’t too tough, but these updates are about 1500km behind. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to catch up somewhat over the course of the next week.