- 103650 km on the bike
Hmmh, what to say? I always find it difficult to begin a narrative
like this. Let's just say where I am now; in France.
Many times I was asked "where to will you go first?". And I always said "I have no idea". I have also always said that the reason for this would be the weather on day zero.
In the evening of day zero I am checking the weather and find a couple of pretty tough bad weather systems out there over the Atlantic ocean, heading my way.
Interestingly enough they all are on their way towards Central Europe, i.e. France and Germany. Unusually for the time of the year is that Italy appears to be entirely unaffected by those frontal systems.
So I decide on the spot to cross the Alps and go to Italy. Switzerland is really pretty useless for motorbiking because of the ridiculous speed limit of 50 mph on country lanes and a population density similar to a beehive. So I take the motorway over the Gotthard via the tunnel, because the pass itself is still closed this early in the year. The Gotthard motorway tunnel is a lethal accident waiting to happen. Once the pass is open I can only recommend that everyone on two wheels gives the tunnel a miss and goes "over the top".
I leave the motorway and enter Italy. Via Menaggio
I ride along the Lago
di Como southwards. This is sheer bliss on two wheels.
The Italians drive their cars and bikes like Japanese Kamikaze pilots their airplanes. But I am used to it from numerous previous visits and have a special addition installed on my bike: an infernal twin-horn system that nearly blows out the rear windscreen from any car in front of me whenever I use it. A very handy thing to have in Bella Italia...
This is Lombardia,
the industrial heart of Northern Italy where most of the famous car
and motorbike makers are located. As a result the traffic is pretty
thick, even though the route uploaded into my navigation system does
entirely. But further on the dense traffic all but disappears and
by the time I enter the Emilia Romagna near Piacenza
I have the road to myself. I am riding through the valley of the river
Adda and cross
the river Po at the
conjunction of those two rivers. To the south-west the Appenin
mountains appear - supposedly great biker territory. I will find out
tomorrow if those rumours are true...
It is 8 in the evening when I check in at a roadside hotel after a total of 450 km. I am immediately reminded that most hotels in Italy have one thing in common; they are pricey and the service stinks. 55 Euros is certainly twice the price that crammy room is worth.
- 104100 km on the bike
The roads here in the Apennine mountains are fantastic. This is a
fact not unknown to the local motorbikers. Plenty of bikes are out
today - no wonder that, because it is Saturday.
The Penice Pass on the road from Parma to Genova is populated by about 10 motorbikes for each car. Just on the mountain-top there is a big parking lot where the bikers meet for a coffee and talk bikes.
The entire road, the SS461, is perfect motorbike country from the
Po river valley all the way to Genova.
After all that great biking I decide to continue onwards along the Ligurian coast. The day ends after another 450 kilometers in Savona. I have decided to spend the night in the local youth hostel, because the location of the hostel is fantastic; in an old villa high up in the mountains, overlooking the town and the port.
However, when I arrive at the hostel the front gate is locked and in spite of the sign "reception open 1700 to 2300 hours" I am unable to contact anyone. The doorbells don't work and even my infernal horn and loud shouting can not motivate anyone to open the gates. I would just hop over these gates and kick their lazy bums personally, but a dodgy looking German Shepherd and a big sign "Beware of the dog" convince me that this would probably be a bad idea. I will just contact the IHF next time I am online and let them know that at Savona the Youth Hostel is occupied by some Aristocrat who is obviously enjoying a tax break at the expense of the IHF and any weary traveller seeking digs. For me this is no big deal, as I am mobile. But what about a backpacker who has just marched those 7 miles from the Savona railway station up the mountain to this place?
I am forced to find myself a hotel down in the town instead. Same absence of quality as yesterday, only this time it costs 60 Euros.
I am quite surprised when I get my scanner out to find that in downtown Savona hardly any Wireless network exists. I have a chat with the hotel manager and he explains that the Italian government has put strict rules on the use of them: if his hotel would like to offer WLAN service to the guests he would have to log each individual access of any webpage by each guest using it and have the logs ready if the police would want them. I am very surprised. He explains that this is supposed to be a deterrent to terrorists. I haven't heard such a load of rubbish in a long time. As terrorists would have no problem whatsoever to get anonymous access to the Web I can only assume that this law is just another crude attempt by just another Western government, increasingly detached from its electorate and obsessed with power, to use nine-eleven as an excuse to spy on its citizens. This kind of thing is happening in an alarmingly large number of so-called "free world" countries nowadays.
In spite of being rather tired after the long ride I have a stroll through the city centre. As it is Saturday I notice that every restaurant is filled to capacity. Being in Italy this also means that the noise level inside each restaurant outperforms the launch of a fighter plane.
The only restaurant practically empty is a Chinese restaurant. Assuming that the Italians are not biased in any way against the Chinese people I suppose the reason for this must be that the chef is no good. I decide to turn in without diner - that will keep the waistline in check.
- 104550 km on the bike
After that youth-hostel-disappointment in Savona I am looking forward to reach France today. Many times in the turbulent relationship between France and Italy there were tensions, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a result even today there exist only a handful of roads which cross from one country into the other. To cross the border I can stay at the coast and use the roads to Menton or Olivetta or use the next road up north; that one is 40 miles further north and already deep in the mountains. The crossing is from Limone Piemonte to Tende in France on the N204. Of course I decide to do the route through the mountains, so after just a ride of 20 km along the Mediterranean coast, I turn north-west at Finale Ligure towards Melogno and Cuneo. Immediately the traffic turns to just a trickle, the road gets narrow and full of twists and bends.
With the weather being absolutely perfect for riding
motorbikes I am once again in bikers heaven. Northern Italy in May
is definitely the right place to bike, it's just sad that accommodation
is so shoddy and that the hotels are so exceptionally expensive.
At Borgo I turn due south again. The mountains look harmless and the road is excellent, but I am already well over 3000 feet AMSL and the "hill" to my right is the Mount Argentera - well over 10000 feet high.
The summit of my climb - a short tunnel - is also the border. On the French side the road begins its descent towards the sea.
I stop for a coffee in the small village of Fontan. Two luxury cars with the blue license plates of Monaco arrive shortly afterwards. A young, slightly fat guy leaves one car together with a highly attractive girl. From the other car a very old man descends - together with a highly attractive young girl. They all know each other and the girls start to chat - and I immediately recognize their language. "Buçuresti?" I ask. "Da, da!" is their response, meaning "Yes" in Romanian.
Hmmh, I do wonder where these peculiar matches were made? Most likely the old story; life in Romania sucks, so if one is young and attractive then one just has to marry a rich chap in the West and live a life of leisure and luxury. Sex for security, the second-oldest game on the planet.
But that old geezer is quite nice and we have an interesting chat about life, the universe and all the rest. He even pays the drinks all around before they return to their tiny, rich principality which is just 60 miles away down on the coast.
My route goes south-westwards through the lovely Parc National de Mercantour, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, but always remaining about 20 miles inland and several thousand feet above sea level. I am riding endless miles on these enchanted Provençe roads, free of traffic and high in the cool mountain air, while down on the coastal road thousands of cars, trucks and buses are stuck on the sticky, hot road along the shore, because for some reason unknown to me most people have this weird need to see the ocean.
- I am bypassing all those famous resorts for the so-called rich and
famous without missing them a bit. These roads up here are just too
breathtaking to swap them for some overpriced real estate down by
My target for today is the youth hostel of Aix-en-Provence. The total distance from Savona is 500 km, all on minor roads and off the beaten track. That means a tough, though very enjoyable 10 hours ride. As a result I arrive at the hostel after 2000 hours. The location of the youth hostel is on the south-eastern corner of the town, right between the city waste dump site and some abandoned buildings in which dozens of "sans-papiers" are squatting in unbelievably filthy conditions. The nearby A8 motorway does its bit to enhance the atmosphere of the place. But other than that posh Italian villa in Savona the hostel is open for business and the staff is very supportive. They put me in a four-bed room with a young Frenchmen who is here to apply for a job and has no money for a hotel, a middle-aged Briton on the tightest-possible budget who works for the job centre somewhere in Leicestershire and a Yankee from California. There are big warning stickers everywhere in the room never to leave a window open, probably due to the tough neighbourhood. Access to the room works via an electronic chipcard, like in a hotel. Every morning the chipcard must be returned and if one stays for more than a night it has to be re-programmed every day. For security reasons they will never charge up a card for more than a day.
Our motley group meets up with a couple of other guys on the patio outside the hostel in the evening and we exchange travel stories and tips for exploring the South of France. After all that biking and a few beers plus a pipe on that patio I sleep like a rock in spite of all that traffic noise from the motorway.
- 105050 km on the bike
The breakfast at the hostel is the usual frugal French
baguette-and-jam job washed down with lots of coffee and juice. I
want to have a look around Aix-en-Provence today and suck in some
culture. The eastern outskirts of the town around the hostel I already
know and I am not overly impressed. The city centre however is nice
and clean and very much decorated for the numerous tourists who stroll
the beautifully arcaded, shady boulevards. And there is Cézanne.
There is lots of Cézanne. Actually that guy is everywhere.
I am not into paintings and painters, I admit, but in this town they
have certainly overdone it.
For two hours I sit on a bench in the shade and just watch the ongoing at the Rotunda in the heart of the city near the main bus terminal (directly behind me is a life-size statue of - you've guessed it, Cézanne). Busloads of tourists arrive, mainly middle-aged to elderly people. The majority of these groups just pick up a guide at the tourist office (located directly behind that sodded statue) and are rushed off to the numerous museums where they can see the paintings of that great painter Cézanne.
I decide that culture is a bit too single-minded around here for myself and though I am aware that there are other cultural highlights available in the city (they even have a motorcycle museum, so I am told) I prefer to go out into the countryside and do some walking instead. So I ride westwards out of town underneath great banners promoting the year 2006 as the "Greatest Cézanne year ever" on the D10 country road towards the Lac du Bimont. I stuff my biker kit into the panniers and climb up the mountainside opposite the lakeshore. It is quite a blessed countryside, the Provençe; Pine forests on the mountain-sides and fat meadows down in the valley, the sound of a million crickets in the grass together with that unique smell of wood, earth and the great outdoors which are nowhere like they are here - the deep south of France.
After an hour or so of walking through the countryside I have a break on a hillside with a spectacular view and promptly fall asleep under a pine tree for another two hours.
On my way back downhill towards my trusty Triumph Tiger I come across a place where apparently another group of "sans-papiers" must have squatted for a while; garbage is lying around and abandoned clothing and empty plastic bottles are scattered on the forest ground. The total absence of any empty booze bottles is a clear indicator for me that those people were most likely squatters of Muslim origin. "Sans-papiers" from e. g. the Balkans normally leave a trail of empty Vodka bottles behind.
On my return to Aix I stop at a roadside coffee house and as all tables are full I have to "team up table" with a guy reading a real estate listing. He leaves after a while and gives me his brochure; in it are listings of properties for sale in the vicinity. I have a look, and the prices charged for even the puniest and most ramshackle of properties are quite shocking. No decent home is sold below 250000 Euros, even if it is old or in need of repairs. Even the tiniest studio is sold for 120000 Euros minimum - no upward limit. I make a mental note; permanently living in the South of France comes at a price!
I return to the hostel and again enjoy a beer for sundown with the usual gang on the patio at the far side of the building, away from the noise of the motorway. Today I am joined by a very outspoken middle aged Dutch lady and her teenage daughter. The lady is deeply into arty-farty things which are not really my cup of tea. But at least she does enlighten me on many things regarding Cézanne - especially the fact that really none of his great works of art are on exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, which apparently is the city in which he painted many of them. She recommends that in case I might ever get interested in this kind of culture I would find much richer pickings at the Louvre in Paris and that all this fuss about this painter here in Aix is really just about attracting tourists to the city.
- 105150 km on the bike
I think that it is time to put some more distance
between myself and all these very important artists, these very important
seaside resorts and their even more important high-society residents.
It really is the time to go to a part of France where the sun shines just as much as on the Cote d'Azur, but where the people have managed to keep their countryside to themselves and where owning a property is not limited to Hollywood stars and the super-rich.
I know such a place; The Auvergne, precisely the département Cantal. But not up in the high mountains around i.e. Lioran and all those overpriced tourist centres like e. g. that monstrosity "Super-Lioran". No, much further southwest instead, beyond Aurillac where one can rest on the southernmost ridges of the mountains and look down into the flatlands below, towards the river Lot.
But that again is a long ride, so I leave the hostel before 9 am in the morning. The weather is fine again and my Tiger purrs happily as we ride across the flat delta of the river Rhône towards Nimes 200 km away. I cross the Rhône south of Tarascon - the river is really impressive down here so close to its mouth.
Progress is rapid on the flats and I reach Nimes just after noon. Beyond Nimes and Alès the really exciting part of the ride begins; first the Cevennes National Park in the Gard départment which I am traversing on the rarely used D907 and D996 roads, and then the valley of the river Tarn. Many bikers may have heard that this river valley is one of the most spectacular biking areas of France. And those rumors are right.
I leave the D996 for the D43 down into the river valley. The road down the mountainside ensures that my tyres are wearing out only at the outer flanks.
Then the road passes for maybe 10 miles down through
the gorge and in another mad festival of hairpin bends it then winds
up back onto the high plateau at Les Vignes from where I continue
on the D995. From there westwards through the department Aveyron
finally into the Cantal
and the mountains of the "Massif
Central" in the southern Auvergne.
After 440 km I arrive at Lauressergues, a village with maybe 5 permanent residents in the middle of nowhere. The village isn't even showing on my navigation unit, but two old friends of mine, Nick and Nouria, have bought a plot of land with an old barn dating from 1823 here. The view down into the Lot valley is spectacular.
It looks like no one has touched the place all year; the grass is 3 feet high and all hatches are still battened down for winter - the wind up here frequently reaches gale force, even in summer.
I make myself comfortable and rig my little tent. After that day of great biking plus getting all my camping kit rigged I don't need any entertainment to sleep like a rock.
- 105600 km on the bike
Below is the usual map with my GPS tracklog and some trip markers.