En France; Week 3

With the lavender fields, rolling hills of Provence and daily (hourly) thunderstorms now in the rear view mirror, we were off to spend a few days in the Alps. Nothing really new here, they’re just mountains and in previous trips we’ve pretty well covered this ground here. In the French Alps anyway, anything outside France is still very much unknown territory. We were heading back in the direction of Gorge du Verdon and we’d only be on the road for a little while (about 150km worth) until we started into the mountain passes.

Riding around in the mountains is bloody hard work after a while. The variations in temperature, the twists and turns and the days spent at relatively low speed take their toll. So it’s important to have a very well planned route to bring you to your accommodation each night with the minimum of fuss and farting about. Yes, more on that later.

“Go big on the way home”, isn’t that the phrase? Something like that anyway. The first of the passes was one I’d wanted to do for a few years worth of holidays but we never seemed to be in the right area at the right time. Col de la Bonnette brings you up to an eye watering 2807m and is the highest surfaced road in Europe.

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I believe that title was a little contentious over the years with other nations engaging quite literally in a measuring contest to see who came out on top. If I remember correctly, Italy took the lead but then some clever/spiteful Frenchman paved a loop around the top of the existing Bonnette pass so France took back their title.

Another interesting sight on the way up to the top is all the bloody Marmots! I wasn’t too well versed in what exactly a Marmot is before we tackled this road, but having seen Julie chase some to get a photo, I understand now that they’re quite shy animals that inhabit the upper parts of the Alps. For further research, see here, here and of course, here.

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Also my first time riding on a perfectly dry road next to 10ft snow banks. In June.

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Now two weeks in and having not seen a hair brush or a razor in all that time, I’m beginning to look uncannily like a low paid extra from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.

bonnetteIt was all downhill from here. (Sorry, I had to).

We made our way back down closer to sea level for our first Alpine stop in Barcelonnette. The Grand Hotel was, as you can see below, pretty well situated in the town. So well situated in fact that the receptionist in the hotel brought us to the garage to park the bike but warned us that we’d have to roll the bike the last 20ft or so. It seems the neighbours don’t like the sound of motorbikes. The Alps in summer probably isn’t the best place to live if you don’t like the sound of motorbikes. Pro tip there for anyone considering buying property in south east France.

Like a lot of French towns, there didn’t seem to be a tap going on as soon as you left the main square. The photo below doesn’t really give an accurate representation of how busy the place was. They must have been in the middle of a festival or some such joyousness. When we arrived a band was in full swing and the square was packed with locals & tourists.

DSC02175In line with what I’ve said above, we ended up having dinner in a great little place near the square. Dinner and a show as we watched a couple at another table battling valiantly with half a wheel of cheese in some form of device that looked like a cross between a device designed to torture small animals and some imaginative form of cheese sauna. It was the latter. They were racletting like their lives depended on it. My arteries were clogging from across the courtyard. In other news, creme brulee count +1 and possibly +2 from the previous week. So I’m gonna take a stab at it and say the count is now about 6.

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Back into the mountains the following day with lots of scenes like the above. I expected Julie Andrews to come frolicking over the hill any second. Instead, I spied another Julie frolicking among the wild flowers. Not really though. The only sound of music here was the incredible noise of the insects in the below field. I can only imagine that you’d be eaten alive if you put one foot inside the boundary of the field. Your demise would possibly look something like the scene at the end of Terminator 2 where he’s lowered into a vat of molten steel. Except with more legs and antennae.

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We hit another one of my bucket list mountain passes again today, Col D’Izoard (2360m). It seemed a little bit like we were ascending into hell at times with the enormous jagged rocks protruding from what appeared to be countless landslides. It was one of those “you had to be there” moments, mostly because I didn’t stop to take any photos. Only at the top…

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Another mountain pass, possibly the end of Col D’Izoard. They all pretty much blend into one giant romp around the pointy bits (careful now) after a day or two.

Now for the life lesson. If you recall, at the start I said

So it’s important to have a very well planned route to bring you to your accommodation each night with the minimum of fuss and farting about.

but what I actually did was

Route schmoute, I’m seeing where this road goes!

That led to the day being extended by several hours, a couple of additional mountain passes and a very understanding if a little visibly pissed off wife on the back seat. If I was to create one of those motivational posters, it’d read “Stay on the route, live to ride another day”.

We did eventually get down out of the mountains and found some nice motorway carved into the valley that we could scoot along at a reasonable pace on. It was no time at all until we were at our next stop in Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Well, more accurately, somewhere outside Bge-St-Mce. Like, somewhere outside that if I hadn’t put it into the GPS before we left, I would never have found it.

“We’re going the wrong way. We’ve got to be going the wrong way” I kept repeating in my head as we wound our way up narrow lanes in the middle of nowhere. “Next left in 200m” the GPS would cheerfully report. I had my doubts. Turns out we were very much on the right track and a phone call later to clear up some directions, we were at La Maison de Calixte.

This was taken from directly outside the door of our room. It was so quiet you could hear a mouse tell knock knock jokes from 100 yards. There was a spring right outside the door. An endless supply of fresh, cold mountain water. As if that wasn’t enough, the owner of the B&B was possibly the nicest person in all of France. Certainly in the top five anyway. I may have been a little delirious at this point given the long day. But in fairness, she turned up with a large bottle of cold beer and a sizable portion of Tartiflette. That’s surely grounds for a Nobel Peace Prize. Also, we discovered Tartiflette. Bonus. This place is most definitely on the list of accommodation to return to. I’ll just have to remember to bring cash the next time.

It was difficult to peel ourselves away from this location the following morning but as we ate our breakfast in bed, we made plans to head onward out of the Alps. With two and a bit days riding completed in the mountains, we both had enough. I think Julie had enough after half a day but she’ll grin and bear it for my sake.

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On past stunning vistas such as the above until the land became a lot flatter and the ratio of cars to motorbikes normalised somewhat. I had planned what I politely refer to as a ‘transit stop’ in Annecy, a city that I shamefully did not really expect much from. I use the term ‘transit stop’ to mean any place to lay ones head while trying to get somewhere more interesting. So, a motorway hotel or a B&B in a small town. Food, bed, on the road the next morning. No fuss. For that reason, the stop in Annecy wasn’t really researched in as fine detail as we usually would. Turned out to be a pretty nice spot, once we got around the train station our hotel was tucked behind.

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The place was overrun with tourists as expected, it being late June and all. But there was enough restaurants to seat them all and enough ice-cream shops to keep them all suitably chilly on the inside. We found a wonderfully hipster place smack in the center of the ‘photogenic bit’ of the town where we were served popcorn in a sardine tin along with our drinks. There was much piss taking I assure you.

Full of food/wine/beer and back to the hotel was becoming the new norm. Possibly Creme Brulee count +1 (7?)

We were inland bound the next day, leaving the mountains well and truly in our dust and heading towards Auvergne to a bloody palace. The kind of place I’d buy if I won the euromillions and just sit outside of all day, looking at it.

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Again, run by incredibly nice people, this is Chateau de Clusors near Saint-Menoux. Aside from the buildings in Carcassonne, this was the only place I saw fairly sizable lizards scurrying about the place and climbing the walls. As a holder of a lifelong aversion to little things that scurry and climb walls, this was deeply unsettling. But then its hot, sunny and foreign country. I was advised that where there are lizards, there are no giant spiders. Before heading out to find dinner, we took a stroll around the grounds of the accommodation which in several spots were a photographer’s dream. Or at least this photographer’s dream.

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We were now becoming entirely too used to leaving beautiful places behind us in search of other beautiful places further down the road so the separation anxiety was a little less every morning. The huge breakfast and pastries contained therein helped quite nicely too.

Next and sadly second last was another place that was considered a transit stop. Julie was keen to see the gardens at Château de Villandry just outside Tours so we picked a hotel in a reasonably close town, Chinon. Pretty much the entire holiday was booked on booking.com, it’s just easier that way when the bulk of the hotel details are in the same place. The reviews for Hotel Diderot were glowing to say the least, with many suggesting if not demanding that anyone considering staying there do so and also opt for breakfast. Intriguing.

But first, Villandry.

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Yeah, quite gardensy. We didn’t bother going into the house itself because, well, why? It’s a big house with old stuff inside it. The more interesting stuff (from our perspective anyway) was outside, including the abnormally large fish begging for food from the tourists. Yeah, you read that correctly. I’ve never seen a fish beg for food before.

Back to Chinon, wedged the bike in between UK & German reg cars in the small but adequate hotel car park. Changed, out to find some dinner and damn Chinon, you surprising!

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After walking the length of the street that all the above buildings were on (and perusing the restaurant options at the same time), we settled on a place and found a free table. A free table, as it happened, within cat swinging distance of some rather opinionated Irish people. Bloody typical, you can’t go anywhere these days…

But anyway, the hotel. The grounds were a botanical garden all by themselves, no need to go down the road to Villandry.

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And then, next morning, breakfast.

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Like jam?

Oh, you do? That’s good. Because jam is what’s for breakfast. All the jam.

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They make their own and have quite a few different flavours. There were dozens of flavours laid out for breakfast alone. That plus the goats cheese, walnuts and honey made for a different but definitely not unwelcome breakfast. If you ever have the opportunity to stay at Hotel Diderot in Chinon, do it. Oh and I recommend the breakfast.

In fact the whole Chinon stop was so enjoyable, we’ve booked the same hotel again for the 2015 holiday. I do love a pleasantly surprising transit stop.

coffeeWe were well and truly on the road back to Ireland at this point. Our last stop was a transit stop in the purest meaning of the term. We arrived (soaked), dried off, had a beer/wine and dinner at the accommodation, Maison Laudiere, run by an English couple. The next morning we set off at a leisurely pace (got soaked) and arrived in a sunny Roscoff for our 7pm ferry. So to France I say “adieu” but to French motorway service station coffee I say “see you soon”. It’s glory is concealed within it’s utter repulsiveness. I’m pretty sure the French must be putting cocaine into it. No matter how hot the weather gets, I can’t not get a cup of it whenever we stop on the motorway. That, along with a ham & cheese baguette is my first stop when we get off the ferry for our 2015 French adventures.

Well, that’s the second stop. The first stop is for a pain au chocolat the size of a baby’s head.

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12 hours later I took a stroll around the deck to view Costa del Crosshaven as we pulled into the port in Ringaskiddy. Aside from all the grumbling about the crappy Sunday morning French arrival time of 7am (and being kicked out of the cabin at 6am), this was a very gentlemanly hour to be returning to Cork. 10am on a Saturday morning. Home 15 mins later and sipping a coffee. Thats the way to do it. None of this hoofing it down English motorways, camp sites and all that malarky.

France, done right.

Oh and incidentally, Creme Brulee count ended up at about 8. Each. Can’t wait to get some more.

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