We set out at 9am from Castérino on the uphill direction out of town whose complete lack of traffic suggested it wasnt going anywhere. The road, now a stony track, enters a small tunnel and pops out of an impressive cliff. It climbs through thinning trees onto a ridge, where there are views of the highest peaks of the Mercantour. Smooth concrete bunkers sit like half sunk into grassy slopes, like watchful cats. It reached a summit and dropped gradually, and there were cars here, come from the Italian side. Ahead of us was the border ridge and we could see our road follow a contour absolutely precisely to the pass, where there was a large low fort. Beyond this, ridge afer ridge of more mountains made exciting by being off our French map.
We poked around the big fort at least, we tried to but as it has a genuine moat, albeit dry, there is no way in. We rode round the next small summit on the ride down to a gate, which a man in a car unlocked and drove through. We sped up, but he closed it and drove off. Then we saw the sign : Strada Chiusa, Frana, and our blood ran cold. There wasnt really an alternative route. I know theres no such thing as a closed road to the RSF but actually there is, because we found one once, a very very long way down a mountain in Garhwal. We thought wed give this one a go and we were reassured to find shortly along the track some workmen repairing the road, and they said it would be fine with bikes.
The next leg was a longish and tough climb up some bends, past some resting ski lifts. It was a lonely place nonetheless. We could see occasional tyre marks and I made a great effort to see if there were one or two from the same bike, to see if cyclists had got through or turned back, but it was hard to tell. Once wed gained the ridge, now was a wonderful view into a valley, all soft green of rounded hillocks like waves, and round pools between, and beyond, further ridges, and our road following a high contour and on the next ridge beyond. There was one small house far below but no people and not even any animals.
We followed the track, counting off the kilometres to the landslide. The track steered round an imposing white outcrop then steadily climbed up to the edge of the next ridge, coiling round this with a duo of striking hairpin bends, then made a shorter rise to cross another ridge, taking us back into France and another mysterious deserted valley of hillocks and white outcrops. The road meandered between the hills and it was hard to make any sense of where it was headed or how the land lay. It was so tortuous a route that we thought wed taken a wrong turning, and stopped a few times to check at the map. Then ahead on a outward corner we saw a small JCB. The landslide section was just before this; it wasnt on a terribly steep slope and there was a well trodden path across, with the same two mtb tracks (and irritatingly, motorbike tracks) and pretty well rideable.
Now the road climbed through rounded white rock spurs. There were flowers all around, noticeably lavender, and many different butterflies. We could see the track continue higher on a further summit. We had lost track of distance it was slow going and we had no feel for where we were, and we had felt rather lost for quite some time. Somewhere along here was supposedly the Don Barbera refuge, which might or might not be open and might or might not have food. A col now, and at first sight a simple bunker shelter below but a step further showed us a fine modern building, with walkers approaching. It was open, there were people inside and there was lunch. Wed brought a picnic from the hotel just in case; there is no harm in this as there is no such thing as too much lunch. Two mountain bikers here too the tracks wed followed. Some motorbikes later, whom were tried to ignore.
As we had seen, the track continued higher to cross the next ridge. We were barely on our French map now, which showed the details of the Italian side fading into the unknown. The hills visibly went on and on. Below, a deep valley where a track led down to a solitary house, marked at the pass as a dead end, the map shows it as leading to a gorge.
We crossed a ridge, and now on the Italy side, over the ridge was utterly different. The bare rock and cropped grass were replaced by rippling ridges of dark forest; the road descended into the trees. It had taken us a long time to reach the refuge and I was concerned how long the rest of it would take, we were only vaguely on the map. Also we were tired. We had our second lunch. The forests here are wonderful up here mostly of pine but with widely spaced trees and a rich undergrowth with swathes of yellow flowers and purple azaleas. We could see deep into the valleys, occasionally a glimpse of a red-roof village. Finally more out into the open; downhill a big ski hotel and uphill more hairpins leading to the ridge. The former today, the latter for tomorrow.
Fri 5th. Killer day, Monesi to Rochetta Nervina (63km, 1830m)
The Vecchia Partenza is a pretty chalet under the shadow of the tall ski hotel; wed made a booking there but they gave us a vast apartment in the block, on the 7th floor. Fortunately it had a lift. The food was great. A party of 8 Germans were here, wed seen their bags piled up when wed arrived, labelled Alpibike. We suspected them of being on motorbikes but the morning saw them leave on mountainbikes.
We caught up with them at the top of the ridge. They were planning the same route as us, but going all the way to Ventimiglia, though they also said they werent sure about doing the full route as there were thunderstorms forecast. The views to the French side are spectacular but there wasnt a second to lose if there was potential rain; we gave the views some intensive admiration and set off at once. The descent was rough. The Germans on full suspension glided past at three times our speed. In an attempt not to look too feeble, we took it as fast as we could and lost one of the precious panini. We didnt even notice the landslide section here.
At the Colle Ardente we were confused about the lie of the land again the main ridge curved to the
left; the waymarked VTT route was signposted perpendicular to this main ridge and looked to have every intention
of descending into to France. But it is the correct way for the border crest its just that our IGN doesnt show the
main ridge which heads East into Italian side.
The VTT route did make diversions from the main track: here it took an overgrown forest road
on the east side of the summit, then re-joining the main track, and left it again for another
diversion, into the forest then back out again, now high above the Italian side with great views.
This took us to an open area with ruins of old forts, and a number of mountainbikers in ones and
twos coming the other way. A short stretch on the main track then moderately technical singletrack down
into a grassy meadow.
The denizens of the meadows were all gathered in the middle of the track which didnt help navigate
a confusing junction.
We had to face the horror path up the side of Mt. Torrage. In practice it wasnt as bad as it had looked. Certainly none of this was rideable by us and we pushed on up, eyes concentrating on feet and not on the view. At least it was forested here which is preferable to open. A few sharp bends took us up to a wider and flatter section, but now way more exposed. We still werent riding and we didnt care. There was astounding views to be had of knife-edge sharp ridges in France, if you risked your sanity by stopping to admire the scenery. Finally, past a cave the path split, we took the lower better used path and found a section on a cliff where the path is a couple of feet width of rocks, just enough room to walk. A helpful cable was attached to the cliff, though with both hands occupied holding a laden bike over the void we had to decline its assistance.
Now at 3pm we felt we were over the hard stuff and could relax enough to share our panini. Two of the Germans turned up shortly after. The group been taking a lot of photos on the first descent and wed left them quite early on, we were surprised theyd caught us but Im not sure if all the party had come this way. They descended the singletrack to Pigna.
We however were committed to the continue the VTT Crest route. For a long long time we were riding up and down on a rough doubletrack in forest, seemingly getting absolutely nowhere. We came out at the Tête dAlpe area where now the main track makes hairpins down to the valley and the ridge route continues as singletrack. The maps and the VTT signage seemed to disagree. We found ourselves headed for Roche Fourquin which seemed all wrong, backtracked to the junction and took a lower path which we thought ought to be the right way. In fact it seems the Roche Fourquin route wouldve been correct. Both sections anyhow were some of the best riding of the day narrow singletrack with larky obstacles, with a useful downhill aspect, no precipices whatsoever and in a tasteful mix of trees and meadow.
But it was getting later and later. The backtracking happened at about 5pm and Ive no idea how something like 6 miles had occupied us for an hour and a half. We seemed to be no closer to the hotel than when wed been at the Col Muratone. For the whole length of the last few hours, chasse-gardee signs had said we were in the parish of Rochetta Nervina but it couldve been Timbuktu. Visions of the Rough Stuff version of Eschers endless staircase haunted us. Ultimately the path became a double track on nice slabby rock, then met a gravel road which at last showed some inclination to descend, even if it was annoyingly gravelly and slow. Wed put back the expected hotel arrival time to 6pm, then 630, then 7pm, and just on the point of giving up hope that the tormenting road would ever join the tarmac, it did. And it even joined the road to Rochetta Nervina, just as the map promised. We rolled up at the hotel at 730pm. As soon as I got off the bike and found my legs gave way.
We still werent at Ventimiglia.
All the non-wedding hotel guests had been up at 7am for breakfast, we werent, but Italian big hotel breakfasts are something else and there were still 183 cakes and 209 tarts left, all for us. We first faced the ride up the hill wed joyfully freewheeled down last night. The VTT route is intermittent, part on road, part on tracks. A doubletrack first then after a while we crossed a small road and the track seemed to traverse a rather formidable landslide. The hillside seemed to be totally made of a greyish mud anyway so its a surprise any sort of path could survive. We gave up and took a road diversion, picking up the VTT route again near Ciaixe. This began with a sweaty push up a steep narrow stony path in shrubs, which became rideable then joined downish doubletrack; the route wasnt terribly well signposted but we could work it out. There is a nice section of rock slabs at one point. We emerged at a small church among expensive-looking houses; Here the signage had evaporated we nosed around, found a path but were unconvinced, and took the road to Camporosso instead. Ventimiglia on Saturday is somewhat busy. We rode on to Menton to lunch and pick up a hire car for the next week, which as it turned out we used solely for shopping.