All maps have their own special character, shaping how you imagine the landscape. Maps of a different country, perhaps, form more of your images of that country than your actual experiences there, since you spend more time looking at the maps than you ever spend being in the true landscape. The Michelin maps of France have an almost poetic quality: the understated marks on the map only hint at the terrain that lies there simple outlines of the courses of routes, shading to suggest hills, villages that are nothing but a few black squares and a name.
For the cyclist, it is the lines of wiggly roads that signify the dreamscape of rugged mountains: roads with the names of legendary cols; roads that traverse an area whose vast emptiness speaks for the difficulty of the terrain; roads that struggle and stagger up some almost unguessable hillside only to stop at a tiny isolated chapel; roads, increasingly twisted and tortured, that become cart-tracks, then footpaths. What must it be like to be there?
The Provence-Côte dAzur map is heart-stoppingly rich in these wiggly roads : and the most thrilling of all the routes is one that is barely visible at first, for it is hidden under the France-Italy border. It is a track that more or less follows the 2000m-high border ridge for hundreds of kilometres, picking its way between what must be precipitous summits. A route such as this is hardly going to escape the notice of the RSF or the local offroad enthusiasts; Fred Wright has certainly done it, and VTT Haute Roya know it backwards. And it is not the only good route there is a wealth of others here.
We were so spellbound by the map magic that we neglected to take care of a few of the important details. For example, would the passes actually be open in late May? Maps tend to be silent when it comes to climate. I suppose we had been to Ventoux before, in early May, and that had sort of been open, so we rather assumed that a little further south, a little later in the year, there would be no problem; and perhaps the temperatures would be ideal; perhaps there would still be a little snow decorating the higher summits. And to ensure good fortune for the journey, I did make a propitiatory offering to the cycling gods by timekeeping the club 25 on the stormy Thursday before we left.
And the gods were mostly pleased. Certainly the true landscape did not disappoint; we found roads high on vertiginous cliffs, traverses of remote valleys, and dense, mysterious forests, villages perched on ridges and crags. The Col de la Bonette was within our reach, and never ones to miss a decently high pass, we had scheduled it in. We booked a hotel in Jausiers on the 24th and one in Isola on the 25th. We were a little troubled by the pass still being Fermé on the 22nd, but, as Colin assured me, there was plenty of time yet for them to clear it. As we rode over the Cayolle on the 24th, we entertained alternative plans B,C,D, and so forth, for the return route, not one of them remotely feasible. So it was just as well they had opened the pass on the morning of the 23rd. And it was a fabulous ride. On the Barcelonette side there was still a lot of snow, and it was magical to ride through, a world very different from even an hour's ride below, a real wonderland. Although the pass was open, the Cime road wasn't yet cleared so, of course, we pushed through the piled snow and walked to the summit. All around was a 360 panorama of peaks, mostly still in snow.
Col de Mercière
Thats enough roads; now for the roughstuff. The high ridges of the Alpes Maritimes are designated as the Mercantour National Park. In France, cycling is allowed on footpaths, except in the parks, where youre only allowed on motorable routes whatever that means. On some maps the Col de Mercière is a footpath, on others, a cart track. Even the IGN maps at different scales dont always agree about what sort of route is there. Best to take three maps, and put your trust in the one whose opinion suits you. But the randoxygene.org website mentions it as a VTT route, so it was probably going to be all right.
We climbed from Isola. Its a grand start, a tarmac road between two massive flanking cliffs. The valley is narrow, and you dont see much but forested valley walls, until it opens out near the ski station of Isola 2000, and the ring of dramatic snowy peaks all around comes into view. The pass looks like the real thing, a crossing over a craggy ridge. From the ski station all huge empty building and acres of tarmac car parks (and how these huge empty buildings and car parks become inextricably linked with the thrilling feeling of climbing mountain roads) we picked a route towards the col, following piste access-routes, and tracks that we presume must have been sections of ski-pistes, more designed for fast downhills than for going up. The more natural route to the pass, trending diagonally across below the ridge, was marked with a line of snow, so we had avoided it. We had enough deep snow as it was, and it was awkward stuff to lug laden bikes through.
The Mecantour Park is home to thousands of rare species of flora and fauna, including 4,921 unique species of bothersome fly, most of which are represented at the top of the Col de Mercière. We endured them only long enough to down a slice of pissaladière and watch a group of Bouquetins mountain goats posing on some rock needles, then fled off to enjoy a two hour roughstuff descent. At first the route meanders through grassy and flowery meadows, where the tracks a little loose and stony, losing a fair amount of height; then it enters the forest, where the track contours along the slope high above the valley. I say "contours", but there are a few patches of red mist.
At one point theres a view down to the hamlet of Mollières, far below in the valley. Its an astonishingly remote place, only accessible by a track below, and a footpath. Alas, they have all sorts of rules about what you can and cant do in the Park so as to protect the natural environment, but there's nothing in there to conserve the aesthetics of man-made constructions, and the roofs of Mollières are all corrugated iron.
But the forest was truly magical. Id imagine it was quiet enough here even in high season, but on that lovely day, when spring was turning to summer, we saw no trace of anyone else until near the Col de Salèse. The sunlight filters green through the fresh new shoots on the larches, and the old needles carpet the track. On the forest floor are swathes of bilberries, a billion tiny round leaves catching and transforming the dappled light into billows of foamy green champagne.
LAuthion is a summit on a spur ridge running south from the high mountains that form the French-Italian border north of Nice. At 2000m, it has a commanding position over the hills around. In a frontier area such as this, the hills are well studded with fortifications, and the big forts on LAuthion have seen plenty of action. The Nice department was part of Liguria before becoming part of France in 1860; there was later a period of tension between France and Italy; the fortifications were also part of the French Maginot line defences.
We rode from Lantosque up to the Col de Turini. Its a delight of a road, winding through forests, and you feel wonderfully lost in the forests, because you cant see the summit nor indeed any clue as to where you are going. Past the col, you get out of the forests, and the road climbs the top of the ridge. The views are marvellous, high above a deep valley, and with ridges after ridges after ridges, as far as the horizons and beyond.
If LAuthion has seen warfare in history, it is now a serene, idyllic, even heavenly spot, especially on a quiet Monday such as this. In the hollows below the summits there is a sparse scattering of trees; the summits themselves are open meadows full of flowers, and crowned with the imposing remains of forts, like monumental abstract sculptures displayed in a park.
There are two rough roads that descend eastwards from the top, both following ridges. It was hard to choose which to take, and the more northerly is pictured on the IGN map. If that picture looked irresistible, the other one looked a little more enticingly rugged from the map. And even more than the map had promised it really was astonishingly beautiful. The banks were full of wild pansies, pale yellow and violet, and most exquisite of all, the creamy ones with edges tinged delicately in mauve and yellow. The slopes below are here and there forested, otherwise grassland, grazed by sheep.
These ridge roads are precious and rare. Roads in general do not like ridges, nor really do they much like heights at all. If they have to go up and over a pass, they do tend to want to get the heights over as quickly as possible it is such a shame. Footpaths can follow ridges, but walking is, well, a little pedestrian. But on these all-too-few ridge roads, you can coast, high among the peaks, above the valleys; and cycling, for miles and miles, up there, with sky all around and land far below, is the nearest thing to flying.
The track is a well-made one, with sturdy guard walls in parts just as well, as it is a little precipitous. To make the descent, the track crosses to the other side of the ridge, and drops steeply through forests. It does not look as though many people use the route. The forest obscures the lie of the land, and there are surprises. A little tunnel cuts through a rock spur, like something out of a fairytale. Later, we find ourselves in the sunlight, on a knife-edge crag how did we get here? before entering the cloaks of the forest again.
There is a fork lower down: the right hand goes into the Vallon de Cairos and the left will take us down gravelly zigzags on the side of the main Roya valley. It is a sunny and flower-edged track, and the views over the town of Breil in the valley are certainly as picturesque as any view of a town.
And so we approached the start of our Grand Finale, the Route des Crêtes, the long, long, high ridge all around the border, the track that we had been dreaming of for months. We rode up to Casterino, where the people at the hotel nervously informed us of the weather forecast: snow. And sure enough, overnight there was snow, and in the morning, low heavy grey clouds threatened more of the wretched stuff.
Not the Marguareis, then
So instead, we did at least the first part of it climbing up from Casterino to the high point. From here its actually down to the Col de Tende. To the north and west it was a grey-out. The crags of Mont Clapier over to the west that had yesterday looked so pretty in the sunlight, now blackly mirrored the menace of the clouds above. Very, very gently, it was snowing. We took the route down to Tende that crosses a ridge and descends through forest, then becomes a narrow, steep tarmac road. Its a great ride, and we did have views of the eastern ridge that we should have been following in the afternoon and it was still free of cloud over there, and was even in the sun. We knew not to trust the weather, but it was agonising to feel it was almost possible, almost within our reach.
Instead, we rode down to Saorge and had a long lunch at the Bellevue restaurant, enjoying the view of rain falling on the picturesque roofscape of the town. Now, we had to somehow get ourselves into Italy. We had booked a hotel in Pigna, over the border, and since this was the Grand Antiqua Terme de Pigna, there was no way we were going to miss it, even if we had to tunnel through the mountains with a teaspoon. To go down the Roya valley to the coast and back up the Pigna valley was certainly possible; it just wasnt that appealing. So we did something even less appealing. There is a route directly over the mountains. Some of this is track, but the significant part of it, even though its barely any horizontal distance, is 600m vertical, done by means of a zigzag path.
Well, parts of the afternoon journey were excellent. A track leads you along the floor of the valley, to a point where all you can see ahead is an impassable gorge. We really did get a bit of a feel for what its like to be somewhere in an unexplored jungle, faced with an impossible obstacle. Sure, we were actually on a well-marked French GR, but it really was a little bit like an unexplored jungle. The path was quite narrow and didnt look heavily used, and we had even more of a sense of being lost in the forest than wed had on the Turini climb. At one point we heard grunting and rustling in the undergrowth and a wild boar ran across the path some distance ahead of us.
When the inevitable haul up the mountain came, it was hard, and none of it was any fun, and it took hours. At the top theres a little shrine, which ought to be to Notre Dame des Lacets, but wasnt, and the start of a proper track. Its mildly interesting to note that this vehicle track in France is only accessible from Italy.
The pass on the border was at first a little anticlimactic. In these forests and with this drizzly weather, it didn't look really very much different to anywhere in mid Wales. But soon enough there were signs in Italian, and as we rode the stretch of track along the ridge, we could see more of the other side beautiful forested ridges in soft folds, and villages perched artfully here and there on them. It really was Italy. Even if it didnt look all that much different to the French side, just because you knew it was Italy, every fold of the hills and every ridge-village looked like part of a painting and you knew everything there was imbued with the essence of sunglasses, crazy drivers, sleek glass cafés set within crumbling old buildings, GelatiCaffeFerrariVivadiPizzeMichelangelo. All the more tantalising, because we only were to have a day there, enough for a few brief glimpses to add to our memories and our fantasy image of Italy, before wed be back to the normality of France. Yes, France that had been the Michelin map dreamscape, had become familiar and normal; Italy was now the elusive paradise.
The snow only lasted the one day, and we could return to France by continuing the ridge-track from above Pigna, almost down to the coast. I have to say although the views were pretty good, long sections of the track were made of unrideable boulders, and as we were tired from the previous few days adventures, we werent much in the mood for this. Some degree of revenge on the track could be gained by riding over pinecones, which made a satisfying crunch as your tyres annihilated them. The high mountains to the north had a fresh covering of snow, and we wished wed been able to be more among them; I imagine well be back before too long.