Friday, April 19, 2013

Road Trip: Southern French Alps

So, yesterday, I looked at the weather report and saw that it would be beautiful weather the next two days, and then rainy Friday.  I’d been meaning to take a little motorbike trip for a while, so , why not?  I left at 3pm, after getting some camping supplies, then hit the open road.  I started down the coast road, which once you get past the city of Cannes, is amazing.  Check the photo link for some examples.

The only catch to the Easy Rider trip was my cold.  I’d had a cold for the last few days, and was still feeling totally out of it.  Like head in the clouds, confused about everything, out of it.  I might have had a fever.  But, weather waits for no man, so I headed out anyway.  Perhaps a night under the stars would clear things up.

The first day was rough.  I only rode for 3 hours, but even then, was having a hard time staying focused on the road, I felt barely in control of the bike.  To be fair, the bike is also new to me, I’ve only had it since February 1st, and it usually takes a few months of everyday riding to really get the feel of a bike. 

Eventually I made it to the beginnings of the Alps, and found a isolated spot to pull the bike over.  I hiked up a rock face for about 30 minutes and found a good camp spot.  A word about camping in Europe.  It sucks, very hard.  The only legal campsites are basically RV parks, complete with mini mart, a pool, and sometimes, a discotheque.  That’s a real hard sell from someone coming from Oregon, whose used to off road camping miles away from any signs of civilization or other humans.  For me, camping is a chance to re-experience the  glorious quiet, and slight danger, of wild nature.  So, I do what I call ninja-camping here.  Basically, find some wilderness, and hide yourself in it.  I rarely use a tent when I camp (unless it’s rainy, or I’m stuck in a campground), preferring to be under the stars.  So, when camping involves finding a flat spot, and throwing down a sleeping bag, it’s pretty easy to be ninja about it.  The only drawback to ninja camping is that you can’t really have a fire without drawing a bit of attention, and in the south of France, they are super paranoid about forest fires, as the climate is dry and very rich people own property there (just like California)

I had a new sleeping bag, a summer bag, thinking that the mild Mediterranean climate would be sufficient for it.   The night came on gentle enough, and I crawled into my bag cosy.  A few hours later I woke up, my legs and feet were freezing.  I was on top of a small mountain, and the bag was rated to be “comfortable” at 50F (10C-finally slowly, after 3 years of trying, I’m starting to get Celsius…sort of), and 40F was noted as “transition”, with 30F noted as “extreme”.  It had been hot in the day, around 70F, and I didn’t think it would be that cold at night.  Well, “transition” should be noted as “cold as hell”.  I suppose “extreme” means “you won’t freeze to death, not exactly”.    To be fair, I didn’t expect there to be a stunning 35 degree Fahrenheit difference between night and day (which was the case).

I tried to rest it out hoping dawn would come soon.  But after at least an uncomfortable hour, I decided screw it,  ninja or  not, I was making a fire.  So I did, and after that managed to get a an hour or two of sleep.  Lesson learned.  Always get a sleeping bag that is rated at least 15 degrees colder than any weather you plan on camping in.  Because nothing ruins a camping trip like being unable to sleep because you’re cold and miserable.

I woke up, trekked back to the bike, and hit the road again.  I was feeling better today, more awake, less numb headed.  I spent the day looping through the southern Alps.  Now, I always figured that European wilderness was pretty tame and neutered compared to the great open and untamed wilderness of the West of America.  And while it isn’t  quite as vast and untamed, I was impressed.  The French Alps are pretty remarkable.  Geologically, Europe is old.  It hasn’t changed a lot in the millennia, unlike the New World.  Most of Europe is not volcanically or tectonically active.  Usually, this means the land has been gently worn down by nature and humankind to be not much more than rolling hills.  Most of France is like this, but the South is different. 

Instead of rounding it down, time has carved it into some fantastic shapes.  I took a bunch of photos, but they hardly capture the magnificence of it.  I’ve never seen huge sheers cliffs and gorges like I have here.  Some of them look like some giant took a mountain, then cut a slit down it.  You go through these gorges, and above is about 300 feet of vertical rock, below you about 400 feet of vertical rock, and clinging to this sheer drop is twisting, narrow alpine road.  That is driving in the Alps, countless blind hairpin corners, with sheer drops to one side, and vertical expanses of mountain the other.  Then, you round the corner, and there is a medieval village clinging to a cliff, with a fortress guarding the highest point.  It really looks like Lord of the Rings stuff, but actually, better.    Again, the photos don’t do it justice, but give an idea.  Seriously, I was stopping around every other corner in awe of the vistas.

I stopped at a few of the villages, and I love these cliff villages, which are fairly common in the South.  Some barbarians decided that would be the safest, easiest place to defend, and had a water source, and thus, a village.  Some in very unlikely places, literally, hanging off mountains.   As space is at a premium in such a settlement, all the streets are very narrow, and the whole thing reminds you of a medieval beehive, narrow passageways twisting in and under each other.  Most of the passageways are too narrow for cars.  Very fairy tale-like.

As I was heading back, I finally started to get the feel of cornering on my bike, and was whipping around blind hairpin corners at 70kph an hour (about 45mph-don’t tell my mom, it will only give her grey hairs).  I even was able to lean it so hard into a few corners that my centerstand was scraping the ground.  A quick word about scooters;  they are easy to drive, and very convenient for around cities, as there’s no gears, they give your protection from rain, wind and road muck, they don’t ruin your shoes, they’ve got a ton of built in storage, and they are very maneuverable due to their smaller wheels.  This is great in urban areas, but on the open road they tend to suffer.  The smaller wheels make cornering quite a bit more touchy, and they don’t have good mid-range, car passing acceleration, like a traditional motorcycle would.  So, to work a scooter at speed takes some know how, whereas a motorcycle is built for that purpose.  

Anyway, it was a very successful little adventure, but makes me reconsider longer scooter trips, for the sole reason that the riding position is hard on the back.  Not as bad as a full sports bike perhaps, but you are forced to sit stock upright, with your arms crooked to hold the bars, and it forces your lower back to take all the weight, balance, and control.  There’s a reason people use motorcycles and not scooters for long touring. 

In the end, I can say, the southern French Alps are one of the most beautiful mountainous areas I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve toured through the mountains of Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Northeast of the US.  It is tied with Idaho (in my book, the most beautiful mountains so far), and that’s saying a lot.  Except in France, when you come up on a small village, instead of hillbilly rape or gun crazy Mormons, there’s wine and castles.  That’s a plus.

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