Sunday, 20 February 2011

Travel Notes: Sea, At Last!

Condemned at La Condamine

Barcelonnette, Jausier and La Condamine-Chatelard came and went quite quickly. The most memorable thing that happened there was the hotel at La Condamine - and it wasn't for the best reasons. I'm sure the proprietors meant well and wanted to give a warm welcome to their guests but it all seemed a bit dingy and meagre over that way.

The village is on the way down from the col du Vars where there is a little ski resort, St Anne. It's one of those small family resorts popular with locals rather than long haul international ski jet-setters. It's quite off the beaten track with not much apres ski apart from admire the church over a small glass of vin chaud. In the summer, the abundance of trails in this part of the Ubaye valley makes it quite popular with local mountain bikers.
I can't imagine you'd get many of them staying in this hotel though. Granted, the establishment is cycling friendly like in most hotels in France. The woman was friendly enough, but she was abit stingy with the food. On my arrival, at around tea time it was very welcoming to hear her say "I have a lovely meal of endive, a bit of rice and sauce for you." Great, I thought.

My heart sank as I got exactly what she said. One endive, a very carefully measured, small scoop of rice, with a smattering of sauce. There was no chance of seconds either. Oh, I did get a bonus bread roll. It was smaller than any that I'd seen in any hotel or boulangerie.
Dessert was again one scoop of ice cream, exactly!

Unfortunately there was no chance of getting a "top-up" meal at a local kebab shop or chippy. This was a very sleepy town with no one around below the age of fifty-five!
Actually, there was one bloke at the hotel who was about my age. I think he'd been staying in the hotel all week to do some walking in the local area. The poor guy was skinny like a rake! Thank God I'd only have to put up with such austere conditions for one night!

Dignified in Digne
The schedule for the following day had been to continue in to Ubaye to the Tinée valley via the Col de la Bonette (Restefond) - arguably the highest passable road in Europe. However the morning turned out to be grim, with very misty watery skies. The forecast had said for the weather to clear up during the morning. "That rain won't be going away any time soon," the other guests pointed out. It was what they called a journée fine. So, under very rainy skies I made the decision not to go over the col de la Bonnette, and instead diverted round to Digne les Bains, making an impromptu stop over there.

I hadn't reserved any place to stay, but I feel someone must have been watching over me for I found a very pleasant hotel which had just one room left - a single room. That suited me fine. The bloke was very friendly and was very keen to feed me. (I must have been looking quite emaciated by the time I reached his place!)
Breakfast was a very hearty affair with the whole schbang English style, including ham and saucisses plus extra bread "pour la grande sportive" as he dubbed me. I almost felt like a VIP!

Jean-Pierre was clearly quite impressed to know that I had travelled all the way from London, and was really keen to chat. He gave me all the lowdown on tourism and cycling in the area, and was even more pleased to know that I would be passing through his home town of Gréolières. After lots of chatting about life and the universe, and him wishing me well, I finally left the Hotel du Provence and made my way to Nice.

Napoleon Rode Here!
The route I took was fairly straightforward - the N85, also known as the Route Napoleon. It's highly recommended - there are dramatic twists, turns, ups and downs in the road. It's not challenging, though it's quite long. A few club cyclists overtook me and chatted. Bon Courage was what I kept hearing when I told them I was hoping to get to Nice that day. "You'll be cycling a tad longer than me today, I suspect!" one guy said wryly. Didn't I know it!
It was lovely to cycle in warm sunshine and admire the spectacular views of the Alpes de Provence. I also passed through Castellane. This town was really pretty, though crammed full of tourists from all over Europe, visiting the famous Grand Canyon du Verdon. I had originally planned on spending the weekend there with Fred, but sadly logistics wouldn't allow it. The nearest I got to the canyon was the Casino supermarket! That was a landmark place for me, as my salt levels were beginning to flag and the extra Coca cola with crisps was just what I needed to get that extra zing to get through the remaining 40 miles.

Clued up in Gréolières
About 12 miles beyond Castellane I left the route Napoleon to ride on even quieter twisty roads than what I'd been on. This last section of my ride was the nicest. The D2 road was pretty flat, and completely deserted - just farms and forests all the way to Thorenc and Gréolières.
From Gréolières I was then treated to lots of fun and games as the road plunged down dramatically and twisted and turned through a series of tunnels known as the Clue de Gréolières. I was on the edge of a gorge and had the most amazing views of various rock formations. I wanted to study the sights but it was more important to keep my eyes on the road, especially as there was only a low barrier to separate me from the sheer drop on my side of the road!

Gorgeous Entry!
Just when I thought I'd done all the descending possible, I discovered more, as the road continued its steady drop through the Gorges du Loup. This was a real beauty spot, with lots of people stopping and parking up along the way to admire the landscape. Lots of cyclists were also out on a jaunt in this area.
I would definitely come back to ride here, especially as it is not far from Nice and could be easily done as a day's club run while staying there.

Finally, after lots of downhill, and one small lump at La Colle-sur-Loup I was on the coast at Cagnes-sur-Mer. I was within touching distance of the finish line - well not quite. The ride along the coast from here is quite long. It's wonderful to have a dedicated cycle path to follow, though my day in the saddle had become abit long and I yearned to join the punters on the beach, preferably with an ice cream.

Very Nice Arrival
At approximately 6.15pm, my estimated time of arrival, the phone rang. "Where are you?" asked Fred. "I'm waiting for you at Beau Rivage". "Sorry, I'm running a little late, I'm just along the Promenade des Anglais." I replied. "Ok, I'll look out for you," said Fred in anticipation. Five minutes later, after dodging some rather sketchy looking roller bladers and cyclists I was face to face with Fred's camera as he snapped me reaching the finish line!
I was really glad to see him after 88 miles, 6 amandine cakes, 2 packets of crisps and a pint of coke! I was even happier to have reached Nice after my adventurous route to get from London to the South of France. We celebrated with pizza and ice cream!
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