I can’t say for sure but it wouldn’t surprise me if great works of travel literature have been penned whilst sitting in laundrettes worldwide. If they haven’t, this short piece describing my cycle from the Italian Alps to the French Riviera may be a first. But I doubt it. Should you ever be spending the night in Nice and need you clothes washing I can recommend this place on Rue de la Buffa; its not only centrally-located and clean but also, most importantly, accepts bank notes in the console on the wall that operates all of the machines. The necessity to find coinage at just after 8am would have been a pain.
To the cycling. I chatted over breakfast on the campsite back in Limone-Piemonte with a French couple from Fréjus. They offered me coffee and despite being a little off-hand when I asked the woman what she did for a living (“c’est le weekend et on be parle pas de ça!”), they were able to offer me a few clues as to what my ride to the Tende Pass would be like. I’ll stick to the English by the way; my Italian map calls it the Passa di Tende and my French one the Col de Tende. For those of you with little geographical knowledge a ‘pass’ is the the bit between two mountains that usually provides the best place to move from one valley to the next or in this case between one country and the next. My French neighbours were mountain bikers and they reassured me that the road to the pass was a good quality, surfaced road. They didn’t mention the state of the road on the other side of the mountains but I presumed it was something similar. So, I set off feeling confident that it would be just a case of steady pedalling for a couple of hours after having filled up with a proper breakfast in the now almost deserted central part of town. And it was. The journey to the top was split into two parts; firstly the cycle to the entrance of the tunnel and then on a smaller road to the pass. Both routes involved numerous switchbacks but significantly fewer before the tunnel than after it. There was a long queue of cars at the entrance and I was hopeful that for the rest of the journey to the pass it would be just me, perhaps a few other cyclists and the odd fly to swat out of the way. Oh dear. The thin road that branched off the main road to the pass seem to attract the kind of drivers who use their cars as a source of excitement in their lives and there was a regular stream of them passing me as I made my steady way to the top. Then there were the motorbikers. And the scramble riders. Not forgetting the quad riders. I could see no pleasure whatsoever in what they were doing. It required no effort apart from a foot on a pedal and occasionally a little bit of braking and I felt pity that they weren’t able to experience the shear joy of achievement in slowly but surely making your way to 1,870m under your own human force. They probably had they reverse thoughts about me as they zoomed past. The switchbacks were far more numerous and longer than they had been prior to the tunnel but after perhaps an hour I arrived at the pass. Or was it? Lots of the drivers had parked their cars along the long road at the top of the mountain at the end of which was a chalet selling food and drinks. The views were spectacular but there was nothing to indicate that this was indeed the pass. I began to suspect that it wasn’t but just in case I took a few pictures to avoid having to return. Two further roads branched off from the road upon which I had arrived; to the left the road appeared to lead to a ruined fort of some kind. Quite a substantial construction albeit a bit drafty. To the right was a rough track and this looked more promising as it headed further along and up the edge of the mountain to a point where more cars had been parked. It was difficult to ride upon the rocky, loose gravel so I got off and pushed until the tarmaced surface returned. I passed a sign warning that people should only continue in 4×4 vehicles. No mention of 2×2 ones. Then I saw a second sign telling me what I needed to know; this was indeed the Tende Pass. Behind me was Italy, in front of me France.
Again, cars were strewn across the area ruining somewhat the feeling of glorious mountain isolation. People seemed to be using it as a base to wander off up the hills on either side of the pass. An elderly couple further along the road were sunbathing as if they were sitting on the beach. And one German motorbike rider was taking a piss. Nice touch. I spent my time peering down the French valley pondering the road that would lead me to the riviera and Nice. It was very different from the one upon which I had cycled to make it to the top. More loose gravel. My mind cast back to 2010 and the Gotthard Pass when I first had issues with my spokes due to the surface to the path descending into Ticino. Was it all about to happen again?
It was a tentative start. Well, it was also a tentative middle and a tentative end as I slowly made my way down from the pass. Two mountain bikers told me it was like this for about 3km. For them it was perfect but for me, I would have liked something a little bit less unstable. There was one saving grace in that I was travelling downhill rather than up. After around half a kilometre I paused to record a video (see earlier post) and was passed my another touring cyclist. I think he was English but it’s difficult to say for sure when the only word a person says is ‘hello’. I asked him where he was going (stupid question I know but I meant in the longer term rather than the shorter one) but he ignored me and continued to push his bike up the hill. It only really started to dawn upon me as I continued to edge my way down the mountain, kilometre after kilometre why he might have been in such a disgruntled mood. It would have been impossible to ride up the road without regularly falling off the bike and perhaps he had arrived at the tunnel entrance in France expecting to be able to go through only to be pointed in the direction of the rough track. It was a very, very long way down for me. It must have felt even longer in the opposite direction. By the time I had reached the tunnel entrance I had reevaluated my impression of the poor chap. To have got a civil ‘hello’ from him probably puts him in the category of cyclists who are at other times deliriously happy.
My main gripe as I cycled between the small rocks on the path was to do with my hands. They were constantly applying the brakes so as to prevent me and Reggie from taking the quick route down to the valley bottom via the steep incline at the edge of the road. On arrival at the queue of cars waiting to head into the darkness & subsequently into Italy, I stopped riding for several minutes to help them recover.
But I was in France! My linguistic comfort zone where all the signs made sense and the people did so most of the time. I had a broad smile on my face as I cycled at speed along and down through the deep & dramatic valley that had been carved into the road by thousands of years of Alpine river erosion. The first place I came to where I could stop and pause for something to eat and drink was the town of Tende itself and I sat on the terrace of a busy café, ordered up a minor feast of nourishment whilst uploading the video and some pictures that I had taken at the top of the mountain. The journey after Tende continued in a similarly steep fashion and I occasionally checked my cycling app on my phone to find out how many of the 1,870m I had so far descended. I knew the distance to the coast was around 50km and was slightly concerned that I seemed to be using up lots of the vertical metres before many of the horizontal ones had been cycled.
From my map I could see that the road split into two shortly after the town of Saorge. If I were to turn right and cycle through Sospel it would mean a second climb to another, less significant pass but then the route was a direct one to Nice. If I were to turn left the road continued downhill (but for how long?), take me back into Italy before arriving on the coast at Ventimiglia. This was a much shorter route to the Mediterranean but it would then mean that I would have to cycle a good 30km along the coast through Menton & Monte-Carlo before arriving in Nice itself. I turned left.
There was very little uphill cycling between that point and My final destination. Numerous long tunnels did make me question whether (again) I was infringing the local traffic regulations, especially in Italy where you can never be quite certain when a road is a road or indeed a motorway that is signposted like a normal road. When I entered France for the second time at Menton – the once symbolic border post between the two countries having now been turned into a rather shabby parking area for motor homes – I smiled again that I was in a country I know well and that for the next week or so at least I would be fraternising happily with friends, old and new. Perhaps. I tried to stick as close to the water as I could as I cycled from the order to Nice and this strategy worked well as not only did it keep me away from the ups and downs of the main road above the towns but it was just a very interesting ride, especially the cycle through the familiar landmarks of Monte Carlo. I had driven through the town on a couple of occasions before but this journey allowed me to see a little more of the famous hangout for the rich, famous or both. I was pleasantly surprised and should one day I become rich (not too bothered about the fame – I’ll leave that to the bike), it will go on a list of ‘possible places to park my yacht’.
The Promenade des Anglais in Nice welcomed me with a throng of late Sunday afternoon promenaders. The beach was still packed but as I had already sorted my accommodation the previous day I was in no rush. I sat outside a bar and toasted my arrival in country number 8. Only two more to go (and the rest of number eight itself of course…).