June 2010

part2: Col de Bonnette - Verdon gorge - Aix en Provance - Barcelona

On 22nd of June I head for the French border leaving back in Torino wonderful friends and memories. What a treat to be hosted by the best guys possible - it really helped to get the best impression possible of this city. Now my goal is to make it up to the refuge of Madone de Fenestre, located close to the French-Italian border North of Nice but only after doing the Route de la Bonette, one of the most well known scenic routes.

The first kilometres in Italy on SS25 heading West are nothing really exciting passing through Susa, except the nice weather that I was lucky to experience and the view of the snow white Alpine peaks in the background:


The above image is my gift for entering France via Montgenevre. After the very first minutes I am welcomed by an 18 wheeler lying flat on my lane. Probably the trucker was too fast entering this switchback and he flipped. As I watch him walking around, fortunately not seriously injured, I get merciful feelings but thinking that I might had being filling the space between his truck and the tarmac I feel less sorry. This is the first accident I experience in my trip. Wishing this would be the last one as well I continue to beautiful Briancon and start going uphill via D902. Classic Alpine scenery again, really gorgeous under a bright blue sky interrupted only by a few snow white clouds, just in case someone was tired of full sunshine, a few lakes to enrich the scenery, green carpet under the trees, nice bends, always snowy peaks in the background. In a few words: biker's heaven:

The absolute joy though was waiting for me later on D64 or “Route de la Bonette”. This route is among the crem de la crem of the Alps, crosses the Mercantour National Park and goes just above 2800 meters high. It's no surprise that I see a ot of snow at this altitude even in the heart of summer. Actually there's so much snow that the last meters of the loop road they made there in order to win the record of the highest paved pass are full of snow and I had to take the shortcut to start going down via D64 on the other side. First I had to write my name on the snow at the highest French tarmac road and the highest European tarmac pass:

A no brainer to baptise this experience as unique, especially for a Mediterranean like me. It's a must for everyone in case you're around. Just take care to keep your tank full if yours is a small one, because filling stations (even houses) are rare up there. I leave cold and snow behind, descending via D64 and fortunately the joy doesn't stop. D2205 is next heading South and it is a very nice route by the river, crossing once again the Mercantour. At its end, I headed East for the refuge Madone de Fenestre. After almost 300 km in mountainous roads with countless switchbacks and tight bends I arrive there tired but full of images to keep me happy for a lifetime.

Madone de la Fenestre refuge, 2000m

Here at the Refuge of Madone de la Fenestre I'm 2000m above sea level and the clouds feel close enough to reach out and grab them. A bit of snow and a lot of cold. No cell phone signal at this hikers nest, no internet and no place to charge my phone. I found the latter only after I noticed that my devices plugged in the wall's socket remained as they were before: semi drained. Didn't care so much about the signal or the internet but not that happy about my discharged phone and netbook. Probably a policy of this mountain hut to leave the dinning area without active sockets and I understand it partially but no fun in my case. Food is nice though and more than enough while the people I meet are a joy to talk with. All hikers from various countries and ages while I am the only non hiker around making them wondering how a Greek biker ended up there. Blame my friend Antonello at Torino who proposed me to do so. Tired enough after the dinner and the chat whit some red wine kindly offered by 2 guys from Munich, I go to sleep very early having nothing else to do anyway.

Next day starts with a nice sunshine, a good breakfast and a group of French youngsters asking me if I had space on my bike to take all of them with me. Lovely guys but I only have space for the only (and lovely) girl they were escorting. Everything looked perfect till... while loading my stuff on my bike I notice a screw on my rear tire! A punctured tire is NOT the best thing to happen at 2000 meters with an almost dead phone battery and far from the first village while my next host waits for me at Aix En Provance. I have a repair kit with me but decide to fix it at a proper shop cause if I failed I would end up with a flat tire up in the middle of nowhere and mine was not flat yet fortunately.

Carefully driving downhill, I go to the first village (Saint Martin Vesubie) and I stop at a gas station where I am more than happy to see they repair car tires as well. I thought to myself “I run tubeless as well, 100% same procedure, could I be luckier?”. What I didn't know was the French mentality/law, you name it. No matter how I tried, no matter how kind they were, they didn't want to fix my tire. Me no French, they no English. They propose me another place to do so, some 300 meters ahead. While driving without my helmet for the first time in my trip, I see my mirrors filled with the view of a Land Rover reading "GEDARMERIE" rushing to reach me. They pull me over and fortunately I skip the ticket explaining them the whole situation. What helped to convince them was the handwritten note I kept from the owner of the gas station. As they drive away I try to find that shop but in the absence of more luck it is closed. I go back to the filling station where to my surprise I find the Gedarmerie guys asking the owner to cross check on me! I say to one of them that the shop was closed and his reaction is the visual equivalent to "Fucks given zero". The guys at the gas station still don't want to fix it but they manage to find the (probably only) English speaking lady of the village who tells me that they are not authorised to do so that's why they refuse. I open my repair kit as my only choice left only to find that the glue container included emptied due to a hole. Since that lady proposed me to go to a next village 15 km away where (there's a guy who does everything" I didn't risk to DIY repair it. I take the screw off the tire, put my chewing gum on its thread to act as a gasket, rescrewed it in, put 45 psi and headed for the next village hoping I won't go flat till then.

With the ladies instructions in my head I find the place of the guy who does everything, wasn't that hard since it looks like a junkyard - a rarity in neat and elegant France. His son appears, tell him the story so father comes up smiling "Where is the problem?" in full French accent. A couple of minutes and 8 euros later it was done with him offering me the culprit screw smiling "souvenir".

I continue my way with uplifted spirit smsing my host at Aix En Provance about the delay. Heading south on D2565 the scenery becomes more Mediterranean and less Alpine. Different and richer vegetation, more insects on my windscreen, familiar images change my mood and it is clear after many km in the Alps that I am southbound. Nice contrast after the wild Alpine beauty but pity I didn't have enough batteries to capture it.

Nice route in general heading west via D8 and D2 but the best part is the one that crosses the Gorges du Verdon, the biggest canyon in Europe offering countless stops for photos and sightseeing.

This a nature's masterpiece, 25 km long, up to 1000 meters steep, ends at the beautiful Lac de Saint Croix:

It's obviously a must if you are around. At some points of the route there are rocky little balconies where you can have a fantastic view unless you suffer from acrophobia.

After the canyon I followed the shortest route to get to Aix En Provence. This part couldn't be as special as the previous and after crossing various lowland fields I arrive at beautiful Aix:

In this beautiful city I am welcomed by Kalliope and Frank. I wanna thank both of them so very much by the way. They were kind enough to host me and show me around the city where we tried some really delicious Algerian food:

Lamp with spinach

Downtown there were lots of art items exhibited and I found the whole idea quite attractive. Was not patient enough though to attend a traditional event at the main square as the prologue of that old French man was too long. He was reading a giant book and I had already experienced a lot of things on that day...

Next morning I made my way to Barcelona. Long distance, lots of traffic on the side roads, lots of squares as well so I decide to take the toll road for the first time in this trip.

As you can easily imagine I don't have many impressive snapshots from that part neither great emossions to share, except a group of 20 UK bikers who overtook me while waving at me, every single one of them. I guess meeting a bike far from its homeland makes a difference. After 330 boring km on Α9 I cross the Spanish border. What impresses me most there is the absolute change of the scenery and people as soon as you leave France behind. Feels like you enter a different world right after you pass the “ESPANΑ” sign. The villages are less neat, the fields as well, people are more smiley and extroverted and those prostitutes that work on daylight on the side roads reappeared (last time I saw them in Italy). The N11 has no big surprises, at least for someone like me coming from Greece but I could tolerate it towards visiting Barcelona for the first time. What was hard to stomach was the insane traffic combined with the heat of the summer. Not the best conditions trying to find an address - don't forget that I'm touring without a GPS in 2010 and Spaniards speak English as much as French do. The most fluent English speaker I manage to find is a foreign student who tells me "I arrived less than a week ago".

After an hour spent in Barcelona's traffic jam, a good portion of it being at Avenida Diagonal's zillion traffic lights literally a pair of them every 10 steps most of them red, I manage to find the place I'd spend my next days. I am lucky to be hosted by Patricija, an effortlessly gorgeous Latvian vascular surgeon who stayed there with her daughter and her nanny during her internship at the local hospital. Blame her for the rare cases of images of me like below:

Your truly at Plaza Catalunya

A Scorpion (me) under a scorpion

From the first seconds in Barca I'm in love. With the city. More than I (almost) am with Patricija. In this unfriendly of vehicles and friendly for pedestrians capital of Catalonia I had plenty of reasons to feel so:

Rambla del Mar

A super tolerant seagull model

Lots of nice street art at La Rambla:

Of course I'd never consider missing the Gaudy creations. The curves he designed and applied on the stone made those masterpiece buildings so magnificent and “human”at the same time.

Here's Casa Mila:

And Sagrada Familia:

Looking at these masterpieces the words of an ex girlfriend came to my mind: "When I first saw the Gaudi buildings I just wanted to hug them". Though much taller than her still I couldn't do so but I definitely had the exact same feeling.

Nanny had a day off so me and Patricija took her little daughter out for a walk and had her play at a playground around the corner. I was watching the whole scene with a smile on my face: A Latvian lady with a Greek guy escorting a Portuguese/Latvian little girl who plays with other kids from who knows where, all their mother were wearing hijabs and of course I didn't ask. At some point, one of these boys delays a couple of seconds in executing his mum's order and this huge lady slams his face so hard with her right palm that her hijab almost fell off her head. A cute scene till this incident couldn't have a more sudden inglorious end than this. Some cultural gaps seem unbridgeable. We leave the place with me wondering how this boy will export all his childhood's violence when he grows up...

Bikers should really take care of their bikes in Barcelona cause it's got a bad reputation about bike theft. Even worse, parking for bikes overnight costs a lot and at times too much. This was the only dark spot about this wonderful city. I stayed a few days there during the world football championship and I experienced how crazy about football the Spaniards are. Each time their team scored the sound of the screams and the fireworks could travel really far. While I was there they beat Chile 2-0 and Barcelona went boom twice.

This adorable city (later to become one of my most revisited ones ALWAYS on my bike) is the now point where I have to start planning my way back to the East. For a second I ask myself as I walk around the port "Would you take a ferry to make your way back easier?" Took me another second to say "No". Therefore, Toulouse here I come!

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