After leaving Aix, we wound our way along yet more narrow mountain roads towards the gorges du verdon – described, perhaps slightly optimistically, as “Europe’s Grand Canyon”. Not quite sure they live up to that – what could? – but they were certainly mightily impressive.
We took the road around the southern edge (described confusingly on the road signs as the “rive gauche” – left bank. perhaps in the direction of flow of the water, but that wasn’t obvious from that distance above it…), and managed to resist temptation to complete the loop, since – as ever – we needed to be onwards.
The views from the gorge were truly astonishing – sheer rock face, plummetting down several hundred metres, to a narrow twisting river, barely visible on the floor. In places, there were even boats moored up – the gorge feeds into a vast lake for a hydro-electric power station. Along the way, one hotel advertised a “Panoramic Restaurant” – we thought that slightly hyperbolic, and it’d be difficult not to be panoramic, given the scenery – then we saw from higher up exactly what they meant. One side of the hotel was actually cantilevered above the edge of the gorge…
At the very top of the road above the gorge, we’d parked up and were standing staring at the view, when we saw our own van coming up the road towards us – an absolute identical twin, with the sole exception of the Michelin man not being present… Half an hour later, we pulled in to a layby to do a quick map check, and found ourselves pulled up behind a very, very close triplet – this time a subtly different shade of red… (and, as I type this in a campsite a couple of days later, our neighbours have yet another hightop Westy – older than ours, air-cooled, and bright green – positively common!)
After Verdon, the road continued upwards – both on the map and in altitude. There’s not that many ways across the southern part of the French – Italian border, leaving us the choice of a couple of pages north on the map or the Cote d’Azur. The lure of high mountain scenery and Alpine passes won out over the people-watching cruise through Nice, Cannes and Monaco.
Our last overnight in France was a pleasant little campsite, on the edge of the village of Castellan, just as the road started to get properly steep. The village presented a dilemma, however – there were signs towards a Citroen Museum, but it wasn’t open until the following afternoon. What to do, what to do? We managed to resist temptation – it seemed a shame to, but let’s be honest, if we don’t know what the exhibits would look _exactly_ like by now… Next time, maybe.
The first pass – the Col de Allos – was the lowest of the three, at a measly 2,250m… As we started to climb up out of the upper part of Allos village, the ski resort of Val d’Allos, we had our first glimpse of Alpine wildlife, as a marmot padded across the road ahead of us. They’re surprisingly large – a good couple of feet long, and very rounded – probably most similar to a beaver, but without the big flat tail.
From Allos, we continued to the town of Barcelonette – one of the major crossroads in the region, a small and unpresuming town. There appeared to be a contrast between Barcelonette – which our guidebook glowed gently about, yet didn’t appear to be anything particularly exciting or interesting to us – and Allos – which had been dismissed curtly, yet (especially taken with it’s neighbour, Colmars) seemed to be lovely little places, easy to wander through, staring gently at wonderful architecture (Colmars’ fort, especially) whilst their real life unfolded around you. Barcelonette gave a couple of different routes to Italy – the major road Col de Larche, or the minor Col de Bonette to Isola then the even more minor Col de Lombarde past the Isola 2000 ski resort. Since the Col de Bonette is billed as “Europe’s Highest Road”, the choice was made for us.
At 2,802m, we have no idea if there are pretenders to the crown, but if there are, then please point us to them… The scenery was truly jaw-dropping. Right in amongst the peaks, with bare jagged rock in every direction. Looking across, and seemingly down, in high-20s degree heat in September, on snow glinting in the sun – it’d be very easy to run out of superlatives.
Another treat – curling round another bend to find a huge huddle of wiry mountain sheep grazing on a pasture – and to then realise there were curly-horned Ibex looking like extras from an African safari mingled in amongst them.
The third pass, the Col de Lombarde, should have been an anticlimax after Bonette – at “only” 2,350m, nearly half a kilometre lower – but it was probably the most dramatic of the three. As we wound up out of Isola 2000 (named after the altitude of the resort itself), the mountains behind us had been landscaped to within an inch of their lives, numerous ski runs carved through the wooded slopes and lifts spidering around in all directions. To then reach the peak of the pass and find that long-awaited sign reading “ITALIA” was a real treat.
The road down was easily the most demanding of all of them, too. They’d all had very, very different feels – and the scenery changed around every single bend (plenty to choose from!).
And so we arrived in Italy. The first town we came across was a familiar name, although we’d not been at the time – host of the 2003 2cv World Meeting, Vinadio. I suspect it had been a great deal less sleepy then than we found it, although one thing hadn’t changed – The baker’s shop that we bought a loaf from had a window display of model 2cvs, including two big cuddly cars embroidered with the meeting’s logo.