A Mountain Pass Safari in the Western Alps


The Maritime and Haute Provence Alps


The House on the Hill above Nice
Just drop 50 Euros in the Mailbox
Le Canyon du Verdun a la Inde
N202 - the border between the foothills and the real mountains
my stay in the Salle des Fetes
A vacation on the coast
Medieval Tende

The House on the Hill above Nice

The email told me to "ENVISAGE STIFF CALVES". - Nobody ever said computer translations were perfect. Maybe they even give a flavor of the origin language for the translation. The message, that email was trying to get across was, that approaching this lodgement, that I was about to book - getting there with my bicycle, was a definite possibility. It's just, that it's up on a pretty big hill. "Not to worry", I wrote back, "I am a great fan of bicycling", which babelfish promptly translated to being "A GREAT VENTILATOR OF BICYCLING".

In this context I should also mention the following - just in case you are reading a computer translation of this text. Of course this is not a real safari, where you hunt cows, cats and dogs with a gun or pistol, casually slung over your cycling shorts. No - the cols, passes and summits are the real object of the hunt. You ride up one side and down the other, and so the pass is hunted down, so to speak.<br> <br> Here is another nice thing about mountain passes on a bicycle. It doesn't really matter if you are looking for a big climb. These roads often lead you automatically to the most attractive cycling possibilities. The reason is, that they tend to be small roads and have lots of curves. Just the thing to make for a ride with lots to see, and keep the cars away at the same time. The only thing you shouldn't be is "in a hurry" and "afraid of hills". If so - just envisage stiff calves - and so it will be.

I did book these accommodations in a private house via housetrip.com, but when it came time for me to get my calves stiff, it was impossible. When I saw Antibes bathed in the hazy evening light through the airplane window, I had no idea that British Airways had not put my bike on the same flight as me. When it came time to find a way to the top of Mont Vinaigrier, I was a bus tourist. Bus drivers were trying to help me zero in on the address - Boulevard de Observatoire - how may observatories can there be in Nice - surely not that many. But the bus drivers missed the hill by one.

In retrospect I learned something from this experience. It's not good to just start talking - or rather babbling - after all this was me attempting to communicate in French - to the next person. Using this approach, the person gave me a strange look and after 10 seconds said "Bonjour Messieurs".  I answered by repeating what I had understood "Bonjour Messieurs" - another 10 seconds went by and a after this small pause, an attempt of communication started up flawlessly. After this I thought it best to start every conversation with a "Bonjour Messieur/Madame", followed by several seconds of silence, and then go at it. These two words indicated not just mere politeness, but also the idea, that it will be a little difficult to communicate, but that any effort will be greatly appreciated.

This man too sent me in the wrong direction, but I was getting closer without knowing it. In the end, even with all those attempts at communication, it turned out the bus driver drove me up an adjacent hill. Finally a man at a bar called Mdme A. on my behalf, and she graciousely came to get me with her car. She had even offered to come get me at the airport, when we were communicating during the booking. But who would have thought British Airways would loose my bicycle ? This way when I crossed the Col de Quatre Chemins, a little but oh-so-interestingly unusual, little pass above Nice for the first time, it was in her car. Thanks to the "Virtual Alps" web page, this spot at the intersection of several roads between Menton and Nice was not a complete stranger to me, and it turned out to be a crossroads to all the bike rides I did from here.

That evening Mdme A. offered to bring me a dinner in my room - or I could eat with her and her husband. Of course I opted for the second, "parce que ce serait tres interesant pour moi". Over the course of the next couple of days they patiently endured my attempts to mix all the French I knew into whatever mix of languages I could come up with at the time. My first second language is (or was) Spanish, and this Spanish kept creeping into the French. I could see from the pained expression on their faces when this became too much. But I think they forgave me. After dinner I retired to my half of the second floor of a building about 3 meters wide, containing a bed, a refrigerator graciously stocked with breakfast for the next morning, a coffee maker and a microwave oven, and a view out the bathroom window over the twinkling lights of what I thought was Nice, but turned out to be the suburb of La Trinite and its high rise living towers. Doesn't matter - just as good. Both scenes have snow covered mountains as background, when the weather cooperates. People who don't explore their surroundings with a bicycle probably would have never known the difference.

After the first long sleep, there was still no bicycle. And the bicycle transportation thing had started out so well. What an improvement over the period 2009 to 2011. In 2009 Lufthansa had charged me 300 dollars for a single flight for a bike, causing me to make a solemn vow never to book a flight with Lufthansa again. In 2011 conditions seemed no better. In 2012 things have changed. The bicycle takes the place of one free piece of luggage again, at least with BA and several other carriers I checked. The panniers were packed in one plastic bag and went as a second "paid for" piece. It is surprising, but bicycles are still somewhat of a novelty item at the Denver airport, especially clip-on pedals. I never did have to remove them, since the attendant thought they were "already off".

But here in Nice, there was still "NO BICYCLE", and I discovered just how complicated, being a tourist without a bicycle, was. For starters there was that darn bus again. After none came for half an hour I started walking to Nice - I needed to at least get some food. Of course the bus passed me 5 minutes later, but by that time I had grown appreciative of the fact, that at least I could still walk, and British Airways would always put my legs in the same plane as the rest of me. However Nice is a big city, especially when you walk down from the Col de Quatre Chemins to it. The day seemed to contain just enough time for finding a supermarket and taking some pictures of big city life along the way. Finding a C480 fuel cartridge for my Camping Gaz stove turned out to be another major problem, that remained unsolved. But I discovered I had a microwave oven in my room, so I was not going to starve easily.

On the way back I managed to flag down the correct bus back to the house on the hill. I would have never known where to get off, if a friendly stranger had not told me. Wait a minute, how does she know where I want to get off ? Turns out she was part of the extended family, and living below me. When I returned there was still no bicycle, and I was beginning to wonder how difficult it would be to buy a new one. It's not just the bike, it's the racks, the pedals, the favorite tires, the computer mount with the altimeter function. All the detail makes such a thing so complicated. I called British Airways Lost Baggage. They answered the telephone somewhere in Spain, asking for number to feed into their computer. According to them the bike was at the Nice airport and could be delivered to me the next day. But then Mdme A. sprang into action, and the bike was delivered that evening. It had a few more gashes, a crooked brake lever, the handlebar tape had been ripped off, but all in all - about the same as all the other times I had just ridden it to the airport.

In principal there was nothing more in the way, between me and my bike rides. Sounds kind of I-me-mine oriented, but what the heck, no worse than the I-me-mine -pad -pod, which I had seen by the hundreds plugged into peoples extremeties at the airports. My aim was to bicycle over and in the process take notes on many passes, I had read about on internet page such as Virtual Alps.com, Alpentouren.de, Quaeldich.de and others. For the first rides I had even better advice than the Virtual Alps page. I had a real person. It turns out Mrs A. was quite a cyclist in another time, and he adviced me to look for a certain pass. The rest of the story is on the Col de Madone page. The ride also crossed Col de Banquettes.

One nice thing about passes that are not so terribly high, you can really pack a lot of them into one ride, and just about anything that crosses a ridge of some sort is a named pass in France. I find this fondness of attaching a name to a goal that can be cycle climbed very attractive. The world needs more of it.

After such a successful second day following the depressing first day, what would the third day bring ? It brought another great ride. It was a long day over the one major cycling pass in this area that everybody talks about (not everybody - just cyclists), even if they have no interest in the probably at least 49 other passes in the area: Col de Turini.  In a way this loop reminded me a little of my home in Colorado. I know - it's way too early to be reminded of home - i just barely got away from it. Still, the effort required for this loop over Col de Torini is similar, compared with a loop over Juniper Pass from Denver, even if the particular loop I to rode, had a little more climbing, since I chose Col de Braus to get back to the starting point.

After that I needed a day of rest, but it's hard to rest in a place with so much to see and do, and more than that - ride across. In addition to this the weather had become unlike anything I expected from the alps - nothing but sunshine, almost too hot in the beginning of May. What happened to all the rain ? I guess the numerous "route du soleil" signs, I had seen on the way to Col de Ste. Roch the day before, were there for a reason. I combined a day of relaxing and buying provisions with a short ride over the Col d'Eze. This pass has its own categories of superlatives, categories you wouldn't suspect from a pass, superbly low for example, a view of a superbly wealthy neighborhood like Monaco, superbly coastly mediterranean.

In the end of my stay in Nice I even found that C480 cartridge for my camping gaz stove, I had looked for, for so long. The person who finally directed me to the right store ( a shop called Go Sports in central Nice) was a bicycle rickshaw driver - wouldn't you know it ? That evening I lugged back as many quarts of milk, beer and liquid yogurt, juice, in addition to chocolate biscuits, microwavable frozen vegetables, types of bread and brie and whatever else seemed delicious to me, up to my room in the house on the hill, as I could get up the hill.

The next day was substantial too. But even on the route du Soleil it rains sometimes I found out. The figurative high point of this ride was a descent into the Gorge de la Vesubie from col de Porte, only to climb out of it again (and escape the exhaustive gorge traffic) on the D19 summit near Levens.

The last ride in the Nice area would have been a nice Nice introductory ride. It seems I should have done this the first day. On the last day I also made all the mistakes, that I thought I would make on the first day,  taking all the wrong turns at intersections, that should feel a little like home by now, mopeds and all. The result was a ride over the Berre-les-Alps summit, with several detours.

Just drop 50 Euros in the mailbox.

I said goodbye to my gracious hosts and their wonderful house near the top of Col de Quatre Chemins. Over the last 5 days I had become a expert chef in microwave cooking, according to myself, and only myself. The little boxer dog wanted to lick my leg to say goodbye - or maybe he just likes the salt from sweat. The older dog, roughly the size of a calf, named Teddy (as in Bear) gave me a glance as if to say "Oh look - there's another one leaving". Mdme A. showed me the escargots inside two flowerpots, she was looking forward to eating and Mrs A. aked me "So are you going to ride Col du Restefond ?" I told him, no - but today it was the Col de Vence's turn. He laughed. But actually, even though less than 1000m above sealevel, this pass is nothing to laugh about. In terms of elevation gains in the US, that's still equivalent approximately from going to Lake Mc Donald to the top of Logan Pass (Going to the Sun Road). And today I was going to do it with paniers, including all the food I had bought and couldn't eat in the last four days. During that first shopping venture I had grocely overestimated my ability to burn up calories. I still had pate, brie, Maggie soups, tomatoes and 2 loafs of bread, tabouli and drinkable yogurt by the quart to lug around with me. Little did I know that it was going to come handy.

I had planned to ride to Castellane today, and once upon a time I would have, (or maybe I would even still, if it was later in the tour - but in the beginning of everything, there seems to be always more than enough time, so why rush ? Why use one day when you can do it in two, and maybe even squeeze in another day loop over oh-so-many pases ? These were the thoughts running through my head, when the coastal clouds cleared away in the town of Greolieres. I want to describe it as a medieval village stuck on a hill, but I am beginning to think this fits to almost all villages here - now that I was at a safe distance to the urban coastal corridor and its moped encircled - rectangular patterned architecture - balconies filled with satellite dishes and clothes drying in the sun - socialist high rise buildings.

My "je cherche une chambre" incantations had the resonance of "hey thear's a chap looking for a room". I can talk English too I answered. Ben said he came here as hang glider instructor and was once married, but isn't any more, in a tone of voice that recognized this to be the natural progression of events. So now he fixes up houses and rents out a few rooms, including one to me. Once again it had a hot plate and a coffee pot. This time it also had several foot thick, medieval walls.

That evening I walked up to the ruins of a church from the 13th century and watched the late light go down over the Gorges du Loop and the town clinging to the hillside. At the time I was the only one up there. But, considering that people had the chance to watch this scene since the 13th century, I wondered how many people had been impressed with this spectacle.

The best experiences on bicycle tours usually come unexpectedly, at least in my experience. It's not the places that you read about before hand in travel books, even on the internet. The best places are the ones that you somehow run into, and there they are. I thought this was one of them. So why not take 3 days instead of one. I had planned a day ride over several small passes:

Greolieres > up Clue de Greolieres(shp) > D2 east > Col de Bleine > St-Auban <> out and back to end of clue de St Auban >> Lattes > Valderoure > Col Bas > Andon  > Col de Cornille > Gaille > Andon >> Col Castellaras > back down Clue de Greolieres > Greolieres

The best part of this ride were really two canyons, the Clue de Greoieres, and the Clue de St Auban. My favorite pass on this route was the Col de Bleine. Apparently there is also the possibility to add the unpaved Col St Pierre into this loop.

Next morning I did as instructed and dropped the key together with a 50 Euro note in a mailbox, the right one I hope. Not to worry, Ben had told me, here everybody knows everybody.

Le Canyon du Verdun a la Inde

My route was slowly leading me into plateau topography, where the bottom of the passes - the canyons and gorges, rival the mountain tops in scenic wonder. The next cycling goal was a ride around the Canyon de Verdun, the largest Canyon in Europe. To get to the starting point involved only a fairly short day of touring into Castellane. The pass involved on this ride was the Col de Luens. It is located on the the busy N95 Route Napoleon and the cycling is not nearly as pleasantly magical as on the small roads of the previous days.

In Castellane I went to the tourist office and asked if there were any "private rooms" available. "Private room" in this case meaning not "hotel" but "not hotel", a room with a person or family, that has a spare room to rent to tourists. I was prepared to pay 20 to 25 Euros a night. The friendly woman at the counter said she knew only one such person. She made a telephone call and I was to meet Jean Pierre at a prearranged location at 5:30 pm in La Colle, not far from Castellane. By 5:45pm I rode as fast as I could, climbing about 300ft above the valley to Jean Pierre's house, trying hard to catch up with his car waiting at the next intersection. That was 300ft, not counting the driveway which is another 50 ft higher over maybe just a little longer distance.

Jean Pierre was the perfect host, and this "yet another house on on the hill" was a great place to stay - and very interesting in the following way:

People like me, who live in a climate that has a winter, are used to make a distinct differentiation between outside and inside, when a home is concerned. Inside is the place you defend against the outside. You insulate it from the outside's temperature variations. Inside is where you cook, outside is where you go to sit when nature plays along. Living in the mediterranean climate does not always force such a severe distinction. In this wonderful living space, a sliding closure, the size of a garage door, but made partially from glass, separated a large space with a functional sink, stove and  simple wood table. On the other side of this generally left open door was a rock garden with plants of varying degrees of wildness. A second barn door of sorts lead from the kitchen space into the sleeping space. Here a wood stove pointed its chimney back out into the rockgarden, emerging between a buddha statue and a wooden horse.

As it turned out Jean Pierre was also an experienced India traveler. So now I was confused - because now that he mentioned this - his place would fit in very well into a Himalayan foothills monastery scene. After all, it was hard to find anything that was not a exploration in artisanal craft in here, from the hand painted pattern on the closet, all that stone work, to the table plate sliced from a tree stump and held up by some sort of tied together bamboo like wood. However the masterpiece was the shower in a grotto of stone work, accented with a christmas light display that doubled as night lights.

During the morning Jean Pierre brought me 2 or 3 eggs, part of the day's harvest in thyme, basil, and herbal tea and told me what the internet predicted for weather. He assured me that I should act like I was at home, which included using whatever food was on the shelves like Basmati Rice, biscuits, Earl Grey Tea and Potiron Chataigne - a carton of sauce that made a great meal of the rice. He made sure I turned off the water main line to keep the leakage down, and asked me regularly if I wanted anything. Then he wished me a good day and disappeared, though the dog and the cats could continue to visit, if I felt like it. On the day that I was forced to come back from my first attempt at a bicycle ride into the Verdun Canyon, due to rain and temperatures meriting ski gloves, Jean Francois had lit a fire in the wooden stove before I came. Now, what 5 star hotel will do this for you ? He now has a web site for his lodgement at http://obrayal.canalblog.com/ . For a loop ride around the canyon it requires a few km extra approach. On the other hand, the only supermarket type grocery store in Castellane is also a few km closer.

The second attempt to ride around the Canyon de Verdun turned out much better. This was the longest ride with the most elevation gain sofar. As it turned out the ride went over 5 points that could be called summits, and also two passes - neither one of wich could be called a summit, at least as far as my particular loop is concerned. The highest one of these is: Le route des Cretes s(u) ( lower summit points along the way are D71 le petit Maime s(u) , D71 Col d'Illoire s(u) , D71 Tunnel du Fayet s(u). Another shoulder point is Col d'Ayen ).

It is tempting to compare the Canyon du Verdun with canyons in Colorado and Utah, and it is a favorite question of people I have met along the way. The Canyon du Verdun is a limestone canyon. So it doesn't look anything like you would find in Southern Utah - northern Utah perhaps. Logan Canyon in Utah or Glenwood Canyon in Colorado are examples of limestone canyons. But the mediterranean limestone is far thicker and more massive, and the vegetation is more suited to a wetter climate here. Of course the Utah and Arizona canyons are bigger, but size in what category ? The Canyon de Verdun has the longest paved loop ride, following its rim that I know of. Other things that impress a first time visitor like myself are these: The road is lined with massive low walls to try to keep cars from plunging into the depths, yet blending perfectly with the scenery. The supporting roadbed appears like glued to the mountain. In the US a road project like this would probably be named the Billion Dollar Highway - they already have a Million dollar highway - alluding to the expense of construction, something that is taken for granted here.

N202 - the border between the foothills and the real mountains

When I finally left Jean Pierre's house it was raining again. But the internet weather forecast called for clearing. I still had hopes for clearing as I rode up Col de St Barnabe in heavy drizzle (if there is such a thing). I had pretty much given up on the weather as I descended the same Col into Soleihas, shivering my way into the next gite. I did the usual exercises trying to warm up  in an empty, left open gite, and then the sun came out. At the end of the day I had another string of beautfiul low passes strung up behind me. Following Barnabe came Col de Buis and Col de Felines. The ride had a surprise in the end, as I rolled down Col de Felines and saw the walled fortess in Entrevaux. (see the Felines page).
These tourist offices really are very practical, especially when they're open. The one in Entrevaux, like many others, was not when I arrived. But after I started asking around for rooms, a cellphone call from a shopkeeper, caused an unscheduled reopening of the tourist office. Again there were no "private rooms" with private people. However the attractive, friendly woman at the office volunteered the information that the gite was empty for tonight and nobody had booked it yet for tomorrow either, which was really very nice of her. I would have felt out of place to ask this question myself, but perhaps from now on I will. So that's really just as good as a private room. For payment you receive a frequently changing, numbered code, with which to open the hyper modern electronic lock of the medieval mill building, located directly across from the old city. It's a nice place to spend the evening and look at maps. The dayride I concocted for the following day was this:

Entrevaux > up D610/710 > Col de Trebuches > la Rochette > St Piere > St Antonin > D17-D27 Rourebel(sh) <>  out and back to Ascros >> col de St Raphael(shp) > Puget Theniers > Col St Leger > down D1202 > back to Entrevaux.

Actually the orginal plan contained another summit instead the out and back to Ascros.  But that's the nice thing around here. The road net is so dense, routes can be abbreviated or expanded as conditions warrant. The most remarkable leg on this ride was, in my opinion,  the section over Col St Leger, for the first time a pass on the north of N202, where the mountains and canyons become bigger quite suddenly.

It's been about two weeks now since I left, and today was really only my 4th day of touring with full weight. I used all the other days for dayrides or resting. Somehow this felt like the first day of hard touring. Always looking for sideroads, I found two more on the map going my way, D26 thourgh Tournefort and D32 through Utelle. These were north of the busy N202 that follows the Var, and I soon learned, that hills on this side, weather named passes or not, tend to be more serious climbs. Also the additonal two panniers and the computer on my back did make a difference. From the first D26 summit in Tournefort I had a nice view of the mountains. But from the second and as it turns out third summit, in the town squares of La Tour and Utelle, it seemed like a different world altogether (...more details in the pages about those summits.)

My stay in the Salle des Fetes

 Wandering through the handful of narrow alleys in Utelle,  I heard English from a narrow balcony on the third floor above: A raspy british male voice said:  "Back then I had 1600 records and played them all". In the background, it sounded like the Allman Brothers on the stereo. It became my first English conversation in France, even if it was short. I never did get to ask them if they ever were in Nepal during the hippie days. Take away the parking lot outside, this mountain top in Utelle, that is just large enough to fit the old medieval village, gave me the feeling of a removed world. Many people go to a place very far away, like Nepal  - to find this feeling of a wonderland removed from reality as we know it.

But back to practicalities - I wanted to find a room, and as it turned out, finding a place to stay up here turned out to be impossible.  If you can believe those two guys on the balcony - it's all full for a hundred miles around. They got the Grand Prix in Monaco, the music festival in Cannes. The people in the bars and the hotels, willing to try communication with me, corroborated the "all full" part, though I don't know about  the Grand Prix and music festival parts. But it is, as the man on the balcony said: "We're lucky we live up here". Yes - but getting groceries up here was already a chore even in medieval times. But the view from here really is grandiose, the best far vantage on the Mercantour Range on the entire trip.

Back down in the valley, in Lantosque, I asked in a bar/cafe if there were economical accommodations nearby. As it turned out "economical" -no, free -yes. But for now - I was just not understanding, what the man was trying to tell me about Marie. Finally the man took me to Marie. It said so right above the house in large letters "Mairi" (slightly different spelling). It was the mayor's office. A second friendly man with considerable political talent took over where the bar man had begun. Telephone calls were made. I head the word "Grand Tour" serveral times. The "Salle de Fetes" could apparently be used in such occasions. The Salle de Fetes is the community hall, not the party room, as one could also verbally translate it. Every village has one it seems, sometimes they're the most important building in town.  "Couvertures" were found in the firehouse, matresses were carried from afar, working personal were informed, keys were being assembled. The currently unused weight room in the salle de fetes became my sleeping place for two nights. I was given the keys to the building, weight room and shower facilities - to me they were the keys to the city. Finally the fireman asked me if I needed a supply of "something or other" for my journey. I didn't think I needed any. But I wasn't sure. An French English speaker was found to translate. What he was asking me was if I needed any "first aid" supplies. I bet Bablefish wouldn't have known this translation either. In any case, I was all set.

Lantosque is a little downvalley from the larger tourist destinations of Roquebilliere and St Martin Vesubie. But I think it has a tighter medieval core, and looks more attractive in late evening light. But then again I'm biased and I had a great view of it, late that evening after I finally got to relax in front of the salle de fetes, right in the center of all those medieval walls

The second everning the Mairie (major) stopped by for just a minute. He asked for my plan du route, and I showed him maps of the little distance I have come from Nice so far, and a possible route over the alps. I hadn't really come far at all, as far as a Grand Tour is concerned. One day from Nice would be more than enough to get here. That day the Trans Vesubie VTT (MTB) tour or race was arriving in St Martin and they covered the same distance over infinitely more difficult terrain, following a ridge line between the Vesubie and Tinee Canyons (including the Col d'Andrion, which I had researched back home). My French was not good enough to get across the idea of exploring the area in detail and riding all the Cols I could get my wheels on. But the mayor was a nice man. He looked impressed, shook my hand, wished me well and told me to stay as long as I wanted.

But the sun was shining reasonably the next morning, and I didn't want to abuse the favor. Four days of selfsupported touring (not counting all the dayrides) was no Grand Tour, and if I left the next day, that would be one more day closer to a "Grand Tour", even if the next planned stop was actually closer to where I had started "the Tour" - in Nice. Also, coming back from my out and back ride over Col St Martin on the previous day, the last 7 km I rode in a thunderstorm, that turned the road into splashing rivulets and the bike ride into a shivering mess. I had to do exercises to warm up or I would shiver to death. A well hidden supermarket was the scene for this, and thank you fellow shoppers for doing your best to ignore the spectacle. Suddenly I felt I needed a vacation, and decided to head for the coast, where it's warm

The day's ride lead me over Col de Turini for a second time, this time up the third approach from the east. I was used to mountains, but every day I still looked in awe at all the wonderful villages that people built on top of them, at least the not quite so high ones. In this sense the best part of this third approach was the town of la-Bollene-Vesubie (Pictures on the Col de Turini page). Thousands of feet higher, the top of this pass was shrouded in grey forest and clouds this time, air so thick it was condensing on my rainjacket. It was very different from the first ride over the pass from Nice. The ride down led through Sospel, and surprise a second small pass, Col de Castillon into Menton.

A vacation on the coast

That evening over on the Italian side of the border, it was fairly difficult to find a suitable room. But in the end it turned out okay, it just took quite a while until a shopkeeper felt sorry for my mix of sign language and Spanish and got an English translator. They sent me back to the Albergho Marinela, which I had already scoped out, but rejected because it had 3 stars. But it was run by a single old friendly woman, the type of person that in old age somehow fail to keep up with inflation, and reject the fact of all the billions of Euros that have been printed in the last years. And so the price was actually quite good, and I felt that this was a good person with whom to spend my money.

So now I was living in relative luxury to the days before. The bed was about the same. The breakfast was very small, but I didn't have to fix it myself (although I still fixed a second breakfast afterwards). It felt like I was eating in a doll house. Little 2 inch squares of prepackaged toast with doll sized packets of butter and these little tubs of jam, plus one small, but great croissant. But the decor was superb, that's what made the three star difference. Cloth on the tables, cloth napkins, and paintings on the wall, a fresh made cup of cappucino or latte, paintings of different periods on the wall, tastefully framed - stone tilework everywhere. My own room had just one relief of a pensively smiling, young mother of God - Mary, or it could also be of a pretty young girl, who just had a great idea of how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.

In order to recover from all the climbing I did an almost perfectly flat bike ride along the coast on the following day. It was the Pentecostal (Pfingst) Saturday. This seems to be a favorite day for many families to get out on their bicycles, and the coastal bike path between San Remo and San Lorenzo was a great place for it. Policemen on motor scooters rode ahead, and cleared the bike path in both directions, so that racers would not be run over by the multitude of little kids swerving about.

This bike path follows an immaculately paved, old rail bed between the beach and the new road. It runs through many well lit tunnels, the longest of which is about a mile long, directly west of San Lorenzo. - What a fantastic cycling infrastructure. Surprisingly, by the time I was on my way back during the fiesta hours, everybody was done already. There was as little traffic as on Superbowl Sunday in the USA or perhaps the soccer world championship in the rest of the world. - What a difference to the morning hours.

For the next day ride I choose a loop over Colla Langan, which is the highest paved pass in this area. But the pass is really eclipsed as far as "being interesting" by all the medieval towns along the route. Dolceaqua, Pina and far above Pina: Castel Vittorio, and you don't need to ride over this pass to visit them. Then descending on the east side of Colle Langan, yet another town seems stuck to the hillside like a picture from another world. Further down, Molina di Triora would seem like a good base town to explore the mountain biking routes from here to the old Ligurian military border road along the French border (Ligurische Grenzkammstrasse) , and apparently other people think so too. Parked along the way were support vans for downhill bikers. The first impression of the town itself is somewhat derelict, a jungle where a park once was, lots of graffiti. In a way it reminded me of parts of Mexico, because of the luxuriant vegetation and the apparent general chaos, even if the roads are just a bit better paved. But it seems marketeers have been at work here. I picked up a pamphlet praising the cycling in the socalled "Flower Riviera", in somewhere between 4 and 6 languages, even English. The weather wasn't playing along for loop rides starting here. It looked like it was about to rain again, but I have to admit "Flower Riviera" does sound much more appealing than "Rain Riviera". The single hotel in town demanded an outrageous price for a room. I headed back down to the coast and started my way up towards Col du Tende the next morning.

Medieval Tende

The "Take 3 days for what I planned for one" motto still applied. In Tende my aspirations to cross the pass in a single day disappeared. There was just too much to see and do here. I found a simple room for a reasonable price (at least as far as this area is concerned) at the municipal campground, and on the next day I wanted to see, if I could get closer to the Ligurian military border road from this side.

This first involved climbing Col du Tende and its famed 48 partially unpaved, regular switchbacks. On top of the pass I had a hurried, but deep conversation with a cycling couple, that also arrived there at the same time. He announced that he would like a picture of himself and his female companion - "and please include the entire legs". I detected a Frakonian German accent. As it turned out, they lived about 10km from where I spent 8 years of my childhood. At the same time I was wondering, if he had already identified me as an American, people who are often more acquainted with handling a gun than a camera. They often aim a camera like a gun too, and consequently get the head but not all of the legs.  Maybe that's why he requested to include his legs in the picture, something that other people do automatically. My bike was a give away too: "handmade in America" it proclaimed proudly with two crossed Cannondale Sabres. He confirmed my suspicions: "Yes we too have made our America expiriences". Apparently they have spent considerable time in Alabama. I didn't ask for any details, but assured them that Colorado - where I was from - was considerably different. At least I hope it is, never having been in Alabama. Unfortunately that's were the conversation had to end. After these few sentences we were well enough acquainted to take pictures of each other with our own cameras. This way we had a momento to remenber the other person, not just oneself. "Smile" I said, and they obliged. Now what other type of encounter would get you this quickly to a point of such familiarity, where you can stand humiliation like that ? They rode down and I continued to go up, heading for some of the zig zags on the opposing mountain side.

It turned out to be quite a scenic ride. The highest point on this ride included a single track on the "La Via del Sale" s(u). During that ride I finally found that famous route, that I had read about, the Ligurian Border Road, or at least the short section of it. It was much rockier than I expected, nothing like the unpaved passes in the northern alps I had tried, nothing like the unpaved section of the Col du Tende for that matter. In terms of roads I am familar with - more like Engineer Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, but on a more elaborate road bed, really not the kind of road I wanted to take chances on, with my touring/mountain bike. It still has to last many miles.

I needed a day of rest after that, and just walking around Tende produced just as many images in my mind as the rides from the days before. Some of them are on the Col du Tende page. My favorite spot in town was the cemetary, which is also the highest spot in town with the best view in all directions. Having recovered the next day, I worked my way up the 48 or so switchbacks of the old Col du Tende road a second time, this time with four saddle bags and a backpack with a computer in it. Again I met a single other party going up. This time it was a couple on a motorbike with side car. The woman in the sidecar was holding a small Chihuahua type dog, and yelled Bravo as they passed.

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