Alan and Pauline's

Tour of Italy and France

With fellow Fell Club members: Maggie Renn, Barry Smith and John Castagna.

Sunday morning saw us alighting from the Bike Express and onto the Venice roads near the airport. With the Italian roads being poorly signposted, it needed long consultations with maps and a little help from tourist information, before we completed the 14 miles to our first campsite. After spending the following day sightseeing around Venice and with roads much busy than expected, we commenced our bike tour.

The Adriatic coast does not make for the most inspiring cycling and to avoid traffic this first day became the longest of the tour. With 69 miles covered we got to the very nice Camping Tahiti. Next day saw us continue down the very flat and mainly hidden Adriatic coast for another 44 miles to the next camp.  

Then it was to the mountains as we headed inland for a two day ride to Florence. For our first camp in the mountains we had the luxury of a site completely to ourselves. The long climb over the Alp di Benedetto came next with itís dramatic scenery and ten mile descent. At Florence we encountered the worst campsite of the trip. Itís location was superb being on a hillside just over a mile from Florence centre. The hilly tent pitches were however appalling and not helped by fourteen hours of rain on the Saturday night. Although this was the only noticeable rain of the tour, it succeeded in turning the site into an unimaginable mudbath. None of us were sad to leave that site.

The ride to Pisa was sixty miles of gentle downhill. We arrived there late in the afternoon, just in time for a few photos before going on to the campsite. Again location superb and this site did  have excellent showers and good pitches, but it was the most expensive of the tour. In the evening three of us went back for another look at the Leaning Tower. The Tower and itís surrounding buildings were one of the highlights of the tour. 

An easy flat ride up the coast was the next days itinerary. This however was to be the last really easy day until France. Over the next day we encountered the tough climb out of La Spezia, then through more mountains via the Passo de Bacco, before a long descent back to the coast. Once again it was tough but the fantastic scenery was more than compensation.

The day after was then taken up following the coast to and through Genoa. The hilly coastal roads and tunnels caused a few problems but these paled into insignificance compared to this hectic city. Definitely not recommended for cycling, it has poorly signposted and chaotically busy roads with many large vehicle serving itís industrious port. Somehow despite a few diversions due to cycle prohibited roads, we managed to negotiate the 14 miles of this metropolis and itís sprawl, to emerge unscathed.

Next day at Savonna, Maggie and John kept to their arranged plan and left us to take an alternative route, while Pauline, Barry and me carried on along the coast. The village of Noli and the old towns of Albenga, Imperia and especially Ventimiglia, all stand out as places worth seeing. They gave us a feeling of the historic Italy.

Two weeks after Venice we then entered France. Fears of busy traffic through the Riviera and Monacco were totally unfounded. We were able to ride this section in a very relaxed way, frequently stopping to admire the coastal views. Through the Grand Prix tunnel at Monte Carlo we cycled and on to the famous swimming pool. There a quick stop for a photo before heading towards to Nice. At Beaulieu we had a surprise. In a park, the Grenadier Guards band were playing popular wartime songs to a large audience.

After cycling much of the Cote DíAzur we camped at a holiday camp site near Antibes. There we spent three nights acting like normal holidaymakers, and visiting Cannes and Monacco by train.

Back on the bike saw us heading for the high mountains. At Grasse we encountered our steepest climb yet, followed by other muscle straining climbs over four more Cols Ending the day at the picturesque La Rogue Esclapon, one of the highest villages in Provence.

The Gorge of Verdon then beckoned us. In some ways it was disappointing as from the Cornice Sublime the views of this dramatic canyon are spoilt by the dense trees. It is only when emerging at the top of the Col that one gets a sight of the depth and vastness of this natural wonder. Next day we decided to cycle the gorge in a different way and hired a pedaloo to pedal up the river beneath the high cliffs.

It was then back on bikes for a two day ride to Mont Ventoux. What was expected to be an easy day through the lavender strewn fields of the Plateau du Vauclause turned out to be the opposite. The horrendous Mistral wind decided to demonstrate how it can make life difficult and managed to stay in our faces all day. Thus making 54 miles to Banon seem like a 154 and top everything we ended at one of the worst pitches of the journey. After clearing many stones and small boulders we eventually got camped. The hot showers in a centrally heated building gave some compensation.

Next day saw Ventoux getting ever closer. First though we had another a nice surprise. Passing through the Gorge de Nesque we were greeted with one of the prettiest canyons of our journey. The gentle bending descent from the top through the canyon gave us memorable and breathtaking views. We ended the day at a site with a lovely view over the surrounding countryside, at Bedoin.

Tuesday morning saw Pauline and me start to climb the famous Ventoux. We followed the route taken by Tom Simpson on that fatal day in 1967. The toughest part of the climb is through the trees before Chalet Raynard. Then it opens up to reveal the barren ground looking like a moonscape. This is what distinguishes Ventoux from other mountains.

Stopping at Tomís memorial to pay our respects, we made it to the top with a few gears and a little energy to spare. 14.4 miles and over 6000feet we had climbed in a little over 3 hours. Not record breaking speed but for us it was an achievement. With ice forming on the buildings at the top it was on with the extra clothes before the freezing cold descent back to Bedoin. 

The historic city of Avignon provided us with our last 3 nights camp and chance to once again act like normal tourists and take in the various attractions. A trip to browse the sports superstore Decathlon, took a large part of one day. For our last day in France it was on to Orange to see the Roman Amphitheatre and Arc de Triomphe, said to be one of the best in existence, before rejoining Maggie and John for the Bike Express journey back to England.

We covered 851.95 miles with fully loaded bikes and camped on 17 different sites. A few niggles with the tent but bikes and legs performed satisfactory, making this a tough but pleasing tour and providing us all with many happy memories.

 Alan Lord

By-bike home page

Fell Club home page