Sunday 14 November 2010

Travel Notes - A Day in the Briançonnais

Wednesday 18th August

For those of you who have descended from the col du Galibier and turned right at the bottom to go down the col du Lautaret towards Le Bourg d'Oisans, I'd recommend trying something different. Try turning left!

This road, which leads towards Serre Chevalier and Briançon is equally exhilarating - possibly even more so than the road towards La Grave and Le Bourg d'Oisans.
You are in a wide open valley and can see the panorama with the various ski resorts of the Serre Chevalier and Meije region quite clearly. The descent is not so techical as the curves sweep gently round and the gradient isn't particularly steep. Some parts of the road don't curve at all, and your bicycle picks up great speed on the straight drop down. Just don't dare look down at the speedometer! Above 40 miles an hour on a bike I'd rather not know my travelling speed until afterwards!

I very quickly reached La Salle les Alpes and then went up the short steep climb to the old part of the ski resort, known as Le Bez.
This hamlet had a very authentic homely feel to it. All the folks hanging out in the street knew each other, and it seemed the sort of place that people live in, rather than visit, unlike the neighbouring villages that make up the Serre Chevalier network.

At the youth hostel in Le Bez the receptionist introduced me to the only other woman who would be in my dormitory, Ivana a Czech girl who'd been living in France for 15 years.

As we'd both arrived within a few minutes of each other, tired and having had our own challenges getting through the Alps, and it was just the two of us, we went out for dinner in the neighbouring Le Cavaillou restaurant.

It was a good night out. Like me, she was on her way to Nice except that she'd set off from her home near Strasbourg that morning on her motorbike. She'd been slightly anxious as she'd not travelled this far on her own on a bike before and she'd had some dicey moments riding over mountain passes in the rain. Tomorrow she'd be continuing her route to Nice via the Route des Grandes Alpes. If only I could have had assisted power to get over the cols around here! So what possessed her to ride all the way from Strasbourg to Nice on her motorbike all alone? Ivana said it was the challenge of pushing herself out of her comfort zone and striving for the desired result. She'd gotten used to going on motorbike trips around Europe with other biker friends and for once she wanted to try something different. I could fully understand that. We got through a fair bit of wine and chatted to the locals as well as the bar owner. It ended up getting quite late, and although the effects of the wine put paid to me getting an early start the following morning I didn't feel bad about that at all! It had been a good night.

Thursday 19th August

With a seriously achy back I didn't feel that brilliant when I woke up. I considered enquiring about seeing a physio. It was a shame I felt so bad as the sun was definitely out and it was a glorious day for being out on the bike. I made a decision not to ride over the col d'Izoard which would have been too much for me.
In fact, it felt like any hill would be too much for me so I decided I would get the public transport to Embrun, and then ride to my next stopover point from there, thus avoiding any high mountain passes.

I have ridden over the col d'Izoard and through the Casse Deserte on a previous occasion and I would thoroughly recommend it. My back was not ready to go over the 2360m summit today though. A local guy mentioned an alternative lower road, the N94 through Queyrières to reach Mont Dauphin. Apparently that is a popular scenic road too. I didn't take this. Instead I went to do some sightseeing in Briancon before getting my train to Embrun.

The roads leading up from modern Briançon to its old town are very steep. If I couldn't put my back into getting up those roads I certainly didn't want those roads to put my back out! So I did as much as I could in the upper Old Town before leaving to get to the train station in the lower town.
Briançon Old Town with its Vauban battlements is delightful. The main road, known as La Grande Gargouille is steep, quite narrow, cobbled and fully of arty boutique style shops. The other main feature, as per its name is a drain that runs down the middle of the whole street. For me it was work enough just walking down this street with my bike and trying to avoid tourists and this gap in the road. This road is sometimes used as the home straight during the Dauphiné Libéré professional cycle race. Rather them than me!
Briançon is definitely a sunny town. At an altitude of 1300m it boasts of not only being the highest altitude city in France, but also the city which receives the most days of sunshine per year.

Sitting on the Citadel admiring the views of the town and the nearby mountains became a moment not for taking photos as planned, but for talking to folks. The locals all seemed to have something to say - whether it was to ask where I was from and where I was going, recommending where I should go, asking about cyclo cross in England (Some recognised the type of bike I had.) etc the people had something to say.

One lady got into a long discussion with me about cycle touring. She'd been wanting to do it, but didn't know what type of bike to use or how to plan it. So I ended up giving her a mini talk about my journey so far. She seemed glad of what I had to say and seemed fired up to have a go. I should have set up a stand in one of the square and given a formal presentation. By the looks of things I would have had an audience!
By lunchtime I'd seen most of Briançon old town (Cité Vauban), and alot of its townsfolk too! So I made my way down the steep hill to get my train and start my ride from Embrun.

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