Italy, Switzerland June 2008

Route taken :

Coursan, Nîmes, Pont St Esprit, Nyons, Serres, Gap, Briançon, (Italy) Torino, Milano, Lakes Como, Lugano, Maggiore, (Switzerland) Simplon Pass, Brig, Grimsel Pass, Inertkirchen, Interlaken, Grimsel Pass, Furka Pass, Brig, Sion, Martigny, (France) Lac Léman, Evian les Bains, Geneva, Grenoble, Route Napoléon) Gap, Sisteron, Digne les Bains, Castellane, Draguignan, Rians, Cadanet, Avignon, Montpellier, Coursan

I leave Coursan at 10.30am, directly after my clients at Maison St Georges had left on their motorcycles to head South to Spain.....and we’re talking about five minutes after! My motorcycle was packed a couple of nights before all ready to roll, tank filled, panniers and tent all strapped on, so it really was just a case of throwing on the tank bag, firing her up and away we go. I had fitted a brand new set of  Metzeler Sahara enduros for the trip, as the others were a bit on the worn side with the rear having not enough tread left for the 2/3000km  envisaged. I had bought the tires in Germany and shipped them to France as it is considerably cheaper to do this than to buy the tires here in France Why? I have no idea, but as the savings are considerable even when freight costs are calculated in my tires come from Germany.  

Weds 25/06/08: 

Coursan, France to Vercelli, Italy

The skies are sunny and the weather is already hot. The BMW fires up easily and I let her tick over and warm up. No good trying to hurry one of these older bikes, she just won’t run smooth until she’s warmed up. That’s the way it is and the way it’s always been so I just allow for it. It’s also the way it used to be done and it’s the way I learnt. I see many guys jump on their motorcycles first thing and thumb the starter and away they go. Sure it works and it works fine for them, but there again nobody these days keeps their motorcycle longer than a couple of years so it doens’t really matter. The consumer society of today! My old BMW is nearly twenty years old. She has over 220,000km on the clock (plus a few thousand more unrecorded) and I do not intend to change her for a newer fancier model with more options and complicated electronics. Carbs, a kick start and spoked wheels equals a motorcycle in the true sense of the word. It's what it's all about.

The forecast for the next few days looks good so my heavier jacket and trousers are strapped to the back ot the bike. I have taken them as I am not sure what the temperature will offer high in the mountains of Italy and Switzerland. I would be willing to bet it is considerably cooler in those mountain passes than it is down here in the South of France where we are looking at the mid to high thirties during the day. I have checked on the internet (what a useful modern tool...when it works..) and all days are good except for rain on friday, which is when I plan to start on heading back towards Geneva and then down South into france.

Bike warmed up and we’re ready to roll. I take the péage to Nimes as around Montpellier the old route national is a mess, and then exit cutting above Orange and across to Nyons (D94). I  take the old roads wherever possible, which are my preferred method of travelling. The péage is fine for those pressed for time; fortunatley I am not one of those unfortunate creatures that are prevalent in today’s live fast and furious world. Good choice, what a scenic route this is and for now very, very little traffic....even better. The only downside is that there is a stretch of many kilometers where the road surface has been repaired using hot tar, leaving badly placed wide banding which is really potential bad news for a motorcyclist. It’s where I would normally put my front wheel but put your front or rear wheel on this especailly on a corner or under braking and it will be all over very quickly. It is made all the worse by the high road surface temperature.  I pick my  way very carefully indeed; even so I feel the front wheel slide one time as I cross banding combined with the steel tracks of a railroad that meets the highway at a 45° angle. Fortunately, I am able to catch the resultant front end slide and we continue!

           

The route continues to Serres and then starts heading upwards in the direction of Gap (D994).  I get my first view of the Alps , albeit from a distance. There is still snow on the top of the peaks. It is now around 34°c, which actually is a nice temperature for the old BMW. Remember she is air cooled so as long as I can keep moving there will be no problems....not that there really have ever been, even in extreme conditions. She has an oil cooler fitted as standard and needed in these hotter climates. This old GS is a real testament to the fact that BMW researched and used only top quality materials in the making of these machines back then.

As we start climbing towards Briançon ( the second highest town in europe apparently at 1,350 metres) the temperature starts to drop off, but it is still hot. I pull over in Briançon to take a couple of photos and to stretch my legs. I had filled up just before Serres so will have enough petrol to get me well into Italy. The price of petrol has gone through the roof in France recently. It is at present around 1.55 to 1.60 euros per litre and it now costs me not far off 38 euros to fill the tank, over double what it did cost me to fill the same tank some eight years previously...or even two years previously come to that. When you figure the percentage that is tax then the oil companies are not the only ones making a killing at the expense of the consumer.

 

The old town and fort of Vauban at Briancon

There are a lot of tourists around Briançon, its old fort is quite spectacular. The old historical center is based around a strongly fortified town, that was built by Vauban in the 17th century apparently to defend the region from Austrians (the Col de Montgenèvre, gives access to the Italian frontier). The streets are very narrow and steep and very photogenic. I have seen Briançon before but only via television during coverage of that most famous world event the Tour de France.

Back on the motorcycle I take the road out of Briançon towards Cesana in Italy (N94). The tops of the mountains are obscured by cloud. Hopefully not an omen. Still, for now the sun is shining and the weather is still nice and hot. I start to climb the pass into Italy. There are a lot of trucks on the route all in low gear crawling up the mountain in first gear none of them exceeding 20kph at any stage. Thank goodness for the motorcycle....at least I have a chance to get past them; there are literally thirty to forty cars behind each one. The only downside is pulling over to take a photograph; by the time I’m done the whole lot has passed me and I have to start overtaking them one by one again. Still, better that than to be in one of the cars, fifteenth or twentieth in line with no chance! The route is covered in spilled diesel fuel. It is everywhere, so I pay special attention...the drops off of the mountains are in many places straight down......no guard rails on many stretches, so believe me the road has my full and undivided attention.

I enter Italy, no border checks, no customs, no nothing. It feels a little strange crossing international borders with no checks, but I guess that is the whole point of the European Union. Still, it would be nice to have the stamps in the passport and you have to think that surely if it is easier for me to cross borders, then for illegal immigrants or drug dealers  it is just as easy and far more risk free than before this open borders policy. Progress? I question it..

I get onto the old route for Torino and head towards it. I purposefully avoid the autostrada. The road signs around Torino are actually pretty good and I am able to navigate around without too much trouble....which is more than I can say about the signs for Milano on the other side of Torino. Obviously they would far rather you took the financially lucrative autostrada. I get lost as they planned and find myself heading out into the countryside, which is beautiful, very green with woods and small country lanes....shame its not my destination. I pull over and look at the map and compass and figure I am actually heading North instead of East, so I head towards the East and finally rejoin the route for Milano. Times like this I can see the relevance of a GPS unit!      I see a petrol station and decide to fill up with petrol before I run onto reserve (due to the late hour I don’t want to run the risk of having no fuel). I can’t help but notice that petrol is considerably cheaper in Italy than in France. A couple of years back I seem to remember the reverse being true. Strange that, but it is a good 10 centimes cheaper than at home per litre.

Back on to the main route and we continue towards Milano. It is getting late. We pass Chivasso, Cigliano and as I go to change into 5th gear I find I have no clutch. The lever is just hanging there but there is no back pressure whatsoever. Strange. On the outskirts of Vercelli, I pull over, shifting down without a clutch making for interesting riding...especially in those lower gears.. Night is starting to fall as I park the motorcycle against a wall (it is too heavy to get on the mainstand, or more correctly I have loaded the camping gear over the grab handle so cannot get good enough leverage to get the motorcycle onto its main stand). The toolkit comes out and I check out the clutch from lever to gearbox. Fortunately a locking screw has worked its way loose on the back of the gearbox, meaning the clutch is merely out of adjustment. I will need a couple of spanners....if I remember right it is a 10mm and a 13mm. I undo the adjuster on the handlebars at the clutch lever and then take up the slack at the gearbox end, going back to the lever end to make my final adjustments. I have a clutch. Fantastic. I load the tools back up and wonder how the locknut came loose. Very probably due to the tires  that I am running on the BMW. The Sahara enduros are just that...off road biased tires. As such they create far more vibration than would a conventional road tire. However, the Saharas are fantastic tires for off road and on road use and suit my riding needs perfectly. There is definately far more vibration, you can feel it through the handlebars but it is the price you pay. At sustained highway speeds anything that is not really firmly bolted down will work loose....just like the old Triumphs of yesteryear I have owned!

By now it is dark and I can forget camping, or looking for a campsite. I decide on a hotel. I ride into the town and start looking. I pass a couple that I would not let my dog stay in and finally draw up outside one that looks decent......which I might add is in opposition to myself....I am hot, sweaty and dusty looking as if I have just crossed the finish line of the Paris Dakar. I park the motorcycle against one of their cyprus trees and enter. A nice hotel, small with a nice foyer...very nice in fact.....all done out in highly polished white marble....maybe they will just turn me away looking as I do...but no my luck seems to be in.....for a price. The woman tells me they have a room and that I can park the motorcycle around the back, down in their personal private parking, next to the normal hotel parking but more secure and out of the way. I go park the bike up, unload only what I will need and leave her there and go check in.

I note the reading on the clock is 21,900 kilometres or 657km since this morning . I check in and get the card that serves as a key to my room. I am too tired to want to eat and take a shower and lay on the bed....just in time to see Germany wipe out Turkey’s hopes for the European cup finals. Well done Germany! Just a personal observation but.... I still have not managed to figure out how the hell Turkey is in the European Cup? Turkey is NOT in Europe....will someone please explain this to these half witted politicians that we seem to vote into power. Turkey is after a place in the European Union. And since when has Turkey EVER been in Europe geographically speaking? The answer is NEVER...so why are we moving barriers to accomodate everybody who wants in? Where will it end?

Moaning over, I lay back on the bed and chill for a while, before feeling a bit peckish. I fix myself a sausage sandwich with the good saucisson de l’Auvergne that I packed in my tank bag this morning. Bit warm but what the heck. I set my alarm and before I can count any sheep am fast asleep. However,apparently I am too tired to sleep well and find myself tossing and turning all night long. The room is comfortable and real class (it should be!!) it is just that I am so tired. I sleep fo maybe a total of four hours and wake at 4am. I just cannot get back to sleep. At this point I am glad that I have bought along my donated MP3 player. Donated to my cause by stepdaughter Stélina when she upgraded to an MP4 player as all adolecents do. I don’t understand (or even try to) all the technology anymore but apparently this little device will hold hours of music and there  are no moving parts...oh yes and it is tiny. So on with the headphones and try to relax.....and maybe nod back again off if I’m lucky.

 

Thursday 26/06/08: 

Vercelli, Italy to Riggenberg, Switzerland via lakes Como, Lugano, Maggiore, the Simplon Pass and the Grimsel Pass.

I’m not (lucky that is) and at 6am having listened to Vivaldi’s Gloria (my sleep music as opposed to my jamming music I should add) in its entirety via my hand me down MP3 player at least twice I decide to get up. Outside the sun is already shining and it looks like another beautiful day. Must remember to check that lock nut on the gearbox clutch adjuster as it was too dark last night and I was just too tired.  

On todays itinerary are: firstly to bypass Milano (yuk..I hate big cities....especially on a motorcycle). Hopefully I can bypass it and all its traffic before heading up towards lakes Como, Lugano and Maggiore and some decent scenery and air. After that the plan calls for the Simplon Pass. I intend to follow as far as possible the route that my father did in 1952 on his BSA Gold Flash. We will see. I am sure he would be quite flattered if he were alive today. Still, he may not be here in person but I feel he is with me in spirit. So together we will revisit his ride of 1952. Quite a feat back then really. I dig through my tank bag and pull out his old black & white shots  that he took on that trip. Film  was hard to come by after the war and so the photographs he took were all black & whites that he developed himself. The 35mm was advanced for it’s time and is a small quality fold up model by German company Zeiss. I rebuilt the camera a few years back (when I was bored one time).  I load the old girl with colour film and she’s ready to go. For my own personal use and to make sure I capture the images for the sake of posterity I have a Leica digital camera that does the job just fine. It is so much easier to use, although I really do miss taking the time and effort to set up the old manual cameras before each shot. There is just something missing with this modern technology, it is effortless but also a bit bland...but most people would disagree.  

Both cameras checked and readied, I get dressed go downstairs and start to get everything loaded onto the BMW. There has been a heavy rain during the night....could be why I did not sleep very well. Too many broken bones that hurt when the weather is on the change. I never sleep well even at home under those conditions. The bike is wet so I brush the water off of the saddle and load my panniers back on. The sun is now truly up and it is looking good for today. I check the oil. Good, clean and not a drop used.....just what I like to see, but on these old air cooled twins it is always worth checking.  

I go back into the hotel and decide to eat breakfast there after all. A good idea for the capuccino is as good as only Italians can make and only Italians can make it that good...a serious caffeine jolt......and much welcomed. I grab a coffee flavoured yoghurt....wondering why I have not seen these in my grocery store in France, they really are excellent, and a couple of fresh croissants. I finish up, settle my bill and head out for another days adventure.  

The morning traffic is starting to build up with everyone on their way to work. I find the road out towards Milano...finally.......and not the autostrada either; those I avoid like the plague...after a previous bad experiance some years ago that involved a lost ticket and an attempt at running the barrier. I managed the barrier but a BMW mounted Carabinieri was faster and came from apparently nowhere........  

I head towards Milano and looking for the small town of Magenta. Here I intend to turn North and then head towards Como cutting out Milano itself. There really is a lot of traffic here, it’s rush hour. Fortunately I am on the motorcycle and can filter through although I am paying one hundred percent attention to these mad Italian drivers that are liable to do anything and do everything all without any warning at all. If you have suicidal tendancies then I would heartily reccomend a ride through rush hour Milano traffic!  

I reach Magenta and cut off towards Como. I find the road without too much trouble. On the dual carriage way some 40km South of Como the clutch decides to act up again. I forgot to check it this morning. I hope that the small adjusting nut hasn’t worked completely loose and dropped off....that really would cause me problems. I pull into a service area and check it out. Fortunately the nut is still in place...... I get out the toolkit and start to re adjust the clutch. This time I am able to see what I am doing and tighten the locknut fully. That should stay put. Then I do the fine adjustement at the clutch lever itself. Very efficient & well though out this German engineering. The correct angles and adjustment to the mm are given by BMW in the manual....which I always pack on a long trip. If it is adjusted as stated then it will work. No question. It works. I buy a couple of bottles of cold water and stick them in the tank bag. As hot as it is and is going to be it is better to  carry too much water than to get dehydrated. Not good. I drink plenty.  

Back on the motorcycle and direction Como. I arrive in Como and straight into a traffic jam. I work my way through the mass of tour buses and cars and look out for signs for the SS583 or the route that follows the lake. I find it, turn off and miracle of miracles.....all the traffic is gone. I would have thought it was all headed the same way but no.....apparently the roads are too small! Brilliant.

 

         

Lago di Como, Italia

A few kilometres out of Como and the scenery alongside the lake is out of this world. There are some truly amazing houses here.......houses? Palaces!! Many in the flamboyant baroque style of the 1600 and 1700’s. They are everywhere. Now I seem to remember reading recently in one of those gossip magazines the kind that you find at doctors or dentists one time (and the only time I am forced to read such clap trap) that George Clooney the american actor had bought a home on Como. I was thinking normalish house but far more likely it was one of these palaces complete with bodyguards. I pull over time and time again to take photographs. Outstanding. The lake is really one of the wonders of the world.....ok....a bit much ....but definately of Italy ...fantastic. I continue heading North taking all the smallest roads through the villages that are inaccesible to cars and vehicles apart from fiat 500’s and those three wheeler Lambretta delivery vans. Yes...they still exist....and yes they are still in daily use here and not as rare as you may think....not here anyways.

   

Lago di Lugano, Italia

Cermobbio, Moltrasio, Carate Unio, Schignano, Argegno....just some of the small towns on route. At Argegno I turn off cutting inland and heading towards Lake Lugano. It is a shame to ride away leaving Como behind. However, Lake Lugano turns out to be equally impressive with the mountains towering as a backdrop across the lake itself. The houses here are nowhere near as flamboyant as those around Como, but it is still beautiful! I head around the north shore of the lake to Lugano, eventually slowed by a group of Swiss motorcyclists riding...you’ve guessed it....Harleys...complete with “faux” bed rolls around the front forks. I hate to be the one to say so but they seriously look out of place around the Italian lakes. I overtake them when the chance permits; one by one.....it gets tiresome as none of them ever seem to look in their rear view mirrors or even over their shoulders, they are far too busy looking at each other and complimenting their comarades motorcycles, jackets, boots etc. Finally, I am clear of these poseurs....or more correctly in modern day French “Frimeurs” and can ride above 20kph. Within a few kilometres I see motorcycle headlights rapidly appearing behind me. I am taking my time, enjoying myself and in no hurry so I pull closer to the nearside so that they can get by. There must be about fifteen top quality for the most part Italian vintage motorcycles. The sound and the sight is incredible. As they pass I see Ducati's, Laverda's and Guzzi's from yesteryear. Fabulous. They are completely at home on the Italian lake roads. They wave as they pass and continue on their way at their fast pace the sound bouncing off the cliffs as they disappear  from sight.

I reach the border and have caught up with the Italians on their exotica. The borders guards are there but I am waved through with them, no papers, no checks, no nothing. I have been across the border between Switzerland and Italy so many times in the last hundred or so kilometres that I have forgotten which country I am in at any given  time. Both speak Italian...in this border region and the only difference is the use of  Swiss Francs in place of the European Euro.... The prices are posted in Swiss Francs for the petrol at the stations which reaffirms my being in Switzerland.  I have noticed several times that the small Swiss businesses take euros just as they do Swiss francs and seem glad to have them, strangely it is the larger businesses that appear not so comfortable with euros. Strange that, I would have thought just the opposite.  I arrive in Lugano(definately in Switzerland) a large city, seemingly cramed full of cars. Maybe it is due to the fact it is almost lunchtime but there is traffic absolutely everywhere in this place.  

I follow the signs for Ponte Tresa and then look for the SP61 that will hopefully take me across to Luino (back in Italy again!) and Lake Maggiore. I find it and pretty soon I am confronted with yet again another stunning lake.

Lake Maggiore, Italy / Switzerland

I head north around the lake towards Locano and back into Switzerland and then head up into the hills on the SS337. This will hopefully bring me in to the bottom of the Simplon Pass....if all goes to plan. So far so good. The road is tiny and winds its way up the mountain side. Flowers are out everywhere and the smell of fresh cut hay is very strong.  

I am riding with my Roof helmet fully open visor and all.....with sunglasses naturally......the only way to experience such marvelous countryside. It’s sights and it’s smells. I hate being enclosed. It may not be the safest but ask me if I care? Not really...in fact not at all if I’m honest. I’m one of the few, that is sick and tired being told by european bureaucrats, bleeding heart liberals and do gooders what we can and cannot do. It seems these fat cats are paid by our taxes to make stupid laws to keep them in a job. Why do we stand for it?  

I digress.....Much care is needed on this route as there are some large gravel trucks heading down and when cornering they take up the entire road....so the closer you can get to the rocky cliff edge the better and safer off  you are. I come to the small town of “Re” domintated by its large cathedral. It seems to be a place of pilgrimage. The pretty dark haired girl at the village shop where I bought a well earned cold drink speaks Italian, but then gives me a price in Swiss francs before converting to euros. I ask and find I am presently in Italy. I met an angel and she lived high up on a mountain....about right and about my bloody luck. I finish my ice cream and cold drink sitting in the shade of an umbrella outside the shop of the angel before continuing.

Finally I come to a border post that actually is manned by border guards both Italian and Swiss each in their different uniforms. There are four or five of them in the middle of nowhere......why? Apparently they are busy discussing worldly matters whilst standing in the middle of the road blocking my passage with their backs to me; one of them taps the other on the shoulder to get him to move back so I can pass through....they didn’t even hear me approaching...... I figure out that I am now officially in Switzerland and therefore by a process of elimination Re the city of the angel (well hamlet actually) was surely in Italy (I had my doubts), which actually figures as the Italians are as well known for their strong Catholic beliefs, much as the Swiss are for their lack of strong Catholic beliefs. So....it would seem that big fancy ornate cathedrals are normally  more associated with Italy than Switzerland. Elementary my dear Watson....

The old BMW is performing just fine, she hasn’t missed a beat all day long and just keeps on going and going. My hat off to the engineers who designed the flat twin many many years ago. Simple and efficient....function over form, the way it should be. 

Finally I am at Domodossola,  the foot of the route leading to the world famous Simplon Pass. I have waited many years to be able to follow this route and here I am some 56 years after my late father following in his footsteps...or should that be motorcycle tracks? That would surely be more fitting.

.          

The route from Domodossola up towards the Simplon Pass

The Simplon Pass (Passo del Sempione)  is some 2008m or 6589ft high. It  connects Brig in Switzerland with Domodossola in Italy. The pass itself is in Switzerland. In the early 20th century a tunnel was constructed  beneath the vicinity of the pass, known as the Simplon Tunnel that carries rail traffic (including cars) between the two countries. There has been a pass through the mountains here for many centuries, as the ancient Hospice constructed by the knights of Jerusalem attests,  but the pass gained international significance (and  fame) during the occupation of Napoléon. Between 1801 and 1805 under his orders a road was constructed to allow easy transport of artillery pieces across the pass between the Rhône valley and Italy. In the twentieth century it has undergone much refinement and now big trucks are able to pass over easily (when the pass is open). 

I find myself wondering just how much is the same route that my father rode in 1952? The answer is probably quite a bit but by no means all. Many of the corners have been removed and many more new bridges and sections added. As we mount the road starts to narrow and then finally we are there: The Simplon Pass itself. I pull over in the parking area, get off the old BMW and grab my camera. Time for a photo or two. I want to take the same photo from the same angle as my father did in 1952. 

The Simplon Pass

As I take a couple of photographs an old German plated BMW 500  thumps by on its way over the pass. A glorious sound. The rider is all in period gear, black racing leathers, boots, open faced helmet and goggles and waves on passing. The motorcycle is pristine and so is the rider. It is so nice to see an old motorcycle being used as it was intended to be!

I stroll around looking for the right angle for the shot and find it, or that which lost closely resembles the old black and white and the business is done. I wish my father was here with me right now. I am absolutely sure that he is in spirit.......100%. I hope he is enjoying this as much as I am. I also wish my son Justin was here. He too would really enjoy this trip by motorcycle of that I am sure. He may not realise it but he has many of the same attributes as his late grandfather. It is times like this that I feel almost selfish being here and experiencing all this by myself. Maybe next time?

         

The Simplon Pass in June 2008 and the Simplon Pass in June of 1952

Then it's back to the motorcycle (after a quick visit to the tourist shop for those “done it-been there” Simplon Pass stickers for the motorcycle of course). The weather whilst far from what we have heat wise back in the Languedoc is not too bad, far warmer than I would have thought. I am riding with my Bering lightweight summer jacket with a sweat shirt underneath and am not particularly cold. I check the temperature and it is 17°......a cool summers morning in Coursan, but probably quite a heat wave for this altitude.

I continue on my way. Impressed; really impressed. It was already worth the journey. Then it’s off down the other side of the Simplon Pass towards Brig. The scenery is out of this world and the sun is shining, fantastic. What more could you want? The old BMW has handled it all without effort  and the Metzler tires are a credit to their manufacturer. For off road enduro type tires they are excellent on the road offering grip under all conditions. The only fault if it is that is that on hot tarmac they have a tendancy to make a loud humming noise, but that aside they are perfect.  

Across the Ganter Bridge and its into Brig, a good clean looking Swiss town if ever there was one. I pull over at the château Stockalper to take a photo before heading out towards the Grimsel Pass the second pass of the day. Its higher than the Simplon and I have my doubts as to if it will be open. I have tried to check on the weather stations back in France regarding the Grimsel Pass, but no luck. Very often the Grimsel will be closed even in late June due to inclement weather conditions. I have made alternative plans should it be closed but these will take me many kilometres off track so I hope that I will not have to use them. I am in luck. The weather is fantastic and there are beautiful clear skies and the Grimsel is marked as open.

    

At Brig I turn right and head towards Gletsch. There is virtually no traffic on this stretch of road, all to myself.....fantastic. As I wind my way up higher and higher I leave the small Swiss villages behind me and now there is only me, the BMW and some of the best scenery in the world.

A couple of times on this route a strange thing happens....I actually mean very strange. I wasn’t going to relate the events as they seem a little bizarre and the reader may think that I have become starved of oxygen at altitude! But it would be more dishonest of me not to relate....so here goes. On a couple of occassions I could have sworn that there has been a motorcycle thumping away behind me. It sounded just like an old twin. I could hear it over my motorcycle and with my helmet on....which is not in itself unusal as the old GS is extremely quiet and there is no other traffic or noise at all.  I thought that it may have been the old chap on the BMW that passed me earlier on the Simplon Pass, although this had more of a "raw" sound to the exhaust note. More like an old Triumph with a set of Dunstall Megaphones. I pulled over to the right to let it past, and when it never did come past I looked in my left mirror and glanced over my shoulder and there was no motorcycle there. The very first time I thought that the motorcycle had dropped back and perhaps just wanted company as the sound died off a little. But then I could hear it again and assumed that it had come shooting up close , very close on my inside right. Too close for my comfort.. I started to get annoyed at the stupidity of someone riding so close but on looking in the right hand mirror and then over my right hand shoulder saw absolutely nothing there either. It threw me completely. I looked again to the left....no motorcycle, and then I could suddenly hear it no longer. Strange.

I continue onwards and a few kilometres later stop to take a couple of photographs of the scenery. Absolute calm, appart from the old bird twittering not sound. I get back on the BMW and continue and about fifteen kilometres further on  just before Gletsch and the turnoff for the Grimsel Pass the same thing. Same thumping of a big twin coming up the mountainside behind me really being wound on  as if it is trying to catch me up. Same thing happens as before. I can now hear the motorcycle sitting on my tail just waiting to get by. I cannot see him and assume he is riding in my blind spot.  I pull over for him to pass. No motorcycle passes. A look in the mirrors and over my shoulder and again no motorcycle, but now no sound of one either. A double take. Nothing, rien, nada! I stop my motorcycle and cut the engine, taking my helmet off so I can hear better. Dead quiet, nothing. I would have heard it either in front of me or behind me had it been there as apart from myself there is nobody on this bit of highway. I would have to assume it had also pulled over somewhere but I can see all around me for several kilometres and this is just not a possibility. Maybe its tiredness, maybe it really is a lack of oxygen? Maybe? Could it be? Who knows? 

Whatever it was, I use this impromptu pause for an excuse to whip out a small cigar and fire it up. I ponder these strange events in my mind, come to no conclusion whatsoever, or no rational one,  so just relax appreciate the scenery and breathe in the crisp fresh air. Heaven on earth. I finish and fire up the BMW. I rev it a couple of times before putting my helmet back on, to see if perhaps I do have a blown exhaust after all, but all is well with the BMW.

 

En route for Gletsch and the Grimsel Pass

I ride up past the small abandoned village (or seemlingly abandoned) of Gletsch, and past the Rhone Glacier where the famous river Rhone makes it debut as the river “Rotten”. It is just a small stream of run off water from the Glacier at this point. The glacier is amazing, and I stop to take a shot of it before continuing upwards.

I am almost at the summit (or assume I am) when I encounter a thin cloud base. I continue onwards and upwards assuming that any moment I will break through the cloud into a bright sunlit cloudscape.....from my flying days obviously! I can see the sun through the clouds so at this point the clouds are not that thick. I continue. The visability becomes worse and worse instead of better. I decide to continue. The temperature drops off rapidly as does the visibility which is now down to a foggy four metres at most. I drop my speed down to maybe 10kph as anything else would be sheer suicide up here. There are very few safety barriers and it is a long way down should I screw up. I figure as I decend that the weather will improve. Wrong. It gets worse, now along with the thick fog there is freezing rain, with the odd snow flurry thrown in for good measure.  My  fingers are cold and seriously I am beginning to wish I had turned around. Too late now though. I continue.

         

Slowy does it, a slippery road surface and bad visability make for taking it easy and taking my time. I am in no hurry to go over the edge of the Grimsel Pass. Not a good way of getting your name in the local newspapers.... in the obituary columns! I nearly miss a sharp turn due to a sudden bank of very dense fog.  I brake as much as I am able without locking it up and lean the bike heavily over to the right. I expect it to go down with me on it (the other option is over the side and straight down for several hundred metres I would guess) but much to my surprise the BMW makes it round the corner.....just!! My riding style at that particlar moment; bike almost on its side, right leg fully extended keeping the bike upright (or attempting thereof ) would have impressed even the most seasoned enduro or motocross rider. That was close...far, far too close.

I only see one car up here, and no motorcycles at all. They all probably have better sense than I do....obviously! Piled high by the side of the route (what I can see of the route) is snow, in places several metres high. It has been here for a while and looks like being here a while longer. The freezing rain has been replaced by a light snowfall; I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. My lightweight jacket and trousers are not totally saturated but there is no way I am pulling over here to stop and change..I just want out of here.

As I decend the Grimsel, of which I have seen absolutely nothing, visibility and road conditions are gradually improving and I can now up my speed to a monstrous 20kph. At this rate I should be down the mountain in about three hours!  I disappear into a tunnel, a long tunnel. On exiting the tunnel I can now see a good thirty or so metres and the the snow flurries give way to a cold persistent drizzle; ah the joys of motorcycling. It’s cold but I can actually see where I’m going and see something of the countryside around me. The further I decend the better the weather becomes and I actually start to dry out.

So no photos of the Grimsel Pass this time. I am rather dissapointed but I will just have to come back at some point and do it again. Before I rode these passes I had many friends who are absolutely smitten by riding the passes in Switzerland. For them it is their “raison d’être”. Until now I have never understood it...or them in this respect, but I am starting to understand;  the feeling of accomplishment; and the roads (fog, snow aside) have been fantastic. I decend into Innertkirchen where I am able to get fuel. It is starting to get dark although night is still a couple of hours away. I need to find me a place to stay, ideally a campground. I have seen far more signposted in Switzerland than in Italy where there seem to be woefully few campgrounds compared to france where they are almost everywhere. I fill the motorcycle up and run into a band of four Swiss motorcyclists at the pumps who like myself are soaking wet. It appears that they too got caught on the Grimsel Pass. They are staying in Interlaken and tell me that there are quite a few campgrounds and hotels on the route alongside the lakes. I thank them for this useful information and  they wave as they head off. I finish filling up the BMW and fire her up....direction Interlaken.

I ride alongside the Brenzier lake towards Interlaken. The lake is a beautiful light blue colour, almost a deep pastel seen through the mist that surrounds it. I cannot see the mountain tops that tower above it which is a shame as some of europes most famous peaks would normally be visable from this route, including the Eiger and the Jungfrau.

Still the scenery is wonderful, Switzerland is such a clean beautiful country. Everything seems to have its place and everything is in order. All the fences along the route are well maintained as are the fields, the cattle and the houses. It really is a postcard in itself. My kind of country.

It is now I suffer my first problem so far of this journey. The BMW starts to cough and splutter and eventually the engine dies. I pull in the clutch and freewheel to a stop. I know what the problem is as I have seen this problem before and fortunately am prepared. In my humble opinion there is an inherent design problem with regard to the electrics on these 2 valve twins that was never really rectified. The coil is placed in a position to allow the maximum of cold air to pass over it; to the front and just underneath the fuel tank. All very well but not only does all the air pass over the coil but all the rain as well. There is a bit of plastic to deflect the lightest rain but after a hard soaking the coil gets saturated and gives up the ghost meaning no spark to the plugs  meaning no engine.

I push the motorcycle off of the road, into a farm entrance and put it on its main stand. I pay particular attention as I notice one of the main bolts holding the main stand in place has sheared off, leaving me just one bolt holding the main stand in place. I wouldn’t trust it to be underneath the motorcycle whilst working on it, but for what I need the one good bolt proves adequate for the job.

Seat off, tank bag off, tank disconnected and unclipped. Thanks to the functionality of German design it takes about two minutes to disconnect fuel hoses and unclip the tank...if that. I lift the tank clear and carefully position it with the taps clear of the ground supported by my tool roll. Now with the tank removed the electrics are plainly in view....including the exposed and obviously wet coil. As I look the coil over I notice there is a hairline crack in it. This is obviously the cause of the problem. Fortunately I have packed a can of that good space age invention “WD40”. Where would we be without it? Old motorcycles, dodgy electrics = WD40, saviour in a can. I remove the plug leads both at the coil and the spark plugs and give each a good blast of this magical potion. I then direct the nozzle into each and every electrical connection in sight, spraying enough in to each that it starts to flow back out again. I finish with the coil itself pumping in so much WD40 that is completely saturated. All moisture is sure to have been displaced with that much WD40....I hope. I then place the tank back on the motorcycle, hook up the fuel lines and replace the plug leads. I switch on the ignition, hit the starter.....and we have a running BMW!! Excellent. Total time less than five minutes. I make a mental note to fix this problem once and foever upon my return. I had the same problem several years before in Italy but back then it was of unknown origin and so difficult to track down and caused me much grief. Why BMW never addressed this problem for the general public I will never know. I have owned several ex Gendamerie BMW motorcycles over the years and each one has had a specially fabricated galvanised metal box constructed to house the coils in, evidently to protect them from this very problem. I will keep my eyes open or construct one of my own. This is one of the few weak spots on the BMW’s that I have owned, in fact one of the only weak spots as overall they are probably the best made, best designed and most reliable  motorcycle available, particularly the older air cooled carburated models.

We are back on the road towards Interlaken. I am tired and keeping my eyes peeled for a campground. I have seen severeral on the route but each time have wanted to gain just a little more ground. Now I am shattered and just want to put my head down. Hopefully there will be a campground before Interlaken, otherwise I can see a hotel for the night meaning this trip will start getting expensive. Plus I really want to try out my camping gear, after not having used it in anger for several years. The tent has been cleaned and erected recently in my living room to check 1: that it was all there, 2: that it was in usable condition, and finally 3: that I knew how to errect it and didn’t look like an idiot on arriving at the campground!!

Just before the small village of Ringenbberg I see a sign for a campground. Excellent. I turn right along a small track and enter “Camping Talaker”. It is a small campground, but a nice looking one, the kind of place I like to camp in. The Gods have smiled on me it would seem. There is room and the patron a youngish man with a beautiful 9 month old golden retriever directs me to a space to put my tent. I fill in the required paperwork, pay my 12 euros ( I have no Swiss francs but this does not seem to upset him) and start unloading the camping gear.

Tent is erected in a matter of minutes....I am glad that I had a dry run at the house as the campground is full of elderly retired folk, all sitting under their caravan awnings watching yours truly seemingly the entertainment for the evening. I like camping on campgrounds where the clientele is the elderly. They go to bed early and usually by 10pm all is quiet...as I like it. Sad? Maybe, but after a hard days riding the last thing I want to hear are screaming kids running around, disco lights and loud music thumping away until 3am. This campground seems to me my idea of heaven...campground wise that is.

          

Camping "Talaker" Riggenberg, Switzerland

Everything set up, I head for the showers. They are immaculate. I have never seen such well maintained facilities, they would do a five star hotel proud. All the taps, basins and mirrors are polished up and sparkling. Perfect. Errrr.....just one problem..... The showers are electric and the meter takes only Swiss francs.......and I have none. Bugger!! Cold shower time. Still a good refreshing cold shower is better than none..I guess!! Out of the shower and I am now fully awake if I wasn’t before. It’s time to fix something to eat. I am starving. What shall it be tonight? I settle on a nice roast duck with vegetables and a pepper sauce. I fire up the gas stove, get out the genuine US 1944 Knapp Monarch issued army canteen that my father used on his trip back in 1952 and that I have used myself for the last 25 years and we are in business. Ok, so I cheat just a little. You didn’t really think that I was going to cook all that from scratch did you? I bought one of these "MRE’"s or "Meals Ready to Eat", that you can now buy on civvy street and in the grocery stores. The good ones are good, very good in fact. What would you expect in France? A couple of minutes later and I’m sitting down on my fold out three legged stool in front of my tent sipping back a nice cold beer (well it was cold on the Grimsel so the beer didn’t get hot!) and my roast duck with sauce. Very welcome indeed.

All that done, I head over and wash out the canteen, pack it all away, have a well earned cheroot cigar, relax and enjoy myself. This is the life!! Then its into the tent, in the sleeping bag and I’m out like a light within minutes.  

Friday 27th June 2008:

Ringgenberg (Lake Brenzier) Switzerland, Grimsel Pass, Furka Pass, Brig, Martigny, Evian (France), Geneva, Gresy sur Aix (France).

I awake this morning after a really good nights sleep to sunshine shining through a light mist. I grab my towel and head to the wash room. The old folk on the campground are already up and moving at 6.30am. I head back to my tent and put somewater on to boil. A good strong Ricoré to start the morning off right sounds good to me.

Whilst perching on my stool I ponder where to head to this morning. I love that part of it...no fixed schedule. The sky to the west is dark and ominous looking, whilst that to the east is showing promise with some patches of clear sky and sunshine. So that is it decided. I will head back the way I came and do the Grimsel Pass once again, this time in the hope of actually seeing something!! A gluton for punishment maybe....we will see. After the Grimsel it will be back to Brig and then West eventually to Geneva. Plan for the day agreed....subject to change that is.

I finish my breakfast of cereal (without milk!) and Ricoré.... and then begin the packing up. The tent is rolled up. There is a lot of moisture in the air and the tent is really a little too wet to pack but I do not have the time to sit around waiting for it to dry out. The benefit of modern materials.

All packed up, everything loaded into its proper place on the motorcycle. I put on my jacket, gloves and helmet and fire up the motorcycle. She fires easily and I let her warm up.

Five minutes later, I swing a leg over, clunk the old BMW into gear, let out the clutch and off we go, alongside the Brenzier Lake direction the Grimsel Pass....again. I stay off of the main routes and instead opt for the small country roads. Much more pleasant and besides I have failed (read opted not) to purchase the sticker that is needed for use on Swiss toll roads. This is technically a necessity but is for using their autoroutes.  I figure that technically I am not breaking the law (technically??!) by doing this. My excuse if I get stopped. Twenty or thirty euros for a couple of days in Switzerland seems a little high to me, just to use their roads; I’ll take my chances.

I turn off towards the Grimsel pass and retrace my steps of yesterday. The weather is good and the sun is shining but.....as I start to climb higher up toward the Grimsel those dammed clouds start to gather again. A couple of spots of rain and it gets colder the higher I get. Then I’m in cloud again, or in fog. Who knows...but I can’t see anything. I continue upwards and it gets worse. I should be somewhere near the Grimsel Pass but I can see no more that I saw yesterday. Unbelievable!!

           

The Grimsel Pass 2008 and the Grimsel Pass 1952

I reach the top of the pass itself...I see the blue sign through the fog... and pull off the road. I can see the vague outlines of a hotel restaurant and a tourist shop. Apart from that nothing.....and I do mean nothing. I take off my helmet and can hear talking but yet see nobody. A lot of voices too. Turns out that about 20 metres away is a German tour bus that has just offloaded its clients. Out of the fog they come towards me and the souvenir shop. I decide to enter myself and see if I can find a sticker for the motorcycle. After all the old girl merits it and can wear it with pride. I find one. “Grimsel Pass”. Perfect.

Back to the motorcycle. I get out my hankerchief and wipe away the moiture on the side panel and apply my newly purchased sticker. Respect for the old girl. Then in zero visability I start her up and head back down the other side of the Grimsel Pass towards Gletsch.

I reach Gletch, the sun is out and the sky is blue. Typical. The road to my left is signed up for the Furka Pass. I decide to take this road and have a ride up the Furka Pass. I head up towards the pass and am amazed by the amount of motorcycles that have suddenly appeared today. Is it a public holiday here? Yesterday not a single motorcycle. 

         

Today, the sports bike brigade are out in force! They are everywhere, hundreds of them...everywhere....all riding like the devil is on their collective tails! Why? All brightly coloured. There are also a lot of the new BMW R1200 GS models. Every last one equipped with the seemlingly required aluminium world tour boxes and looking ready for a world trip. The give away that they have not been around the world and have just come from their owners garages is that they are all immaculately clean. As spotless as their riders, every one of them wearing the “correct” off road kit that must cost hundreds if not thousands of euros. Too many films....motorcycling has become too stylish. They too seem to be in the utmost hurry to get to their destination. Must be important enough to be potentially life threatening. One slip up here and it’s all over but the crying. In many places there are no protective barriers and a trip over the side will take you to the valley below.......in places easily a kilometre below..... and guarentee you a one on one meeting with your maker.

Talking of which, at the side of the road I see a memorial. I stop. It is a sportsbike wheel mounted in forks and welded to a metal plate bolted to the tarmac. A name and date are engraved around the edge of the wheel and fresh flowers placed beside it. A poignant reminder indeed.

I continue over the Furka Pass and stop to take some photographs. It is really amazing. It feels really strange to be seeing the same scenery that my father saw and visited all those years ago. I imagine little has changed, especially on the smaller routes. The Rhone Glacier that you can see from here has receeded a little further, the roads are now tarmac covered and probably wider instead of being cobbled, but that aside it is essentially the same. I wish that he were here today and we were able to share this together.

Then it’s back down the Furka and down towards Brig. The idea is to head towards Geneva. I want to see the famous fountain. It may well be crowded as the European Football Cup is in full swing and Switzerland is the host country. Everywhere are Swiss cars with flags attatched to the antenas and more flags hanging out or their windows being shredded in the wind. Nearly every car has two flags. The first being the Swiss flag, the second depending on region either the Italian (I saw these yesterday in the Italian Alps), the German (around the Grimsel/Interlaken area) or the French which I see more of the further west I ride. By the time I reach and refuel in Martigny at lunchtime it is all french flags. The ride from Brig to Martigny is boring. Along a plain in a wide valley filled with unending apple trees it seems to me.

I refuel and it is strange to have French spoken to me again, especially in Switzerland. I speak French and with an accent I am sure but to me the French speaking Swiss really have a strange accent, a kind of very Germanic French, very sharp, fast and clipped instead of drawn out and rolling as in the Languedoc where I live.

After Martigny I head around Lac Léman or Lake Geneva (depending on where you're from) on the south side towards Geneva. The scenery is fantastic but after what I have seen in the East of Switzerland to me it just does not measure up. Maybe it is just me, maybe I am tired. I cross over into France and am on the South side of the lake as I head towards Geneva. The Spa town of Evian is alive and kicking, there are cars and people everywhere. It seems like a nice clean resort town of the old style.

 

Lake Léman /Geneva, French side

Then I am back in Switzerland and before you know it in Geneva. Traffic absolutely everywhere, a motorcylists nightmare....unless he or she be of masochistic tendancy. I work my way through the traffic being careful not to hit or be hit by the thousands of scooters that are being manouvered though the traffic with complete disregard for the riders or anyone elses life or wellbeing. Sheer madness. I have ridden many times in Italy, the spiritual home of the scooteristi. The Italians try as they do have nothing on this lot!!

Where is the bloody fountain? It is hot, I am hot, traffic is backed up and packed so tightly that a BMW with its horizontal engine configuration is at a disadvantage and I am unable to manouver without scratching paintwork......I’m not talking about my own either.

I get to where the fountain should be, or where I think it should be from the old colour photos I have seen......and no fountain. I must be mistaken. Surely? I ride through all the traffic to the other side of the lake, but still no fountain. I pull over and get off the motorcycle leaving it on t he sidewalk. This is acceptable in France and Italy but from the looks I get here it is not the done thing. Do I care? Not really. I am blocking no one. I walk over to the lake and there is the fountain....or at least the base of it. Not bloody working!!! I have ridden several hundred kilometres to visit Geneva purely to see their famous fountain and it is not bloody working!!  I am disgusted, get back on the motorcycle and just want to get the hell out of Geneva. I feel shortchanged! I've been swindled!!  However, getting out of this overcrowed city is easier said than done it appears! Traffic everywhere and a living hell for motorcyclists....I won’t be in a hurry to get back to Geneva that’s for sure!!

 

Lake Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

Seems as if the only route out is via the autoroute. I dislike autoroutes intensely...but if it is the quickest way out of this town I’ll take it! I get on to the autoroute, and almost immediately arrive at Swiss customs. They stop the vehicle in front of me with some elderly woman driving. The elderly woman is asked to get out of her newish 4x4 and open the back up. What is the point of all this, really? The point becomes quite obvious as the minute the tailgate is dropped the back is full of cases of spirits. I cut the engine on the BMW, I am resigned to going nowhere fast this afternoon. The customs gather around the 4x4 and start unloading and opening the cases. There must be hundreds of bottles in there. They have obviously forgotten me so I take a chance take my life into my hands and tap the horn lightly to get their attention. Just a short blast....don’t want to anger them, just get their attention. They all look over as if I have interupted a wining poker hand and then gesture me forward.  I have nothing to declare and after a walk around the motorcycle I am allowed to continue on my way.

The autoroute is tedious and I swear that the first chance I get I will exit. I stop at a services and buy a sandwich and an ice cream and chill for five or so minutes. Beggars cannot be choosers and I am hungry, having not eaten since this am’s breakfast in Ringgenberg. I must put Ringgenberg on my list of places to visit again. It will make a good base for exploring the Alps and the mountain passes further.

Back onto the autoroute direction Annecy. An exit comes up so I decide to take it. I do not recognise any of the place names but these days that really does not mean anything.....the autoroute is in business to sell places on the autoroute and is hardly likely to post alternative directions to the same destination.

I exit and follow a sign posted “Cruseilles”, before getting completely lost down some really small back roads in the country. Extremely scenic and the air smells so good, fresh cut grass, flowers and wheat. The cattle and sheep smell good too! Don’t get that in your airconditioned car!

I eventually find my way back onto a small main road and head out South towards Annecy. As I come to a bend in the road I see through the trees what looks like the crenellated towers of a castle. They turn out to be the supports to a suspension bridge. I pull off the road to get a better look and immediately recognise the bridge from old colour slides my parents took whilst on holiday back in 1964.

           

Pont de la Caille, Haute-Savoie, France in 2008 and 1964

The bridge is the famous Le Pont de la Caille and was constructed in 1839. During its heyday the largest of its type in the world. Today it lies retired to all but pedestrian traffic alongside the newer version ( a nice piece of art deco in itself in use since 1939) on the N201 between Cruseilles and Allonzier.  The bridge is an early example of a suspension bridge, measuring 192 metres long and 147 metres above the semi dry riverbed below. How strange to come upon this bridge completely by accident. I knew that it was somewhere on the route between Le Lavandou and Geneva but I was not looking for it and I had no idea which road it was on either. I take several photos, trying for the same angle and place that my father took so many years before. It is strange to find myself inadvertantly following in his footsteps. The Simplon and Grimsel passes were planned, this was not; it is as if he is telling me that he is still here with me. Well I hope he is enjoying this trip as much as I am!

I continue heading South and start looking for a suitable campground. I particularly like the french municipal campgrounds in small villages and towns. They generally have all the amenities and seem to be populated by older retired folks. One of the benefits of this to me is that after a hard days riding I pitch my tent, take a good hot shower...or good cold one depending on the weather, fix myself something to eat just before dusk, then into the tent and into the sleeping bag as night falls. With these campgrounds you can do just that without fear of noisy kids or loud radios blaring. The older folks are like the birds; early to roost and up at first light, which suits me perfectly.

I find my perfect small campground just outside Annecy at Gresy sur Aix. I roll in, and there are just a handful of caravans. There are a few placements vacant and a note on the window that the campsite manager will be back around 8:30pm and to just install yourself in any available placement. I find a small spot away from everyone else and unload the tent. Within five minutes it is up and I fire up the gas cooker. Tonight cassoulet is on the menu. I am just getting ready to sit down and eat a well earnt supper when the manager rolls up. I fill out the papers, pay my 8.40 euros and I am left in peace. The cassoulet is good, one of those Super U brand ones in a can.....ideal for travelling and good quality too. Washed down with a small bottle of quality red wine that I picked up along with a baguette at a little store on the side of the road a few kilometres back.  Dessert is a chocolate mousse. Finished, I grab my shower things and make my way over to the stalls. Perfectly clean. After a good shower its into the tent and lights out. Tomorrow will be the route Napoléon.

The Route Napoléon

The current Route Napoléon which opened in 1932, follows the route taken by Napoléon Bonaparte during March of 1815 from Elba to Grenoble. Napoléon had abdicated in April of 1814 and gone to Elba .However, less than a year later in March of 1815, obviously unhappy with political events in France, he began his journey northwards with the intention of overthrowing the french king Louis XVIII.

On the night of 1 March Napoléon returned from Elba landing at Golfe-Juan, with him his small group staying the first night in Cannes.

To avoid the Rhone valley and the kings troops in Marseilles to the west, he decided to head north and cross the Alps between Digne and Sisteron to get to Grenoble. From Cannes, Napoléon with now 1200 men went up to Grasse following the small trails and mule tracks through the hills to St-Vallier, Escragnolles, and Séranon, where they stopped the night.

The 3rd, saw them leaving Séranon, marching 24 km to Castellane riding through the center of town in mid afternoon.  Over the Col des Leques (1146 m) and through the Col de Taulanne in heavy snow, past Senez and on to Barrême, arriving late into the night.

The advance guard left during the night, by the light of a full moon. Napoléon and his main troop left Barrême early on the 4th for the 30 km trip to Digne. After lunching in Digne, they followed the Bléone river to the Durance, where stopping the night at the château de Malijai.

On the 5th, Napoléon marched towards Sisteron, where a citadel guarded the narrow gap of the Durance. At l'Escale, he continued on the east side of the river, through the village of Volonne. Fortunately Sisteron wasn't guarded; Napoléon hadn't been expected to make such good time. He stopped for lunch, and continued to Gap.

The 6th of March, they marched over the Col Bayard at 1248 m, to Corps, 40 km north of Gap.

The following day, the 7th, he marched another 25 km to La Mure, where the famous confrontation with Laffrey occured. That same evening, the Emperor made his grand entry into Grenoble.

 

 

Saturday 28th June 2008

Gresy sur Aix, Annecy, Grenoble, Sisteron, Digne, Castellane, Avignon, Narbonne

Today the idea is to head south and join the famous Route Napoléon at Grenoble effectively doing the route in reverse and following it down to Castellane where I will branch off and head to pay my respects at the American Military Cemetery at Draguignan. One of my guests (thanks again Ian) at Maison St Georges donated a book last year on “Operation Dragoon”, the allied landings on the coast of the South of France back in august of 1944. The book was a true revelation; and a very gripping read and I recommend getting hold of a copy.

I pack up the tent and get everything loaded on the motorcycle. Check the oil; she’s hardly used a drop since leaving Maison St Georges. Fantastic. I head out of the campsite and hit the road. The sun is shining brightly and although a little on the cool side it will be warmer later. I head towards Chambéry and then hunt out the D523 that runs alongside the autoroute and the old route nationale. A much better bet and a much more comfortable and relaxed ride.

 

View from the Route Napoléon

I have not covered that many kilometres when I run into a small village by the name of Bassens. I recognise the scenery and the mountain forms in the background although I have never been along this route. I then realise that again I have stumbled onto one of the villages where my parents camped on their way South in 1964. A strange feeling. I continue onwards  and avoid the centre of Grenoble before picking up the Route Napoléon. What a fantastic route; the scenery is stunning the road amazing. I would imagine that in March which is when Napoléon came by, it could be bloody cold .....much better ridden at the tail end of June! Mountain backdrops, lakes, clear fresh air.......you name it, its all around. Gap is the first main stop on the route and I am slowed down by a wedding procession in the stages of formation and blocking the entire town centre. Organisation is not a French strongpoint I would add, but the spectacle of all the parked cars decorated with ribbons and the old 1960's Renault convertible all decked out is worth seeing. Everybody is smiling and dressed to the nines with top hats and tails.

I work around the badly parked (.....no they are not really parked.....nobody could park that badly....surely......badly positioned would be more correct) cars and continue on south to Sisteron. This is a tourists haven. The giveaway is that for the size of this small old town there are far too many cars and coaches. As I ride through, I think this is a place I would like to visit.....but not today; too many people around for my liking. It is a beautiful little town with all the buildings brightly painted and its stone buildings and impressive remains of its ramparts.

I continue onwards to Digne les Bains. By now I am positively starving and looking for something to eat is a priority. It’s also market day. I find myself squeezing down some very narrow streets and end up at the back end of the market. I park outside a restaurant but on closer inspection it looks more than a little seedy. I sit at a table but am totally and puposefully ignored. I can take a hint. Back to the bike and I ride slowly around the square with my helmet on my arm, turn left the wrong way down a one way street...otherwise it will be sending me around a tour of the town (once more). In front of me appears a class looking little Bistro. Perfect!!  I park the bike again and head over. Impecable and service with a smile within seconds. The Gods are looking down on me. I am glad that I was ignored by the arabic woman at the tip around the corner (I was hungry but couscous or kebabs are really not my favourites) This Bistro is the place to be. Seems like somethings are just meant to be. There is a great menu. I settle for a beef plate with vegetables with a glass of local house red wine.  I could stay here all day long. The meal is a good as it looks and presentation is excellent. I take my time and enjoy.  This is followed in due course by a creme brulé to die for. This is what eating in france is all about. I finish up and am almost sad to have to leave but I have a lot of kilometres to cover today so its time to be going.

 

Between Digne les Bains and Castellane on the Route Napoléon

I head out of Digne and follow the route to Castellane; another fantastic piece of scenic road. There a re a lot of foreign tourists around so I take extra care and give them all an extra wide berth....most of them havent got a clue where they are going and many of them are navigating using their relatively new GPS navigation systems. It means they can be lazy and do not need to appy themselves to reading a map....just typing in their destination. All very well when it works, but if these people could have a frontal lobotomy and still go on vacation I am sure they would opt for that too. Anything to avoid a bit of work, be it physical or these days even mental.

I reach Castellane after stopping several times to take photographs of the scenery along the route and wonder why Napoléon didn’t wait until a little later in the year to make his march on Grenoble? I pull into Castellane and take several photos of the old town. It really is rather photogenic with the little chapel perched high above the town on a rocky outcrop. If I had the time a walk up the top would not go amiss. I don’t. Instead its a repair to the BMW. That mainstand bolt has finally completely sheared off  leaving only one side held in place. Not great and a bit worrying. I find a cast off metal coat hanger left behind by a morning market stall. With a little help from my swiss army tool I soon have the coat hanger cut to length and several wraps around the mainstand and through the bolt hole should at least hold it in place. It’s not going anywhere. I’ve been worrying about the other bolt sheering off and the stand dropping below the rear wheel. Not a nice thought.

 

Castellane, Route Napoléon, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France

         

Castellane in 2008 and the same shot taken in 1964

Repair made and I’m on my way. Its getting really hot now. I am glad of my lightweight jacket. The sleeves open out in a funnel shape and scoop up the cooler air with a ram air effect, cooling my underarms and body. A good efficient design. I cut through the back roads from Castellane towards Comps and get lost. Not to worry there is a Gendarme road block up ahead, so I stop and ask them. They are friendly, helpful and point me in the right direction.

Twenty minutes later I am in Draguignan, a larger bustling town with a lot of traffic. Nowhere can I find signs to the Military Cemetery. There are signs for almost everything else but none for the Cemetery. It is only when I am in the very centre of the town that I find a sign pointing me in the right direction. A sad state of affairs if you ask me. Still, one signs is better than none I guess and I follow it. A couple of minutes later and there it is on my left hand side the “Rhone Military Cemetery”. I lean the motorcycle against a handy tree (now having no stand), take off my gear and walk across. The cemetery is immaculately maintained but then again I have never seen an American Military Cemetery that is not. The grass looks as if each piece has been cut to perfection by hand, and all the flowers arranged to perfection just that morning. There is absolutely nobody around anywhere, just me and somewhere around 900 white stone crosses, interspersed with a few stars of David for the fallen Jewish soldiers. Very, very moving and something that moves me deeply. These mostly young American warriors came thousands of miles to fight for freedom that we may have the right in Europe to choose, to think and to say whatever we will. Many of them lay buried here but still many many more have no known grave their names carved in stone in a few inches of space on the wall of remembrance. According to the information panel at the entrance (if I read it correctly...which I think I did, but also am so astounded that I think maybe I did not) there were some 78,000 American soldiers listed as missing in action in europe in World War II, more than in any other war or any other theatre of action.

 

The American Military Cemetery at Draguignan, Provence, France

I watch as an old man comes out of the house at the entrance to the grounds and walks up the driveway to the twin flagpoles. One by one he lowers each old glory, carefully folding each one with love and attention. He is obviously a veteran and has a very prounounced limp; probably an artificial leg.

I pay my respects, signal goodbye to the old man who does likewise and then its back to the motorcycle. I head back into town before cutting across to the other side and stopping for petrol. Now I have a dilema. How to keep the bike upright whilst fueling and then where to leave it whist I pay. The mainstand is out of service so I try and prop the motorcycle on its panniers against the pump, which means I have to climb off the wrong side of the motorcycle to get off. All very tricky as the motorcycle is literally just balanced against the pump. I have left it in gear so it will not roll forwards or backwards and crash to the ground. Fingers crossed.

I fill her up and then go pay. Then its back and headed out. I plan on taking the smaller roads that take me to Carcès and Barjols before getting hopelessly lost and ending up down a dirt road. Normally I would relish riding such a route, especially such a scenic one as this but it is now getting late in the evening and within a couple of hours it will be dark. Eventually I find a road which leads to another and eventually I find a road that is marked Rians and I know I am on the right track. I cut across to Peyrolles and then across to Cadenet and Cavaillon before hitting Avignon. At Avignon I decide to just get on the autoroute and head back to Narbonne. It’s now 9pm and I am exhausted. What a day. What a fabulous day but I am shattered. Two hours more and I will be back home. The longest two hours I have ridden and so hard to keep my eyes open. The dusk sky is full of insects and I have to stop several times at services just to clean off the bugs from my visor.At 11pm or just after I roll into Coursan totally and utterly shattered.

1989 BMW R100GS

Starting km : 21,241 (3rd time around the clock = 221,241km)

Finish km: 23,690

Total km: 2,449