Over the course of last weekend and early this week, I spent five days riding from Barcelona to Munich. My route crossed many beautiful places, from the coastal Pyrenees, through the wine regions of Languedoc-Rousillon and Provence, up and over the Alps from France to Italy, thence to the low agricultural plains of northwestern Italy, and once more across the Alps – this time through the long fjord-like lakes of Italy and over the solid rocky heart through Switzerland and Austria before finally dropping down again for the final stretch to Munich.
It was tough to leave Barcelona – I spent four days there after my dusty fabulous week at Nowhere, and really fell in love with the place. It’s beautiful and warm, filled with delicious food and a lovely, genial population. It helped, of course, that I had great new friends to stay with right in the center of the city. I liked it so much there that I’m planning to spend the month of November there, to take Spanish lessons (I know, it’s a Catalonian city – one friend likened this to going to Quebec to study English), spend more time with my new friends there and have a comfortable jumping-off spot for day and overnight trips around Spain.
Once I was on the road, however, it was pretty riding. Despite sticking to the motorway for the day’s travel, the trip across the Pyrenees – close to the Mediterranean coast – was very scenic. Once through the mountains and into France, I rode along the coast – and through numerous vineyard areas – for a while before heading north again to Montpellier, my destination for the night.
Once in Montpellier, I met up with Helene, my Couchsurfing host for the night. After I’d had a chance to clean up a bit, we went into the city center for an impromptu tour of historical and architectural locales, then to the central plaza for the weekly Friday night fest – food, wine and tchotchke vendors, live music and more. Helene is a tango dancer, and I was delighted to get a chance to watch her dance with several partners – I’d never watched tango in person before, and found it to be visually very sensual and appealing. Watching it also made me realize how much I’ve missed my days of swing dancing, one of the many activities that have fallen by the wayside as my ankle has gotten worse over the years (for those who don’t know, I have arthritis in my right ankle as a result of several bad sprains many years ago).
The next morning, we each headed on our way – Helene to visit her mother, and I to cross the Alps into France, with the goal of reaching Lugano, Switzerland. Well, that wasn’t to be until the next day – I was so taken by the beauty of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region that I lingered. I dawdled. I (figuratively) dragged my feet, soaking in the loveliness. And then, late in the day, I entered Les Gorges du Verdon, and was undone. The Verdon Gorge – sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of Europe – is a stunning, deep river canyon (up to 700m at its deepest) through sheer limestone walls. I was there just too late to see the evening sun coloring the walls, but couldn’t help but imagine them painted in the reds and pinks and oranges which danced across the stone faces just before the entrance to the gorge itself.
Once through the most spectacular portion of the gorge, I pulled into a campsite just outside of La Palud-sur-Verdon. It was there the next morning where I realized that, in addition to tourists with an interest in natural beauty, the Verdon Gorge was a magnet for rock climbers. The unmistakeable clink of carabiners and other climbing protection tinkled quietly from several campsites around me, as climbers from all over Europe prepared for the day’s adventures. For me, it was back into the saddle and up and over the Alps, from France into Italy. That day was probably the single most technical day of riding I’ve ever experienced. For the riders and road geeks out there, check out this map of my route: La Palud-sur-Verdon to Barcelonette to Cuneo. Zoom in on the section between Colmars and Barcelonnette, and again in Italy, on the stretch from just west of Argentera to about Pontebernardo. I didn’t manage to ride the Dragon’s Tail in the Smokies on my way across the US, but I think this day made up for it. Of course, it would’ve been nicer without the torrential rain on the climb out of Barcelonnette to around Meyronnes. Yes, that would’ve been much nicer.
As I mentioned before, my goal for the day was to reach Lugano, CH – but crossing two passes in the Alps, one in heavy rain, had wrung me out completely by the time I reached reasonably flat terrain again near Cuneo. I pushed on for a while until I realized the utter depth of my exhaustion, and stopped for the night in Fossano, where I dried out, got some food and a beer, and collapsed like a lump into my bed.
The next day, I struck out for Lugano. Another beautiful day’s riding, this time through rolling hills and down onto the flat plains of northwestern Italy. My route took me past vineyards, huge fields of corn and the deep emerald lushness of many rice paddies. I rode through and by towns with familiar names – Alba, Asti – gently cursing the fact that delicious wines and motorcycling don’t mix, and then entered the stunning Lakes District as I approached Lugano, and with it more rain.
Sadly, I failed to connect with a friend working the summer in Lugano, as his work schedule and my reticence to don my sodden riding gear conspired to keep us apart. So I found myself a bed in the local hostel, a decent meal and a few beers, and then delicious slumber.
My final day’s ride of this particular sprint took me deep into and across the heart of the Alps – along the coastline of Lago di Lugano and Lago di Como, then up and up into deep valleys lined with sharp serrated cliffs of stone. Through Switzerland into Italy, then back into Switzerland again for several beautiful passes before descending through the Tyrolean Alps of Austria – to my eyes the most beautiful region of the Alps I’ve seen to date.
Finally, after threading my way through the northern valleys, into Germany and hurtling on the A9 to Munich, where I was warmly greeted by my friends Mellington and Oliver. I spent several fun days in Munich visiting with them – and with Margherita and Andrea, new friends met at Nowhere – but that telling can wait for another day.