French Alps - 2002
We began our tour in the picturesque town of Riquewihr in Alsace. The architecture and cuisine seemed more German than French, no doubt because it kept changing hands in the last century. It is a walled town and cars are discouraged. Having two large suitcases, I drove to our hotel to unload our luggage. The street outside was so narrow that a pedestrian had to take refuge in a doorway to let me by. I was not popular! In the morning we took our photographs before it became busy, to the accompaniment of the birds.
Despite having travelled widely we only recently discovered the Alps. They are an impressive sight. Not the highest of mountain ranges but magnificent in their grandeur. Located in the middle of a densely populated continent they have been inhabited for centuries, and evidence of man's ingenuity to build houses and make a living in difficult surroundings is everywhere. It is also a wonderful place to drive a sportscar: steep climbs, hair-raising hairpin bends, mind-focussing drops to the valley below combined with breathtaking views at every turn. Touring with another enthusiast is as exhilarating as it is foolhardy!
We have been chasing Kees and Inge through the Alps ever since we met them on the Prix des Alpes rally in 1998. Driving in pairs is not as daft as it seems as you can take turns to lead and pathfind, leaving the driver behind to enjoy the ride. This time Kees chose the route and so we had the easy option. However many of the col summits are still under snow, even in June, and cloud is sometimes an additional hazard. When we arrived at the 8,000 feet summit of the Col du Galibier the temperature dropped to 4°C and visibility was barely 20 yards.
The scenery, like the weather, can change in a moment. We arrived just as the Alpine flowers had begun to bloom, and acres of them untouched on a grassy slope can take your breath away. No casual pickers here. Another charm of the high passes is the almost total lack of people and traffic; just the occasional walkers and delivery vans. Sometimes a couple of bikers would race by using their superior acceleration. On one long and bendy downhill section it took me a long time to find a place to pass a pedal cyclist - he was travelling at almost 60 miles an hour!
The high point (literally) of our tour was the summit of the Col de la Bonette, almost 8,500 feet above sea level. The temperature was 1.5°C and at times visibility in the cloud was a scary five to ten yards. I drove slowly and carefully as if my life depended on it (it did!) and was relieved to make it to the other side. The bonus was the fast ride down. Downhill being Kees's forte, he sped away and I foolishly tried to stay with him. However, after only the ABS had saved us from the valley below, I slipped into Sunday afternoon mode and relied on him waiting for me at the bottom.
One of the continuing pleasures of France is the cuisine. We ate and drank well all week, becoming increasingly accustomed to the local Reisling and home-baked patisserie. I am always impressed by the quality of the remote Auberges. You pull up at what appears to be an empty bar and enquire about food. Le Patron ushers you reverentially into his inner sanctum and offers you a menu full of French dishes you did not learn at school. You choose at random in the sure knowledge that whatever it is it will be fantastic. We were never disappointed. Even the prices were good; our meals for four never exceeded half what we paid in Kent just before we left. Long live the euro - so long as Britain never joins!
After five days we had traversed a dozen high cols, eaten countless excellent meals, emptied a good few bottles of wine and travelled over 2,000 miles. We had seen some magnificent scenery and many picturesque villages, and enjoyed the experience largely without the tourist crowds. We would all do well to remember the splendour of Europe before jet-lagging it off to far away places for our next holiday.