Devizes - Malta
Saturday 25th July.
So. I’m still alive then.
Alone in his hotel room, my father died in his sleep when he was only forty-seven. I’ve managed to get to be fifty-five and a bit … and each morning that I awake, alone or accompanied, I view as a bonus.
During this jaunt I am finding that these hotel rooms are getting more and more comfortable and harder and harder to awake early in. Therefore, you can imagine this Saturday mornings indulgently content and cosy, lounging languidly on the bed for a good half-hour of half-awake half-asleeping.
Stern command to self … Get Up and Get Going!
Lounge about for long enough to make the point that I ain’t gonna be bossed about by my supposedly better self.
But, curiosity regarding the brightness seeping in through from the other side of the curtains gets the better of the less than better half of me ... and it’s just about bladder relieving time too.
Part curtains to peep through the triple-double-glazing and see that outside the day has dawned as promisingly clear blue as it could possibly be.
Y’know, I’d say it looks set fair to become another Magnificent Day for Motorcycling.
Go on then, get a move on and do the morning sanitary do. Dress yourself and go seek breakfast.
Yeah, Ok, alright then.
Through silent hotel hallways to the dining area.
In the middle of the dining area, one table laid, awaiting my arrival.
I sense that I might just possibly be the only guest in the Hotel.
Nevertheless, regardless, Veronique, the Half-Italienne-Half-Irish manageress has dutifully done the business, and a full range of breakfast comestibles and hot strong black coffee are ready and waiting for me.
Naturally, if any of you lot should get down that way, do give her a bell at the Hotel Biancaneve, Sestriere.
Dear Reader, Please Insert here the usual waffle about my delight at discovering the 900 still being where it was locked, alarmed and left the previous night. Then add the other usual waffle about reattaching the Big Black Bag of luggage, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah.
Odometer at 71813 miles. 3482 road miles from Floriana.
900 engine fires up first time and off we go into Sestriere-Ski-Town-centre.
Find a continental cash machine and extricate some dosh.
Spend some of the dosh at the Stazione Shell, on 18.695L of fuel, costing €20.00c.
Add a couple of bottles of water and a can or two of Red Bull to the contents of the tank bag.
Hit it Billy.
Road sloping downward to the east of Sestriere. Mountains either side, green grass bare of snow ski slopes on either side, pylons supporting motionless cables dangling empty ski lift chairs above on either side, closed for the summer authentic log effect ski lodge/cabins dotted about on either side of the I’m having a whale of a time riding along this road towards Pinerolo, Italy.
Now. Once I arrive at Pinerolo, Italy. I have to find my way through it and onto the south’ish-bound R589, and then along that straight and simple looking enough stretch to a spot on the map named Verzulo, wherein to turn west and up wiggly roads into the mountains again on the D205 towards and beyond Castlefino.
Or in other words, left outta the hotel parking area and old enough to know better until slowing down to behave sensibly in the course of finding the right turn to take me hurtling toward another mindful of my responsibility to society sedate right turn that sets me off again accelerating towards the alpine fun and games high ground.
Italian roads travelled so far this morning score 10 out of 10.
Beyond Castlefino, 105 miles into today’s fabulous ride, scenery overload necessitates frequent roadside stops for me to gaze about and go Oh Wow! a lot … and then dutifully attempt snaps to show to you lot.
For example …
… this one was snapped at 44°39'45.63"N - 6°59'11.62"E, shortly before a mini-peloton of super fit cyclists came swishing into view, flying down the slope towards me.
Spotting me at the photography, the leader of the pack speaks the word “Bellisimo.” as he whizzes around the curve, whilst casually gesticulating at the scenery.
And if I understand my Italian right … one cannot argue with cool or sentiment such as that.
The mini-peloton disappears from sight and the scene returns to peace and quiet and that precious timeless tranquility … apart from the random bing-bonging of a herd of bell’d up cows grazing their way across the high summer pasture on the other side of the valley ... and the watery hissing-sloshing-splashing-over-rocks-turbulent-fast-flow of a nearby mountain stream … and here come a group of motorcyclists hurtling themselves downhill … and another group going for it all the way to the top.
Breathe deeply the fresh air.
Turn through 360°, fix the scene and the moment in my memory.
What’s further on, away over that crest of the rise in the road … ?
Answer; hairpin bend after hairpin bend leading me higher and higher.
An eerie sensation of wary déjà vu grips me as, just like yesterday, the 900 begins to exhibit a tendency to run rough and unresponsive at low revs while I’m attempting the sensibly slowly making of tight hairpin bend turns, and also just like yesterday, the steep terrain preventing any view at all of oncoming traffic that might be whizzing downhill, taking a racing line, cutting the corner, onto the wrong side of the road, suddenly appearing coming straight at me … and just like yesterday, scary moments of teetering, top heavy with luggage wobbliness, fate in the lap of the God(desses)s again, slipping of clutch, keeping revs high as I laboriously turn tight up into another unknown right.
Halt at 44°40'37.56"N - 6°58'38.47"E.
A welcome break from the hairpin bending for my left big toe, and for the rest of me to go Oh-Wow! at the scenery …
... and watch how other riders tackle an uphill blind right … hmmmn, see.
Sit and watch for a while, then start to wonder what’s even further on, away up that rise in the road where the other motorcyclists are so rapidly going?
The Summit. 2,744 metres above sea level.
The Summit and The Border. 2,744 metres above sea level.
Had to wait my turn to take these border straddling pics. The parking area behind the camera position was full of eager to do the same pose motorcyclists and cyclists, all reveling in the altitude and the achievement of getting there from wherever.
Digital doings done, I ride the 900 down the D205t French side, where on the outside of the second hairpin bend, I see there’s a guy trying to take a snap of himself and his AT and the amazing view. So, I bring the Gpz to a halt nearby, side-stand it, switch off and make the gesture of offering to take the picture for him.
He nods enthusiastically, hands me the digital camera, then he strikes an adventure rider pose whilst I compose the shot … snap. Hand him back the camera, he looks at the image and looks well pleased with what he sees. In excellent English he explains his eastern European origins and how much travelled he is on his much modified and well equipped AT. He mentions a few of the far-flung destinations of trips he has undertaken, all high mileage affairs that make my Malta-Devizes-Malta marathon seem more like a mere long weekend away somewhere trundling around a local country park. Looking at the 25-year-old-900, he commends my confidence in its mechanical reliability. Then suggests that for stunning views I should head south, get to the top of the Col de la Bonette, that with such good weather for it at this time of year, the road should be free of snow and open to all.
Wish each other Good Luck and go our separate ways.
After taking this pic, put the camera away and carried on having descending fun, beginning to become accustomed to hard on the front into hairpin bend after hairpin bend … and then a sobering sight … a BMW motorcycle being winched back up onto the road after it and it’s owner must have just missed staying on the tarmac at the exit of a tight downhill left hand hairpin bend, tumbled over the edge and slid a ways down a forgiving, gentle grassy slope.
We know not the minute or the hour. Take each corner as if it could be your last.
Carry on going down, enjoying cornering a tads more cautiously.
Whip out the camera again, just in time to catch up with and catch a snap of this casual no-nonsense-no-licence-plate Molines-en-Queyras local before he went off-roading to the right.
At the end of the D205t, turn right onto the D5, turn left onto to the D947, to turn left again on joining the D902 that heads south-west’ish.
Odometer 71935. 3604 road miles from Floriana. 11.6L of fuel €16.01.
Take on fresh supplies of water, Red Bull and some local bread and salami.
Approaching another tunnel, on a great stretch of smooth fast road along the valley floor going towards Guillestre. More of the same fun and games on the D902 to Vars to Jausiers, then turn left onto the D97 for the ascent to La Bonette Resteford.
What can I say ... More fabulous wiggly road to ride a motorcycle upon, climbing up towards the distant peak. As we get higher and higher, into the 1,500 metre above sea level zone, the engine low rev roughness starts to become a nuisance again when negotiating the slow hairpin bends, and my left foot big toe is making more of a complaining ache at every up-shift. Y’know, this Malta-Devizes-Malta malarkey is a tough assignment alrighty. But, despite the setbacks, the aspirational altitudinal deficiencies of the carburation, and the intimate personal discomfort of an aching left foot big toe … I soldier on, dutifully making my journey notes and taking pictures of the world I’m passing through, for you … yup, a tough job alrighty … but I suppose someone has to do it.
Getting higher and higher, low rev rough running getting worse, only solution is to keep the revs up and go faster … consequently concentrating on maintaining smooth progress up, up, up, hardly any time to get a good look at the road side remains of strategically placed 19th century border defensive positions. Ownership of this High Ground must once have been hotly contested … even in the depths of winter … brrr.
Reach the top. Well, the road that circles the top of the mountain within a short walk of the summit.
A sign tells me that I’m 2,802 metres above sea level. The view through the clear air from up here is particularly big Oh Wow!
900 parked near the top, at 44°19'14.37"N - 6°48'23.62"E.
Photographs just hint at the Truly Feckin’ Huge Majestic scale of it all. I really strongly advise a trip by motorcycle to such a spot for some soul enhancing perspective on our place in the scheme of things.
Once the top is attained, there’s only one way to go … and the D64 provides an entertaining way of doing so.
Twisting and hairpin bend turning, and even passing through an old abandoned barracks during the course of the snaking descent.
Reach a point where I manage to quell the desire to maintain the effortless fluidity of downhill motion, and bring myself and the 900 to a gentle halt.
Engine off, side-stand down. Helmet off, earplugs out.
And absolute silence.
Watch a wispy cloud waft by.
Retrieve the camera from the tank bag, walk away from the 900, turn, sit on a smooth rock, facing the bend and the 900, compose the pic, finger about to squeeze the shutter button … hear the distant sound of an engine. It’s descending. Soon I can see a tiny far off glint of shiny motorcycle weaving through the bends above … wait patiently for the motorcycle to come close and into view and s-s-snap!
Here, in passing, at 44°19'42.94"N - 6°52'4.81"E.
Pillion waves as the BMW glides by, engine noise diminishes as the image of man and woman and machine recede into the distance and are gone.
Silence engulfs me again.
This moment lingers longer …
Get up, walk back to motorcycle.
Earplugs in, helmet and gloves on.
Astride my 900. All comfortable, familiar, natural. In the place to be.
Ignition on, press starter button and the silence is gone … 900 rumbles a potent four cylinder song.
Engage first gear and Zen. Accelerate away from reverie to attack corners I’ve never ridden before.
Mind blank but full of angles of lean, feel of the machine, grip of rubber, acceleration, inertia and the pursuit of the elusive vanishing point, braking point, tipping point, apex’ing point, what’s the point.
In passing glimpse one most endearingly indomitable sight, a blind runner being led up the mountain road by a one-armed cyclist. Putting it all into a human perspective on a grand day to be a motorcyclist.
Carry on downhill from the mountain high to where the road is swallowed up in the tree line, encountering a steady flow of Saturday afternooners driving their four wheelers up. Many of the dozy dunderheads behind the wheel steering wide around blind bends, hogging the centre line, oblivious to any notion of an unexpected-sharing-of-the-same-road- space-conflict-collision-with-anything-oncoming.
Adjust my line through the twists and turns accordingly. More concentration, more downhill fun.
Reach the shady ‘T-junction’ bridge over the valley at 44°17'11.71"N - 6°53'57.38"E, the bottom of the D64.
Stop for the snap, a snack from the tank bag, a can of the Red Bull and a perusal of the map to see where I might head off to next.
Without helmet on and earplugs in, I can hear the gentle breeze rustles through the leaves of the trees. The stream below the bridge, splishing and splashing decorously. Cooling 900 clicking contractingly. Which reminds me … check the oil level. Heave the motorcycle up onto the centre stand and let it settle.
Wait and appreciate.
Bird noises. No ornithologist me. But I know a bird noise when I hear one.
There’s a distant dingle-dongling of Alpine cattle bells and a … what’s that edge of perception other sound I can hear? A familiar’ish … riff ? ! … emanating from back up the D64 it comes … what is it? It’s getting closer. There’s no pounding bass to it. Sounds altogether too, er, elderly, bluesy to be true. The source is definitely mobile and approaching fast and the rhythm coming through the trees is getting clearer and closer and closer and suddenly … The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Music … as a right pair on a fully kitted, pannier’d, fairing’d BMW cruise past with their stereo going full blasting John Lee Hooker … Boogie Chillen!
Over the bridge and away they go, ‘Texas Slim’ receding with ‘em.
The plan is away from the ‘T-junction’ on the D2205 that, if I were so inclined, would take me all the way to Nice. However, my intention is ride down the valley for some twenty miles or so, find the right turn onto the wiggly looking D30 from Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée for more hairpinery over to the D28 and onto Guillaumes, there, turn right onto the D2205 that should then take me up and over the 2,326 metre above sea level Col de la Cayolle … down the other side into Jausiers in time for a late tea and finding a bed for the night.
Check the settled oil level … spot on.
Once again, earplugs in, helmet and gloves on. 900 all comfortable, familiar, natural.
Ignition, starter button, silence gone.
Engage first gear and I’m gone … entering the zen zone again, making progress along the sinuous, Jolly Good Fun D2205 that winds its varied way along the side of a steep valley just above a rock strewn river bed, which during the spring snow melting must surely be full to overflowing with a raging torrent. Gravity and water … Strong stuff.
Now, an indulgent summer afternoon. Either I’m easily pleased, or the roads I’ve almost randomly picked to travel on, just happen to be some of the best fun & games available for a motorcycle and man on their way south. Revel in the grip that these roads give. Delight in the way my twenty-five-year-old Gpz 900r continues on and on, still very capable of performing more than I’d ever dare to explore the limits of.
Catch onto the tail-end of a group of six riders who seem to know the road well enough … and naturally enough, what with one thing and another and the spirit of the moment, following, passing, being passed, totally miss spotting my intended D30 turn off … and by the time The Voice Of Reason nags me to slow down and stop and check where I am on the map, I find I’ve ended up fifteen miles of fun & games further on south down the valley than I had intended to … tee hee.
Ok. Never mind. Where I am is in an interesting sort of beside the river gorge confusion of junction at the meeting of the D2205, the D6202 and their respective rivers, the Tinée and the Var. French road signs indicate I should take the right turn along the smooth and speedy Avenue du General de Gaulle in the wide Var valley. This route soon brings me to the D28, and my next right turn into the start of the Gorge du Cians …
… gosh. More entirely fabulous road and geology to ride a motorcycle through.
This route, chosen entirely on the basis of how wiggly the lines look on the map, proves to be a further delight.
Gorgeous, this is indeed. Another of those road-less-travelled by-ways that deserves a thorough riding in both directions. And, considering its location, is a particularly orderly and seemingly regularly well-maintained road. Passing through it is a bit like riding along an earnestly Disney’esque, educational geological cross-section construction in a ‘The Story of The Earth’ theme park for motorcyclists. Convoluted or what?
Acoustically speaking, those rocky convolutions make for perfect reverberating echoing appreciation of one’s wailing, accelerating exhaust note … ah, the call of the wild. Vecchia Tromba!
The Gorge du Cians experience concludes with a gentle, undemanding, calm down calm down approach up to Beuil.
By the time I get to Beuil, there really ain’t much sign of Beuil life, or anything invitingly hospitable at all going on there.
Follow the signs through that direct me west towards Valberg and Guillaumes.
The sun has long gone below the high ground around, and it’s beginning to get twilighty as I ride into Valberg. Valberg is a scattering of the usual log effect hotel lodges along the side of the road. The place looks like just another one of those chi-chi ski resorts, but off season bored, drumming its fingers, waiting for winter and the real business to arrive.
Over optimistically I stop and enquire of an establishment (one with a sign outside in english announcing ‘Vacancies’ and ‘Parking for Jaguar Owners Only’) what might be their rate for the night? …
Stick it up your Jaguar Owners Only tail pipe.
Leave chuckling at the opportunist cheek.
Next place I try looks far more human, is certainly cheaper … and consequently full to the brim with happy guests.
Fortuitous wrong turn takes me out of town and down, down, down through ten left-foot-big-toe torturingly tight hairpin bends to arrive in a valley, slap bang in front of the eccentric old Hotel Col De Crous, Peone, France.
‘Bon Soir. Monsieur. Ave vous une chambre pur une nuit poor mwah siv ooh play?’ gets me an indulgent ‘Qui Monsieur, we doowa ‘ave a vaconcy fourrr yoo.’
Hurrrah! At a quarter past nine, after an enjoyable 270 mile days-worth of variegated fun & road games that have left me happily pooped and left-foot-big-toe weary, I finally find a bed for the night.
For my €55.00c, I get a room with Double-bed and Bidet.
A Bidet by the Bed-head ... golly!
Tsk … it’s really far too late to make an Englishman’s-sensibilities-are-being-challenged-fuss-and-bother about a practicaly (though to me entirely bizarrely) placed piece of sanitary porcelain …
After 270 miles and much hairpin-bending-gear-changing, me and my left-foot-big-toe need some Tullamore Dew therapy. Some sort of snack too wouldn’t go amiss either. Rummage around in the tank bag, pull out the bread and the salami, munch contentedly. The salami is good stuff, ‘Chorizo Doux.’ Wrap the remainder for consumption tomorrow, leave it safe on the cold ceramic shelf above the hand basin … gentle gurgle of water trickling through hotel plumbing reminds me to do some tooth brushing too, before settling down to sleep … away, far over away, as far as possible from The Bidet.