Tour of the Alpes Maritimes
My tour of the Alpes Maritimes was the most spectacular of all ones I've undertaken to date (2012). Travelling in the first week of September, the weather was good and the roads empty. As expected, the food was great. Some of the overnight stays, however, could have been better. If I had it to do again, I think it could be the perfect trip.
Day 1 - Nice airport to Bouyon - 33kms - 780m ascent
I flew from Leeds to Nice on 3rd September, arriving around 4pm in the afternoon. I reassembled my bike and placed the cardboard box in left luggage. Getting out of the airport is a bit tricky, as the roads are very busy. This was the first time I had use of the Garmin 305, which was a godsend in the first few miles. I crossed the river and road quickly along the flat road on the western bank. The first 10km is through an industrial landscape but the terrain and scenery changes at the turn off for the D2209 towards Gattieres. From here it is a continuous up hill climb to Bouyon which gets better and better as it goes on. Once passed Carros, it is a fantastic ride. I was amazed I could get into such great scenery so close to Nice.
I saw Bouyon in front of me, clinging to the hillside - it's a great sight. It was around 7pm when I arrived and everything was quiet. I arrived at the only hotel, which I had booked in very poor French, over the phone. Thankfully they were expecting me. I was the only person staying. It turned out to be a memorable, if strange, experience. The room was large but very old fashioned with an en suite cubicle in the room. Freshened up, I had dinner. There was no choice but it was great. Vegetable soup, which doesn't give any idea of how good it was, followed by very rare duck and tart, washed down with rose wine. The owner then told me he was the village baker and had to get off to bed and asked me to turn off the lights and find him in the bakery in the morning when I needed breakfast. I sat outside and read before going to bed, the hotel unlocked, my bike in the bar.
Day 2 - Bouyon to Guillaumes - 86km - 1228m ascent
In the morning I couldn't find the bakery, before being directed to a plain door in a wall. The owner was inside, a lamp on his head, baking his bread. He pulled out some hot croissants and bread and gave me breakfast back at the hotel. It was a great way to begin the day.
The ride was beautiful right from the start. Riding along a plateau for the first 10kms, there are great views of other hilltop villages. There is then a descent over the next 10kms to Roquestron, where I took on some provisions. The toughest part of the day began, with a height gain of 800m over the next 27kms. The roads are very lonely, with almost no traffic. I crossed the Col de Trebuchet at 1141m, the highest point of the day and then began the descent to Entrevaux, 15kms on and 550m below.
Entrevaux is a magical place. If I'd had a full day to ride from Nice, I think I would have stayed here. There are great views of the walled citadel on the descent, with the castle perched on top. Access to the town is over a narrow drawbridge, with then a warren of streets leading upwards. I had a good lunch opposite the drawbridge and did some exploring.
Leaving Entrevaux, there is a busy stretch of road for 5kms. Taking the turning for Guillaumes, there is then a great road which goes through a very different landscape, the Daluis Gorge. I had no expectation of it, so the deep red gorge was a startling sight. The road climbs for 12kms from the turn off, threading its way and giving fantastic views, before a final 7km descent.
After such a fantastic ride, Guillaumes was a bit of a disappointment. I stayed at the Hotel Renaissance in a basic single room, with a toilet and shower down the corridor. The town itself was very quiet. Had I been staying somewhere so basic in England, however, I would not have enjoyed the great meal I had at the hotel that evening, sitting out on the terrace.
Day 3 - Guillaumes to Barcelonnette - 62km - ascent 1572m
The ride to Barcelonnette is a very simple one - there are no turnings and it's one climb followed by one descent. It's a great ride. The 32km climb from Guillaumes to the Col de Cayolle pass took me into proper alpine territory. Starting at at an elevation of 800m, the route starts gently, rising 300m in the first 15km, giving glimpses of the big mountains ahead.
After the village of Entraunes (below), the climbing gets serious, rising 1200m over the next 17kms. The ride becomes progressively more spectacular.
I had a drink at a restaurant to recover, 24km from Guillaumes, before the final push to the pass. It was a beautiful day. I was at the top alone, before meeting a couple of other cyclists going in the opposite direction. A handful of cars passed me during the whole day.
Now came the 29km descent. The road was good but narrow. After an initial steep section, the gradient becomes more manageable and I enjoyed a fast but not scary cruise downhill, interrupted only by a herd of sheep crossing the road, before entering Barcelonette.
Having had two nights in very quiet places, in somewhat poky hotels, it was good to arrive at the Hotel Azteca. The hotel is a large villa, close to the main square, with a good terrace for a drink. Barcelonette itself is a pretty town, with lots of restaurants and obviously popular with cyclists. I'd had some problems on the climb with my gears slipping and got them adjusted in a local bike shop.
In the evening I ate in a packed restaurant with a lively atmosphere, although the food was not as good as elsewhere on the trip. Later, sitting, having a drink in the square, I got speaking to a few Irish cyclists. They were mainly in their sixties and had been touring for decades. The eldest, in his early seventies, had been up the Cime de Bonette that day - I was heading there next.
Day 4 - Barcelonette - Saint Sauveur sur Tinee - 86km - 1645 ascent
I had a good breakfast at the hotel and set off around 8.30. As with the previous day, this ride is a long climb and long descent. The landscape, however, is very different. It's a great and challenging ride.
From Barcelonnette, it is a flat 10km ride to Jausier. From here, it is a 22km climb to the summit of the Cime de Bonette. On a hot day, with full panniers, it was extremely hard going. There was very little traffic and few other bikes, which surprised me a little. The scenery shifts from green to a stark landscape. After 3 hours in the saddle, I reached the pass. At that point there is a loop around the summit which takes the road to 2800m, making it the highest paved road in France. Most of the climb is between 6 and 8% but the last kilometer is at 10, making it a pretty painful finish. At the summit there is a platform providing some great views.
The next 53kms, with a minor interruption is all down hill. The first few kilometers is steep and a little scary, with sharp bends. I was a little concerned about my rims overheating. After about 5 kms, however, it settled down a bit and I could begin to enjoy the long reward. Travelling fast, I made the descent in just over an hour and a half. I stopped in Saint Etienne sur Tinee for some lunch and later in Isola for a drink. Isola was a pretty village, by far the nicest along this stretch, and one that I recommend over the place I stayed.
Exultant after the ride, I arrived at my hotel, the Au Relais de Auron. It was shut. I waited for an hour outside until the owner came along to open up. The hotel was grim - the worst I've stayed in over the years I've been riding. The owner was unfriendly and frankly a bit grubby. The town itself was also very dull, with really nothing to recommend it. Fortunately, there was one other place to eat, the Auberge de La Gare, where I took my book for the evening. If you have to stay in the town, stay there - it was cosy and friendly, with good food.
Day 5 - Saint Saveur sur Tinee - Nice - 86kms = 1402m ascent
After 3 great rides, I didn't have such high expectations for the return ride to Nice. I was wrong - it was as good a ride as the others, with greater variety.
I had a coffee but skipped breakfast and got off early at 7.30. I continued to descend down the valley for the first 18km, before taking the turning off the main road up to the village of La Tour. It is a 7km climb to the village, ascending 400m, giving good views over the valley. La Tour itself is very charming; the prettiest village I went through on the whole trip. I had another coffee and some croissants in the little square before pressing on.
From La Tour, there is a very lonely road which goes to the village of Utelle. After a steep descent from the village to an altitude of 375m, the road climbs for the next 9kms to 850m. I saw no one along the whole stretch - it was a bit spooky. The surface is rough in parts, with fallen rocks on the road. Finally there is a descent, which took me through a short tunnel, that emerges in Utelle. I was quite relieved to rejoin civilization.
There is a fine descent from Utelle to Saint Jean La Riviere. The route then follows the D19 to Nice. The 13km stretch to Levens is a beautiful undulating ride. I stopped in Levens for lunch, 60kms into the ride. I looked a little out of place sitting with the families having Sunday lunch, the perspiration pouring off me. Re-energised and rehydrated, I made the final journey into Nice. Remarkably for such a big city, I didn't feel like I had left the countryside until abut 5kms from the end of my journey. Guided by Garmin, I found my way straight to my hotel - the Little Palace. Fairly functional, it felt glamorous after the night before.
I walked along the promenade. It was a beautiful day and the sea was an amazing light blue. Having spent a few days in the sticks, it was good to be in the big city. In the evening I ate at the Brasserie Flo, which I believe has recently closed. It was an old theatre, with the kitchen on the stage. I had a very enjoyable meal and treated myself to a glass of champagne.
The Journey Home and Final Thoughts
I spent the morning wandering around Nice, before setting off to the airport. It is only 5km from the centre of Nice and can be reached by riding along the cycle path on the promenade. It was a very pleasant way to end the trip.
Writing from 2012, this was without doubt the best trip I have had, if judged only by the quality of the cycling. Every ride was stunning. A trip, however, is also about where the ride leads to, and certainly a couple of the evenings were pretty dull. If I had the chance to do the trip again, I would follow the same route but with different stopping off places. Going in the same direction, I would try to make it to Entrevaux for the first stop, staying in Nice the night beforehand, if necessary. The next stop over could then be Barcelonnette, followed by Isola. There is then the option of riding all the way to Nice, or stopping in Levens, with a short ride to Nice on the last day. The alternative of Levens-Isola- Barcleonnette- Entrevaux- Nice, is a possibility but the ride up the Cime de Bonette may feel endless. With these adjustments, I would wholeheartedly recommend this as the perfect short trip.