Gorges: Gorges du Verdon, Gorges du Nesque, Col de Tempêtes and Mont Ventoux.
Gorges du Verdon
Day 6 finds me starting my day in Saint-André-Les-Alpes at the head of Lac de Castillon, fed by Le Verdon River which over the millennia has gouged out Europe’s version of the Grand Canyon.
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Castellane is the most well-known town in the area, but finding accommodation here is next to impossible unless you have booked well in advance. If you find yourself in this situation, head up the road a few miles on the D955 to the little town of Saint-André-Les-Alpes where there is a cracking little hotel wishfully named Hotel Bel Air which was for me a great little find. Part of the Logis chain, it’s cheap, clean, good restaurant, safe bike parking round the back and it has a very usable bar and terrace overlooking your bikes. The only down side was that the breakfast was a bit crap, but this certainly would not stop me from returning.
The back country (anywhere at least 30km inland from the coast) of Provence is a heavenly inspired paradise of great motorbike roads and one of the reasons I almost never bother with the coast. The coastal towns and beaches of the Cote d’Azure are the overcrowded playground of the rich, want-to-be famous tossers with arrogance oozing Parisian birds in bug eye sunglasses, and far worse, the leather skinned, wrinkly semi naked, thong wearing, beach posing, hairy, over sexed pensioners flapping their giblets around the place. It makes me want to throw hand grenades not beach balls, I’d rather nail my left testicle to the back of a bus heading for Helsinki than waste my precious time staying on the coast.
By contrast the difference of heading just 30km inland to the back country and Pre-Alps is total, it’s what I’ve been dreaming of through the long, cold, wet winter.
Little or no traffic, smooth sweeping roads and sublimely curved low mountain passes, fragrant forests and lavender fields with nothing to slow you down except for ridiculously pretty and ancient hilltop villages. I’m grinning like a freak and my RT is chomping at the bit as I peel off the Route de Nice and head into the magnificent Gorge du Verdon.
While it is undoubtedly a tourist trap in summer, spring and autumn find it quiet and I happily potter along gaping at the scenery below a road that’s strapped to an almost vertical cliff. If you can spend a whole day here navigating both sides (Circuit du Gorge), you will not regret it.
There is a section of the road called “Route de Cretes” that can be easily missed, make sure you don’t. If you’re heading west there is a sharp bend to the left off the D952 just before La Palud-Sur-Verdon which hugs the gorge and leads back out the other side of La Palud, it’s a bit rough but the views are breath-taking.
The gorge ends at Lac de Sainte-Croix, from here I lazily head west along empty country roads through lavender fields and vineyards towards yet another stunning set of gorges.
Gorges de la Nesque
After the Gorges du Verdon, the Gorges de la Nesque are the next most spectacular in Provence, an imposing and wild canyon, with fantastic rocks which can be admired from the road (D.942 from Sault to Carpentras) and punctuated by tunnels and view-points, such as Castelleras looking onto the majestic “Rocher du Cire”. This area is again worth spending a bit of time exploring, from prehistoric caves to Roman Gallic churches. The D942 which navigates the gorges can be a little narrow and heavy going on a big bike, but well worth the effort as the place is one of the reasons I’ll always be addicted to motorbike touring.
The thought of crawling along this road in a car packed with whinging kids and a sweaty wife make me wonder at the sanity of most people, my wonderings confirmed as I glance into the eyes of some poor sod in a fully packed Ford Ka driving the opposite direction, possibly to find a terminal short cut into the ravine below!
Exiting the gorge near Sault I find the D164 which will lead me to the last great highlight of the day, the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux! A bit of a Billy no mates, this great mount is by far the biggest in the region and officially marks the end of the Alps (Alps-de-Haute-Provence). Well known to cyclists and local bikers this mountain is visually different to any mountain in the Alps as instead of the jagged or tree covered peaks seen so far this mountain top is rounded and utterly bald!.
No trees, shrubs, plants, not even a blade of grass can grow here as the Mistral which rages over the summit at up to 320kmph / 200mph simply blows everything off it. On average the wind blows 90kmph for 240 days of the year and is regularly closed, so when opportunity presents I could hardly miss a chance to ride over the summit through Col de Tempêtes “storm pass” to my final destination of the day.
Col de Tempêtes
The forested road leading up the eastern ramp is not great, ruts and potholes slowing me down, however the road greatly improves reaching the Col de Tempêtes. Upon reaching the col you come round a bend to get your first proper view of the summit in a blaze of it’s lunar like glory, the sight before me is simply bloody awesome!!!! I really hate saying that fecken word so over used by Americans, but upon seeing the summit of Mont Ventoux for the first time it’s literally the only word that fits!
When reaching the summit from the eastern road there is a very nasty, steep, slanted hairpin, but the views from the top are predictably, yet again, magic!
The western ramp has an almost perfect surface compared to the eastern ramp, and just as well as my brain, now on sensory overload, can’t handle much more, I need to get off, get a beer, get a shower, get food, get more beer, and get some sleep.
The western ramp off Ventoux leads right into the eastern Cote du Rhone region, and if you like your wine like I do than a night or two in the area is a must. Apart from the great wine and food this whole area has some really great roads which I’ll have to try to find time to upload at a later stage as this website is proving to be more time-consuming then intended.
Riding the Giant of Provence! Mont Ventoux
There are many great places to stay in the area, but as usual I’m going to try to stay off the typical tourist track and head towards the villages of Sainte-Cécile-Les-Vignes, more of a working village than a tourist spot. But I’d been tipped off earlier by an old friend who really knows the area and I’d learned there is a small hotel in Sainte-Cécile with an exceptional restaurant, and as I was in the mood for something better than a quick pizza it sounded perfect.
Now usually if I like accommodation that would suit a biker on tour I’ll give a quick description and recommendation. But I cant do it here as the Hotel Restaurant La Farigoule in Sainte-Cécile-Les-Vignes simply blew me away and La Farigoule warrants a bit more respect than my usual quick description.
For starters the hotel does not have on-site parking, however the owner Laurence, a wonderfully friendly woman with a wicked sense of humour and an equally wicked passion for good food and drink offered me to leave my RT in her garage, with room for 30 bikes across the street, free of charge. This was a good start! I took a single room at €52 per night, rooms are a good size but are immaculate, spotless and nicely decorated, it’s easy to tell Laurence take’s great pride in her business and this place has a home away from home feel about it. This is a welcome change from so many hotels in France that seem to be stuck in the 1970’s.
My evening just got better after landing my weary bones in the restaurant as the food in this place is absolutely world-class, from the most delicately flavoured foie gras starter that rode my palate like velvet candy through to freshly made deserts, every course almost put a tear of joy in my blood-shot eyes. I insisted on meeting the chef Raphael, who explained everything he cooks is sourced locally, daily and of the best quality, to make great cuisine one must first love the ingredients. I’d worked as a professional chef for 14 years in over 30 restaurants in 6 countries, I’ve eaten in countless restaurants, but rarely have I had food as memorable as the food served in La Farigoule and all washed down with Laurence’s expert advice in local wines, and the price was more than fair. After seeing my obvious pleasure in the meal Laurence treated me to a very old and mind-blowing cognac to finish me off.
Top recommended tip
Comparing the food to the price this place is a serious bargain, I would, and without doubt happily ride a hundred miles out of my way just to stay here again, this place is my best discovery in years! It also happens to be a good place to base yourself for a few days, the Ardeche, the Dentelles de Montmiriand the Ventoux foothills, there are just too many roads and routes in the area to get into now.
The town itself is not a tourist spot, however the Saturday market seems to be a total chick fest with every good-looking lass in the region putting on her Sunday best micro-mini skirt and see through blouse to strut around the market, possibly just to wreak the head of happily married men like myself. And so before my self-control erodes and with my self-respect still intact I pull out of Sainte-Cécile-Les-Vignes and dispel the cognac vapours and images of ridiculously sexy French girls by heading towards the Pyrenees as quickly as possible..
Coming Soon – The Pyrenees…