BEST OF SOUTHERN FRANCE
5 days 1700 miles Sea & mountain
THE ATTRACTION OF a week’s fiddling about in the fabulous mountain scenery of the Alps, dropping down through fragrant Provence to the French Riviera for a mooch along the sparkling Med, then winding gradually back north again, is easily explained. The roads are amazing, the food sensational, the weather perfect and the hot air smells of pine needles and citrus fruit. It’s riding heaven.
Brit bikers have migrated to the Côte d’azur every autumn for a long time. Every October in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, thousands of British, French, Dutch, German and Belgian riders would flock south to the Bol d’or 24hr endurance race at Paul Ricard for a few days’ racing, camping, bad food and rock music. Back then, it was Autoroute all the way, as the gendarmes opened up the péages to wave the bikes through (often with a nod and a wink at the lunatic speeds — how times have changed).
But these days, the Autoroute’s speeds are more tightly governed and, like all deep Continental rides, motorways are a necessity to get to the good stuff (unless you have too much time). So from the Eurotunnel, pick up the A26 and hoof it — it’s a day’s ride to Grenoble, gateway to the Alps, 500 miles south. Kip the night, then the fun really starts. The N85 Route Napoléon climbs rapidly from the town, twisting upward towards snowcapped mountains, then begins a languid sprawl south through small towns and farms. And, as it winds south, the landscape and vegetation shift to a Mediterranean style, from broad-leaved woodland to pine and scrubby undergrowth.
South of the town of Gap, the N85 is shunned because it’s been turned into a stretch of motorway — divert instead through pretty mountains and river valleys — then reconnect in Digne. And now we’re in Provence proper, dodging around limestone outcrops and through canyons. Head for Gorges du Verdon, a stunning rift cutting deep through the heart of the countryside and terminating in the surreal blue Lac de Sainte-croix. The roads are fiendish but fun. Draguignan is a perfect Provençal town and a good place to stop for a second night — you’ll need a rest.
Day three takes us the to the Med, heading first for the bright, colourful old St Tropez, then along the Côte d’azur to Cannes (busy and slow-going but an experience), then head north to Grasse and the sweeping blacktop of the bottom end of the Route Napoléon. Then follow the D6085 meandering back north towards Castellane. From here, you’re within easy striking distance of any number of drop-dead Alpine passes — the D64 and Col de la Bonette are closest. Turning north, the choice is whether to trace your way back along the N85, skirt a more direct route to the west or enjoy more of the Alps to the east — it depends how you want to divide your time up on the return ride. Either way, Grenoble makes a good stopping point before the ride back to Calais the next day.