Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Into the Mountains

In the days following our return from Santiago, Steven and I took time to reacquaint ourselves with Bijou and restock our empty cabinets and fridge. We had been gone from her longer than we had lived in her, so it took us a little while to get resettled. We made a couple of trips to the nearby stores, but otherwise, we didn't walk anywhere. 

When folks along the Camino learned about our lifestyle, we were often asked, "Where to next?" I would cavalierly reply, "The Alps!" having done little research to see what a trip into the Alps actually entailed. When I finally did sit down to do a little research and planning, I suddenly wished I had more experience with driving Bijou, that I was a little more familiar with, and confident in, her braking system. I wasn't worried about the going up part, it was the coming down that had me a little freaked out. But, I had promised Steven some snow-covered mountains to photograph, so there was no backing out now. 

After a week we were ready to hit the road. Before heading up in the mountains, we first skirted right along the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France. Why not spend a few days laying on the beach, we thought. Here's why not - eleventy jillion people. We rolled into town and there was not a campsite to be found. Well, there were actually two sites, but we didn't fit in either one. We barely fit in on the main roads through the campground. I thought I had taken a wrong turn down an alleyway, but no. We were lucky to get out of there unscathed. Suddenly, lounging on the beach wasn't so appealing. We had to drive an hour further east and inland a bit to find a campsite, but what a lovely spot it was. We stayed three days. We intended to only stay two, but I took a sick day because I was suffering from, of all things, vertigo. My timing on this one wasn't so great, but oh well. 

Navigating roads that were more like foot paths in one of the beach campgrounds.

This is us trying to get out of the beach campground. Needless to say, we didn’t stay.

We wound up here for 3 days. A lot more room and no half-naked tourists parading around :)

Our first stop in the mountains was in Sisteron, a beautiful town that has been inhabited for over 4,000 years. Suffice it to say that in that time there has been a lot of conflict, the town has been, at one time or another, invaded, ravaged, plagued, seiged and bombed by various enemies. We apparently arrived at a good time as it seemed fairly peaceful when we visited. 

We drove to the local train station and parked up in the section specifically designated for motorhomes, called an "aire". This literally translates into "area", but there are a lot of different types of aires. We had a perfect view of the citadel perched on the cliffs overlooking the valley. It was glorious, except for one thing, it was damn hot! We have not had to deal with any sort of heat up to now, so we were not really prepared for it. We decided we needed to buy a fan at our next stop. 

What a great view of the citadel we had at the railway aire in Sisteron.

Steven took his drone up for an epic view of the citadel.

We made it up to the grounds of the citadel the next morning. Amazing views of Sisteron and surrounds.

This was our evening view from our parking spot.

Our next stop was Briancon, whose claim to fame is its designation as the highest city in France, at 4,350 ft. Of course there are a ton more villages higher in the mountains, but "city" is defined as having a population of at least 2,000. We stayed overnight in the city aire, but when a huge thunderous storm rolled in, we decided to forego visiting the town. On our way out the following day, we did stop in to a Bricolage, the French equivalent to Ace Hardware, and bought a little fan. 

Every town and village in the Alps has some kind of nod to the Tour de France.

The roads up through the French Alps are some of the most popular in Europe, shared with motorcycles, bicycles, vintage cars and motorhomes. Nothing makes Bijou lose her momentum like rounding a steep curve and coming up behind a group of cyclists. Passing them on switchbacks can be nearly impossible. Nonetheless, we made it to our destination, the Col du Lautaret. At an elevation of just under 7,000 feet, we settled in to what has to be one of the most gorgeous places we have ever boondocked. 

Breathtaking views on the way to Col du Lautaret.

Sharing the road with many cyclists.

Granite peaks towered above us, some bare, others dotted with patches of snow. Mountain streams tumbled down through the lush green pastures. The fields were littered with glacial erratics, boulders of every size and shape spit out by the retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. About the only thing that could make this scene more idyllic would be the sound of cowbells and sheep baa-baaing and, ... oh, hang on, what's this? We stood with our fellow motorhomers, mouths agape, and watched huge trucks arrive one after the other and offload their grass-munching cargo. Hundreds of sheep were sent off to graze, helped along by a donkey, a few goats, a couple of sheepdogs and a modern day shepherd complete with a crook and a cell phone. The sound of bells clanging through the hills was lovely. 

Our boondocking spot at the Col du Lautaret.

That little grassy hill behind me on the right was the only place we could get a connection, we called it “3G Hill”.

Hundreds of sheep arrived one day. It was quite the sight to see!

Steven got up close and personal with his new friends.

We went on a beautiful hike to nearby Glacier du Lautaret.


Selfie by Glacier du Lautaret.

Bijou right at home in the mountain wilderness.

So much epic beauty to photograph!

The Col du Lautaret is not a village, per se, and offers no motorhome-specific services. There are a few shops and a couple of restaurants where cyclists and day trippers stop in for a meal. That is just the kind of place we love, a place where the food is tasty, the wine is chilled and the people-watching is excellent. We went on a fabulous hike to a nearby glacier view then rewarded ourselves with lunch. The temperatures were in the high 60s, low 70s, just perfect for me. Then, just like that, it all came to a screeching halt. It was time to dump the toilet cassette and find some fresh water. Sigh. These little European motorhomes are not made for long-term boondocking. Oh how I miss Scoopy's 40 gallon black tank and 100 gallons of fresh water! I keep telling Steven at the very least we should look into installing a composting toilet. In any case, it was time to go.

Steven happily awaits his wine order after the glacier hike.

From the Col du Lautaret we headed up, up, up, nearly 1,600 feet to the Col du Galibier at 8,668 feet. Just before reaching the top there was a one-way tunnel controlled by a traffic light, and a right hand turn that continued up. I didn't realize at the time that I actually had a choice, that both routes took us to the same place. The difference was that the tunnel went through the mountain and the right turn went OVER it. Had I known that I most certainly would not have made that turn! We climbed all the way to the top, got the photograph and started down. A group of motorcyclists came around a corner and one guy pointed right at me and then tapped the side of his helmet. Yeah, I know. Thanks for the encouragement. 

Marmot darted all across the roads, they were everywhere!

Despite the challenge to get to the top, the views made it worth the climb.

This is the part I dreaded, the downhill.

In between death grips on the steering wheel.

This road is shared with traffic coming up the other way, as well as motorcycles and bicycles.

Getting off that mountain was a bit of a butt-clencher, but we eventually got down, mostly in first or second gear. We only had to stop a couple of times to let Bijou's brakes cool off. I envisioned us flying down uncontrollably, possibly on fire, so when that didn't happen I relaxed a little. Still, I wasn't ready to do it again right away, so we headed to Albertville for a couple of nights. But I knew we had more passes to get over to reached our ultimate destination, a ski resort near Passy, France. If the weather held, we'd get an unbelievable view of the spectacular Mont Blanc. I took a quick peek at weather dot com and holy crap, a monster heatwave was on the way.  

Old town Albertville.


Amazing views of Albertville from the old town.

Up next...Heatwave!