The Grand Alps Part Two

Graeme, Johnny England and I come to the end of the Route des Grandes Alpes in Nice, where we turn left and ride into Italy, camping for the night at an extremely crowded and cramped campground that has no grass whatsoever as far as I can tell. The ground beneath out tents is covered in a mesh-like material that, while likely intended to make staking the tents easier, proves quite difficult to penetrate with our small flimsy pegs (included with the tent, they’ve done the job so far but after half of them are bent and smashed by the rock John uses to anchor them, he regrets having left behind the larger, sturdier ones he bought separately last time.) It’s dark and late after we get settled and the nearby restaurants are closed, so we make do with cheese sandwiches from the on-site snack bar, generously offered to us and prepared by a shy girl who could pass for 14 or 15 (and may well be), and cold draft beer. Her English, though broken and elementary, is better than our Italian (nonexistent) and we are grateful to her not just for the meal but for the way she, like the French, trusts us both to pay the bill whenever we get around to it (any time before we check out the next day) and to volunteer an itemized account of our consumption.

The next day we ride east back to France and spend a few hours in the very charming border town of Menton which it was too dark to really see the night before. There is a soft pastel theme to the color of the buildings and we notice elaborately painted borders around many windows, giving the illusion from a distance of shutters and railings. I’ve never seen this done before and wonder why, in the land of shutters and balconies that France is, they would bother with this deception, artistic though it may be. We ride up into the hills where I spot a wild boar running into the bushes and the view, when we can find a place to safely pull over on the windy narrow roads, is lovely. When we ride back down we walk around the town before walking across the main road to a stretch of rocky beach and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, no longer warm from summer’s heat but tolerable, at least for a few minutes, to a wimp like me. 63A90F97-D1F0-469B-AEE6-D4B39B48D37F

After lunch we head back into the mountains and begin our return to England, which entails some new roads and some backtracking, although scenery from the bikes appears different when viewed from the opposite direction. We don’t find a campground until dusk, and it is gated. Coincidentally a man comes walking along behind us and using a key card opens the gate, explaining as he does so that we’ll need to speak into the intercom next to the gate to be helped if we want to check in. John pulls the bike up to the intercom facing down the driveway, and I press a button. When a voice finally asks “Oui?”, I offer my usual recitation (“We are three people, two motorcycles and two tents, is there one place we can share for tonight?”) to be told it is too late, reception is closed. “We have to go in to turn the bike around,” John says, and I begin to convey this in French to the box but stop talking when I can’t come up with the word for gate. “Laissez le…” John either assumes I’m finished or he’s too tired to care because he takes off down the driveway and Graeme follows. We get to the bottom of the hill, turn the bikes around, and start up again. The gate has closed.

In a matter of 30 seconds we have ascertained that there are two tents up, several vacant spaces, and a row of dark RVs around the outside. The man who let us in with his key card is standing in front of one of the tents so I approach him and ask his take on the situation. He tells me what he paid (€9) and suggests we stay and square up in the morning. He points in the general direction of the bathroom. I walk up the driveway toward the reception office on one side and a large house on the other, on the off chance a campground staff member has materialized, but both buildings are dark and shut up. A big black dog with a muzzle on is resting in front of the office. His legs are crossed in front of him and he lifts his head as I approach, then cocks it to one side. Poor thing, I think, having to wear a muzzle. Probably a barker.

We set the tents up quickly and not for the first time, in the dark. We’re hungry by now, and think about riding back into the town a couple miles down the road for something to eat, but realize we have no way to open and close the front gate. We decide I’ll ask the man who let us in. I walk over to his tent but he is no longer sitting outside it like he was before. I walk up to the tent and say, “Allo? Excuses-moi.” Silence. I listen for rustling or snoring sounds, and hearing none, repeat my query. Nothing. I do the same thing to the other tent, which is equally devoid of any sign of life. I return to John and Graeme. “Maybe we can just walk somewhere close by,“ I suggest. That’s when we explore the campground for the first time and realize that the entire place is surrounded by an 8-10 foot high barbed wire fence, with an even higher rock wall in the corner closest to the main road. The RVs along the perimeter and a few scattered trailers near the bathroom are all vacant. The odd piece of dry laundry, pegged to clothesline hung between a tree and a trailer awning, flutters in the breeze, as if the occupants left in a hurry and only took what mattered most.

On the far side of the campground parallel to the main road we stop and gaze longingly up at a small food truck parked in the lay-by. It has “pizza” written on the side and we can see its lone occupant, a woman, busy preparing food. We can hear faint music. I call up to her but my voice is lost in transit, and eventually I give up. “Where’s John?” I ask Graeme. He’d been standing beside me only a moment ago. Graeme points to the far end of the property and the high white wall. I squint, and can just make out John’s figure scrambling up it. “Jesus!” I say. Seconds later he’s standing next to the pizza truck. He walks to the edge of the grass and peers down at us. He says something but we can’t make it out, so he ambles down the hill and stops above the wire fence, grinning. “What’ll it be?” We each want something different but we compromise and pick one pizza to share. “And beer,” adds Graeme. John climbs back up the hill, goes over to the truck, and begins the transaction, but moments later he’s back. “I’ve got no more euros,” he says. “I’ve got some,” I tell him, and throw him my wallet. With the light from his phone he digs through it, only to discover that I too am out. Graeme returns to his tent to see what he can scrounge up, but returns empty handed. By now the woman working the truck has ambled over, curious. She calls down in French, asking if she should make the pizza. I explain to her that we’ve just realized we have no cash. She looks at me, then Graeme standing next to me, then finally at John. “Between three of you, you have no money?” Her tone carries disbelief but no judgement, and we all sort of shrug our shoulders sheepishly. In the darkness I can feel myself blush. There is a moment of silence during which I accept that we will go to bed hungry and acknowledge that it won’t hurt any of us to do so. Then she herself shrugs and asks how much our order will cost. John quickly calculates the total for a large pizza and 3 beers and tells me, then I tell her. “Twenty euros.” She says we can get the money from the ATM in town in the morning, and leave it in her truck, which she leaves parked on the premises overnight. I gush out my gratitude for her kindness, to which she replies, “Nous ne sommes pas sauvages, n’est pas?”

It feels like hours later when John finally hands the pizza over to me up by the front gate then returns to the wall by the road and climbs down. I tell him how impressed I am by how casually and skillfully he scaled the wall. (Secretly I’m turned on by it, but keep this fact to myself.) The pizza is delicious, with a thin crust, tender pieces of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, carmelized onions and real cream in the sauce. We scarf it down in minutes.

The next morning, though it’s easily 9:00 when we get up, the campground feels even more like a ghost town/prison yard than it did the night before. The two tents are still there but they have no occupants, and both the office and the house by the gate remain closed. The only living presence we encounter is the dog, whose muzzle has mysteriously disappeared, skulking around the grounds like a soldier doing a perimeter check. We begin to wonder how we are going to get out. Finally one of us spots an open door of an RV and I approach it to find a man sitting inside listening to his radio. I explain that we can’t get out and after a bit of back and forth, he agrees to call the owner for us. I assume this means that a campground staff member will physically show up and go through the process of registering us, taking payment, etc. Instead, the owner informs the man that it will cost us €21 euros for our site, and instructs him to collect the sum then use his key card to let us out. I explain that we have no cash, which once again inspires disbelief, then amusement; finally the man agrees to let John and Graeme leave to get money from the ATM while I stay put as collateral. He then tells me to come back and get him when they return.

While they’re gone I charge my phone in the bathroom and gather up the last of my things. On my way to and from the bathroom I encounter the dog, who has, for reasons known only to him, taken a sudden and fairly dramatic turn in the direction of distinctly unfriendly. He snaps at my ankles. He growls. He barks briefly before growling again. “It’s okay,” I say as calmly as I can manage, and perhaps a tad indignantly. (After all, one, I’m an animal lover – can’t he smell that or something? and two, minding my own business.) “I’m not going to hurt you.” As if. I look around for something with which to defend myself and see neither a rock nor a stick, bearing in mind that, except for the man inside his RV with his radio on, I’m completely alone in the “prison camp” as we’ve come to call it. I’ll have to kick the dog if it comes to that, or possibly shove my cell phone charger in his open mouth should he leap through the air, fangs bared, going for my throat. Fortunately he gets bored with scaring me and wanders off and I’m able to return to the road where I wait halfway between the gate and the RV, close enough to hear the bikes but far enough away from Dog Vicious. Finally the guys return, we pay the man and leave money in the food truck for last night’s dinner, and we are on our way.

We spend the next two days and nights on Lac de Castillon, camped at the Camping du Lac campground in Saint Julien du Verdun which has closed for the season. There is a barricade at the entrance but it’s our good fortune that it is only wide enough to keep out full sized vehicles. We can just squeeze through on the bikes. There is evidence that the campground has only just closed – there is still hot water, for example, and toilet paper, as well as one or two trash bins that contain plastic bags as well as a bit of rubbish. We set up our tents behind the only outbuilding present on the “green” (which is actually brown) to lessen the chances of a village resident spying our presence and reporting it. Honestly, I can’t imagine they would care, or why, but we are determined to remain unnoticed as much and as often as possible when we are “wild” camping. Then we hurry to take showers while they are still hot, convinced it’s just a matter of time before they run cold. As it happens, we have hot water for the duration of our stay. We ride around the deep, turquoise lake and over to the Gorges du Verdun, with knockout roads and views that we can’t believe, again, we’ve stumbled upon. BE8453DD-1805-4921-A272-F756B7024B5A

We ride northwest and spend three nights, the longest period of time at one place yet, in Laragne-Monteglin. We choose this place because John has good memories of hang gliding here more than a decade ago. We stay so long because Graeme is having mechanical problems and needs time to fix his bike. From here we’ll need to ride with purpose to get to England by September 12, when both John and Graeme need to be back. We ride around till John sees a road that looks familiar, which we follow to the campground where he stayed all those years ago. We check in, but even before we pick our site we see hang gliding in progress at varying stages, and John stops to chat with an older man with a small caravan and a hang glider out front. He turns out to be a retired NASA engineer from Florida named Don, who now spends winters in Florida and the rest of his time hang gliding around southern Europe for the most part. While Graeme works on his bike, John shows me where he used to take off and land, and we do a bit of exploring around the area.  840B4111-FC9D-4EFB-BF9B-DEA7A5E43B49

Before we leave Don invites us to join him hang gliding in Spain in October; it would mean collecting John’s car and glider and borrowing Graeme’s trailer to tow the bike. John is sorely tempted, I can tell, missing those years when he practically lived in the sky weekends and holidays. He hems and haws though, reluctant to commit or refuse. For my part, I’d definitely be interested in giving it a try. As we get on the bike Don hands John his card, then waves at me. “You come down to Florida next time you’re in the states and I’ll take you for a flight,” he says. “Guaranteed.” I thank him, and say I will.


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