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2016 Travel Report // Balcony Roads & The Moon, France

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My parents always encouraged me to follow my dreams… One of them discovering new, remote places with intriguing landscapes, going where only few have gone before. This time, I need an aircraft and a mission control center. Take-off in 3, 2, 1… Mama, I am going to the moon!

Well, the mission control center is actually my GPS, and the aircraft a drone. The moon is Mont Ventoux, located in the Provence in France – and it actually looks like it has a rocket on the top too. And to add the idea of flying and roaring through the skies and defying gravity, a handful of some of the most spectacular balcony roads will definitely intensify this trip; the heights are definitely terrifying.

The first of these unbelievable roads can be found at Chambèry, just one hour south of Geneva. At 7AM in the morning, my mission has started and soon the “Gorges du Guiers Vif” is reached. A great taste of what is to come: narrow, winding and unpredictable (and partly bumpy roads), embraced by beautiful scenery – in this case, a narrow gorge with a wild river stream. Via “Gorges de la Bourne” and “Canyon des Ecouges” (including a long, wet, narrow unlit tunnel), “Gorges du Nan” shows up: the first true balcony road, cut out high in the rocks. Looking over the railing makes you realize the depth below you – with only a small stone Leitplank next to you – but only the drone footage shows how insane this road truly is.

The D76 is the road that leads into the Vercors National Park, and the “Cirque de Combe Laval” is often referred to as one of the most spectacular roads in France. The road, soaring above the valley, goes through several tunnels, providing a mighty scenery for photos. Interesting enough, there are barely any people here – besides a few cyclists. I literally need to wait for 15 minutes to be able to take a picture of a fellow motorcycle passing through. This proves that these roads still have a certain magic to them and are relatively unknown to the large public, which is great for us motorcyclists.

The next day, the moon is one of the highlights on the program – but not after enjoying a superb espresso at a little local bar and 2 croissants from the local “boulangerie”, while enjoying viewing the little town coming to life. It is the simple things in life that are enjoyed most… Afterwards, seeing the Mont Ventoux rise in the distance makes me emotional… From down below it is easily recognized and seems mighty with the rocky top. The road up, the D974 from Malaucène, is of great quality and the Triumph Tiger Explorer XC is having a really good time… With the top at 1911 meters, it might not be one of the highest passes; but it certainly is one of the most impressive, with unbelievable views of the Provence. The telecommunication tower on the top adds to the impression of being in outer space, as it looks like a rocket ready to take off.

After soaking up the views, it is only a relatively short ride to the Gorges du Verdon, also called the European Grand Canyon. With depths of up to 700 meters, this canyon is certainly not less impressive than its American alternative. Around its length of 25 kilometers there are several roads around it; the most spectacular being the D23. It offers views of the canyon, and as it is higher than the southern bank, also impressive views of the D71 road, where the sound of revving motorcycle engines carried over the canyon make quite a promise for my later ride there. For now, the D23 qualifies as one of the most beautiful roads of Europe. Dazzling heights, steep drops, fast and slow curves and viewpoints impress everyone. So much, that you need to be aware of car drivers focusing more on pointing their cameras out of the window instead of on the road… The southern location of this easily accessible gorge calls for quite a bit of traffic during the peak hours. But who doesn’t want to experience this impressive canyon, with the roaring river 700 meters down below, and roads so close to the edge of the canyon that it is only a matter of time until erosion takes it away. Beautiful roads always caused me the problem that I need to choose between riding it, or to stop and take pictures. Here I solved that – these roads are simply so beautiful, that you need to ride them at least twice… This is certainly not my last time here.

The next day, the sound of chirping birds wake me. A beautifully located truly authentic French inn / farm, in the middle of nowhere, provided me a stay for the night. But once more, it is time to hit the road early morning. First up is “Route de Gentelly”, approximately 30 km north of Cannes. A relatively short stretch of balcony roads, but completely deserted. It is like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne could come through riding their horses anytime… But the almost 140 horses of the Explorer want to continue, and soon we reach Clue d’Aiglun – but not after having done hundreds (if not thousands) of curves on small backroads, with temperatures reaching 37 degrees Celsius while riding. The small tunnels of Clue d’Aiglun provide some welcome cooling – this balcony road is rather short, but it is on the way to the Clue de Saint Auban – a small gorge with a still in use open-air chapel in the middle of it, which is a strange but interesting sight. Be aware of low availability of gas stations in this area – only at the medieval town of Entrevaux you can fill up again. A Swiss couple there, on their KTM 1190 Adventure, only had 10km left in their tank and actually had to return to fill up.

Via “Gorges de Daluis”, a very fast and large gorge where the road snakes along the canyon bank, we cross a few big mountain passes (Col de le Cayolle, Col de Vars and Col d’Izoard), where only quick reflexes saved the life of quite a few Mürmeltiere. The day ends near Briancon, in an inn called “La Vieille Ecurie” – a truly authentic place run by Richard and Katie. Sure, it is no 5 star hotel – but you won’t find much more hospitality anywhere else. Plus, they have a great little bar, which is always a plus.

The next morning, a breakfast with fresh espresso and warm croissants awaits me in that same bar. Today the day consists of a variety of balcony roads close to Alpe d’Huez: the D211, D219 and the D220. The first one, the D211, is by far the most terrifying road of the entire trip. It makes you realize how lethal one small riding mistake can be, as this little road soars high above the valley in the cliff wall. Leitplanke? Partly completely gone… So nothing separates you from the 200m drop next to you. This road raises everyone’s heartbeat. Again, all the motorcycles must be riding the nearby big mountain passes – as no-one is to be found on this gem. Further up north we find the road to Montvernier; 17 sharp hairpins of which even the Stelviopass would be jealous. In any other country, it would be a bicycle track, that is how small it is…

On the last day, the Col de l’Iseran is crossed. On top, the contrast between winter and summer couldn’t be bigger: people are still skiing here while the engine sounds of many motorcycles are carried through the valleys… But, I have to hit the “go home” button on my navigation and the small and big St. Bernard passes bring me back to Switzerland. During the ride home, I still find myself dreaming about the moon – but we have come as close as we will ever be.

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