Alps 2013, 6/05, Gorge Loop

I've snow-camped in the Rockies, but I don't think I've ever had a colder night than I did last night. No need to bother learning how the heater works, right? We're in Southern France and it's practically summer! Big mistake. I don't know what the temperature got down to but I spent the night shivering, even under multiple blankets and fully dressed. First order of business in the morning was firing up the heater and thawing out.

The campsite offers a reasonably-priced breakfast, but we weren't told we needed to order the night before. We placed our order for tomorrow and walked into town to see what we could find. There was a market being set up in the town square with a few dozen vendors offering cheese, bread, spices, meats and other small items. We snacked a bit and found a little cafe for coffee/tea/OJ/bread/croissants.

I had the creepiest experience the previous night. While walking past the gate below, I SWORE I saw a child's hand reaching out from where the space next to the blue panel is. As we got closer to the gate the hand disappeared. The creepy part was that the place looked pretty much uninhabited. We never saw or heard anyone behind the gates. It became a running joke over the next few days since we had to pass the gate on our way to/from town.

Creepy gate

Early morning market


That's a lot of cheese

Peter makes a purchase from the Nougatier

Peter had laid out the route for today and fortunately there were no closed passes on it so there was no last-minute rerouting and recalculating. D952 took us west towards Gorges du Verdon,, known as the "Grand Canyon of Europe". That may be overstating it, but the canyon/gorge was very beautiful. The road on the north side of the canyon hung to the canyon wall in a lot of parts, but was pretty busy with tourists and poorly paved. More of a sightseeing rouad than a "get your groove on" road, which was OK this early in the morning.

D23 starting heading south via a series of switchbacks, rising higher and higher all the time. Near the highest point there was an incredible overlook where we stopped for a while. It was a popular spot for birders as there were several folks watching the vultures soaring above and below us. A couple we were talking to for a bit said the vultures were brought in from Spain to repopulate the area.

Leaving that overlook the road continued with hairpins seperated by long straights. There was a great moment coming around a right-hander where the road appeared to be on the edge of the world - the vastness of the gorge was just on the other side of the road, below our sightlines. One second you were negotiating a hairpin with bushes/scrub/trees on both sides, and then there was just...nothing on the outside edge of the road but sky. A definite "whoa" moment.

The road heading into Gorges du Verdon

The view into the gorge was just stunning

Peter, me and Dave at Gorges du Verdon

Lots of vultures(?) flying above and below us at one of the overlooks

Peter waiting for us to get done taking pictures

After the "whoa" hairpin the road stayed on the cliffside and offered views across the gorge to the road we'd be riding later in the day. Pretty soon we left the canyon and started to head west to Sisteron. What may have looked good on the map (or google) was in reality a long tedious slog through bland countryside and crowded towns bustling with tourists. One town had a farmer's market set up in the main square and looked like a good place to grab a cheap lunch. Dave and I were ready for a break but Peter persuaded us that it was a long way to go yet to Sisteron and we should keep riding.

iPhone pano of canyon hairpins

Dave riding Gorges du Verdon. Across the canyon you can see the road we'll be on later in the day.

Looking across the gorge to some cool tunnels we'll be riding through many hours later.


We eventually got to Saint-Etienne-les-Orgues to pick up the road to Pas de la Graille (D113/D53) where Dave and I called mutiny and insisted we eat. We parked by a little food truck, but he was closing up for the day. It took a bit to find this out since he spoke no English and we spoke no French. On previous trips the language barrier had been pretty much non-existant, but in rural France we did have a few instances where it all came down to hand gestures. We bought a couple Cokes, and while we sat there drinking I think he took pity on us and brought us over an order of (delicious) French Fries (in France!). Not quite as good as Belgian frittes, but close.

After that small lunch (one order of fries divided 3 ways) we rode out of town to find the pass we needed was ...wait for it...closed.

Looks like a good place for a cheap lunch

Closing up

Pity fries!

At least this time the pass wasn't closed because of snow - construction barred our way. Following the "Deviation" sign seemed like it would be a simple affair, but after riding around for 10 minutes and a lot of GPS poking it became clear we wouldn't find our way to the pass. We instead starting heading east to Sisteron on more uninteresting roads. After spending too long not getting too far we abandonded the Sisteron plan and plotted a direct course back to the gorge area. Yet more tedious boring roads through built-up areas did not help make the day any better. I think at this point we'd spent 2 hours having a good ride on the north side of the gorge, and 4 hours bumbling around riding hither and yon and seeing nothing. Sometimes things look better on the map than in person. One segment on the ride back was over a barely-one-lane-wide goat path where we saw no other vehicles, and that was at least scenic and kind of interesting. Slow going though.

At the town of Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon we picked up a road that took us to the west end of Lake Sainte-Croix, then across the dam holding back the lake and finally to the south side of the gorge. It rained on us for a few minutes but nothing serious. The south side gorge road was even better than the north road from this morning. Less traffic, very nice pavement and fantastic views of the gorge around every turn.

One-lane goat path was the only highlight of the non-gorge section of the day

The town of Bauduen

Across the gorge is the road from the morning ride

Cool road crew job

Looking back on the road on the south side of the gorge

The gorge is truly spectacular

iPhone panorama

"Caption this" photo

South side gorge road

We stopped for a bit when the road starting getting away from the gorge near the eastern end of things. We picked our way through some scrub and took some shots from the rim, then I rode ahead to try to get some action shots of the guys. The road immediately past our stopping point was on a plateau so had very little elevation changes. Mostly it was long straights (.5-1km or so), a turn, then another long straight. There were just low bushes on either side of the road so visibility was nearly limitless. I quickly put a lot of distance between myself and the guys. I was trying to find a good corner for action shots but that eluded me for many miles.

Eventually the road started turning north towards the rim again, and the low bushes gave way to rocky outcroppings and the long straights disappeared. This section of the road was fairly twisty, narrow and perfectly paved. It was difficult to call a stop to the riding fun to set up for photos.

Twisty section on south rim of gorge


Peter approaches

After I got some shots of the guys the road continued to twist and turn along the canyon wall until finally it opened up and we came to a beautiful bridge spanning the gorge. There was another great section of fast twisty road, but I can't recall which side of the bridge it was on. I do rememeber that each of us doubled-back for a bit to score a re-ride.

Eventually we picked up the same road into town that we took in the morning and made our way back to Castellane. It had been a very long day, and we were starving by the time we walked into town (breakfast having been some bread and lunch was 1/3 an order of fries). We were too tired to shop around so went back to the same restaurant as the night before - even had the same waittress.

Pretty bridge over the gorge

Peter's impressed

Peter cruising one of the corners on the north side of the bridge

Beautiful view coming into a town - hard to see from this shot but there's a castle on the right side, just at the ridgeline

Walking into town

Gorgeous Moto Morini Gran Passo

Our regular dinner spot

The 12 or 18 euro dinner options were pretty decent

The owner sent us over a 'digestive' after dinner

Overall the day was a mixed bag. It started out and finished great with rides around the gorge, but the bulk of the day was spent on uninteresting roads trying to get other places. In the ride planning stages of the trip we had all talked about our expectations for how much riding we would want to do in a day. While this day may have fell within those parameters I felt that we had overdone it. I'm sure not having a GPS, or indeed any idea where we were or where we were going, didn't help my feeling that the day was just dragging on and on. Maybe I was just spoiled by the Dolomites and Andermatt riding areas which are compact with tons of great riding in all directions. Overall I can't complain too much - we were riding motorcycles in Europe after all.