Friday, June 22, 2012

Whose idea was this?

I left the Antibes on Thursday, on yet another bright morning, to make my way North. I had researched some pretty campsites between there and my next fixed destination in Switzerland and plugged it into the old GPS.

A very, uh, 'interesting' route

The first hour of the journey was as easy as you might expect... we started on motorways and then took pleasant roads around pretty villages and landscapes, enjoying some shade along the way. There weren't many petrol stations to be found so we grabbed the opportunity around lunchtime, then pulled over in a leafy layby by the river for lunch.

Surrounded by waterfalls and mating beavers
As soon as we set off again I was glad we'd had the break... although much of our journey had been uphill already, the path ahead was getting steadily steeper and windier. But traffic was low and I figured it couldn't get much worse.

I figured wrong.

As the engine roared in first gear up steep hairpin bends, I thought "Holy altitude sickness, SatNav, where are you taking us?". There were insanely steep and high cliffs on the side of narrow roads, a noteable thinning of the air and snow. Real snow this time - actual frozen water precipitation snow.

On two separate occasions we stalled on a steep bend... each time I calmly applied the handbreak, restarted the engine and revved like hell to pull us up. Finally I grabbed an opportunity to pull over and take in the breathtaking views of the Alps.

How the hell did we get up here?
I returned to Cecil and stroked his dashboard gently, reassuring him that we were almost there - just 28km from our destination and as far as I could tell already at the highest point in the mountain range. Cecil quietly started but refused to rev. There was a moment of panic - we're on a mountain. No phone signal, no internet - what if we can't get down again? But it was just the weird angle we'd managed to park at - a little push in the right direction and he was back to roaring like the little trooper we know him to be.

Sure enough, the peak was just ahead and only a relatively gentle incline from where we were. The road began to slope downwards and Cecil gratefully rumbled his way down the same kinds of hairpins that had terrified us so much on the way up. We passed this sign on as we went:

2,802 metres high (that's 9,193 feet to you and me)
The highest road in Europe*. Holy. Shit. If there's one vehicle that doesn't belong on the highest road in Europe, it's a 40-yr-old campervan packed full of life posessions. But no matter - we'd done it. We cheerfully waved to smiling hikers and bikers and descended into Barcelonnette and to a campsite that was ready and waiting.


Barcelonette is an odd little town - it's set in a 'valley' that's still 1,000 metres above sea level, so it has absolutely stunning views all around with giant fir trees and towering rocky outcrops framing a frosty blue sky. For the last few hundred years, its main trade has been with Mexico and there are signs of it everywhere - from the Mexican flag on the town's welcome sign to the plethora of South American clothing and food available to buy. And is it pure coincidence that there is a higher density of moustachioed gentlemen here than I've previously witnessed elsewhere? Hmm.

I parked Cecil in the campsite and took a walk along the river into town. There was a live music event in the main square, so I pinched a seat in one of the cafes and had drinks and snacks brought to me while I enjoyed the entertainment. There was an intesting set by a young Stomp-style band, who played percussion pieces using things like suitcases and oil drums. They did insist on using a different set of instruments for each track which made for some slightly tedious pauses but I didn't mind - it was just more opportunity for ordering beer.

Teenagers banging on things
Well this is only a brief stop - we need to continue North. One thing's for sure, we ain't going back the way we came!

* I looked it up on Wikipedia - there are two roads in Europe that are slightly higher but they're both dead ends. So I guess it's the highest through road.


  1. Wow. Just Wow. You are one plucky VW Cecil! Well done.

  2. Oh wow! I sky dove at 12,000ft!!!