It had been over a year in the planning but as the plane circled over the Côte d’Azur (the Azure Coast) in the South of France, the day had finally arrived. Europe by Motorbike – Touring the Alps
There are eight people in our group, so we grab two taxi’s from arrivals and take the 30min trip into Nice. We head along the Promenade des Anglais that runs the length of the foreshore from the airport into town. Here the red tile roof tops of 19th Century Villa’s meet the crystal blue Mediterranean in a harmonious mix of nature & architecture. No wonder this has been the playground of the rich and famous for over 100 years!
Day 1: On the Road
We pick up the bikes and hit the road. I’m riding a new BMW F850GS, the others are on a mix of BMW’s and Ducati Multistrada 950’s. These are perfect for mountain riding on secondary roads (and the occasional goat track!). The weather is perfect as we wind our way along the coast towards our first stop in Monaco. Breath-taking scenery along the coastal route as we pass through a number of ancient villages.
The Principality of Monaco has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297 and is the second smallest country in the world at just over 2km².
Traffic is heavy on the winding “Route de la Moyenne Corniche” as we descend into the town centre. They are just cleaning up from the recent Grand Prix. We park the bikes and wander through the pit lane and around the marina – some serious money here!
Back on the bikes. We put Monaco behind us as we make our way to the Italian border. The Italian Riviera is quite a contrast to the French coast we have just left. The route provides some stunning views along the coast but the constant stop/start for pedestrian crossings wears thin. We take a break and decide to hit the motorway for 30km to get into the mountains a bit faster.
After the crawl along the coast, It’s nice to open the bikes up and we make our turnoff to Tiorano in no time.
The Giogo di Toirano is a spectacular mountain pass, perfect to get a good feel for the bikes. At 15.2km long it ascends 750m through some breath-taking scenery. From here we take a mix of back roads that lead us to tonight’s accommodation in Acqui Terme.
We ride along some old cobble stone streets to arrive at tonight’s accommodation – a 17th century seminary. This place is amazing with high ceilings, long corridors and rooms that look out over the courtyard and the red tiled roves of the old town. Obviously looking tired & thirsty, the owners set up a fresh keg of local beer for us in the courtyard. A perfect way to unwind and chat about our day on the bikes.
Full of history, Acqui Terme was settled by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and is famous for its therapeutic hot springs. The ruins of the roman baths and aqueduct can still be seen. Just a walk around the center will reward the visitor with a variety of architecture styles spanning 2000 years.
We head out for dinner at the Nuovo Parisio, a local restaurant based in an old cellar. This is Italian cooking and hospitality at its best! Local wines paired with fresh local produce, cooked to perfection! After dinner, the host comes out and sits at our table with a bottle of local grappa – very smooth!
Day 2: Heading into the Alps
Waking up to the smell of fresh brewed coffee is one of my best memories of Italy. After a brief of the days ride ahead, we saddle up and hit the road. We take the back road out of Acqui Terme which winds through vineyards and small villages. Here we get our first distant glimpse of the snow-capped Alps. Our route takes us through some medieval villages (at some points along narrow cobblestone alleys) and across the flat open expanse between Turin & Milan. Good open road with rice paddy’s on both sides, we travel on to Biella at the foot of the Alps.
Taking a right turn at Biella, we head towards tonight’s accommodation in Domodossola. As we have made good time, we detour onto a smaller road higher up in the mountains. These roads are perfect for bikes. Good surface, limited traffic and some of the most stunning scenery! The last leg into Domodossola follows the river valley, good highway with towering peaks on both sides.
We arrive at our accommodation in the old centre, lock up the bikes and settle in. The town is quite large with a stack of good restaurants, bars and cafe’s. We all meet up at the nearby Piazza Mercato to enjoy a cold beer and go over the days ride.
The Piazza is one of my favourite spots in the old town. Surrounded by 14th century bourgeois buildings graced with ornamental balconies and stone roof-tops hewn from mountain rock. A short walk from the Piazza is the Motta district. Some of the medieval buildings here have their original “larch wood” balconies.
One of my favourite traditions in this region is the Aperitivo. Italians gather at their favourite café or bar at the end of the work day to enjoy a drink (traditionally Vermouth) served with a small plate of snacks. The snacks keep coming as long as you are drinking. The type of snack varies from one place to another but usually consist of either cheeses and cured meats, quiches, pizzas and even small plates of pasta. It is said the Aperitivo prepares your stomach for dinner (but not to replace it) so take care!
Day 3: Loop through Switzerland
Today we do a complete loop of the Alps. As we return to Domodossola tonight we leave the panniers and other excess weight behind. We take a back road out of town. The road slowly climbs upwards, hugging the contours of the Alps.
We cross the border into Switzerland at a picturesque border town called Borgnone. The road immediately improves on the Swiss side so we can put the bikes through their paces. Riding through Switzerland is just how you would expect it to be. Picture postcard scenery, plenty of twists and turns with villages that look like they’re straight out of a movie set. We stop for lunch at one such village then turn West onto the best section of the loop.
Our route takes us via the Furka pass, scene of the car chase from the 1964 James Bond film “Goldfinger”. Its certainly impressive at 2,429m above sea level. We take a break at the pass and a few adventurers take the short (but steep) path to the Ice Grotto under the Rhone Glacier. Next is the Oberalp pass at 2,100 m (the source of the Rhine) and back to Italy via the Simplon Pass. This route was built by Napoleon’s army to facilitate artillery movement into Italy and it has lost none of its impact.
We arrive back in Domodossola, just in time for beer and “Aperitivo” in the Piazza.
Day 4: Into France
Pack up the bikes, hook on the panniers and take the morning run back over the Simplon pass. The landscape in the morning light is incredible – vivid blue sky, green spring pastures and blinding white snow drifts.
Left turn at Brig then highway riding until we turn off on the mountain “short-cut” to Chamonix in France. Our route follows the Alps on the French side passing some classic peaks such as Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses and Mont Thabor. Beautiful landscape with forests of chestnut, mountain ash, birch and oak, interspersed with picturesque mountain villages. The bikes are performing well and everyone is really getting into the alpine roads. I’m pretty happy with the performance of the F850, it seems to have more grip and control at the front since BMW shifted the tank back on top. My only negative is that it lacks the punch of the Ducati (and the throaty growl).
Our days ride ends in Grenoble, one of the largest towns we stop in. The hotel is close to the center with a carpark and garden at the rear. The owner recognises us and brings a couple of ice buckets filled with much appreciated cold beer.
Grenoble is a bustling French city situated on the confluence of the Isère and Le Druc rivers. Once a small Gallic village with a bridge over the Isère river, it was incorporated into the Roman empire in the 4th century. The town has something for everyone – plenty of parklands, historic old center, cable car to the 17th century Bastille overlooking the city or just wander the streets of the shopping precinct.
Day 5: Road to Provence
The next section of our route is one of the most spectacular of the whole trip. Jagged mountain peaks on both sides of the road. Sweeping bends, well banked corners and good line of sight means we can really open the bikes up. We stop for a break in one of the postcard-esque villages that punctuate the landscape. Local producers line the central square selling home-made cheese, locally cured meats, wine and the quintessential baguette – lunch is sorted!
We follow the French-Italian border near the peak of this section of alps then turn South towards Provence, one of my favourite regions. Snow and glaciers give way to lakes and pastures, the rugged peaks replaced by the sculptured Karst Limestone of the region. Eventually we make our way into tonight’s stop – Digne les Bains, nestled in the foothills.
Digne les Bains
I stumbled across Digne during one of my first trips to the region. Five trains a day make the round trip from Nice on what is one of France’s most scenic rail journeys. With three days to spare, I jumped on the train and was instantly hooked on this part of France.
Located on the fertile junction of three rivers, (the Bléone, the Mardaric, and the Eaux-Chaudes), Digne was ideal for human settlement, the first traces of which date back to the Neolithic period (4000-10,000BC). Annexed by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it became an important commercial center and later attracted pilgrims due to the reputed healing powers of the local thermal springs. During the middle ages, the town was fortified around the chateau that sits atop the highest rocky point in the village. Walking through these narrow alleys and lanes today you realise not much has changed in the succeeding 800 years.
Trivia: Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” begins in Digne
Day 6: Heading back to the coast.
The route back to Nice winds its way slowly out of the mountains. We pass through Medieval fortress towns that still function largely as they have done for centuries. We detour through the village of Moustiers, said to be the “most beautiful village in France”, it doesn’t disappoint!
A walk through the medieval fortress town of Entrevaux led us to discover a motorbike museum buried in the cellar of a rustic villa. Bikes stacked from floor to ceiling, some of which I had not even heard of!
Back on the road, we pass through the “gorges du verdon” then follow the winding Var valley all the way to the coast. This is the first heavy traffic we have encountered since we left & everyone is keen to park the bikes up. Our accommodation for the next three nights is in a villa within the old town which means we have to carry the panniers. In no time we have put our gear away and are enjoying a well earned beer on the Place Rosotti.
Its easy to see why this is the playground of the rich and famous. With evidence of habitation stretching back 400,000 years, it’s the perfect meeting of Mediterranean and Mountain. Although the beaches are “shingled” (large pebbles), the water is crystal clear and a perfect temperature this time of the year. Great place to grab a sun bed, lay back and have drinks delivered until the early evening. The city proper has something for everyone, from designer fashion stores to underground blues and jazz bars.
Don’t Miss: Fresh Gelato from Fenocchio on the Place Rossetti, tasting some of the traditional Nice dishes, shop for wine at Les Grandes Caves Caprioglio, wander the harbour and awe at some of the floating palaces.
Day 7: Col de Tende
Today is the last day on the bikes. We plan to do a loop through the Maritime Alps, crossing over to Italy via the Col to Tende. The pass itself (elev. 1860m) was first developed by the Phoenicians and later utilised by the Greeks and Romans. Our route to Tende has around 47 hairpin bends, spectacular scenery (especially through the Mercantour National Park) and some unique middle age villages. We stop for lunch in Tende then walk through the medieval alley-ways. This is a town where time has stood still. Evidence of its violent past is present in the ruins of the citadel above the old town. The architecture is undeniably Italian but the vibe is French. In fact towns people speak an old Ligurian dialect as well as their native French.
Back on the bikes, we push on over the pass and into Italy. The country opens up as we pass through Borgo San Dalmazzo, Cuneo then join the A6 motorway towards Savona on the Italian coast. Two hours later, we arrive back in Nice and drop the bikes off. Perfect timing to head down to the esplanade for a beer and watch the afternoon crowd. Another great ride done and dusted!