…a focus on Rhône-Alpes
The Rhône-Alpes is a region of France that has a long history, but is no longer an official administrative region. Even so, it is frequently shown on road maps, and nobody who lives here will be confused if you continue with the name.
The region is surrounded by Switzerland, Burgundy, Auvergne, Côte d'Azur and Piedmont (Italy).
An argument could be made that the Rhône-Alpes is perhaps the most beautiful area of Europe (or at least should be on the short list). There are massive mountains on the east (the Alps) and smaller mountains on the west (the Massif Central) with a section of rolling hills through the center (the Rhône Valley). You could throw a dart at a map and be certain of hitting a really great road.
I've been through here on ten separate trips. While I've widely covered the region as a whole, I've really only touched on what the Rhône-Alpes offers.
As with the other surveys of roads that I've done, this one is organized by the road number, listed in numeric order. It's a system that will have you jumping around without much sense, but you'll at least get a sense of the place.
In France, the route numbers--along with the color of the sign--tells you the type of road you're on. You'll find a similar system across Europe, although the colors and numbering system may differ between countries.
Departmental as well as “C” communal, but you'll not often find the “C” roads with any signs at all. The “D” roads are the roads you'll mostly be using. All the others are best used only to bypass larger cities or to make time. A problem arises when department borders do not match the regional borders, which means you'll find the same road number used more than once.
National. These predate the AutoRoute, but are frequently more crowded and are often full four-lane highways (with the added annoyance of cross streets and a broad mix of slow and fast vehicles). They do not have tolls (which explains the crowds).
AutoRoute. These are often tollways and are almost always well-maintained super-highways that are comparable to the best freeways in the U.S. They're fast, but they're not enjoyable. You won't find any of these, below.
European. These will be dual-marked with an AutoRoute, but will cross borders and maintain the same “E” number. These are the closest thing to the Interstate system in the U.S.
It's worth noting that Michelin Maps use the same color system that you'll see on the actual road signs (notice the legend, below).
Prieuré de Saint-Romain-le-Puy (10th century). I understand that the town once reached the monastery at the top, but it's now much smaller and people prefer to live on flatter land.
Turning the hay so it can dry in the sun. The task is the same, all over the world, but it's interesting how different the equipment can be.
La Loire at Retournac.
A boy and his goat...
Pont-de-Labeaume, on the right bank of the Ardèche River.
Thueyts, France and a spectacular narrow valley to ride through.
Romans-sur-Isère. You'll see quite a few 19th century rail bridges of this sort.
This must be extraordinarily difficult terrain to build a road through. It therefore follows that there must be a very good reason to try: mines, in this case.
The Rhône River. Consider this the final extent of the Alps, but plenty of hills remain to the west.
Those are the Alps in the Distance. It gives you an appreciation for road building in this area, and it also helps you understand why long tunnels are the only answer if you want to put a motorway through.
A memorial to the WW2 resistance fighters from this area. Those are school children on a field trip, learning something of their heritage.
You just don't expect any roads to be here, yet here they are.
This is not the sort of road to push the speed limit.
The Stelvio holds 32 litres, so that makes it more relaxing when town after town has no station and then you find the station is closed.
The small town of Die for the night. I'm much better at finding a place to stay for the night than I once was. The Hotel des Alpes is a good one.
South (there are two different roads using the same number)
Into the foothills of the French Alps.
Sahune. Following the Eygues River.
I liked the notch above the road. I guess there's no point in cutting out more rock than necessary.
Col de la Madeleine, which is another high mountain pass that doesn't get much traffic.
Celliers Bourg, France.
It's a steep and narrow road to the top. Based on all the painted words on the road, it looks like lots of bicycle races have used this route.
Heavy clouds were constant during almost all the trip. And less often, rain.
Aigues River near Nyons.
I never quite managed to get a photograph of a really old vineyard surrounding a larger château (something I did
see). These will have to do.
Suze-la-Rousse. Sometimes “château” means something more than just a house. It was good to be a feudal lord.
This one is good, but I would come across other tree-lined roads that were even more impressive. They runs for miles.
Serrières, Saône-et-Loire. It's a good place to rest in the shade on the steps that drop down to the river.
Col du Fayet. These are popular roads for bicyclists, but not popular with any other traffic.
This rail bridge no longer has rails, and just carries bicycles and long-distance walkers.
Saint-Vallier along the Rhone River.
We're not yet in the alps, but we are close by.
I'd have cold days and hot days, wet days and dry days. And, very wet days.
Into the Combe Laval. What an amazing area.
This road through the narrow gorge was closed not far ahead (the road was damaged), so I'd be going up and over.
In some cases it wasn't wide enough for two cars to pass, but that's never a problem on a motorcycle.
This was the scene of very heavy resistance fighting. You'll see many memorials throughout these mountains.
Below is Fort Barraux, built in 1597 and used until 1985 (when it was only being used as a supply depot).
Looking back towards the Italian Alps (the mountains you see are in France).
Up there is where I'm going. It's as if the road has to think about it before it can figure out how best to get there.
I'm following the Route des Entremounts.
A view of the pack. I keep this blue Nalgene water bottle in Mandello. I've never needed more than the one bottle (unlike my travels in the southwest U.S.) so, I just carry the one. My walking shoes are packed so that the sole of a shoe is flat against my back when riding and provides some lower-back support.
We're several miles west of the Alps, but not in the flats, either. This is a really beautiful part of France.
You'll see lots of logging in these hills, but the mills never look much bigger than this one. Loaded trucks will be passing each other i opposite directions. The rule is: give way to any logging truck. Also note that an empty logging truck will run the roads very fast and will use both lanes without seeming to pay much attention to you. It's your watch.
There isn't much traffic out here. Looking south down the road I've just climbed.
La Côte-Saint-André. The composer Hector Berlioz was born here.
I've often admired French road-building. Just hack away what is in the way of the road, but leave everything else alone.
It takes a brave highway engineer to look at this and even think that a road is possible. But, here it is. Note that the outside lane is actually cantilevered off the cliff, which means the original road was probably just one lane wide, and it has been widened to what you see, today (still not exactly two lanes wide).
We're over the mountains and are descending to the wide, Rhone Valley.
Regardless of the miles shown, and what your GPS might think, you should not expect to make good time on these roads unless you trust your luck that no oncoming traffic will be in your lane.
This was an amazing canyon to ride through.
Saurier. Chances are that bridge is a thousand years old. Good maintenance is worth the trouble.
I am well off the main highways, but I've no doubt that a paved road will remain paved--they always do--and that the road will end up someplace that will connect to something further along (those would both be foolish assumptions in New Mexico).
The most beautiful road in all of France? I thought so while riding it.
The Guzzi Stelvio is the ideal motorcycle for these roads. It has plenty of power, and a very wide torque band. I could just keep it in 2nd gear and carve through all but the most convoluted roads in a relaxing way.
Seez for the night.
Do you see that dormer window on the roof (near the chimney)? That's my room. Sixty steps to get there. Yes; I counted each of them.
I've ridden plenty of Alpine passes, but this might be the best.
Lac de Roselend.
La Rochette, France.
The Hotel du Parc worked out fine. This was once a significant route (La Route des Grandes Alpes), but all the heavy traffic these days is on the other side of the hill to the west (another toll superhighway to be avoided).
On one trip, the road was closed due to avalanches...
...but, on a later trip, all was open.
Nothing big grows up here, but you'll almost always find small plants in the protection of the rocks.
This route is often used in the Tour de France bicycle race, which seems completely nuts to me (the road has a long 12% grade at the top).
Sometimes the road I'm on is less than primary. Sometimes much less.
Riding west. I'm avoiding all Motorways and trying also to avoid any larger cities.
After the war, boundary lines that weren't quite so important, were clearly defined and marked. There will be no more fuzziness about that sort of thing--fuzzy borders cause trouble.
A view of Séez, France.
Le Bourg-d'Oisans, France.
Before the great tunnels were drilled through the Alps, this would have been a busy place. These big old hotels are from a different time. It was a curious thing that the electrical outlet was installed in the door jamb to the bathroom. This means if you tried to shut the bathroom door, you'd scrap off whatever was plugged in. Expedient adjustments have been made to the rooms over the years, and costs must be kept down.
This impossible mountain is the view from behind the hotel.
The foothills of the French Alps
Riding out of the valley of Grenoble and into the broad, open French countryside.
I stopped at the Hotel de France for the night. My room is at the top--one of those smaller windows you see under the eves.
Here's where packing light has its advantage. I grab the one bag off the seat behind me, and I've got everything. As always, the first task is to dump yesterday's clothes into the sink for washing (and wearing the next morning).
The tomato soup might be obvious enough; the fish-infused thing on the right might not be. I couldn't tell you what it is (a croquette?). My system of ordering doesn't always give me a clue as to what I'll get.
Mâcon, looking across the Saône River, and Burgundy (which is outside the scope of this collection).
Emerging from the north portal of the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
I made it through without being called over, but from talking to people, it's not an unusual thing to be fined for following too closely, or for exceeding the limit at some point within the tunnel. Cameras and sensors are watching you.
Sigh... I really dislike the tollbooths along these highways. But, I needed to make good time, so (for now) I put up with it.
In France, motorcycles are not exempted (as they are in a few other countries). These are expensive tolls.
Aiguebelle, France. I was looking for a hotel by this point, but there wasn't anything too attractive here. Move on.
Grenoble, France. I didn't have much choice but to ride through the center of Grenoble. It's the second time I've done it, and I'd rather avoid a third.
Grenoble, France on the Isère River. I've struggled to get cleanly through this city on earlier trips; this time I'll need to navigate my way to the center of town to find my hotel. There's nothing sensible about the layout of the streets.
Streets can change from two-way to one-way to no-way without any notice (or at least, none that I could see). I have a GPS to help, but had to be a bit wary with it as it didn't always know which way traffic ran, either. I ended up riding between traffic bollards to get to my hotel since there didn't seem to be any other way.
My hotel (below, left) and the view from the balcony.
Doing laundry every evening means I need a sink to fill with water, though, sometimes the drains are too clever for me, so I need to resort to a water-tight waste-bin. I had this “problem” several times on this trip.
The outskirts of Grenoble (meaning any part not in the core) are rather forgettable and not much different from any other city sprawl, but the historic center is interesting, and easy to walk.
The south side of Genfer See (you might call it Lake Geneva). The city of Genevea is in Switzerland, so is out of bounds for this collection (even if it looks and sounds altogether French).
Evian is an impressive 19th century resort town. The old estates along the lake are stunning (mostly now repurposed as something else).