Monday, January 18, 2010

The Hairdryer's behind the Chainsaw: Apt to Get to Italy

Gosh this travel log is taking me forever. I'm just leaving Apt -- why didn't I take any pictures -- I am definitely losing marbles -- I could swear I remember taking some from the parking lot -- but, nope, I didn't ... I should mention that before leaving the hotel, I decided to part with 8 euros and have some breakfast -- and I'm glad I did, it was yummy and tres continental -- good pot of tea, gorgeous warm freshly baked bread with apricot jam and perfect croissant. I managed to clumsily turn over the orange juice, and the lady in charge very kindly took it away and brought be a fresh tray -- she'd struck me as being on the grumpy side of 'ok', but in fact was very sweet and not at all admonishing and I happily continued to yum away. In the meantime Neil cleared the room, packed the car and went off for the nearby bakery.

So, fresh loaf of Sunday bread in hand for lunch, we headed toward the motorway for a brief ride -- we were heading for Gap. Somehow at the end of the motorway we turned off too soon and were soon heading off in the wrong direction. I had seen a lake on the map and our planned route would have taken us east from Gap and onto a road that bordered the lake -- it had promised to be a pretty drive. Now having seen some pictures of Gap, I'm sorry we didn't have a look around, but we did come upon a very pleasant and interesting surprise.
We could see on our map a road connecting to the road we wanted to be on after leaving Gap, and thinking we were upon that turning turned off and headed for it! The way was winding and desolate and the views began to be rather spectacular and we could see off in the distance that we were approaching what appeared to be a dam. And indeed it was the Barrage de Serre Poncon. What a spectacular surprise! As usualy, the French had done a fantastic job with their visitor center and there were informative glass panels in many languages explaining the how, whens and wheres and history of the scene we were observing. It is a very impressive hydro-electric dam which supplies 10% of France's hydro-electric output!
Having waited several extra minutes for a school of motorcyclists to pass through -- there must have been at least a hundred of them -- we set off down the other side of the dam a towards a hopeful rendez-vous with lunch alongside the lake and once more on our planned route. We found a lovely little spot to pull over and enjoyed our repast while watching the sailing school in the distance, just outside Savines-le-Lac, one of the villages re-sited when the valley was flooded and the lake was made. In the middle of the lake is an island withh a small chapel that is all that remains of this village -- the chapel once stood atop a hill.

Lunch over, we were now heading for Italy and our next benchmark the highest town in France: Briancon. Briancon is truly spectacular and yet again another place we were only able to pass through because of our restrictive time-table. Life is too short for all the wonderful places in France! We found the signs for Torino and headed up and up towards the border. First we came to a statue of a climber, who stood at the bottom of the final climb -- was he welcoming or warning? What a climb! What a harrowing road. The higher we climbed the narrower it seemed to become. I had to keep closing my eyes, but I was afraid to keep them closed for fear I wouldn't be ready to keep the car on the road from the passenger side. Both of us were grateful that we were there at the end of the tourist season when there was little traffic -- actually we were there between tourist seasons -- though I can't imagine that road often being open once snow begins to fall. The road was in terrible shape -- sheer drops and crumbling verges and cars, buses and trucks coming the other way as we or rather he negotiated one hairpin turn after another. In the distance were brief glimpses of Briancon and I longed for a place to stop so that Neil could get out and take a picture. It was some time, but finally there was a small place at the side of the road. We were steeling ourselves for what the road would be like once we were over the border into Italy. We assumed the worst and we were wrong!
The Italians had built a wonderful road -- even I would not have been afraid to drive on it! A magnificent descent down the other Alpine side! We also noted that the French side of the Alps is much more rugged looking -- stonier and more barren and rough. Neil was determined not to be caught out by Italian high motorway fees and we were only on the Italian motorway system until we could determine the appropriate alternative route that would get us to Novara, where we had decided to head for for the night.

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