Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A bad Case Of The Bends

Hullo ma wee blog,

We took breakfast on the balcony of the apartment in Jausiers every day. For the first few days of our holiday here in the Alps of Haute-Provence we used the local cheese and bread we had bought in  a small deli and artisan bakers in  nearby Barcelonnette on that first evenings walk through the streets of the small town. We'd also supplemented it on the second day with some jam bought in the local supermarket. It felt strange to be sitting on a balcony in the middle of September and feeling the first warm rays of the sun hit the bottom of the valley, feeling it warm enough to sit in comfort to eat outside. We'd left rainy Edinburgh in 13C and arrived in Marseilles in 29C. It felt good to be back in France. We feel somehow at home here, there's just something which gives us a sense of peace and makes us promise to come back again and again.

Every day we would decide where we were going to head to and set off in our hire car. No motorways for us on holiday, not that a promise like that was hard to keep with the village in such a remote valley and at such a height. The sign in the photo at the head of the post was 50 yards from the exit from the apartment onto the road. The high pass that is the Col de la Bonette was the first one that we tackled, heading off after breakfast that first day. The illuminated sign above is only one of many signs in that first few kilometres that tells any driver passing that this road, which is only open for a couple of months a year, isn't to be taken lightly. But, I like to think I'm an experienced driver - and a reasonably careful one too - and as I've driven on mountain roads many times I felt confident that I would be able to handle anything we would meet. After all, didn't I get through that tiny road that G took me up a few years ago? The proximity sensors on front and  both sides were all going off at the same time trying to get through one tight pinch point that day and, although I was smiling through gritted teeth at her beside me, we made it and laughed a bit more genuinely in the Bar a Vin in Carcassonne that night after a couple of glasses of local wine.

So, we felt ready for anything as we set off past the warning signs and the last few houses of the village with the road already beginning to rise at a pretty steep angle. I was glad that we'd gone for a more powerful car than we normally do in expectation of just such terrain as we were now driving on, glad too that the long drive from the airport had given me a chance to get properly accustomed to the Renault, especially on the narrower and twistier roads coming into the Ubaye valley. As the road began to rise up the hillside out of Jausier it began to twist too, firstly in nice looping turns that gave a clear view of how high we were getting, lovely views coming with every turn. Interesting houses in the alpine chalet style became the norm  as we got further away from the village, some with hand written signs indicating 'vente du lait' or 'vente du miele' as they offered the produce of the farms for sale. The road surface was fantastic, looking like it had been newly laid just for us and I was both impressed and feeling more confident about the journey ahead. We chatted easily as you do when seeing new things together for the first time, each of us pointing out to the other things of interest we had spotted along the road.

The landscape soon began to change from small fields to small pastures and woodland and the ever sharpening and more frequent bends showed we were climbing steadily. The early part of the road acclimatised you to the style of driving quite quickly and you soon forgot just how steep the road was as you concentrated on gear changing and keeping the engine revs up, correct acceleration out of the bends to stop the car hesitating. It was some time before I realised corners now were almost all hairpin and every straight was a slow steep climb to the next. The last village we had passed was a dilapidated looking affair with large houses roofed in rusty corrugated iron. I was a bit shocked to notice the tidy blue signs that showed that this was a bus route and offered up a silent 'please no' kind of prayer. Now there were no animals, no farms, the road surface too had become much worse and there were regular potholes that had to be negotiated. The road had narrowed significantly too and the side sometimes sheared or crumbled away into a valley below, the trees looking like they had been planted in a schoolboys model train landscape, the other other side of the road was so steep that it was to all intents a wall of grass or increasingly,  just bare rock. Conversation had dwindled and now for some time had stopped completely as we mutually held an unspoken need for me to pay attention just to the road. I sometimes would give an annoyed tug at the seat-belt which had begun to tighten, uncomfortable and restricting on me as we swung round the bends.

 For some time the only thing that we met on the road was the occasional motorbike, their German, Swiss, French or Italian riders obviously revelling in the hairpins and the lack of traffic even on a clear sunny day at this time of year. It was difficult too to keep an adequate eye on anything coming up behind, so much concentration now going on the car and road ahead and the view behind limited by the distances between bends. More than once I was caught by a motorbike suddenly appearing close behind with its headlights full on, rider waiting patiently for me to get round the bend so they could scream past in exaltation for a road made for powerful bikes. I looked at the dashboard and realised that we had been climbing for the best part of an hour, were doing only 40km an hour on a good straight and that I'd long ago lost count of the number of hairpins we had gone through. "Thank God for power steering" came to mind more than once. I could add thank God for a decent second gear too as it seemed like that was all I was now using.

Throughout the journey I'd been thoroughly enjoying the drive. It was great fun and the car handled really well even if I was questioning if we'd gone for a big enough engine. Or maybe we should have gone for a four by four? Although the road had got really quite narrow it was quiet and the couple of cars we had met had been nice small ones which we managed to get past quite easily. In fact my confidence was up and the last one I hadn't even slowed down for. At one point as we came round a corner I looked up and saw with horror that there was a huge camper van coming down the hill towards us but at that moment it was still a few bends and some distance above us. I felt pretty confident that the driver would have time to see me coming up the hill and would find a nice wide spot on the road, at a bend maybe where the road was considerably wider, and he would wait for me to come sailing past with an insouciant wave to a fellow traveller. After all, the highway code says that you should always give way to vehicles coming up a hill if there are any obstacles or difficulties. Surely the same common sense rule applies on the continent doesn't it?  I couldn't see him any more due to the twisting road so it looked as if he must have stopped. "Good stuff mate! Well done!" and "Jings am I glad about that!" were all things that went through my mind as I came round a bend to meet him head on and - of course - at one of the narrower bits of the road. Some nice kind French road worker had also chosen that exact spot to start and not complete some road repairs, having cut a nice chunk out of the road width and left it marked with a nice big sign of an exclamation mark and a 'Chausee Deformee' written boldly on a yellow metal sign that looked like it had been left in the middle of the road.

I said "Aw Bugger!!!" and put the brakes on.

We both sat and looked at each other. Him in his huge bloody four apartment on wheels and me in my wee Renault. It was obvious that he wasn't going anywhere other than forward and so I looked at the view in my rear view mirror. It looked horrible. I turned in my seat to get a better look back through the rear window. Hmm, not much better actually. It looked tiny and a bit of a chicane with a solid rock face on one side and a crumbly edge, no barrier and complete absence of anything solid at all on the other. I stuck the car in reverse and indicated that he should wait and give me a bit of space and began to edge back down the hill through the chicane towards the last hairpin which was about 50 or 60 yards away. About half way I saw another car come round the bend behind me, see the predicament, and pull into the wide bit of road that I had been heading for.

Aw Jings!!

I kept on heading back towards the latest arrival thinking he would realise that I had to get there and move back a smidgin so I could get in too, but as I got closer I could see that he was firmly staying put and was engrossed in watching progress ahead.  I wracked my brain for the French for "move over the bed a bit old chap" but failed miserably. It was at this point that I realised the camper van hadn't waited where he was but was about 10ft from my front bumper. I was in fine position to get a nice view of his DE plate. Bloody typical! Just as I was feeling a tad under pressure I realised that the road had opened up a bit and by squeezing tightly into the rock face there would just about be enough space for him to get past me, so that's what I did and pulled on the handbrake with an audible sigh of relief. The camper van driver stopped and looked at me like I had two heads, making a gesture with his hand that maybe I should just go on backwards but to be honest I'd had enough. I gave what I hoped was a Gallic shrug of indifference and indicated with my two hands to the huge space he could get past me with. He looked at me again and I again shrugged and folded my arms with a pantomime exhalation and glare at the space. As he edged past me - on the sheer drop side - he managed by about the thickness of a good coat of paint but I didn't feel too guilty. He was a bit grey though.

I bet he'll stop at the first opportunity the next time it happens.

Or get a smaller camper van...............

see you later.

Listening to Sting, 'Fields of Gold'


Scottish Nature Boy said...

Al - this sounds just like our recent experience ont he Corsican roads. O (bless her!) did all the driving on account of her recent experiences driving in France. The Corsican mountain roads are extraordinary - the locals drive on then like loonies and the tourists like chickens - a heady combo. We had several bad vehicle handling incidents where people more or less refused to get out of the way of us and the other cars coming their way on the narrow roads and forced us to squeeze past (on their side of the road as they'd pulled over onto ours) next to the precipitous drop... "oh heck", as I said on a few occasions... sounds like you had an amazing trip though!

Alistair said...

It was great and, despite the tone of this, I thoroughly enjoyed those mountain roads. Just stunning.

Morning's Minion said...

After my recent trials with narrow windy un-named roads I felt a familiar clench of the innards when reading this.
J. had to pull the truck/trailer off the narrow road to the sawmill this morning to let an on-coming truck get past, so I told him of your adventure.

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