Taking a scenic roadtrip to the French Alps
Take the motoring trip that thrilled Frank and Carol Melling. Enjoy the scenery, but keep your eyes on the road... Words and photography by Frank Melling
Many of us watch those adventure programmes on TV and think if only...If only I had a fully-equipped Landrover Defender. If only I could take six months off work. If only I wasn’t too bothered about getting a dose of dysentery or being eaten alive by mosquitos.
Yet real, breathtaking adventure driving is almost on our doorstep and you can be in one of Europe’s great wildernesses a day after leaving Calais. Better still, you don’t need a super modified all terrain car. Any mid-range motor can manage the trip.
We cheated a little bit by borrowing a Nissan X-Trail from TWG in Northwich. This remarkable car had all the benefits of a true 4x4 while simply gobbling up the 600 miles between Calais and our starting point on the Mont Blanc side of Geneva like a luxury limo.
The keys to the trip are the French Parc Naturel Régional. Some of these are truly huge and they are heavily protected so that they are, in every sense of the word, primitive. We aimed at driving along the French/Italian/Swiss Alpine borders, eventually finishing in Monaco for an ice-cream outside the iconic Casino.
The real start of the trip was at the Pays du Mont Blanc and came with two powerful reminders. The first is that the Europeans are far less given to baby sitting visitors to their wild areas than we are. The view is that if you want to drive six or seven thousand feet up an Alp then you presumably know what you are doing - so don’t expect safety barriers or pristine roads.
The second thing is that driving from one Col to the next is challenging and slow. The bottom line is that if you get a corner wrong you will get killed because there’s nothing between you and the bottom of the valley a couple of miles below. The solution is simple: concentrate, enjoy the challenge and don’t go charging around.
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Our first Col was the Furka Pass – famous for being the site for the scary scenes in James Bond’s ‘Goldfinger’ - and actually just in Switzerland rather than France. With over 7,000 feet of seriously, serious driving in front of us the X-Trail clawed its way through the sleet and rain as if it had glue on its tyres. Although this was August, the car’s thermometer showed just one degree outside and the snow poles were a strong reminder of what the road would be like a few weeks later.
The great joy of the high Alps is the speed with which the weather changes and the following day we stopped at the refuge of the Petit San Bernadino with the air so clean it scrubbed our urban lungs clean under a burningly brilliant blue sky which stretched forever.
Every pass is different, and challenging, in its own way but the Big Daddy of them all has to be the Col de la Bonette - Europe’s highest tarmacked road at 2860m (that’s over 9,300 feet in real money) and an epic drive by world standards. The road was technically closed when we arrived because of rock falls but when we asked a local he gave us the most gallic of shrugs when we asked was the climb possible. ‘If you wish...’
The road snakes through mountains beginning in countryside not unlike mid-Wales and then gradually changes to what looked, and felt, like Afghanistan – it’s that primitive.
Just as the guide books promised, eagles wheeled overhead while every time we stopped there were huge marmots watching us watching them.The pouring rain changed to sleet in the last thousand feet and we were glad of the X-Trail’s automatic four wheel drive selection as we clawed our way up and over piles of rock until we reached the summit. On a good day, you can see Nice and Monaco with its billionaires’ yachts. We missed out on the standard view but were treated to clouds blowing past beneath, not above, us which was more than compensation.
It had been three days’ hard driving but in terms of excitement and satisfaction the experience couldn’t be bettered and although Monaco didn’t disappoint in terms of glamour and glitz it was a dull place compared with the sleet, rocks and eagles of the high Cols.
Thanks to TWG Nissan for the loan of the delightful X-Trail which did everything we asked of it, and more, without a complaint.
The distances are deceptive in the high Alps. 200 miles in a day is a long way.
Keep plenty of water with you in case of a problem. Going hungry is an inconvenience - being thirsty is much more.
It’s polite to indicate right, slow down and let the locals scream past you at 80mph. They’re not on holiday and have to go about their normal lives.
Don’t buy cheap supermarket diesel. It’s rubbish when the weather gets really cold and wet and will cause you problems.