Thursday, July 8, 2010

Diesel Power!

I must have actually driven a diesel vehicle before at some point. It obviously didn't leave much of a mark, since the only diesel experience I can think of was filling the mini up with Gazole (which I now know is French for diesel, not gasoline!) and learning that that was a rather expensive error to make. That's all changed now though - I'm going to remember this diesel!

I had decided I was going to drive through the French countryside, the Alps, and the Col de Turini (the 'best world's best driving road,' according to Top Gear) on the way up to Geneva. I would have liked a convertible for the trip, in fact I would have very dearly liked the convertible BMW that I used to own, but compromises have to be made, so I ended up with a Renault Megane, a fine sporty little French car, powered by a diesel engine. I called her Megan.

Megan[e] and I in Southern France

I left Montpellier and drove off towards Millau to see the giant bridge. Pretty soon, I was discovering just what we are missing in the States, where we don't have any of these sporty little diesels. It was a six-speed transmission, but in any gear, if you want to accelerate to pass, you just step on the gas, and the car takes off! I was mesmerized... I also had trouble keeping up with the speed limits... On occasion, I did glance at my gas gauge, soon discovering that it was refusing to change. A hundred kilometers passed by, it stubbornly showed the gas tank full. Damn, these things really do get good mileage... Another hundred kilometers passed by - still a full tank of gas! It must be broken!? Fifty K more - hot damn, we are down to 7/8ths! So it works then... this engine just doesn't use any fuel. That's a nice sidebar, of course, but I was here for the roads! I quickly ducked off the Autoroute after the Viaduc and headed deeper into the countryside along a route my map called Gorges du Tarn. True to its name, the road winds through mountains and a river bed following the gorge - the views it offers are spectacular, with little French towns dotting the side of the road, centuries-old church steeples punctuating the skyline at regular intervals. I started to think of what it could be reminding me of, and quickly came up with Albania: the very best roads across the empty deserted (but very similarly green) mountains in that long-lost European country were a lot like the roads here... well maybe the worst stretches of road here, in the South of France. And minus all the churches, of course...

Viaduc de Millau

The road along the Gorges du Tarn

Bright, pretty sunsets above the French countryside, shortly before I had popped into a fancy roadside winery/restaurant for dinner - tres Francaise!

But the drive across the Gorges du Tarn was, as it turned out, rather tame. Picturesque, but very tame indeed. The roads are fairly straight, and the elevation more or less constant. The real star of the driving show was to be Col de Turini, and that's where I headed the following morning. First, I struggled for an hour looking for my hostel in Nice, after arriving at two in the morning, without a map. An hour later, I was sound asleep though, looking forward to making Megan[e] conquer the Alps!

Center of Nice - Quai des Etats-Unis. Nice seemed a lovely sea-side resort town, where I would have liked to have spent more time - I have had more than one person tell me it was their favorite place in Europe... This wasn't in the cards this time through though as I was back on the road shortly after 11. I suppose I'll have to come back.

Oh, they are funny with their 'Do not Enter' signs here in Nice!

So, on I went, driving to the very last exit before the Italian border, then turning off onto a minor road winding up into the hills towards the town of Sospel. Here the road become tinier, windier, and devoid of traffic. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins. I pushed the car up into the rarefied heights of the Alps. I pushed it fairly aggressively in fact; pretty soon, my arms and legs were getting soar from all the shifting - I loved every last second of it! Shortly after leaving Sospel (around hairpin #7 - yes, I kept count), the road arrived at a little church sitting atop a hill. I was a bit reluctant to leave the road, but quite exhilarated to jog up the stairs to get a look at Notre Dame de la Menour and catch a glimpse of the twists and turns I'd conquered leading up to it!

That's my road!

This is called a 'hairpin' turn, mom - it's when the road makes a full 180 degree turn in direction - usually while climbing up or down the mountain

Notre Dame de la Menour, on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere

Jesus still suffering - clearly the man didn't drive up here!

Around hairpin #27, I arrived at the village of Col de Turini - the high point of this section of road. Most other people on the road, not that were many, were German bikers

Little tunnels carved into the rock, as I was heading down

French towns in the High Alps - I believe this was Saint-Martin-Vesubie

At hairpin #40, the Col De Turini section was finished and I stopped for lunch. I figured I could stop counting hairpins at this point, since I was switching to a fairly straight road towards Jausiers. At least my map showed the next section of the road as being fairly straight, on the way up towards Geneva - I drove on, the road was heading up all right - in fact, this "fairly straight road" turned out to be Route de la Bonette - the highest road in Europe, traversing a 2,802 meter pass. It was windy, and twisty, and incredibly scenic. Adrenaline remained in high gear. The scenery now had some new additions - snow banks, spectacular views of the Alps in the distance, an occasional waterfall, and flocks of sheep crossing the road. The Megan[e] and I were excited! The diesel purred to life as I pushed the car up to the top of the 2,800m pass - that's only the highest elevation the road reaches, I got out and climbed the last 100 meters to the top of the peak we were passing, losing a few more degrees of temperature. Suddenly my flip flops, so perfect for the beaches in Nice, seemed a little out of place... And that was before it started to rain and hail. I returned to the car a bit soaked and with some fresh concerns about the windy, twisty road heading down the mountain, now with slicker pavement. Excitement did not, however, wane very much. Fortunately, the rain did wane, as the cloud apparently extended only to the very top of the pass, as after half an hour climbing down the hill, I was once again back to a perfectly dry road. With occasional flocks of sheep, waterfalls, authentic French/Swiss Alps houses, and slow cars that gave me regular chances to push my little diesel into over-drive past them. At one point, I [briefly] found myself behind a Porsche though - he wasn't so slow...

Not the Southern Alps, nor the Japanese Alps - these are the real thing! The ones that Hannibal somehow crossed with a bunch of elephants and without paved roads. I have no idea how they did it!

The Megan[e] blending in with the snow banks, in black and white

A couple of hours later, I was crossing from Italy back to France, this time under the Alps - via the Tunnel de Frejus. A 35km tunnel bored into the mountainside is one of the longest in the world. Speed limit in the tunnel: 70 kph - it takes a while. Cost: $35.10 Euro! In retrrospect, I would have rather skipped it, had I known that was the cost!

And here, the Alps came to an end (the adrenaline rush lived on for a couple of days though). The mini may have made me a little leery of traveling long distances by car any more, but given a good car, and fun roads, and a relatively manageable distance, driving is still an incredibly fun way to get around! But on this day, I was done - after paying a few more tolls (you can't really afford to drive around Europe anymore), I arrived in Geneva just in time to watch the streets explode in celebration after Brazil's World Cup victory over Chile. There's a few things I had imagined about the city of Geneva - crowds of Brazilians out in the streets, wildly cheering on their football team, wasn't high on the list...

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