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Old 06-26-2013, 06:54 AM   #16
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Day 2 - Lille to Ammerschwihr

Needless to say, it was somewhat easier to bring the panniers down the 3 flights and we set off around 10am the next morning, with a couple beautiful baguette sandwiches courtesy of Tom. I discovered a truly annoying quirk of my GPS when using preprogrammed routes. It likes to navigate you to the start of the route—in this case the geographical centre point of Lille—unless you can find a road along the programmed route. At home this is easy, but in foreign territory somewhat less so, and we ended up doing a needless loop through central Lille in Monday morning traffic.

45 minutes later we were heading out of Lille and then into Belgium. The rumours are true, they may as well not bother with a sign when you cross the open border, as the roads go from French perfection to war-torn as though someone flipped a switch.

I'm not sure if everyone in Belgium is currently on their holidays but many of the villages and towns we went through looked almost boarded up, with no people walking along and very few cars parked beside the roads.

Stopped to stimulate blood-flow through numb bottoms


This stretch of road had the only signs of life in the village, with a couple shops open but everywhere else looked abandonned.


No people to be seen.

We stopped to fill up in Beaumont where we spoke with our first Belgians—the woman and (presumably) her daughter at the petrol station. All my initial perceptions changed, they were so welcoming and friendly, and curious about our trip. I spent about 10 minutes chatting with them—I find it heartwarming to meet people who have a genuine interest curiosity about things outside their everyday circles.

Something that stuck me as slightly curious was that they thanked me for speaking French to them... I would never think to thank someone for speaking English to me in the UK. I always try to learn at least enough of a local language to get by, I think it's callous to expect people in other countries to accommodate me in my own language.

A young sheep having a lie-down over the road from the petrol station in Beaumont.

We carried on through a mix of fast roads and slow (but all riddled with holes) as the GPS threaded us toward Luxembourg. On one downhill stretch a police BMW X5 flew past, lights blazing, and a few minutes later we came across an accident where it seems a car smashed straight into a barrier. The front end had been evenly compressed up to the passenger compartment. Hopefully the occupants were ok but it was still a sobering sight knowing they undoubtedly didn't intend for their day to end up like that.

Zev started making noises about food so we diverted up a narrow country in search of a village restaurant for some of Belgium's specialty—frites. After wandering around several villages and a track through a field we came across a restaurant which, like much of the rest of the country, was closed up tight. We stayed in the gravel car park and finished our baguette sandwiches.

Temperature dropped so time to get out a few extra layers.


Back on the main road we carried on slaloming around the holes and before long we were at the open border to Luxembourg.

I should reflect on the journey through Belgium. It is a beautiful country with some of the warmest and friendly people I've come across. The scenery is amazing and we both enjoyed our (short) time there. Still not sure why so many villages seemed almost uninhabited, but summer is the time when people go on holidays en-mass so perhaps someone could comment on this?

Still in good spirits and in one piece.

Luxembourg is one of the richest countries in the world as they have no national deficit. And it shows. The roads are instantly smooth as glass and seem to be engineered to be as enjoyable as possible for bikes and cars alike with endless and perfectly banked curves threading along the hills.

Every village looked like a movie set, immaculately presented without a single chocolate bar wrapper or cigarette butt to be seen. Every building seemed to be coated in a fresh lick of paint and everything seemed to coordinate together from the buildings to the gardens. Coming from London it was practically a culture shock.

Somewhere in rural Luxembourg resting the bottoms.

It only took about 2 hours to cross the country from top to bottom but Luxembourg has earned a spot on my 'must visit again' list.

I've barely mentioned two words about the bike and this is high praise indeed. It carried on with its duties, fully loaded, without so much as a burp. The F800GS is no muscle bike but even loaded up to its limit you never lack power in any way. So far on this trip I have averaged 60mpg on the dot according to the onboard computer—certainly nothing to complain about.

If I had to whinge about something, it would be the seat. The comfort seat is a million years ahead of the standard plank, which is stricter than a German head teacher administering a rap on the knuckles with a ruler, but I still find myself needing to disembark at least once every two hours.

The SPOT Connect is a different matter, however I seem to have learned its quirks now. If I did it again, I would have bought the standard version without Bluetooth connectivity. Unless the app is running in the foreground on the smartphone, the SPOT seems to stop tracking. As a result there are several gaps in the map. Also, the unit requires you to press the power button once every two hours to maintain the tracking function. Annoying.

I filled up with petrol in Luxembourg (city) where fuel is around 30-40 cents cheaper per litre, another sign of a country without a national deficit. The people were friendly, but perhaps not quite as warm as the Belgians.

We were back in France without even knowing it, as I didn't see the open border sign. Still 250km from Ammerschwihr, we were feeling tired and decided to find a hotel. One of the most useful apps on my phone for travelling has to be 'Booking Tonight' from booking.com. Hotels with vacancies will publish reduced rates in an effort to fill their last available rooms, often at discounts up to 75%. I found a hotel for €33 8km away in Hagondange so we headed straight over.

The hotel was not what you would call luxurious, but it did the job and the patronne was a lovely older French lady so I was sold. It had semi-secured parking for the bike and a pizza place was round the corner so we bought a couple take-away pizzas to bring back to the hotel. Despite internet access I was too tired to write so passed out until the next morning. 

Always prefer to have the bike in sight from my room.

A wider view of the semi-secured car park.

And in HDR for the surrealists


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Old 06-26-2013, 07:05 AM   #17
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Day 3 - Slow road to Ammerschwihr

We woke up at 9am and checked out by 10. I had messaged Tom the night before to say we had made it to our next stop in one piece and prematurely gloated about the lack of rain. Of course it was raining this morning—lesson to self: never tempt fate.

By this point we were only 200km from Ammerschwihr but little did I know it would take nearly 5 hours to cover that distance. The Alsace is a mountainous region with tiny roads, unless you opt to slab it down the Autoroute (we didn't).

We searched for a boulangerie in a village, only to circle three times before seeing it tucked among the other buildings. We had freshly baked quiches and pain-au-chocolats. I don't know how the French do it, but you can never find pastry so light and delicious outside of France. And the bakeries seem to be absolutely consistent, the quality is the same wherever you are.

The rougher end of the village.

As we left the village the floodgates opened and we endured the next hour in a downpour. My Icon gear is the first I've had from this brand and I can happily report that it does indeed live up to the advertising. Not a drop of water came in.

After a few faster roads the GPS sent me up a mountain track. This road was barely wide enough for two motorbikes to pass let alone a car and it appeared to be formed out of shingles of asphalt. But the scenery was absolutely stunning, you could almost taste the green.

Inevitable 'comfort' break.

Lush Alsatian woods. 

Trees older than any of us.

After such a long winter this year, everything has exploded in green.

Out the other end we came to a beautiful twisty mountain road (I was told later it is a destination road for bikers) and carried on to Ammerschwihr. With only 5km to go, like magic we came out of the mountains into a valley of vineyards and even the sun started peaking out from the clouds. The air had the scent of grape flowers, a musty, earthy smell that reminds me of summer.

We arrived at my friend Laure's family winery and after a warm welcome, moved the panniers into their guesthouse.

A day late but mission accomplished—made it to J B Adam winery.

One-upping Naomi Campbell.

Another view of J B Adam winery.

399 years after inception, the one of the winery buildings becomes a make-shift shelter for a lone F800GS.

Laure wanted to show us around Kaysersberg, a picturesque Alsatian village 5 minutes from Ammerschwihr so we loaded into her fancy 4x4 and set off. I felt so oddly disconnected to reality riding in a car again, almost as though you're not moving.

15 generations from the founding Adam, the lovely Laure carries on the family tradition.

An Alsatian trademark—storks.

The town looks like something out of a fantasy, complete with babbling brook.

Everywhere clean and tidy.

Rub-a-dub-dub—artisan soaps.

Ladybird, stork and cat soaps.

Cobblestone roads.

A little waterfall.

Laure gets handy with the camera.

One beautiful street after another.

Everywhere you look is immaculate.

Laure and Zev contemplate the most effective way to caloric overindulgence with a full range of Alsatian spiced bread treats.

Constantine Fountain built in 1321.

Alsatian butchers—too much temptation for anyone with a soft spot for wurst.

Leaving the town.

We headed back to the winery to get ready to go to L'empereur de la tarte flambée, a restaurant in nearby Kintzheim, which apparently serves the best tarte flambée in the Alsace. But not before a late night private wine tasting of J B Adam's best.

Muscat the winery puss.

A private late night extended wine tasting courtesy of Laure.

This bottle will do...

We went to the restaurant and had far too much to eat and drink. Tarte flambée is the Alsatian answer to pizza—a thin crust with cheese, cream, onions and lardons fired in an impossibly hot oven until the edges are singed. Absolutely devine.

We arrived back at the guesthouse around 11pm and it was straight to sleep.
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Old 06-26-2013, 04:21 PM   #18
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Lovely report.
But Alsace? Are you sure it's real? Looks almost as if you rode through the wardrobe and ended up on the "other side"

Good story. Try to stay dry. On the outside
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Old 06-27-2013, 02:13 PM   #19
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Lovely report.
But Alsace? Are you sure it's real? Looks almost as if you rode through the wardrobe and ended up on the "other side"

Good story. Try to stay dry. On the outside
The Alsace has been like something out of a storybook, it's really quite amazing!

Hit a few rainstorms and so far the gear has held up as advertised... I know Icon has something of a bad rap on these forums but I like their stuff and it has performed as advertised, can't ask for anything more! The helmet is particularly good in the wet as the odd shaped visor combined with the peak forces the raindrops off the side, I've never had a helmet that felt so safe in bad weather.
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Old 06-27-2013, 04:03 PM   #20
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Today was meant to a lazy day and we finally dragged our lazy arses out of our beds at noon. Despite the open window I slept through all the crashing and banging going on outside as part of the day to day running of the winery.

We were treated to homemade choucroute garnie courtesy of Laure's mum—this is a regional specialty of the Alsace which consists of meats/sausages cooked in sauerkraut. It's like the German version with a French twist. A lot of the food in the region combines German and French cuisine and cooking techniques which is just fine with me!

Pinot the other winery cat has a lie-down on the balcony ledge—he certainly had a lot of 'personality', grumpy face says it all.


After lunch we went off on the bike (much lighter without the panniers) to explore some of the local villages and forest roads. In Riquewihr we came across a very confident stork who was perfectly happy to pose for the camera.

Not bothered.


Most of the roads going up into the mountains are single track, making it tight for even a bike to pass an oncoming car. They tend to be rather unforgiving since the only exit if things go horribly wrong is into the trees, not ideal.

Made it up in one piece, although it was a shame the dirt/gravel forestry roads were closed to the public.


Coming down a particularly narrow lane the view was breathtaking in a way that just doesn't translate in photos.


Indeed, a bench had been installed just in case someone wanted to stop to enjoy the view.


After several hours we returned to the winery for a tour of the cellars.

Barrels are all 100+ years old.


Crystalised acids from the grapes which are in demand by pharmaceutical companies.


From a time where form and function played equal parts.


7,000 litres of grog.


Looking toward the tasting room.


How they used to press the grapes.


Quirky plant arrangement.


We had a final wine tasting to try Gewürztraminer speciality wines which are only made every 10 years or so. The late season grapes are hand picked when the sugar content is at the highest and only a few hundred bottles are made. These are very special wines indeed and taste like nothing else, like a liquid fruit basket. I still can't comprehend how a few grapes can end up tasting like a basket of fruit.

Comfortably numb we set off for bed.
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Old 06-28-2013, 10:26 AM   #21
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Aw great seeing that you guys are fine and in very good hands ;) Don't drink too much (or at least drink one for me too )

Your spot battery level just went from Good to LOW. Don't you dare abandon me in the middle of your road trip
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Old 06-28-2013, 01:40 PM   #22
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Aw great seeing that you guys are fine and in very good hands ;) Don't drink too much (or at least drink one for me too )

Your spot battery level just went from Good to LOW. Don't you dare abandon me in the middle of your road trip
I'm ready to throw that bloody SPOT piece of shite into one of the abysses in the Alps... I should have got the plain old orange one, the Connect doesn't connect half the time, so many bluetooth problems and if the app isn't in the foreground it stops tracking...

More coming soon, I'm 2 days behind!
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Old 06-28-2013, 04:36 PM   #23
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Day 5 - Ammerschwihr to Thônes

We woke up at 9am, packed up the panniers and took Laure out for breakfast before heading out in the rain at 11am. We crossed over into Germany for about 5 minutes before reaching the Swiss border where the border police didn't care to see our passports or our mugs under our helmets.


It was interesting how Basel instantly felt old-world with church bells ringing and trams sharing the road with the cars, bicycles and motorbikes. Unfortunately the whole city was under construction and the GPS eventually gave up trying to reroute.


A quick stop in a Swiss industrial zone.


We headed to the motorway and took it for about 5km until we were out of the city and could move back onto the secondary routes through the mountains and villages. The commuter train runs beside the road with only a kerb separating the road from the tracks. 


Switzerland is a much more densely populated country than I had imagined with villages and towns only a couple kilometres apart from each other, one after another. The Swiss also drive more aggressively and erratically than the French and like to bully their way into roundabouts without waiting their turn. We nearly got knocked off by a crazy woman who didn't feel like yielding and it was the first use of my horn so far on the trip—in the one country where it's as good as illegal.


A charming Swiss village.


We stopped at a supermarket to grab a few things for lunch and then drove another hour trying to find a decent spot to stop and eat. A car park with some planters ended up sufficing.


Zev makes a new mate...


...but he only spoke filth.


A Swiss army Unimog stopped next to us (I didn't figure I'd been busted for using my horn earlier in the day). There were 5 or 6 young army cadets inside and they quite excited about our journey, as they'd spotted my UK numberplate. To be fair I didn't see any other foreign numberplates at all in these rural areas.


Time was ticking and the going was slow, despite wonderful roads with scenic views. We decided to do an hour on the motorway which would allow us to cover the same distance as we had in the previous 4 hours on the backroads.


Earplugs in, we slabbed it to about 25km from Geneva and then took Route Suisse 1 alongside Lake Geneva the rest of the way.


Swiss vineyards near Geneva.


Heading straight into the rain.


For the last few kilometres before Geneva, the skies opened, compounded by the heavy stop-and-go traffic as people travelled home from work. The roads in Geneva are too tight to filter through the traffic with panniers so eventually I turned down a sideroad to have a break.


A more colourful side to clean-cut Geneva.


Eventually working our way out of Geneva we somehow crossed back into France without so much as a sign. This was peculiar since it is not an open border but I can't even recall seeing any border offices.


We continued on and stopped briefly just outside Pringy near Annecy to fill up. In the evenings most petrol stations are fully automated and there is no option to go inside for a human being to process payment. The French machines are notoriously unfriendly toward non-French cards, and indeed my HSBC debit card is spat out faster than a toddler eating broccoli, but strangely my Post Office Platinum Mastercard has been accepted without incident at all the automated machines. Note to others living in the UK if you have had this problem.


From Pringy we headed straight to Thône, an Alpine village I have visited many times in the past, and a real hidden gem. This village is really as good as it gets, unspoilt and full of personality. We checked into the Hôtel du Commerce which boasts one of the best restaurants in the area, and at €14 for an entrée, cheap as chips as well. The hotel staff were kind enough to keep the kitchen open an extra 15 minutes past the usual closing time so we could have dinner.


Our server at the hotel was a charming young Irish woman (and fellow biker) who has been living in Thônes for the past 3 years. It was an absolute pleasure to meet her.


One thing that has stood out on this holiday is just how pleasant everyone we have come across has been. Perhaps travelling by motorbike is a contributing factor, but I couldn't have asked for anything better anywhere we've been.


After dinner, it was straight to bed, lights out by the time my head hit the pillow.


View from the hotel in Thônes.

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Old 06-29-2013, 12:46 AM   #24
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Cormet de Roselend

Nearly to the summit and then down into Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Even with the wide angle GoPro it's impossible to capture how enormous and open this place is. Hairpins near Bourg particularly enjoyable on a fully loaded bike.

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Old 06-29-2013, 07:45 AM   #25
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Just a reminder that self-pump petrol stations in France usually don't take 'foreign' credit/debit cards. Cash is king and Sunday is not the day to realize that the tank is empty.

Hi, a common practice here in France is to ask someone filling up at the station to pay on their card and you give them the cash...worth asking at least. The French are pretty decent folk on the whole and generally willing to help if you are looking for fuel on a Sunday and don't have a card.

Cheers
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Old 06-29-2013, 03:16 PM   #26
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Hi, a common practice here in France is to ask someone filling up at the station to pay on their card and you give them the cash...worth asking at least. The French are pretty decent folk on the whole and generally willing to help if you are looking for fuel on a Sunday and don't have a card.

Cheers
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I've had to do this in Italy in the past... I now have a special Mastercard designed specifically for foreign (non-UK) spending which has worked in every automated petrol pump in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland so far...
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Old 06-29-2013, 03:39 PM   #27
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What a teaser.

Entertaining video. Much better than watching a stage from Le Tour.
And not too much traffic, at least no RV's yet.

Was surprised by your comments on Swiss traffic. Top Gear planted the impression Swiss were petrolfobes but perhaps not so much in the French kantons.
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Old 06-29-2013, 04:23 PM   #28
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Day 6 - Thônes to.... Thônes

We left Thônes around 11am with the intention of visiting my snowboarding haunt Les Alps—in particular Chalet Les Sapins where I stayed a while back. As we were already behind schedule, Nice and Monaco were knocked off the list and we intended to head northeast towards Liechtenstein after passing through.


Alpine meadows near Le Lencieux.


Up and down mountain after mountain and it keeps chugging along...


Along the way, the first pass is Col des Aravis, an easy ride up (freshly resurfaced) and a bumpy ride down (patch on top of patch). I have been having a lot of trouble trying to capture the enormity of these mountains and passes, my lenses don't do them justice.


Col des Aravis.


Flossy enjoying life in Col des Aravis.


Halfway down, we stopped briefly in La Giettaz to use the public toilets which are next to the roadway with a convenient lay-by large enough for a couple motorbikes.


La Giettaz.


We carried on towards Bourg-Saint-Maurice on some seriously narrow backroads—after doing so many hairpin corners I have completely got over my anxiety about doing U-turns on a fully loaded bike, practice makes perfect and there is no room for errors on these roads.


Not your banker's Mercedes... near Le Manon.


The highlight of the journey was Cormet de Roselend—a high Alpine pass connecting Beaufort with Bourg-Saint-Maurice. This road is literally make for motorbiking—a well-surfaced ribbon of tarmac snaking its way through the mountains and around the north end of Lac de Roselend with its steely blue-green water.


The stunning Lac de Roselend—photos cannot communicate how enormous and open this pass is.


Nearly ready to carry on.


From Lac de Roselend to the summit and down to Bourg-Saint-Maurice (I know it's above but it needs to be included in today's entry).


Arriving in Bourg-Saint-Maurice we stopped for a snack in neighbouring Séez before heading up to Les Arcs.


A snack in Séez.


It was when we reached Arc 1800 where things went a bit pear-shaped... Trying to navigate the maze of roads (which are ski runs in the winter) is like trying to untangle a bowlful of overcooked spaghetti and we inevitably ended up on the wrong road at a dead end. I'm not sure what I did exactly but in the process of doing a 3-point turn on a slope I overbalanced the bike and it ended up on its left side with us on the floor next to it, rear wheel still happily spinning along in first gear.


One bruised wrist (Zev's) and a slightly scuffed plastic corner piece on the pannier later, we picked ourselves up and headed back down the hill toward Bourg-Saint-Maurice again.


I've come off my bike riding off road enough times and it has never shook me up but for some reason I experienced a significant loss of confidence for the next hour or so, running over in my head how I managed to tip us over in the first place. I was a bit surprised how something so minor put such a damper on the day.


Safely reaching Beaufort again we figured it was time for a drink and another bite to eat. We contemplated heading toward Chamonix but decided we were tired and it would take the same amount of time to go back to Thônes and have another delicious dinner at Hôtel du Commerce.


Having another snack in Beaufort.


Once last stop before heading back to Thônes.


We reached the hotel, stuffed ourselves silly with some of the best food I've had and passed out asleep, ready to try again tomorrow.

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Old 06-29-2013, 04:31 PM   #29
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What a teaser.

Entertaining video. Much better than watching a stage from Le Tour.
And not too much traffic, at least no RV's yet.

Was surprised by your comments on Swiss traffic. Top Gear planted the impression Swiss were petrolfobes but perhaps not so much in the French kantons.
Glad you liked the video—in retrospect I wish I had filmed the other way, as I was following behind a German chap on an R1200GS who was really moving, making it much easier for me to judge the corners... would have made for a slightly more exciting ride on camera!

I've always found the French (outside major cities) drive very well and are good at spotting bikers, even moving over to allow bikes to pass. However, people tend to slow down to a crawl through roundabouts (even empty ones) whereas I like to fly through nearly scraping the footpegs
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Old 07-02-2013, 01:07 PM   #30
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Day 7 - Thônes to Ruèras

We woke up to grey skies and non-stop rain so we didn't exactly rush to leave Thônes. After we packed up we had a walk around the Saturday market before setting off toward Switzerland.

Negotiating the narrow Alpine roads in the wet was a little bit less confidence-inspriring than in the dry as many are poorly surfaced due to the hard winters and the bike has a tendency to slip somewhat mid-corner if pressing on a bit too hard.

We arrived in Chamonix at lunchtime after nearly two hours in torrential rain. I was only damp on the undersides of my legs from the constant tyre spray but everything else was perfectly dry. Plus one for Icon's waterproof gear.

Not exactly under cover.



Over the road a shop selling biscuits, booze and candy, what's not to like?



Kitchen doesn't open for lunch but they threw together some delicious salads topped with fried egg.



After lunch we crossed the border into Switzerland where a few bored-looking border police were ignoring the cars and carried on to Martigny. The descent is an amazing drive, long downhill straights with hairpin corners on the ends and an incredible view of the valley lined with vineyards.

From Martigny we headed east and as we carried along the valley the rain eventually stopped.

A quick stop in the valley.



A chap and his wife were walking along and offered to take a photo—they didn't seem the camera-snatching type.



At the east end of the valley the rain started again as we started to climb. Little did I know that the GPS was leading me over the Grimsel Pass, one of the higher Alpine passes in Europe and a notoriously harrowing road. At bottom the temperature was around 17°C and as we climbed I was watching the thermometer slowing counting down.

Approaching the snow line.



A sign of what was to come.



Not the bestpanoramic shot but gives a sense of how vast this place is. Looks like the mountains were draped in green before a generous sprinkling of frosting.



The road was great  going up but as we reached the summit the rain showers turned into a snowstorm and the temperature had reached 0.5°C, ice warning flashing away on the instrument panel.

Fortunately the snow wasn't sticking to the road but my windscreen was covered, and I was wiping my helmet every 30 seconds or so to see.

After the summit is one of the most nerve-racking, narrow roads I've been on. It's corner after corner of left-right bends with no barriers and a sheer drop to the unknown. I've driven and ridden some crazy mountain passes in my time but this one, combined with the snow, literally frightened the life out of me.

Out the other end, the temperature rose as quickly as it had fallen and before long we were in Andermatt where we stopped to [kiss the ground] have a pizza. The barman spoke fluent English and there were 3 American chaps sitting at the next table who were behaving slightly oddly as though they were looking for trouble. Couldn't quite put my finger on it but I've travelled enough to know when it's time to move on.

I got my booking.com app fired up and found a room at a reasonable cost at Hotel La Val about 30km away in Sedrun-Ruèras.

The hotel and the man and woman who ran it were absolutely lovely, like they were inviting us to stay in their own home (which, in some respects, they were). It was very 70s in style but warm and cozy, and everything was absolutely spotless. They even let me park the bike in their personal garage for the night so it would be secure. Cannot recommend this hotel enough.

A room with an HDR view.



Swiss-style in-room shower—quirky.



After feeling a bit shell-shocked from the ride over the Grimsel Pass, it didn't take long to fall asleep in one of the most comfortable beds so far this trip.
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Ride reports: Europe 2014 | Alps 2013 | Fryslân 2012
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