Our last day in France saw us hoping for an easy ride across the Col de Braus and into Italy through a small pass to the north of Nice. However after a roadside chat with local cyclist Patrick, we were a little more cautious. He said we would never make it on our heavy bikes to Italy on that day as we had 3 passes and at least 15km of climbing ahead. Half way up Col de Braus eating lunch in a tiny bit of shade we began to believe him.
Our passage into Italy although hilly was on very quiet roads and as with most border crossings so far the only thing we noticed were changes in road signs, until we turned onto our first main road. Traffic was flying along and bumper to bumper, with motorcycles, cars and caravans returning to the coast at the end of the weekend. We flew through a series of 2km long tunnels with our ears ringing before deciding to turn onto a minor road marked as “difficult/dangerous” on our map. Within minutes of our turn off we were both pushing our bikes up some of the steepest roads we have encountered so far. Passing drivers smiled at us and stopped to advise us to turn back. After two hours we finally made it to the summit and a free camp spot with an amazing view but very close to a walking track with a few people still around. As we eased our tired legs into our sleeping bags we thought of Patricks offer to stay and have lunch with him instead of cycling to Italy and wished we had accepted.
Monday morning we descended into our first Italian town and quickly located some delicious focaccia bread to snack on while absorbing the early morning awakenings around us. Travelling on to Pigna we ordered espresso marvelling over how cheap it was and declaring it the best espresso so far. After a brief chat to some French mountain bikers who had descended from 1800m we headed towards lunch in Triora via more hill climbing. Our afternoon climb was to 1387m and we weren’t sure what to expect as the 10 year old route guide we were using said the road was only partially paved. The climb turned out to be rich in local wildlife with sightings as follows:
- A snake sunbathing quietly at the roadside before literally flying through the air in surprise at a passing cars tyres.
- A toad the size of a small cat jumping away as we rushed towards a roadside waterfall to cool off
- The usual array of birds both big and small.
Reaching the summit we found a series of fire pits in a sheltered flat piece of ground and decided to stop for the night. Watching the sun set over the Maritime Alps we felt like we were on the highest peak for miles around with steep valleys dropping beneath us.
Awaking to a cloud filled valley below us on Tuesday we descended from clear blue skies into the wet forest below watching the clouds boil and billow like ocean waves around the alps. We followed a predictable pattern stopping for espresso and focaccia at the first opportunities we found. The afternoon saw us heading towards Garessio after passing up campsites filled with gravel and static caravans. As evening approached and with little sign of any likely free camps we stopped to ask a local farmer if we could camp nearby. He directed us to a flat piece of ground near a river and next to his house providing us a welcome secure camp for the night.
Our first few days in Italy has already given us an appreciation for Italian hills, snakes, espresso and a renewed love of foccacia!