Terrifying tunnels and hitchhiking in the Alps

It’s fairly normal for happy campers like us to wake up to the early morning chorus of birdies tweeting and this morning in Menton at our campsite perched on the top of a hill was no different, but to our sleepy amusement, one of the birdies was doing a proper ogling-builder-style wolf whistle.  On repeat.

Clambering out of the tent and reaching for our trainers to try and find the unusual tweetie pie, we got a bit of a shock when we saw this beast attached to Nev’s trainer.

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Lobsters (or cray fish) and toads I can handle, but I draw the line at sharing my sleeping quarters with this terrifying little creature.  Luckily (and disgustingly), it was just a sort of “casing” that the creature had discarded.  When I tried to flick it off the trainer, it just clung there, gripped on tight with the old dried skin of its former claws.  Yucks.  We managed to prise it off and checked our trainers for signs of the beast itself but it was, thankfully, long gone.

We cycled down from the dizzy heights of the campsite, along the coast and into Italy, straight past border control and through our first Italian town, aptly named “Latte”.  After that, it wasn’t long until we were back within the borders of France and starting our long climb up the mountain of Tende.

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There were tunnels.  Loads and loads of them.  Short fun ones and also really long, unlit, dark scary ones.

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At first I loved the tunnels, but as they started to get longer and the traffic busier and faster, they started to make me feel really nervous. It didn’t help that in the middle of one really dark tunnel we almost piled into a girl on a moped sitting in our path facing the traffic with no lights on.  We just managed to avoid her at the last moment with a squeal of brakes and an embarrassed apology from the girl.  The tunnels were pretty narrow and the traffic flying past a bit too close for comfort.

Apart from almost crashing into mopeds, my least favourite thing about the tunnels was the roar from the massive haulage trucks that got louder and louder as they approached from behind, the din amplified in the tunnel and the anxious anticipation as I could hear them getting closer and closer until they whooshed past creating a whirl wind that made me grip my handle bars a little bit more tightly every time.

Climbing the mountain above the Gorges de Berghe, we passed through the mountain-side town of Tende, which from the distance looked like a colourful little shanty town.

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We stopped to fill our water bottles at the spring and ceremoniously visited our last patisserie in France.  😥 I’m missing the fresh artisan bread and strawberry tarts already.

Near the top of the mountain, it suddenly got extremely steep, with the roads curling around and looping back like spaghetti.  We got quite a few encouraging beeps, cheers, claps and thumbs ups from passers-by.  Who’d have thought the Alps would be so steep?!

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At one particularly steep bit, we came across an old Italian couple filling up water bottles at a spring.  They cheerfully said hello and indicated what I interpreted as sympathy towards us on our loaded bikes as we struggled to balance them against the wall to fill our own bottles.  On the basis of that one encounter, I decided that Italian people were all really friendly and that Italy would definitely be great.  And I was so right.

At the top of the mountain, we started queuing for the final 3.5km tunnel which forms the border between France and Italy.  We could see a sign that we were pretty sure meant bicycles weren’t allowed in the tunnel and our worst fears were confirmed when an official looking lady in a uniform came out of the security building saying something in Italian that we didn’t understand but shaking her finger at us and pointing at the bikes.

Looking back down the mountain at the crazy steep roads we’d just climbed, neither of us even contemplated cycling back down for one second.  We walked down the line of traffic until we found a man with a van and asked him (using hand gestures alone) if we could get a lift through the tunnel with our bikes.  He cheerfully helped us lift our bikes into the back for our ride and first ever hitch hike through the tunnel into Italy.

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It turned out he was going in the same direction as us and offered us a lift all the way to Cuneo but we were looking forward to our descent down the other side of the mountain (not to mention that it would no doubt be cheating some invented moral cycle touring code), so we declined.

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Cycling down the other side, we were passed by the old Italian couple we’d seen at the water spring earlier. They beeped and gave us a friendly wave out of the car, this simple gesture confirming that Italy was indeed brilliant.

We arrived at the campsite after about 60 miles and got talking to a couple of Dutch guys who were running a cycle touring holiday.  In awe and with just a hint of jealousy, we watched them set up a temporary kitchen and circle of tents for a group of 11 cyclists who were out cycling the Alps on racing bikes – their camping equipment, food and tents all carried and arranged by the touring company.  What luxury! But, jealousy aside, setting up our own tent surrounded by our massive, packed to the brim, panniers just made me feel even more proud of what we’d achieved so far.

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The campsite was brilliant.  It had a communal fridge so we cycled to the local Ipercoop (giant and best supermarket ever with exciting double-decker baskets) and stocked up on all the cold items we’d until now been unable to buy for fear of them melting or going sour in the heat.  Fresh milk, chocolate, yogurts and beer! All the essentials.

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That night, we celebrated our climb up the mountain with a pizza.  Nev chose a “soufflé” pizza which was humongous and had a raw egg inside.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be raw, but with all that protein not to be sniffed at, he ate it anyway.

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On the walk back to the campsite with the sun setting, the Alps looked surreal in the distance.  Honestly, this isn’t a photoshop mish-mash.  It really looked that way.  Beautiful.

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That night and the next day we spent drinking (blissfully cold) Peronis, chatting to the cycling group, stealing some of their electricity and tasty soup, drinking proper Italian coffee and visiting Italy’s version of the patisserie, which was full of fresh bread sticks and a million different kinds of biscuits.  Maybe I won’t miss French food so much after all…

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4 responses to “Terrifying tunnels and hitchhiking in the Alps

  1. I cycled that exact route a year ago! My friend and I also had the same problem when we got to the tunnel at the top luckily a lovely italian man with a pickup truck came to our rescue and gave us a lift through the tunnel. The descent after the tunnel was definitely worth it! Have fun on the rest of your travels.

    • The last few KM are crazy steep compared to the rest! We have since been reliably informed that there is a track/road that takes you up over the summit and avoids the tunnel but we didn’t see it. And besides, it was more fun hitchhiking than breaking our backs up another 1000ft of dirt road!

      • Yeah we didn’t see that either until afterwards. We got told we would have to get a lift or cycle back down and find another way. Definitely, hitchhiking always adds an extra little bit of thrill to your day!

  2. My partner was cycling in southern Germany when he accidentally ended up on the autobahn and going through a tunnel. Just scary for him because the speeds of the autobahn are over 200 km./hr.

    Note: He can read German but still..the signage to warn him probably wasn’t there.

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