By David J. Roman, Guest Writer
Gorges, Grasse, and Tapenade
As if from a great distance, I heard the high-pitched tones of the call to action. Dismissing the alarm, I unzipped the tent and looked around. The campground was still, though my mind heard echoes of the fireside festivities that peppered the grounds the night before: huddles of jovial reunions encircling constellations like wreaths laced with flying barbecue embers.
My gear packed and my farewell to Fondue bidden, I stole quietly away to the North, soaring under the brisk moonlight. The smell of slumbering vineyards and grassy meadows filled my helmet, my deliberately deep draws of breath bringing with them renewed appreciation for the country’s beauty.
In a fiercely joyful flow of adrenaline, I soared in the dawning dreamscape stretched out before me. Leaving the town of Hyeres on the A570 highway, I carved a few turns through roundabouts to find fuel then connect with the A57 toward Brignoles. With just a few roadside pauses to check the offline map on my tablet, the route was straightforward and scenic.
The pastoral view beyond Cuers reminded me of a few of the open ranges I saw while riding through Mexico, perhaps with a slightly more verdant hue. A patriarchal peak stood watch over sun-flecked vines and grasslands. Scattered chateaus and villages played time-lapse hop scotch back and forth through architectural centuries, all blended pleasantly in surreal, muted earth tones.
A certain vague elegance hung over even mundane features. Before the first fruit and baguette shops yawned open, tranquil field fowl made silent salute to stone towers and crenellated walls. Flying North through Châteauvert toward Barjols the lowlands began to give way to midland prairies nestled in hidden hill countries seemingly suspended in time from ages past.
Red rivulets through the breeze-swept grasses, upon closer scrutiny, were revealed to be ruby pimpernels in modest assembly at the confluence of tar pebbles and beads of rich soil. Orczy was right… a humble wayside flower indeed: its context making it all the more remarkable.
And so the Saturday moto cycle began: fruit and fuel, venture and inquiry, Roman villages and public latrines. I was somewhere in a second iteration of this cycle when I noticed a group of 4 BMW motorcycles lumbering along the road ahead. Following signs for hiking access to Gorges du Verdon, they slowed and zoomed to the right. I could tell they weren’t packed for a hike, though.
Knowing the Gorges were my quarry also, I opened up the throttle and gave pursuit. They were taking a side road I noticed on my tablet map that would take them away from the motor vehicle-accessible views of the canyon. The snaking switchback roads were too fun for me to hail them just yet. For several kilometers I decorated their mirrors, until finally the trail –now dirt –widened and crested a hill that gave enough space for them to maneuver more comfortably.
Greeting them and sharing my map I found they were French and German couples indeed on their way to and beyond the Gorge du Verdon, by the same way I planned to take. Slightly bemused at the sight of four 800CC Beemers and a tiny Yamaha ripping back down the serpentine forest trail, we all joined company and found our way back to the D952 and continued onward through the town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a small but impressive settlement with a quaint medieval look.
In a matter of minutes we soared upward, borne aloft by the black road ribbon, cutting across the grizzled faces of the Verdon mountains, their stoic westward gaze heralding a stunning view of the unbelievably blue and picturesque Lac de Sainte-Croix.
Nearly plunging off the narrow highway in amazement as we hurtled along azure tributaries, we coaxed our bikes ahead, east into the heart of Verdon. Around every bend in the road awaited natural epics sung by rearing rock walls and aqua currents deep in the gorge below.
Past the aptly-named Point Sublime, we rode until we reached the stone and tile homes huddled among the river and towering sentinel cliffs of Castellane. Just east of here we parted company, they taking a route to the north and I to the south: I had another Gorge to visit.
That was Gorges de Pennafort. Though much smaller than Verdon, this river canyon scene was well worth the trip through a French military training wilderness. Sprawling out on the grey-black cliff rocks, skimmed lazily by birds and dragonflies of local variety, I snacked on the 3 fantastic olive tapenades and 1 long, freshly-baked loaf of bread I picked up in various small towns and homesteads along the way.
Satisfied, sunned, and rested from warm, sweet aroma of the Pennafort pines that rose up from the placid pools below, I fired up Max, my sturdy venture craft, once more. Over fortified village heights and down winding forest slopes I flew like a bird set free.
As the kilometers melted away, I found myself back on the Route Napoleon, which a local shop owner described to me as “the French Route 66”. My tires traced –in reverse– the famous steps of Napoleon on his return to power from banishment on the Italian island of Elba.
I could almost hear the triumphant echoes of that famous cross-country march. In one area, massive mountain layers rippled in great immobile waves as if they were shaken by the tread of a deity in ages past. At times, the Route wound tightly in hairpin turns. In other places, the road would stretch far into distant mountain ranges, its regal thread cutting across magnificent forested slopes and ridges.
Contemplations took me far away, and as I passed through the multi-leveled city of Grasse and returned to the area around Nice, I rode with a vague detachment, punctuated by mild curiosities, dreamy scents, and colors oscillating between oranges, greens, and greys to blues, whites, and reds. Oranges, grey…
A boisterous tune snapped me out of my sleep-deprived dream state. My body had traveled quite a few kilometers in a kind of limbo between conscience control and out-of-body reflection, something I got fairly good at maintaining without incident on my travels through Central America the summer before.
Now, here definitely was red, white, and blue – It was a vibrant community celebration of the most patriotic caliber. Music, festivities, laughter, kids chasing each other and their pets in the riverside parks, the smell of barbecues and sweets simmering in the tree-filtered sunset…stone bridges like causeways leading a processional of fair-goers up the hill to a semi-fortified town center. Flags, flags, banners, and colors everywhere!
Wide awake and dying to take a delightful detour, I cut away from the highway down the main promenade, losing myself in the fantastic press of motorist celebrators. Without the concern of parking weighing on my mind, I zipped up and around the hill city, through a tunnel to the other side, and back down through the happy mob.
Refreshed and charmed by the genuine cheer, a glance at my dashboard told me I had over an hour left before 6PM the time I was due to return the rented bike… and I was already almost back.
I remembered that gentleman who stopped to chat with me on the streets as I waited for the rental shop to open the day before: He recalled the trip he took by motorcycle to a fascinating little community built on a hilltop overlooking the blue Mediterranean waters just a few bays to the West.
Running a quick mental calculation, I joyously concluded I had just enough time to see this town of Èze. Down the main beachfront road through Nice, around the monument-crested Parc du Mont Boron, through the “easy streets” of Monaco, then soaring above the cobalt coves flecked with a myriad of ivory-white ships at bay, I marveled at the picturesque dusk scene glinting with intoxicating beauty.
I was rewarded once more with an incredible view as I paused to admire what still remains of the curious Roman community of Èze. Had I more time to return the rental, I would have entered and explored. As it was, the present road condition –both from construction and traffic– left me with little margin for error. As if rewinding a sweet symphony, I zoomed back, over suspension bridges, through mountain tunnels, taking a few backstreet “short” cuts, and back into the docile evening of Nice.
The radiator singing in grand chorus, the engine metal pinging as it began to cool and condense, the fuel on absolute empty, and a stupidly wide grin on my face, I swung through the RideNow front door, key raised in triumphant gesture. The plastic clock on the wall over his head read 5:59PM. A strange mixture of bewilderment, amusement, and incredulity spread across his face as the hands struck 6:00.
There it was: Max, all 125CCs of that fabulous little scooter. Panting, dirty, empty, and unharmed, loaded with 630 more kilometers on its odometer than it had that same time just yesterday. With a few colorful exclamations and a hearty laugh, the slightly-dazed shop owner said it was the most kilometers anyone had gone on one of his rentals in a single day. With a look of disbelief, he closed out my rental record with no further fees. I almost suggested that he reconsider the “no limit on distance” part of his rental policy, but I rather think he already got the idea.