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  • Writer's pictureAndy Marks

Riding The Alps – Route des Grandes Alpes, Lake Geneva and Switzerland

Updated: Mar 14

Heading into my second week traveling solo aboard my Honda NC750X I started heading north again. But there is a lot more to see before going home and the best parts of my journey are yet to come. If you're curious about the earlier chapters of my journey, feel free to delve into two previous posts, though they're by no means prerequisites for enjoying what unfolds in this one.

Day 8 - Friday.

179 miles

Le Lauzet-Ubaye to Val d'Isère

Following a great nights sleep in proper bed I'm in the restaurant when they start breakfast at 7:30. If I'm treating myself to a hotel for the first time since leaving home I'll have a breakfast as well. The bike is loaded and I'm on the road by 8am. The only delay in getting away today is having to repair the curtain rail in the shower, it fell down when I hung my tent over it to dry last night - by the time I leave it is back up and as good as new. This is the first time the tool kit has been out this trip.

Col d'Izoard and a motorcycle
Col d'Izoard

Last nights rain has completely gone now, the weather is glorious, the sun is shinning and I'm straight onto the mountain roads. Its definitely colder though ,the heated grips are on for the first time since I left home and I only last about 10 minutes before stopping to pull a fleece on under my jacket.

Col d'Izoard monument and a motorcycle

10 miles from the hotel and I pick up the Route des Grandes Alpes. This is a 430 mile route that runs between Lake Geneva and Nice, down on the Mediterranean coast. I'm 130ish miles from the Med so plan to follow this route north for the remaining 300 miles to Lake Geneva.

Col d'Izoard
Col d'Izoard

There aren't enough superlatives to describe this route. Just look at the pictures, they're a very small selection and, once again, my photography skills don't do my surroundings justice. It weaves it's way through the Alps with very few towns and traffic, what traffic there is is mostly other motorcycles and I notice a lot of them have Italian number plates, we are very close to the border here.

Valloire Galibier sign and bicycle sculpture

Col do Galibier road sign at 2642m

Col du Galibier represents the highest road I ride today, I stop at the top for some photos and my lunch and I meet a cyclist from Eastbourne, Eastbourne is just 15 minutes from where I live. It has taken him 3hrs to complete the climb! I decide not to tell him I'm on my 3rd summit of the day already.

The scenery is stunning but the roads themselves are a challenging ride, lots of first and second gear switchbacks and you can't switch off at all. By 2pm this is wearing me down and I am getting tired. My head starts wondering and for the first time since leaving home I start thinking about how far from home I actually am. I even have a look on google maps to see how far it is to Calais. It's a long way...

Col du Galibier
Col du Galibier

I stop for a break in a layby looking up at Victor-Emmanuel Fort just outside Modane, the fort was built in the early 1800's and normally I would look up in wonder - how was it built and can I get up there for a closer look. But today I am tired, my mind is elsewhere and, for the first time on this trip, the fact that I have nobody to share the experience with weighs on my mind.

Victor-Emmanuel Fort
Victor-Emmanuel Fort

I sit down on the grass bank and have a word with myself - What's wrong with me? I haven't come all this way to bail out just when I get onto some of the best riding roads in Europe. It's time to take stock of just how tired I am. It's also the first day I've been heading back towards home - I think this is part of the issue. In the past when I have been on holiday I've always wanted to just get home when it's over. Let's be honest, waiting around in an airport is no fun, but this is different - I might be riding towards home but I still have several great days riding ahead of me. Let's stop early, relax for the evening and take it easier tomorrow.

A motorcycle parked next to Col de l'Iseran
Parked next to Col de l'Iseran

Before setting off again I check the map and decide to do one more pass, Col de l'Iseran before camping in Val d'Isère. This proves to be a great decision, Col de l'Iseran is the best ride of the day to me. This probably has a lot to do with me having had a rest and figuring out why I haven't enjoyed the day up to this point as much as I could have. The road itself is a lot more open as well with less stop start switchbacks and I can enjoy the views more. This is my kind of riding again!

Looking from Col de l'Iseran towards Val d'Isère in the valley
Looking from Col de l'Iseran towards Val d'Isère in the valley

I find the campsite in Val d'Isère and despite my earlier misgivings about the thought of 'having to' camp, I was spoilt last night, it feels good to be set up and camping again once I'm there. This is helped hugely by the view on this campsite which is the best yet. Once I have set up I head over the the cabin to pay, it was still closed when I got here earlier. This turns out to be the cheapest place I have stayed so far at just €9 for the night!

I meet a lady from Glasgow who is traveling south along the Route des Grandes Alpes to stay with her cousins and their place on the coast, she has her dog with her for company in a small campervan and he bounds around the campsite making a fuss of anyone and everyone, especially if they have food out!

With camp all set up and dinner on the stove, spag bol straight from the tin tonight, the sun dips behind the mountains and the temperature really drops. There's a cold wind but it's ok in the tent so by about 7pm I decide to get an early night. I go to use the on site facilities and, on the way back, I meet Steve and Phil. Two Brits in a camper who are traveling south and spending a few days in each place for the via ferrata. I have to ask what that is - it turns out to be a climbing route laid out in the mountains with steel cables, railings, ladders and bridges put in place to help the climbers and give them something to clip onto for safety. Apparently this area is littered with them.

A motorcycle and tent on a campsite in Val d'Isère
My campsite in Val d'Isère

Steve, in particular, obviously spends a lot of time traveling in Europe. He tells me he needs to be home within two weeks because of the post Brexit rules. Us Brits are now only allowed to spend 90 days in any 180 day period inside the Schengen zone, which covers most of Europe. We sit, sheltering behind Steve's campervan, drinking tea and sharing stories until it really is too cold to sit outside. I finally climb into my sleeping bag, still fully clothed in the vein hope of keeping the cold out, at about 9:30.

I'm feeling a lot happier about the rest of the trip after an enjoyable afternoon and evening. The sociable evening has all but dispelled any pangs of loneliness I felt earlier and reminded my why I have chosen to travel alone. I'm looking forward to tomorrow now when I'll do the remaining 130 miles to Lake Geneva before deciding what to do from there.

Day 9 - Saturday

150 miles

Val d'Isère to Lake Geneva

Did I mention it was cold? I slept fully clothed and with my jacket wrapped around the bottom of my sleeping bag to keep my feet warm. I was just about OK but I'll be shopping for a warmer sleeping bag before I come back to the Alps. The campsite is at 1850m above sea level so it's hardly surprising.

It turns out that this was the last night the site is open this year. As I ride back onto the road the owner is changing the sign on the gate 'Fermé,' and taking down the fences around the site. Phil was telling me last night that they have to do this every year because we are in an avalanche chute so the fences wouldn't survive. It sounds like a lot of work to me but I'm glad they make the effort, it was a beautiful place to stop for a night.

A motorcycle in the French Alps

It rained a bit over night but by the time I leave at 9am my kit is dry and the sun is peeping over the mountains. I can see black rain clouds in the direction I am headed though so maybe my luck with the weather is finally due to run out.

From Val d'Isère I ride through Tignes and I see signs for lots of famous ski resorts in every direction. As I ride through some of the ski resorts and past the lift stations I struggle to visualise the ski runs, everything looks so harsh and rocky but when I've skied the snow smooths a lot of it out. It occurs to me what an experience it would be to ski in a resort during the winter and return in the summer to see the contrast - that's something I will try and do some time.

Lac de Roselend
Lac de Roselend

The roads this morning are spectacular, I stop at the top of some Cols to take pictures but not at others, the weather is very changeable today and sometimes I can't see much. It's still cold but at least it isn't raining yet...

I can't help but be struck by how beautiful the small towns and villages are up here but also how isolated the are. They are all very well looked after as well, no boarded up highstreets or rubbish blowing around on the floor. Many of them also have roadside sculptures, some of which are very impressive and warrant a stop for a photo.

A roadside sculpture of a motorcycle in La Giettaz
A roadside sculpture in La Giettaz. This bike is probably 7ft tall

Riding round the outskirts of one town I pull out to overtake a Dutch campervan, only to find the French car behind me has decided to overtake both of us. I'm guessing he knows the road well but three abreast with him shaking his fist at me is a little scary! Most of the French drivers are very courteous, and put the average Brit to shame, but I guess you'll get a few like this wherever you go.

The rain finally starts getting heavy as I descend from the mountain into Flumet . It's only noon but I think an early lunch is in order. I'll see what the weather is doing after I've eaten and go from there. By the time I've found a café and ordered, the rain has stopped and I sit outside to eat. As I ride up into the mountains again, it rains on and off for most of the afternoon but never enough to necessitate getting my waterproofs out.

A motorcycle in the french alps

Todays roads seem more open and I am really enjoying myself again now, to think I considered bailing to Calais yesterday! The Route des Grandes Alpes continues to deliver everything that's promised as I weave my way north and finish with a real flurry.

The last 10 miles are a real treat, descending from the mountains to Lake Geneva through a gorge on an open road with sweeping bend after sweeping bend. It's also getting a lot warmer as I get lower. Todays riding has been far more enjoyable than yesterday even though the weather isn't as good. The roads are more open with mile after mile of sweeping bends.

A roundabout with a Morzine sign sculpture

I meet Lake Geneva in the town of Thonon-les-Bains and head east to look for a campsite. It's very built up and congested. The traffic is made worse by road closures for a triathlon that is on in Évian. There were a few of the cyclists up in the hills earlier so I'm guessing it's a long distance one. The leader of the triathlon runs past me in the opposite lane which is closed, and he is covering the ground a lot quicker than I am in this queue.

A motorcycle and Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva marks the end of the Route des Grandes Alpes

Once through the town I set about finding a campsite before I cross the border into Switzerland which is now very close. The first one I find is €19.50/night and looks very basic so I move on. The next one is €18 and looks pretty good. Most places I have stayed are around €10 but I guess it's just the location.

A good hot shower followed by a pizza and a beer at the on site bar caps off a superb day, I had planned on cooking but the smell of food on the way back from the shower got the better of me. I consult the map and come up with two possible options for tomorrow, depending on the weather, before going to bed. Here's hoping for more of the same tomorrow.

Day 10 - Sunday

242 miles

Lake Geneva (France) to Waldshut (Germany)

It was much warmer last night and I slept well so I am up about 7am. Eating at the campsite bar last night means the cooking stuff never got unpacked so, as today is looking like a long day, I skip breakfast and get an early start while the weather is good.

From the campsite I soon cross the border into Switzerland and find myself climbing back into the Alps. Route 11 to Interlaken snakes it's way through rolling hills with mountains on either side, totally different to the roads I have been on in France and a real treat.

A village in the alps

I have planned to stop for some breakfast after an hour or so but, being a Sunday, everywhere seems to be closed. Finally I stop at Lake Thunersee for a drink and photo but don't stay for long, it's very busy and I have a lot to see today. The next 10miles are solid traffic and road works so I lose a lot of time! I finally clear the traffic and take the right hand turn signed Grimsel.

A hotel built into the rocks on the Grimsel
A hotel built into the rocks on the Grimsel

Over the next three hours I experience what are quite possible the best three hours of riding I've ever done. My granddad used to talk about the Grimsel a lot from his days touring Europe and now I know why. In fact, when he was in his nursing home with the advanced stages of dementia I visited him on a bike and, when he saw it parked outside, it prompted some of the old stories, chief amongst which was the Grimsel and an insistence that I needed to get out here and ride it. He passed away earlier this year so it was bitter sweet to be here at last.

The Grimsel and Furka passes
The Grimsel and Furka passes

I'm not the only one enjoying it, there are at least two bikes for every car, and you'll see more Ferraris and Porsches here than anywhere else. The guy driving a tuc-tuc up the pass with a queue of cars behind him really makes me smile, but I am grateful he is going the opposite direction to me. Being a Sunday the Swiss locals are out in force as well, I'd like to think I can ride a bike but wow, they aren't afraid to throw it around the hairpins, despite the huge drops - I guess they know the road and are used to it. I'm uncharacteristically happy to let them pass me and clear off into the distance while I enjoy the scenery.

A motorcycle parked in front of Hotel Belvédère on Furkapass

From the Grimsel I continue onto Furkapass to cap the mountain riding off beautifully. I pass the most famous, and most photographed hotel in the Alps, Hotel Belvédère. Apparently it was built way back in 1882 and I can't help but wonder how they got all the materials this far away from civilisation. It then dawns on me that this incredible road must be even older!

The hotel closed for good in 2016 and is starting to look quite run down now, but I still stop for the customary picture before riding on - I actually had to queue to park my bike in place for the photo. Because there were people behind me I rushed and the photo isn't one of my best. I'm not too upset, I'm here for the riding, not the photography.

The Furkapass was also the set for some of the James Bond film Godfinger and apparently there is a sign telling you all about it which I somehow missed. I must have been enjoying myself too much! I'm a massive James Bond fan so I guess I'll have to go back and find it some day.

A motorcycle in the mountains and the Grimsel pass
Looking back towards the Grimsel

After descending into Andermatt I aim north past Lucerne and on towards Germany to find somewhere to stay tonight. Most of the campsites in Switzerland seem to be closed now as the season has ended so I press on and find one less than a mile into Germany. By now it's 5pm and I've been on the road since 8am so I book in and get the tent up next to the river which acts as the Swiss/German border. This has been one of the best days riding I have ever had but it has also been one of the longest and I'm tired.

A pint of beer on a campsite in Germany

Once camp is set up and I've had a shower I consult the map again and plot a rough route back to Calais. It's time to book the Eurotunnel home for Wednesday evening but it's not exactly a straight line back and I have a few more days yet.

I finish the day off by treating myself to a burger, chips and a beer in the restaurant. The beer is OK but I can't help thinking about how much I am going to enjoy a proper pint of my favourite local ale once I get home.

Breakfast in France, lunch in Switzerland and dinner in Germany. This is going to be a day I remember for a very, very long time.


The Route

This is only an approximation of my actual route which shows where the main stops were. I'll upload the GPX track of the complete route at the end.

A map of a motorcycle trip through France and Switzerland
1) Le Lauzet-Ubaye - 2) Val d'Isère - 3) Lake Geneva - 4) Furkapass - 5) Waldshut

I hope you have enjoyed this post. In the last part of my journey I head for home, but not before seeing what the Black Forest, northern Vosges and the Ardennes have to offer. You can read what happened next here.

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