It was pure coincidence that my girlfriend and I decided to experience one of the most spectacular roads in Europe. We had decided to take a trip into the mountains to go skiing. We were not particularly sure where to go. We had three major choices that were accessible from our base in Nice: Isola 2000, Auron and Valberg. Our initial idea had been to go to Isola, but when we found a cheap ski-rental store in Valberg, we decided to change our plans. We did not know it at the time, but it also gave us the opportunity to experience a little bit of the Routre des Grandes Alpes.
To give a little bit of background on the road, it was started way back in 1909 by the French Touring Club in order to create access to remote and largely inaccessible region. It was finally completed in 1937. It runs from the shores of Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. Originally it was designed to reach Nice, but has since been extended so that it now runs to the small town of Menton close to the Italian border. Our journey to Valberg would take in about 29km of the 684km.
Our Journey from Nice took us out of the city along the Route de Grenoble. We travelled for about 45 minutes before reaching the turning for the Route des Alpes. Until that point we had been on dual-carriageway and generally flat roads. However, within 5km, things changed. The gradient of the road became significantly steeper and the carriageway significantly thinner. Even though we were driving on a clear morning, it was still difficult to drive upon. The rock was carved out of the side of the mountain and wound precariously around each hill and valley. This meant that at regular intervals we could not see more than two or three meters in front of us.
The higher we went, the steeper things got. I soon had to shift the car into second gear and was crouched forward in the driving seat to ensure I could see everything that might come into our path. If I am honest, the driving was probably as energy-sapping as the skiing we would enjoy later! This was all exacerbated by several French drivers wanting to overtake me at 90km an hour on a blind bend and showing general disdain for their safety and the safety of those around them. Thankfully, the flip-side to the difficult conditions was the unbelievable scenery.
Naturally, there are plenty of breathtaking mountains and valleys. At one point we could simultaneously see a valley plunging away below us that was filled by a thundering mountains stream that became a small waterfall that crashed through a series of boulders on the valley floor and a towering cliff-face that rose up 200 or 300m above the road. It was like this for almost the entire journey. There were times when the sun moved completely out of view as it was blocked by over-hanging rocks and others when we would burst out into the open and be drowned by bright sunlight. The drive culminated in spectacular style as we found ourselves winding up the side of an almost vertical cliff face on the way into Valberg. The only way to the top was through a fantastic series of hairpin bends.
The road to Valberg was fantastic, We had experienced only the briefest taste of the Rout des Grande Alpes, but it was wonderful and almost over-shadowed the skiing we would do upon our arrival.