All passes – and campsites – are not created equal

Confucius he say: If man see empty campsite at 6 pm, only fool move on to look for other one…

The old Rae habit of making an early-ish start on a riding day seemed to have been consigned to history as we relaxed in the morning sun at Valpelline, re-charging our phones in the café while we drank coffee, ate pastries and read our Kindles outside. The schedule in my head said we needed to be on the road by 11 am, so we headed out of the campsite at exactly 11 and followed the signs for the Great St Bernard pass.

There’s a tunnel through the mountain, of course, but we’d been over the pass in the other direction a few years ago and it was too good to miss. Traffic was light. I think we had to overtake just four cars en route to the summit, which sits at 2,469 metres (8,100 feet).

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It’s an interesting pass and reasonably challenging too, with its share of ultra-slow hairpins, and even in high summer you’re up above the snowline again. However, after you’ve ridden the Stelvio, which we’d done just last week, the Great St Bernard seems quite ordinary. The road doesn’t stretch out like a kinky snake, the mountains aren’t as imposing and the views not as spectacular. It’s still a fun ride, and a far better choice than the tunnel unless you’re in a mad rush, but I think the Stelvio has raised the bar that bit higher.

We stopped briefly at the summit for some photos, happily without being overtaken, and headed for Martigny, where the road gave way to a full autoroute. We weren’t in a big hurry, planning to find a campsite somewhere in the Troyes region of France, which would leave us with a manageable ride to Calais the next morning. We cruised at a steady 75 mph, which kept us legal, and enjoyed wonderful views of snow-capped peaks and green lowlands dotted with those neat Swiss houses.

We stopped for a quick lunch at a petrol station where my tuna mayo sandwich was the worst I’d ever eaten, but at least it served as fuel for the rest of afternoon. Snack over, the road took us down to Montreux and along the very beautiful Lac Leman, where Peter kept other motorists amused with her attempts to photograph the lake and its multiple hues of blue over the crash barriers.

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Eventually we found ourselves on traditional French rural two-lane roads, having to overtake cars one at a time as they bunched up behind too many trucks. We normally ride through France further to the west, in the Dijon direction, and never encountered so many trucks before. Maybe that’s a better route for the future.

Overtaking two-up on a loaded and slightly wider-than-most bike takes a certain amount of pre-planning, but the Valkyrie never let us down. The road took us through Pontarlier, Besançon, Gray and Langres, offering some decent overtaking opportunities on stretches of dual carriageway and plenty of empty stretches where the Honda revelled in being flicked slowly this way and that. We were now getting into the general area where we thought we might camp for the night. The towns of Chaumont and St Dizier lay ahead, so we headed that way.

Chaumont boasted a municipal campsite, and we knew from experience that they were always good value, with decent facilities. This one, while pleasant, was deserted apart from two tents and a bored-looking man sitting in a plastic chair to collect the camping fee. It was early still, not quite 6 pm, and the site had no obvious redeeming features, so we continued on our way.

A few miles later we spotted the sign for another campsite off to the right, but I figured we should press on and get some more miles under our belts, stopping maybe by 7 pm closer to St Dizier. Hah! The N57 is a featureless four-laner with occasional two-lane stretches, but it bypasses all the local towns and we rode for about 30 minutes without seeing a single camping sign.

Peter suggested we drop down on to the local road, which seemed to go through all the villages and might well offer some camping locations. So we did just that, heading back in the direction we’d come. As luck would have it, there were indeed quite a few villages, but no campsites. We asked a motorist in one village and he pointed us in the right direction, only to get us flashed by a hidden speed camera while overtaking an ultra-slow Citroen on a deserted stretch of road. The next person we asked confirmed that there was camping in this direction, but “a long way”.

The good news is that the road was one of those great biking roads: well-surfaced with sweeping bends that gave a great cadence to the ride. Still no campsite, and it was almost 7:30 now. We reached a town so small that I don’t recall its name, remarkable for the fact that its road was like a billiard table, its signposts new, road-markings white, buildings freshly painted. We were through the centre in no time and on the other side were maybe a dozen new light industrial units, all glass and steel, bearing the names of laboratories and research firms. In this rural, agricultural setting, they looked out of place.

At the next roundabout stood a brand-new hotel and restaurant, and we turned into it. We were of one mind: at this stage, a hotel was an ideal solution. Bizarrely, it was full, though it didn’t look full. They called a local inn for us and confirmed that the inn had one room left, so we said we’d take it.

We followed the ribbon of new Tarmac back into the town, past the fancy research centres, turned right into the middle of nowhere and followed an equally pristine road to a farmhouse where we found we’d got a “suite”. It was not in its first flush of youth, but it was clean and comfortable, and the restaurant downstairs turned out to have gourmet pretensions, which it more or less lived up to.

So in the end we ate and drank well, would sleep well and be saved the effort of taking down the tent and packing the bike next morning. There’s always an upside.

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