France summer 2017 with Saddle Skedaddle

Earlier this summer I spent several weeks in France guiding two trips for Saddle Skedaddle. The first of these was the iconic St Malo to Nice, taken over three weeks.

This is a great way to do the trip if you have the time available as it gives you longer to enjoy the journey and the places you visit.

At the start of July I headed to the French alps to guide a group over some of the Tour de France regulars in Skedaddle’s Classic Alps Passes trip.

This was great as it linked some new areas for me with more familiar ground.

It’s always good to get back to the big mountains! I’m looking forward to another St Malo to Nice trip in September when the cool autumn mornings start to arrive.

Poppies

Del Norte al Sur: San Sebastián to Tarifa with Saddle Skedaddle

The first trip of the season with Saddle Skedaddle and it was a big one! Having previously done St Malo to Nice and Land’s End to John o’ Groats, it was great to take on another iconic end to end journey.

From the first day, the climbing begins.

Climbing over the Cordillera Cantábrica
Climbing over the Cordillera Cantábrica

There’s some huge open landscape views along the way.

Wide open spaces
Wide open spaces

There was so little traffic on the route, you sometimes wonder where everyone is!

Rolling towards Valverde de los Arroyos
Rolling towards Valverde de los Arroyos
Cyclist friendly roads
Cyclist friendly roads

Over a couple of weeks we had a few drops of rain but the clouds often made a dramatic backdrop to the scenery.

Dramatic skies
Dramatic skies

On the highest point of the route, we even rode in to the clouds.

Climb to the Collado de Serranillos
Climb to the Collado de Serranillos

Roads clung to the side of the hills overlooking the ever changing landscape.

More incredible scenery
More incredible scenery

One of the great things about the trip is the diverse range of incredible accommodation it visits.

Monastery converted to hotel at Guadalupe
Monastery converted to hotel at Guadalupe

As the trip gets further towards the south, the hills don’t let up. There’s a steep climb to the picturesque town of Zuheros.

Rolling out of Zuheros
Rolling out of Zuheros

Towards El Chorro the mountains get really impressive, the roads taking a sinuous route through them.

The road to El Chorro
The road to El Chorro
Sunshine and traffic free
Sunshine and traffic free

During May there are thousands of poppies lining the route, with occasional fields cloaked in bright red.

Poppies
Poppies

Ronda was the penultimate town we visited. Sat atop vertical cliffs and strung together with incredible bridges, this is somewhere I would like to return to.

Ronda view
Ronda view

With one last climb to go, the route is beautiful to the end. Watch out for the strong Levante wind descending to Tarifa. There’s a reason windsurfing is so popular here!

On the road to Tarifa
On the road to Tarifa

Climbing in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas

Morocco had never been a country I longed to visit, until I actually went there.

On arriving in Marrakesh, the classic hustle and bustle became quickly apparent. The taxi ride into the old town miraculously dropped us off very close to our accommodation, from where we were coincidentally met a man who worked there. We were greeted with mint tea and delicious toasted sweet fennel bread, settled in and set off to explore the streets and find some dinner.

The next day we managed to get back to the airport, hire a car and drive south. The terrain outside Marrakesh was flat and featureless, but became more mountainous as we reached our destination for the night, the Kasbah de Tizourgane.

Morning at the Kasbah de Tizourgane
Morning at the Kasbah de Tizourgane

We arrived after the sun had set, giving a more adventurous feel to the steep dirt track up to the gates. However, once our bags were hauled up to the reception in a luggage lift and we were led through the cosy corridors, it was clear we had found a comfortable place to rest. A warm but calm greeting that felt a world away from Marrakesh preceded a delicious meal and sleep. The place seemed to be patronised largely by climbers of varying European origin. We decided to stay here a while.

Approaching Adrar Iffran
Approaching Adrar Iffran

Our first task the following day was to stock up on food and water. Once done, we were able to walk in to wrong crag, giving us a grand and adventurous approach to the south west face of Adrar Iffran, where we managed to get in a 3 pitch VS route to get a feel for the rock. It was at the top of this climb as the sun was setting that it dawned on me how beautiful this landscape could be, that had previously held no appeal. As we descended, the peace and stillness was only broken by the call to prayer resonating around the valley. We arrived back at the car as the light faded and made our way back to the Kasbah.

Sunset at Adrar Iffran
Sunset at Adrar Iffran

The following day we set off to the Samazar valley, our objective lying an hour driving up and down a rough and rocky dirt track. The Hyundai i10 was truly in its element. After a very short walk we found ourselves at the foot of our route, the central buttress of Knight’s Peak, a subsidiary summit of Aylim, The Great Rock. For nearly 500 metres we worked our way up pinnacles, ridges and faces, culminating in the cracked pillar, a battle of an overhanging crack.

Topping out on Knight's Peak
Topping out on Knight’s Peak

Topping out on this outstanding route, the descent lay before us, which turned into the crux of the day; a carpet of thick, thorny undergrowth which lined the valley between us and the car. After a few errors we eventually reached more amenable terraces and the dry riverbed that was the return path.

Finding a way down through the dense spiky undergrowth
Finding a way down through the dense spiky undergrowth

We managed to fit some other climbing in, then the weather deteriorated for a day or two, turning the quartzite rock instantly slick with the first small drops of rain.

Samazar valley view
Samazar valley view

With a new day came better weather and renewed enthusiasm for climbing. We headed towards Tafraout and the Lion’s Face. The approach to this crag is a fairly involved affair through a complex system of gorges.

On the approach to the Lion's Face
On the approach to the Lion’s Face

Our ascent was a combination of following the most natural line and occasional consultation of the guidebook description. The route featured big exposure and sparse gear for protection, but always with good holds. There were frequent patches of loose rock which added to the adventurous feel of the route.

Eventually reaching the ridge which led to the summit, we moved together to the top with an incredible light display unfolding around us.

Descent from Lion's Face
Descent from Lion’s Face

The guidebook struck again on the descent, seeming to avoid using any obvious features of the terrain. A good path became obvious and we found our way down through more spectacular scenery back into the gorge and to the car, just as the last light of the day was fading.

We finished the trip with a night in the beach town of Taghazout, something a little different to end the trip.

The sea at Taghazout
The sea at Taghazout

A winter morning in Houffalize

E25 Transeuropean Road Trip

The E25 is a long distance European journey between Hoek in the north and Palermo in the South. Circumstances necessitated that I drive a large part of this from Cagliari near the southern end in Sardinia to IJmuiden, near Amsterdam in the north.

I arrived in Sardinia via the sprawling beast that is Rome airport in early December; the heavy crowds attracted in summer thankfully not evident on the island.

To break up the drive through Sardinia, I stopped off at Nuraghe Losa, fascinating Bronze Age structures that are thought to have been used for storage and distribution of products of the land.

Bronze Age structures at Nuraghe Losa
Bronze Age structures at Nuraghe Losa

After finally locating the ferry terminal in Porto Torres (hint: look out for the enormous ferry), I embarked, ate and settled in for my first night sleeping on a boat. Sailing across the nocturnal Ligurian Sea, I awoke the next morning at Genoa.

Sunrise over Genoa
Sunrise over Genoa

The road on the way out of Genoa twists up, around and through the mountainous terrain in a bustling arrangement of tunnels and bridges. Eventually a plateau is reached from where the Alps loom in to view. I crossed through the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Entering the Mont Blanc tunnel
Entering the Mont Blanc tunnel

The way north was mostly foggy, with a few frosty trees punctuating the journey to Belgium, where I finished for the day.

The next morning I woke early to temperatures well below zero. With plenty of time to get to the ferry port of IJmuiden, and as I would be passing by, I took a little time in the morning to explore Houffalize, often host to a round of the mountain bike XC World Cup.

A winter morning in Houffalize
A winter morning in Houffalize

Nestled in the Ardennes, it’s a pretty little town in its own right and was a great place to wander around on a cold winter morning.

Boarding the ferry at IJmuiden for another overnight sea voyage was where I left the mainland and returned to the UK. A fun impromptu adventure!

Leaving IJmuiden
Leaving IJmuiden
Descending the Col d'Allos

September in France with Saddle Skedaddle

Another look back at the warm and sunny months; September saw me take on three back to back trips in France for Saddle Skedaddle.

Checking the weather on arrival and things were looking good!

Weather forecast: sunny!
Weather forecast: sunny!

Week 1: Provence, aka Ventoux a Velo

This week could arguably be called the jewel in the crown of the St Malo to Nice journey. From the summit of Mont Ventoux and traversing the gorges de la Nesque and Verdon, arriving just outside Nice after the spectacular Col de Vence.

Upper Verdon Gorge
Upper Verdon Gorge

Week 2: Mont Ventoux to Alpe d’Huez

A wonderful trip that begins with the giant of Provence and spirals into the alps, taking in several high mountain cols.

Descending the Col d'Allos
Descending the Col d’Allos
Stunning cycling in the high Alps
Stunning cycling in the high Alps

Weeks 3 and 4: St Malo to Nice

With no rest days and 14 days of back to back riding, this is a slightly faster paced affair than the 3 week trip. In a contrast to the heat of summer, the first signs of autumn arriving in France were prevalent: leaves on the turn; crisp, bright mornings; and shorter daylight.

Morning light through trees
Morning light through trees
Autumn flowering crocuses by the roadside
Autumn flowering crocuses by the roadside
Riding around the Ardèche
Riding around the Ardèche
Morning mist under Mont Ventoux
Morning mist under Mont Ventoux
Castellane: near the end of the journey
Castellane: near the end of the journey