Route des Grandes Alpes (Great Alpine Road) Part 2
This is the second part of our Route des Grandes Alpes article. We will travel from Briançon to Menton in four stages.
From Briançon to Barcelonnette (100km)
The historical centre of Briançon is strongly fortified. It was built by Vauban (a famous military engineer) to defend the region from Austrians thread in the 17th century. The streets are very steep and narrow, though picturesque. Briançon lies at the foot of the Col de Montgenèvre, giving access to Turin, so a great number of other fortifications have been constructed on the heights around the town. The Fort Janus is no less than 1,200 m. above the town. Several of these fortifications were classified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, such as the city walls, Fort des Trois-Têtes and Fort du Randouillet.
When leaving Briançon, we take the good old D902 again and start to climb the Col d’Izoard. The ascent of this col totals about 20 km. The percentages of the first three kilometers are close to 6%, but then the road becomes almost flat again for a few kilometers up to Cervières. From there, the second part is much harder. The last ten kilometers are often close to 8% with lots of hairpin turns.
One km after passing the hamlet of Le Laus, the winding road climbs through a forest of larches. When getting close to the top of 2360m, the landscape changes suddenly. Trees make place for the Casse Desert; this is an extremely rugged area which some describe as a lunar landscape.
After the top, we start descending towards Guillestre. The first kilometers are very steep and involve a lot of turning. After the road junction between the D902 and D947 we are back in the valley, the road becomes flatter and we start following the river Guil. The Guil has cut out a steep canyon throughout the years, resulting in a spectacular landscape which is a pleasure to drive trough.
Arriving in Guillestre, we head further South to Barcelonette. Another mountain pass awaits us here: the Col de Vars (2108m). A few kilometers after the top of this col we can see another fortified complex, the Fort de Tournoux. It was built between 1843 and the early 1900 to defend France against invasion from Italy. It is known as the "Military Versailles of the 19th century," resembling a Tibetan monastery on the mountainside above the Ubaye valley. The complex is actually an ensemble of fortifications, including some "batteries" that rival the main fort in size and power.
The Fort is constructed up the side of the mountain from 1300 meters altitude to 2000 meters in several levels. The lowest level at 1300m is the barracks next to the main road from the Col de Vars. Linking these with the Fort Moyen (middle fort) is a road, constructed to allow mules to ascend with carts at a maximum gradient of 10% with frequent hairpin turns. The hairpins were constructed so that the mules could park their double-ended carts and run-around to pull the cart in the opposite direction up the next stretch, thus avoiding the need to turn around the hairpin bends, which often caused carts to topple over and spill their contents.
The barracks and the Fort Moyen are also linked by an enormous staircase with over 1000 steps which was constructed in the rock, with windows opening onto the “French” side of the fort. From the Fort Moyen there is a serpentine road that hugs the mountainside up to the Fort Supérieur. Above this upper fort there is another underground passage that links further up to the Batterie du Clos des Caurres. At the top of the mountain there is also an observatory and another gun emplacement.
After visiting the fort we follow the road until we reach a junction, there we take the D900 out of the valley to Barcelonette.
From Barcelonnette to Valberg (77km)
In Barcelonette you have two options to get to Valberg: you can drive back on the D900 to Jausiers to take there the D64 and the Col de la Bonette. Later on the road number changes to D2205. In the village of Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée we take the D30 which becomes the D28 to Valberg.
The other option is to take the D902 out of Barcelonette and climb the Col de la Cayolle. Later on the road number changes to D2202. In the village of Guillaumes we then take the D28 to Valberg. We choose for this option.
Located at 2326 meters altitude, the Col de la Cayolle provides a road link between the Ubaye valley to the north and the Var valley to the south. We start our climb in the Gorges du Bachelard, a canyon cut out by the Bachelard river. The route takes us trough Mercantour National Park. The protected area covers some 685 km², consisting of a central uninhabited zone comprising seven valleys and a peripheral zone comprising 28 villages. If you’re lucky you can spot a chamois or a marmot.
While descending the col, we cross the border between the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes department. There the road number changes from D902 to D2202. We also leave the national park here.
We keep following the road to Guillaumes. There we turn left on the D28 for another 13km to Valberg, a well known ski-resort.
From Valberg to Saint-Martin-Vésubie (58km)
6km after leaving Valberg, we arrive in Beuil, a small mountain village. There we have to turn left on to the D30 to Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, driving over the Col de la Couillole, a small mountain pass of 1678m. As we are getting closer to the Mediterranean, the mountain landscape changes. From here on there are no more snowy mountain peaks nor high mountain passes.
In Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée we head south on the D2205. After 4km we leave this road again and turn left on the D2565 to Saint-Martin-Vésubie. While driving this part of the route you’ll encounter some bunkers and casemates. These are the remnants of the French Maginot Line defense system. The Maginot Line was built between World War I and II to defend France against German or Italian invasions. Especially Ouvrage Rimplas is worth a visit. The ouvrage consists of one entry block, two infantry blocks and three artillery blocks at an altitude of 986 meters. It also features an aerial tram entrance.
Located on a height to the southwest of Rimplas, the position was heavily fortified, with large expanses of wall armored with 20 cm steel plate and other sections overlaid with stone masonry. The underground portion of the system covers three levels.
After this bunker intermezzo we keep following the road until we reach Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a small mountain village with narrow streets and a very rich history. It was also the second village in France that was electrified (in 1893). You can still visit the old power plant that provided electricity in that period.
From Saint-Martin-de-Vésubie to Menton (79km)
We leave Saint-Martin-de-Vésubie and drive further south on the D2565 trough the valley. After about 12km we turn left on the D70 and start to climb our last mountain pass: the Col de Turini (1607). It is famous for a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally which is held on the tight road with its many hairpin turns. Until a few years ago, the Turini was also driven at night, with thousands of fans watching the "Night of the Long Knives" as it was called, due to the strong high beam lights of the rally cars cutting through the night. The pass was also featured in Top Gear when the presenters went in search of the greatest driving road in the world.
At the road junction between the D70 and the D2566 we need to follow the D2566 to Sospel. While descending we also pass by the chapel of Notre Dame de la Nemours with its distinctive access path.
Sospel itself dates back to the 5th century, when it served as an important staging post on the royal road from Nice to Turin. The toll bridge used by travelers to cross the river, built in the 13th century, still stands. There are also remnants of the 14th century city walls. According to a tourist website, the town is “popular with cyclists, motorcyclists and fans of twisty-road driving”, which means we’re in the right place :).
We keep following the D2566 and pass by castillon, where we can see the Viaduc du Caramel, an old tramway viaduct. From that point we drive our last kilometers until we reach Menton, the end of the Route des Grandes Alpes, where we can put our feet in the Mediterranean Sea.