The morning found us both refreshed by the nights sleep, though we were still hungry from the inadequate feeding the night before. We hurriedly packed, moved downstairs, and found breakfast to be the usual fare of bread, spread, and hot chocolate. After eating everything on the table we were once again ready to move on.
Getting our bikes out, we rolled down towards the new town, following signs to the Col D'Izoard (2361m). When the Col began it was almost disappointing, because it looked so much like any other road in the suburbs. Replacing helmets with caps made it look much better, as the road quickly rose, granting us good views of Briancon and its surroundings. After we passed the big manor that I had mistaken for old town Briancon the day before, the road started dipping and weaving along side a river that once again told us that we were going to someplace high. As we climbed, there was sign after sign telling us that the road was closed, but since several motorcycles passed us we felt safe ignoring the signs.
The rest of the climb was beautiful and not too long, since Briancon is at 1330m, and but we reached the top feeling residual tiredness from the day before. There was a little kiosk, and we bought some water, since we didn't know how far it would take before we would get some, but we didn't need to bother. There was a line across the road, but motorcycles crossed it without any trouble, so we presumed the road was open and descended, right into some construction which we got around as the construction crew directed us. Beyond that, the descent would be car free, which let us take the corners extremely quickly until we got to La Chap, where we bought ice cream before resuming the descent into Guillestere (1090m).
Once in Guillestre, we found a supermarket that was opened, and guess whose bikes were parked outside but our friends Allain & Jean! Excited, we went in and bought lunch, sunscreen, another bottle of shampoo (since we had left the shampoo bottle in Briancon), and agreed quickly to join them for a picnic lunch. Allain & Jean pointed me at a British cyclist who I might be able to ask about various passes, and he told me that Col de Bonnette wasn't a very good climb, while Col de la Cayolle was beautiful, with shade at the bottom, which sounded very much like the ideal thing. Like the others, he had no experience with the rough stuff pass I wanted to do, which was Col du Parpaillon.
Allain & Jean had asked around and found a park with a little bit of shade, water, and even a WC. We sat around eating lunch, which was cottage cheese, bananas, bread, and meat. Allain asked us when we started this morning and we said around 8:30. They said they'd started at 7. We asked if they did Alp D'Huez, and they said no. We told them that we were pretty tired from yesterday's ride, and Col de Vars wasn't really recommended by the OCD guide, so we going to ride towards Embrun and do Col du Parpaillon. Upon hearing that, Jean perked up, and started talking. Apparently, here was someone that's done it before! It turned out that he had done it years before in a car. He reminded me that the road was unpaved (yes, I knew that), and told me that there was a tunnel at the top (which I didn't know about). He said it was probably best done with a mountain bike (well, I knew that), but I made a pushing motion which told him that i was willing to get off and push the bike as necessary.
Allain dug into his stash of maps, and surprise of surprises, he had a photocopy of a hiking scale (1:100000) map of the Embrun area which had Col du Parpaillon on it, along with the dirt road fully marked. He generously gave me the map, seeing that he wasn't going that way himself. We finished lunch and went on our way, never to see our French friends again. I gave Allain my card and hoped he would send me e-mail later.
We rode down to the national highway towards Embrun. Traffic was heavy, but after only a kilometer I spotted a turnoff towards St. Andre D'Embrun. Looking at the road, we decided that it might have a little bit more climbing, but the lack of traffic would be worth it. As we turned onto the small one-lane road, we found the climbing delightful along small houses, farms, with occasional rolled up haystacks sitting in fields. The warm summer made us appreciate the occasional tree. Looking across the river at the main road, I realized that we didn't actually do any extra climbing, but had a beautiful view and little traffic.
After winding through little towns for awhile, Mike & I agreed that we'd try to find something preferably along the route, rather than descending to Embrun and then riding back up. So at the next Gite (at Miel) I asked for Mike to stop while I went in to see if there was room. The proprietor was someone who spoke English fortunately, and he told me that they were no vacancies. However, at Les Rauffes (a town so small it wasn't even on the map Allain gave us) further up ahead (and exactly along our route) there was a Gite called "Le Grande Ferme", which could possibly take us. He drew us a little map, and told us that it was a restaurant as well.
We rode in that direction, and sure enough, found a sign pointing to "Le Grande Ferme", along with directions. Ominously enough, there was also a sign for Col du Parpaillon, along with a closed sign hung on it. Following the directions led us down a tiny road and we eventually came across a large stone building with chairs outside with the Gite symbol that didn't look open. Mike and I left our bikes there and walked in through a door, up some stairs, and then opened another door on the left that looked someone like an office. There, a swarthy French gentleman name Thierry greeted us. "Do you have a room for 2 people?" "I don't know, let me check.... Ah, yes, I have a room, now let me talk to my woman and make sure it is OK." He smiled. In a little bit, he came back, and said, "It's OK. Let me show you your room." We followed him along a maze of passages and it opened up into a room in a basement but with natural light coming in through a side winow. "OK?" "Yes, we'll take it!" "It's not ready right now but will be in an hour or so." He then showed us upstairs, where he pointed out a place in the building where we could keep the bikes, and then showed us the garden, complete with lawn chairs we could lie down on under a cherry tree. "You're welcome to pick the cherries and eat!" I asked him about the signs below that indicated that Col du Parpaillon was closed. He said, "Let me call the next village and ask." A few minutes later: "There is ice in the tunnel on the top, but I think it should be OK."
Finally, he showed us the cellar , a cool beautiful place that just stunned me. I asked for a photograph right there. I asked about Col du Parpaillon, and he said he'd call to the next village, which he did almost immediately with the response, "There's ice in the tunnel, but I think it should be OK." We then our bikes in the appropriate parking spaces, and went to sit in the garden with the cherry trees , SMS'd Lisa, eating cherries as I went. I was delighted to find such a lovely place. The views of Embrun and the lake right next to it were nothing short of gorgeous.
When our room was ready, we went in, took a shower, washed our clothes and then hung them out to dry. We hung out a bit,and then I realized I hadn't asked about dinner. I went down to meet Thierry again, and asked him when dinner was served in the restaurant. He looked startled and said, "No, the restaurant has been closed for 8 months!" "The sign down there still said, Restaurant." "I painted out one sign but didn't do the other sign." "Is there another restaurant in town?" "No." He looked at me again, "You're cyclists. I'll make something for you. Anything you like to eat?" "We'll eat anything, we're not picky. Thank you very much." "I'll come get you around 7:30 or so."
I gave Mike the good news, then went back to sit under the cherries again. A storm was brewing and the wind blew hard. I hoped that would dry out our clothes faster, but with the increasing humidity I thought it was a lost cause. Nevertheless, it was fun watching the clouds move and the wind did occasionally pick a ripe cherry and drop it down onto my lap. When 7:00pm came around I took all the clothing off the clothes-lines and hung it back in our room.
When the call to dinner came, we went downstairs and sat down in the porch that we saw when we first came. He first served us bread with park pate, and we ate all the pate. Then came the tabouleh, a rice starter, which we did not make that much headway into. Finally a huge bowl of pasta, and the best roasted wild duck I had ever had in my life. The food was great and there was lots of it. When everything was finished, a big bowl of cherries came out, but we had already stuffed ourselves with cherries, so we left that untouched and went back to our rooms and slept the sleep of the tired.
On this trip, we frequently saw folks who were on fully supported tours, riding up the mountains without a load. I would not be honest if I didn't say that there are moments when if I could pay money for someone else to carry my load I would. But the truth is, finding a beautiful country Gite, a road that wouldn't appear on any guided tour's itinerary, and the adventure of doing whatever we wanted to, whenever we wanted to is what makes everything we do worthwhile, and this day (and the next) are the highlights that I will remember year after year. I'm not publishing any phone #s or addresses for Le Grande Ferme --- the last thing I want is to have Le Grande Ferme turn into another Hotel Rosenlaui, where I have to make reservations even to get dorm accomodations. But if you are going there by bicycle, feel free to contact me and I will tell you where it is.