‘Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour…’
I’ve already expressed my infatuation with the confines of the underground car park. Now I visit the other extreme, my desire to Climb Every Mountain – as long as I can do it in a car. Although I’ve shaken off most my youthful fears, some things remain. I’ve always hated heights for instance, even though a part of my working life has involved climbing ladders and towers, but I’ve never been at my ease. And take me to the edge of a precipice and the inevitable desire to either launch myself off it or to run away takes hold. So I guess I’d make a lousy mountaineer. But put me in a car driving along the edge of that precipice at 100kph and I’m fine. Mid-Summer sun, torrential rain or snow are all fine by me too, though the last does demand the right tyres to make it less of a gamble. And the view from a mountain top is one of those rare times you do get a reasonable and refreshing confirmation of your own insignificance.
Summer 1962, my parents and I started on what seemed a great adventure, taking my Mum’s Wolseley 15/60 on holiday to the South of France. The mechanism of travel may sound odd today, but it was pre-Autoroute and there were strict limits on how much currency you could take overseas, which meant that you only wanted to spend so much on expensive French petrol. We crossed the Channel on a Silver City Bristol Superfreighter, then boarded a car train to Lyon, cutting out half the driving. This wasn’t actually the first time we’d visited France, but this time it was going to be different. I’d looked at the maps in advance and between Lyon and our destination there was the small matter of ‘Les Alpes’. And The Alps scared me.
Around ten years later, the first time I saw the Italian Job, which was on TV a few years after its release, I could think of no more perfect scenario than climbing an Alpine road at the wheel of an example of V12 engined exotica, the staccato bark of the exhausts ricocheting off the granite mountainsides, whilst the soft thrum of motoring clichés blended in my mind with the mellow tones of ….sodding Matt Munro! And then my orange dream Miura gets turned to scrap in some bloody tunnel. Actually I think that was the aversion therapy I needed. Since then, I’ve never been able to consider the playboy lifestyle behind the wheel of an impractical, overpriced two seater with no luggage space seriously. But it didn’t put me off mountains. Not in the least.
Because, despite my initial fears, that trip in the Wolseley was a revelation. For various reasons, I was a timid child. I’d had a bad injury when I was very young, and I’d moved from a village environment to a bigger town, and …. actually I don’t really know why, since I never went down the therapy route, but by the time we went on our holiday I had become a big worrier. And my biggest worry was there on the map of our route that I’d foolishly pored over before we left. Oddly, I already knew the name Castellane, because some people who lived down the road from us had called their house that, in the way that people used to try to bring the exotic to our then rather grey land. But now the name had taken on a terrifying prospect. There, on the map, just North West of the town of Castellane in the Provencal Alps, on the Route Napoleon, was a series of hairpin bends which, I became convinced, would be our nemesis.
There were just so many bad ways our adventure could end. Although I assumed that both my parents were good drivers, there was the chance of poor French roadbuilding, resulting in an avalanche, other drivers forcing us over the edge or, of course, that staple of Elstree Studio TV dramas, sawn through brake cables (when did hydraulics finally arrive into screenwriters consciousness?). Doubtless bands of Apaches, en vacances from Paris, would do just that sort of thing to rob us. And that was just scratching the surface of possibilities.
As soon as we got off the train at Lyon, a feeling of dread descended. The day after would be the end. That day dawned and we set out. I’d expected the Alps to loom in front of us, but they just faded in. One moment we were flat, then I noticed we were climbing and views were opening out. So far so good, and at first the experience was great and my mood lifted a bit. The road meandered, climbing, descending, climbing – not scary at all and with magnificent scenery, but then there was that still that awful bit before Castellane to come. As the dread descended again a road sign appeared “Castellane”. We were entering the town – we had driven over the fearful road and I hadn’t actually realised.
Since then I’ve loved driving in mountains, particularly once I had a licence so that I could drive myself. I can do it all day, and I have done it all day, to the sometime irritation of my partner when she has pointed out that we could have gone the straight route in half the time. In fact, the D4085 into Castellane isn’t very challenging at all, and I’ve been up far more precipitous roads since. And, really, it doesn’t matter that much what I’m driving – slow cars, fast cars, vans, motorhomes – they all offer their own pleasures and challenges.
Just as with my comments about multi-storey car parks, I can’t help those movies playing sometimes. I saw Goldfinger the year after my conversion on the road to Castellane and, despite the bits of iffy back projection, the scenes filmed around The Furka Pass in Switzerland are highly memorable. The Furka and the adjacent Susten are well worth a visit, as is the Grossglockner High Alpine Road in Austria, though there seems something a bit Disneyland about a mountain road you have to pay to go on. It is a spectacular climb, popular with bikers and I’ve been there and bought the T-Shirt, but not done that, if you mean done that on a motorbike. It’s a regret, because motorcycling up mountains must be a great pleasure, but I don’t go on holiday on my own and, despite having toured on a bike in the past, I’ve acknowledged that it is often an unrewarding experience for the pillion passenger.
So I just got out of my motorhome and popped into the souvenir shop at the summit. The small, usually seasonal, communities that exist at the summits of mountain roads are another pleasure. Many probably view them as a chance to fleece tourists, with an overpriced microwaved soup and a singing toy marmot. But that’s certainly not always so, and I enjoy the small differences and the odd surprises, such as the car park on the Col D’Aubisque in the Pyrenees which is usually over-run with voracious ponies and cows.
Going up is, of course, easier than going down. Ascending, you have gravity pulling you back from disaster. Descending needs more circumspection and you need to realise quite how much inertia you have if things go wrong. I’m a pretty fast descender where safe, but this Summer I was quite happy for a cyclist to pass me on a steep descent between two hairpins – small reward for all the energy he must have put into his climb.
I’m not a list maker, but I’ve done most of the major Western European passes multiple times, and a significant number of the lesser ones. This year I discovered a new range, the Picos De Europa in Northern Spain. But ever since I saw the Clouzot film Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear) some time in the Sixties, I’ve known that there are other mountain roads I’d like to visit but, alas, probably never will. They’re far more challenging than the refined routes of Europe, and sometimes made even worse by eccentric driving. I’d always assumed that I’d never visit the challenging looking South American mountain roads of The Wages Of Fear, until I discovered recently that I almost certainly have – it was filmed entirely in the South of France. But that was in the days before tarmac got laid nearly everywhere. You still can find the occasional rough and gravelly bit, and I did visit Norway when it still had a fair amount of un-metalled surfaces, with a memorable descent after midnight, curving down above a lake in night-time sunlight.
Today’s roads are generally far less challenging, but should still be treated with respect. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realise what can happen if you put a wheel over the edge and I had a notable nighttime drive some years ago along Les Gorges du Verdon, coincidentally near Castellane, during a storm, when torrential rain was washing rocks onto the road. Many passes are closed in the Winter but there are plenty of climbs to be had, though snow and ice can catch you out. And, of course, don’t assume that all drivers stay on their side of the road.
So, as I enter the seventh hairpin, I double declutch and the front wheels bite as the stolid throb of the Iveco diesel echoes off the granite, my gaze stretches beyond the sloping bonnet of my Fiat motorhome and, despite my own musical preferences, I find myself humming …. “on days like these ….”