James Marr heads into the Maritime Alps to escape the gluttony of Monaco by following the historic Little Maginot Line
I‘ve always been aware of Monaco’s reputation for being slightly off the wall; today, as I wind leisurely down Avenue des Spélugues, it appears they’ve surpassed themselves. Cheek by jowl along Boulevard du Larvotto crowds of photographers jostle for a snap of what I believe to be an oligarch’s latest accessory: a lime-green Lamborghini howling like a Cerberus unleashed from his chains.
Though it turns out I’m only partially right for, in fact, the whole Principality is echoing with the growling and wailing of highly-tuned engines; shutting my eyes for a couple of seconds I feel sure I’ve stumbled across a scene from Jurassic Park.
Not content to wait for the arrival of May’s F1 circus, the powers-that-be have organised the pottiest car show on Earth. Now in its 13th year, the Top Marques Motorshow delivers the world’s finest supercars – unrecognisable Ferraris, McLarens and Aston Martins – crackling and burbling onto the half-completed Grand Prix circuit of Monaco, and the atmosphere is absolutely stunning.
Any tour along the south coast of France demands an excess of eating and drinking, and a morning of madness in Monte Carlo. But now it’s time to move on. I hustle back through the streets, for I’ve another mission in mind: it’s time to strap on the lid, slip on the gloves and throw a leg back over my Honda XRV 750.
The mountain roads behind Monaco provide some of the best backcountry motorcycling to be found anywhere in Europe; what better way to escape the crowds than a sprint to the Col de Turini.
The road out of Monaco climbs rapidly to the autoroute, the yachts down in the bay shrinking quickly from view. Blasting east towards Genoa, after the blur of a couple of tunnels, I’m darting down the exit, turning into the road leading up to the village of Sospel.
This is where the fun really begins: these are tight, unforgiving turns, where a slip of concentration leaves you fighting to tighten the line. This is no moment to be lazy with the gears: the corners come quick and fast, some hidden in shade, others bathed in glorious sunlight. The forks rise and dip along the short straights, and then it’s down with the knee, crank the bike into the corner and back onto the throttle.
For focusing the mind there is no equal to this cocktail of concentration and adrenaline rush: by the time I’ve ascended the 600m to the Tunnel of Castillon any grogginess from the previous night’s excesses has been blown away.
In the tunnel, I cut through the 700m of cold, humid air until the vista of the Alpes Maritime draws me back into the warmth. From here the road descends in a series of generous, exhilarating bends, all the way down to the Bévéra Valley.
Back in the 1600s, Sospel was a staging post in the so-called salt route from Nice to Turin. Salt harvested on the coast was carried by mule trains to the markets beyond these valleys and high passes; the route via this village was just one of many to be used.
I slow to pass the 13th Century bridge spanning the Bévéra River. It’s now closed to traffic, though in former times it was here where the salt traders drove their mules to the other side, in the process providing a handy toll for the Dukes of Savoy, who controlled this region.
Today the village is steadily recovering from a serious case of neglect; a stroll in the old town hints at its former wealth. Families migrating from expensive real estate down on the coast means new housing developments flourish here like the spring bloom.
Sospel is a thoroughly pleasant place for a coffee beside the river, except I’ve a plan to stick to and I need to be back in the saddle, gunning it along the D2566 towards Moulinet. The road ahead soon narrows as it enters the Gorges du Piaon, the weathered tarmac less even here. Stone-fall litters the next bend, causing a flutter of the heart and a tweak of the brake.
The danger over, I surge on between the vertical walls of the gorge. This might not be the greatest of surfaces to scrub rubber from the likes of an MV Augusta 675 but for the dual-sport capability of Honda’s Africa Twin, every mile is like open season.
Soon the hairpins are so tight I’m down to first gear. The black tyre marks on the bends remind me how this road features as a special stage in the Monte Carlo Rally, its aura of mystique heightened by the number of world-class drivers who have come to grief.
Being a winter rally the drivers usually face a perilous combination of snow and ice as they ascend the valley. Now it’s later in the season, thankfully, I have neither to contend with. Once I’ve cleared the dozy village of Moulinet I’m back on the throttle, weaving the final few miles up through the Moulinet Forest.
At just over 1,600m altitude the Col de Turini is a degree or two cooler than down on the coast. There’s a small ski station cutting swathes through the forested slopes that’s popular with the locals, though now the snow has melted the handful of cafés and restaurants are populated by bikers taking a break from the road.
A trip up here is never complete without a tour of the Massif de l’Authion, located a few miles further up the road. Following Operation Dragoon and the Allied invasion of Southern France in August 1944, the Authion Massif became the scene of some of the last battles fought on French soil during the closing stages of World War II.
It was here, at over 2,000m altitude, entrenched in this network of defensive positions, the retreating German forces attempted to slow the Allied advance. On the short, one-way circuit of the Authion I pass an abandoned US Stewart battle tank.
Whilst this plateau of Alpine meadows is a picture of calm, evidence as to the ferocity of the battle back in the spring of 1945 can be seen in the shattered forts and bullet-riddled blockhouses. Today, cows and sheep graze beside the trenches and bomb craters marking these meadows like a warrior’s old scars.
Back down at the Col de Turini and it’s now late afternoon – time for a return to the coast. I continue on the D2566, hanging a left at the turning to Luceram. From here the road winds tightly back down to the foot of the Cime de Moureou, splitting left again onto the D54, this narrow road winds steadily through the forests, all the way to the Col de Braus.
From the Col a dirt track leads over the Crête de la Lavina. Along the ridges I lap up the views of Nice and Cannes and a very distant Saint Tropez, until a cluster of switchbacks drops me down to Sainte Agnès, a village of cobbled streets and vaulted passages occupying a position high above the bay of Menton.
The fort at Sainte Agnès was built in the 1930s. One of the largest of the defensive blockhouses constructed in the Alps, its range of artillery kept guard over the approaches to Menton. Many of the forts along the Maginot Line are now museums and open to visitors at certain times of the year.
I peel back the left cuff of my jacket. It’s 5.00 pm. It’ll take me 20 minutes to drop down into Menton. I can taste that beer already!
What is the Maginot Line?
The Maginot Line consists of a series of fortifications that were built by the French in the 1930s in anticipation of war. The mainline ran along the country’s northeastern borders with Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg, though the Little Maginot Line, or Alpine Line, was constructed along the southeast border with Italy.
Due to the mountainous terrain of the Maritime Alps making progress difficult for any invading forces, the fortifications of the Little Maginot Line were centred around the main mountain passes and obvious routes of attack. The fortifications in Menton and Nice were primarily positioned to defend the coastal road and railway.
The Little Maginot Line only saw action during the failed Italian Invasion of France during 1940.
EasyJet flies to Nice from a range of regional UK airports with return tickets often costing less than £100. Expect a flight time of about two hours. If you choose to fly there you can take advantage of the various companies that will transport your bike to Nice so that it’s ready for you to pick up when you get off the plane. Motofreight offers transportation of a BMW R1200GS size motorcycle from London to Nice from £425 + VAT. Visit www.motofreight.com for more details.
Riding to Nice:
Alternatively, you could ride down on your own bike and cross the Channel on the Eurostar or ferry. We recommend taking at least two days to do this so that you can take your time and enjoy the journey, perhaps even taking in the magnificent roads of the Vercors.
There’s a huge range of accommodation in Nice and if you book early enough you can get some great deals. Hotels and hostels are available in abundance and there are campsites in the surrounding areas, though it’s advisable to book before you stay.