We awoke to another idyllic day. The lake was clear and still, the sky blue and crisp, the weather warm and inviting. We had breakfast in the hotel, watching the boats ferry folk around between the towns and Islands. After we had eaten, Lena wanted another swim in the lake before we left, so she went off to do that, while I packed up our gear, checked routes and satnav settings, and got into my travelling gear.
We loaded up and got ready to leave – I had a wobble as I was backing the bike out of the parking spot, and nearly dropped it. It weighs 408 kg without any gear or petrol, or me, so it does not need much of an angle tip to want to lie down. With help from Lena and one of the staff who happened to be passing I managed not to drop it, but cramped up my left calf in the process.
We road south along the lake shore for 3 km to Stresa, the next town along. Lena had fallen in love with the sparkling red wine we had discovered in Baveno, and there was a specialist wine dealer in Stresa that we hoped would stock it. I am not sure where we would have fitted any bottles on the bike, but the dealer did not have any, so we left disappointed. Heading back north now, we rode alongside Maggiore for 7 km, then turned west and headed up towards the mountains.
The Simplon Pass awaited us. Sempione in Italian, Simplon in French/German, it is 2005 m high, and connects this part of Italy with the Rhone Valley. The climb was pretty, and easy on a wide road. We stopped at the top of the pass, and had a very expensive lunch (welcome to Switzerland). Then down to Brig, in the heart of the Rhone Valley.
The Rhone rises at the Rhone Glacier, some 35km north-east of Brig. We travelled through the Rhone Valley in France 6 years ago when we did our first big bike tour – you can read about that day here. Today we rode along a much more timid version of the Rhone as it first gathers momentum and is still tentative, before turning into the massive body that powers the industrial areas further west and south.
Here the Rhone Valley was up to about a kilometre wide, and surrounded by high mountains on both sides, and punctuated by efficient-looking, but unremarkable and non-aesthetically pleasing towns. We rode through this valley for about 80 km or so, and then at the approach to Martigny we turned north and headed up towards Italy, via the Great St Bernard Pass.
Much higher than the Simplon pass, the route takes you through very spectacular scenery. A few twisty hairpin bends, but nothing we couldn’t handle as they were reasonably wide. There is a tunnel that takes you through the final 6km of the traverse, but if you are heading to the actual col, where the Hospice and Inn of the order of St Bernard sit, then you take the narrow road leading up there, just before the tunnel starts.
We are staying at the Inn tonight, so we took the route up before the tunnel starts. The road climbed high, and fast, and offered some – much more challenging – twisty roads and hairpins. We navigated these safely enough (I am getting better at these 2-up sharp corners on the Harley), and found ourselves 2473m above sea level, at the Inn and Hospice.
The views down both sides are pretty, and the southern view is spectacular, with snow-topped giants poking the clouds. The pass has been a major route for thousands of years – both Julius Caesar and Napoleon led troops over the pass. The Great St Bernard Hospice was founded here in 1049, and has been in existence since then, but there have been inns and buildings here since Roman times.
St Bernard dogs were originally bred here, strong enough to plough through the snow, and with a keen sense of smell to find lost travellers. The snow can get 10 metres deep on the pass in the winter, and the road is closed from November to June. We haven’t seen a real St Bernard dog here, but there are plenty of posters, and souvenir toy dogs everywhere.
After arrival and decanting our bags to our room, we had a bit of an explore. There is a small tarn just south of the Inn – apparently it does not thaw fully in some summers. It was pretty windy and cold (about 3 degrees), so we stayed out as long as we could before heading back to the inn for a couple of drinks before dinner.
We are now in bed after a lovely cheese fondue dinner, updating our blogs and listening to the wind howl through the narrow pass. Tomorrow – mountains and lakes once more, though in France this time. Night night…..