The day before day 1
At 4 pm on the day Giles and I were due to leave we had no plan, no idea of where we were headed or even a decision on whether to leave today or tomorrow. So we went to a bar, ordered beer and started trying to figure things out. Many beers later we still had no plan but we were getting hungry so we moved to Giles’ house to eat and continue to drink until a plan miraculously revealed itself to us and at 10 pm it did: we decided to leave there and then.
Luckily it chose that moment to piss down with rain so we carried on drinking, waiting for it to stop which it didn’t. And anyway we were now very very drunk indeed and rule number 6 states that if you can’t walk you should not attempt to mount a bicycle so we decided that tomorrow morning we’d head off in the direction of least hills, and called it a night.
Riding is usually a good way of getting rid of a bad hangover but the weather was grey and depressing and the road was covered with thousands of little smears of slug road-kill which made my hangover worse not better. Lunch was crap, but luckily the beer and wine served alongside it contained alcohol and sugar, and after lunch the sun came out and the day set about improving.
We were headed to a magical place called le Bourget du Lac which I had read about in an easyJet in-flight magazine, of all places. It’s a tiny little town round the lake from Aix-les-Bains, and it’s home to no less than five (5!) Michelin starred restaurants. It sits on a lake surrounded by mountains, with plenty of lakeside terraces upon which to enjoy aperitifs and there’s a public beach which is a perfect place to sleep and has hot showers.
We chose one of the Michelin starred restaurants at random. They didn’t care that we were dressed like a pair of vagrants and sat us at a great table. The meal was spectacular in every way, one of the best I’ve ever had (top 20, easy) and by London standards ridiculously good value. The service was friendly and excellent, and we drank (2 bottles of) local white Chignin-Bergeron. Savoie wine isn’t always the best, some of it is thin, acidic and nasty, but this stuff was delicious.
The place we ate is called le Grange du Sel and it rocks. That said the other Michelin starred places are all probably just as good.
The evening finished with a couple of large cigars in the garden of the restaurant, washed down with glasses of Calvados that I think were given to us by the waiters who were amused by these two French speaking englishmen who showed up on bicycles and drank too much. I think they thought we were some sort of posh football hooligan, which in Giles’ case is not far from the truth.
Satiated and extremely happy we headed to the beach to camp. The one drawback of sleeping next to lakes is that it’s usually teeming with mosquitoes. I half considered putting up my tent, but instead we doused ourselves in insect repellent and crashed out, drunkenly convinced that everything would be just fine…
We woke to find that everything had, remarkably, indeed been just fine and we were not covered in a zillion mosquito bites. This goes to show that decisions made under the influence of 8 times the daily recommended allowance of alcohol are always 100% reliable. In fact, if you ever have any important, momentous, life changing decisions to make, you should always get hammered before making them.
After enjoying the luxury of a hot shower before breakfast we headed into town to eat delicious croissants and drink fucking awful coffee. The town was hosting a rally for shed built solar powered vehicles and it was entertaining to sit and watch all the different designs trundle by. Some were pretty professional looking machines, others were Heath Robinson nightmare contraptions that shuddered and rattled and broke down. None, disappointingly, looked like the future of automotive transport.
We set off, cycling gaily (happily) past the wrecked dreams of blinking men who had spent months tinkering in their sheds, and got onto the Avenue Verte Nord de Chambery, one of the excellent Voie Vertes which make cycling in France such a joy and the praises of which I have sung elsewhere.
After an enjoyable 30km spent not getting crushed under trucks, we turned left somewhere after Chambery and headed towards Albertville. We now faced a choice between the flat but bleak, busy D1006, or a lovely, twisty, quiet, picturesque road running parallel to it that went up and down a lot. As befits any important decision, we stopped for a drink and discussed the pros and cons.
Several beers later we bravely decided to take the hilly route. All things considered it was probably the right decision, but I won’t say we didn’t end up regretting it.
For roughly 40km, an entire afternoon, we toiled up steep hills, all too briefly freewheeled down the other side, and then started all over again. To iron legged Frenchmen it would have been no more than a leisurely afternoon jaunt, but we are unfit, middle aged, functioning alcoholics.
We arrived at our destination, a little village called Mercury halfway up a mountain, shattered and completely unprepared for what happened next.
On Google Earth, Mercury looked promising. It was perched on the side of a mountain overlooking Albertville. A small lake at the entrance to the village had tennis courts next to it, indicating a municipal sports complex (usually great places to sleep), probably with showers (if the lake was too cold to swim in). It was big enough to have several bars and a couple of restaurants. On paper, then, 10/10 but Google Earth does not tell the whole story.
In reality the lake was a swamp, the tennis courts were run down and everything that might have been showers was locked. There were housing projects just up the hill from the “lake” with burned out cars in front of them. There was a wedding going on, with badly dressed in-bred guests hanging out next to the swamp having their pictures taken. A very big, very upset and very drunk young man was screaming incoherently – presumably at the bride, but who really knows – and gangs of feral kids roamed around smashing things up.
Feeling a little intimidated we ventured further into town to find a bar and settle our nerves. The bars were all shut and – maybe it was just our state of mind by this point – everyone we saw looked aggressive and unstable. Ironic really because a stable was, on the face of it, where they were conceived, born, raised and currently domiciled. We couldn’t help feeling there’s something very wrong with Mercury. It’s the sort of place where if you linger too long you end up being ordered to squeal like a piggy by some squinting retard with a banjo.
We fled down the mountain, but as relieved as we were to escape with our dignity and our anuses intact, it was depressing to be headed towards Albertville: it’s an industrial shithole you drive past rather than go to, and not a good place to camp rough. But at least it had a municipal pool.
After a swim and a shower, feeling a lot better, we headed towards a green area around a lake that we’d seen on Google Maps. It was about 5km outside town and it turned out to be a totally great spot to sleep.
Things got even better. It turns out that at the centre of Albertville is a reasonably attractive, bustling little provincial French town with crowded noisy bars and decent restaurants. We had a fun evening and great night’s sleep. Which just goes to show.
We set off in great spirits. No more steep hills, and a Voie Verte almost all the way to Annecy. The ride ran though stunning scenery, there were cute little bars everywhere and it was flat. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Well almost. Sometime before lunch, when it was already way too late to even think of heading back, I discovered I’d left my wallet, with my ID card in it, where we’d camped. Shit fuck bollocks: my flight back to London was at 9 am the next morning.
There was no choice but to push on. I’d have to borrow Giles’ car that evening and drive back down to Albertville, praying I’d be able to find it. Irritating, but at least I had a plan, so I put it out of my mind and got on with enjoying the day.
It wasn’t hard – the weather was superb and the ride from Ugine to Annecy is sensational. We ate a great lunch sitting next to the Lac d’Annecy, drank a lot of delicious cold rosé and started the last leg home in high spirits (drunk).
We were almost home, perhaps 20km on easy – albeit big and busy – roads, when we stopped for one last beer. Three last beers later Giles suggested we get off the main road by heading up a hill. Normally I’d have punched him but I was a bit pissed and euphoric so I stupidly agreed. It was a terrible idea which resulted in us getting lost immediately and spending hours in sweltering heat cycling up vertical hills through tiny pissant villages not one of which had a bar.
It was an advanced form of torture: you’d see a village a good 20 minutes before you got to it. There MUST be a bar in this one you’d think, then spend the next 20 minutes toiling up the side of the fucking mountain dreaming of the glass of beer, cold to the touch, delicious beyond belief, condensation running down the side, dreaming of grabbing it and downing it in one go before slamming the glass down on the bar and ordering another.
You’d finally arrive in the village but there would be no bar. Not one single, solitary fucking bar anywhere. One of the villages did have an old man sitting on a lounger in front of his house with a cold beer and I did consider kicking him in the face and stealing it but I was too busy weeping.
Anyway we got home in the end and after a quick shower I had to borrow Giles’ car to drive down to where I’d lost my wallet. I found it, and on the way back, in the middle of nowhere, Giles’ car exploded and I spent the next few hours on the side of the road before a man came to take the car and get me a taxi all the way back to Geneva. I arrived, exhausted, at 2am and had to get up a couple of hours later to catch the flight back to London.