“Are you sure?” said Richard, shoulders slumping slightly.
“Of course. What we do is buy inflatable stand up paddleboards, strap them to our bikes and ride into the Welsh mountains, hike to small lakes and paddle them. This way we get weekend rideouts and adventures in the mountains.” I replied.
“That is … a surprisingly good idea.”
6 years later, with many canals, lakes and rivers under our boards, I placed a pint in front of Richard and sat opposite him. “I have had a brilliant idea.”
“Really?” said Richard.
“Yes, yes, definitely. We load the bikes with our paddleboards and ride to lakes in France and Italy. So, we get to tour Europe and paddle lakes.”
“You keep coming up with them, don’t you.” observed Richard.
Mesnil Saint Piere is small and neat, set close by Lac d’Orient, and on the 6th June we rolled down the Rue du 28 Aout 1944 to our hotel after 12 hours riding, slowed by grinding around the London ant heap to the Eurotunnel. In the heart of the Foret d’Orient National Park this is the largest lake in the area and not overly oppressed by fishermen and their loathing of all things with a paddle. It’s big too, at nearly 6,000 acres it is around 5 times larger than Lake Vyrnwy and double that of Windermere, whilst being blessedly warmer than both. It was also just a few minutes walk from our hotel.
Spume flicked across the lake the next day, breakers on the shore, and we fought our way into rising wind whipped waves. The grind of the previous day’s journey blown away by spray and gusts, we knelt on our boards to make headway, battling for 30 minutes before turning with the strengthening wind and running for the shelter of the marina, surfing in on the rising waves. Not an ideal day for paddling, but lake one under our belts.
Regroup, beer, sleep, depart the next morning with a break en route for a battle.
By the time Caesar and his legions faced Vercingetorix and the tribes of Gaul at Alesia he had been campaigning in for 8 years, poking and provoking the tribes, goading them to rise up. Every aspect of his force of 12 legions was now honed and equipped as a complete fighting machine, from their hobnailed caliga, sandals with attitude, to the tough intelligent centurions who led the soldiers and who Caesar personally consulted during campaigning. But, the Gauls were not to be underestimated, they loved to fight, knew their territory and Vercingetorix was an inspirational leader; so when he withdrew his forces to the fortress of Alesia it was to regroup, rest and prepare to fight again.
Rather than directly assault Alesia, Caesar decided to starve the Gauls by ringing the fort with two defences. The first bound the defenders with a 10 mile girdle of walls, earthworks, trenches, pits with sharpened stakes and towers. The second wall lay outside the first, was similarly complex, 13 miles long and protected the siege makers from Gaulish reinforcements.
From within Alesia the Gauls constantly harried the Romans until their vast relief army had chance to arrive, then once it did, the battle intensified with the Romans assaulted on two sides. On the final day of fighting 250,000 men battled, advantage swinging back and forth, until when the Gauls were breaking through both Roman walls Caesar personally led a charge to reinforce his crumbling lines and break the attack.
Pushed back into Alesia, starvation gripped the Gaulish garrison and in desperation they forced out the women and children, the old and the sick, expecting the Romans to take them in. But the Romans were pragmatists, so Caesar kept his gates barred and in the area between Roman and Gaul the refugees perished.
This was too much for the Gaulish tribes, who had committed everything to the leadership of Vercingetorix. Starving and demoralised they surrendered, were taken captive and distributed through the Roman army as slaves; one to each soldier and several for each officer. After the glory of the conquest of Gaul Caesar was awarded an unprecedented quadruple triumph in Rome, an astonishing series of rallies and parades to exalt his achievement, the culmination of which was the public garrotting of Vercingetorix.
The subjugation of Gaul, cost a million dead Gauls and a million more in slavery, from a population of just 6 million, the result Caesar’s raw ambition; which also eventually cost him his own life.
The superb Alecia visitors’ centre, designed by Bernard Tschumi and crisscrossed with huge timbers to reference the defensive walls, overlooks the plain where the battle was fought over 2,000 years ago. Outside, sections of walls have been reconstructed, topped with towers and guarded by ditches and man traps. The reconstruction, though impressive, is like a photograph compared to an IMAX movie, as the original walls stretched the distance of a half marathon.
After Alesia, and a day’s ride south from Lac d’Orient, we rode into Annecey, surrounded by peaks and crammed with sightseers, boulevard skaters, strolling couples, kids in boats and the small beaches crammed with tourists under the hot sun. Clearly, we thought, tomorrow we are going to be sharing this mountain idyll with a lot of people.
Annecy is a fascinating lake, set in the Alps at 1,466ft, its 9 mile length is fed by numerous rivers streaming down from the surrounding mountains and a powerful underground source deep below the surface. The third largest lake in France, it is also the cleanest, with super strict regulations to preserve its purity.
Annecy also had a role in fascism. Over 80 years ago, the world’s first fascist dictator was unsure what fascism actually was, other than an ideal, a concept, and that it was ‘not a party but a religion.’ Once the editor of a socialist newspaper during the First World War, he had been quietly well paid by British intelligence to support their war effort and discourage the Italians from joining the Germans.
Strutting, pompous and bristling with masculine virility, Benito Mussolini loved uniforms, parades and the idea of restoring the glory of the Italian state, last seen during the time of the Romans; from whom the fascists imagined they took their straight armed salute. Following every move of Il Duce’s strut into politics was a small Austrian with a familiar moustache. Triumphal parades, propaganda, glory, conquest and a ‘Roman’ salute soon made their way to Germany and Austria. And remember the Hitler Youth? Mussolini had his own long before, the Balilla, which gave children as young as six the chance to become figli della lupa – children of the she-wolf.
Benito may have been a militaristic bombast and an opportunist but he also knew the Italian army did not amount to much, having struggled against poorly armed ‘natives’ in north Africa. He also remembered Italy had lost 400,000 men fighting the Austrians in the Great War, mostly through poor training and the implausibly incompetent General Luigi Cadorna. The Italian army was no Roman war machine so Benito allied himself to the steel and fire of Hitler and waited until the French had been overrun by panzers before making his move.
The Italian ‘conquest’ and occupation of southern France was a gentle affair compared to the brutality of the German / Austrian actions and the area became a haven for Jews. In 1942 the Italian authorities in Valence, Chambery and Annecy stopped the rounding up of Jews by French prefects and Mussolini instructed that ‘The first priority is to bring to safety those Jews living in that part of French territory occupied by our troops.’ Of course, this all changed in 1943 when the Italians withdrew from France and huge razzias were organised to round up Jews, though thousands still escaped into the mountains.
Carrying our boards through cool drizzle to the shore we pushed out onto the calm surface of Lac Annecy. Neat villas lined the eastern shore with gardens clipped and trees trimmed, monied maintenance on display, as vast crags and mountains teetered high above them, flanks caressed by low cloud. Heavy rain now shotgunned the lake and we were alone, paddling south on the turquoise water. Under light stone cliffs we watched crag martins pivoting above us and wheeling down to skim the lake to drink, then turned our boards towards the centre, the towns on both sides quiet as holidaymakers sheltered indoors. After 3 hours paddling we were soaked but content, the astonishing mountains awing us and the vast gentle lake calming us.
The following morning Noah could have floated his Ark on the deluge which hammered us as we rode out towards Chamonix, higher into the Alps and through dispiriting towns of huge ski lodges; how long with these resorts last as global warming wraps its blanket around the World and winter snows fade and glaciers melt? Near Saint Gervais le Bains we capitulated to the rain, pulling up at a restaurant. If you are ever on a ride, soaked through and starting to chill and you are offered Tartiflette, a steaming pot of onions, potato and vegetables in a rich cheese sauce, then you should immediately accept it.
Any hope that stopping for lunch would give the rain a chance to ease its assault was washed away as the deluge intensified. So, an hour later, riding the 11km of the Mount Blanc tunnel was blissful, warm and dry, and standing on the pegs in the rush of air over the bike we started to dry out.
Exiting into the Aosta valley we spun along towards Italy, Fort Bard rising above us, a knuckleduster of tiered stone fortifications wrapped around a fist of rock in the centre of the valley, defending the route between France and Italy. For nearly 2,000 years there have been fortifications on this dominant position and, after ownership had passed to the House of Savoy, the defences were strengthened significantly, which was just as well because in 1800 Bonaparte the sneaky Corsican launched a surprise attack on Italy. For two weeks, just 400 Austro-Piedmontese soldiers held out against 40,000 French and, when it was finally captured, a furious Napoleon ordered the razing of the vilan castel de Bard; so the structure we now hummed past was one built in 1830 to guard against further French surprises.
A long day’s ride drew to a close, trickling along, heading north along the eastern shore of Lake Orta to the small town of Orta San Giulio and a delightful apartment high above a large courtyard, where we parked our bikes safely and inflated our boards ready for the morning.
“We are blessed, truly blessed.” Said Richard, the next morning, as we walked out of the courtyard, down a cobbled slipway and onto the water in front of the island of Isola San Giulio. Standing up on my board I dipped my paddle into the water, pushed out into the lake and then, all around me, was laid the heart achingly beautiful Lago d’Orta, ringed with mountains and set with this island gem.
The Basilica di San Giulio, since 1976 a Benedictine monastery, stands foursquare above delightful villas which cling to this small island, named after the 4th century local saint Julius of Novara. Regular ferries shuttle back and forth servicing locals and tourists so we escaped their wash as quickly as possible, pointing our boards towards the southern third of the lake.
Low sandy beaches and pretty villas fringed the lower bay and we paddled slowly round the curve, the day and our sprits calm. For years I had dreamed of visiting and paddling Lake Orta and experiencing what was voted the most romantic lake in Italy. Now I was here with the perfect paddling companion, but promised myself I’d return with someone more suitable for the romance.
“Good call” said Richard, as I pulled my board onto a slipway on the far side of the lake and walked up to a terrace bar. Sipping icy beer, looking out towards the island and Orta San Giulio, this was one of the most stunning places I have seen, unusual because the buildings not detract from its beauty, they add to it.
Bikes packed the following morning, I fiddled with my sat nav. “I’ve set it to take us through Switzerland, bottom to top, and avoid all the road tolls. I’ve no idea what the route is like, but I have no intention of paying E40 to spend all day overtaking trucks on motorways.”
‘It’s probably a mistake, but I trust you,” said Richard.
The road was sublime. Even heavily loaded, we carved our way through the mountains, ducking under concrete overhangs which protect the road from falling rocks and diving into tunnel after tunnel, before bursting back out into the crisp sunshine. Lunch was at the high Simplon Pass, the air deliciously chill, peaks capped with snow.
After lunch Richard lead but after half an hour came to a manned toll booth. Calling over his shoulder, “I thought you said that there were no road tolls on this route, this guy wants E30 from me?”
“No idea, we can’t go back and I don’t see a way round. Pay him and we’ll crack on.”
Parking in a loading area we found ourselves in line to board a train to travel through the Lotschberg Tunnel and as we stood in the sunshine, a bright red Suzuki darted up next to us. Long blond pigtail down her leather jacket, Bonnie bounced off Clyde, her bike, and effervescently filled in our information gap with local knowledge. The train was by far the best way to travel between Kandersteg and Goppenstein, through the Bernese Alps, it only took 20 minutes and our bikes would be tied down in a separate cargo wagon.
Out of the tunnel and free of the train we ran down through the mountains, savouring every twist and turn, heading north towards our final lake, Lac Saint-Point in France, just over the border. This was a decision taken on the fly, a quick map search for a lake at the end of a tiring day; had we made the right choice?
Surrounded by low hills, Lac Saint-Point was a little gem of a lake, fed from a river that ran from the much smaller Lac de Remoray at the southern end, where we paddled the next day under bright sun. The river was lined by dense reed beds that I punted through like Brer Rabbit, gently past nesting grebe, as electric blue dragonflies skimmed the surface like attack drones and fat perch below scythed like dark missiles, shooting from under my board.
A locals’ restaurant on the west bank fed us fresh mussels and lake fish for lunch, washed with cold beer and we sat on the terrace and relaxed, knowing the homebound journey would be a long one. Neither of us knew that one would be staying behind.
In northern France, a toppling bike whilst leaning for a toll booth ticket trapped Richard’s leg and tore off a fuel line. With him recovered to a hotel and nothing that could be done until after the weekend, I abandoned him and headed home, quick through France then grinding around the fume stinking insanity of the motorways of southern England, an experience shared by Richard four days later on his repaired bike.
So, there we go, apparently a good idea put into practice. 2,000 miles, 11 days, 4 lakes, 3 tunnels, 3 countries, 2 bikes out and 2 back … eventually. Does paddleboarding from a bike work? Yes, definitely, but you need to pack as minimally as possible as the weight of the board and the kit you need creates a heavy old beast. Travelling with a good friend is essential, I did.
4 countries and 2,000 miles.
In 2013 we headed north to Snowdonia with the iSUPs on the bikes, to see if this strange idea would work. By no stretch of the imagination could a Moto Guzzi Breva be considered the ideal bike to carry a paddleboard and camping gear for a stay in north Wales, not least because the riding position could best be described as 'constricted', but it proved the concept.
All that was needed was a more appropriate bike.