The high peaks surrounding the refuge kept us in cold shadow for most of the morning; by the time the sun rose high enough and finally hit the sun dial on the main building, we were busy packing our bikes up and hearing about how many trout Remi had caught. Our morning’s ride from Vallauria up to the Baisse de Peyferique was one of most amazing stretches of riding I’ve done for a long time. In the hot sunshine, we rode steep single-track roads up through Casterino before rounding and crossing the head of the river valley where the surfaces changed to gravel. Just us, a couple of other mountain bikers, and the odd 4×4. At this point, we were entering Italian territory in WW2, so the Bunkers that surrounded us, dotted across the Baisse de Peyferique, were Vallo Alpino fortifications built by Mussolini’s forces. Cattle bells rung and echoed around us to signal our entrance to this Bunker filled col as we rode in search of more Bunker outposts than those that lined the road-side. Alongside the Monte Grosso Bivvy, our arrival here will be a lasting memory that summed up our Bunker Research Tour.
At Baisse de Peyrefique, we were at highest point of the trip – 2000m – which marked the beginning of the end of our time in the high mountains; our last checkpoint would be the fortifications along the valley at Col de Tende, before making our way back to Nice. Riding the military ridge road to the col we noticed more and more people and heard more and more Italian, to a climax at the Chalet de Marmotte (1800m), which was heaving with Italian tourists either sunbathing post-lunch or honking at each other in the crowded car park. Pretty surreal, but given the stunning location and straightforward access road up from Limone Piemonte (Cuneo), it was clear to see why; this was no Monte Grosso Route Strategique. The Col de Tende has always been an important strategic place – the
most accessible col on the general route north/south between France and Italy, and well located on the Via Del Sale (salt route). As a result, the borders have shifted around there several times and is the reasoning behind the large Fort Central at the col, built by the Italians in the 19th century to defend such a strategic position. Post-War, the French enveloped this area for itself but the mix of Italian and French car number plates, languages, and etiquette up at the col emphasised the fickle side of this historical stronghold, and in many ways the entire border region we’d spent the last couple of days. Did the Bunker infrastructure present a deterrent for either side? Potentially, but surely not as much as the the Alpes-Maritimes terrain that already provided such an obvious natural border. Surely, the process of constructing the complex Bunker infrastructure served one purpose: to put either side off attacking across this terrain. Passive Defence in action.
We indulged in plates of polenta and fizzy drinks at the Chalet de Marmotte before exploring the Fort Central ruins, alongside topless dogwalkers and around more sunbathers. Max disappeared; Remi found him sunbathing at the top of the snaking descent back home – his Tour Guide duties were almost over and he was starting to slack. Below us, the Col de Tende gravel road ran for 7km, around 48 hairpin bends, in order to drop the 600m to the foot of the Roya Valley. Boy, was it a fun ride to signal our exit from the high mountains. It was annoyingly technical though, so it took a bit of concentration to pick lines, whilst trying to look around at all the fortifications on the way down. Cambers in the road, deep gravel sections, and even gravel drifts that formed speed-humps didn’t faze Antton, this was his domain; never have I seen someone descend so fast on gravel.