When the season doesn’t allow us the pleasure of driving our beloved old cars, we can instead utilize the time to prepare what I personally believe is the greatest joy of classic car ownership: To travel down through Europe along small backroads filled with unexpected and amazing adventures.
It’s a prerequisite that one knows where to find these enchanting roads, and when to leave to soulless motorways behind. Unfortunately, some otherwise great stretches of road have become so talked-about, that they are overflowing with caravans, bikes and motorcycles in one grand and chaotic hotchpotch. These road’s fame have become their own downfall. This is NOT what we’re seeking, so what then? I imagine that today’s article might lead to some of our readers sharing their own experiences and pointers, as to which great roads other readers ought to experience from behind the steering wheel of their classic this coming summer.
In France, which is the country in which I tend to prefer to drive my classic cars simply because of its vast size and thereby great variety in roads and scenery, the road network is continually being improved and “straightened out”. Countless roundabouts are built into existing roads and some old routes are closed altogether. In the light of modernity and practicality it all makes perfect sense, but the driving experience suffers. Of course, there is still plenty of fantastic tarmac out there beckoning to be experienced with our historic cars.
In 2005, one of the most spectacular stretches of road in France was sadly closed. It was nothing short of paradise for the adventurous driver, but the picturesque road was also among the most dangerous in the world. It was known as Les Grand Goulets and was constructed between 1843 – 1854. The legendary road was cut into and through the mountains near the village of Vercors in the midst of the Rhône Alpes region. After travelers had made their way along the narrow and twisty roads through the Alps for 156 years, the French government was forced to permanently close the historic road in 2005 after a series of fatal accidents.
Back in the early 19th century, without any passable roads for horse drawn carriages, the 5,000 inhabitants of Vercors felt rather isolated from the outside world. The decision was made to build a road which would connect Vercors with the southern part of the region – a vast investment of money, time and not least labour. Without the help of modern day technology, it’s practically unthinkable that such a construction was at all possible. The workers were faced with absurd levels of risk and danger, as there are multiple reports of men hanging off simple rope ladders on the side of the mountains, then throwing dynamite into the rocks and swinging themselves out of harm’s way just before the explosion.
Many places, the width of the road between the two mountain walls was nerve-wreckingly restricted to say the least. Often, the road was so narrow, that squeezing past an oncoming car was both a dangerous and time-consuming exercise – that is, if you were at all lucky enough to actually see the oncoming vehicle in time with all those blind bends. The deep gorge at the very edge of the road didn’t help calm the nerves either. Most places the sheer drop was devastating and often with no guardrails either.
After closing off the historic road in 2005, a modern mile-long tunnel was constructed to replace the route between Pont-en-Royans and Les Barraques. The old road now lies abandoned, unused and unmaintained. Not even cyclists nor hikers are allowed access to the winding and stunning route.
The pictures above are all courtesy of the French photographer Baptiste Ales, who was given access to Les Grand Goulets after the roads closure.
While there are rumours that Les Grand Goulets might be reopened for purposes such as hikers and possibly cyclists too, the local tourism office maintains that the scenic and spectacular road will forever remain closed to all.
As previously mentioned, this article is intended as knowledge sharing, where everybody should hopefully feel free to contribute with their own experiences of fabulous roads for our old cars. I’ll happily attempt to get the ball rolling with what is undoubtedly the most thrilling and engaging route I have ever driven – and I stumbled upon it purely by chance. The road is to be found in France – more specifically, near Millau. If that name seems to ring a bell, it’s probably because the town also gave name to the phenomenal bridge – the Millau Viaduct – which was designed by Sir Norman Foster, and which has adorned the region west of Provence ever since its construction in the early naughts. The route has road number D991 and D999 and starts off from the town of Millau. In one of my old Danish ViaRETRO articles from the BossaNova Pontifex Tour, I described the route with these words:
“It ended up being an utterly different morning than what I had expected, and not least a thoroughly different drive than any I have previously experienced. Without exaggerating the slightest, this was the best piece of tarmac I have ever driven: Narrow roads with plenty of flowing bends and huge terrain differences. The nature we travelled through was of the finest carat. France unfolded itself in front of us in its most gracious manor, and practically carried us through the crisis we had just experienced the previous day and which still affected us… Repeatedly, we were greeted enthusiastically by the locals as we motored our classic cars through the small villages. I sent a group of road workers repairing a few holes in the road a friendly wave followed by a discreet bleep of the throttle, which was immediately answered with applause, wolf-whistles and spontaneous outbursts.”
I’ll let the pictures below do the talking: