Col de Turini: Nos montagnes à la carte #7
The thick forests of the Col de Turini are testament to the unpredictable weather on this, the highest of the coastal climbs near Café du Cycliste’s home town of Nice.
Even close to the top of the heaped switchbacks that take riders closer to 1,604m, the sea can still be glimpsed, and warm, wet, maritime air regularly drifts inland and buffets the mountain, leading to downpours on its slopes
Across its sylvan slopes thread innumerable trails and roads. Some are fit only for wild boar, deer and, in the autumn, an army of people attracted by the wild mushrooms that thrive in the cool damp shade of the chestnuts, larch and pines. Some of the best chefs in Nice have been spotted collecting mushrooms by hand, to serve in the finest Riviera restaurants that evening.
Piera Cava, the village highest on the Turini’s flanks, has an annual mushroom festival where freshly picked delicacies are served alongside wild boar sausages and local wine.
Cyclists may be bewildered by the profusion of roads to the Col de Turini. The main routes lead from L’Escarène, closest to Nice, and from Sospel and Lantosque. But pass by the Col Saint Roch, or by the dirt roads to Le Moulinet and you can still get to the top. It starts to resemble a real labyrinth. The numerous routes point to some higher purpose for the pass, one that has almost been buried in history… and higher is where you have to go to find it.
Unusually for an Alpine col, Turini is not the highest road around. Travel up above the pass and first you’ll find a small ski resort, and then, even further up, the summits of the Authion Massif.
L’Authion culminates at 2,082m, and is a series of interlinking peaks and small plateaux crowned by ruined forts and bunkers.
Thanks to its viewpoint high over the Italian border, over several river valleys, and, in the distance, the Col de Tende, the high pass of the ancient salt route to Turin, it had tremendous strategic importance. Control l’Authion, in times gone by, and you controlled the Alpes-Maritimes. During France’s Revolutionary wars in 1793 and 1794, French soldiers mounted attack after attack on the 14,000 or more Savoy soldiers stationed there. They were repelled before eventually taking the Authion, and the region.
The ruins now guarding the Massif date from the 19th century, when these Alps became definitively French. Back then, with so many soldiers stationed permanently at altitude, the towns of Piera Cava, La Bollène and Le Moulinet were bustling, thriving places, with markets, bars and entertainments for the massed troops. Now, it is quieter, but the impressive engineering of the roads to the summit remains.
The most easterly ascent has been made famous by the Monte Carlo Rally, and the special night-time stage that for decades lit up the snowbound forests every winter. There has also been some notable night-time cycling. In 2001, a group of five English friends were riding from Geneva to Cannes, raising money for a leukaemia charity after loved ones were stricken with the cancer.
They arrived at the top of Turini well after dark, exhausted and knowing they had to push on. But to descend the hairpins in darkness was potentially fatal. At that moment, attracted by the day’s residual heat radiating from the Tarmac, thousands of fireflies descended and landed on the road, lighting the cyclists’ way down.
The Fireflies Tour, as it is now known, has raised millions of pounds for charity, and still passes every year.