In the Summer we do an annual pilgrimage to the Mercantour National Park which straddles the border between France and Italy. If you click on these links and you can read about our adventure with army jeeps and cows that blocked bridges, and about the time we went to Allos Lake high in the mountains and met fat, fluffy marmots. This time, to get to the start of the hike, we drove to the very end of a crazily winding, narrow road that follows a river in the Vallon de Gordelasque. Before parking, I had already lost my breath from the sharp intake I made every time we met a car coming the other way. Luckily, there was a guardrail, so the chances of falling off the edge of the road were pretty slim. It took courage though to inch past the vehicles. Pulling in the wing-mirrors was obligatory if you wanted to keep them. Once I had recovered enough from the adrenalin burst, we started the hike to a refuge perched on the side of a mountain that overlooks the Lac de la Fous called the Refuge De Nice. The refuge is not actually in Nice, nor can you see the city of Nice from its terrace, so I’m not sure why it’s called that.
To get to the Refuge de Nice we had quite a hike on our hands. It was worth the climb to see waterfalls tumbling down beside, and sometimes on, the trail as we clambered upwards. We kept hearing chirping marmots taunting us from high up the slopes. How can something so large, furry and plump be so good at hiding? We did get to see chamois grazing all over the place: even some with kids in tow (not the human kind). This blurry photo below shows some of them. Note to myself for the future: remember never to use the zoom function on your I-phone!
At the top of the first valley we passed through a gap in the mur des Italiens (Italian wall). Nobody seems to be quite sure when it was built, or if it was really Italians who constructed it. Whoever made it were really desperate to defend themselves from marauding hoards as the wall is incredibly thick. The energy it must have taken to lug all the stones there and build a wall would have left them with no power to fight anyone.
As we got above 2000 metres (6500 feet), the trees were replaced with a rocky rather barren landscape and even more chamois hanging out in the green patches around the valley. One hardy (or stupid?) chamois had decided that the dam wall you can see in the photo below would have some good grazing on it. We saw it impossibly perched halfway up the side of the vertical concrete wall. When it caught sight of us, it bounded (!!) across the wall and ran away. That guy would give Spiderman a run for his money any day!
We finally rounded a corner into another valley and lo and behold, the Refuge de Nice stood in front of us at the far end of the lake! With legs shaking and stomachs growling, we inched our way around the lake to the refuge and settled down on the terrace to tuck into pasta and airy omelettes prepared in the restaurant there. It never ceases to amaze me that at such out of the way places in Europe, you can walk into a building and get a cooked meal! They had hens pecking around the feet of the customers, so we could tell that the eggs were fresh, and they do helicopter deliveries at the start of each season to carry up all the food and drink (including wine and beer!). You can also stay up there, which I think must be a pretty amazing thing to do. We’ll have to try that one another time.
We did one last push after lunch, dragging the kids behind us, to climb a little further to see Lake Niré. It honestly wasn’t worth the pain of making the kids go up the last bit of trail to see it, but if you don’t have complaining children with you, it’s a nice point to arrive at. After that it was 2 1/2 hours of downhill, and one marmot sighting! Aha!!!! I finally managed to see one!
For anyone who has ever watched the french movie Belle et Sebastian about a young boy becoming friends with a large dog during WWII, this is the valley for you to visit. Not far from the car-park is a small house huddled against a large rock, which was used during the shooting of the film. I must admit that I haven’t seen the movie yet as I heard that it has terribly sad bits in it. I have also head that it’s excellent, so one day I’ll muster up the courage to watch it (yes, I know it’s a movie for kids…….).
By Lisa Watson