Here’s something a little different for this week. I would like to write about a stunning National Park in France, near where we live called the Mercantour. The park straddles the range of mountains that divide France and Italy down near the coast. We decided that we needed some fresh air (the heat on the coast has been pretty dire these last weeks) and also a little (make that LOT) of exercise, so we dragged the kids out of their pyjamas and threw them in the car for a day in the mountains.
We didn’t get to the Mercantour quite as early as we hoped to thanks to getting caught in the middle of a very long and very slow procession of American World War Two era jeeps, trucks and tanks that was wending its way from one tiny village to another to have a parade through each place. It was the 14th of July, which is a public holiday to commemorate the French Revolution hundreds of years ago. I’m very doubtful that American tanks actually showed up during the storming of the Bastille, so I’m not sure why they were parading on that day in particular. Anyhow, they were all dressed to theme and seemed to be having a great time driving like snails.
After driving along the side of a gorge where the road is carved into the cliff, we finally arrived at Le Boréon, a tiny village that hosts a wolf park. Here, they breed wolves and release them into the mountains to try to repopulate the area with its native species. You can visit the park and, if you’re lucky and get there at feeding time, you can actually see the wolves. There’s a excellent detective story about wolves, which is set in the Mercantour area. It’s by a French author called Fred Vargas. If you’d like to read the book, it’s called Seeking Whom He May Devour. She has a whole series of them that follow a detective called Adamsberg who fights bizarre crimes. It’s good to read them in sequence (even though I didn’t), so you can get a sense of the stories of the recurring characters in the books.
Sorry….I went off on a tangent there….so, we parked and then set off on our hike to Lake Trecolpas, a lake nestled in a bowl surrounded by mountain peaks at the top of a long uphill trail. When we got back to the car in the evening, my husband pointed out an impossibly high pass, far, far away, and told us that that was where we’d been that day. I was glad that he didn’t show us where we were hiking to when we started, otherwise the kids and I wouldn’t have even got out of the car.
The trail meandered its way uphill through the forest and over flowery meadows, following the course of a river. We had to stop for a while to let some cows and calves cross a footbridge. They seemed to enjoy the view from the bridge (or suddenly were scared of heights) as they stayed there for a long time. This wasn’t so bad for me as I was glowing like a tomato and dripping with sweat already. I lay under a pine tree for a while wishing I’d done a little more cardio exercise recently, while the cows mooed at each other (I’m guessing the were talking about the intricacies of bridge versus river crossings).
As we climbed higher, we started to hear the whistles and trills of marmots. This slowed my hiking pace considerably as I kept stopping to look for these invisible animals. I’m becoming convinced that the Mercantour park rangers just put speakers in the rocks that emit whistles every now and then to make people think that there are little furry animals living there. I heard them everywhere during the hike, but didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of even one.
The trail got steeper, but the top was getting tantalizingly close. In the photo below, you can see the last part of the path as it crosses over the pass that leads to the lake.
When we got to the top, I collapsed thankfully on the grass. After gasping like a beached whale for a while, I finally came to my senses and was able to enjoy the astounding view. The lake was filled with tiny fish. I really would love to know how they got there in the first place. Did they drop out of the sky?! The lake is made from snow-melt, so it’s not like they could’ve swum from anywhere else. While we were picnicking, we saw a white, very hairy chamois grazing nonchalantly nearby. It didn’t get quite close enough for me to take a photo, but I was amazed how close it did get to the people wandering around the lake.
The clouds started to roll in, so it was time to saddle up and get hiking again. We took a detour on the way back down to check out a refuge. These places are scattered all through the mountains in Europe. They have restaurants and sleeping quarters, and can often be almost luxurious (at least compared to mountain hostels in New Zealand).
This refuge is about an hour’s hike up the mountain from the nearest village. They told us that every day, one of the Summer workers at the refuge hikes down with about 25 kg of trash, and then hikes back up with food and drinks to sell at the restaurant. If you’re ever looking for a job that will make you incredibly fit, this is it!
After a well deserved Panaché (beer and sprite mix), we gathered our cans together and took them with us to lower the next trash removal by a few grams. Every bit helps, right?
The pesky marmots continued to whistle invisibly, while we hiked through scree slopes and jumped across streams. We met another chamois, who seemed a little confused about what its species looks like as it was mingling with the cows when we got back down to the herd.
Even in the Summer, when the Cote d’Azur is dense with people and traffic, the Mercantour, which is only an hour or so away, is a calm, cooler place to be. So, if you’re down this way, go take a hike, or at least a stroll, through some of the most beautiful wilderness in the area. And, if you’re very lucky, you may spot one of those elusive marmots!
By Lisa Watson