Les Barres du Roi: the range above St. Dalmas Valdeblore.
In Track Notes Part 1 GR5 in France and Track Notes Part 2 GR5 in France, I described the experiences my wife, Sue, and I had walking the GR5 from Thonon les Bains in Switzerland to the town of Saint Dalmas Valdeblore near the south of France. At this town, we left the GR5, which was going to head down towards the plains around Nice on the Mediterranean, and instead took the GR52 to Menton, also on the Mediterranean coast. This is a somewhat more technical, high-level route, which goes over some interesting high passes and through the Vallèe des Merveilles: the Valley of Marvels. The valley is home to some amazing and ancient petroglyphs or rock carvings. The south end of this route is different from the rest as well.
Tuesday 24 July 2007
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Late in the afternoon, we entered the cute town of Saint Dalmas Valdeblore (1,209 meters). This town has an interesting ancient walled core and a boring newer bit outside by the river (anything later than 1900 is ‘new’ there). The camping was a long way out of town, so we stopped in a gite in the middle of the old town, run by a retired guide. One suspects the campgrounds are deliberately placed outside the towns, a long way from the shops…
Once we had dropped our packs, we went food shopping for the forth-coming GR52 stage and got some nice hard cheese from the local cheese-maker. Their cows, their cheeses. The owner of the cheese shop assured us it would be cooler up top the next day. We didn’t believe her.
It had indeed been a hot day, and instead of the normal tureen of hot soup as first course, the owner of the gite served a huge bowl of ice-cold cooked green beans and tomato slices, which we thought was rather good for this weather. The bowl was emptied with enthusiasm – not a bean was left.
Wednesday 25 July 2007
Breakfast was scheduled for 6:30 a.m., but since it was all there on the table, we started eating at 6:15, as did the few others staying at the gite. We were all keen to leave early and get the climb up from the valley done before the heat of the day. Well, the mornings were pleasant anyhow.
There was a long climb up to the pretty Lacs des Millefonts, with no water on the way, and almost no camping places, either. You wouldn’t believe just how continuous some of the hillsides can be. There were other parties up at the Lacs – but they had come from the nearby car park – sneer. The top lake had a man-made ‘drain hole’ in the side: it looked rather strange! Something to do with the inevitable dams, I guess.
Over Col de Barn with grass and trees, and down to the Vacherie de Collet (cow farm). The guide book said this place had a font for water, which was true, but there were cows everywhere and the mud around the font looked very suspicious. We collected water and treated it with our Steripen.
It was warming up as we continued up the valley, on a not-very-charming white dirt road to the Col de Salese. I found a faint pad in the grassy pine forest to the side for part of the way, which was much nicer. There were lots of day walkers near the col – yep, another car park down the other side. Sigh. There was a nice track down through the forest to the car park, but from there down to the very small town of Boreon, we were on a tar road with little chance of finding a walking track: the hillside was collapsing on the road all the time. Steep country, and heavily wooded.
It was very hot, and the heavily-timbered hillsides around Boreon were very steep, with private property everywhere at the bottom and no room for camping. There was a ‘wolf farm’ down below – not an inviting prospect for camping. We asked at the Boreon Gite about space, but an assistant said they were booked solid. The gite was small, and so was the amount of land they could build on. They even had some overflow tents pitched in the back yard! How to beat the Council Planning Regulations, maybe?
But long-distance hikers get better treatment than car tourists – or maybe we just looked tired. The owner turned up later and told us to wait until 5 p.m. and see if all the people who had booked turned up. They didn’t arrive on time, so we got beds. (In general you have to turn up by 5 p.m. to ‘confirm’ your reservation.) Those who arrived later got to sleep in the tents outside.
Thursday 26 July 2007
We were first to breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and were away straight after, at 6:30 a.m. We had done all our packing beforehand. There was a long, cool forested valley up to the very pretty Lac Trecolpas. We had an ‘early’ morning tea to enjoy the view there, although in fact we had been walking for two and a half hours anyhow. Some other walkers passed as we enjoyed the view. Then, it was steeply up to Pas des Landres in rough scree country. Not at all obvious where the col or the track was from a distance – in this very rocky country there usually is no track per se. You just follow the markings from boulder to boulder. It would be more difficult in fog. Since it was fine, the view at the top was panoramic.
Down over lots of grassy alpine hillsides and scree beside a small ravine, to a church in the valley below called Madonne de Fenestre. A yearly pilgrim procession was taking place when we got there. Snacks for the participants had been laid out in front of the adjacent hotel, but the faithful declined to offer food or drink to starving walkers… That’s charity for you. (I did get a sample, but it was fairly ordinary.)
No matter, we went down across the creek and up other other side of the main valley ravine, towards the Lac and Pas de Mont Colomb. More rough scree country, with track markings dotted on the boulders at frequent intervals. Up over an abrupt false col to a small bowl holding a little Lac where I had considered camping, although the guide at St Dalmas had advised against this. He said it was it was a ‘mauvais place’ (bad place). Well, yes indeed: the Lac was in a scree-filled funnel and there was almost no flat dirt or grass on which to camp! In bad weather the wind would howl through. Perhaps the rocks would hold the tent down? The lake was almost empty too, with red rock showing where the water had been. Clearly the rains we had experienced further north had not been here.
We found some water in a little trickle nearby and treated it with the Steripen. There were some scats (sheep? chamois? goats?) around on the rocks, you see. After this, we started climbing some rather steep scree gullies up to a notch in the rocky ridge above. At the top, we scrambled our way onto a small one meter square col. That’s all the space there was in the notch. It was hard even getting the two of us onto it at once. Then, we realized that while the ascent had been steep, the descent was even steeper, with genuine rock scrambling in places. We inched down carefully, thinking to ourselves that was indeed not the GR5!
The descent below the chimney went down a very steep, loose, rocky gully, then down across a vast scree field decorated with huge boulders as well as rocks. Progress was very slow over this, but it was magnificent alpine country. Our light-weight footwear was infinitely better than big clumsy boots on this stuff. Finally, we reached grass at the bottom, below yet another barrage (dam), and had a late afternoon snack. We needed it.
From there, a much better track led around the lake to Refuge Nice. There was a car park some distance below the barrage of course – hence the better track we were now on. The Refuge was being rebuilt and was closed for business, but we had known about this in advance. There was plenty of flat land beside the lake, and tents were being pitched by 4:30 p.m., well before the official 7:00 p.m. curfew. Never mind the idea of ‘summer’: it was cold by 7:00 p.m., and no one seemed bothered by the conflict.
Chamois were running around the place, quite oblivious of the walkers. We wished we could bound over the rocks like them. We had dinner and washed up. By then it was rather cold, so we retired inside our tent and sleeping bags, and went to sleep. No, the nights weren’t that long: we appreciated the rest!
Friday 27 July 2007
As usual, we were up early, before most of the others, and away by 6:55 a.m. It was cold, but there was a clear sky again. The day would be hot (again). We could understand a lack of haste by the others: it was only a half-day to the next and most important destination. On the way up, we found small tarns, grass, and creeks in the bowls above the Refuge, and good private campsites, too. Never mind: we had been comfortable overnight.
Up to a chain of five small lakes in a flat narrow valley, starting with Lac Nire. The lower lakes still had a decent amount of water in them, but the upper lakes were almost empty: just mud. The guide book had a sketch map showing the route up the slopes beyond, but it was not really much use, except in helping us to identify the Baisse de Basto notch we were heading for.
The book said the route would go up three gullies, but we found it went up several buttresses – which made for easier climbing and were safer than the boulder-filled scree gullies. There were white and red markings dotted on the boulders at regular intevals, usually *much* larger than the official FFRP-sanctioned size of marking. But at least you could see these from a distance (or through fog). You wouldn’t want to get lost up there in bad weather.
It was a long climb up on scree, boulders, and even base rock, with just a little grass right at the top. It wasn’t hard to see why there was no grass lower down: it gets wiped out by all the rock falls during the spring thaw. Only the saddle itself was safe from this. The col itself was quite broad for a change. There were lots of walkers coming up from our destination, the Refuge in the Vallèe des Merveilles, and heading down to the car park below the barrage below Refuge Nice.
From the col we went down to the very nice Lac du Basto and up to the easier Baisse de Valmasque (masked valley?). We stopped on the col for morning tea, and to enjoy the spectacular views over the Vallèe des Merveilles. This was a highly glaciated area: all the rock walls and the sheet rock on the ground showed heavy signs of glacial scouring some 20,000 years ago. It was spectacularly obvious, in fact. (We don’t have glaciers in Australia.)
Even more special were the petroglyphs or Bronze Age rock carvings on slabs beside the track. Some of these are 5,000 years old, and in most cases completely undecipherable. Only the ‘weapons’ seemed to be obvious. Of course, some of the representations of faces had been given picturesque names a hundred years ago, such as ‘Le Christ’, but I think the carving is at least twice as old as that! We admired, but did not touch.
This is a specially protected archeological zone. The rules are that you stay on the track and camping is not permitted anywhere. Yeah, right, except for the hordes of sheep which are allowed to go and crap anywhere and walk over the carvings. The inevitable sheep fold stank, and the local shepherds’ horses had steel horseshoes as well. Obviously, vested interests and local politics outweigh conservation values.
We had reached the Refuge de Merveilles by 12:30 p.m., but we stopped there. We wanted to look around at the valley and the carvings, and have a bit of a rest day doing so. We spent the afternoon touristing around a little, looking at the prehistory, but had no incentive to go exploring for large distances.
We were low on food again (traveling light, you know), so we bought omelettes at the refuge for lunch and booked dinner for the evening. Sadly, I have to report that the bread they served was stale – shame! Late in the afternoon, we grabbed a nice tent site hidden from the Refuge and pitched our tent – well before the curfew. So did some others, as soon as our tent was up! In fact, there was an informal general camping area around the Refuge. Dinner was lamb stew – the first time we had seen lamb served in France. There was plenty of stew – perhaps one of the sheep from outside? A nice thought.
Saturday 28 July 2007
Up at 5:10 a.m., with dawn just a faint glow on the horizon. Away by 6:55 a.m., just as the Refuge was opening for breakfast. But most of the refugees would be heading for the car park below the barrage, and would not be going our way. We headed up to the Pas de Diable (Devil’s Pass) through beautiful and fairly green alpine country. Then, we popped over the Pas to contemplate the next stage.
A bit of a shock greeted us: it was totally different country stretching to the Mediterranean. We could see the track going down over scree, then making a long traverse on harsh dry country, to a long, dry, open grass ridge running all the way to Sospel (a day away). This was going to be a long hot day!
We reached a small bump on the long ridge called the Pic de 3 Commune, where there was an antique fort (1877), largely intact. It looked small and useless to our modern eyes, but a signboard said it had been important long ago. I guess the security it had offered against the sort of small arms expected up there had been significant.
We had morning tea in the shade cast by the fort, looking across the valleys. After that, there was a long traverse on the ridge we had seen before, in hot sun on dry terrain, conserving our water as we walked. In two forested areas, we had to move sheep off the track surface itself – the sheep were collapsed in the heat, and sheltering in the shade. This is really hot, dry country in the summer. We had lunch in the shade of yet another wrecked modern concrete fort. Curiously, the concrete and the insides were quite cold. It was interesting to see an old iron cross by the track: people have trod these tracks for a long time.
Eventually, we went down into an open, dry, hanging valley beside the ridge, to what the guide book said was an ‘abreuvoir’ (water trough for cattle) and the only water on the ridge. The vacheries (cow farms) further up the valley were all deserted: no water in the creeks or springs. This may be a seasonal thing of course, with summer being the dry season, all right. We found the abreuvoir where it was meant to be, but some cows had got there first, and there was a lot of cow poo trampled into mud. Yuk. There was a half inch Nylex hose coming out of the hillside, and a small trickle of water was coming out of it into some troughs. The overflow made mud.
The question was, obviously, whether the water was clean enough. But, that was a moot point as we needed the water, anyhow. Well, it looked clear, so we filled up two bottles and UV-treated them immediately. Continuing, we saw another vacherie in valley below us. Perhaps it operated as a gite? Otherwise, for most walkers, it would be a very long, hard day from the Vallèe des Merveilles to the town of Sospel. But, I don’t think many do this section anyhow, only through-hikers.
Late in the day, we left the main ridge to go down a side spur to the town of Sospel in the valley below. There, we passed several old cannons from the modern military forts. It seems that when the forts were abandoned, the military started to retrieve the cannons, only to find that it was too much hard work, and perhaps too expensive – and the cannons were, by then, way out of date, anyhow. So, they cut them up with an oxygen torch and left them there on the hillside! But, they had managed to get them UP the hills many years earlier…
It was a long, dry, descent, fortunately with some shade at times, to Sospel. This is a cute, country town with an old core and a distinctive old bridge. We were there a bit too early for dinner, so we shopped a little for the morrow and watched some games of ‘petanque’ in a park for a while. Petanque is a strange French game of bowls, played with small steel cannon balls on a very rough gravel surface. The balls don’t roll gently along a smooth surface in straight lines: they are lobbed in the air to come crashing down! Lacking a convenient camping ground we opted, again, for a hotel and dinner out in a small auberge. After all, this was our last night on the track! We were amused to find ourselves sharing the auberge with another couple we had seen at intervals along the way. Unfortunately, they were pulling out just one day short of the end because of an ankle problem. We sympathized.
Sunday 29 July 2007
We set the alarm and were up at 5:00 a.m. in the near-dark. We had arranged ‘breakfast on a tray’ the night before, so we could make an early departure. This concept seemed to be well understood by the hoteliers in small towns: they get quite a few walkers. The breakfast was huge! Lots of different breads and different cheeses: we ate vigorously, and packed a little bit away as well. After all, it is unlikely they were going to recycle the bits and pieces. Then, we tiptoed away quietly at 6:30 a.m., before the sun had gotten above the hills, heading up through nice old-growth forest to Col de Razet.
On the way up, we passed a font built on the tip of a spur by some locals for walkers: kind of them, as the rest of the area was very dry. We got to the Col before the sun really hit: it had been on the other side of the hills from us. This was probably the major climb for the day, and it was good to get it done in shadow. From here on, we started to see the Mediterranean Sea: the end of our walk. There was a fair bit of smokey haze, though. The terrain then became really rough, poor limestone, getting steadily rougher and poorer as we approached the coast. The heat started to rise, too.
Farming this area would have been difficult in the past, and a lot of it seemed to have been abandoned. Perhaps people will no longer accept such a harsh existence, or perhaps the water supply dropped too low: I can’t say. What buildings we saw seemed more in the way of holiday homes. Some water sources were shown on the map, but these were either dry or very poor. What functioning water sources existed were being… conserved. It had been a dry spring here.
We took lunch under some old fruit trees on an abandoned farming terrace – it appeared to have once been a well-maintained farm. Then, over the Plan (plain) de Lion to the Pas de Porc – loved the name, but the pass wasn’t very obvious. Finally, the descent to the coast started. The guide book correctly warned it was steep and rough, but it didn’t mention the ferocity of the sun. This section does not seem to be as popular as others up in the mountains – I wonder why? Down we went to suburbs, where we threaded our way to the local railway station. The station here is the official end of the GR52, so we had completed it! A strange feeling as we stopped walking and stood on the railway platform.
We took train to Menton itself, as the place we had reached was just a commuter suburb. Menton is a TOURIST city – we weren’t really quite ready for the full impact of so-called ‘civilization’, but we survived this as well.