along the GR52 - practicalities
as at September 2013

This is a satisfying but challenging walk into the Alpes Maritime. There are lower walks on this site - the GR49, going from the coast to the Gorge du Verdon; and the GR52A, rambling from village to village. This is the big sister, spending three of the five days on paths that go either up or down, and spending nights in refuges. The paths are not in themselves difficult, but they are mostly rocky, and involve a lot of scree walking and some scrambling. Some sections are not visited by day-walkers, and a sprain or break would be very serious (mobile signals are unreliable); we went very carefully. Route markings (paint) on these sections is superb; if you can't see several paints you've gone wrong, which could again be very serious. (For example, there are two in this picture.) Rain or cloud would exacerbate the situation.

September seems a good time to go - not much snow left, refuges still open but with plenty of room (though the Refuge des Merveilles can still be full at weekends).

1. Walking days
We took 5 days. We got up at first light (around 7 am) and left the refuge about 8.15. Distances are not large, but in the up-and-down world of the mountains this counts for very little.

2. Getting there & away
Train to Nice, or fly to Nice Terminal 2. Shuttle bus to Terminal 1 (free, and frequent). Bus number 730 from Terminal 1 (or Nice town) to St-Martin-Vésubie, about 1½ hours. (The fare has now gone up to 1½ euros.) Return from Sospel to Nice by the Train des Merveilles (about 30 minutes, 10 euros). We took one day to get there and two days to get back (it could be done in one).

3. Leaflet, Maps
We used the 1:100,000 map IGN 165 (Nice, Draguignan) map for planning, and the 1:25,000 IGN 3741OT (Vallée de la Vésubie) for the walk. The numbers on the signposts are also on the map, which is useful, and are mentioned in the text below. The map covers all the high bits, but runs out during the final day down to Sospel. Relying only on the larger map was a little tricky, especially when they changed the route marginally at Mangiabo, but we didn't get lost. (The detailed map for the last part is 3741ET.)

For more detail on walking this entire area, the Topo Guide Réf. 507 covers Le Mercantour. It's in French, but as it consists of maps and descriptions of short sections, it could be useful even if you don't read French.

4. The Route
We stayed at the Studio Cagnoli in St-Martin-Vésubie.
DAY 1: St-Martin-Vésubie to Refuge de Cougourde
We took the Sentier Valléen de la Vésubie to Boréon. The section from post 65 to 66 was closed, but a detour along the road was easy. We then joined the GR52, which surprised us by taking us past post 381, but the signage was clear, as is the climb up to the Refuge de Cougourde.
DAY 2: Refuge de Cougourde to Refuge de Nice
The paint is very clear all day, but there are two passes to go over. In the morning the Pas des Ladres, to the Refuge la Madone de Fenestre for lunch. Then in the afternoon the Pas du Mt Columb (the toughest of the trip) to the Refuge de Nice.
DAY 3: Refuge de Nice to Refuge des Merveilles
The signage is again good, over two more passes to the Vallée des Merveilles, where the path becomes more gentle down to the Refuge des Merveilles.
DAY 4: Refuge des Merveilles to Authion
The climb over the Pas du Diable is relatively easy, and the descent fairly gentle. However, when we were walking this section, many of the paint marks had been over-painted in gray. We had a white-out at post 409, just where the path behaves very oddly, and were not convinced that the map and path were the same; however, by following the paint carefully we didn't get lost. At post 410 the path down to Authion was clear. We went on to the Gite d'étape at the Baisse de Camp d'Argent, walking down the ski slope. It's called L'Estive, and has rooms as well as dormitories.
DAY 5: Authion to Sospel
We walked back up the ski slope and road to Tueis, took the lower road past Cabanes Vieilles, then the road going north-east to rejoin the GR52. It would be possible to get a late train from Sospel into Nice, but we stayed on. We were slightly out of town, but the Auberge du Pont Vieux is right in the centre, and near the restaurants.

We stayed an extra day in Nice, at the hotel Kyriad, Nice Port; right by the old town, and just around the corner from the 98 bus to go to the airport.