GR52A (2) - narrative
St-Sauveur-sur-Tinée to Menton

Past visits to the Alpes Maritimes had been sufficiently enjoyable for us to return again, for this our fourth time. Originally we were inspired to come here after reading 'Walking Europe from top to bottom' (see the 'Resources' page). Last year we noticed that the GR52 led down to the Med at Menton, and the idea appealed to us. Our return to Nice included the pleasures of the warmer southern climate and the tasty local food.

DAY 1. St Sauveur to la Bolline.
Our arrival was greeted with drizzle, so we were glad to be off. We found the stop for bus number 740, near the Station, and went to get breakfast in a local Place: delicious crunchy croissant. The fare of 1.50 Euros took us the one and a half hour journey; out we went, through the Nice suburbs, with garden centres full of garden statues. The River Var, on our left, seemed a little low for May: perhaps no post-winter melting snows. Gradually the hills got nearer and larger, with some cloud cover on the tops. Then we left the main road, turning up the Tinée valley, with ever steeper sides: the net coverings suggested that stones fell off regularly, but we were protected. The gorge twisted and turned, the driver honked on sharp corners, we left the busy coastal world behind and nature loomed all around. Some trees were clinging on to the rocky mountain-sides, while the river rushed below.

St Sauveur was as we remembered it: a small community on the main valley road; the bar provided beer and the épicerie provided cheese and baguettes for our picnic. Then it was off up the hill: a long climb, but not impossibly steep, through the woods, with the traffic sounds below gradually receding. The path was often edged with flowers - lots of puse/pink valerian, some blue harebells, mauve thyme (smelling when the sun was out) and various yellows. We picniced just below Rimplas, where a break in the trees gave us a good view of the crumpled mountains. The grey and red rocks showed many lines of fine layering, sometimes like slate. There were a few landslides visible, one right across our track, so nobody could drive down there now; they showed how the earth is always changing. Up in Rimplas, everything was closed, so we continued on to La Bolline, on a pleasant path surrounded by bright yellow broom bushes. Then signs said that the path was closed, so we took the little road (fortunately not busy). The Italian cafe provided Jeremy with the best-coffee-so-far in France. All day long we had the delightful accompaniment of birdsong.

At the hotel in Valdeblore, we were greet gruffly from an upstairs window, and later we discovered that the Patron is locally referred to as an ours; indeed his bear-like manner was most unwelcoming. After a pleasant drink at the Pizzeria/Bar, we then discovered the hotel's Bistro wasn't doing food: just no-one around; so we went to the supermarket to buy another picnic. Back at the hotel, there was no-one to let us in. So (fulfilling our strapline of a mini-adventure), we picnicked in the street. We then accosted any local who might help: someone rang the owner's mobile and got his answering maching; others tried other numbers; eventually we got in - had we not pushed the door hard enough? I don't think so. Cold from the chill of a mountain evening, we got into bed and completed the next crossword, creating much amusement in our relief at being inside.

DAY 2. la Bolline to St Martin-Vesubie.
A more polite Madame was on duty as we left. The beautiful sunny morning with blue skies were most welcome, as was the pain au chocolat at our now favourite bar. La Bolline could have been a pleasant village, but was surprisingly closed for late May. (Although it was perfect walking temperature, apparently walkers don't come up until the coast has become insufferably hot.) The birds were singing again as we made our way onto the GR5, shadowing a small road, but back in nature, with paths accompanied by sweet wild flowers.

About an hour later we were in St Dalmas, another potentially nice village which again felt rather empty. But it provided coffee and ice cream and our picnic. and then we started our climb towards the col. Initially it was steady but long; towards the top it was steep. No bird song at the bottom, but the higher firs happily housed more vocal birds. Before the col, among the pine woods, we found a quiet spot above a small lake for our lunch: crusty baguette and creamy chèvre tasted particularly good out in nature's freshness. It was warm enough for shorts. The Pony Club and ski station marked the Col St-Martin, where the sun made the resin smell; the pathsides were spattered with bright blue speedwell and yellow buttercups; ahead were grand views of the Mercantour mountains, still showing pockets of snow. Sometimes there was just the sound of the wind in the trees, plus the delightfully vocal cuckoo, reminding us how rare they are now in the english countryside.

After a slowly slanting descent, we saw the southern terra-cotta tiled rooves of the alpine-style houses of St-Martin-Vesubie below. A brightly visible green patch on a ski-run on the opposite hill showed a herd of animals - deer? no, horses. The well engineered zig-zag path gave us an acceptable descent, and beech trees replaced the firs at the lower altitude. Small lanes led us round the town and we arrived at a Place we recognised from previous visits. More glaces and beer sustained us before going to our hotel; at 5, the expected opening time, we found a message saying 'fermeture exceptionelle'. Fortunately I'd already discovered another hotel, so we were only briefly upset before clocking into the Bonne Auberge. Although the paths hadn't looked special on the map, they turned out to be absolutely lovely, and the simple pleasures of French food had acquired even more delight out in nature.

DAY 3. St Martin-Vesubie to Belvédère.
After a civilized breakfast in the Auberge, and buying our picnic, we ambled out of town, with the orange rooves and surrounding green trees offsetting the pretty church spire. Our path was on a very small road, contouring above the Vesubie river, with lovely views of the valley. Purple vetch and white cistus were this morning's main flowers, chestnuts and oaks the main trees. After Le Bioulet, there was quite a big climb of about 300m, followed of course by a corresponding down, which was taxing on the knees. Through Berthémont we came to another side valley: Vallon de Gordalesque, where we picniced by a little stream, bubbling merrily in the sun. The next bit of the afternoon was through thick fir forest, with trunks close, like bar-codes. Soon after Jeremy complained that they were blocking his view, it got more open and we could see Roquebillière. Generally there's little evidence of farming, but here there were cultivated terraces where the hillside gradient allowed it. Occasionally we heard mechanical saws: logging is probably the principal work in these parts. The sleepy villages indicated that tourism is low. The path with a view was more enjoyable, and as we got lower, there was more variety among the plants - notably a very pretty mauve-purple cranesbill wild geranium. Again there were a lot of cuckoo calls and general bird chatter. A few little lizards scuttled for cover as we came past.

Generally I enjoy the early morning and late afternoon light the most, for the way it lights everything up. But even with a few clouds, this was a lovely sunny day. Before lunch we met the first other walkers of this holiday; we were struck by the scarcity of people. While it's not remote, the valley sides were quite steep and we took care not to fall off. The oak leaves and fir cones underfoot were quite slippery. In Belvédère a helpful neighbour rang our hostess/Gite owner, and we had a little apartment to ourselves, overlooking the church square. We bought tasty pizzas from a sweet couple running a small pizza oven, accompanied for Jeremy by Leffe Belgian beer, and the striking light of the setting sun on the opposite hillside.

DAY 4. Belvédère to Col de Turino.
Morning village noises included the old church clock donging the hour twice, and a woman moving leaves from one part of the Place to another with a noisy blowing machine. Now the opposite hillside had lovely blue morning light. My school French teacher had drilled tilleul into me (lime tree) so it was appropriate that we had our breakfast at the Cafe des Tilleuls, with large carvings of a bear and an ibex with big horns outside; and we saw lime trees as we walked.

Although it was in many ways a pleasant morning, we lost our way a few times; getting to La Bollène should have taken us one and a half hours but actually took three. Once, the path wasn't usable as there'd been a landslide, so we went round by the little road. Later we just decided to use the road to avoid a big descent and ascent, as the gorge was really steep. The bridge Pont du Véséou was dramatically situated, by an almost vertical rock-face. We stopped for a drink in La Bollène and then had trouble finding the GR going out. There was a long descent to the river, followed by a strenuous up: over an hour of zig-zags. The map didn't seem always to coincide with the terrain we walked. Even when we thought we'd got to the top, there was more to go. At least we heard a woodpecker! The fir trees were tall and close, with some ash in between; no big views, but lots of pretty cranesbill and wild orchids by our feet. Sometimes on a forestry road, we met a team of chaps cutting down huge trunks; it made me think of the way the Laos people pay their respects to the tree spirits before cutting; this was certainly not happening here.

The road wasn't steep, but the steady upward gradient was challenging as we were already tired. Then the path veered off into the forest again and the steep path soon showed the destruction of a storm: trees had crashed down all around; climbing over them was like navigating an obstacle course. Eventually we got up to another forest track, again climbing steadily. This day turned out about 14 miles long, plus all the ups and downs, so I kept myself going by counting my steps. Of course there were pleasures too: the new growth on the fir trees looked like light green finger-tips, and the larches had graceful, spreading skirts. We had a tiny glimpse of a deer, disappearing into the trees. There was a lovely view across the valley to the opposite mountainside; the last waterfall was over striking slade-layered stones. As well as a herd of cows munching contentedly on the path, we also saw some gun-emplacement bunkers. The weather was lovely all day until we arrived at Col Turini, where a thick mist came over, so we were in cloud. Ranch Turini was cheerful and we relished a hot shower after our long day. The merry manner of the Patron made for a congenial stay.

DAY 5. Col de Turino to Sospel.
With a long day ahead, we made an early start, beginning with climbing the Cime de la Calmette, and pleased that last night's cloud had dispersed; indeed the clouds were in the valleys below us, so we had a good view of the surrounding peaks. However the morning paths were in amongst the trees and generally we couldn't see out. The firs were standing proud: tall, straight and frequently impressive. The path descended slowly via the Baisse de Patronel, through the forest to Moulinet - a hill village with cobbled stairways and hippies in the square. After stopping for a drink, we found our way up the next hill to St Michel where a couple of dogs barked at us agressively; Jeremy decided to make friends with them and they backed off as we approached. Our picnic spot looked over towards the Mercantour; surrounded by broom, there was a pretty butterfly trying to feed on the necter but also a little nervous of us. We later saw a fox slinking into the undergrowth.

Having been enclosed all morning, we enjoyed the more open paths of the afternoon - more flowers and more views. However we kept underestimating the distances and steepness. We got to signpost 15 and it told us to continue along the Cime de Codolis, and then it was down a steep series of zig-zags to get off that bit of mountain. About 45 minutes later, picking our way carefully, and indeed picking the path, we were relieved to reach the bottom. But then we found ourselves climbing up steeply again to cross the Cime de Penas. We'd not anticipated such a challenging climb and were quite strained by it. Next, a long contour round the hillside brought us to another long descent through the trees. We knew the day had a lot of going down, but we both felt the demands on our knees from the length of it.

Eventually the lower altitude had oak trees and more wild flowers: pink convolvulus, pretty white star flowers, rock roses, and further down there were some bright red poppies. We came out above a field of olive trees - yes, this was mediterranean flora. Some women were picking the first ripe cherries. When we got down to the D2566 we decided we'd had enough of the GR and walked into town on the road. Our mini-adventure had had a bit more adventure than we'd reckoned on. The stark terrain made for difficult walking. The clouds loomed up in the afternoon, effacing the craggy limestone. Over dinner at the Relais du Sel, we looked at the map and pondered the next day's challenge.

DAY 6. Sospel to Menton.
We debated whether to do the final day, and we looked on the internet for descriptions of the difficulties; even though the cloud was thick, we decided to go for it. The GR52A went off eastwards, so we went on the GR52. The morning was spent climbing up to the Col du Razet on a mixture of paths, some forest tracks and some specially created stone paths up the steep bits - these were old trade routes, for carrying chestnuts and salt. Although the trees were thick, there were breaks when we could see the valleys we were traversing; we got pleasure from the variety. Again the open bits had a wonderful plethora of wild flowers: sweet peas, purple vetch, mauve cistus, big white stars, blue harebells and speedwells. Five walkers from our hotel were also climbing this track and we met them twice, having a break; so there was badinage and sharing of randonneur experiences.

A bit more climbing got us to the Col de Trotore at 1107m, the highest point of our walk, but covered in cloud - no view. A few more descents and ascents brought us to the first signpost mentioning Menton (at last!) The Col du Berceau might've given us our first view of the sea but was a complete white-out: Jeremy's white T-shirt made him look like a ghost when he was 10m in front of me. We took care that we really were following the GR; now off the detailed map, we were completely dependent on the paint flashes. The 1000m descent was hard work, particularly the first 300m down to the Plan de Lion; the track was basically little shale rocks, which were very unstable and we looked carefully where we put our feet. The cloud was still blowing round us, frustratingly blocking the view. So, with periodic breaks, we plodded on downwards, my knees feeling ever more strained. Our first view of Menton and the Med below was a big event. Then it was on down, and on, and on, and on... The noise of cars grew increasingly audible, then police klaxons; fairly soon we went under the motorway and down through the hillside town suburbs. Though ever downward, the path into town was cleverly routed through little lanes and alleyways, and down steps. We were above the port and the harbour was full of loads of pleasure boats; we could see the southern colours of the Old Town: deep oranges and reds. Eventually we came to the Avenue Garavan, with attractive mosiac-style tiles on the pavements (which we later discovered were made by Portuguese workers). We found our way through the little lanes of the Old Town to our hotel - exhausted, but pleased we'd completed the journey. At 71 miles, that was one of the longest of our Week Walks.

There were people on the beaches and even swimming in the sea; the palm trees gave it a truly southern atmosphere. The people of Menton had a slightly self-conscious atmosphere: I thought they were people who liked to look chic, and to be looked at for their style. We'd heard the restaurants were a bit samey, so we plumped for a Chinese/Vietnamese meal nearby.

A day in Menton.
About to leave our hotel, and we again met the French randonneurs in the lobby - more banter; then we got bus information from the nearby Tourist Office, and walked down to the front, along by the (surprisingly clean and blue) sea; the clouds were still hugging the mountains. Our first stop, the Jean Cocteau Museum, was a smart new building housing a substantial collection from a Belgian/American fan. It illustrated Cocteau's interest in anti-establishment ideas, through his varied and wide creative outlets: film, painting and writing on French ideas, Orpheus, sci-fi, magic , hybrid forms, death and so on. They also showed his stimulating connection with Les Six and French intellectual thinking.

Next we went along the Promenade to the Jardin Fontana Rosa, created in homage to various writers, notably Cervantes and his Don Quichotte. There were some lovely, recently restored ceramic tiles, many painted with roses and oranges and lemons. There were also actual citrus trees, rose bushes, and ponds with beautiful flowering water lillies. For lunch we settled for paninis and good Italian ice-cream. We walked up the steep steps to the Basilisque St Michel and found it closed. So then we went on to Le Bastion, another Cocteau Museum. After viewing more paintings, we went back to the hotel to collect our packs, and did a last walk round the town. Having enjoyed Menton more in the morning, I was finding it a bit too full of fat cats and thin chicks, often carrying little dogs. Time to go; there was a full moon as we flew off.

It was an impressive walk, even if a bit more strenuous than we normally go for. We still enjoyed the poetry of nature, including the almost ubiquitous cuckoo and the glorious wild flowers; I loved the sun and being out in the natural world. Being right by the Italian border meant not only good pizzas, but a mixture of languages; for example Col de Turini/Turino/Turin?

© Diana Ambache 2015