GR52A - narrative

This is a spectacular walk across the French Alpes Maritimes and the crumpled mountain folds of geological time. It gives a feast for the senses: great views, wonderful summer wild flowers, smells of wild thyme and hot pines, the sounds of birdsong, goat bells and tinkling streams, and tasty French food and wine. There was also a charming French politeness, with frequent 'Bonjour', 'Bon appetit', and 'Bon passage'. Mostly the mountains were grey limestone; some were deep red sandstone; plus a bit of grey shale. Our fortuitous choice of June gave us a wonderful multi-coloured wild flower display. The general weather pattern was sunny mornings and cloudier afternoons.

We first came across this path in 2009 by accident, when we realised that crossing Mount Mounier on the GR5 was too much for us. A chaotic descent led us to Beuil, a lovely little hill town. Walking back to the Tinée valley we noticed that we were on a spectacular balcony path, with incredible views and horizontal walking (that's the picture on the home page of this site).

The one and a half hour bus journey from Nice to St-Sauveur-sur-Tinée was the best value in Provence: 1 euro! We bought our picnic from the Boulangerie and set off up the steep climb to Roure.

After half an hour we paused for our lunch when we came to a delightful wild flower meadow with splendid views of the Tinée valley, north and south. Just over an hour's further climb, on not such a demanding slope, brought us into Roure, through sweet peas, clover, rock pinks, vetch and fruiting wild cherries.

This is a typical hill town, perched on the shoulder of the mountain. There were only about 40 inhabitants, as many of the houses were only used at week-ends or as holiday places.

Jeremy has written up his experiences of the day on a separate website: oboeclassics.com/travels/Provence.htm.

The 3 hour morning walk started with the optimism of a bright, fresh morning, and more colourful wild flowers: battalions of buttercups, white michaelmas daisies, sweet little blue speedwell and violets, cream snapdragons, loads of yellow broom, purple orchids, mauve cranesbill, purple scabious, and blue harebells. The peaceful paths through the pines were regularly accompanied by the sound of running water and occasional goat bells. We saw one mother goat followed by her kid. Sadly I am ignorant of the names to match the many bird calls, except for the cuckoo. There were occasional smells of wild thyme and hot pine. Climbing out of Roure was at an acceptable gradient, through the woods, with dappled dells, and some dark mossy ones. There were glorious views from the steady downhill walk towards a small tributary.

One and a half hours after ignoring a sign warning of an impasse, we came to a landslide, with paint and cairns showing the way across. Then we went down to the Ruisseau de Vionène, crossed over it on a broad tree trunk, and then up the steeper climb to a small road into Roubion. This was another village clamped onto the slope, with great views all round, and a nice terrasse café providing crêpes and indulgent ice-cream for lunch (this is where the home page photo was taken).

Our afternoon walk was about two and three quarter hours. On the delightful path leaving the village there was a 'primitive art' show, mainly of models of miniature houses. The elegant stone steps out of town led to a riot of wild flowers. However, the Col above Falcon was a disappointment - a kind of dogwalkers' car park. We walked on quickly. Before long we got to an alpine meadow, with a sea of scarlet spire orchids (that's the photo on the 'WhyWeekWalks' page). More forest paths brought us down to an open area below Beuil; this looked a bit like a picture from Grimm's fairy Tales.

Our biggest day of the week: about seven and a half hours' walking. We had breakfast at the Bistro du Mercantour, with tasty croisants, coffee, and a friendly patron. The path out of town was different from the map, but well paint-marked. We took three hours to get to Péone. A relaxed start went through pleasant pastures in the bowl round Beuil. Green was predominant through the morning, plus lots of yellow, and some blues. It was an easy hour to Valberg, the least attractive town so far, as it's basically a ski station, surrounded by ski runs and ski lifts. We failed to find the GR going out of town, and so walked 2-3 kilometres on the D29; this wasn't bad, since there was little traffic and we were back with the grand panorama again, with splendid views of layers of mountains all round. There was a long descent to Péone, Crossing the Vionène which was quite taxing on the knees. The only hotel in the village (Col de Crous) was full for lunch, so we bought fruit from a friendly travelling fruit van, and walked 25 minutes up the hill to a wild flower meadow with a grand view of great slabs of mountain.

The afternoon walk was about 4 hours, and increasing cloud meant some of the views were obscured, though the paths were pretty. First, another ascent of about 25 minutes. Then it was undulating, often among the pines. Although the map made it look like contouring, there were two more sizeable downs and ups, all compensated for by the mountain splendour. There was a big landslide, of layered black shale, with a clear path across it (sometimes a bit narrow - see the photo gallery). We were partly in the woods, sometimes out on the open hillside, with splendid views.

Finally we saw Châteauneuf d'Entraunes across the ravine, but had one more extended descent and ascent, up a holloway of trees. The Gite Carre du Mercantour had put us in their tiny chalet-cabine, with a big picture-window on one wall, looking over the surrounding mountains - a wonderful view to wake up to (see the photo on Day 5 below).

We had decided to stay a day at the Gite, partly because we were told the views were 'like Tibet' (not strictly true) and partly because we thought the previous day would have worn us out
(it hadn't).

Blessed with a sunny morning, we had breakfast on the terrace in front of the Gite, overlooking the grandiose panorama. With a bread and cheese baguette from the Gite, we set off for a 3 hour circuit.

First we ambled down the holloway (the final up of yesterday). Turning off to an old Mill, we clambered back another steep up; and finally we contoured along an old canal to the Gorge de Sauche Nègre and a lovely picnic place near a waterfall. Today's main colours were grey and green; the steep sides of the gorge meant less vegetation, so the rock layers were exposed.

At the cascade, very clear layers of aeons of geological history demonstrated the formation of the rocks. Then a nice walk back to the Gite.

Total walking time was six and a half hours. A charcoal and green day. The three and a half hour morning started with a track across the layered black shale. It took us two and a half hours to Les Tourres, a medieval town, with wooden rooves (made from mélèze). Lovely setting, but no café, it was too remote.

Another hour took us to near the Col des Trente Souches, and there were indeed many streams spilling out of the mountain. The view was of vast jagged crags all round, and layered broad buttresses. After an hour's toil up a long ascent, we had a picnic in an alpine meadow, awash with wild flowers, just short of the Col.

This was a broad Pass, a huge open space, with a jumble of mountains all round. There was quite a bit of scrambling over rivers and a big section of scree; there were a few exposed edges. Then a fine forest of firs was followed by not-so-much the primrose path as the buttercup path. There was more forest after the scree. Eventually we got onto a forest track; and the final down to Entraunes was not quite as steep as expected.

The accommodation here was rather impersonal, but there was a tasty chocolate croissant for breakfast. The morning walk took a little over 3 hours. We bought a picnic from the Poste/Épicerie, crossed the river, and started off on the steep uphill. It was a long climb, mostly at an acceptable gradient. A slightly similar top to yesterday, there was a big, broad Pass: le Col des Champs which was lovely, and fitted its name, with high altitude fields. Between the steeper climbs, there was a lovely balcony path above the Ruisseau de Molever; again there was very clear layering in the stone. There were billions of buttercups, balanced by some striking blue flowers: lots of Johnson's Blue geraniums; some intense blue gentians; and the more familiar speedwell and forget-me-nots. Our picnic at the Col was between grey-shale peaks (picture at the top of this page).

Then there was a steady down, of about 3 hours, starting through the larches. Crossing one tributary, the path was quite narrow and exposed, climbing up and down the crunched black slating. We were also at the level of pockets of snow, and once crossed a mini 'glacier'. The signage gave out when the path joined a forest track. We just followed what seemed to be Nordic ski tracks, and trusted that some pink dots would lead us to Colmars-les-Alpes (they did). The final 45 minutes down through the trees avoided the road, and continued the peaceful sense of the day, accompanied by birdsong and the ubiquitous cuckoo. We also saw several marmots in the hills.

Colmars-les-Alpes is a nice old town, and the Cafe-Hotel Le France was pleasant, comfortable and had good food. The official end of the GR 52A is here, but we wanted to walk on to the station at Méailles.

We went first to the Cascade de la Lance (about an hour round trip), which is a splendid waterfall, among ancient layered rocks. We then had some difficulty finding our path, but got an explanation from the helpful Tourist Office; the way out of town was past the petrol station and the Poste de Secours. The red and yellow paint flashes of the Petite Randonnée were not quite as frequent as the GR paint.
The first hour was quite a tough ascent. After a while, near the edge of some forest, we followed gut instinct to take a smaller footpath contouring across the mountain-side, and we were surprised to find paint flashes some 20 minutes later: yes, we were still on the 'Liaison Path'. Due to the closely planted pines (a bit like our Forestry Commission) there was less of a view, apart from on occasional 'open' shoulders, with charming edelweiss. The last hour was a long descent into the valley of Le Verdon, and into Beauvezer.

This was a nearly 5 hour walk, through the lower hills to Colle St Michel. The 3 hour morning started with a woodland walk, with the audible swish of Le Verdon below. The trees were more varied, including beeches. There was a balcony path to Ondres, and then up the ravine to the Riou d'Ondres, coming to a charming spot to cross the stream. Next was a long, steep up the hillside, zigzagging up on the GRP Tour du Haute Verdon for an hour; the final 30 minutes of up was not quite so steep. We actually met two lads who were the 'paint people'. In true English gent manner, Jeremy shook their hands, and said "merci, merci". It emerged that they were going to do our path of the previous day, so presumably others won't have the problems we did.

Our one serious rain shower of the week left us in a cloud with no view. However, when the rain stopped we picnicked at the Col above Peyresq, and then had a 30 minute amble down the shoulder to the road. Despite having met the guys in charge of the paint signs, the signs were very irregular. By map reading, we found our path, despite the lack of confirming flashes. We descended to the Col on a pleasant contouring grassy track and got to the Gite after a nearly 2 hour afternoon. This Gite (de la Colle Saint Michel) was a bit more spartan than our previous accommodation, but was fine. We'd heard much talk of herds of sheep, but not seen any - until, finally, that evening there was a big troupeau, being herded by several sheep dogs.

Our final walk was down to Méailles train station. This was 2 hours on a gentle slope overlooking Le Vaire, firstly through beech woods, then oak, and later more pines. There was a delightful ancient track, then a smaller footpath, and more tracks to follow. Lower down we were among lavender, mint smells and thyme. We had lovely views over the railway line and a fine rock edge above the gorge, then the mountain village of Méailles perched above the ravine. There was a charming, old-fashioned railway station, and then the delightful, scenic ride into Nice; we rejoined Le Var, and later La Tinée, completing the circle, and re-entering the world of man's civilisation, buildings and bustling humanity.

The whole walk gave us many pleasures, and it is one of the most spectacular walks we've done in the Alpes Maritimes. Linear walks have a special satisfaction - with the specific task of getting to the next town, of discovering new places each day, and of traversing the country under our own steam. It gave us a rich contact with nature; there was an engaging variety of views, and the grandeur of the great panoramas stirred us.

© Diana Ambache 2011