along the GR52 - narrative
St-Martin-Vésubie to Sospel

I had always been intrigued by the Vallée des Merveilles on our Provence planning map - that promised something special. Was it truly marvellous, or was it just spin? It is in the Alpes Maritimes, where we'd previously had some lovely walks; so, why not? It was part of the GR52, and we saw we could make a broad arc across the Parc Mercantour. We chose September as a good month to go, as the passes were quite high, making sure we wouldn't get restricted by the snow. Our route in the previous day was on the Lignes d'Azur bus, which took us from the palms and poplars by the sea to the pines of the mountains, along steep, limestone gorges. St Martin Vésubie turned out to be a sweet hill town, with charming narrow streets; we stayed above one with granite-like stone blocks and a central runnel for a water channel.

DAY 1: St-Martin-Vésubie
              to Refuge de Cougourde

A good start: blue sky, pain au chocolat and cafe creme for breakfast, overlooking the square. Not surprisingly in mountain country, we began our walk by climbing. Heading north on the small roads out of the village, we passed alpine chalets, with A-shaped rooves. The tiny country road led to Les Trois Ponts and then onto a track to Lac Boréon. The valley sides were so close we only got occasional views of the mountains ahead. We reached the lake after a couple of hours and paused for a drink at the Gite. Not long after we'd turned on to the GR52, and passed another (closed) Gite, we came to a pretty stream - time for our picnic. The sun was out to start with, but then the clouds came over; however it was a lovely peaceful spot, enclosed by striking, chunky boulders and the soothing sounds of the rushing stream.

Now we were in the Park, with imposing ridges all round, surrounded by Christmas trees with elegantly curving branches, growing too thickly to allow much of a view. After a short climb we were on a pleasant balcony path going east; all around was richly green, with a few wild flowers: purple thistles, yellow dandelions and blue delphiniums. I found a few wild fruits too: raspberries, strawberries and bilberries. We climbed north-west; every time we achieved a new turn in the river, a new col and array of mountains would appear before us. We relished the moments of less dense vegetation and the more open views. The rocks were probably gneiss and schist, bulky lumps, sometimes sparkling in the light, sometimes displaying compressed layering. We were with water all day, many streams, and a fine waterfall.

Then we turned off the GR52, going north on a path that was well designed, often including man-made stone steps. There was a herd of cows here, and many had big mountain bells strapped on their necks with wide leather belts; so for the last hour we had music. The ascent for this day was roughly equivalent to climbing Ben Nevis, and suddenly we were up at the Refuge. A cloudy afternoon meant it wasn't quite warm enough for me. We were tired by the end; not normally a whinger, Jeremy complained a bit about the effort. I thought it was a good day for acquainting us with the great outdoors again, and the area in general. Very few people were walking in our direction, but there were quite a lot of day-walkers going the other way in the afternoon.

DAY 2: Refuge de Cougourde
              to Refuge de Nice

A special mountain morning pleasure was of stepping out of the door, immediately into a blue sky day and the magnificent mountain surroundings - we were right amidst the crunch of the alpine range, with jagged crags on all sides, and the rock mica sparkling in the sun. We climbed up to the Lac des Tréscolpas, looking idyllically blue under the blue sky. All this clear water was very alluring, but I knew I would never survive the chilly temperature. It was a beautifully peaceful place.

Then there was a longer climb to the Pas des Ladres; we were getting the feel for the changes in altitude, from alpine flowers, passing the tree line, and up to the big screes. Clambering round the rocks, the jumble of big boulders made for more challenging walking - though we did manage tio keep a conversation going, even on the final zigzags. On we went, down the other side, and back through the changes in vegetation to come to the Refuge de la Madone de Fenestre. As this is accessible by car, there were lots of vehicles around, plus all sorts of day-trippers; however, we had a pleasant lunch.

It's always up after lunch, so we continued with the next climb. This stretch was marked differently on the map: the red GR path had changed to a dotted line: in fact that meant that the route was less defined, as we were back up in the scree: more boulder clambering. The last 100 metres of up was particularly steep; sometimes I occupy myself in such challenges by counting: this time I did it in Roman numerals, which got me up succcessfully, reaching a small crack in the rocks to pass to the other side. By now the clouds had come up, and getting down was an equal challenge: very steep, which made me anxious about losing my footing. Using hand holds on the side rocks, we clambered our way down, keeping attention on where we put our feet. It was slow, but no damage occurred; we were pleased to get back to the alpine flowers again; a few, wild delphiniums gave an encouraging bit of colour. Even while watching my feet, I realised that the rocks we were negotiating were very striking: silver-grey layered with cream-white, sometimes tinged with pink, or rust, or copper-green, all swirling and curving from millenia of earth movements.

We turned north, up towards the Lac de la Fous, finding a reservoire wall with some solar panels on it. We weren't too tired to appreciate the beautiful evening: the clouds blew around the adjacent mountains, occasionally allowing the slanting sun to light up the rock face. A family of chamois were grazing in the meadow. Our final climb to the Refuge de Nice was up another man-made stone 'stairway to heaven'.

DAY 3: Refuge de Nice
              to Refuge des Merveilles

An early start (8.15) brought us out into another blue-sky day, with the freshness of a new beginning. Again we started eastward, being dazzled by the low sun. However, in the grand confinements of a bowl of mountains, it was a chilly start when in the shade. Before long, the sun was creeping down the rock sides, discovering their solidity and patterns. The morning was splendidly peaceful. We passed various lakes, frequently so still that their surface became a reflecting mirror of mountains and blue sky. The rivers and lakes all have miraculously clear and pure water, occasionally tinged with iron. I put my hand in one - not icy, but definitely too cold for swimming.

We wound our way up towards the Baisse du Basto, and as the dotted patch on the map had suggested, the path became very steep, and we clambered over the boulders. One time I made a bad choice of route, and found myself straddling a tufted incline, unable to move forwards - the gallant Jeremy pulled me to safety. The col was our highest point in the walk: 2693 metres, and there were spectacular views all round. The start downwards was taxing on the knees and I continued my on-all-fours, mountain-goat-style.

The next valley was very remote - just us, the mountains and a few chamois. I'm surprised how tame they are, gently grazing, at a comfortable 10 metre distance, without being much bothered by us. The big Lac du Basto came into view, and then we climbed to another col - not quite so high, but tiring, even so. We had a picnic at Baisse Valmasque, enjoying the continuing sunny day.

A bit of a zig-zag down brought us to the Vallée des Merveilles, the reason we had come on this walk. It was a U-shaped valley, made by a glacier, some 10,000 years ago. Neolithic man had lived here about 3,000 BC, and made innumerable drawings/engravings on the rocks. They were probably a bull-worshipping culture, and we saw some petroglyphs of their horns. Although there are said to be 40,000 gravures, we saw about 4: a 'Christ' face (named in popular tradition), a couple of arrow-heads, and some symbolic patterns, said to be something to do with a Chief. With so little information, it was hard to get a picture of their lives. A previous visit to Point Sublime had shown us the French can magnify their special places; this felt similar. Perhaps we are used to having our Neolithic sites on a grand scale, as in Stonehenge, and these were miniatures that someone could have done in an afternoon. Later, we began to appreciate the tiny glimpse we had into an artistic creation from the unknown past. And the valley was on a grand, impressive scale, with rock faces of many different colours; some walls were vitreous in their smoothness, either from the ice, or some other geological process. The day ended with a long arc round the Lac Long Superieure to get to the Refuge. The sky was still blue and I had loved being in the sun all day.

DAY 4: Refuge des Merveilles
              to Authion

Another 8.15 start, but what a difference:mountain weather had descended on us: sunshine and showers, wind and clouds. We set off in the mizzle, in our rain gear. A short climb took us up to Lac Fourca; the grey came and went. It turned out that many of these lakes were actually dammed reservoires, owned by EDF - the water and energy supplier for the big Côte D'Azur towns.

Compared to our previous climbs, it wasn't too strenuous getting up to Pas du Diable; the wind was blowing the clouds uphill and all round us. There was a nice balcony path along the side of the Cime de Raus, but we saw less and less. Eventually it was a white-out: we were completely surrounded by cloud and could see nothing below or above. So, we took care to follow the paint marks that told us we were still on the GR52. Once the red line on the map didn't seem to match up with the corners we actually walked. So, ever grateful to the paint men, we found our way to the Pointe de Trois Communes, with a slight sense of blindly groping our way in the wilderness.

Descending towards Tueis, we seemed to get below the cloud, and the downs re-emerged. We were definitely on the lower slopes again - thickly forested, velvet green hillsides, with hundreds of Christmas trees. Our first encounter with civilization was being barked at by two sheep-dogs; then we saw they were herding a large number of sheep, previously hidden in the clouds. Much of the day there were lovely purple wild flowers: thistles, pansies, scabious. Eventually we were low enough to be back among the wild raspberries. Civilization produced another bizarre encounter: some ski-lifts. However, this meant we were near 'home': a hotel-bar of the little ski-station; we had a charming wood-panelled room (all to ourselves - no more dormitories!) with a pretty view down the valley. Rain and hail through supper was a bit depressing, but we were relishing the comforts and pleasures of civilization.

DAY 5: Authion to Sospel
Ah - better weather; the lovely view from our window was lit up by blue sky. We set off on a small road overlooking 'the heaving seas' - wave after wave of high ridges, with the slopes all covered in firs and spruce. We shambled up the ski slope, this morning covered in musical cows, grazing on the tiny little mauve flowers. The morning was mostly on balcony paths with terrific views of massive stone buttresses, covered in grass and trees, with tiny hamlets in the valleys below. The first place we came to was Cabanes Vielles, with remnants of the Franco-Italian border war. There were also remains from the Second World War here, and lying around the hills too.

Back on the GR52, we turned south, skirting the tops, with clouds beginning to gather round us. Again the map and the path signs didn't agree, so we decided to follow the signs. Starting downwards, we found a perch on the hillside for our picnic, and were visited by an astonishing number of butterflies. We'd also seen bees grazing on the various thistles and other flowers - plenty of insect life here.

Then the serious descent began. It was a long one: it went on and on - (from the map) in total about 1500 metres - and our knees felt it. By the end it was a bit of a schlepp. But lower meant warmer, and the vegetation changed - different flowers, and oak and ash trees in the forests. Some of the paths were narrow and stony - not easy walking; so we welcomed the broader tracks as we got nearer to Sospel. Again, the change of trees was welcome: now we were down to olive groves and cypresses. The last bit was a long sequence of zig-zags down to the valley floor and into town, over the river Bévéra, with the lovely medieval Pont Vieux. After finding our auberge slightly out of town and not to our taste, we had an enjoyable drink by the river, with the evening sun lighting up the village and the old plane trees. Sospel turned out to be a charming, Italianate town, with pretty houses, in warmly painted colours - a good end point to our week out.

The walk gave us what we want from these linear sequences: a sense of satisfaction from progressing day by day through changing views, new scenes and a developing story. It was rich in variety, from the green lower slopes to the barren, rocky heights, from communal Refuges to welcoming village hotels, from cold uplands to bright southern sun. We had a week of enjoying the miracles of nature, getting a taste of the aeons of the earth's history; and knowing we could still meet an adventurous challenge and navigate our way through it. This is a lovely part of the world, with the many delights of South European culture. We will be back.

© Diana Ambache 2013