Walks and hikes in Europe and California, posted sporadically as they happen… or as I reflect on them…

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Alps, 2013, 26: end of the trip

THE DAY AFTER our hike to the Merveilles yet another injury forced yet another rest day. The entire walk has been beset by frustration, interrupted by weather and injury. Our very first day we'd lost our balissage and wound up circling back to our starting point: that was, in retrospect, a warning. The second day was so long and hard and showed us so much snow that I'd made a quick revision, skipping the entire first (northern) part of the traject after La Chapelle d'Abondance, and taking the train to Modane for the southern half.

Even then, bad weather and susceptibility to back and knee problems kept us on the cautious side, often suspending the walk. Now it was happening again. I decided to salvage one final day, from Sospel to Menton, the final stage of the GR 52. I don't need to repeat the Valdeblore-Nice stage; I've done that; but I would like to experience the descent to Menton. 

So the day after the Merveilles we took the bus back down to St.-Dalmas-en-Tende, saying goodbye to a gaggle of Russian, Turkish and Japanese youths volunteering in the refuge, and then took the train to Sospel, where we heard a fine concert of French baroque music in the cathedral 

We slept well after the concert, but not long, as we had a long walk to take today, and the weather is always chancy. Even though it wasn't yet seven there were two other tables already breakfasting, a couple and a group of two couples, who were discussing between themselves the GR5 and the possibility of walking it in sections. They seemed surprised that we'd done it — well, after our fashion — all the way from Modane.

We had little trouble finding our way back to our trail, now thr GR 52, even though Sospel seems sideways to me, straddling an unaccountably eastward-flowing stream. The trail climbs, fairly gently at first along road, then hardly at all, traversing through really marvelous forest. 

Before long we came upon a herd of goats. A young white guard dog, clearly not yet fully trained, found us more to her liking than the goats, and followed us for the next couple of hours. 

Then the trail climbed roughly and steeply, ultimately to the Col de Razet at 1000 meters, 650 above Sospel. (3370 feet; 1150.) by now it was ten o'clock, and the col, actually more a flat under scattered pines, was an inviting place — but it was too early for our picnic.

Along the way we passed ruins of cabanons from time to time, and it was clear much of the land had once been farmed, and the path had clearly been carefully paved with stone, and I was impressed once again with the long history of human occupation and use of this countryside — and, of course, the melancholy history of wars and resistance, and the daily life that's been lived here for 3,000 years. 

In a half hour we were at another col, slightly higher at 1100 meters, and then we began a gentle descent to the ruins of old Castellar, a village flourishing already in the 1300s. For once these ruins suggest happiness rather than misery: the village was simply moved down to a more accessible and comfortable location in 1435, since the Saracen menace had finally been laid to rest. 

In the nearly 600 years since the village — houses, church, restanques, and all — has slowly fallen apart and collapsed back into the hillside, leaving only a few particularly well-built walls standing. Perhaps this can only happen in a country like France, where the population is stable, and you don't have to accommodate constant demand for more housing and employment.

Here we met day-hikers coming up from (new) Castellar, and here we finally convinced our dog to leave us and return to her flock — not without pitching a rock at her, and using some impolite French and Italian, I'm afraid. 

Now we climbed again, occasionally scrambling up stony narrow trail through the maquis — brush, roses, blackberry vines, broom — to our final col, Du Berceau, at 1100 meters (3600 feet) not even quite as high as Mt. St. Helena near my home in California, and far from the heights we'd routinely climbed earlier. The overcast was finally clearing, and we could see Menton below us, and the blue Mediterranean.

But Menton was far below us, as if we were looking down from the peak of Mt. St. Helena at a Calistoga a thousand feet lower than in fact it is, and I thought about the warnings I'd read about this descent. At first it was kind enough, taking us to the pleasant Plan de Lion — "Lion Flat", I don't know why — at 700 meters. Then it turned more aggressive, down switchbacks of loose stone and dirt, down down down, until finally we were at a paved road.

In some ways the worst was yet to come: a pedestrian path down more steps than I could keep track of, hundreds of them, each doing everything it could to jolt knee, ankle, and instep. So often, on this long walk, Ive thought, while descending, "Well at least I'm glad not to be climbing this." (Or often the reverse.) This time I wasn't sure.

We kept thinking there must surely be a café soon, but there never seemed to be, until we finally happened on a miniature golf course set under an ancient olive grove, with a bar and restaurant completely empty of customers. The two-man staff seemed unhappy to see us (and in truth we smelled awful, drenched in sweat), but reluctantly sold us a couple of bottles of Perrier. From there it was an easy walk into Menton, where we checked in a little after four o'clock.

When reserving the room, yesterday, I mentioned that we were randonneurs who would be walking the GR 52 from Sospel. The deskclerk looked up at us: Ah, the two anglophone randonneurs who telephoned yesterday, he said. You've made good time from Sospel: it's a hard day's walk.

AND SO WE HAVE finished our Alpwalk for this year. On the GR 5 we logged 331 kilometers, 17,328 meters of climb; 16,560 meters descent (205 miles; 56,850; 54,330 feet) in 23 walk days, with 7 rest days thrown in. Our longest unbroken sequence was 16 days, June 30 to July 15, Fournier to St.-Sauveur-sue-Tende, when we managed  about 230 kilometers.

We didn't finish the GR 5 to Nice; we fell three days short. On the other hand, we logged the last day of the GR 52, and an extra day to the Vallée des Merveilles. Given the handicaps, I'm satisfied. 

I undertook the walk to see what had changed in the five years since my last Alpwalk. The biggest change is the greater number of hikers on the trail. Most of the increase seems to me to involve people who are only walking a couple of days, a week at the most. They seem less prepares for the experience, and I'm not sure what they take from it. 

Refuge tenders tell me they are more "exigent," and breakfasts in some cases reflect that. There are still plenty of old-fashioned refuges like the Vacherie de Roure, but the gîtes seem a bit more elevated in terms of facilities, and the dinners they offer seem more sophisticated — not always a good thing.

Another change: I'm five years older, and carrying twelve or fourteen kilos up steep hills slows me down a little more. On the other hand, I suppose I'm that much closer to ready for a final, permanent  merge into these majestic, serene, powerful, noble landscapes, or the great blue mother sea at their feet. They don't seem to change.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Alps, 2013, 25: la Vallée des Merveilles

Refuge Neige et Merveilles

July 24— we had time for a leisurely breakfast: the bus taking us to tonight's gîte wouldn't leave Tende until 9:15. Still, we were the first guests in the gîte to breakfast, at seven, and though we dawdled a bit we never saw the French couple, or the German family of four who had sat at the next table at dinner last night. 

We paid up and slipped on our packs and walked through town back toward the train station, where we caught the bus out of Tende to, first, St.-Dalmas en Tende, then Lac des Mesches. The weekly market was on, and we bought slices of porchetta to carry along for a picnic. 

The bus arrived on time, and made some elaborate backing-up maneuvers to get turned around in the right direction in the train-station parking lot. We got on, sitting in the first row of seats for the view and tossing our packs in the row behind us, since only two other hikers got onto the empty bus. 

The driver pulled out of the parking lot and started down the main road, then almost immediately stopped the bus, got out (leaving it idling), and went to the market, talking first to one vendor, then another. I thought maybe he wanted a sandwich or something, but he got back on empty-handed and resumed the drive, only to stop again, to talk to yet another vendor.

Then we were on our way, I thought, but no: another bus was coming in the opposite direction, and we both stopped so the drivers could have a conversation. At the market, our driver told the other, right opposite the bar, the guy with a beard, wearing a cap: I told him his truck was parked over the line at the train station, it was impossible for me to navigate the lot the right way, I had to back and fill and back and fill, he told me he'd move his truck, see if he did, and give him hell if he hasn't. Right,said  the other driver, You can be sure I will. And then we were well and truly on our way.

What a ride! Down the gorge on the main road to St.-Dalmas, then up a very narrow road, with many switchbacks, to our destination. The bus went right to the edge of the road, in whichever lane it needed, and since I was sitting at the window I could see how little clearance there was. There were times a sheer rock wall was an inch from my window; at other times I was suspended over a dramatic drop to the river far below.

And never once did the driver have to back up to take the turn in two passes. He drove his rather huge bus magisterially, honking the horn only at truly blind curves, relying on his knowledge of the road, the common sense and self-protective instincts of other drivers, and probably the sound of his engine which should have been a signal to any mountain-savvy driver coming the other way. Only once did he stop for an oncoming vehicle: a truck-and-trailer even bigger, hauling a load of propane.

Lac des Mesches: ruins of the abandoned hydroelectric installation

Finally he stopped at Lac des Mesches to let us off, telling us to walk a little way up the road, then take a stairway to our left and continue for twenty minutes, and there would be our gîte Neige et Merveilles. Well driven, I told him, How often do you make this drive? Oh, four trips a day, round trip, he said, as if he were doing something easy.

In less than twenty minutes we'd hiked up rather steeply to our refuge, a complex of several buildings. We were given a double room on the back (west) side of the largest building, a former barracks for the Italian army. (Hmmm: I wonder how many of these gîtes and refuges are such transformations. Swords into plowshares.)

I asked a young woman who was setting cobblestones in sand — an accurate arm with the rubber mallet, I thought — where the reception desk was. Anglophone? she asked, and I nodded. She smiled: Me too, of a sort; I'm from Dublin. We checked in rather hurriedly: it was past ten, and a two- hour hike, they said, maybe more, to our tour, which began at one.

The room is nice enough with two single beds, a table and two stools, and a bathroom with shower that we share with one other room. We lightened our backpacks even more, taking out all but raingear, emergency stuff, water, and the porchetta, and then set off for the vaunted Vallée des Merveilles. 

It was a longer walk, and in the last half more difficult, than I had expected. After a half hour or so skirting woods and the stream — we always start out alongside a stream — my companion said something like Is this perfect, or what?, and I said, We'll see how you feel on the way back. 

Because this was, I think, our first out-and-back hike: not what I normally  
like to do, but inescapable today. And indeed the first part was easy and enjoyable, through fields of flowers, then a forest. Later it grew more difficult, sometimes almost bouldering — clambering over or around quite big rocks. My companion did fine; I flagged, and had to rest to catch my breath now and then.

We came out onto a broad, low, exposed col, onto a 4x4 "road", walked past a parking area on which four official park ATVs stood, and, ten minutes to one, reached the Refuges des Merveilles, where a number of vacationers were standing around, eating at picnic tables, or lounging. We broke out the porchetta at a table, then joined a dozen or so who had gathered for a guided walk of an hour. 

I negotiated about language yes, the guide speaks English, but if only for one person … Does anyone else in the group speak English? she asked, in French, and everyone shook heads in the negative except one man who said Non, mais je parles un peu Breton, and everyone laughed. Then the guide fixed her eyes on my companion and asked him, in English: you, do you understand French? When he confessed he didn't she turned back to me, saying ( in French) eh bien, you're in luck, since there are two of you I must explain also in English.

The gravures are quite interesting and our guide was patient and clear. There are thousands of them, virtually all incised or chiseled into smooth glacial-polished stone, using harder stone tools. With very few exceptions they have been classified into five signs or forms:  corniform: an upward crescent on a vertical stroke, representing a horned animal head; blade, representing a stone blade; poignard, a dagger; ax-shape; unknown or unfinished or mistake (or, as I think, often a practice area). Something like forty percent are corniform. 

It's thought they were made about 5-10 thousand years ago, before the invention of writing, but long after e.g. Lascaux. Probably by herding people doing then just what they still do: transhumance. What was most fascinating was the exceptional gravures, which show gridded rectangles the specialists take to represent plowed fields, or others clearly representing yoked oxen with plowshares.

In one area there are also a number of boats, rather rudimentary hulls with a single mast and perhaps a square sail and a double row of tiny circles the guide said were cannon, showing these to be at least 16th- century. But no man-o'-war would have had a single mast for that many cannon, I think; this looked exactly like an early bireme to me, and I wonder if it refers to the arrival of early invaders at the coast, which is only 40 km away. Well: much to speculate on. 

But our guide was finally looking at the sky, as I had been for some time, and she recommended we prepare for rain. My pack was already covered: i got into my rain pants and windbreaker, and the thunder and lightning began, and hailstones the size of small cherries.

We were expertly herded from one outcropping to another, finally to a hut, to wait out the worst, and then we made it to the Refuge des Merveilles where we hunkered until the storm had passed. We still had the two hour hike back to our own refuge, of course, and we arrived quite wet. We had a hot shower, though, and spread things out to dry as best we could, and dinner with pleasant companions, and then in the bar my Dublin girl picked up a guitar and sang some lusty Irish ballads, and so to bed. (Not with her.)

We were perhaps eight hours on the trail, some of the time rushed, other times leisurely, inspecting the gravures. It had been our third hailstorm, and I hope it's the last, at least this summer. 

Alps, 2013, 24: Tende

WEATHER INTERFERED TWICE with this Alpwalk, first when we had to give up the northern half, then when thunderstorms and hail beset the southern cols. 

Now it's not weather but injuries that have detained us. No sooner had we resumed, taking the bus back up to St.-Sauveur for yesterday's walk to Valdeblore, than one of us came up with a tweaked back. That forced us back to Nice, where nothing could apparently be done on the weekend, but on Monday a trip to a chiropractor set everything right, and Tuesday afternoon we took the train to Tende to resume yet again.

I'm afraid I nodded off from time to time on the two-hour ride to Tende, but I was also awake a lot of the time. Once away from the coast it,s a dramatic ride: into tunnels, out onto high viaducts, or often on ledges: you look down what seems hundreds of feet to the streams below. You pass a number of "villages perchés" — villages perched like swallows' nests on the side of mountains. 

We arrived in Tende about five o'clock. We heard distant thunder, and rain threatened but never really materialized. I know the main street from a number of drives up the old Salt Road from Nice to Torino, but I'd never been off that road. The town climbs dizzyingly up the south-facing flank of the mountain from the main road, stone houses with stone roofs, many of them four or five stories high by the time they climb from one street to the next one higher.

The streets are narrow, often no more than a donkey wide, often stepped, often leading away though an arch or under overhanging buildings, many dating back to the 16th century and before. At the top of Tende the graveyard climbs further, the lowest level set about with gravestones, the next two boasting more elaborate tombs, the last two or three, spread along over a stone wall, all uniform grey marble tombs, like drawers in a secretary. It's odd to think of the dead living there above the living: it brings the final scene of Our Town inescapably to mind. We had a good dinner in our gîte, and turned in early, eager to hit the trail tomorrow to the Vallée des Merveilles, so named for their thousands of petroglyphs.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Alps, 2013, 23: St.-Sauveur-sue-Tinée to St.-Dalmas Valdeblore

SJuly 19, 2013—

Looking back to St.-Sauveur

THE HAILSTORM HAD  affected us so badly that we began to re-think our plans. Thanks to having had to skip most of the northern half of the walk, we had plenty of time, the next day's stage was fairly short, say five hours, to St.-Dalmas Valdeblore, and could be dome even if an afternoon storm threatened (as it did), but the following day, taking us to Utelle, was a long one, certainly nine hours, on exposed country, with no shelter, café, grocery, or anything. 

And storms were predicted for the mext few days. So we decided to bag it and take the bus from St.-Sauveur to Nice. It left at 8:45 in the morning, giving us plenty of time to make the secision, and me plenty of time to consider its immensity, and the immensity of my irresoluteness. Oh well.

The bus ride is dramatic at first, down the Tinée gorge, rock hanging over the road on one sode, the precipice falling away from it on the other, tight turns, one-lane tunnels, trucks coming at you, that sort of thing. I am happy at this state of things. The French, at least the provincial French, don't seem to feel the urge to conquer and subdue nature that thwpe American highway department does. 

We arrived in Nice about ten-thirty Tuesday morning, a little sheepish (me at least) at having failed, amd   Spent the rest of the day, and the next two days, relaxing, eating, visiting with friends, and indulging ourselves, always with an eye on the weather, and — me certainly — itching to get back on the trail. 

Finally, Friday morning, after a rainstorm the previous day seemed to have cleared the air, 
Chuck dropped us off at the train station, which is temporarily also an important interurban bus station, about nine o'clock in the morning, on his way to his office, amd we took the 9:10 bus back up the Tinée gorge to St.-Sauveur, where we'd caught the bus to Nice on Tuesday. We arrived at 10:45 and, because the weather didn't look threatening, dawdled over a cup of tea before hitting the trail at 11:10.

St.-Sauveur is at about 500 meters above sea level, as low as the GR 5 has taken us this far, and from there we immediately climbed to the village of Rimplas — the final "s" seems to be pronounced, at least by old people – at 1000 meters. (1600 feet; 3200 feet, roughly.) the trail starts on paved road, then enters forest trail, then an old unpaved road, fallen away a bit in places; it hugs the side of the at times very steep hillside above the Roubinastre torrent. 

We made Rimplas in an hour forty minutes, exactly what the book suggests, five minutes faster than I had five years ago — and that in spite of momentary confusion at a fork where we took the wrong choice for a few minutes before realizing it and retracing our steps. (Of course the same thing happened five years ago, though at a different juncture.)

Just before entering Rimplas I thought it looked like rain, and we put on our gear. Immediately it began to rain — not hard, more a sprinkling, but enough to make us grateful for the gear. By then we'd caught up with three young Frenchwomen, college students I'd say, who were walking nonchalantly in shorts and tee shirts, with sleeping pads on their packs, and no trekking sticks: they'd started out in Modane, and were going to Menton, staying in refuges and bivouac, for they had a tent.

From there it was a fairly long easy descent, again on ledge trail, to no apparent purpose other than a nice old stone bridge, and then back up again, first to La Bolline, the first of the three villages making up the Valdeblore ensemble, then past  la Roche on an unpaved road through (or past) meadows, finally into St.-Dalmas, at nearly 1300 meters (4250 feet).

Because I'd made and then cancelled twice running a reservation in the town gîte I was embarrassed to make a third. (Especially because I'd forgotten to notify them the second time, and they'd called me to find out when the hell we'd turn up, and expressed some displeasure when I said we were in Nice for the night.) So i'd made a disastrous decision to reserve two beds at a chambre d'hôte at the near edge of St.-Dalmas. We arrived at three-thirty to find a very swank house in an immaculately tended garden, and a distracted, somewhat overwrought woman picking up sheets of cardboard from a couple of children's car-seats she'd been installing in her VW.

She showed us our rooms, plural, for each contained one double bed. Big, airy rooms, each with a luxurious bathroom containing two sinks and a bathtub as well as the toilet and, in one case, a separate shower stall. This was going to cost us plenty, and there was no dinner possibility.

By now it was raining pretty hard. We cleaned up and changed, and then she drove us to the tourism office, considerably higher (2200 meters, 7200 feet) at the Col de Veillos — we'd never have got there otherwise — and there I found out about a promising third alternative to our GR5 to Nice and the GR52 I really want to take to Menton: the GR52A, shorter than the 52 and apparently easier because avoiding the heights. On the other hand, it also bypasses the Vallée des Merveilles, the site of Neolithic petroglyphs I want so much to see, so I'm still at a loss to make a decision, and will probably let external events make the choice — weather, fatigue, who knows what.

Madame our hostess had suggested the night's restaurant, but it would not serve until 7:15. My companion's back was bothering him, so we didn't do much walking: we nursed a beer at one place, then went to the town épicerie superette for tomorrow's lunch: whatever our decision, it would be a long day — we'd asked for breakfast at six — with no café, restaurant, or shop along the way.

We bought walnuts, prunes, a dry sausage, and a detailed map: if we were to leave the GR 5 we'd want reliable trail information. Today the balissage was missing now and then, the trail overgrown in places, blocked by inconvenient fallen trees at others. Somehow I had come to a final decision: we will walk to Utelle tomorrow, Levens Sunday, Nice Monday; then, after perhaps a rest fay, do the walk to Menton, which has been the real purpose of the trip. Then we had dinner, and then walked back to our sumptuous digs, and tumbled into bed.

It hadn't been much of a walk today, no more than say six miles and 1500 meters of up-and-down dénivelément (5,000 feet), but I was pleased at how easy the climbs had been, with our lightened packs. It felt good to be back on the trail after three days off in Nice.

Alps, 2013, 22: Vacherie de Roure to St.-Sauveur-sur-Tinée

St.-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, Alpes-Maritimes, July 15, 2013—

The Italians outside the Vacherie

THE DORTOIR WAS  comfortable, ditto the mattress; and dinner had been convivial, but I slept badly, troubled by dreams of detailed discussions of Feminism and politics. At one point, for example, I was explaining to the man from Antwerp:

Politics is the art and process of establishing and maintaining social institutions, structures, and services for the guarantee and provision of the basic civil necessities to fulfill the innate rights of the citizenry. 

That sort of thing. Then he would counter with something, relevant or not, and I would have to expound further, and so on. Occasionally I'd wake up, and think about what we'd been saying in the dream, and dream and wakefulness would blur. I had been talking to Johann, the man from Antwerp, about Geert Mak's book Reizen zonder John, and shown him some of my notes on it, was the immediate source of all this, I suppose. And since I've been reading and writing less than usual this last month, I suppose it isn't surprising that my sleeping self would begin to compensate.

But the result was that I woke up a little tired, for the first time on this walk, and it didn't help morale that everything outside my backpack — shoes, hiking clothes, guidebook, pocket things, bandanas — was very damp at best, still quite wet at worst. The fire had burned down and out without drying my boots. The clothes I'd hung on various available hooks and knobs hadn't dried out at all. 

And at seven, though the Danes, the couple from Antwerp, and we had asked for breakfast at seven, and were sitting impatiently at the table waiting for it, it hadn't yet arrived. The goodnatured tousled whitehaired mussieu in charge was not to be seen, nor the girl. After a time we heard what we took to be an approaching cowbell, and then there he was, and baskets of sliced bread, a big pot of coffee, thermoses of hot milk, and pitchers of steaming water for the Antwerpers' tea were set out.

By then sunlight began to touch the soaking wet picnic tables outside, and I spread my hiking shirt and pants out, and the bandanas, and yesterday's shorts, and various socks. The shoes were hopeless, but I knew my feet would dry them before too long. In twenty minutes or so things were dry enough to put on, though a bit clammy, and I stuffed my sleeping sheet and a few other dry things into the backpack, and tied all the still wet things onto the outside, and we got under way, finally, about twenty minutes to nine, long after the Danes and the Antwerpers.

It was a fine morning, not a cloud in the sky, but I was thinking about the ten hours plus this stage took to walk five years ago, and the likelihood of another storm this afternoon. The path descends at first, often very precipitously, through open forest only goats could work, as indeed they were doing. Then the path joins an old forest road descending gently on a long traverse. 

In the forest we'd already overtaken the Danes, a boy in his twenties and his younger sister. We walked together for ten minutes or so, he and I in front, talking about Denmark and Greenland — his English quite fluent: You needn't speak French to me, he'd observed. Then he suddenly said Oh i had better wait for my sister, she's a little afraid of the path, and he stopped, and Stefan caught up with me, and we went on.

Suddenly we saw Johann ahead, without his hat, or his backpack, or his wife Manon. From a distance he seemed a little distraught, but it turned out the'd only taken a wrong fork, and climbed a fair distance before realizing they'd seen no balissage, and he'd returned to the fork to check out the other alternative — which we, in fact, were just about to follow. We pointed out its balissage, painted on the side of a chalet not far down the road, and he smiled a little ruefully at himself, and said e'd have to go fetch Manon, perhaps we'd meet down the road. 

Our next stop would be the picturesque and surprising " hanging village" of Roure, nearly three hours from our start. Here we broke for a cup of tea, tired — at least I was — by the very steep descent we'd been making, on a narrow, stony path, relieved by occasional glimpses of the deep valley, and by a couple of opportune cherry trees.

From Roure it was another hour and a half, always descending steeply on loose terrain, before arriving at St.-Sauveur at about one o'clock. I was tired and hungry, and remembered a nice lunch we'd had here five years ago. Then there was the question: did I want to make the steep climb out of town, then the long walk through not very interesting terrain, on to St-Dalmas Valdeblore, where we have reservations tonight?

I asked the waitress if there were rooms: Oui, mussieu, demandez-vous du patron. So I booked a room, and cancelled St-Dalmas, asking if we might stay there tomorrow night instead. The couple from Lille turned up after a bit — theyr'e staying in their tent, in the municipal campground. They joined us for dinner at our hotel and we reminisced about yesterday's storm, by now not much more than an enjoyable memory. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Alps, 2013, 21: Roya to Vacherie de Roure

Vacherie de Roure, July 14, 2013—

QUEL QUATORZE!  We started out from Roya (1500 meters, just under 5,000 feet) on what I knew would be rather a long day fairly early in the morning, at 7:40, about as early a start as we've yet made — this would be a long day: five years ago, it took us nine hours. 

We were soon back inside the Mercantour National Park, following a valley southward through forest which opened now and then for glimpses of the steep terrain hidden by the trees, and the tumbling Mairis.

Then we turned eastward, following the Sallevieille (who named these streams?) upstream to a ridge. there was a fair amount of snow before reaching today's high point, the Col de Crousette, at 2480 meters (8100 feet).

It was just ten minutes to twelve: we were making pretty good time. 

We had been playing leap-frog with Johann and Manon, the couple from Antwerp, who had left a little before us. Early on we overtook them when they had taken a wrong fork; and toward the top of the col we slowed a bit, keeping them in sight behind us, when we had to cross snow patches hiding the path.

A marble column stands just south of the col, a hundred meters higher yet, dedicated to a fallen Alpinist: I remembered the marvelous panorama seen from there last time I was here. Today, though, the sky was low with clouds and mists, and I didn't feel like lingering. We rushed through the lunch we'd brought, then started the long easy descent, much of it traverse, across alpage on the south flank of Mont Démant, 

The clouds had passes harmlessly and it was a fine afternoon. Far down in the distance we could see the hamlet Vignols, under its imposing grotto. We continued our easy descent, passing below the fanciful rock formations marking this area, but I was a little uneasy, looking at the ascent we would soon be making, under skies that were beginning to darken again. 

Toward the lowest point, where the trail crossed the tumbling Bourgette torrent, who should we see but the Philippe and Becquie, the smiling young couple from Lille! How and when had they passed us? We talked for a minute; then I gestured toward the sky and left them, shrugging at the weather and enjoying the moment in a last patch of sunlight at the brook.

We toiled up the last climb, which is fairly long and steady but on good surface — except one or two last snow patches. Then, just below the col at the Portes de Longon — 1950 meters (6400 feet) — all hell broke loose. Distant thunder rapidly came alarmingly close, and rain began to pour down. I'd covered my pack, but hadn't put on my. Rain pants or jacket, so I quickly opened my umbrella. 

Stefan was fighting with his poncho, flapping wildly in the high wind. I helped him get it over his pack, then turned and set out down the path. This last mile or so to our refuge, I remembered, was easy trail slightly downhill through a fine high meadow, alongside a creek. But I could hardly see, and the heavy, blowing rain had turned to hail.

My poor flimsy folding umbrella, meant for polite urban showers, had flipped inside-out several times in the shifting winds, and had opened a tear along one rib, but I held it above me to keep my vision clear, occasionally wondering if it would act as a lightning-rod. The meadow is fairly broad, but the ridges on either side weren't that much higher; we were in rather an exposed position.

We were soon completely soaked: no reason to avoid wading down the path, which had filled with swift-flowing muddy water. I glanced behind me from time to time: Stefan was keeping up at a bit of a distance, his poncho flapping wildly. The path and its balissage were invisible, but the direction was clear enough, and I stumbled on as fast as I could. 

Finally we were at the refuge. I entered without knocking, completely soaked and a bit chilled, apologizing for my wet clothes dripping onto the floor. Two young people, a young man and a girl, sat at the table; the gardien of the refuge was in the kitchen doorway, his young wife and a child or two nearby. A welcome fire burned in a hearth at the other end of the room, and I eyed it greedily. The gardien looked at me a little skeptically, I thought, and asked if I had a reservation.

Yes, fortunately, we did. I wondered where Stefan was: he was taking a long time to appear. Finally, just as I opened the door to go out looking for him, there he was. We were shown to the dortoir where we began getting rid of our wet clothes when Philippe and Becquie showe up: they'd been following closer than I'd realized, keeping us in sight.

We're all family here, I said, no false modesty, get out of the wet clothes and dry off. I'd staked out an end bed in the dortoir; the couple from Lille climbed up into the loft. I wondered what had happened to the couple from Antwerp, who we hadn't seen since shortly after beginning the descent from the column. There was no shelter anywhere on the trail, and it was getting dark, and still raining hard.

Well : all's well that ends well. Johann and Manon ultimately turned up, philosophical and stoic like good Flemings. He methodically stuffed their boots with paper, and I remembered to remove the insoles from mine and dry them by the fire. We had a pot of tea, and I poured the last of my bourbon into it, to Philippe's amusement. Then we joined him in a beer: amazing, how thirsty you can get hiking, even in a downpour!

Two or three rather elegant Italian couples showed up from somewhere, dry and neatly dresses, and joined the rest of us at dinner. The young man and girl turned out to be Danish, and spoke good English, as did the couple from Antwerp; the Lillois and the Italians did not, or said they didn't, but conversation flowed nonetheless; we even managed, among us all, to remember most of the words to La Marseillaise — though there were no fireworks.

After dinner we hung clothes around as best we could, but the refuge, in fact a barely remodeled cowshed, was pretty damp. Oh well. I was pretty tired, and sleep came easily. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Alps, 2013, 20: St.-Étienne to Roya

Roya, July 13, 2013—

Leaving St.-Étienne

And so breakfast in the great ugly institutional hall, coffee coming out of one spout of the inscrutable machine, hot milk from another, applecake, moldy-tasting applesauce, guaranteed fruit juice. We stopped at the bakery for a baguette and a pain au raisins, and walked out of town. Lazily I walked the way I knew it would be rather than look for the ballisage, so we saved ourselves some nasty climbing by walking along the main road for maybe half a mile. 

Then, though, there was no denying the balissage, and rather than continue by lazy but still climbing asphalt hairpins to ascend the 450 meters to Auron, a town I do not like, we took a really punishing scramble up steep, loose, stony paths, 70 meters higher than necessary, and then dropped to Auron, a town I do not like, and had to walk through it, on hairpins of asphalt streets, past seven-storey ski condo chalets with prominent signs


 as if anyone would want to, and then came to the golf course at the foot of the ski-lift where our GR5 would return to sanity. 

Except that there was no sanity. There was a scene that reminded Stefan of Burning Man. The National, European, and International championships of downhill trailbiking were being held here, right here, this weekend. Pavilions, shops, campers, emergency clinics, and of course every European media outlet was here, as well as smartalecky kids and teenybopper groupies. Zoo time. 

We had a cup of tea and then set out. Impossible to resume the official GR, as temporary fences had been set up everywhere. I navigated by map, and before long was far enough from the craziness — if not from occasional unsettling pairs of downhill cyclists (for they'd ascended their courses, unlike us, on the ski-lifts) — to intersect with the GR 5.

We climbed quite a ways on nice forest path, coming out at a fine viewpoint, the Belvedere du Chamois, at 1810 meters. Then we climbed in earnest. Having nothing better to do I counted my steps: 1960, to climb 200 meters to the Col du Blaimont. I figure, and could be wrong, that it's about twenty inches to the step, say 3200 feet or, roughly, a kilometer, to climb up 650 feet: a one-in-five slope, or 20%. 

In any case at twenty to one we were at the col.  Like yesterday's, it didn't offer thrilling views or defining moments. It was a big grassy plateau, with hikers scattered about apparently snoozing after their lunches, and now and then a trailbiker nonchalantly speeding through. We ate fruit and bread and then, an eye on clouds to the southwest, started our descent. 

Like yesterday's, it led us through alpages of flowers, and occasional ruins, even what looked as if it had at one time been a fairly extensive hamlet, complete with a chapel — Saint-Sébastien — now without a roof and part of a wall but charming in its (literal) delapidation. 

It wasn't terribly hot, but it was warm, and midday: at one point we walked right next to a big flock of sheep, all totally flaked out, lying in one another's shade, hardly bothering to glance at us though we walked past close enough to reach out and touch them.

Ultimately we arrived, at 2:30, perfectly dry, at our gîte in Roya, where we have a private room containing bunk-beds with drawers under them and three hooks on the door. In a later report I'll try to describe this gîte/refuge life. Right now it's time for sleep. We have a nine-hour walk tomorrow. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Alps, 2013, 19: St.-Dalmas-le-Selvage to St.-Étienne

St.-Étienne-sur-Tinée, July 12, 2013—

Leaving St.-Dalmas le Selvage

Breakfast was, surprisingly, in the living-dining room of the couple who own this auberge — their eleven-year-old daughter was not in evidence. As we walked to it, through the kitchen, i regretted we'd not dined last night en pension, entertaining (and good) as the next-door restaurant had been. Everything in this auberge is bio, and on one wall there was a small open cabinet of perhaps five shelves, each filled with little vials — there nust have been sizty of them. No idea what was in them. I posted photos of the breakfast room on Facebook: in the room, a Roland electric piano, a tomtom, a pair of bongos, paintings — not his, the host assured us; his are in the next room, hidden. And yes, that's turpentine we're smelling. 

I was sorry to leave St-Dalmas-le-Selvage; it's very peaceful; everything — even the two or three buildings that eem to me new since five years ago — seems to be where it should, to look as it should. Of course it didn't hurt that the village was nearly empty. Four teenagers had been playing foosball on the machine outside the Bureau of Information last night, but they weren't around today. The village dog was lying on the street in front of the local-products alimentation. We stopped in to buy a saucisson sec for our lunch, then, at twenty minutes to nine, walked past the pretty little church whose interior I've yet to see and crossed the fine old bridge to take the ancient road up to the Col d'Anelle. 

The road climbs gently between alpages on its left and forest on the right. It was a fine morning, blue sky, warm, with much birdsong in the air. We reached the col in a little under an hour.

The col is not particularly rewarding; there aren't really any extensive views from it. It doesn't offer a sharp ridge or crest, defining zones; it's more like a gentle hilltop — it's only 1739 meters high, 239 meters above St-Dalmas-le-Selvage. (5705 feet; 784 feet.) It was interesting to me for being the first one we've crossed without walking across snow, north or south side. 

From there it was a pretty simple descent down to the first real town we've seen since Briançon, nearly ten days ago. We walked into town alongside restanques, noticing thyme, lavender, and pinks in the path — the first pinks we've seen. Plenty of lizards, too. . 

I suddenly realized the Bureau of Tourism would soon close — it was nearly noon — so we got away from the café we'd stopped at, on its bleak and tawdry street, and walked around the corner into the town center, alive with the weekly market and dressed up with a huge shade-canopy over the town square, a temporary stage set up at one end, and tricolor bunting and pennants everywhere. 

The lady at the Bureau of Tourism was dry, stern, brisk. The hotels were all full; so were the gîtes. There was only one possibility. She made a phone call, then told us to go through the market, just at the end, past the school, on the right, was the Rabuons; we should talk to Mme. Jeannine. 

This turned out to be a strange place. Mme. Jeannine showed us to a small, clean room with two small single beds, a plain armoire, and its own bathroom. We heard children practicing on string instruments, and were told the place offered all kinds of activities for vacationing families. 

We showered and changed and went out to a nearby café for a coffee and pastry, but immediately a violent downpour chased everyone inside, grabbing folding tables and chairs to take with them. Another afternoon thunderstorm had rolled in. I asked the woman running the place, in fun, if she sold parapluies: no, but the souvenir shop next door did. We dashed into it and bought inexpensive compact folding umbrellas, stepped outside, unfurled them, and began walking back to our room. Immediately the rain stopped. 

Since Rabuons had a pretty good wi-fi, I began working on accommodations for the next few nights. It's going to be difficult. We have a reservation in Roya night after next, though we should in fact be there tomorrow. There's nothing here in St-Étienne tomorrow, either. Finally I found a hotel a half hour's bus ride down the road at St-Sauveur, and took the room, though there's only one bus a day. 

Then, though, the woman at the gîte in Roya called: do you still want to come tomorrow? We've had a cancellation… so I called St-Sauveur and apologized and then, while I could, researched beds for the next few nights: Sunday the 14th, the Vacherie de Roure; Monday, Les Marmottes, in St-Dalmas Valdeblore; Tuesday we'll be in Utelle already… absolutely no rooms in Utelle. Well, enough for tonight: let's have dinner…