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

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.