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.