The 2019 leg: Modane to St Etienne de Tinee: July 2019
We’re almost ready to continue our North- South route through the Alps. On Tuesday 9th July we’ll travel to France and on Wednesday we’ll start walking, setting off from Modane, where we ended up last year, and planning to walk as far as St Etienne de Tinee. The map below reveals that this is a sizeable chunk of the whole trek! And it doesn’t get any less hilly as we go south. But, as always on this trip, we take it nice and slowly.
It will just be Judith and me this year for most of the way, but our friend Ben plans to join us for a couple of days before we get to Larche.
Chambéry: July 9th 2019
An uneventful journey (flight to Geneva and then a bus) has brought us to the attractive town of Chambéry. We have had a little explore, finding some intriguing architectural nooks and crannies. Tomorrow we catch an early train to Modane from where we will go for a walk.
Modane to Valfrejus: 10th July
The hotel kindly gave us an early breakfast so we could get to the station in good time. At the station there was an anxious moment or two when it seemed as though the train to Modane, for which we had tickets, didn’t exist. It transpired that there was a train but it wasn’t going to go the whole way, and a bus would be necessary for the last part of the journey to Modane, where we could pick up the walk where we left off last year, with the inevitable long climb out of the valley.
There were two possible routes out of Modane. One shorter but steeper than the other. We chose the latter, which in places was steep enough to make us wonder what the other one was like.
After buying some lunch at the supermarket, the path took us out of Modane, and though a tunnel under the A43, which is the main road through to Turin. We went under it just before it disappears into an enormous tunnel taking it into Italy.
We followed a sort of pilgrim trail with ‘stations’ starting with the nativity and telling the story from there. Some of them were quite interesting but others spectacularly unattractive.
They were also a bit unreliable as measurements of distance being unequally spaced, and when we got to the crucifixion I thought we must have nearly arrived somewhere, but we still had Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and the Assumption of Mary still to go.
But after all that we came to the Sanctuaire Notre Dame du Charmaix, a chapel attractively built into the rock, where we had lunch.
From there it was just another 15 minutes to Valfrejus, which is a modern ski resort, complete with lots of burger bars, but a ghost town in summer. That does mean though that we were able to find a little apartment for the night incredibly cheaply. About half the tiny flat is taken up with cleaning materials- a not very subtle hint I think.
A short day to start the walk, so I am now sitting in the shade of a tree in a flowery meadow writing this.
Valfrejus to Les Granges de la Vallée Étroite- July 11th
The plan for today was to climb to the col de la Vallée Étroite and the go down the other side. Unfortunately the col was inconveniently situated a long way above Valfrejus, far enough for the title of this blog to gain some unintended irony (not for the first time).
We started with a steep and rather hot ascent through thick forest, wondering whether this was a sensible way to spend one’s summer holiday. We passed an imposing 20th century military fort and two sets of hydroelectric workings.
Eventually the large trees gave way to smaller ones, which in turn gave way to open mountainside carpeted with flowers.
The scenery lifted the spirits and a thoroughly enjoyable traverse led to the col, which was gained very easily without the normal final steep bit.
An extremely attractive path led down the other side. The descent, which was not as big as the ascent, was pretty easy for the most part, but there were 2 or 3 sections which were steep and loose. The scenery was spectacular with flowers and a river and pools and boulders in the valley, and crazy gothic rock architecture in the mountains.
It was a day of strangely grey skies, but no rain.
La Vallée Étroite was in Italy until the 2nd world war. It is now in France, but nobody seems to have told the people who live here and Italian is the language of choice.
We are staying at the refuge I Re Magi, situated in a tiny hamlet, which I think is in a hanging valley above the main valley. The magi are the 3 mountains towering above us: Pointe Balthazar, Pointe Melchior and Pointe Gaspard.
Les Granges de la Vallée Étroite to Plampinet- 12th July
There were quite a few people staying at the refuge last night. The most notable character was Alex, who works 5 months of the year in the Caribbean and wanders the world for the rest of the time. His current wandering was taking him along the GR5 from lake Geneva to the Med. He was alone but apparently needed to be constantly talking to people, so he went from person to person engaging them in a slightly intense way. Perhaps choosing the most mountainous part of Europe to walk 500 miles isn’t a sign of a well balanced mind after all.
There were about 15 of us in the dormitory. Sometimes there is a kind of wordless argument about whether windows should be open or shut. Unfortunately, last night the teenage girls won and opted for sleeping in a suffocating furnace. Against the odds, we survived the night and were ready for the day, a day of cloudless blue skies.
A steep climb zig zagged up through trees, with good views through the trees of where we had descended yesterday.
The path reached a grassy plateau and there was pleasant walking on the flat (or what passes for flat in these parts). The day was not going to be particularly long and we were feeling strong and the weather was perfect so we decided to climb the Aiguille Rouge en route. I think there are several mountains of that name in France and this is one of the less famous ones, but still an impressive peak.
The way was steep, particularly near the top, and as we were going to have to come down the same way, a certain amount of anxiety built about how feasible that was going to be. Eventually we stood on the top which was marked by a cross. There were other people there but not a huge amount of room and impressive drops all round. Wonderful views all round, and well worth the effort.
Descent was slow and cautious but without significant difficulty. When we had got off the summit slopes there was no need to retrace our steps all the way back to the GR5. Instead it was possible to follow a path straight down to Plampinet. It was a long way down and steep, long enough and steep enough to warrant a preemptive ibuprofen.
Eventually down in the valley, we just had a mile and half or so to go to get to Plampinet. It looked like a pleasant gentle stroll beside a river on the map. Unfortunately at a number of places large landslides had destroyed the path, and we had to clamber over teetering piles of scree.
But got here in the end. It’s a tiny village with a 16th century church and a friendly place to stay, where somehow we have acquired a bedroom rather than a dormitory.
Plampinet to Briançon- 13th July
Last night’s was a good meal. We sat at a table with in English couple, who were doing more or less the same walk as us as a single trip, and a Dutch couple who, like us, were splitting the walk, but had walked all the way from Holland! We spent the evening exchanging tales of the walk and refuges.
The meal was Mushroom risotto and the final part of the preparation was done in front of us. The food was stirred in a huge hollowed out cheese wheel so the scrapings of the cheese melted into the risotto. It was very good.
The guidebook suggested 2 different routes to Briançon but both were very long days. Looking at the map revealed the elephant in the room not mentioned by the guidebook- we could just walk straight down the Vallée Clarée between the 2 official routes that go high on either side. Having had 2 quite long days and some extra curricular activity yesterday on the Aiguille Rouge an easier day was tempting and we had already decided to go this way, when we heard that the official GR5 route had been badly damaged by landslides. Both the Dutch and English couples decided that they liked our plan and would go that way too. What could possibly go wrong? It had looked fine from the Aiguille Rouge yesterday.
As I understand it, the problem on the path we finished on yesterday and on the GR5 was caused by a lot of late season snow which all melted very quickly when summer came and brought a lot of mountain down with it. Unfortunately this problem also affected the Vallée Clarée.
As the English couple left I joked that if we met them coming the other way we would know there was a problem and after half an hour of easy walking that’s exactly what happened. They said they didn’t fancy going on because the path went into the river and they were going back a short distance to a bridge to cross the river and walk along the busy road instead. The road was unappealing so we went on for a look and sure enough the path did disappear into a deep and fast flowing river.
We gradually understood what had happened: a lot of mountain had fallen down flattening trees, obliterating the path, and most crucially completely changing the course of the river.
We thought that we would give it a go and try to proceed on the non-road side of the river. I think the road might have been easier as our route involved one wade through freezing water, and an hour of thrashing though scree and steep dense forest. More than once I resorted to crawling under branches pushing my bag in front of me.
Eventually we were able to scrabble down a steep slope and emerge on to a very ordinary riverside path and remove various large bits of vegetation from each other. All good fun I suppose, but a little more interesting than we had envisaged for our easy day.
We did see one other group during that adventure, but this is so surreal I hesitate to mention it because it is unbelievable. Attempting to negotiate the valley were some people with a team of dogs pulling a sleigh on wheels. When we saw them the sleigh was floating, the people were chest deep in water, and the dogs were swimming, all tied together to prevent them from being swept away.
After the difficulties, we still had a bit to go, 10 miles maybe, but now all easy and pleasant and flattish if a little hot at this relatively low altitude.
Briançon was reached by the dramatic Asfeld Bridge spanning a dizzyingly deep gorge.
We have an absolutely lovely apartment here for 2 nights, so a day off walking tomorrow.
A relaxing day in Briançon, the highest city in France (apparently the French definition of a city is a place with a population of more than 2000). We are at the meeting place of 5 valleys and this place has a lot of military history, and after sorting out some provisions while shops were open, we explored the town with its narrow ridiculously steep cobbled streets. In the upper ramparts there seemed, to us Brits to be a curious lack of signage, handrails, and safety barriers.
Later we watched the Wimbledon men’s final on an iPad. Neither of us could really see the ball.
Famously, it hardly ever rains in Briançon, which is unusual for the mountains. Rain is forecast for tomorrow though.
Briançon to Brunissard- 15 July 2019
Yesterday was Bastille day and Briançon treated us to a magnificent firework display, which started shortly after we had gone to bed, but we were able to watch them from the apartment.
We awoke to dark threatening skies and through the cloud we could see that fresh snow had fallen on the mountains. Our project for the day was quite simple: leave Briançon, walk uphill to the Col des Ayes, and then down the other side. The forecast was for rain all day, and it was always possible that at the col it would be snow. In fact, the rain amounted to little more than drizzle and there was no snow, although it was pretty cold, and we are glad we had packed our gloves accessibly.
The walk started through the suburbs, where we took a slightly more direct route than the official GR5, which looking at the map, seemed to leave the town to head up a valley, change its mind and come back again. We’ll never know what delights awaited us on the official route as we just took the short side of the triangle.
And then we started the long climb to the col. Although this involved 1425m (4675ft) of ascent it was mostly pretty gradual and height was gained easily. We were even able to have coffee and bilberry tart at a little ‘buvette’ about half way up.
We left the trees behind us and we were no longer in Briançon in a ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ kind of way.
At the col, a man offered to take a picture of us together. He had a bit of trouble with my phone though, and we got colder and colder as he accidentally shot a video, a selfie, a picture of his foot and so on.
Eventually, picture taken we were able to descend the other side, a well made path with lots of shallow zigzags making light work of the very steep ground.
A very pretty valley was reached followed by a section below an enormous cliff and now we have reached the small village of Brunissard.
The Dutch people we had spent the evening with at Plampinet are here. They were very keen to know how we had got on in the Vallée Clarée. They had crossed to the main road which apparently was a doddle with actually very little walking on the road. They were amused to hear about our crawl through forest and scree.
Weather forecast is much better for tomorrow.
Brunissard to Ville-Vieille 16 July
At some stage in life sleeping on the top bunk ceases to be exciting and becomes a nuisance. That moment happened quite a while ago for me, but top bunk it was last night. Other than that (and of course the whole only having one bowl for muesli and coffee at breakfast thing), Les Bons Enfants was a lovely place to stay and supper was very good, even if it was beef stew and polenta.
Brunissard is a tiny old compact village with newer houses built apparently randomly in a hay field. A lot of the houses had images of bicycles stuck to them.
We eventually worked out that the Tour de France is to pass through here next week.
Today was a relatively short walk and weather is back to unbroken sunshine.
After a short walk along the road to the next village, the path took to the trees for the now familiar steep morning climb, but this time it was only for 300 feet or so before the path levelled out (quite frankly other GR5 days could learn something from this one) and we traversed very pretty hillside high above the valley.
We passed a little lake…
… before beginning a steep descent. Near the bottom we got our first glimpse down to Fort Queyras.
After our picnic we explored the fort, which was a pleasingly unslick touristy experience: a higgledy-piggledy maze of rooms and corridors and stairways, some parts dating from the 13th century but with many 18th century additions and some more in the 1930s.
Afterwards we met Alex with his wide staring eyes. He had spent the cold weather yesterday hiding in his tent.
The next accommodation was some way along the GR5, so we have walked 40 minutes up the valley with dozens of grasshoppers leaping away at every step…
…and now we are at the village of Ville-Vieille. Our Dutch friends are here having hitch hiked the last bit, which is fair enough as we’ll have to go back to the Fort to continue tomorrow.
Ville-Vieille to Ceillac- 17 July
We had a good evening at Ville-Vieille. There was a drink before dinner in the garden. The garden had an eccentric entrance- through a window and down a ladder. After re-negotiating that (best not have too much to drink), there was a good meal with good company. It was Bert’s birthday (one of our Dutch friends) so we had birthday cake, well Birthday Apple Crumble anyway.
This morning we retraced our steps back to Fort Queyras…
…from where we had to go up 1000m (one Scafell Pike in our measuring system) to the Col Fromage. The steep densely wooded valley didn’t look too promising as a walk, but we dutifully started to plod up through the forest. It was quite steep at first, and having watched some tennis on Sunday, we wished we could have ball boys and girls handing towels to us every couple of minutes. The angle eased but the trees continued, providing shade but preventing a view.
But when we did get above the tree line the world opened up spectacularly, with mountains all around and a multi coloured flower carpet to walk through. The pictures don’t really do it justice.
Another hour and a half’s walking brought us to the col. There was no cheese at the Col Fromage, nor indeed any cows, just the views.
On a 2 dimensional map Ceillac is very close to the col Fromage, but in the 3 dimensional world it is a long way down.
We arrived rather wearily in Ceillac and had to find our Airbnb apartment. The directions we had been given assumed we would be arriving by car, so we had to walk to the main road and then walk into the village looking at the road signs, refraining from holding a pretend steering wheel. Thankfully the village is small and it didn’t take too long.
We have an attractive little apartment, which is good because we are going to have a little holiday and have 2 days off from the long walk here.
A thoroughly relaxing day, reading, snoozing, exploring, and not walking.
Ceillac is a small village surrounded on 3 sides by a dramatic cirque of precipitous mountains.
There is a concert in the church tonight (now there’s an idea).
We might go but it will go on past our bedtime as it doesn’t start until 9pm, which is about when people go to bed in the refuges.
Another day in Ceillac. In the morning I went and did the Via Ferrata des Rochers de la Clapiere. Judith is too sensible for such things.
The picture shows the bottom half of the route. There are actually 2 pairs of people climbing it, but I doubt they can be found without prior knowledge. Lots of artificial bits of metal for hands and feet made it technically easy, but quite exposed. I enjoyed it but it was hot- the rock faces south and having to rent some gear meant that it was nearly 10am before I was on it.
Then more lazing, reading and exploring.
Strange pointy rocks (technical geological term)
Ceillac to Maljasset- July 20th
A steep day- both up and down.
We did well getting away early, which is harder from a self catering place. Having done most of the cleaning up the night before we were away before 7.30, picking up a croissant for breakfast from the bakery.
Today’s col was a big one- Col Girardin, rather more than a ‘Scafell Pike’ above Ceillac.
There was a half hour walk along the valley before a steep climb through forest, which started near a waterfall- cascade de la Pisse. The necessary jokes remained largely unspoken.
The steep uphill seemed to go on and on, but eventually we came to a small lake- Lac Miroir, with a backdrop of improbably huge and complicated peaks and prickly ridges.
From there it was an hour up (slightly less steep now) to another lake, Lac Ste Anne, a particularly spectacular spot. The extraordinary colour of the water contrasted with limestone mountains behind.
And then it was steeply up to the col. For the last part all vegetation gave up entirely and we zig-zagged up scree.
It was a beautiful spot, but we did have to come down again. More steep rubble led to a delightful grassy/bouldery section with lots of marmots before a final very steep and loose descent, steep and loose enough for the guidebook to use that faintly euphemistic sounding phrase- “care required”.
Maljasset is a tiny hamlet, first spotted more or less directly below us in a very tight v shaped valley.
A very memorable day.
Our friend Ben is coming this evening to join us for a couple of days. It will be strange for him to end up here having been in London this morning. I wonder if we have explained sufficiently the oddities of refuge life- mixed sex dormitories, communal polenta, deeply eccentric showering systems and all that.
There is no phone signal or WiFi here, so I can’t post this today.
Maljasset to Chiappera-an excursion into Italy-21st July
The official GR5 leaves Maljasset for a lengthy stretch along a road. We decided that we would avoid that by making a 2 day excursion into Italy. Our friend, Ben, joined us last night and will walk with us those these 2 days and then walk back on the GR5 so will be able to tell us which is better.
Our accommodation at Maljasset left the Auberge de la Cure (the Old Vicarage). It was a charming place with real character.
Our walk today crossed the Col de Mary. The ascent was much more gentle than yesterday, not too long and very pretty.
At the col we passed into Italy, and came down a beautiful valley. We stopped for lunch and, as we had a phone signal on this side of the col, I was able to post yesterday’s blog.
It was quite a long way down, but, again, a lot less steep than yesterday.
High up we had fleeces on for a while but in the lower part it really got quite hot.
Chiappera is a delightful jumble of stone houses. Judith and I found the place we were staying and were taken to a room in a house in a quiet spot high in the village. The place where Ben was staying was having a very loud beer festival and they weren’t ready for him so he was furious and came to visit us. When he saw how nice our room was he was even crosser. However, he went back again and has returned in a much better mood. For some reason they have given him a whole house- ‘it’s at least 7 times bigger than your room’ he announced triumphantly.
Chiappera to Larche- 22nd July
Chiappera is a rather strange place. I suspect it is no longer a real village, with 2 hotels now owning more or less all the property. The one Judith and I were using had its base and dining room in the old school house. It seemed very reasonably priced for half board and we were treated to a real Italian meal with a number of courses, so that like the walking we were never sure what was round the next corner.
Our plan for the day was to cross back into France. The only snag being that the border follows an enormous ridge. To drive to Larche would be 127km. Crossing the ridge into France was a short walk in terms of distance but a long way up and then down again.
We didn’t get a particularly early start (8.30 maybe), mainly because we didn’t want to miss out on the rather good breakfast. Although the establishment was more hotel than refuge, it wasn’t quite hotelly enough to accept credit cards. We had enough cash, but when planning this part, I had assumed a credit card would be possible.
We met with Ben and set out. The climb for the most part wasn’t as steep as it looked like it might be on the map…
…but it was long and sustained and hot. It led through very impressive scenery, heading towards an impenetrable looking barrier of mountain.
On these high mountains at the frontier, the war is not buried far below the surface and there were a number of old bunkers and dugouts and coils of barbed wire.
Eventually a corner was turned and we could see the weakness in ridge which would allow passage into France- the Col de Sautron.
We ate lunch at the col, which even at 2700m (getting on for 9000 ft) was hot.
The descent was as far again down the other side and as we got lower it was a bit like slowly walking into an oven.
Larche is a very small village. Ben setting is off tomorrow back to Maljasset and we are having a day off tomorrow. We are in a basic wooden cabin in a campsite, perhaps not quite was basic as Ben’s accommodation. He’s sleeping in a giant bed with 4 other people- all part of the ‘fun’.
The campsite doesn’t take credit cards either, something else we hadn’t budgeted for. Apparently there is a cash machine 18 km away, which we could go to tomorrow, but the bus doesn’t run on Tuesdays!
Luckily we found a bar which took credit cards and were able to get a glass of lemonade and cash back so I think that is now sorted.
Not much to report. Had an early 10 minute walk into the village to see Ben off. He had survived the night, despite the accommodation being a bit of a step down from the 8 bed palace he had had to himself the night before.
Other than that we have relaxed, although a certain amount of energy has gone into logistics- preparing for the final 2 days of walking (for this year) with no shop in the village and a very limited campsite shop. All ready to go now, though.
Larche to Bousieyas -24th July
We wanted to get going as early as we could today as this was to be a long day, it was going to be hot and thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon. We had ordered croissants for breakfast and some bread to take for lunch, but it wasn’t going to be ready until 7am, so we were all ready by then, picked it up, and ate croissants as we walked.
An hour up a minor road brought us into Val Fourane,
where the scenery was impressive, the walking was easy and there were lots of marmots.
A steeper section brought us to the Lac du Lauzanier.
The next objective was Pas de la Cavale. After a steep slabby ascent from the lake, it came into view, looking particularly unapproachable. But a way emerged- steeply up to the left and then the col was reached by a long traverse on scree. A reasonable path made it as painless as crossing scree can be- still hard work though.
When the col was reached it didn’t seem to be a col at all, but rather a dead end.
But there was a way, which involved teetering along ledges. Looking back from below, it was impossible to work out where the path had gone.
Once in grassier terrain we could have some lunch and we spotted a bouquetin.
This was to be a 2 col day and we had another climb ahead of us- to the Col des Fourches . Our legs resented having to go uphill again, but the chaos of grasshoppers and butterflies at each step was fun.
Soon after the grassy col we had to cross a road, which was going up to the col de la Bonette, the highest road pass in Western Europe.
Our route down was fairly direct which is more than can be said for the road.
We passed a ruined 19th Century barracks…
…and arrived at Bousieyas (Judith tells me it is pronounced ‘boozy arse’ but I don’t think that can be right) just in time to avoid a thunder storm.
We appear to be staying in a Buddhist refuge.
Bousieyas to St Etienne de Tinee- 25th July
Even the presence of an enormous image of the Buddha above the beds, couldn’t make the room flat. There were bricks under the ends of the beds but it was still a bit disconcerting. It was a pleasant place to stay though and the vegetarian meal certainly made a change.
Today’s walk would take us to our final destination for 2019. Although it was quite a long walk, it was nothing like as demanding as yesterday’s. There were two cols to cross but both felt fairly domestic after some of the high places of previous days.
Our first destination was the col de la Columbière, a very modest and gentle climb of not much more than 1000 feet, during which there were views back to Bousieyas where we had slept. It was a small collection of tin-roofed buildings only occupied in the summer.
A bit of research has revealed that the absolutely enormous bird we saw was a Bearded Vulture.
There were also views back to yesterday’s route. The Pas de la Cavade can be seen in the picture below.
The descent on the other side of the col was much longer, traversing steep slopes with one or two gentler sections.
At the valley bottom we came to a village, St Delmas le Selvage.
The next col followed a similar pattern- a relatively easy ascent (although hot) followed by a long way down with hundreds of butterflies.
There was also quite a lot of lavender, a sign, apparently, that we are getting nearer the Mediterranean.
St Etienne de Tinee came into view.
And it got hotter, the breeze which had been pleasantly cool was more like a hairdryer.
But we were able to cool off a bit before finding our apartment, where we will be for two nights.
Although this is our final destination for this year, we might walk on a bit tomorrow and get the bus back to take the edge off the first day of the 2020 walk.
St Etienne de Tinee to Auron-26 July 2019
It turned out that we were strangely reluctant to lose the habit of walking up steep hills, and with a convenient afternoon bus back to St Etienne de Tinee, we continued on the GR5 to Auron. The path was went steeply through forest for the best part of 2000ft of ascent, and was not particularly interesting. The bus back down takes a much longer and windier route. It was good to walk without big packs though- we didn’t even need stuff for lunch. According to our own rules, this is not cheating. As long as we walk the whole way it’s fine. Crawling is also allowed (see ‘Plampinet to Briançon’).
Auron is a ski resort, not as brash as some, and quite busy in the summer- people escaping the heat perhaps. It will be a good place to start from next year, and relatively easy to get to.
It isn’t all modern ski development. There is a medieval church and with the key borrowed from the tourist office we were able to have a look at the very interesting murals.
This has been a great walk this year, sometimes hard, but always worth it. It settled into a pattern of a daily climb out of the valley to a col and then back down the other side. With lots of deep valleys running east to west, travelling north to south isn’t the most efficient way of travelling. But each valley, each climb, each col was different and the scenery was stunning.
We met a number of interesting people doing long distance walks, often meeting for several evenings in a row, including one young couple who had left Rotterdam on 15th April and walked all way here. Their daily mileage (kilometreage?) dropped rather when they reached the Alps.
We saw lots of marmots but no wolves (there are some here). We managed to avoid being attacked by pastous. These are large white dogs which live full time with the tightly huddled flocks of sheep. As paths leave the valleys there are usually signs warning that if they think you are a threat to the sheep they will attack you. We were resolutely unthreatening.
Tomorrow we catch an early bus to Nice airport and come home. There is a bit of a question mark over whether I’ll have time to shave off my holiday beard before church on Sunday.
And so, all being well, we’ll be back here next year to finish our walk.
Some of Ben’s photos from between Maljasset and Larche