Final blog entry for 2022

So we have walked from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, by a way that didn’t seek the easiest flattest line, but went by interesting and mountainous ways. When we finally arrived at the sea, crowds of people didn’t turn out to celebrate one of the great sporting achievements of our era, although the woman who took the photograph with our feet in the water was delighted to learn why she was doing it, especially as she lived in Geneva, but hadn’t walked here (that is possible apparently). If our overall time (5 years and 7 days) breaks any records, they will be for slowness. But this does actually feel like quite an achievement for us.

Our choice to finish this year by the GR52 rather than the GR5 made for a thrilling climax, although just occasionally it felt like we weren’t crossing the Alps with ease. We’ll remember it for ever: those beautiful immaculate villages, then the high mountains of the Mercantour, with a distinctly mountaineering flavour, and the final days with an increasingly Mediterranean feel. And we have enjoyed the friendliness and helpfulness of more or less everyone we have met.

Having walked all this way, we are going to spend a couple of days here before heading home. But it turns out that Menton is a little beyond our budget, so we’ll go to Nice for some ‘not walking’ and some culture.

Sospel to Menton- the end of the walk

There is probably a reasonably straightforward and gently downhill way of walking from Sospel to Menton, but our long hike across the Alps wasn’t going to give up being a mountain walk that easily and managed to make us climb rather more than a Scafell Pike before the steep descent to the sea.

Today was a longish day- guidebook time 7 hours 15 minutes, not including any stops. We started more or less at first light to get a fair bit done before it got too hot. But thick cloud cover meant it was very humid and sweaty, so I’m not sure how much of an advantage was gained.

Leaving Sospel

A long and sweaty ascent followed. Quite early on the sea came into view.

But our route was having none of that yet. We had to go this way…

After a col, there was an easy descent, at the bottom of which was a garden, both wonderful and a bit surreal. A sign said that weary walkers were welcome to sit for a bit. Someone had provided containers of water we could refill bottles from, which was most welcome. There were a couple of very friendly dogs…

A steep climb brought us to another col, on the other side of which we were greeted with a view of the sea again.

And now we were allowed to head down towards it, although not very quickly as the going was steep and loose.

Gradually more of the coast came into view.

I think that’s Monaco in the distance

There was one nice flat section before the steepness resumed.

As we descended we would enter new layers of heat. And each one brought new scents- sage, thyme, lavender and, err, lots of other ones as well.

Eventually, having made a great effort of making this a mountain walk to the very end, our rough path deposited us onto a road and we found our way to the seafront, with its super yachts for the fabulously rich and glamorous.

We felt that the walk wouldn’t be really finished until we had actually reached the sea. This proved tricky as there was a lot of private beach owned by expensive restaurants. Having found our way across 500 miles of difficult mountain terrain, we were likely to fail by not managing the final few metres to the end.

But eventually we found a public beach and the walk was finished.

Sospel

Over the last few days we have got to know a number of people doing the same route as us. Most of them are half our age and go a lot quicker, but we still see each other at the end of the day. Judith thinks we are probably known as Les vieux Anglais. By having a day off we will have lost touch with them, and it’s a bit of a shame that any weary hiker we spot in Menton won’t be someone we recognise.

But, that said, resting weary limbs today in the historic little town of Sospel has been well worth that sacrifice.

Like some of the villages we visited earlier in this part of the trip, Sospel was on the route du sel (salt route) from Nice to Piémont from the 13th century. Everyone crossing the bridge had to pay a toll.

Although not a big place, there is a cathedral here, full of baroque art.

We went to Mass. Its linguistic incomprehensibility, was compensated for by colour and rhythm.

All ready for one more day’s walk.

Camp d’Argent to Sospel

One of the great things about arriving at some sort of place after days in the mountains is finding a bin big enough to deposit days of accumulated waste, as the refuges don’t let you leave rubbish there (fair enough really).

I had booked this accommodation by email and looking at the correspondence it wasn’t clear whether I’d booked a private room or a dormitory. After 3 consecutive nights in dormitories, we were praying for a private room, but it was not to be. That saved some money at least, and it was a small dormitory- not one of the monsters from the previous two nights.

Today we were finally properly going south, mostly along or beside a fine ridge. The going was at times fairly easy, almost flat in fact, and this is where most of today’s 14 miles were walked

I just had time before supper to update the blog with the previous few days.

Looking back at yesterday’s col which had marked the end of the very rugged section

Some locals

Another local

A stiff climb brought us to a summit-Mangiabo. From there we saw the Mediterranean for the first time. Very exciting. It’s still a long way off though.

And from there, we began the long descent to Sospel, the very long descent to Sospel, all 6000 feet of it. It was mostly at a reasonable gradient, and so wasn’t too knee jarring or toe crushing.

The final zig zags, though, went on and on, and it got hotter and hotter, as rain and thunder threatened.

Judith says that both the word zig and the word zag have served her well on the scrabble board, but agreed that they were losing their appeal (yes I do know that descending directly would be worse, but even so…).

Once again we reached our destination before the orage (the French word seems to convey more than the prosaic ‘thunderstorm’) finally hit.

We only have one long day of walking left, but after 5 consecutive tough days, it’s time to reclaim the whole ‘with ease’ thing and we have an attractive little apartment here, and we’ll have a day off tomorrow. It has all sorts of luxuries such as chairs and a toilet just for us.

Refuge des merveilles to camp d’Argent

After a not particularly comfortable night- at one point I wondered if I might suffocate, we were glad to get out into the open again. How can people actually want windows closed in a place like that.

Would you believe we had a col to cross! It was the Pas du Diable, although it proved not nearly as diabolical as some other recent passes I could mention. It was still necessary to wonder how on earth we were going to get there.

But get there we did. And on the other side was a completely different world, less jagged and more rounded, less rock and more grass. Once again we were walking among butterflies and crickets.

The paths were much easier than they had been over the last few days, traversing a lot of hillside.

Looking back. The pas du Diable is in the far distance.
A wartime fort in a strategic position
Lunch

We got to Camp d’argent just before a big thunderstorm. The place we are staying in tonight is much smaller and we have a lot more space. We also have internet, which means I’ve been able to post 3 days of blog and add photos for a fourth.

Refuge de Nice to Refuge des Merveilles

Another two col day, but not quite as far as the day before. Again, not many miles have been covered and the going was slow because ground was steep and bouldery. The scenery was magnificent throughout.

Leaving the refuge

After leaving the refuge we passed some pretty bouldery lakes and came to an impenetrable cirque, and once again there was no way through and no way of working out how on earth the path was going to find a way through.

How do we get to the skyline?

But after a lot of boulder hopping, a way emerged. It was steep and exciting, still with a big mountain atmosphere. It seemed a strange place to be at 8am. Although we were overtaken by a couple of people who seemed as as if they were just running up a flight of stairs, I think we made pretty good progress and emerged on a broad col- Baisse du Basto.

The other side of the col was not nearly as steep as yesterday’s col, but like yesterday’s col, it led to more boulders to cross, which was slow and awkward going.

The second col of the day was pretty straightforward, just half an hour’s ascent from the end of the boulders.

The steep descent to the vallée des Merveilles

This led to the vallée des Merveilles, the merveilles in question being prehistoric carvings on the rocks. There are thousands of them, but we only saw a handful.

I don’t know what this is
This one is known as Le Christ, but dated from about 3000 BC

The night was spent at the very busy Refuge des Merveilles, where for the second night running we had to be on top bunks, this time in a huge dormitory, sleeping at least 50 people. Such snoring.

Refuge de Cougourde to Refuge de Nice

Having finally arrived somewhere with telephone reception I can update some blog for the last few days. I’ve also just added photographs to yesterday.

So…

I don’t think we’ve covered many miles today, but it was all quite hard work, with two high cols to cross, and with terrain becoming increasingly steep, rugged, bouldery, pathless, merciless, not really for humans. According to one person we passed the ground was…there was a special French word for it… pierreier (I’m not sure our English translation of ‘stony’ was really quite right).

But this is about the most spectacular scenery we’ve ever walked in (I’m not sure that ‘walk’ is the right word either). Wherever you look there are threatening cliffs, enormous slabs of rock, in a 3 dimensional world of gothic wonders. We also saw lots of chamois, several bouquetin, and some marmots. We didn’t see any wolves- they are around but unlikely to be spotted. While on the subject of wildlife, I forgot to mention the other day that we disturbed two wild boar on our climb to Roure.

A Bouquetin crosses the path

On our way to the first col, Pas des Ladres, we passed a lovely lake, Lac de Trécapolis.

From here, there was no apparent way forward, with high cliffs surrounding us on all sides and obviously no way of surmounting them. But a path wound it’s way up cunningly and improbably (and, although steep, surprisingly easily).

Looking back

From Pas des Ladres, there was a steep and very pretty descent to La Madone de Fenestre with its Pilgrim Church.

It seemed like an unnecessarily long way down as we only had to go back up again- this time to Pas du Mont Colomb.

This proved to be a most elusive col, we were never sure where it was going to be, as it was hidden by massive buttresses, and hidden corners, and previously unseen gorges. The going got tougher, as path gave way to boulders, where route finding required a bit of concentration.

Which way now?

One bit required a short hands-on scramble.

It was all beginning to have a thrilling and slightly intimidating big mountain serious atmosphere. Eventually the col came into sight and a steep loose climb brought us to a tiny gap in the ridge.

Any hopes that the other other side would be a gentle grassy amble were quickly dashed.

A very steep gully led to a long section of tiring boulders- more pierreier than we really needed by this stage.

Judith in a sea of boulders

Eventually the descent was over and we joined another path for a final easy and quite busy ascent to the magnificent but rather crowded Refuge de Nice.

Refuge de Nice

Regular readers of this blog, may be interested to know that for the second night running we have had beef stew. But mercifully no polenta- last night was rice and tonight was pasta.

St Martin Vesubie to Refuge de Cougourde

Today we walked North East (I know…wrong direction) to Le Boreon, where we joined the GR52 and returned to the high mountains.

We left St Martin, with last looks down unexplored alleys promising hidden courtyards.

The map indicated that there were footpaths that would take us to Le Boreon, but it looked extremely likely that they had been destroyed by the 2019 storm, so we decided the best thing to do was to walk up the road, guided by Google maps rather than the proper map. Luckily, it was a perfectly safe road to walk on. Bits of it had obviously recently been rebuilt, having been swept away by the raging torrents. It provided a very easy way of walking up 2000 feet, which put a nice big dent in the day’s ascent.

Above the small badly storm damaged hamlet of Le Boreon, we tried to join the footpath, only to discover a sign that it was closed.

There was only a moment of anxiety before a combination of map and signage revealed an alternative route and soon we were back on to mountain paths, joining back with the original GR52 route, and taking us deep into rugged Mercantour. As we gained height and the trees thinned, an impossible skyline of savage cliffs and teetering pinnacles emerged, the vastness of which is impossible to convey in words or photographs.

As we had lunch on a slab of rock we were visited by a chamois, not particularly frightened or curious about our presence.

Our stop for the night is the refuge de Cougourde, which lies a steep half hour’s walk away from the main path. It is improbably positioned in a high hanging valley, surrounded by rock and grazing chamois.

We got here in good time and we were able to leave our rucksacks and explore a little further up the valley.

We’re now in the refuge as there is an afternoon thunderstorm, although it doesn’t seem to be anything like as ferocious as yesterday’s.

There is no possibility of any internet or mobile reception, so I won’t be able to post this tonight.

St Martin Vesubie

A day off in the delightful St Martin, which is a large village/ small town with a bit of a touristy vibe. The old part of the town is late medieval, including the building we are staying in.

Judith from the window of our bedroom/sitting room/kitchen.

We’ve done some pottering and exploring, but mainly enjoyed not walking. I’ve said before on this blog that not walking is a very underrated activity.

The town still very much bears the horrific scars of the destruction caused by storm Alex in 2019.

Speaking of weather, each day so far the weather forecast has been absolutely certain that there would be afternoon thunderstorms. These never materialised… until today. But today’s is pretty ferocious .

And then the rain turned to hail. But I’m sure it’ll clear soon. And it feels nice and cool now.

I’m not sure about mobile reception over the next few days for updating the blog, but I’ll post here when I get the chance.