It’s hard to imagine even today what drew early Man to this remote valley the Valley of Marvels – Vallée des Merveilles, now in the Mercantour National Park – the Alpes-Maritimes’ natural treasure trove.
Whichever of the many current theories it was (Chariots of the Gods’esque if you wish), the valley inspired Man to create tens of thousands of carvings on the surfaces of the local rocks.
They leave a truly incredible insight into their unique culture which can really be brought to life with a visit accompanied by a local guide. (Many of the most interesting carvings can only be explored with a guide).
Over the years the valley was left to enjoy its isolation as many considered that the valley was a place of ill omen. The combination of frequent violent thunder storms (attracted to Mount Bego) and the eerie carvings, creating much fear through the vivid imagination of early inhabitants.
In more rational times in the late 19th century, Englishman Clarence Bicknell made the first detailed study of the carvings. Over the course of twenty one years he documented over 12000 carvings. Subsequent studies have “unearthed” many thousands more. The images are simplistic in their nature, depicting animals, weapons and tools, geometric shapes, figures, and abstract forms.
Just under three quarters of, mainly French, visitors to the Mercantour come to explore the Merveilles valley – yet it remains surprising that most Anglo Saxons don’t seem to be aware of this (proposed) World Heritage Site.
Until recently the valley was only accessible on foot. This can be done from either – the west – from the Gordolasque valley (from the Vésubie) or from the Minière valley – the east (from the Roya).
The approach from the west is much more inspiring as the walker is rewarded with the view of meadows and lakes, down to the valley, having reached the Pas de l’Arpette.
From the east, despite the fact that visitors can enjoy an hour or so in the very interesting Tende museum, the walk is easier but less exciting, especially when the silence is broken by the 4x4s, now (fingers crossed – not for much longer) allowed to ply their way up the valley.
If you want to stay over, avoid the Merveilles refuge at any time of year, and instead either wild camp, or head to the Fontanalbe refuge.
At the base of the Minières valley there is the Neige et Merveilles refuge, and to the west the Relais de Merveilles gîte d’etape at the end of the Gordolasque valley.