Monday, 29 November 2010

Anyone for accommodation....

Seems as if everyone from Italy is heading towards the Riviera for the festive season and everyone on the coast is heading north! While Britain shivers under a cold snap - we too are relishing a really early start to the ski season - and some great snow - this is chez nous BUT it only looks like this for 2 or 3 days a year....rose (with an accent) still possible on the terrace!! It was -8 in the Boreon today mind you...and about 2 degrees here - keep warm..... It looks as if flight/trains are hideously expensive now at the end of December - so why not plan on a January/February break to get the body moving again....

An elderly horse owner?!!!

Anyone out there who are novice horse owners after years of wanting one?! We are based in the Mercantour - offering accommodation and walking/adventure holidays.....and walking with hosses now too!! Do get in touch if you want to share the scare of having a ton of flesh looking to you for all it needs!!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Monday, 9 August 2010

Fun in Gran Paradiso with spacebetween

Bravo les filles - all that giggling!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Kevin Rushby - Horse riding in the Mercantour

When the horses come down from the hill, I'm standing on the lane, wondering if there is any way to get out of what is about to happen. It's an impressive sight: the dozen horses, manes and tails in motion, all cantering through the forest, the dog barking at their heels. There were two patched and painted ponies, like Apache war steeds, a pair of dainty Arabs, dish-faced and bug-eyed, like they had pranced straight out of a Stubbs painting. There were a couple of greys and some big brown mares. The biggest brute will be mine, I thought – the one with the grudge.

Far below us, down 700m of mountainside, shimmering and hazy, was the Côte d'Azur with its white tower blocks, black cars and scorched skin. But we were no longer in that world; we were in a golden forest of field maples, oaks and scarlet sumac near the village of Sainte-Agnès, just a few miles north of Monaco, close to the Italian border. We were setting out on a two-day ride into the virtually uninhabited interior, our saddlebags stuffed with supplies and bedrolls.

Denis came past me, whistling, then shouting for the dog, "Avant, avant, Uxel! Allez, Juanita!" And the dog, a huge lolloping hound, was behind Juanita, one of the painted ponies, urging her down. I noticed that the dog appeared to know the horse's name, and thought, "Is that possible?"

I stepped back. My partner, Sophie, and six-year-old daughter Maddy were with Denis, catching horses by the manes, slipping on bridles, tying them up to a rope strung between two trees. But I stepped back.

Kevin in the Provencal Hills I'll be honest. Horses and me never did click. A bite on the hand long ago, tales of terrifying injuries, cowboy movies where they get thrown and trampled and bitten and generally reduced to a bloody, quivering pulp, and finally the time in Sudan – I blush at the recollection – when I coolly threw myself up on a mule, and went directly over the other side into the dirt. If only the whole village hadn't been watching! Some of them laughed so hard they had to lie down. Gimme a bike any day. To add to my woes, Sophie and Maddy are comparative experts – and they look good in jodhpurs.

The night before, Denis had explained his methods. "I leave the horses out on the mountain – that way they get strong and they have the security of the herd. They got a pecking order and they got leaders. I work with 'em."

Denis Longfellow inspires confidence. Born in California in the 60s, he grew up surrounded by writers and poets (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an ancestor). In the 70s he moved to Provence and spent 10 years with the last generation of old-time shepherds: "They couldn't read or write, but they knew how to keep animals."

Denis has a direct simple animal psychology: "In Europe you got a lot of culture grown up around horseback riding. There's a guy two metres up there, looking down on someone, and he wants to make that seem mysterious and complicated. But it ain't. Horseback riding ain't complicated."

A welcome mid-trek shot of pastis Photograph: Kevin Rushby Now, here on the lane, Denis is about to show me how simple it is. He grabs the big brown mare – the one with the grudge, of course – and he grips the reins in one hand together with a fist full of mane and he says to me. "Hold her like this. Get a foot in your stirrup, then jump up."

I do it. The horse keeps steady. Denis positions my toe in the stirrup. "It's a natural position: feet underneath, basin ..." he points at my pelvis. "That's where you ride – in the basin. You can stand if you want, but keep your head down and butt up. Hold the mane with both hands if you need to."

Maddy and Sophie are up, too. Mel and Liz, colleagues of Denis, are up. The loose horses are milling, hooves clattering on tarmac. The dog, Uxel, is waiting for a signal. Denis jumps into the saddle. A piercing whistle. My brown mare, Mada, turns sharply right and pounces forwards after the loose horses. A cacophony of hooves explodes around me. A black horse bashes my knee. We're going downhill at a trot and my bum is being punched. Stand up. Grab mane. Horse's head starts to pump up and down as she breaks into a canter. Denis comes rattling past, cooler than a cowboy dude, leaning back like he's tootling a Harley D up Route 66: "Sit back. Use your basin. It's like making love."

I can't sit. I can't make love with my basin. I can't do anything but hold on. And yet that's cool. Denis is cool. "OK, basin up and head down," he shouts. "Like a jockey."

I'm laughing with exhilaration. We sheer away down a broad grassy footpath. Sophie is alongside me on her grey gelding and grinning. "Well?"

I can't stop smiling. "I – think – I – might – like – this ..." How come, I'm wondering, I never realised what fun this could be? And I haven't even thought about falling off.

After an hour we pull up by a tumbledown cottage where a man with a face full of furrows is waving a bottle of pastis. He pours me a stiff measure.

"You'll never believe what I saw this morning: a man with a knapsack and nothing else – naked!" He laughs. "I hardly see a soul up here, though it's just a few kilometres from the coast."

Guide Denis Longfellow. Photograph: Kevin Rushby A curious thing about Provence is how the coast and the mountains have exchanged population: the coast was once an overheated pirate-afflicted zone that nobody wanted, while the cool hills were desirable – everyone lived up here. Now the population is all down on the coast, even though it's still overheated and pirate-infested (they sail in gilded mega-yachts these days), and the hills are silent: you would struggle to get a pétanque match together in most villages.

Riding through the sun-dappled forest, the only humans we see are a couple of mushroom collectors. We emerge at an abandoned coastguard station and a magnificent panorama. Behind us are the snow-capped Alpes Maritimes, ahead the sparkling sea and the mountains of Corsica on the horizon, 200km away. Westwards we can see Provence disappearing in ridges of blue and violet, while to the east are the mountains of Italian Liguria.

"I guess most kids in England learn horseback riding indoors," Denis says to Maddy.

She nods: "My horse is called Pippin. We go across the ring from A to C, then B to D. It's fun."

I think Maddy is missing the rule-bound predictability of the riding school, a place where correct clothes, posture and meticulous attention to detail are observed. She has coped with the intensity of this outdoor experience with remarkable sang-froid, but for her – truth to tell – the confidence nurtured in the riding school is indispensable here.

Lunch is laid out: tiny black Niçoise olives, cheeses, hunks of bread, a bottle of red wine, pasta and salads. We eat and talk, then some of us snooze. Later we trot onwards in the deep glow of late afternoon. Denis tells me how he breaks new horses in.

"There ain't no problem when they live in a herd. The young colts run with us and they see what happens with the older horses. When they're three years old, I put a bridle and saddle on them. I use hackamore bridles so there's no bit. They take to it real easy."

In a broad meadow we gallop about and round up the loose horses, whooping and yelling like cowboys on the range. It is both ridiculous and wonderful. That evening we light a camp fire, put some sausages on to cook, and watch the stars come out.

"If only I'd known riding could be like this!" I say to Denis. "No pomp – just relaxed."

My attitude to horses has, I admit, been damaged by exposure to a certain kind of horsey person: braying women in uptight clothes, red-faced toffs in white cravats, all wearing those foul black helmets with a ribbon on top. (I have to stop myself at this point since Maddy and Sophie love this kind of kit.) Denis, I scarcely need to say, does not wear any of that ghastly garb, favouring jeans and checked shirts with sunglasses under a baseball cap.

"A lot of guys come to it when they are older – thirties, forties, even fifties and sixties," Denis says. "There's no problem with age at all."

There is a commotion among the horses and Maddy goes to investigate. She comes back grinning sheepishly. "They're doing binki-bonki."

A torch reveals what exactly binki-bonki is: a grey gelding in an aroused state mounting a chestnut mare.

"Ah, that's Dodo," says Denis. "He gets in the mood every three or four months – no problem." He goes back to turning sausages on the fire.

Next morning we ride for about three hours and have lunch on a hilltop before heading back towards Sainte-Agnès, at 760m the highest coastal village in Europe. We unsaddle the horses and send the herd off into the forest, then sit down to an excellent dinner in the village restaurant.

Later that evening, I head out alone on to the rocks around the village. The trip has challenged my prejudice, and then surprised me by flipping it over entirely. The truth is that I was the one with the grudge, not the poor horse. I sit down on a spur of granite and look around. To the south are the bright lights of Menton and Monte Carlo; to the north is complete darkness, punctuated by the hoots of owls calling across the valley. And above, as if attempting to tie these two impossibly different worlds together, is the broad spangled belt of the Milky Way.

Top 10 park in the world - the Mercantour of course!

Top Ten Global Treasure on our doorstep!

Excellent to see our local National Park getting some top press and standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s finest scenery. This is what they* said

The Mercantour is a long and narrow strip of National Park which lies in the North East of the Alpes-Maritimes, along the Italian border. The central zone is peppered with numerous jagged peaks, deep winding gorges, Alpine meadows, lakes, deep forests and a wide variety of flora and fauna. On the Eastern flank of the Park, in terrain carved out by glaciers, the Merveilles and Fontanalbe valleys conceal an extraordinary collection of Bronze Age rock carvings. These form a vast open air museum which is the most important of its kind in Europe. Guided visits are provided by qualified guides.

The rest
Unites States Grand Canyon
Canada Banff National Park
Khao Sok National Park Thailand
NE Greenland National Park Denmark
Iguaçu National Park Argentina/Brazil
Saba Marine Park Dutch Antilles
Galapagos National Park Equator
Namib-Naukluft National Park Namibia
Mungo National Park Australia

Published on (, from Lonely Planet data.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Third time lucky in Paradise?

Refusing to be jinxed by our two “snow up to the eyeballs” visits to the Aosta valley in recent years, we were delighted when our Mont Blanc team decided to have a pop at Italy’s finest.
So looking forward to having a decko at the soaring peaks in Gran Paradiso, Mel and I set off optimistically, heading into the Roya Valley – across the Col de Tende and down into Italy. A mere four and a half hours later we spied our sun-batheing compatriots outside the Terminal and soon whisked them north west.
The Aosta valley has all the big-scale majesty of the French side of the border, with a less frenetic feel. Love to see the vines precariously terraced on the valley sides and the imposing fortresses built to keep aliens away in more ferocious times.
We give our previous snow haven hotel in Villeneuve a wave before downing a cheeky beer and heading up towards Villesavarenche – and the end of the valley (well the road anyway) at Pont. We’d stayed at the Genzianella ( in previous and enjoyed its laid-back style – which was being well maintained by its new owners – thanks for that team! Even allowing the sports mad to watch the last of the World Cup!!
Feeling rather like Grandma with my one rather useless limb, it was none the less great to wave off Mel, Jak, Annie and Caroline for their two days of preparation adventures, a good walk and then some ice axe arrest training ( before heading off to the Chabod refuge on the third day for a rendezvous with the charming Stefano who was to be the guide on the final morning.

more later!!!!

Going wild in the Mercantour….but not too wild…

A goodly little walk to blow away the cobwebs – just an hour north of Nice.
Stir yourselves from your beds and head up the D6202 and then approach La Colmaine ( from either via the Tinée valley or the Vésubie.
Head towards the pretty village of Saint Dalmas, where from the north side of the village you will find a tarmac road which has the familiar red and white striped markings of the GR5.
Continue along this path until an intersection 75 which is signposted to the Col de la Madeleine. It is a mere 200m of ascent, first through open country, and then through forest before coming to another decision making point – whether to carry on to the Col de la Madeleine at 1736 m or carry on to a very pleasant lunch spot at the Séréna.

Carry on to Col du Puei and then to the Col de Séréna at just 1307 m.

Over lunch enjoy your sandwich looking over the pretty fortified village of Rimplas and back towards La Colmiane.

The kids can scamper about whilst you gather yourself together for a short walk back and the promise of a quick look round the medieval village of Saint-Dalmas, and the Templar church.

More excitingly a chilled glass of rosé awaits you in the village bar!!

Whatever your fancy – it is a very pleasant half day out – silence – birds – views – convivial lunch – the finest!!

Map IGN 3641 ER

Truly the valley of Marvels!

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.

Why climb Mont Blanc?

If you are a peak bagger, a sporty walker, and want to get up to the highest point in Western Europe, the big white fella that looms over Chamonix has appeal.

Whilst we are loving it in the Mercantour, the wishes of some mates, is difficult to pass by, if you have some desire to have a pop at Mont Blanc’s impressive 4810m.

From the UK, fly to Geneva, from where Chamonix is an hour and a half drive away. We lucky Mercantour residents can take a gorgeous drive over a selection of mountain passes.

Great to be in Chamonix and to have a warm welcome from Pierrot at the hotel La Chaumière. Pierrot, runs a guide office, Escapade, in Saint Martin Vésubie. Stéphane, his fellow guide, is a rangey chap, too modest himself to boast of his achievements. We are only to find out several days later that he has, among other things, created a new and very dangerous route up Kwangde, in Nepal.

The training days in the Vallée Blanche were great fun and so inspiring, noteable for the "interesting" descent on via ferrata type iron rungs, and the depressing shrinkage of the glacier in recent years.

We plan to stay in the Tête Rousse refuge (great surreal view!), then on to the l'Aiguille du Goûter refuge mid morning for a summit attempt the same day. This avoids the stone shower that can bash you on the head as you cross the Grand Couloir. More importantly you could also skip the Goûter hut whose reputation rather precedes it.

Best laid plans and all that…

Rather typically, after several days of clear clear blue, the outlook becomes more unstable. Cloud cover increases and by mid morning – well?. We are forced to hole up in the said Goûter hut.

Eager to rest, we ignore the close surroundings and instead concentrate on the stunning views. As the afternoon goes by, we are amazed at the mass of humanity that keeps coming ....and coming......and coming...

I wear the "largest earplugs known to man" but still endure a sleepless night, surrounded by an international mix of people for whom group courtesy didn’t mean a thing.

In the morning there is a grumpy scrummage, and fresh knee level snow as we start out under a clear starry sky, in the motorway trip to the summit.

However Mother Nature likes to play a game and after a couple of hours we are treated to the "big white room" experience, which means that only some of us get to the very top.

Back at the Goûter, we get ready to tackle the freshly iced up route down to the Tête Rousse. Um!

Moving quickly on....we do still manage to leap aboard the last train down to Chamonix at 16.30. Nothing quite like a cheery "Don't worry you can walk down if you miss it" to quicken you up.

The scores on the doors? Eight stitches, four "Flowerpot men" legs, three thumping heads, two slightly frost bitten toes.

After several frothy beers we wonder if we would do it again – yes maybe via another, more technical route such as the Cosmique.

Pearls of wisdom - despite the TV imagery of rufty-tufty types strolling leisurely up Mont Blanc, you need to be fit, correctly equipped (not like the hapless Italian couple wandering about in jeans, trainers and windcheaters!), and guided, unless you feel competent enough to cope if the weather deteriorates.

Go to Chamonix for the fun of it? - certainly - out of season - you get a marvellous eyeful of incomparable mountains, the best range of outdoor gear a shop'oholic could wish for (don't take your credit cards!), and good food - we particularly liked our last night meal at the Maison Carrier, and of course the hearty fare (and good humour of Maria and Mario) at La Chaumière.

The question that is ALWAYS asked!

I may have thought I had the better deal. In the fine autumn of 2001, Mel and I drove down to the south of France to exhibit a new fitness product at the prestigious Tax Free World Exhibition in Cannes (and that is another interesting life story – Pocket Grim!?)

I was looking forward to evenings in the Cointreau bar on the beach, with no inkling that more exciting and life changing venues lay just an hour up the road.

Mel, no lover of glitz, having seen some interesting contours on the Alpes-Maritimes, was away to the North like a bat out of hell. The lure??? The Mercantour - France’s largest and most recently created National Park (but now a healthy 30 years young), is a 685 km² outdoor adventure playground.

Parking in Saint Martin Vésubie, Mel had his fill of the surrounding mountains in the first, of many, reccies. The seed of a life-style business opportunity was there. Easy to get to, within hopping distance of the French Riviera, but an unknown National Park – let’s go….

The name was partial courtesy to the Dave Matthew’s band for their great song spacebetween and for us – the space between the Côte d’Azur and the Savoie to the North — and that much needed holiday space between.

Finding La Zourcière in Berthemont-les-Bains was a coup. A fine farmhouse with lots of accommodation potential and crying out to be stripped of the 1970’s Alpine French style interior – we are still at it – trying to get greener; get some more beasts; have a lovely cool ,plain, airy interior;

Today we are delighted to offer that spacebetween in two gîtes within the house. Great for guests to enjoy accommodation only, or to hoof out there in a fantastic holiday week – all year round.