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.