Thursday, 26 January 2012

Gran Paradiso - summit or tour it - knocks the socks of the Tour de Mont Blanc!!

Gran Paradiso, for the uninitiated, is the highest peak in Italy at 4061m and nestles in a splendid amphitheatre, in a stunning triangle of cross border peaks – including Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. With 700 square kilometres to gambol in (and Italian food!), it really is a paradise on earth.
Previous visits to GP have been based around the very fine Hotel Genzianella at Pont in the Valsavarenche valley. When we were last there, the new owners were keen to up the ante in their traditional Alpine hotel with good home cooked food and a friendly atmosphere. Always enjoy that slightly frizzante white wine on tap too! They looked after us, with our varying levels of fitness, allowing us to enjoy the sun and the splendid views, to the max.
With guests whom are always a pleasure to welcome back, the creation of a long weekend in Italy this year was no arduous task at all. No summit attempt required but a good work out for a couple of days combined with some time dabbling in the snow.
Arrival day dawns hot and clear as we meet the famous four at the airport in Turin. An hour and a half later, under the only rain that we see all weekend, we finally arrive at the Hotel Belvedere in Gimilian, just outside Cogne. A “belvedere” indeed, towering above Cogne with a mega view over to Paradiso, but also a towering radio mast. Hey ho – such is modern life.
However do not hesitate to come here, but diet first, because the six course menu, is solid home-made mountain food, with one unifying ingredient - CHEESE……in all its forms and presentations, delicious, and the source of much hilarity amongst us all. We might have been too embarrassed to refuse much food but would have needed to have been climbing Everest to do justice to all the calories that were being enthusiastically passed our way.
The next day dawns dramatic grey and blue so we decide to have a non snow shoe warm up day – and one which is preceded by a scarey “Italian Job” zig zag road – and one, we discover after, we shouldn’t have been up in the first place. We have headed slightly south east from Cogne, to Lillaz and then up to Gollie. The walk is under typical Alpine weather – five minutes of spring sunshine, followed by some cold blasts and threats of snow and sleet.
We manage to have a calm lunch in the former, before heading off towards Loie lake where Tony, the keen bean photography course student, heads off in search of an old ibex which has, rather tantalisingly, just disappeared behind a bluff. The rest of us wait, donning all we have with us, in the cold, before our leader Mel also disappears into the gloom.
Fearing that end of the world scenario, or perhaps we have seen too many cheap horror films, we were very pleased to see our two Musketeers appear over the horizon, armed with some great shots of a whole pack of ibex – result!
A great intro day with all safely gathered in, a bit weary, after a stunning round of local beers in a more than stunning location looking up the Val Nontez valley – where a wedding is taking place in the hotel next door. There’s not too much in Cogne so have a wander round and look out for a modern bar, with a row of beer pumps on the left just as you go in – and a huge picture window at the rear. Gratis nibbles and pretty bar staff too if that is your fancy!
Ordered specially, day two dawns bright and clear and we drag our cholesterol ridden bodies out on the hill in search of snow; snowshoes clattering reassuringly on our backs. A beautiful but not the most exciting of schleps takes us up to the very friendly Bardze refuge where a cup of tea with plenty of sugar is very welcome, as well as some foraging for food instruction as we leave.
A clutch of lycra bedecked Italian mountain bikers have munched their way through a vast quantity of food and a litre of wine (of course) before mounting their steeds and pedalling off into the distance. There is a feeling of relief among our merry bunch in anticipation of the snow, so we get geared up and head off towards what seems like a very near col – with much deception involved as ever, as we hit false col after false col!! However we are rewarded with stunning views at the top, before the hardy among us head off to a Col at nearly 3000m to try to get a view of the must be seen triangular peak of Mont Viso, and the green valley of Camiglia below. And there she was!! Job done……
I shan’t mention the C word again but suffice to say after a goodly day and a slogging 1300m of ascent, the belly full was rather welcome, and the young ones put a spring in the step of their older companions, by being the first abed! The “youngs” however are much more used to tarmac than tufty terrain, so they did very well and were unfailingly cheerful about it.
In Aosta, after a bit of retail therapy for family and friends, we regret the demise of an interesting snack bar, due to refurbishment of the paved street, but enjoy a (slightly) less (than what we have become accustomed to) calorific lunch before heading back to Turin. The name is lost in the ether but succumb to the charms of an Italian man on the doorstep at the Western end of this major pedestrian thoroughfare, and you won’t be disappointed.
Sound interesting? Our next foray is for two weeks at the end of August, with New Zealanders who are well used to their own impressive Alps, doing a two week circuit around GP. Think we can hardly wait?? Correct!!! A snow shoeing trip – on the cards for later in the year!!
Instituto Geografico Centrale – Italian maps
Gran Paradiso National Park
Aosta Valley
Turin airport
Spacebetweeen – based in the Mercantour in France – also provide Gran Paradiso trips – summit and circuits
Hotel Genianella – Pont
Auberge Belvedere - Gimilian
Cogne Snow Forecast

Get on your horse......real horse riding adventure

If you like big Nature and big adventure for your holiday experience - you could not fail to be entranced by this great short video - (edited by from a French TV programme "Des Racines et des Ailes" which concentrates its programming on innovative people who are making their living in positive ways in the countryside. Astonishing to see the natural beauty of the landscape just behind the French Riviera and a one-off guy who enables you to enjoy all this from the back of a horse. Denis Longfellow is a characterful Californian who has lived in France for thirty odd years and loves his troupeau, his winters in Sainte Agnes and of course his summers in Le Boreon, near Saint Martin Vesubie, in the Mercantour. If you are fit and confident there is no reason why you can't join Denis on his exploits in the Alpes-Maritimes. This is not a a dull plod on the back of a de-motivated riding school pony - but a horse riding holiday that you will never forget.

Sainte Agnes based walking holidays!!

Excellent to see this great reportage about the hanging village of Sainte Agnes - just behind the Italianate town of Menton on the French Riviera. The winter base of spacebetween's horse partner Denis Longfellow, the village is stacked full of charm (and lovely people as the video shows!) and it remarkably unspoilt - given its proximity to the coast - about 4 miles as the crow flies but a windy (full of bends not wind!!) climb to about 1000m. It is justifiably renowned as one of the prettiest villages in France, and makes a perfect centre for a walking, or riding holiday, rolling hills with excellent views down to the Mediterranean to the South and the magnificent Mercantour National Park to the North. What a place to be!!! Finish the day with a mooch around Fred's lovely stained glass shop and a traditional meal (no frozen ready meals here) in either the Hotel Saint Yves - a family run friendly hotel and resto, or the Righi - with a Michelin star view and great value prices.

Contact spacebetween for more details - details of their holiday week is here plus there is also the possibility to rent a house for up to 10 in the summer months.

Horse riding holidays in France - riding on the wild side!

If you went through the pony mad phase as a youngster but are now feeling a little timorous, or get hot under the bridle at the thought of riding the range and sleeping under the stars, there is a solution for you, without having to trot around a ring with a rosy-faced instructor barking at you.

If Guardian journalist Kevin Rushby can overturn his pre-conception that all equines are biting, kicking, foul tempered beasts, (after a break with his wife and gung-ho six year old daughter in the Alpes-Maritimes) - so can you.

The Alpes-Maritimes has it all; and much more excitement lurks behind the hedonistic strip which is the French Riviera. Denis Longfellow, a native Californian, has lived in “06” for the last 30 odd years, and has shepherded a variety of animals around this fantastic countryside during this time. He now has a troupe of about 25 horses which spend their time between Sainte-Agnès and the Mercantour National Park further to the North.

In the sleepy village of Sainte-Agnès, it always pays to keep your eyes peeled, as there is sometimes more than the hairpin bends to contend with!!

At about 1000m above the Med and Menton, the village has immediate “kerb appeal” for walkers, cyclists and riders and is the highest hanging village on the Mediterranean. Despite its proximity to the coast and “honey pot” villages such as Eze, Sainte-Agnès has maintained an unspoilt character. No five star hotels and villas here.

The said “perils” to traffic - the horses - are often grazing in the fields around the village and are rounded up when they are required to earn their keep. The saddling up process takes place in the lower village square, and the prospect, interspersed with lycra clad sweaty cyclists, and would be horse whisperers, is quite a scene!

During the winter, Denis usually just offers rides at the weekends, plus courses during school holidays. However, if you have a group of six or so, he will set up a tailor-made trip.

Don’t be nervous as you eye up your half ton of horse flesh, the team is obedient, sure-footed and nice natured. The saddles are comfortable, and hackamore bridles are used, preventing novices from tugging too much at the poor mount’s sensitive mouth, while allowing that great “John Wayne” sensation. Denis is on hand to give instructions, but be prepared to “get on with it”. This short video,

an extract from a recent programme - Des Racines et Des Ailes on FR3 – gives a good taste for what to expect!

The low lying hills around Saint-Agnès are ideal for horse riding and are laced with forestry tracks and pathways including the Grande Randonnée (GR) 51; but resist the temptation of turning your steed onto the super groomed greens of Monte Carlo golf club – it could be a very expensive five minutes of anarchy!!

Between the beginning of October and the middle of June, the weather is usually pretty good, (although – November 2011 – we have just had four solid days of rain and astonishing storms). There is only one “funny” – in the form of sea mist in the spring time, which adds to the atmosphere but does little to dampen the spirits.

With a solid animal doing most of the hard work for you, although do not imagine that riding out with Denis is merely just sitting aside your mount!, this is the most wonderful way for nature lovers to enjoy a different perspective.

While you may not see all the minutiae on the ground, you are free to enjoy the movement of the horse, and take a good look around you. And there is no shortage of things to look at – 360 degrees of splendour – from the Mediterranean glittering in the distance, to the stunning massif of the Mercantour to the North.

As the sun sets to the South, riders can reward themselves with chilled glass of rosé in the Michelin starred view (but non Michelin priced good food) at Le Righi restaurant, and exchange tall tales.

Your “sea legs” gained, consider taking the three day ride (sometimes more) from Sainte-Agnès to Le Boréon, which is Denis’ summer base. The ride is arduous, peppered with great picnics, and super home made food in the evenings, but a real adventure. You will be astounded by the fitness of the horses, and your own ability to hang on in there.

The summer season is in Alpine terrain in the Mercantour National Park, which the horses hasten to get to, for all the lush grass they can feast on. This is after all a “transhumance”, the traditional movement of stock to pastures new during summer months.

Visitors can enjoy short rides around Le Boréon, or take off on a four day trip up and over the Mercantour ridges, into Italy. Denis’ chalet is located just next door to the Alpha wolf centre and the picturesque village of Saint Martin Vésubie.

Information & Contact Details
Denis is in Sainte Agnès from the end of September each year to the middle of June. In the summer months he stays in Le Boréon valley above Saint Martin Vésubie, where visitors can stay in his chalet or yourtes. In addition to day rides, and the “must do” bi-annual Transhumance between the two sites, riding courses and tailor made trips are organised throughout the year.

Denis Longfellow
Tel: 00 33 (0)622 295 886

Places to stay and eat


Le Righi – good home made food and a great view
Avenue du Château
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 92 10 90 88

Le Saint-Yves Hotel – family run hotel with traditional fare
76 rue des Sarrasins
06500 Sainte Agnès
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 35 91 45


O à La Bouche – restaurant above the Alpha wolf centre – well cooked food
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 03 33 77

Chalet Longfellow – chalet for up to 13 people during the winter – summer accommodation in the chalet and yourtes.


Spacebetween Berthemont les Bains
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 03 48 57

Christian Lorenzetti Valdeblore

Tel: 00 33 (0)6 22 068 63 93

Life on a high wire - adventure holidays in France

Making the passage of man over mountains a little easier is certainly not a new phenomenon!! Even back in the late 1400s the intrepid Captain Antoine de Ville used ladders to help him summit Mount Aiguille in the Savoie, and in the 1500s more sophisticated cabling was used by mountain guides in the Mont Blanc area to overcome difficult stretches of terrain.
Via ferrata, as we know it today, originated during WWI in Italy as a means of transporting troups across Alpine terrain. Post war, these routes were soon abandoned for military use. It was only in the 1980s when the concept of creating interesting and challenging routes as a pass time in itself, rather than a means to an end, was hatched.
The Alpes-Maritimes department is blessed with eight different networks of VF, out of a total of about 100 in the whole of France. These are of varying degrees of difficulty so aficionadi can wile after a week or so, on the trail of adventure in France!!
For non aficionadi
What is it all about??
Via ferrata offers access to rock climbing type terrain but made easy. Enjoy all of the thrills and spills of fresh air beneath you, without the fear element.
VF’s vary of course, but the routes are usually on a cliff or in a gulley which has been equipped with rungs and holds to enable climbing. Most sports routes have rungs which are conveniently located to suit both the short and the tall!! A metal cable runs along the routes, to which you are attached at all times. In addition to face climbing, many via ferrata also offer more challenging sections such as wire monkey bridges to cross.
What do you need to do it??
For via ferrata, you need to be comfortably dressed, with sturdy trainers. Climbing shoes are not required. Do consider that you will be on the mountain for some hours – so make sure you cater for any eventualities – sun cream, hat, or gloves and a waterproof, and take a drink. You need to wear a climbing harness with a double lanyard belaying system plus a climbing helmet. These can usually be hired from local equipment stores quite cheaply.
How fit do I need to be??
There is no need to be super fit to do VF. You obviously need to be vertigo free, and have reasonable strength in your upper and lower body for movements. Routes have a variety of standards of difficulty, and you should start on one suited to your fitness, strength, and confidence. If bad weather threatens, do as you would if out walking; move off the mountain quickly but safely.
What experience do I need?
No rock climbing experience is needed; you will have no problem if you have done some scrambling before. Beginners can either grab a rock climbing mate for a day, join a group led by a mountain leader, or head out on their own – ensuring that they are familiar with their equipment, the routes on the VFs, and the basic essentials of ensuring that one is clipped on to the metal cables at all times. At breaks in the cables, the carabiners are moved one at a time, ensuring that security is always in place. There are also escape routes called échappatoires, which offer an easier route off the hill at more difficult sections.
Where to go for a maiden adventure?
A good idea to start on the Baus de la Frema near to La Colmiane – there are several places where you can hire your kit, and then drive to the start point where there are useful maps of the routes on the mountain. In the summer there is someone who will take a fee of c €5 but out of season access is usually free. The routes were established by experienced local mountain guides, so the rungs/holds are conveniently placed, with plenty of escape routes available too.
How to find out more?
A goodie in English - ‘Via ferrata, a complete guide to France’ available from Amazon
Also there is a VF guide published by the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes – Rando Via Ferrata – guides RandOxygène -
And a face full of all that is available in France -
For more real life experiences of Via Ferrata in the Mercantour, read this article by freelance journalist Timandra Harkness, who wondered if she had bitten off more than she could chew on a visit to La Colmiane, with experienced mountain guide and wag, Pierrot Fiorucci.
VF is offered by British walking and adventure holiday company Spacebetween , as part of their activity packages,, or alternatively you could use their base, offering two gites, for accommodation only.
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 03 48 57
Contact: Liz Lord & Mel Jones

Why snowshoe?? The ultimate winter walking holiday!!!

We are just offering our final places for our winter walking holidays in the Mercantour for the winter season 2011/2012.

It is great to see that snow shoeing is gaining in popularity - and you don't have to be a super fit hard nut to enjoy the sport either!!! The crazies might be interested in snow shoe running events - yes really - but for most mere mortals - snow shoes are an excellent way of getting out in the white stuff with minimal effort.

Snow shoes - used by Man for centuries used to be tennis racquet type affairs - formerly crafted from wood and animal gut - which attached to the foot allowed hunters and keen beans, the chance to move around in the snow, without sinking in too much. Today, and fortunately, the equipment is more sophisticated. The cheaper end of the market does recreate the tennis effect, but these shoes, with rubber attachments are best avoided as you slide around like nobodies business. Best to stick with a reliable brand such as TSL - these wonder items - can be adjusted to fit your boot size and have attachments around the toe and the ankle area. Wearers are armed (or footed!) with a studded base, and a super evil front "claw" which can be kicked into snow on steep inclines, It is best to leave the base plate loose from your foot on ascent, or even engage the natty "heel" which raises the back of your foot and puts less strain on your calves. Coming down hill - and to prevent balling up of the snow (surprisingly heavy!) - it is best to attach the base plate so there is no flapping around and you can floof (spacebetween trademark verb!) downhill - scree running style with less danger. This also avoids the risk of making an unside down "v" with your snow shoe - not recommended at all!

What we at spacebetween particularly like about snow shoeing is its suitability for all ages, sizes and fitness levels and the opportunity it gives to get off piste and into the wilderness. In the Mercantour , we have little shortage of that!!! Starting out in at say 1700m in a snow free zone, it might seem a pest to have to strap the blighters to your ruck sack but once you are in the snow - you will be grateful indeed. It's also useful to pack a pair of rubber over shoes into your sack for areas of little snow but some ice - these are cheap, compact, and easy to pack away.

You quickly gain confidence in your snow shoes and just need to remember to walk a little like a duck (legs slightly apart), so you don't fall over your feet. Sure it's quite strenuous exercise but you can take it all at your own pace. Poles are a great boon, allowing you to get into a rythmn, nordic walking style, plus offer a bit of support for difficult traverses.

Minded to act to get away from grey skies in the UK and into some great walking terrain - well give us a shout.

Merveilles Valley - walking holidays in France

Bronze Age Power – Magic walking holidays in France

It’s hard to imagine even today what drew early Man to this remote valley in the Mercantour – 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 creamy coloured (not blue!) 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 (The French dispute this of course!). 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.

To say much more about their meaning would be to spoil the fun of an evocative day out in the Merveilles!! Go and see for yourself!

Just under three quarters of 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.

No point in donning your boots at the moment as there will still be two metres of snow up in the valley. The best time of year to go is in June or July when the sight of the wild flowers is enough to make even a grown man weep, or in the autumn when colours are starting to turn.
Risk August and there will be too many people in the rather gloomy Merveilles refuge, and you probably will get very wet – although you will understand the magic of the place in the course of the drenching!!

If you want to stay over, avoid the Merveilles refuge at any time of year, and instead either wild camp, (six or more people can stay in a teepee – contact us about this!) 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.