A Mercantour adventure - holiday winner's story
By Catherine Farrell
, Responsible Travel holiday winner
Despite the bumpy and stony shoreline, the beach in Nice looked inviting. I had just landed that morning on the (too) early flight from a wet and windy Dublin, where summer seems to have decided to take a year out! I grabbed 'une grande bouteille d’eau
' and hit the beach to catch up on some much needed sleep.
Where was I going? Well, let me take you back to a dark and dreary day in the office in January. I was just clearing my desk when a curious email arrived from Amelia at Responsible Travel to say I had won a walking holiday in the Mercantour National Park
. The park nestles on the French Alps, just an hour from Nice. Not only that, I was to have three days guided walking with Mel from a travel company run by Mel Jones and Liz Lord.
Disregarding the email as a hoax, I ignored it. A couple of days later another email arrived wondering if I was actually going to claim my free holiday – yes, it was true, yes it was free, and I humbly accepted and arranged my voyage for the last week in June.
June arrived and there was Liz emailing me to find out when I was arriving. The holiday couldn't have come at a better time for me: usual stuff - work stress, and lack of sunlight. From the moment I was picked up by Liz that Saturday evening, which was bathed in a wonderful warm summer sunshine, until the following Saturday morning, I felt that I had arrived at a home from home.
The ground floor of Mel and Liz’s traditional style house has been converted into a self-catering gîte (Mel and Liz live upstairs and they also have a B&B attached on the upper floor) and this was to be my place for the week. The view from my own private terrace every morning was southward and the sun warmed my toes as I breakfasted gazing down the Vesubie valley.
I spent three days with Mel and Liz walking, but there are also clearly marked walking routes within easy access of the gîte. I spent two days strolling through the local pine forested valleys, exploring hidden streams and old homesteads that seem to have been absorbed and naturalised by the pines and sweet chestnuts. It was a good way to wind down and get into the pace of life in the French rural countryside.
On Monday, Mel led the way and we walked through La Madone de la Fenestre. This valley formed the major salt route that existed between the French coast and the Italian towns on the far side of the Alps.
The Templar monastery at our starting point screamed of a rich heritage and endless stories of perilous journeys through the snow covered alpine passes with salt-laden donkeys. Enough of the past: the present day valley is spectacular. We steadily climbed up through the valley, encountering a rich array of wildlife - gentians, wonderful orchids, delicate saxifrages and an overwhelming array of pink azalea abounded, set against a rich, verdant landscape with larches creeping up to their limit on the steep alpine slopes. We passed through a picturesque hanging valley, where I had my first marmot and chamois (antelope-like creatures) sightings, along with alpine chough, alpine accentor, wheatear and definitely the biggest frogs I’ve ever seen swimming in the ice cold glacial lakes. We ate lunch overlooking La Gordolasque valley, at a height of 2,400m. That day finished with a gentle saunter back down through another valley, following the path of an idyllic cold water stream.
Next day, Mel, Liz and I headed out for a more challenging walk. We walked for about 12 hours, moving from 1,600m to 3,000m, up through pine forest, up though alpine meadows and even further up (‘where are we going Mel?’ ‘Up, Up Up!
’ – probably best not to ask!); onto the rocky mountain tops and ridges that mark the border with Italy. And so I ate half of my camembert sandwich in Italy and half in France. The views were spectacular, but the summit was only a taster for what lay around the corner in the Cougourde Valley. We began the descent marvelling at the high views, and then into the valleys where wonderful orchids lined the grassy slopes alongside wild chives and gentians. The Cougourde Refuge was a vision in a lush green valley, embedded with jewel like flowers and sprinkled by crystal clear streams and waterfalls.
Next day I was exhausted, and chose a gentle walk between Belvedere and Berthemont des Bains to give my weary legs a chance to recover. I took my time, stopping now and then to perch on a rock between the shady pines and soak in the green valley vistas, or just to wonder at how naturally slow time seemed to pass in this peaceful world.
On Thursday we headed south and starting from the pretty village of Utelle, climbed to the hilltop of La Madone d’Utelle. Here the hillsides are lined with evergreen oak, wild strawberries, lavender, and an array of wonderful Mediterranean flowers – very different from the Alpine species that we had encountered just an hour north of us in the Boreon. The church on the summit has a wonderful atmosphere and we bought honey from the local nuns (straight from the bee’s bum!) and a beer in the next town of Lantosque.
I spent my last day in the Boreon – morning time at the wolf sanctuary and afternoon climbing a small mountain (big by Irish standards at 2,500m!). The Alpha Wolf Sanctuary is an initiative to mend the rift between local farmers and those concerned with conservation and re-introduction of the native wolf, largely through education and a captive wolf breeding programme. As I looked into the eyes of the wolves, I could feel a certain primeval excitement at being so close to such wonderful and beautiful creatures. After a rustic lunch of local cheese and bread by the river, I headed up again and my last afternoon in the Alps was rewarded with more spectacular views and more heady alpine scented meadows. I was reluctant to make the descent as I knew it would be my last view of this wonderland.
Liz and Mel cooked that night and we shared our meal with a German couple, who had spent the previous eight days walking across the Alps. Did I forget to mention that Liz is an amazing cook? Well, we feasted on wonderful beef stew with subtle wine and orange flavours, local salads, courgette and spuds, raspberries and redcurrants, cheese and more cheese, topped off with bottles of red wine and a taste of the local liqueur, Genepy. Despite language and cultural diversity, we spent a wonderful evening laughing and sharing our Mercantour experiences.
Next morning I bid a fond farewell to Mel and Liz, the cats and my new refuge on the edge of the Mercantour Park. The buzz of Nice was a shock to the system: a direct contrast to the music of the alpine countryside – the bee-loud glades and heavy cow-bells with heady lavender scents by day, owls and cricket chirping at night.
Highlights: wine and philosophy on the terrace (‘c’est la providence!
’); the owls hooting from the forest; the warm scent of pines; the alpine meadow psychedelic floral displays; the alpine air; the endless skies; the views from the top; the winter snow clinging on at edge of slowly warming corrie lakes; the circling alpine choughs; the magic of the Cougourde Valley; the iconic blue of the gentians; and the warm hospitality and friendship of Mel and Liz; definitely a wonderful experience, brushed with alpine magic.
As I write from my home in Ireland, a week on from my wonderful prize holiday (did I say thanks Responsible Travel?) I can still taste the air and smell the alpine meadows. Would I recommend it? As long as there is at least one week in a year when there is space for an Irish girl with a taste for the high life!
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or read our travel guide
to the Mercantour National Park.