Saturday, 9 July 2011
Friday 8 July 2011 - A Walk to Refuge des Merveilles
Having shed James and Helen from the reconstituted 'famous five' yesterday, we shed Susan this morning, as she has to catch a flight from Nice to JFK tomorrow morning. We did enjoy your company, Susan, and your less expected company, James and Helen - we hope to see you again at cider pressing time.
Despite her living in Glastonbury, Connecticut, we anticipate more adventures with well-travelled Susan a bit sooner than some may expect.
Anyway, on another fine, sunny morning we said our goodbyes and jumped on the big old bus that now plies the 20km or so route between Tende and Castérino. A bargain for €1, but a challenge for the driver who has to manoeuvre the old vehicle around countless hairpin bends.
Our first objective in Castérino was to book accommodation for tomorrow night; our second was to relax with a coffee. We achieved the latter, but the village is full tomorrow - not a single bed remains. Plan B was implemented - go to Tende tomorrow and try to find somewhere. Only when a vague sort of 'phone signal appeared several hours later did we realise that Plan C could be an option.
Meanwhile, we set off on Gillian's walk number 2, the Mont Bégo Loop. Up a pleasant jeep track through pine woods where nutcrackers were in evidence. The otherwise deserted track was luxuriously lined with a plethora of flowers - martagan lilies with huge blooms, our first sightings of black vanilla and burnt orchids, cow wheat and large clumps of globeflower and marsh marigolds, to name but a few of the countless species on offer.
Refuge de Fontanalba provided welcome refreshments. It was otherwise deserted.
A short way further along the track, we branched to the right towards the site of ancient rock engravings. A guard (warden?) was in situ to check that our walking poles were stashed and would not be adding to the ancient markings, some of which are apparently reproductions, the originals having been taken for display in the museum at Tende.
We spent the best part of two hours wandering around this 'Fontanalba Rock Engraving Circuit' (walk no 1 in Gillian's book). We found it interesting, but just a little over-hyped. The section known as 'La Voie Sacrée' was shut, apparently for health and safety reasons due to some of the slippery stones having themselves slipped. Pathetic!
There were a few people around, including three Germans seen at Rif Soria-Ellena.
A 'phone signal appeared. I had a brainwave. Plan C for tomorrow night was hatched. The role of a guide book writer can be tough at times. This time Gillian far exceeded her duties and within a few minutes we were booked into a hotel in Tende. Thank you, Gillian.
Moral: pre-book your weekend accommodation in this area, even out of the main season.
Our afternoon stroll to Refuge des Merveilles was undertaken on virtually deserted, but delightful, paths, so it was a bit of a shock to find hordes of people outside the refuge. We knew the score, as this refuge has an internet booking system requiring a €10 deposit, and we obtained - a couple of weeks ago - two of the last places for tonight. It takes 79 people, and was full. Still a shock to find so many people after encountering so few all day.
We finished up on a table with lots of 'hut to hut' walking enthusiasts, including Gilles Clement from Paris, with five friends, on an annual pilgrimage. It was great to meet you Gilles, and your friends, and thank you for being so gracious about our failings in relation to the French language. Your English is excellent.
Back to our route - we encountered our first edelweiss on Baisse de Vallauretta, where I no doubt had Gillian puzzled by mis-naming it. Descending to Vallon de la Minière, we encountered chamois, and a group heading up to wild camp, with a pony carrying their tents and other gear.
It was perfect walking weather. Sunny but not too hot, with a cooling breeze. This enabled us to speed up to the refuge with 15 minutes to spare - we had been told that our places would only be reserved until 5pm! I don't think we'd have been turned away though. We then had to wait outside in the sunshine until 6pm, when we were shown to our beds in the huge dormitory. Meanwhile we could purchase a litre of hot water for €1, and I finally found the teaspoon that I'd packed to accompany the mugs, tea and dried milk.
One of the hut guardians spoke very good English - Kevin, who told us his father was English, one Steve Peacock, said as if we should know him...
The evening passed quickly in the company of our new found friends, and the four course meal was very good considering that nearly 80 people were being served in one sitting by a handful of staff.
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