Happy Hiker

by Judy Churchill 

To kick off the Happy Hiker series, I thought I would take you to one of my favourite spots on earth – the sensationally beautiful Mercantour National Park. You’ll have to brace yourselves though, as you’re going on a long one!  You’ll be walking for 8 to 8 1/2 hours (depending on your pace and how many times you stop) with 1100 m of gradient all the way up to the Valley of Marvels. 

This hike isn’t difficult, it’s just long but worth every step with breathtaking views around every bend. It’s every hiker’s eye-candy dream. 

If you want lakes, tarns, waterfalls, peaks, fauna, flora and bronze-age rock engravings, then this one has it all. The views are worthy of British Colombia but the temperatures are Mediterranean (from June to October). If you’re going to do this walk this year then you should do it before the first snow falls (usually mid November but can be earlier) and with the days drawing in you’ll need to make an early start to enjoy the best of the sunlight and be back before dusk.

I highly recommend staying overnight at the Chamois d’Or in the charming hamlet of Casterino, www.hotelchamoisdor.net where Angelo and his friendly staff will make you feel extremely  welcome. Prices are very reasonable and the food is excellent not to mention the exceptional wine list. I recommend the half board option (includes room, breakfast and evening meal) as they do a very good deal. You can even order a picnic for your hike the next day although personally I prefer to take protein bars (RX or Quest, both gluten-free). They are light to carry, nutritious and very satisfying. You can’t purchase them locally so I order mine via amazon.

Take more water than you think you’ll need (the very minimum 1.75l per person) and an extra layer of clothing as you tend to feel cooler on the way down.

It goes without saying that you don’t want to attempt this walk if it’s stormy or rainy. Always check the day’s weather before you set off. In the mountains the weather can change suddenly and it’s miserable to be caught in a storm (rain or snow) when you are only halfway round – believe me I’ve done it! Check on Internet or phone the mountain weather forecast 08.99.71.02.06 .

You can find this particular walk mapped out via this link: https://randoxygene.departement06.fr/haute-roya/vallee-des-merveilles-9221.html but you’ll need to understand French to follow the instructions.  Whichever hike you do, always take the corresponding IGN map (this one requires 3841 OT) as the rando-oxygene guides although very helpful are only approximate, not always accurate and rarely updated. 

This walk starts starts just below Casterino at the beautiful Lac des Mesches by parking no. 2 at wooden signpost way marker (‘balise’ in French) 82. You will see and should always be on the look out for yellow rectangular way markers painted on rocks and trees to guide you on these local walks and then red and white rectangles for the GR trails.

If you are staying for the weekend, there are plenty of pretty villages to visit in the area, often with local festivals happening, especially those of a gastronomic nature. It’s a world away from city life but not so far in distance – approx. 75km from Monaco (1h30m drive). The simplest way is to take the motorway to Ventimiglia where you exit the motorway and pick up the road that takes you through the Roya valley on the RD 6204, through Breil sur Roya and then on to St Dalmas de Tende where a sharp left turn at the end of the village will take you up on the windy RD91 road to Casterino and the Vallée des Merveilles. Don’t forget to take your passport in case you are stopped for a border control (they have been reinstated) as the road winds in and out of France and Italy.

Of course you can do this by driving there and back the same day but staying overnight gives your body time to acclimatise to the altitude 1450m, and you will be climbing to 2500m. If you have a dog I’m afraid he won’t be able to go this time, as dogs cannot enter the Mercantour National Park area. This is a highly protected beauty spot and you have to respect certain rules: no camping, smoking, campfires or mountain bikes. 

Amazingly wild and unspoiled you won’t be disappointed. Happy hiking!

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