The Valley of the Marvels
Circuit de Fontanable
by Judy Churchill
One of the most beautiful places on earth and in the heart of the Mercantour, the Valley of Wonders is a sight to behold. The incredible and mysterious rock carvings, now famous the world over, were discovered by a British Botanist, Clarence Bicknell over 100 years ago.
On one of my many stays is the Hotel Chamois d’Or in Casterino:
the start point for this hike, I had the luck and pleasure to meet several members of the Bi
cknell family and purchase an amazing book that is one of the best reads I have ever encountered (MARVELS, THE LIFE OF CLARENCE BICKNELL, by Valerie Lester).
You will never forget this hike, with its rock carvings and lakes and most probably like me, you will return again and again to magical Casterino. I have chosen this particular circuit so that you can see part of the rock carvings but there are many other hikes to do and also the opportunity to visit the rock carvings with a guide and via Jeep. All guided trips can be organised ‘sur place’ in Casterino.
Making a weekend of going to Casterino allows you to really explore this valley and I highly recommend the Chamois d’Or. There are also other very inexpensive hotels if this one is full.
This hike begins at 1550m so can only be done between June and October, therefore perfect for late summer and early Autumn.
To reach Casterino, drive up the Roya valley to Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende. I highly recommend stopping in Tende however to visit the Musée des Marveilles (18km from Casterino), a free, fantastically designed museum totally dedicated to the Valley of Wonders. It’s fascinating for both children and adults alike and will give you a real taste of this most wondrous valley.
This hike, although long in terms of time (5 hours), is a Happy Hiker Blue trail and so within most people’s grasp and with a positive gain of 670m.
Park in front of the Chamois d’Or and start the trail at way marker 391 following an old military track which climbs up through a beautiful forest through the Vallon de Fontanable.
Just by a small bridge, go South as you officially enter the Parc national du Mercantour. Take a moment to read the posted notices for the rules and regulations as this is a highly protected area.
After a few minutes, you will reach the Fontanable mountain refuge (2018m – waymarker 389).
Shortly after you come to the restricted area of the rock carvings (2130m- waymarker 387) where there will often be wardens checking the number and suitability of the people entering this zone (no dogs allowed) and reminding you to stick exclusively to the official pathway.
On this circuit you will discover, the amazing rock carvings via the Vacherie Supérieure and then the Gias des pasteurs before returning to the orientation table at 2218m and the green lake of Fontanable (2150m) a truly magical spot. Follow waymarkers 388,387,389, and 390 that you passed on the way up and then go left and after crossing the Vallon de Fontanable. Use the forest path (way marker 392) which gently goes back down to the Valmasque car park (1700m – waymarker 395).
Return to Casterino along the pretty forest-lined road (2.5 km) not forgetting to buy some cheese from the Vachérie which is located on the way down from the car park.
NB: As I write this article there is currently a temporary deviation in place between waymarkers 389 and 390.
When walking, I advise taking hiking sticks, as they will help you on both the ascents and descents. They also guarantee you get a full body work out. You’ll need a cap and sunglasses to keep the sun off your face (the sun is a lot stronger in the hills and mountains so don’t forget the sunscreen). Remember to take more water than you think you’ll need (at least a litre and a half per person) and enough protein bars for during and after the hike. I always have a high fibre, high protein breakfast before I set off which means that I don’t need to carry a large picnic with me as good quality protein bars are sufficient (always take a couple of extra ones). Purpose-made hiking boots/shoes, a roll-up rain jacket, first aid kit, and a rucksack are a must and you will need lighter wear for the Spring/Summer season and heavier/warmer for Autumn and Winter. I have a Bogner zip-up, long-sleeved, lightweight golfing jacket from One Eagle Monaco that not only enables a full range of movement but is also great for cooler Spring/Autumn walks as it keeps you at the perfect body temperature. In the winter months, you will need extra layers of clothing, gloves, a warm hat, and thicker socks. In the summer months when doing high mountain trails, do check the temperature at your destination before setting off as you may need some extra layers. Last but not least, you will need the “Vallée de la Roya” TOP 25 n° 3841 0T map (can be purchased online or in some newsagents and sports shops) to mark out your trail before you set off.
If you are a French speaker you can also find the hike on the following link: https://randoxygene.departement06.fr/haute-roya/circuit-de-fontanalbe-9212.html but you will still need your IGN map as these on-line guides are only approximate. There are also hike specific apps such as Visorando, which have both free and purchasable versions and can be very useful guides and even have GPS options. https://www.visorando.com
If you have Strava you can record your walk on this app and it will give you lots of fascinating statistics at the end as well as totaling up the number of km/altitude you do in any given year.
When you’re done, I strongly recommend a foot massage using Young Living Essential Foot Oil (a combo of Rosemary, Peppermint, and Lavender) – your feet will thank you later!
Enjoy your hike and don’t forget your camera