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3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 6:44 pm

Hi guys,
it's this time of year again, my annual leave. Last year I went to Colorado and Wyoming, a superb but expensive trip. So to ease down on the expense this year, I'm just going to the Alps. As usual, there was a lot of hesitation on the exact location. First I thought Austria, but there are very few hiking books in English, then I though Switzerland and Italy, with the Stelvio and Dolomites for the latter. But I realized those countries have a different interpretation on the meaning of a national park than say France or the US. Switzerland is very expensive, tourist oriented, with cable cars, trains and stuff, Italy is about the same, with many dams in national parks and chair lifts. Plus it was kinda far from where I live now in Paris, as I was planning to take my own car for this trip. So in the end, I ended up with a mix of Italy and France : the Gran Paradiso area for Italy, then the Queyras, Mercantour and Ubaye areas for France. A mixture of glacier covered peaks and more mediterranean/dry (or so I thought) mountains.

Grand Paradiso had been in my radar for a while. It's an old national park, a previous hunting reserve for the king of Italy established in 1861. He created it to protect the bouquetin, or ibex. It's from here that the previously locally extinct animal repopulated France and specifically the Vanoise national park area. Like Vanoise, Gran Paradiso is full of glacier-covered peaks, although its valleys are much steeper, and feel more secluded. In France, Vanoise NP was created around ski resorts, in the 60s, to salvage what was left, while in Italy the park preceded the resorts. I was staying in a charming stone house in a small hamlet right inside the park. Although popular, as indicated by the numbers of refuges, the odd chairlift, and the quality of the walking tracks, September meant relatively few people. Especially since I like to choose more secluded hikes.

The first real hike I did took me to the Valsavarenche valley, the main one in the park. Despite the presence of an enormous power line, that was supposed to be used to connect the area to the dammed lakes South of the park but luckily never happened, it is beautiful. Very steep, you quickly get views of glacier covered summits like the Gran Paradiso itself, 4061 m. Unfortunately I'm a morning hiker, and the sun was rising behind the peaks. Nevertheless, I found a couple of very nice lakes and rivers, tracks surrounded by blueberry bush, most of them bearing fruits. It was also time to try my new camera, I finally switched from my old bridge, the Panasonic FZ200, that I loved so much I bought a second time after the first one died. I went for the Fuji XT3, after hearing so much nice things about it. I thought about the Sony A7-3, but it was too expensive, especially the lenses. The XT3 was quick to understand, with all the manual knobs for ISO etc..., and proved great, although heavier than I thought. No telephoto lens though, just a 16-55 mm, so I still brought the FZ200 along, which has an equivalent 600 mm lens, for wildlife. In Italy, it would be mostly for marmots and chamois. Despite the fact that thousands of ibex live there, I wouldn't see any. Compared to France, there are also very few vultures. In the mountains surrounding Grenoble, it is now rare not to see vultures when going hiking, the program to get them back really worked.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Oct, 2019 10:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 6:57 pm

I was a bit rusty, and scared I wouldn't be able to walk every day for 6 hours with 1000 m elevation gain. Last year in the US, I was visiting National Parks, which offer a lot more than hikes, with so many things to see without the need to walk far. In the Alps that's rarely the case, you have to hike up. So in Italy I "limited" myself to 700-800 m elevation gain per day max to test the waters. Near Cogne, I wanted to see glaciers a bit closer, so went up to a nice viewpoint. It wasn't that high up, but the track was insanely steep. Luckily the view made up for it, with great autumnal colors. The next day, I explored the third valley, Rhêmes. No glaciers here, but gorgeous villages and meadows, a bit like Switzerland. I did a very secluded hike, although quite easy, where I didn't see a soul. Just chamois and marmots, with a nice mist. All in all Gran Paradiso is gorgeous, even though I saw no ibex.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 7:13 pm

After a very long drive back to France and up several big mountain passes, I reached the Queyras mountains, one of my favorites places on Earth. It's just peaceful here, very few ski resorts, high altitude villages and a ton of local food specialties to try. The first afternoon there I drove to Col Agnel, seperating France and Italy, hoping for a nice sunset. I was rewarded by a stunning cloud inversion on the Italian side, although it's hard to capture it. The light was just gorgeous on both sides of the border. The next day, I hiked to the Malrif lakes, this time doing a 1000 m ascent. It was really steep again, but the lakes were stunning, and I finally saw an ibex, its silhouette lit by the sun in its back. I also stayed in the village of Saint Véran, 2100 m high, in an old chalet with a great view. Perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of my current life in Paris.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 7:29 pm

Next I would be exploring a part of the Alps I know nothing about : the Mercantour national park. It runs from Barcelonette to Nice basically, bordering Italy most of the way. No glaciers here, it's too hot, and the elevation not that great (the highest point is 3 143 m). I didn't quite know what to expect, thinking foolishly it'd be dry and mineral. It was true for the road that got me here, through Cime de la Bonette, the highest paved road in Europe (2802 m). If you ever go there, I hope you got a powerful car, otherwise you'll feel the lack of oxygen, mine was really struggling up there. The views up top aren't that amazing to be honest, to me it was all about the lakes around, and the lower sections of the road. I was staying in a very scenic village, Saint Martin Vésubie, where a constant river of water flows in a small gully in the middle of the main pedestrian street in the village, very unusual. The first hike I did proved me I was wrong regarding the landscape of Mercantour : it is actually full of water and forests, mostly pine, much more than some mountain ranges up North like Ubaye which I'd see next. It's also full of gorgeous Alpine lakes, this hike would take to 5 of them. But before, I would scale an easy summit with gorgeous views around, stretching out to the Mediterranean sea and Antibes.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Oct, 2019 10:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 8:04 pm

The following couple of days, I would hike two more lakes. The first one reminded me of Colorado : surrounded by trees, with a small island in the middle of the lake. Superb. The second one was more secluded and rocky, with a very deep blue color. On the evenings, I would scout some locations for sunset, or would explore one of the many viewpoints accessible by roads in the area. I should mention that the Mercantour is just full of scenic roads, especially river gorges. If you thought France was mainly Gorges du Verdon and Gorges du Tarn, there are a lot more. Only in the area, there are Gorges du Cian, which are red like the Grand Canyon (only very much smaller), Gorges de la Vésubie, gorges de Saorge, or gorges de Daluis. This also means it can take a very long time to drive from point A to point B, with quite a few perilous narrow roads. One went up to a perched village, Utelle, and then to a viewpoint near a pink church, La Madone d'Utelle, from where you have an amazing 360° view.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 8:39 pm

Great photos and fantastic trip report. Col d'Agnel and Monviso area is like going to the theatre. Plenty of remote hiking with no cable cars in sight, let alone people if you choose the right spot.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 8:42 pm

Mercantour being so huge, I had to move to a second accommodation further South, in the gorgeous village of Saorge. The buildings are multi storey medieval buildings, except you enter each apartment from a different door in the street, and from a different street sometimes, it's all small passageways and secret entries, very cool. Unfortunately, some of these entries are very dark, and before entering I didn't notice on my left in the dark was a bunch of stairs going down and I slipped and fell chin first on the iron handrail. Luckily, nothing was broken although I was almost knocked down. I genuinely think I was partially saved by my thick beard. Grow those chin hair, people, it might save your life one day :) Regarding hikes in the area, Vallée des Merveilles was the main location I wanted to explore. You can find there 40 000 rock carvings from the bronze age, that you are free to look at as long as you stay on the tracks. Scenery is also nice, as it's an alpine valley full of lakes. Unfortunately many of them are dammed, which was disappointing for a national park.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 8:52 pm

The following day would see me attempt the most difficult hike of the trip. It wasn't a mountain or anything, it was just the river gorges and hills right behind Saorge. But it would be old trails, with very little passage. Although well signed, it was very eroded tracks, insanely steep, so much that some sections you could only realistically go up, not down. From time to time I would see old huts and wonder who on Earth would live there. At one point, I saw ruins and a few horses. Then I stumbled onto an old naked lady near a tipi who told me to basically bugger off, apparently not aware this track was still a hiking path, well signed and open to anyone. Back in the village, a local told me she's just a crazy lady now living in the woods. I honestly believe this might be the most remote place I've been in France. It is still beautiful, but hiking up and down steep and dangerous hills while being shouted at might be a bit much. The next day, I'd try my luck a second time at the Vallée des Merveilles, this time on a more remote and less travelled section. It turned out much better, no dams this time, and a big herd of chamois. Even the rock art was better.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Oct, 2019 10:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 9:05 pm

My last destination would be a valley I'd often heard of, but never seen. The Ubaye Valley. It's very secluded, between Queyras and Mercantour, the "largest" town being Barcelonnette (which doesn't look like a small Barcelone at all by the way). I was staying in a little hamlet near Saint Paul Sur Ubaye. Massive peaks, larch trees, and a bit of snow would be my scenery for the following 4 days. Up until the last leg of this journey I only had one day of rain, in the Queyras, the rest being warm and sunny. Here on the first night there was a big storm, and on the summits it covered everything in snow. Autumn was finally here. For the first hike, I went up to another col that borders Italy. The light was gorgeous, the trees were starting to turn, and the higher I went the wilder it got. On the col itself, the wind was atrocious, strong and icy cold. Some icy sections on the track too, but nothing too dangerous. Lovely alpine lakes too, nestled in a rocky cathedral.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Oct, 2019 10:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 9:22 pm

The day after, I went up to another lake, and another col bordering Italy. This time I would see old relics of the war, when Italy tried to cross the Alps into France, and turned back because of the few forts and canons France had installed. There are all over the place in the area, you see massive bunkers and forts carved into the mountain. Further up the light got even better. The lake itself wasn't too impressive, but it was wild and refreshing. I crossed into Italy just for the heck of it, but the icy track was more dangerous than comfortable and climbing backed down turned out to be quite stressful with no crampons.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Oct, 2019 10:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: 3 weeks in the French and Italian Alps

Tue 15 Oct, 2019 9:35 pm

For the last walk of the trip I decided to go easy, with a 4 hour hike, towards two lakes, one on the French side one on the Italian side near Col de Larche. A lot of playful marmots, marine blue lakes, and a biting wind would make up this day. In total I think I hiked around 230 km in 3 weeks, probably around 12 000 m elevation gain. Never done this before, usually I do a serious hike every 3 days on my trips, rarely two in a row. So I was glad my legs stood up to the challenge, and apart from a few minor blisters after the hot day in the gorges near Saorge, no hiking related injury to report. My favorite areas were definitely the Ubaye, and the Mercantour near Saint Martin Vésubie. The lakes in those two regions are just stunning, and it is so peaceful. It helped of course that I went in mid-September/early October. Not many larches were turning orange though, for that I should have gone in late October. But that usually means ice, snow, so more gear. Maybe next year. Regarding the Fuji XT3 it's a great camera, very versatile. I tried a few timelapse sequences, I'll let you know how they turn up.
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