Following our morning of sightseeing in Carcassonne we decided to crack on back into the Pyrenees. Our target was Les Angles, a large ski resort in the Pyrenees Orientales. Originally we had identified it as a destination due to it’s extensive mountain biking area but as Paul was still waiting for his mountain biking part we had a look for some walking routes instead.
The D118 road down to Les Angles followed the upper reaches of the Aude. After Carcassonne there was very little sign of flooding and as we got further south the river was constrained by the rocky walls of the Gorge d’Aude and Gorges de Saint Georges. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the drive, the fabulously scenic road twists and turns through the gorge with the river rushing below. At times it’s single track, although there are plenty of passing places, the main difficulty was navigating around working vehicles who were making repairs, clearing hedges and removing overhanging branches from trees. At times this balcony road is cut into the side of the cliff which made me reflexively lean towards Paul, but the overhangs were never too low for us.
Paul, it has to be said, found the drive highly frustrating as he crawled around corners and past other vehicles. The amount of concentration and patience required took any joy out of the drive and he was relieved when suddenly the valley widened in front of us and we were in a completely different landscape.
Our first parking spot here was near the ski lifts at Pla del Mir. This designated motorhome parking is priced depending on the season, for us it was €6 including 16A electricity. It rises to €11 during the ski season but still seems good value for money. We settled in for the evening and while we had electricity I trimmed Paul’s hair and reduced his stubble to something a little neater.
The following morning we took a walk up from the parking area into the mountains. The character of the hills here was significantly different than the jagged peaks we had become used to. The hills slope gently away from the valley floor with large boulders peppering the grassy sward. We walked in the sunshine, enjoying a recovery walk that was a little less strenuous than usual.
The route was on a track at first, running to the north of the Animal Park, and was well signposted as we wandered up through meadows and open woodland. We followed the signs to the Lac d’Aude, the source of the river that had caused so much trouble recently, keeping left where we had the option, which took us under the cliff face of the Roc del Filipe before we made our way to the southern shore of the lake.
From here we walked around the lake eventually finding our return path leading vaguely southwest from the north west corner of the lake. This path was on the map but was poorly signposted and there were very few tracks on the ground. We eventually realised that we should be following the wooden posts with dark green paint that were sparsely distributed along the route. Thankfully the day was clear and we could navigate using the posts, our map and the infant river Aude to guide us in the right direction. We met our outward route again roughly where we expected on the initial section of track. It hadn’t been a long walk, and navigation issues aside it had been a pleasure to walk in such different scenery.
That afternoon we drove down to the Lac de Matemale where we parked up in a specific motorhome parking area (no services) with lovely views of the lake. An easy mountain biking route circles the lake, but with Paul’s bike out of action we were a bit stuck. The following morning we saw lots of people jogging past the van and so I decided that I would jog the 9k around the lake, Paul would give me a head start and see if he could catch me using my bike. He did! It’s been some time since I went for a run and although my legs were fine, I was mentally unfit, obviously far too used to walking and stopping for a break whenever I feel like it!
Walking Pla del Mia to Lac d’Aude
Distance: 13.24 km
Total Elevation: 411 m
Time taken: 3hrs 35mins
Type of Route: Easy/Moderate – some route finding difficulties on the return leg
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8
We drove back to Gavarnie to tick one more item off on our list. We wanted to cycle up the Vallée d’Ossoue as far as the waterfall and see the views of Vignemale. Vignemale is the highest Pyrenean mountain on the French side of the border, we weren’t expecting anything particularly exciting from this bike ride, but we’d attempted it earlier in the week and the weather had driven us back. It felt like unfinished business.
The cycle route up the Vallee d’Ossoue is not that difficult, initially a single track road and then a track that ascends to the barrage. The road seemed quiet as we ascended, but there were multiple cars and even some small campervans parked in small parking spots near the barrage; hikers who had braved the uneven rocky surface of the track to get as close to their destination as possible.
From the barrage onwards there is a relatively flat and open valley that leads towards the waterfall. It looked passable on the map, but in practice it was either too rocky or too boggy for us to cross and after getting about a quarter of the way and constantly having to dismount we decided to turn around. Our binoculars revealed that the waterfall was not worth the pain of crossing this terrain.
The best bit about the ride, of course, was the view. The sun had finally come out above Gavarnie. Vignemale and it’s glaciers were sparkling in the sunlight. Behind us we could see glimpses of the rock walls of the cirque, trust it to finally be visible on the day we were planning to leave.
After taking in the view we dragged our bikes back to the barrage and settled in for the ride back downhill. As usual I was some way behind Paul so I was surprised to turn a corner and find him in front of me, staring in bemusement at his bike. As I got closer I could see why he was so bemused. It had fallen apart! The derailleur was on the floor and twisted into an odd shape, the chain was wrapped around bits of the frame it shouldn’t be touching and part of the frame seemed to have snapped off. How Paul was in one piece I don’t know, the only damage was to his temper.
We were approximately 10k away from Bertie on a road that we wouldn’t drive up, so we had to get back down to the van. I was alright, I could cycle down, but Paul would possibly face a two hour walk. At this point Paul’s practical ingenuity needed to be exercised, a few cable ties later the chain and gear cable had been fastened out of the way, the brakes had been checked and Paul was freewheeling down the hill, still managing most of the journey faster than me! A few uphill sections allowed me to catch up and eventually overtake him though (not that it was a race of course).
Paul’s immediate and grumpy thought was that he had broken his bike. Eventually (later that afternoon) he admitted that it was his fault for riding in the wrong gear with his chain far too slack. By this point he could admit culpability because we had realised that what we though was a broken frame was actually the derailleur hanger; a small piece of metal that joins the derailleur to the frame and is a deliberate point of weakness. It had done it’s job well and means that we should have a reasonably cheap repair bill rather than an expensive bike replacement.
That afternoon Paul needed some cakes to cheer him up, so we drive north to Argeles-Gazost and hit the supermarket. As this is a bit of a mountain biking centre we hoped that we would find a bike shop with some parts, but it wasn’t to be. Most of the shops were bike hire places and although they had spares they were only for the brands of bike that they hired out.
We finally stopped for the night at the free aire in Pierrefitte-Nestalas. Oddly scruffy compared to most French aires it reminded us more of an Italian sosta, but it had everything we needed. Ironically it was right next to the Voie Verte cycle route to Cauterets. Oh well.
The weather for the coming weekend was predicted to be wet and cold, and we wanted to tick off a couple of things before it changed for the worse.
The key thing we wanted to do was to climb to the summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. This 2877m high mountain is not the highest in the Pyrenees, but it’s position as an outlier from the main mountain chain means that it offers incredible views. It’s great height in comparison with the surrounding peaks also makes it ideal for astronomy and so it has a large observatory right on the top of the mountain. The observatory and associated cable car provide an alternative route to the summit from the ski resort of La Mongie.
In order to get to the Pic du Midi (there are two Pics du Midi in the Pyrenees – so the de Bigorre bit is quite important, but for this blog post I shall shorten it) we either had a couple of cols to cross or a long detour. Bertie is quite used to mountain roads, so we approached the Col d’Aspin with confidence. The road up was mostly that ‘one and a half cars wide’ size that meant we could generally ease past any oncoming traffic at the wider points. However when we met a coach coming the other way we had to reverse to find a spot big enough for both of us. My heart was pounding as we reversed downhill along the edge of a long drop. It was only about 20 meters but it really made me glad for Paul’s confident driving.
At the top of the Col we got our first sight of the Pic du Midi in the distance, the observatory glinting at the top of it’s rounded peak. We stopped here for a short while before descending into the valley to find our parking spot for the night.
Payolle lake is in an area of valley parkland. It’s a leisure area with multiple walking and cycling routes as well as the lake. It has holiday chalets, cafes, a designated aire and a motorhome service point. Confusingly we parked with the majority of motorhomes in a large parking area near the service point which wasn’t the aire.
That afternoon we had a short cycle around the area just to explore the area. It was so pleasant we decided that we should tackle one of the official mountain biking routes before we left the following day. So after a quick investigation we decided on route 18. It would take us up above the Col d’Aspin and looked roughly equivalent to the ride we had done in Superbagneres a couple of days previously, but this time we would go uphill first which made me much happier.
So the following morning we set off, heading back to the lake and up the D113 for a short while until we reached the signpost where the track branched off through the forest. This track took us eastwards up a gentle incline on a well made forest track with occasional views down to the lake below and the Pic du Midi in the distance.
After a couple of hairpin bends we were heading south just below the ridge, initially we were still on a track but – at a point we missed and had to backtrack to – the mountain bike route diverged off to the left. Here it became a pleasing single track route following the contour just below the ridge line and above the forest. Roots and rocks made it interesting enough that we had to keep our eyes on the path rather than the view that was opening out in front of us, but that was a good excuse to stop for a few minutes and take in the panorama along with a slurp of water.
After enjoying this route for a little longer we reached the road at the Horquette d’Ancizan. We followed the road downhill for a short while until the road turned sharply to the left and we followed a track straight ahead. This rocky track took us steeply back down to our starting point. In all a pleasant morning’s ride.
After the bike ride for a change we felt energised rather than knackered. We had a spot of lunch, used the services and the headed onwards. This drive would take us over the Col du Tourmalet to our parking spot for the night and the disembarkation point for our ascent of the Pic du Midi. The Col du Tourmalet is the highest road pass in the Pyrenees and is used regularly as part of the Tour de France route. On both sides of the col there are ski resorts whose slopes and lifts join up in winter when the road is shut. We found this col a lot less exciting than the Col d’Aspin. It’s road was wide for the majority of the climb – only the section between the two ski resorts was narrower and even that was not so narrow that passing places would be needed. It was busy busy with tourists – including us – taking their obligatory photos. Once we had done the tourist thing we descended a short way down to a small parking area beside the road.
The following morning we had difficulty waking up, the outside temperature was cold even though the sun was shining and we didn’t want to get out of our snuggly bed. We could hear the arrival of cars and chattering of people outside. By the time we had got out of bed the car park was pretty full and we could see the line of walkers snaking up the path. The a coach turned up and disgorged about 30 more walkers. By the time we had eaten breakfast and packed our rucksacks we were the last in a long line of walkers.
Walking in such a busy place is highly frustrating and we were kicking ourselves that we hadn’t taken advantage of our overnight parking spot to be up bright and early. Stuck behind people who were walking at a slower pace than us meant we were always on the lookout for opportunities to overtake, and so we ended up going at a faster pace than we would normally find comfortable. By the time we got to the Lac d’Oncet I was puffed out and needed a rest – and of course people started overtaking us again!
From the Lac d’Oncet onwards it was a bit easier though, the path was wider and the gradient steeper. The crowds thinned out and we could take the rest of the walk at our own pace. Above us the domes of the observatory looked like a temple on the top of the mountain, with us as penitents crawling up the steep slopes. Finally at the summit we stopped for our lunch on the free terrace (the paid area was €18 each). The views from here were far reaching but a little too hazy to make great photos. On the way down the distant visibility improved a little.
We retraced our steps on the way down, stopping to investigate a couple of the abandoned buildings and to enviously watch some paragliders taking off from the slopes above us (this is an activity that is definitely on our bucket list). Down in a valley near Bertie a dead cow had attracted a few vultures, it looked too recently dead to make them a good meal.
We were glad to have done the walk, it was an easy route but the highest summit we have reached without a guide. In a way it reminded us of the tourist route on Ben Nevis, an iconic mountain but not the most thrilling ascent.
That evening we descended further down from the col to Tournaboup where there is a large car park that serves the ski resort. We parked here, made dinner and had an occasional wander around the car park to stretch out our lakes.
Ascent of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre
Distance: 15.78 km
Total Elevation: 1024 m
Time taken: 5hrs 20mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with some steep ascent on good paths
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4
As the weather is still beautifully sunny and warm I’m a little surprised to find that we’re now into October; a month that usually signals a definite move from summer to autumn. Here the evidence of the changing seasons is in the crops ripening in the fields; the sunflower’s bobbing heads are dark and without their petals, the maize is cut back to stubble and the hay is baled.
We drove from Aulus-les-Bains to Bagnères-de-Luchon (simply called Luchon on the road signs) – yet another reference to bathing and hot springs. It was a longish drive for us, but a pleasant one along a pleasant valley towards St Girons and then across farm land to Montrejeau, with red kites flying overhead, before heading back into the valleys again. The reason for such a long way round? Well it was the quickest route, but the main reason was a search for LPG. We found the most expensive LPG we have ever bought in St Girons – 81 cents a litre, but without it we are stuck, no fridge, no cooking and no heating.
In Luchon the aire was busy with weekend visitors, more motorhomes in one place than we had seen for some time including some Brits for a change. We spent a while trying to work out how to pay for the parking, in the end realising that one of the four buttons on the motorhome service point was for the 5 euro parking charge. The service point seemed to confuse a few people with one motorhome owner accidentally paying for water which then gushed out uncontrollably as he shrugged and other people dashed out of their motorhomes with receptacles to catch the precious liquid.
We took a turn around the lake to stretch out our legs after our drive, but it was a hot afternoon and we soon retreated into the shade of our van where we watched the gliders and their tow planes taking off and landing at the nearby aerodrome.
The following morning we managed to successfully use the service point to fill up with water. We chuckled at the group of older gentlemen who spent the morning hovering by the service point with their water containers. They were ready to take anyone’s surplus water and were very friendly about it, chattering away in French to us as we replied in a mix of French and (mostly) English. You cant blame them, the surplus would only end up down the drain otherwise.
From Luchon we took a short drive up the road to the ski station of Superbagneres (or super bangers as Paul kept calling it – I don’t know what he had on his mind). The cloud had dropped and started to envelop us as we ascended the switchbacks to the resort. By the time we got there it was looking a bit gloomy and we had no idea of the view that was hidden behind the clouds. We could see the large and impressive 1920s hotel that is the main building up here, sadly surrounded by ugly modern buildings that seem to be half derelict. One building with broken windows and empty holes where the doors should be has a planning permission sign from 2008. Not much seems to have happened to it but the ground floor is still occupied by ski hire shops and the like.
We had planned a walk but were in two minds about setting out in such gloomy conditions. In the end we decided we might as well go for it, if the weather turned worse we could always walk back down. Our walk was to the Pic de Céciré, a mountain top that we should have been able to see from the car park, but the view was sadly obscured. It was an easy route – following the well signposted GR10 which has been rerouted since our map was published.
Instead of a gradual uphill traverse around the side of the peak, the walk drops towards the river valley, before making zig zags up a newly scoured path where it eventually re-joins the original route of the GR10. When the GR10 reaches the col, it carries on over the top, but our path to the top of the peak split off to the right.
We saw plenty of Griffon Vultures on the way up, forced into low flight by the cloud. As we approached the col at the top of the gully the cloud started to break and we got brief glimpses of the amazing glaciated mountains to our south, the higher we got the more the cloud lifted. We spent half an hour at the top eating our lunch and watching the strange movement of the cloud as it swirled over the col and was lifted like smoke signals by the thermal currents.
The way down was a simple retracing of our steps and as we dropped lower the cloud cover increased again until we were completely under it’s blanket of grey again by the time we were back at Bertie. We settled in for a cold night, putting our heating on for the first time that evening and again the following morning just to take the chill out of the air.
The following morning the sky had completely cleared and we could see the skyline of glaciers and mountains from Bertie. In the distance, across the border in Spain, was Aneto – at 3404m it’s the highest peak in the Pyrenees. Closer to us and still in France was the chain of 3000m peaks whose glaciers we had glimpsed the previous day.
Today we had planned to follow a mountain biking route (route 10) round the resort. It was a marked red circular route and had kept me awake at night with apprehension. I don’t feel that my cycling muscles are working very well at the moment and this bike ride went downhill first before climbing back up to our parking spot. Normally a route will start with uphill and I know that if it’s too much for me then I can just turn around and freewheel back downhill. Here I was going to have no such escape route. We cycled up, gaining about 80m as we went towards the top of the ski lift. From the track that circled around to the right we could see the lowest point of the ride, a small reservoir that seemed a long way below us. The downhill from here was steep and stony, once we’d committed to it there was no going back up this route except by getting off and pushing.
We managed to skid downhill pretty quickly to where the track followed a more reasonable downhill gradient around to the reservoir. I looked up and could see the steep green banks of the ski slopes, but Bertie was out of sight. It looked like a long way. The next section climbed slowly through the forest. I was glad for the trees masking the extent of the climb with just occasional views further down into the valley. We pedalled on until we came to a fork in the track where we took a right hand turn up difficult switchbacks that would have been very nice on the downhill. Tackling the berms uphill was punishing but bought us out onto a parking area on the road below Bertie with only a couple of hundred meters climb to go. We could have continued off road here, but decided to make it easier and cycle up the road instead. After my earlier trepidation I felt relieved and even managed to look back on the route as being quite enjoyable. I would still prefer to do the uphill section first though!
Walking to the Pic de Céciré
Distance: 14.55 km
Total Elevation: 970 m
Time taken: 4hrs 50mins
Type of Route: Easy to Moderate walk with a small amount of steep ascent on mostly good paths
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5
Superbagneres Tour du Plateau
Distance: 15.27 km
Total Elevation: 583 m
Time taken: 2hrs 20mins
Type of Route: Moderate (red) mountain bike route with a steep downhill section
After two weeks of sweaty walking and cycling we needed to do some washing. A bit of google maps investigation revealed that our closest launderette was at the Intermarche in Tarascon-sur-Ariege. It was only a small supermarket, but we managed to wedge ourselves into a corner parking space without being too much in the way and availed ourselves of the washing and drying facilities. Usually with these laundry facilities we don’t have any clashes, but today we had someone else waiting to use the dryer and could sense their exasperation as we went to check whether our clothes were ready and then put the dryer on for yet another session.
With clean clothes and fluffy towels we moved onto our next destination. Aulus-les-Bains is a small town that is off the main roads of the Ariege. Like many places in the Pyrenees it is named for it’s hot springs. One of these days we’ll have to try them out, but like a cheapskate I’m waiting to find a freebie like the fabulous Saturnia hot springs in Italy. The drive to Aulus-les-Bains was pleasant to Vicdessos, where it became a little narrow. At Port de l’Ers the road improved again and above the lake there were paragliders soaring and a significant entourage supporting or just watching.
Aulus-les-Bains has a designated motorhome parking area for €2 per night plus free services outside the campsite. We parked ourselves up and popped into the Tourist Office to pay our parking fee and to get some local information. Lots of tourist shops and attractions were already closed up for the season but the town was still busy enough with (I assume) locals. The lady at the tourist office sent us onto the Thermal spa complex as she had run out of the booklet of walks of the area. A small office there handed over the booklet of ‘parcours’ and a walking tour of the town which we followed to stretch our legs. There are some smart looking 19th century hotels here (it’s not clear how many are still in operation) although the Thermes complex is a bit of an ugly modern block.
The following morning we decided to follow one of the routes in the parcours booklet. Route E is a circular walk that takes you to the Cascade d’Ars. We started from a trailhead on the hairpin just up the road from the motorhome parking where we followed a track into the forest. Eventually the track met up with the GR10 and we followed the usual red and white slashes up along the bank of the river Ars. Sometimes we were right by the river as it flowed over boulders and at other times we were above the river gorge with just the sound of the river accompanying us.
It wasn’t long before we reached the cascade, we didn’t know whether to expect much as it has been so dry, but it was still attractive and impressively high. A single stream at the top separated into multiple strands in the middle and then converged into one single drop again for the lower drop. The official path walked safely to the side of the waterfall, but there were numerous small paths that allowed us to get a closer view and feel it’s cooling spray.
Getting to this point would be a nice walk in it’s own right, but we went onwards, following the GR10 up to the valley above the waterfall where the stream seemed far too innocuous to be feeding such a dramatic plunge and the fishes swimming lazily in the water seemed to have no fear of being swept over the edge. In the valley a signpost pointed out way onwards, still taking the GR10 on a gradual uphill traverse of the steep slopes where signs warned of avalanche dangers, skirting the head of a valley and crossing the squelchy plateau Guzettou.
After several frustrating moments where we thought we had reached the top only to realise we had more uphill to go we thankfully found ourselves going consistently downhill. The path descended steeply through forest next to the Etang de Guzet whose black waters were glimpsed through trees (we didn’t descend to the lake because we couldn’t face going back uphill yet again).We were keeping an eye out for the point where we had to branch off the GR10 to make our return. When we found the point there was a signpost, but no letter E to point our way. We had to take a bit of a guess, luckily it was the right one, following the sign to the Piste de Fouillet (if we had translated the route description from the booklet we would have realised this was the right way – we’ll remember that next time). This took us through bracken and across pasture before heading back into the forest and steep zig zags back down to the road, just above our starting point.
That night we decided not to stay in the town parking, but to drive up to the Guzet ski area which might be a little cooler and less smelly; the car park in Aulus was covered in sheep poo where a local herd had been walked down to the low pastures the evening before.
The following morning we decided to use our mountain bikes to explore the area around the Guzet ski resort. There is mountain biking here in the summer (known as VTT – Velo Touts Terrain – in France), but sadly the lifts stopped running the previous weekend so we had to get uphill under our own steam.
We followed the road up through chalets and then took the track that bought us out above the ski area. Instead of heading straight back down we branched left on this track, heading roughly south around the contours of the hills for about 7km until we reached a point where the uphill looked too much of a struggle. Then we turned around, back to the ski area and down mountain bike routes (red 5 onto green 2) back to our parking spot.
All along this route we had close up views of Griffon Vultures with their white heads and ragged looking long-fingered wings. I don’t have any good photos of them, so instead here is a curious sheep.
Cascade d’Ars hiking circuit
Distance: 14.75 km
Total Elevation: 945 m
Time taken: 5hrs 30mins
Type of Route: Easy track to waterfall, Moderate from waterfall onwards
We woke up on the top of the Col de Pailheres in thick fog, we could barely see anything; a bit of a concern as we wanted to drive back down towards Ax-les-Thermes. After a couple of hours the fog had lifted enough to be considered low cloud and gave us enough road level visibility although there were no views to be had. What a difference on night can make.
We were heading in the direction of Andorra, this should have been an easy route directly down the N20 but our sat nav is not happy. We could see there were plenty of large lorries on this road so we ignored the sat nav, and eventually we found the cause of the problem – an arched bridge that has a 3.1m warning. It’s not 3.1m at the apex, but the arch is low sided and large vehicles need to be in the middle of the road.
Our destination was not Andorra itself but the last village before Andorra – L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre. The population of approx. 90 people are celebrated in a large poster as you enter the village. There is not a lot here, a train station, a couple of cafes and a hotel. But most importantly there is an aire of nicely separated diagonal pitches. We enjoy watching people manoeuvre into them. It’s pretty easy if you drive round the back, but everyone seems to want to reverse in from the front at an awkward angle. The trains pass close by but they run infrequently and slowly and don’t disturb us.
That afternoon it’s a bit drizzly so we settle down to a couple of sewing projects. We are adjusting our bath mats so that they fit in the space in front of the shower without having to be awkwardly folded. No prizes will be won for the finish but we’re happier.
The following morning is bright and clear, we are woken by the whirring of helicopter blades. There is a lot of avalanche protection work going on and we can see the helicopters flying supplies and equipment up to the top of a long avalanche corridor on the mountain above the road. Binoculars show workers in precarious looking positions positioning fencing across the steep drop.
Paul fancies a bike ride so we head on up to the Col de Puymorens where we can cycle up the Coma d’en Garcia. We don’t end up getting very far, but we stop for a nice long picnic in the valley where we bask in the sunshine and take in the views. We see a large bird of prey that might be an eagle, but we’re not sure. Magpies mob the kestrels that are hovering in the valley. It’s pretty idyllic.
We stay at the car park on the col overnight with a couple of other vans but most motorhomes are just passing through; stopping for photos at the top and then heading on into Spain. It seems to be typical of many people to treat the Pyrenees as something that needs to be got through in order to get to Spain.
The following morning we decide to head back down to L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre in order to do a circular walk. This starts across the main road from the aire. We don’t realise that there is an underpass so scuttle across when there is a gap in traffic. On the way back we find the underpass and feel safer although it adds a few hundred meters to the route. We follow the GRT steeply up through the woods, ignoring the branch off to the Cascades. As we get higher we move into birch woods, the silver trunks shining against the backdrop of autumnal shrubs. The main junction, where the circular part of the route starts and finishes, is well signposted. We branch off the GRT and head towards the Etang du Siscar, continuing to follow the stream that meanders up through a beautiful series of terraced valleys. It’s incredibly scenic and feels quite remote.
Siscar lake is in the final valley surrounded by jagged peaks. We know there is an onward path from here up over the Porteilla de Sisca, but cant see it. Eventually we realise that we need to head slightly back on ourselves to take a couple of long switchbacks up the side of the corrie. Finally we are at our highest point – 2440m – we stop for a rest and some lunch and admire the views. We have been on our own so far so selfishly spread our stuff over the path which is the only flat surface. That just happens to be the point at which another walker appears and we hastily remove ourselves from their path – slapped wrists for us!
The route down takes us steeply down to the Etang de Pedourres where we have another rest stop – it’s good for the soul to take a moment to enjoy the beauty around us, or that’s my excuse anyway. From the lake we follow another river down a long valley. The stream of rippling water glistens in the sunshine as it makes textbook snakelike curves. This is another walk that is incredibly satisfying and we’re glad that we found it on Esther and Dan’s website. Soon enough we are on the last stretch, under the pipeline for the EDF powerstation and back to the junction.
Vallee du Siscar and Val d’Arques Circuit
Distance: 16.18 km
Total Elevation: 1058 m
Time taken: 6hrs 50mins
Type of Route: Moderately demanding due to length, well marked tracks
Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
We spent the next day driving and with a couple of hundred more miles under our belts and the temperatures slowly rising into the low thirties we decided we needed to find somewhere we could cool down. This ended up being a large free aire at the park area of Lac de Saint-Pardoux.
Sheltered under the pine trees, in well marked out spaces, we could cool down a little. The lake offered swimming in blissfully cool water, the beach nearest the aire was busy (but not packed) with families enjoying a warm Saturday afternoon. We wandered around the area to decide whether we would stay or move on the following day. There was a large swimming pool, the inside pool was open but the outside area with water slides was closed for the season, there were basketball and five aside pitches, a play area for younger children, a high ropes course for older kids and a bike ride around the lake’s higgledy-piggledy circumference.
We decided that a gentle bike ride might be a nice idea the following day, the notice board gave a distance of 24k, so not a long ride, it was mostly under the shelter of the surrounding trees and we could take our swimming stuff for a dip if we overheated.
What we hadn’t realised was that the bike ride was not all on the wide well surfaced trails that we could see from the Maison du Lac de Saint-Pardoux. I suppose the pair of serious mountain bikers making their preparations in the car park should have warned us, but we just assumed they were either off on a different path or took every ride far too seriously. As we set off, making a couple of false starts before we found the route south around the closed high-ropes playground, we realised that at least some of the way would be on dirt tracks. In fact it ended up being a fun mountain bike route with lots of short ups and downs, narrow single track, rocky outcrops and roots. One uphill section was so steep that I had to get off and push and spent several minutes struggling to get any grip with my trainers and wondering whether I would just have to give up and slide back down to the bottom of the slope.
As we approached the last part of the route, where the cycle path was due to cross a narrow stretch of land near Puyperier we hit a problem. The path was barriered off with diggers and ditches behind fencing. We attempted to find a way onwards, but increasingly overgrown paths led us onwards to a dead end where we encountered a group of orange clad hunters with their slavering dogs. I know that might seem a little over dramatic, but one of the hounds had blood on it’s jaws and obviously didn’t like bikes. I leapt off my bike and put it’s frame between me and the dog as one of the hunters came and dragged it away. We let them move away into the undergrowth and waited until we could no longer hear the barking and the sound of horns before we retraced our steps back to the Santrop bridge where the D44 crossed the lake and we could get back to Bertie.
Lac de Saint Pardoux Circuit
oDistance: (with detours) 26.77 km
oTotal Elevation: 491 m
oTime taken: 2hrs 55mins
oType of Route: Easy Single Track with short road sections
We stayed for a second night in this peaceful and comfortable aire, relaxing under the trees in the evening warmth with a glass of something alcoholic and listening to the hooting of owls. A welcome break on our long journey south.
We took Bertie back to Tedburn St Mary and the accommodating and helpful MC services to have various repairs done to get through the MOT. As well as the steering rack and CV joint repairs we needed a few bits and pieces done including repair to the exhaust and handbrake adjustment. Bertie seems happier now, and if Bertie is happy then so are we.
Paul’s Dad took advantage of our visit to have some logs delivered to rebuild his winter log supply. A couple of hours saw us stack three tonnes of logs in one of the outbuildings. Paul and his Dad are very similar so I got lots of ‘helpful advice’ from both of them on the best log stacking technique. Let’s hope that it doesn’t fall over like some giant game of Jenga. We did such a good job of stacking logs that we were then invited to help fill bags of ice for ‘Mike the Fish’. Our reward was a roast dinner at the local pub, at OAP rates. Cheap labour.
We left Tedburn, had a quick stop in Taunton to do some chores, visit the family and get some washing done before going back down to Exmouth. We got our fix of rugby at a pre-season friendly for the Chiefs. Fingers crossed we will get to see them playing French side Castres in October.
While in Exmouth we also visited a few friends and had one day following the Exe estuary trail on our bikes, going from Exmouth into Exeter and then back out to Dawlish, before retracing our route a short distance back to Starcross where we got the foot (and cycle) ferry back to Exmouth.
We spent most of the time on the campsite in Exmouth but also tried out the parking at the Imperial Recreation ground. This is one of the designated Motorhome parking areas in Exmouth now that overnight parking is no longer allowed at the seafront. It’s a lovely spot overlooking the estuary with views of stand up paddlers, kayakers and kite surfers enjoying the calm, shallow waters of the ‘dock pond’, but I can foresee some conflicts arriving between the motorhomes and the people who use that area for water based activities (although some people combine both). At £11 for twenty four hours it’s not cheap, but there were plenty of motorhomes using it, by the Thursday the majority of vehicles were motorhomes.
Enid Blyton, author of the Famous Five books (amongst many others), was a great lover of the Dorset countryside, particularly the Isle of Purbeck and it’s main town Swanage. You can see how closely the landscape resembles the descriptions in her books, the ruined Corfe Castle, the bay at Lulworth Cove, the heathery moorland of Godlingston Heath. Any trip to the area brings back memories of reading her books. Of course when I read her books nearly 40 years ago I had no idea of the controversy that would arise over their racist, sexist and classist content, I just saw them as wonderful examples of the adventures that could be had by children who managed to escape their parents.
It hadn’t been long since our last visit to the area with my Nan, and we had promised ourselves that we would return in Bertie to do some more exploring. So when I looked on the Out and About App and found that there were three Temporary Holiday Sites in the area we knew we would be heading that way.
For anyone unfamiliar with Dorset, the Isle of Purbeck is not actually an island, but is a peninsular bordered by Poole Harbour and the River Frome to the north and the sea to the south and east. A line that runs roughly from Wool in the north, to Lulworth Bay in the south, makes up the western boundary. There are extensive firing ranges on the moorland, which are not usually used in summer or during weekends. Activity on the firing ranges can make some places inaccessible but you check up online.
We ended up spending a week on the THS near to Corfe Castle. The area is beautiful and has lots of opportunities for getting outdoors. We took two long walks, one along the chalk ridge to Studland and then to Swanage, the other south, following the Purbeck way to the coast at Chapman’s Pool and then along the coast path to Dancing Ledge. There is an excellent summer bus service that runs around the Purbeck and Poole area and we used the buses to return to the campsite after we’d worn ourselves out, waiting for the next bus was a good opportunity for a beer.
We had a bike ride on the cycle tracks across the heath, heading up to Arne nature reserve and then over to Studland. At Arne we wandered around the reserve and stopped to watch the birds wading in the shallow waters of Poole harbour from the large hide. On a separate occasion we cycled to Studland where we met with Mum and Dad, my nephews, Auntie Margaret (Mum’s best friend from her school days), her sisters, children and grandchildren. In all there were seventeen of us and we joined the throng on what little space existed at high tide. The weather didn’t promise wall to wall sunshine but was still warm enough for swimming and a bit of SUP action.
In Corfe Castle we visited the eponymous castle, bringing back memories of previous visits when Aaron was small. We wandered around the town and topped up supplies at the local shop and the bakery. The bakery seemed to be staffed with all of the local population of teenagers who spent a lot of time staring vacantly into space avoiding eye contact with customers. Our wanderings always took us through the station for the local steam railway service where we could watch the trains going too and fro. The sound of the whistle accompanied our stay in the THS, and when the final train had been put to bed in the evening we had the distant sound of firing on the ranges, and the sight of the Perseid meteors to keep us entertained.
We didn’t solve any mysteries or drink any ginger beer but we had a blissful time in Dorset.
I’ve mentioned before that my French geography is not great, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realised that we were on the edge of the Champagne area. After the initial surprise was a short flurry of excitement. I do like a bit of bubbly, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but I would feel guilty drinking anything else while here.
We did still have to move on though, and although Troyes was a tempting destination it didn’t move us far enough. Instead we targeted Reims, a town that has a famous cathedral as well as being one of the main towns of the Champagne district.
We arrived at the municipal campsite of Val-de-Vesle on the Saturday evening. It is about 20km from Reims along a canal with a well defined cycle path. The campsite was pleasant and was good value at just over €16 although it did have one of those complex pricing structures where you pay a small amount for each component of the stay. The toilet block was spotless, even after I had dyed my hair, and trees provided dappled shade. For the first time in ages we bumped into another English couple, exchanging stories of narrow escapes from even narrower roads (most in the UK). With the campsite came an opportunity to barbeque and sit in our chairs in the sunshine, we decided to stay two nights instead of one to enjoy the opportunity.
I had a quick peek on the internet to find out what was possible on Sunday and we decided to cycle into Reims, do a champagne house tour, see the sights and have some lunch. Possibly not in that order.
Reims on a Sunday was a hushed and peaceful town, families were walking or cycling along the canal, but the town itself seemed solely the preserve of tourists. All shops were shut, so only the tourist attractions and the supporting infrastructure were open. We could easily have driven Bertie in and parked up, but it was good to get some exercise. The route went past the town of Sillery where we paused to gaze at the French cemetery and remind ourselves of the depredations of the First World War.
Reims cathedral was our first port of call; the ‘royal cathedral’ has been the place of coronation for all but seven of France’s monarchs. Ok, the first few monarchs, starting with Henry I in 1027, were crowned in an earlier cathedral which was destroyed by fire. But work soon started on the current gothic cathedral and since then it has remained standing, despite the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War. Of course it has been updated over time; the First World War significantly damaged the building and there are beautiful modern stained glass windows which were installed in the 20th century to replace the windows blown out by German bombardment. Apart from the stained glass the cathedral has many statues and carvings on the tall, narrow facades and arguably the outside is more attractive than the fairly stark interior. Look out for the statues of Joan of Arc, one inside and one outside, who liberated the city and cathedral from the English.
After the cathedral we took a wander round the city centre, following a walking map provided by the tourist information centre. We visited the Saint Remi Basilica, a Gothic style building of more pleasing dimensions than the cathedral which we found exaggeratedly tall and narrow. In the city the first world war devastation provided opportunity for redevelopment and the city has quite a number of art deco buildings, including the market and the Carnegie Library. We found our attention was not captured for long though because most places were shut and the atmosphere was almost too quiet. This was a bit of a shock for two people who don’t really like busy cities, we now know that we don’t like empty cities either!
We stopped for lunch before moving onto the Taittinger champagne house for a tour. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the champagne house tours, so we picked Taittinger because it was open on a Sunday and had a very clear online booking system. The tour was quite interesting, a short film about the history of Taittinger, followed by a tour of the cellars. The building you can see above ground is quite modern and uninspiring, but underground in the cellars you are in a network that was started in Roman times as chalk quarries. The upside down funnels of the chalk excavations were then extended by Benedictine monks who were digging the crypts and cellars for their abbey. The wine and champagne houses appropriated the caves and extended them to house thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne, all stacked neatly and nursed to maturity by patient and knowledgeable staff. The soft chalk provided many opportunities for people to leave their mark through the years and faces and names have been etched into the rock, including marks left by locals who sheltered down here in the Second World War.
After the tour of the cellars it was back up to the bar to sample some champagne, being a cheapskate I had booked the lowest cost tour with one glass of champagne each. As Paul doesn’t like champagne I was looking forward to drinking two glasses, but in no time Paul had finished his glass, only to tell me that he still didn’t like it. What a waste!
We moved onwards through France with a long drive north, including a diversion around Bourg-en-Bresse that left us doing some old fashioned paper map reading as the sat nav tried to push us back onto the closed road.
As we continued our steady pace through France I wondered again why we don’t spend more time in France. By avoiding toll roads we were seeing some of what France has to offer, but it felt very superficial as we were only passing through. I snapped a few pictures from Bertie as we went to remind us of the types of places we were seeing.
When we were tired of driving we picked a nearby free aire from one of our apps. Today’s aire was in Pierre-de-Bresse; a mixed car park with motorhome services and electricity. A little manoeuvring got us close enough to plug into the electricity, but it wasn’t man enough for our kettle and we didn’t have any other reason to be on hook-up so we unplugged and moved away to leave the space free for someone who needed it.
The following morning we set off early to the Foret d’Orient through increasingly rural villages. We found a free parking spot on Park4Night that had a position on the shores of Lake Temple with some views. Despite there being one other van in the car park it felt nice and peaceful, insects abounded in the humid atmosphere and we chased a few lazy fat flies out of the van before making sure that all of the fly screens were in place.
We took our bikes out along the shores of these vast reservoirs. A cycle trail runs along the northern edge of the lakes, mostly on dedicated pathways right alongside the lake shore. The views of the lakes were beautiful, the water as flat as a mirror, and as soon as we started to find the lakeside views a bit tedious we entered the forest between the lakes and completely different surroundings. School children were out in droves on their bikes, each group topped and tailed by a teacher and wearing brightly coloured vests. When I got a puncture we had a rapt audience as we changed the inner tube. We stopped at one of the beaches on the Lac d’Orient for our lunch, sitting at picnic benches and watching the few other people who were using the facilities.
After Lake Annecy, this area felt a little lacking in dramatic scenery, but was far more tranquil, we had a quiet nights sleep and were pleased to wake up the next morning without any insect bites.
Lake Annecy is a justifiably popular tourist destination, a beautiful glacial lake surrounded by mountains and cliffs in the Haute-Savoie region of France. I have to admit to being very hazy about French geography as it is somewhere we have passed through rather than visiting in it’s own right so I cant tell you much about the area apart from the fact that it is extremely attractive and made a sensible stop on our journey back to the UK.
We stayed on a small free parking spot here with a couple of other motorhomes, it had a 24 hour maximum stay and no services but was peaceful enough and shaded under the trees. It was next to the paragliding centre where a steady stream of paragliders were landing after taking off from the high ground on the other side of the lake. We watched their swift descents with our hearts in our mouths as they swung round and round to lose height. Then they would pack their equipment into a large rucksack and catch the bus to go up and start all over again. Although the descent looks stomach churning, the graceful soaring flight over the lake looked like an amazing experience.
While here we cycled around the lake making use of the cycle path that ran just next to our parking spot. This route of just under 40km is not very strenuous. We decided that we would tackle the only hill as soon as possible, so made our way around the south of the lake following small roads through Verthier to get to the eastern side of the lake where we picked up the roadside cycle path. We followed the edge of the lake closely until Talloires where the hill started, a short sharp ascent of around 100m that took us around a nature reserve before we descended back down to cycle through lanes past some rather nice properties who hogged the lakeside views.
As we approached Annecy it got busier and busier, the town itself was attractive with a pretty lakeside park and some nice pedestrianised streets, but we were only passing through. The cycle path was partly on busy roads through Annecy which made route finding and manoeuvring a bit awkward, but we were soon back on the cycle path that led down the western side of the lake.
We stopped for lunch at one of the green spaces where a group of English tourists were swimming in water they described as freezing. Given that the lake is fed by mountain streams I’m not surprised, it must take quite a lot of sun to warm it up.
We couldn’t hang around here as we needed to make our way back for the ferry, so that evening we moved on, but I have no doubt we’ll be back.
These blog posts may get a bit samey…visit a valley in the Aosta region, cycle a bit, walk a bit, see some marmots etc etc. if they get a bit dull then all I can say is that it doesn’t reflect the amazing time we’ve had in this area. We never get bored of mountain views, snow, ice, meadows, rivers and nature all around us, but it gets a bit difficult to find new ways to describe them.
We withdrew from the Cogne area to re-stock with food and wine in Aosta. Aosta is a really nice city, but we have visited before while skiing and only ventured in for food shopping on this trip. We tried to get into the Lidl car park but found it rammed full of cars, so instead we parked with several other motorhomes in a parking area near the roundabout at the east end of town and walked to the shops to stock up on basics.
Our destination this time was Valsavarenche – the next valley west of Cogne. Whereas Cogne is the tourist centre of the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is the outdoors capital of the area, this is where most people will leave to summit the Gran Paradiso itself. Sadly we weren’t planning to ascend it on this trip, we would need to pay for a guide because we don’t have the experience to cross the crevassed terrain near the summit on our own. We have been higher, but that was on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in Tanzania, and those mountains don’t have glaciers on the ascent route (Kilimanjaro does have a glacier but it’s dwindling fast). Summiting an alpine 4000m mountain is on our bucket list though, so maybe next year.
Valsavarenche was a lot quieter that Cogne, we turned up at the sosta in the main village to find ourselves alone, next to the obligatory river and within sight of the usual flower -dotted grassy meadows. We popped to the town hall (municipio) to make our payment only to be told that they wouldn’t start charging until July. I wouldn’t have minded paying but I’m not going to say no to a free stop over when it’s offered up. Because we were alone and the weather was nice we decided to get the BBQ out to cook up a nice bit of steak for tea. What a treat that was, the Cadac has taken some getting used to but it cooked the steak perfectly, charred on the outside and still pink in the middle. We served it up with some barbequed sweet potato, which we cut into slices, dip in oil and griddle, it’s our new favourite barbeque veg. I’m salivating just thinking of that dinner.
We spent two nights in this sosta before moving up to the head of the valley and parking in the large car park for a couple of nights. The parking area at the head of the valley is outside a nicely positioned campsite which was closed when we arrived, but did open for the weekend.
As well as being the starting point for the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is where you are most likely to see Ibex. These large-horned members of the goat family were almost hunted to extinction before their population was protected and restored. The Gran Paradiso was one of only two areas where Ibex still existed at their lowest population point. The national park was the hunting preserve of the first king of a united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. His hunting practises both killed and preserved the species (an argument that is often used by hunters of trophy animals today, but today we should be much more enlightened). Nowadays they aren’t hunted and as a result you can seem some older specimens with their unfeasibly long horns that look as though they would weigh down the heads of the animals. If you want to see some examples of Ibex horns for different aged animals then there is a good display on the outside wall of the municipio in Valsavarenche (it’s on the wall that faces away from the road and towards the river). We were lucky enough to see a male group (probably the same group) several times in the areas at the head of the valley.
Cycling up the Valsavarenche
Our initial foray into the Valsavaranche was on our bikes, we just took the road up to the head of the valley and then zig-zagged up the man made track (route number 4) on the side of the valley. There was a large amount of avalanche damage here and I really didn’t like the looks of the rocks that teetered on the edge of the trail, ready to fall down on the path below. At one point the top of an electricity pylon had been dragged down to the opposite side of the valley and the wires had been temporarily suspended on lower poles. At the head of the valley we popped to the campsite to see if it was open and saw a herd of Ibex crowded onto one of the large boulders that were scattered across the camping area.
A Walk to the King’s Hunting Lodge
This walk was a circular foray up to Victor Emmanuel II’s hunting lodge at Orvielle. It followed trail number 8 from the village up through the forest, a trail that is also used for snow shoeing in the winter. This trail did feel a little interminable as we zig-zagged upwards through trees on a humid day. Wood ants were out in force scurrying around the forest floor carrying their treasures back to the nest; it was difficult to find a spot where we could sit down for a break without ants coming to investigate us.
On our back and forth route we crossed an avalanche corridor several times, massive rocks had taken gouges out of the soil where they had been flung down the slopes and trees lay in neat lines following the line of descent. Occasionally we had to cross the snow where it had been laid down thickly by repeated avalanche action. I’m sure it’s probably melted by now.
The hunting lodge was enclosed by a fence which said that access was forbidden, we stopped here for a bit of lunch and I said to Paul that I would take a photo from a small rise that was on our onward route. I completely forgot though because an Italian came bounding over to us to show off his photos of Ibex around Lago Djouan. They were great photos and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we’d seen a herd down in the valley the previous day.
We left Orvielle to follow route 7 back down to the valley. Oddly this wasn’t very well signposted, but we managed to spot the obvious path where the trail broke off. This trail went more steeply downhill than the ascending path, past the abandoned buildings of the hamlets of Le Carre and La Ruya. We emerged in the valley at Le Cretou and walked back to Bertie through the wild flower meadows alongside the river, surrounded by butterflies.
Halfway up the Gran Paradiso
We might not be able to make it to the summit of the Gran Paradiso, but we were definitely going to get as high as we could on the route. We headed up route number 1 with the aim of reaching Refugio Vittorio Emmanuel II. We weren’t alone on this route. We had watched many people ascending in the late afternoon of the previous day, taking their snow shoes, crampons, ice axes, snowboards and skis up to the rifugio where they would spend the night before an early morning ascent of the Gran Paradiso and possibly the excitement of a fast descent on skis. When we started up the path there were plenty of casual walkers just going up to the waterfalls or the hut along with us. There were also the first few people descending from their early morning summit exploits. It was a bit of a shock compared to our previous walks where we had only encountered one or two other people and reminded us of walking in the Lake District or Snowdonia.
The initial part of the trail followed the river before turning upwards and following tight hairpins up a well constructed and well maintained path. The zig zags gave us glimpses of the valley and the large waterfall that tumbled down the gully next to us. We quickly emerged from the trees onto the open mountain side and increasing amounts of snow covered our path. However the large numbers of walkers meant the path was well trodden and easy to navigate. We pushed upwards over deeper and steeper snow, at one point we watched people descending a steep slope by sledding down on their backsides. I told Paul there was no way that I was doing that, but still we somehow managed to descend by that route! We could see plenty of ski tracks over the snow and by the time we reached the rifugio we had seen skiers, it didn’t look like it was difficult skiing, but there were plenty of rocks just under the snow that I wouldn’t want to encounter (plus the whole thought of carrying skis and BOOTS up was just exhausting).
The refuge was at 2710m and there was no way we were getting any higher as snow was lying thick on the ground. The building was a cut above any of the other mountain huts we had seen so far, a large building with an arched roof which could hold 120 people. It was busy with people on it’s sunny terrace, some settling in for the day and others packing up their kit to come back down the mountain.
South of the Aosta Valley is an offshoot of the Alps, Italy’s first national park. It is named after its highest peak – Gran Paradiso – the only mountain over 4000 meters that is wholly in Italy. We started our visit to this national park by heading towards Cogne (pronounced con-yay with that nasal ‘gn’ sound that you find in words like Gnocchi or Cognac). This pretty town nestles in the confluence of two valleys; where the valleys meet there are broad meadows with steep mountains on all sides. It looked idyllic when we arrived, the sun was shining and the green of the meadows was vibrant against the blue of the sky. The snow capped mountains at the ends of the valleys were picture perfect.
It was a Sunday and the town was lively with weekend visitors enjoying the good weather. The cafes, restaurants, delis and bakeries were open for business with chairs and tables out on the cobbled streets. Shops were selling outdoors equipment and gifts. The whole town had a lovely vibrant atmosphere and the timber framed traditional alpine buildings gave it a warm and homely (maybe a little bit twee) feel.
The sosta in Cogne is situated next to the river and we spent two nights here before moving onto another sosta in nearby Lillaz. Both are run by the local authority and are free to park in during the day, but cost 10.50 euros for an overnight stay without electricity in low season. So not cheap, but they were large clean parking areas with services, and were well located. In Cogne there was even an elevator to take people up from the car park to the main street. We were looking forward to the evening collection of our money by the ‘girl with hair like embers’, as one review described her. She was indeed as friendly as the reviewer described but her red tinted dark hair was a disappointment; we were expecting a true red-head.
The guide books described the Gran Paradiso national park as tranquil, but this was not really a place for peace and quiet. The surroundings were all about the force and power of nature. Waterfalls, large and small, cascaded down rocky surfaces, rivers rushed and tumbled down valleys. On the slopes we could see the evidence of avalanches, fallen trees, rocks, even electricity pylons, and deep piles of snow at the bottom of avalanche corridors. In Cogne we had the additional noise of building work that was going on while we were there, plus some enthusiastic strimming one morning, at least it got us out of bed and gave us plenty of time to enjoy our days in the mountains.
On the Sunday we arrived we joined in with the rest of the tourists, strolling around town in a constant passagiata with the occasional stop for a bakery treat, drink or a bit of fantasy Solomon trainer shopping (Paul was mesmerised by the displays of all the possible colours). We popped into the tourist office to pick up a map. The lady was reluctant to give us the more comprehensive map and sent us off with strict instructions that we shouldn’t try to walk over 2200 meters and pointed out that the steep slopes of the Gran Paradiso national park made avalanches and rockslides far more likely than they were in the rest of the Aosta region.
There were about a dozen vans in the sosta on Sunday, but by Monday morning there were only four of us and Cogne felt a little more sleepy. Still there were plenty of shops open and we were able to stock up with baked treats for the coming days.
Cycling the three valleys
Our first outing was a cycle ride that followed the cross country ski trails (trail number 23) in three directions from Cogne, first we cycled downhill to Epinel and back, then to Valnontey and back, and finally Lillaz. The beauty of these valleys is that they have fairly shallow gradients, meaning that you can choose how long and difficult you want your walking or cycling to be. This was a nice way to explore the area and decide how we were going to spend the next few days; we saw dippers in the river d’Urtier, deer near Valnontey and a fox in the woods near Lillaz. While we were in Lillaz we went to see the powerful Lillaz waterfall which has a wheelchair accessible path through a Geology park (a collection of boulders of different types of rock) to the bottom of the cascade, and other paths and viewing platforms higher up.
Walking the Valnontey – how far can we go?
There is a path from Valnontey that follows the valley up and up into the heart of the mountains. While we’d been cycling we’d decided that this part of the area had the most beautiful scenery and was worth exploring further. Because of the snow we were unlikely to get far up the sides of the valley, but the long and gradually sloping path next to the river offered an opportunity for a longer walk that wouldn’t get too high too soon. We drove to Valnontey where the carpark had ‘No Motorhome’ signs but we felt confident we would get away with daytime parking as the carpark was almost empty and we had paid our 3 euros at the parking meter.
The path (number 22) from here follows the river out of Valnontey village through a pleasant wooded valley where deer could be spotted drinking from the river or hiding behind the trees. Underfoot it was mostly dry, but snow melt and left some boggy patches where frogs had taken an opportunity to spawn and tadpoles were frantically swimming in the shallow waters. In the small and empty settlement of Vermiana was a noticeboard with the hours of sunlight, significantly less than most places (about 5 hours less in June) due to the shadow of the valley walls.
As we escaped from the tree cover we found ourselves increasingly on snowy terrain. Marmots were here enjoying the open slopes. The slope of the valley was still quite gradual but we were finding it increasingly difficult to find the path amongst the snow and streams. In the end we made it to the final bridge at just under 2200 meters, but decided not to continue any further up paths 22D, E or F. We stopped to take in the views of the many glaciers that were draped across the mountains at the head of the valley before we re-traced our steps back to Valnontey.
Lago di Loie Circuit
From Lillaz we decided we would try to make it up to the Lago di Loie. At 2346m this was higher than we had reached the previous day and we knew it would be snowy. We followed path 12 which took us steeply up via the Lillaz waterfalls and then followed other cascades. When we looked back at the path we had followed it seemed impossibly steep, but as we clambered up the rocky path any exposure was negated by the tree cover.
On the way up we met a Canadian couple who told us that the route to the lake was impassable because of snow. We looked at their trainer clad feet and weren’t surprised. They had tried to walk around the snow patches whereas we would most probably walk across them.
The steepest part of the walk was under the cover of trees, and when we emerged from the forest we were in a snow filled bowl which the path crossed diagonally before it followed a wide gully up to the lake. Walking across the snow was easy enough, but the steeper gully was more of a challenge and we didn’t want to find ourselves falling through the snow into the stream below. We kept to the right hand side and managed to pick a way across snow and grassy slopes until we found the path again close to the lake.
The lake was partially thawed and quite beautiful – it was a shame that the weather had turned a bit grey, but we were still able to see the mountains reflected in the water. Where the ice had melted we could see frogs lethargically swimming through the water. It’s quite amazing that they manage to live in such an inhospitable environment.
From the lake we were able to continue to follow path number 12, other people must have recently trodden this path because we could see footprints in the snow and the holes left by walking poles. The walk down was longer but less steep, we saw more deer and marmots as we descended though high meadows until we reached the river Bardoney. Here we picked up path 13 (also marked as long distance path 2 – the long distance path numbers are in triangles) which took us back down to Lillaz. This path followed the picturesque gorge of the Bardoney and then the d’Urtier river until we reached a point where we had views of the Lillaz waterfall and our original route up. It was a shame that it started raining as we descended because the scenery was stunning, but the rain made us put our heads down and plod for a bit. However this round trip was a delight and one I would do again.
We had finally arrived in the Valle d’Aosta, the most westerly of Italy’s alpine regions which has borders with Switzerland and France. In fact French is an official language as well as Italian (and many people also speak a local dialect) and so you will see both on road signs and other information boards and people. The Aosta valley runs from east to west and has subsidiary valleys both north and south of the main artery. The valleys to the south take you into the Gran Paradiso national park, more about that later. For now we were heading north into the Valtournenche.
We’re quite familiar with the Valtournenche (the name of the valley, a town in the valley and the local ‘commune’) because we have skied here a few times now. Mostly our skiing has been at the head of the valley in the resort of Breuil-Cervinia, so, for a bit of a change, we wanted to spend some time lower in the valley.
We popped into the tourist information centre in Antey-St-André to see if we could get some information on walks and bike rides in the area. This was one of the most helpful tourist offices we have been into yet, it probably helped that the lady spoke good English so could ask us lots of questions about what we were planning to do and how long we were planning to be here. We left with a good map of walks and mountain bike routes in the lower and upper valley (€5) and booklets of bike rides, driving routes, local food and drink, castles and motorhome parking spots. She also advised us to head to Torgnon if we wanted somewhere peaceful and surrounded by mountain scenery and walks. The sosta in Torgnon is free outside of the ski season AND has electricity, we took her advice and headed up the switchbacks to the strung out series of hamlets that make up Torgnon.
The sosta is beyond the top of the village just under the small ski resort. As promised it was quiet; the restaurants and cafes in the ski area do open in the summer, but not till July. There was a bit of road repair going on, and every now and again a car or van would drive up to one of the buildings. There was a ski lift directly in front of us and every day someone would come up and start the lift up, we wondered if this was a usual summer routine, just keeping things ticking over. One day the chairs on the lift had large blue containers on them, we assumed they were testing the weight capacity of the lift as they had about 100 of the containers stacked up next to it and when we went for a nose they were pretty heavy.
We stayed here for three nights in glorious isolation, the weather was the typical mountain weather we have been experiencing for the last month or so. Dry and bright in the mornings, cloud building up during the day and rain and thunder at some point in the afternoon. So we tried to drag ourselves out of bed as early as possible in the mornings (which is still pretty late really) so that we could get out and enjoy the outdoors before the rain fell.
On the first day we followed a mountain biking route that doubled as a cross country ski trail in the winter months. We cycled out of the parking area up to the ski resort where signposts pointed the way for us (this was also walking track number 1). This ride took us through mountain scenery to paths around small lakes, over streams and under gushing waterfalls. We stopped for lunch in a dilapidated building to shelter us from the rain and were very excited to see marmots frolicking in the meadow in front of us. The highest point of the trail took us over 2100 meters and we ended up having to push the bikes uphill over snow in this section which was a bit demoralising. It was a shame that the weather wasn’t better for this ride because the views were very beautiful but by the time we got back we were muddy, soaked and had fingers like icicles, hence a lack of photos.
The following day the sun came out and we decided to see fi we could tackle the Becca d’Aver which had been teasing us with it’s summit for the last couple of days. We knew we probably wouldn’t make it to the top because we could see a significant amount of snow in the saddle between it and the next peak. We were right, we only got as far as Mont de la Fenêtre before we had to give up due to a ridiculously small patch of snow on a steep section. The route up this far was lovely though (route 8 and then 9 from the ski area) so it wasn’t a wasted walk, the narrow path wound up and around rocky outcrops; one section had a chain as a hand rail, but manufactured rocky steps had been added later making the chain unnecessary. To make up for not reaching the summit we followed the southerly part of route 1 (which we hadn’t followed on the bikes the previous day) through the woods, climbing over trees still bowed or felled by the weight of snow, even though it was now gone. On the way we spotted fleeting glimpses of deer through the trees and one hare running across a meadow below us.
After three nights we felt it was time to move on, a few chores to do first. We did the usual empty and refill, but also took advantage of the fact that the water here is fed from a spring and so is constantly running through a trough. We used the trough to give our muddy cycling clothes a good scrub and washed down the bikes. How long they will stay clean is anyone’s guess.
After the Monte Sibillini we were planning to head for the Apuan Alps, a small offshoot of the Apennines that sits behind the coast of northern Tuscany. It was going to be quite a drive and we wanted to break it up. Our first stop, the night we had Bertie’s brakes fixed, was a small sosta at Torrita di Siena. We sneaked into the remaining space (there were only half a dozen) alongside various nationalities and reminded ourselves of the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. Tuscany had seemed so crinkled and hilly when we first drove through on our way south, but we had become used to the drama of mountain views and now it seemed like the green hills folded themselves gently around the golden stone of the local buildings.
The sosta is on a walking and mountain biking (and horse riding if you happen to have bought your horse along) trail – the Sentiero di Vin Santo, so on the following morning we took our bikes out on the trail. Suddenly we were reminded that the pleasant folds of the countryside hid steep sided valleys. Our legs pumped as we ascended along the trail that should have ended at Montefollonico, a town on a hill, but as we got closer to the town we realised that we would have to navigate some very overgrown single track and then have an incredibly steep uphill final slog to Montefollonico. We looked at each other and decided without words that it was too hot to bother. We turned around and made a very swift return to Bertie.
It was only mid morning, so we had a look at the map to see where we could go next. Somewhere we could wander round without too much exertion in the heat. Arezzo was the perfect spot, a tourist town, but not too big. I sold it to Paul; ‘look, there are even escalators to get from the parking to the town’.
We drove to Arezzo and easily found the very large motorhome parking area. There were no services here, but still some of the spaces seemed to be permanently occupied. We lunched in Bertie before setting off for the town, a very easy and gentle uphill walk. I have seen other places that are far more in need of an escalator than Arezzo. It was such a gentle walk that we decided we would look foolish using any assistance.
The old town, within the city walls, was one of those Italian towns that was a pleasure to wander around, with narrow medieval streets and unexpected piazzas.
The focal area is the Piazza Grande, rather unusually it slopes steeply from one side to the other, supposedly to allow the rain water to run off, although I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for such an unusual design (but what do I know). We mooched around the shaded side of the streets and then paid a few euros each to visit the Palazzo di Fraternita dei Laici. There is an art collection here which was worth a quick look, but really we had paid our money to climb to the top of the bell tower and see the views. The tower has an interesting clock mechanism which you can watch as it strikes each quarter hour. We waited on top of the tower as thunder clouds started to gather and occasional fat spots of rain landed on us. The chiming of the bell was a bit of an anti-climax especially because it was the hour and so only one bell was in action.
Arezzo is a place that you could take some time to explore, it is just the right side of touristy, meaning that there were plenty of cafes and shops open and a bustling atmosphere, but it was not mobbed with tourists. Unlike Florence which was to be our next stop, more about that in our next blog post.
In search of a sosta we left the beautiful Piano Grande (I keep wanting to call it the Grand Piano, but that’s something else entirely), driving the mountain road to Norcia. It was Saturday so there were no workers rebuilding the roads, their heavy duty vehicles were ready and waiting for Monday, sitting on the sides of the road accompanied by materials for repairing the earthquake damage.
We followed behind a large truck who was taking things slowly down the hills; a lot of this road is single carriageway while it is being repaired, some sections are controlled by traffic lights and others where the traffic is left to it’s own devices. It’s reasonably wiggly, but in normal circumstances would be a run-of-the-mill road, in these circumstances we were happy to be behind a big vehicle. As we approached Norcia and the roads flattened out the driving got easier. There is a sosta here but we weren’t sure where it was or whether it was still in operation. We followed the roads through Norcia, past the zona rosso and the pre-fab buildings now housing the local shops and businesses. We didn’t spot any signs for the sosta, so rather than get caught in any odd traffic systems we moved onto the next place we knew there was a sosta – Preci.
The drive through the valley to Preci is attractive, along a river valley and past many trout farms teeming with fish. Preci has an old borgo sitting on the hill, and a newer settlement in the valley, including the obligatory prefab buildings for anyone made homeless by the earthquake. The sosta is in the valley and it’s crazy paving surface has a few loose stones that made us cautious as we drove in. A few campers and caravans look like they are being stored here permanently, but only one is being lived in; a lady with a caravan and large awning. There was an Austrian van but we never seemed to catch the owner who was out and about on his moped. It may not sound that great but actually the sosta was free, with electricity and a building with a wet room. We made use of the wet room while we were here, using the shower and also using the large sink to hand wash some of our smelly walking/cycling gear. Before we left I gave the room a good clean (ok, maybe just a clean, it’s not one of my key skills), it felt like the least we could do for making use of the facilities.
While we were here we went for a bike ride and a walk as well as exploring the old town, which was largely off limits due to the zona rosso. The bike ride was flagged as Easy on wikiloc, but for us it ended up being pretty strenuous. It was a well marked route (B12) along the road towards Campi, leaving the road to follow a mule track. We passed a couple who were on a donkey trek, leading their animals from B&B to B&B. Although it seems quite romantic I wonder what it’s really like to try to get them moving on a hot and stuffy day.
The track was stony and steep enough in places that we had to get off and push uphill. We sweated and strained as we fought against the soft surface of the track under the hot sun. Eventually we crossed the main road to take the path back along the other side. Here the path became fun single track with some interesting drop offs on one side. Eventually the path became downhill, still single track it was more and more overgrown with the undergrowth hiding steep steps and large chunks of rock. Paul persevered for a while but in the end we were both pushing our bikes downhill. Our final obstacle was when we reached a village. The map hadn’t marked this path as closed but our first sight of the village is a collapsed building with a zona rosso barrier. The rubble from the building had collapsed across the path. Maybe we should have turned around at this point but we had no desire to retrace our steps to the halfway point. We carried our bikes over the rubble and down through the village red zone with some trepidation. When we got out onto the road we breathed a sigh of relief, all obstacles had been overcome and all we had to do was follow the road back to Bertie. Phew.
The walk the following day was more successful, the circuit E12 was marked on the map and took us up along tracks and tarmac roads to Collescille. Here we had to contend with another zona rosso, we stayed as far right as possible, following steps up the side of the village rather than the closed road. We emerged at the top of the village just inside the red zone where we encountered a nice man who assured us that the path was open. We followed the track out of the village, past a ruined tower and up to some shepherds huts. The top of the walk was high pasture where we stopped to sit amongst the spring flowers and admire the views of the mountains. When we’d had our fill of the views and lunch we descended through a grassy valley to Saccovescio, a pretty village but mostly deserted, before we joined a nice easy track back to Preci.
Preci had been a good stop, it’s tricky to get round the area due to the various zona rossi (I think that’s the plural) but it’s worth persevering.
Yesterday we had walked up to Prati di Tivo, today we drove up. The large car park which had been full of ‘macchine’ was now nearly empty and the cafes mostly shut. We wanted to have a short walk today, and although it didn’t take us long it was a good lung workout.
From the carpark we decided to take a walk up to La Maddonina (which is the top of the main chair lift) following a CAI path that was marked on our map. Frustratingly our map was out of date and so we had a bit of a struggle to find the start of path 100. The route up now seemed to be 103a and instead of traversing through the woods it went almost straight up to the right of the main chairlift. Once we found it, we had no problems staying on it and we puffed our way up the ski run on a steady and steep incline. A group of deer gave us an excuse to pause and a short diversion around a patch of snow allowed us to stop to recce the route ahead.
Breath caught we managed to get to the top and had beaten the other couple who were walking parallel to us directly under the chairlift (not that we’re competitive). From here we could see the route up Corno Piccolo, invitingly scrambly but currently too snowy for us to contemplate. Instead we took the broad grassy ridge in the opposite direction, past an incomplete hotel with it’s empty staring windows and to the minor summit of Cima Alta.
Because it was meant to be a short walk we turned around here and took the route down that we thought we should have ascended. Immediately we realised why things had changed; there is now a set of mountain biking routes and a terrain park where the original trail would have been. We went down it anyway, confident that there were no mountain bikers going to come haring down after us given that the lifts weren’t running, and anyhow the trail was so littered with felled trees and branches that we would have heard any mountain biker swearing loudly a long time before they knocked into us. The descent was rather tortuous now that there are so many routes to choose from, but we stuck to the ‘green’ mountain biking trails to avoid a steep descent and soon found ourselves on the road leading back to Prati di Tivo
It really had just been a short walk despite the strenuous uphill section so we were back to the van before lunch. We had a bit of a scout around looking for an overnight sleeping spot that might be a bit more sheltered from the winds that were getting stronger in the exposed car park.
As we munched on a couple of speck and cheese pannini we discussed next steps and decided that rather than staying up here in the wind we would go back downhill. That soon led to us agreeing that a lazy day in a campsite would be a good idea. We could rest our legs and do some laundry.
We weren’t all that far from the coast so we picked a cheap ASCI campsite and drove on to Guilianova. It was one of those Italian beach resorts on a long and uniform (i.e. dull) stretch of coast. The town wasn’t that inviting from the main road, but the campsite was large, busy and well equipped. The seafront had the benefit of a long cycle path so the following day we had some gentle exercise as we cycled alongside the flat road, past small plantations of pine trees, over rivers where herons and egrets waded and through various beach resorts from dilapidated to modern. To our surprise we saw a black squirrel here on the campsite scampering up and down the trees and having a noisy argument with a blackbird.
We made our way from L’Aquila up through the foothills of the Gran Sasso national park, climbing up on the major road (A24) that chugged almost imperceptibly uphill and through tunnels to the village of Assergi. Ahead of us the crystal white peaks of the mountains peeped out from the green forested hills. We knew we wouldn’t get to the top of these alpine mountains without proper winter equipment so we were heading for a base slightly lower down where we could enjoy some mountain walking with limited ice and snow.
Our parking spot was a large carpark built to service the traffic on the gondola that takes people up from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore. A large, flat and almost empty car park with grand views of the valley below – it was perfect. We checked out the gondola, expecting it to be shut in May as per the website, but it was running. Very few people were using it, but we soon found out that they were expecting to ferry several thousand people up to watch the end of stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia on 13th, something that took us a little by surprise, was it that time of year already?.
On our first day here we went for a bike ride along a route that was recommended on the national park website. Probably our favourite mountain biking route in Italy so far, it took us up the valley from Assergi following a well marked and wide track gradually uphill to the village of San Pietro. From here we followed the road even further uphill past springs, troughs and herds of cows until we could take a steep downhill track to Vasto. Once down to the river we followed fun and easy single track below limestone cliffs and caves before eventually meeting another track just before Assergi. We had to ford the river four times, using our bike to steady us as we tried to find the stepping stones that were mostly submerged in the spring melt waters. By the time we got back we had wet feet but we’d had a lot of fun.
We took a quick detour into the cobbled streets of Assergi to try and find some tourist information.We found an ‘information point’ i.e. a carousel with lots of useless leaflets in it, but I was sure there must be more. Only once I’d walked into a random office did I realise that the carousel was it. The lady in the office helpfully pointed me in the direction of a local hotel (Hotel Giampy) who had an English speaking receptionist and more books and maps for walking than we have seen for a while. I was in my element and could have spent a fortune, but limited myself to a map and a guidebook.
Using the guidebook and map we planned another walk from Fonte Cerreto. This time we climbed up a marked track (CAI red and white markings) through woodland to the west of the gondola, taking multiple zig-zags as we got higher and higher and eventually cleared the tree line. Above the trees we started to spot alpine plants, violas and orchids, both in yellow and purple, were the flowers we could identify. Small patches of snow lay in gullies but didn’t impact the path as we traversed along animal tracks to pick up another CAI path down under the line of the gondola. On the downward path we had great views into the valley where we could occasionally make out our car park far below us. At one of the gondola supports, where red paint was splattered on the surrounding rocks and vegetation (it must have been a windy day when they painted), we mistakenly dropped into the gully rather than sticking to the ridge, the gully was uncomfortable walking over large stones and avalanche debris and we tracked back up to the ridge as soon as possible.
It felt odd to be walking in the mountains without reaching a summit, but summiting seems to be a peculiarly British obsession that we need to get over. With over 800m of ascent and some spectacular scenery and flora it was still a good mountain walk.
When we returned from our walk there were signs erected in the carpark forbidding parking all weekend. The Giro d’Italia had reserved the space for press and other support staff. We wondered how the ordinary supporters were going to get to the gondola, presumably they would have to park even further downhill and get the bus to Fonte Ceretto before getting the gondola up, then they would have to slowly be ferried back down at the end of the evening. You would have to be a pretty hardcore cycling fan to contemplate being the last person in that queue.
When we were planning our time in the Majella national park we had looked at various maps and options for walking and cycling. Ambitiously we thought we would be summiting at least one of the mountains, even if it wasn’t the highest (Monte Amaro at 2793m). But as we approached the mountains we realised it was unlikely to happen, the weather was still humid and stormy topping up an already reasonable amount of snow on the summits. We turned our attention to alternative walks that wouldn’t go so high but would still provide a bit of a mountain feel.
The Majella (sometimes written as Maiella) mountains are peaks on a wide limestone plateau that looms over the surrounding countryside like a dark wall. Once you are up on the plateau you are already around 1500 meters above sea level, some 1000 meters above most of the surrounding countryside. The steep sides of the plateau have made it relatively inaccessible and a haven for wildlife as well as an excellent area for walking. The villages in the area surround the plateau and only a steep access road to a ski resort provides vehicular access to the higher altitudes. It is possible to get motorhomes up this road, but we didn’t attempt it. We focussed on the gorges formed by the water that has run off the plateau and created deep narrow gouges in it’s sides.
Gole di San Martino
We parked overnight in the national park car park before we walked up this gorge. There is steep parking on the side of the road leading to the visitor centre, but better parking is found by driving past the visitor centre up the dirt track to the start of the walk where there is a reasonably level car park. The only other people we saw here were a Belgian couple in a van conversion who turned up just for the day.
This gorge has one of the most spectacular starts, almost as soon as we started our walk we were in a narrow gap just a couple of meters wide with rock walls looming high overhead. It is said that San Martino elbowed the walls of this canyon apart. Elbows might be an exaggeration but Paul could touch both walls with his fingertips at the narrowest point.
Once through the narrowest part you find the ruined monastery of San Martino in the Valley. In modern times water rarely flows through the gorge, it is all controlled and piped underground (there are a few drinking water springs along the trail), but this monastery was abandoned after being ruined one too many times by flooding. Guided tours of the ruins can be arranged for a fee, but you get a good view from the path.
After this you can continue up the gorge as far as you wish to go, the path will eventually take you to Monte Amaro but it would be a significant undertaking, a long long day’s walk or a two day trek with a stop at a mountain hut. The path initially ran through dry riverbed with scrubby plants giving off strong herby scents of thyme and oregano (or maybe marjoram) when we brushed against them. The high rock walls inspired gawping and tripping as we tried to walk and look upwards at the same time.
As we got higher the walls became less steep and wider apart and the beech forest started, full of bird song but strangely devoid of undergrowth. In the beech forest the path divided by a picnic bench. We took the left hand fork and continued up until we reached the cloud at about 1300m. We hadn’t made it to the top of the plateau but it was still a good amount of ascent and enough for our poor legs that had forgotten what it was like to walk consistently uphill for a couple of hours.
Taranta Peligna is a small town sitting under a split in the rock walls of the Majella. Somewhere up above us was the Grotte Del Cavallone, but the attraction was closed, as was the cable car that can be used to reach it. We were particularly disappointed that the cable car was not running because it’s open one-man baskets looked like a thrilling way to travel up the gorge. I’ll admit now that we didn’t walk up this gorge, even though there is a path/steps, the weather was incredibly wet and our muscles were aching from our previous day’s walk. Instead we cycled away from the gorge, up the hills to the east of the village where we got better views. Our round trip route, planned on google maps, was cut short due to a road that was washed away. In the evening we walked up to the tiny Santuario Madonna della Valle; the sonorous voice of the priest could be heard as we walked up the streets towards the church, we were unsure if it was natural acoustics or electrical amplification.
We stayed in a well equipped but overgrown sosta in Taranta Peligna, on the notice board at the entrance it told us to ring a number on arrival, but where the number should have been was a blank space. We waited for someone to turn up and take our money but no-one arrived. Like many out of season locations in Italy I assume they just don’t care until summer when I hope they strim the pitches and de-infest the bathrooms before they start charging. The bathrooms were open and we turned on the hot water heater and had the luxury of showers, luckily neither of us are worried by critters, Paul even found a scorpion in his shower tray.
The Orfento Valley
Next stop was Caramanico Terme, a spa town on the north west side of the massif. When we hit a closed road our journey changed from 50ish to over 100 km, but at least our detour took us onto better roads. In Caramanico Terme we stopped in the car parking at the bottom of the hilly town. There is a lift at the back of the car park which allows people to avoid the steep hill to the main street, but by this time our legs were back to normal and probably a bit better at hills.
We had a quick shop for lunch items in the town bakeries and popped to the national park office to pick up our walking permit. These permits are free, but you have to take an ID document and register your intended route before you walk, then you are issued with a copy of the permit to carry with you. In theory you could be asked for it, but I cant imagine that it happens very often. The national park office here was really useful and stocked with maps and books, I think I would start in this town if I was visiting the Majella again.
This was another walk up a gorge but of a completely different nature than our first one. For a start there is a river running noisily through the valley, it was slightly opaque, sulphurous and gave off a misty vapour. The overhanging mossy greenery gave it a mysterious and prehistoric feel. We started our walk by descending to the Ponte di Caramanico where a signposted path took us down steps to the bank of the river, it criss-crossed the river several times giving ample opportunity for photos.
Then we continued along the bank, following the ‘Spirit’ path, one of the three long distance paths across the park. Our registered route was to cross the bridge at the Ponte del Vallone and return along the other side of the river, which we did eventually, but first we continued on a little further – shh don’t tell anyone!
After crossing the bridge the path took us high up the other side of the valley, giving us a completely different perspective. We enjoyed the longer views across to deer tracked scree and rocky cliffs and caves. As we walked back along this trail, which took us back into the top end of the town, we bumped into a group from Devon who were on a walking holiday. It’s a small world! We had a conversation with them and like starving people presented with a feast we may have enjoyed our English conversation far too much. I bet they were happy to get away!
Finding a collection of walks whose start points had car parks that were easily accessible by motorhome makes this area really attractive to us. One day we’ll come back for a late summer assault on the higher peaks.