A Couple of Cols and a Pic

03/10/18 – 05/10/18

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.

The winding roads to the Col d’Aspin

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.

Parked on the Col d’Aspin with the Pic du Midi de Bigorre in the distance

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.

Views over the lake and valley of Payolle

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.

A bit of single track across the hills

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 Col de Tourmalet

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!

Looking up at the summit from the Lac d’Oncet

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.

Part of the amazing skyline that can be seen from the slopes of the Pc du Midi

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.  

Paraglider taking off from the side of the mountain

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.      

In the parking at Tournaboup we watech the paragliders coming in to land

 

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
Payolle to Horquette d’Ancizan Bike Loop
  • Distance: 18.2 km
  • Total Elevation: 686 m
  • Time taken: 2hrs 35mins
  • Type of Route: Moderate (red) mountain bike route
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 4. Payolle VTT map.

 

 

Playing in the Clouds at Superbagnères

30/09/18 – 02/10/18

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.

View towards the aire from the cycle path

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.

Walking around the Lac de Badech
A glider comes in to land at the 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.

Danger of falling on the original GR10 route

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.

 

Walking into the clouds

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.

View from the top of the Pic de Cecire

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.

View of the mountain chain from our parking spot
Bertie admiring the view

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.

From our bike ride we could finally see the Pic de Cecire we had climbed the daybefore

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
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 5. Superbagneres VTT map 

 

       

Aulus-les-Bains and the Cascade d’Ars

27/09/18 – 29/09/18

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. 

Paragliders over the hills

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.

Bertie in the parking at Aulus-les-Bains
The town of Aulus-les-Bains from a vantage point

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.

The middle section of the waterfall
Walking towards the top section of the waterfall

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.

Above the waterfall

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.

Views to the north as we start our descent

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.

Sheep being driven across the motorhome parking

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. 

View down across the ski area, our parking spot just about visible

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.

We’re stopping here!

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.

Not your usual sheep – instead of running away it came over to investigate our bikes
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
  • Further Information: Parcours website. IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
Exploring by mountain bike at Guzet ski area
  • Distance: 12.91 km
  • Total Elevation: 578 m
  • Time taken: 1hrs 45mins
  • Type of Route: Easy mountain bike route along track and red/green downhill runs
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7. Guzet VTT map. 

Not Quite in Andorra

24/09/18 – 26/09/18

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.

Busy aire in the gloomy evening.

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.

Contemplating the views from our very short bike ride

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.

Views from the Col de Puymorens

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.

Signposting

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!

We couldnt resist a peek inside one of the shepherds huts. They can also be used by walkers.
The steep sided valley above the Etang du Siscar

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.

The Etang de Pedourres
Looking down the Arques valley
Text book meanders

    

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

Lammergeiers from the Pic de Tarbesou

22/09/18 – 23/09/18

True to our expectations we ached when we woke up. Our calf muscles were tight, thighs were sore and getting out of our raised bed was a struggle. When we finally managed to get up and moving we knew that we couldn’t take anything particularly energetic, so we decided to do a bit of shopping. We needed a small top up of groceries, but more importantly we needed a few bits and pieces for the bike, including new spare inner tubes as our many-times patched inner tubes were no longer holding air.

We tapped a few of the local outdoors shops and managed to pick up what we needed including a top up with fuel in the competitively priced local Intermarche. After lunch we looked at the map and decided to move onwards and very much upwards, to 2001m above sea level  Our destination was the Col de Pailhères, a spectacularly high point on the road between Ax-les-Thermes and Mijanès. The road from Ax-les-Thermes is the less spectacular ascent, longer, more gradual and two lanes most of the way. When you look down the descent to Mijanès it looks far more ‘exciting’, a single track succession of snaking turns. You can see why this is a cyclist’s favourite, whether pedal powered or motor driven. 

The twisty turny road to Mijanes

We stopped at the large car park just below the col and stretched our still-aching legs with a short walk to the top. Here we were above the tree line and had lovely views. Horses were cropping the grass on the nearby moorland, bells jangling gently as they wandered around. After our short walk we returned to Bertie and sat and took in the views, we didn’t have the energy for anything else. As with most lazy days I indulged my love of cooking and made some apple tarts for dessert.

Apple and sultana tarts

The following day dawned sunny and a little chill. The reason for choosing this parking spot wasn’t just it’s altitude but also it’s access to a circular walk that takes in the Pic de Tarbésou at 2364m. It was a Sunday and if the previous day was anything to go by this was going to be a busy spot. We started as early as we could to try to beat the crowds, but even so there were plenty of people turning up, whether for a Sunday stroll or for a longer randonnée.

This was a justifiably popular walk, some people just tackling the Pic, some heading in the opposite direction to end up having a picnic by one of the mountain lakes, and some – like us – walking the whole circuit. It was interesting all the way round without too much constant ascent or steep descent. A perfect way to stretch out our tired legs.

We decided to go anti-clockwise so that we got the steepest ascent out of the way sooner rather than later. After the initial stretch of path following red and white trail markers (GR 7B) across the moorland close to the road we reached a junction where we took the middle of three paths, this ascended the most direct route to the Pic (the right hand route took a slightly less direct route but came in to the Pic along the ridge, which actually looked better in hindsight). The high starting point meant that the Pic de Tarbésou could be topped with relatively little effort and as we slowly warmed up on the ascent we met a few people who were on their way down, having achieved their day’s ambition. I expect they were off for a nice Sunday lunch somewhere.

On the way to the Pic de Tarbesou

After the Pic we were seduced by the clear path that led straight ahead, but actually the onward path led sharply downwards and to the right (following yellow markers) where it picked up the top of a nice undulating ridge with lovely views south west to the Orlu valley and the softer side of the Dent d’Orlu. From the ridge we stopped to watch a large bird soaring overhead. A quick look through the binoculars and we confirmed that we had spotted our first Lammergeier; with it’s rust orange body and odd diamond shaped tail it was unmistakeable. These birds (also called Bearded Vultures although they are not strictly members of the vulture family) are fairly rare but there is a good sized population in the Pyrenees – they live on a diet that is mainly bone, getting their nutrition from bone marrow by dissolving the bones in pH 1 stomach acids. 

Looking back towards the Pic de Tarbesou from the ridge
Blasted trees on the ridge, with the Orlu valley in the background

A couple of kilometres later we had to leave this ridge, there were lots of short cuts here, but we chose to continue to follow the yellow markers that led down from a small col. A quick descent took us to the first of the lakes, the Etang Bleu, where groups were picnicking by the shores of the lake, once group passing round a bottle of wine they swigged from enthusiastically. The weather had warmed up nicely and people were sunbathing, but we didn’t see anyone braving the cold waters.

We joined a lot of people picking sweet purple bilberries from the low bushes on the mountains

We were now back on the GR 7B and following red and white markers northwards back to the parking spot, the next feature was another lake – the Etang Noir – equally popular and spectacularly set against the backdrop of the ridge we had just been walking.

The Etang Noir

After the Etang Noir we had a short steep climb back up to the Col de la Coumeille de l’Ors (I think that means something along the lines of a bear’s neck), just below the Pic de Tarbésou. There were a few families on this path, obviously returning to their cars after a lakeside picnic, more than one child was grizzling at having to climb the hill in front of them. We gave the parents sympathetic looks as we passed – I think they were sympathetic, although they might just have been looks of ‘thank god that’s not me’ relief. 

Views of the lakes(including Etang de Rabasoles) from the Col de la Coumeille de l’Ors

After that it wasn’t long before we had descended back to the first junction where we could pick up the path back to Bertie. 

Bertie parked up just below the Col de Pailheres
Pic de Tarbesou circuit
  • Distance: 11.44 km
  • Total Elevation: 769 m
  • Time taken: 4hrs 50mins
  • Type of Route: Easy walk along well marked tracks
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7

  

A Couple of Days in the Orlu Valley

20/09/18 – 21/09/18

We headed back downhill from the 3-Ax ski area to Ax-les-Thermes and parked in the same daytime parking spot as we did a couple of days ago. Here we wander around the town and manage to take in more than we did the first time round. It’s a pretty little town once you head away from the main road. We explore a few shops and pick up bread products for the next couple of days, steering clear of anything that’s too artisanal for Paul to chew (he does like a white fluffy bread). In the town square there is a small food market but the thing that attracts me the most is the thermal pool where people are soaking their feet in the thermal waters that give the town it’s name. 

Free thermal foot spa

From town we head out on a smallish road that takes us to the Orlu valley. Our research has given us two possible parking spots. The lower one near the Forges d’Orlu where there are a few tourist attractions and the higher one up at le Fanguil. The road to the higher area looks narrow and so we decide to park in the large lower area and cycle up to le Fanguil to see what it’s like.

We cycle up the road to the higher parking area which is more open aspected. I would prefer to park here, but Paul is not happy to drive it; the herders are moving their sheep and cattle down the mountain and he doesn’t want to get in their way. As we’re not going to drive up we decide that we will cycle as far as we can up the valley. The ongoing path leads to a mountain refuge at the Etangs d’en Beys and starts as a wide track. We cycle steadily up the track which is a bit rocky under our wheels but not too difficult. At one point we are over taken by a man on an electric bike and in turn we over take several walkers including a large group of teenagers on some sort of school outing.

We don’t make it as far as the refuge but we do make it to the end of the track where the footpath branches off over the river. Here we rest and have a drink before we turn around and make our bone shaking descent. I realise that my uphill cycling muscles need some work as I am completely shattered by the time we get back.

Cycling back down the track
Views of the Dent d’Orlu from the valley
Cows being driven down the road

We stay the night in the lower carpark which has the benefit of a toilet block but no other motorhome services. We have a look around the small national park centre and admire the adventure playground where another, younger, school group are having a fab time. There is a wolf sanctuary here but it is not open, we don’t know if there are wolves in situ, but the next morning we hear howling and assume they must be, what a shame it was closed.

The following morning we take the walk up to the Etang de Naguille. It’s a steep walk through woodland at first following the stream up along damp and ferny paths. We see a lot of fungi and frogs, plus one large toad that hops lethargically out of the path in front of us.

Toadstool….
…and Toad

We slowly emerge from the woodland onto the open mountainside. There is a large dam across the lake which feeds the EDF power station in the valley below and we have to climb up a broken concrete ramp to one side of the dam as the original path, which zig-zagged across this ramp, is closed. It’s a stiff old climb but once we are at the top we are rewarded with the view of the lake stretching in front of us, it’s calm waters reflecting the surrounding mountains. Although we had planned to climb higher to the next set of lakes we decide this is a fitting climax to our first mountain walk in the Pyrenees and we decide to turn back. We are exhausted and we can already tell that our legs will be tight and sore the following day.

Cable car used for transporting equipment up to the dam.
View of the dam from below
The lake, and the end point of our walk

We drive back down to Ax-les-Thermes that afternoon. There are two aires in the town and one of them is next to the municipal swimming pool. We time our arrival before the swimming pool shuts which means that we can actually get in the aire and we can use the showers. It’s €5 euros for the night and the showers don’t look like much but they are hot and powerful. The women’s changing rooms are locked so I sneak into the men’s. Paul and I are in adjacent cubicles making sounds of pleasure as the hot water soothes our aching muscles. I just hope no one walks in as it probably sounds a bit dodgy.

Cycle the Orlu Valley
  • Distance: 18.1 km
  • Total Elevation: 602 m
  • Time taken: 2hrs 56mins
  • Type of Route: Easy off road cycle on wide but stony tracks
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7
Walk to the Etang de Naguille
  • Distance: 10.18 km
  • Total Elevation: 1109 m
  • Time taken: 5hrs 44mins
  • Type of Route: Moderate walk along well marked tracks with steep sections
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 7

 

Stretching our Legs

19/08/18

We feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep and wake to find that the skies are blue and any signs of the previous night’s thunder and rain have been swept away. While we have our breakfast we watch several coaches roll up and pick people up from the hotel opposite us. Despite the ski resort being almost empty this hotel seems to do a roaring trade with coach parties, that evening another four coach-loads turn up. From our vantage point it’s an ugly concrete monstrosity, but from the other side you can see a generous restaurant terrace and balconies that look across the valley to the mountains on the other side. The only other thing that’s open is the Immobilier and when we wander around the streets we see the estate agent showing people around one of the chalets that is for sale.

Near the lift station is a map of walks in the area, none of them are particularly long but we decide to follow the blue trail to the top of the lift and then the orange trail back down again. The trails are marked with splodges of coloured paint and we follow them up a track through the woodlands. Part way along the track a maintenance vehicle pulls alongside us and lets us know (in good English, fortunately) that the route to the top is shut as they are building a new ski lift. He advises us to follow the purple route back down to the ski resort, so we skirt the muddy edge of the work site until we can turn left down another track.

As we head downhill the track is less churned up by the works vehicles. A small stream runs under a clapper bridge and the floor of the largely coniferous woodland is sprinkled with interesting fungi. Information boards are placed at regular intervals along here informing us of the types of trees that we can see. Where the trees part and views emerge there is information about the peaks and valleys. It makes a rather average walk a bit more interesting.

Clapper bridge over the stream
A row of Fly Agaric mushrooms

We devote the afternoon to cleaning. It’s not like us, but Paul had picked up some polish in Halfords and wanted to see what sort of difference it made to the exterior paintwork. He is so pleased with the result that he gets rather over excited and spends a few hours buffing Bertie. I feel too guilty to just laze in the sunshine so I do a bit of cleaning in between studying maps and deciding how we will spend the next few days.

Bertie getting a rub down

That evening we stay for a second night and watch the comings and goings of the coach loads of tourists as we discuss various options for parking spots over the coming days. Paul’s priority is clear – stay as high as possible – the sun and warm weather looks like it’s around for at least the next week.          

Randonnee des 3 Jasses et Campels

  • Distance: 8.3 km
  • Total Elevation: 297 m
  • Time taken: 2hrs 16mins
  • Type of Route: Easy walk along well marked tracks
  • Further Information: From tourist information in the 3-Ax Ski area

 

Just Before We Go

10/09/18 -12/09/18

It has been such a busy summer. Three months we have been back and yet I don’t know where the time has gone. It’s been wonderful to catch up with people while we’ve been in the UK, and for everyone we have failed to see – apologies – we’ll make the time when we next return.

Our feet were getting really itchy and we were looking forward to getting back to Folkestone to get the tunnel (Tesco Clubcard vouchers again!) across to mainland Europe. Before we left we had three days in Taunton, an opportunity to spend some time with Auntie Margaret who was staying for a few days after Nan’s birthday, to give Bertie a wash (not a common event) and to cook dinner for Vicki and family in return for the use of their driveway and water.

Dunster Castle with Auntie Margaret
The beautiful Dream Garden in Dunster village
Climbing up Thorncombe Beacon on the South West Coast Path
Collecting Sloes
Sloe Gin – Now being carried around in Bertie’s Garage

 

Two Descend on Dorset

08/08/18 – 14/08/18

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.

On the Temporary Holiday Site near Corfe Castle – a huge field with plenty of space

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.

Our encampment on Knoll Beach – Studland – photo courtesy of ginger grandma

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.

 

Getting Around near Beadnell

23/07/18 – 27/07/18

I have always been a fan of public transport. I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late twenties, and that was more out of necessity for work rather than any desire to actually do any driving. Unlike many people I didn’t equate the ability to drive with any form of freedom, after all you cant read books while driving and that is a serious impediment to my liberty! I suppose it also helps that I always lived in towns within easy walking distance of amenities, had I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere things may have been different. Certainly Paul has a completely different perspective.

On our travels so far we haven’t used as much public transport as we expected, we’ve moved the motorhome to be close to the attractions we want to visit and the trailheads for walks and bike rides. It’s just part and parcel of the way we have travelled, moving every one or two days. It’s also a sign of how well the countries we have visited are set up for motorhomes, the parking areas seem to be in the right places. Now we’re in the UK we are finding ourselves spending more time in one place and a static Bertie means that we need to find a way to get out and about.

By this point we were in the Temporary Holiday Site at Annstead Farm near Beadnell. We took the plunge and moved from the campsite at £22 a night (without electric) to this THS at £8 a night. The THS was as busy as the campsite, but the wardens explained that they try not to turn anyone away; their overflow field and the ability to squeeze some of the generously sized pitches give them room to manoeuvre and still stay within the rules (minimum of 6m from the neighbouring unit). By the time we left on Friday we had been rearranged to provide a pitch for another motorhome between us and our neighbour. They started with over 100 spaces, who knows how many units were on site by the end. 

All lined up on the well organised THS

From here we were able to walk the coast path in either direction and make use of the excellent X18 bus that runs along the coast between Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The bus comes with a bit of tourist commentary, and kept us entertained as it pointed out key sights along the route.

On our walks we visited Long Nanny, the location of a breeding colony of Little and Artic Terns. The beach is closed off and a community of volunteers and naturalists live on-site during the breeding season. Sadly this year hasn’t been a good one for the Little Terns whose nests were almost wiped out by a storm earlier in the year. We spent a little while talking to one of the rangers who explained how they raise the nests off the ground to try and protect them from high tides and storms. While the parents are away, each nest is painstakingly removed from the ground, boxes full of sand and shingle are then placed over the nest site and the nest is reconstructed on top. By the time the parent birds return it all looks the same as when they left – just a foot higher. All the time we are talking the more successful arctic terns are noisily wheeling around overhead, readying themselves for their migration.

The beach at Long Nanny
The river at Long Nanny
View from the bird hides at Newton-by-the-Sea

Dunstanburgh Castle sits on an outcrop of rock looking out over the surrounding farmland and sea. It’s one of those evocative ruined castles, sufficiently intact to clamber about in the towers or the remains of the bailey walls. We used our NT membership to visit for free and ate our lunch while watching children running around with wooden swords playing at being knights. You could tell that the school holidays had started. There are plenty of other castles around but we chose to view Bamburgh Castle and Alnwick Castle from the outside rather than pay the entry fees. I’m sure we’ll be up this way again.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle from the north
View from the towers at Dunstanburgh Castle

Craster was the furthest south that we managed to walk in one hit, famous for it’s kippers, the smell of smoke and fish wafts through the village. It’s much nicer than it sounds. We visit a number of other pretty villages on our explorations, Embleton Newton-by-the-Sea, Seahouses, Beadnell and Bamburgh are all attractive places, but Craster is our favourite and we can sit and watch the harbour for hours.

Looking out to sea at Craster harbour
View from the coast path round Bamburgh golf course

We ended the week being treated to a slap up meal by Aaron and Katie, we indulge our love of seafood with a couple of massive seafood platters at The Old Boathouse in Amble. It’s a wonderful meal and food wins this contest – we have to take home the smoked salmon for lunch the next day.

Enjoying fabulous food
So much seafood!

 

Gran Paradiso Part 3: Our Final Valley

11/06/18 – 12/06/18

At the bottom of the Valsavarenche, just above the village of Introd which proudly proclaims it is a ‘Friend of Popes’, another valley splits off. This is the Valley of Rhêmes. We popped down to Introd in a search for a shop to replenish a few items, passing the posters that show Pope John Paul II in front of mountain scenery. He used to enjoy holidays in the village and Benedict XV also uses the area as a retreat. This has proven enough of a draw to other tourists that a museum to the Pope has been set up in the village, it didn’t really do anything for us though, we were more interested in finding a general store.

After stocking up we drove down the Valle de Rhêmes for our final exploration of the area. In the village of Rhêmes-notre-dame there is a sosta, but we decided to explore further up the valley and ended up parking at Thumel on a large gravel car park. No facilities but it was free and in the usual glorious surroundings. On arrival we didn’t do much. It was enough to wander along the river bank, spotting marmots, yellow billed alpine choughs (as opposed to the red billed variety you will find in the UK) and one very large bird of prey. We hoped that the bird of prey was a lammergeier – they have recently been reintroduced in France and make their way to the Gran Paradiso every now and again – but it’s silhouette and colouring weren’t right and we were seeing a golden eagle, which was a good enough spot in it’s own right but somehow a bit of a disappointment.

The following day we walked up the valley to the Rifugio Benevolo, we were hoping to do a circular walk, following paths 12, 13A and 13. But very quickly we found our first obstacle; the bridge across the fast flowing river had been taken out by an avalanche. We looked at alternatives but decided that we would just cut across the river valley to path number 13 and follow and there-and-back route instead. Part way along the path there were a number of walkers contemplating a steep snow slope that partially covered a waterfall. They didn’t want to go up it, but when we saw a park ranger easily descending we decided that we could go for it. It was a steep little climb and once up I started to look for alternative ways down – I didn’t want to do it in reverse.

No more bridge!
Steep snow slope

As we got closer to the rifugio we met the service track from Thumel – this was to be our path down – a young man on an electric mountain bike was making short work of the ascent, only having to dismount to cross the snowy sections.  We were only slightly jealous!

Powerful waterfall on the route
Views back down the valley from the rifugio
Crossing the old bridge

We got back to Bertie knowing that we had to leave the Gran Paradiso area, it had been a great few days in this beautiful national park, motorhome parking was easy, walks and bike rides were clearly marked, the tourist infrastructure was excellent and the cheese was exceptional. I would strongly recommend a visit.

 

Gran Paradiso Part 2: Ibex on the Slopes of the Big One

07/06/18 – 10/06/18

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.

Bertie in the sosta at Valsavarenche
View from the sosta

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.

The views from our bike ride

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.

View through the forest

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.

Abandoned hillside buildings slowly falling apart

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.

Skiers on their way up to the mountain lodge

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 rifugio

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.

Looking back towards the rifugio

Gran Paradiso Part 1: Cogne and Lillaz

03/06/18 – 06/06/18

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.

Cogne’s meadows

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.

Cogne Sosta
Lillaz sosta

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.

Easy bike paths

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.

Following the river from Valnontey

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.   

Glacier on the mountain
Deer on the road from 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.

Looking down on Lillaz

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.

Contemplating our snowy route
Lago di Loie

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.

Signposting on the route
The Bardoney river 

An Avalanche in the Aosta Valley

While we were in Cervinia we sat and watched as the spring sun thawed the snow and created avalanches. The sound as the snow starts to move is awesome in the most literal sense of the word. Awe inspiring, powerful and frightening the snow starts to creep down the hill until it encounters a ravine or cliff where it spills over the edge, carrying rocks and earth along with the snow. When you see this there is no doubt in your mind that you never want to be on the receiving end; it would not end well. But while safely watching from across the valley we are transfixed.

 

 

 

Matterhorn and Marmots in Cervinia

31/05/18 – 02/06/18

Breuil-Cervinia sits at the head of the Valtournenche. It’s a resort town, mostly purpose built to support the skiing industry, and we were quite shocked to see the amount of new development since we were there last. There is obviously no shortage of visitors.

The development was pretty much the only thing happening in the town while we were there. Skiing is supported all year round from Cervinia, but the resort has a month off between the winter and summer season. Winter skiing had only finished the previous weekend, culminating with the visit of the Giro d’Italia and also a very progressive (do these things really still happen?) swimsuit show. It’s been a long season with lots of spring snow, and most hotels and restaurants were closed as staff took well deserved breaks from the hospitality industry, probably by visiting someone else’s hotel.

We parked up in the sosta, a 10 minute walk south of the main resort, and took a short walk, sending photos to Aaron to demonstrate the difference between Cervinia’s winter and summer appearance. The resort was so quiet that we decided to move from the sosta up into the main carpark so that we were closer to the start of walks and had a better view. No one was taking payment at the sosta, although when we left on the Saturday the small booth was manned and we felt a little guilty that we had deprived them of some income.

From our parking spot we had a view of the golf course where marmots played. These large rodents, members of the squirrel family and closely related to the groundhog, live in burrows in high pasture land and hibernate during the winter. With the spring thaw they come out from their dens to breed and start fattening themselves back up again in the short time they have before they are back in hibernation in autumn. They obviously enjoyed the tasty grass of the golf course and we wondered whether they are seen as a pest or an asset. While some of them eat and some play, others will stand guard like squat extra-furry meerkats and squeak if they feel there is a threat approaching. They didn’t seem to be particularly worried about their audience, only running to their burrows when we got close enough to take a good photo (of course). We laughed at their run, which seems to involve scampering along and then stopping, lifting their tail a couple of times and then repeating the process – scent marking maybe? It’s a very distinctive gait and allows us to tell it’s a marmot (and not a dog or cat) from a distance.

The other thing we could see from our parking spot, the dominant feature of Cervina, is Monte Cervino itself – aka The Matterhorn. It’s classic pyramid shape rises above the ski resort, easily distinguished from the surrounding mountains and forming a focal point wherever you are. We spent hours staring up at it; whether bathed in sunshine or wreathed in cloud the thought of climbing it’s jagged sides is daunting, something we don’t ever expect to experience. It’s hard to believe the audacity of early climbers who used manilla ropes and climbed in tweed jackets. The first ascent of Monte Cervinio was a race between Englishman Edward Whymper and Italian Jean-Antoine Carrel. They initially cooperated and later competed to ascend the mountain, and it sounds like it all got a bit school-boy, even now the story takes on a partisan edge depending on who narrates it. But it cannot be doubted that, eventually, after several attempts, Whymper made the first ascent. This was marred by the tragic death of four of his companions who fell thousands of feet as they descended, Whymper and his two guides only survived because the rope that joined them to their falling team members broke. It is said that Queen Victoria considered banning mountaineering as a result of the deaths and controvesy.

Cervinia’s altitude is just over 2000 meters above sea level – part of what makes it such a great ski resort – and so any walks from here were definitely going to be curtailed by snow. However we did manage three shortish walks.

Lago Goillet

This lake is a feature we have often seen from ski lifts. It sits in a bowl on the eastern slopes of the valley and provides the fresh water that is piped to a lot of the slopes to make artificial snow when it’s needed.

We took a chance on this walk because the path (route 16) sometimes follows a maintenance track that we thought may have been kept clear. We ended up following the track all the way because where the path took short cuts it was steep and snow bound, but the track had been scraped clear of snow and we made it easily up to the lake which was still iced over. We came down the same way.

Lago Goillet
Above the Golf Course

We spied out this walk from our parking position, looking for the path along the snowy ridge above us and below the steep cliffs of Punta Cors. The route up nearly defeated us as we tried to follow route 11 and found the bridge over the fast flowing stream was out. Unwilling to ford the stream we ended up making our own way up steep grassy banks until we got to the path (65) that traverses the slopes on a fairly flat gradient. Here it was very snowy but firm enough to allow us to walk in our boots without the need for snowshoes (although they would have been useful – they’ve gone on the shopping list) and we made our way along our approximation of the path behind a small lake and along to an abandoned and empty reservoir where we took the old service track down to Cervinia. We spent most of this walk, well…not walking. The spring sunshine was triggering avalanches all along the steep cliffs above us and they were mesmerising to watch. It really gave us an appreciation of the violence and ferocity of an avalanche (after all snow is soft…isn’t it?) as we watched large rocks being thrown down with the snow. And that made us very considerate of the angle of the slopes we were crossing and descending. We got down from this walk in time to eat lunch in one of the few open cafes in the town and enjoyed their focaccia so much that we had some as a take away for our tea.

Oh look- Monte Cervino (Matterhorn) again, seen from our walk
Waterfalls and snow
Heading for the Matterhorn

Our final walk took us up as far as we could go towards the Rifugion Duca degli Abruzzo. Usually used as a staging post for ascents of the Matterhorn it was at 2802 meters a.s.l. and we knew we wouldn’t get that far, but we decided to see how far we could get. The route mostly follows an easy track and when it’s not snow bound it would be quite a pleasant and easy journey, but we hit snow fields just below the hut at l’Eura. In front of us were a couple carrying snowshoes, but they chose to bypass the snowfields and climb an unpleasant steep and grassy bank instead and stupidly we assumed they knew what they were doing (after all why have snow shoes and not use them) and we followed them. As I watched them nervously find footholds on loose dirt and use grass as handholds I decided there was no way I was going to follow. Paul went up next and provided a running commentary of how uncomfortable he was. After seeing his wobbly legs disappear over the top I decided I definitely wasn’t going to follow and texted him my decision. Instead I went back down the slope to find the path and trudged over the snow to join Paul up at the hut.

Finding the mountain hut under (you’ve guessed it) the Matterhorn

 

After our final walk we drove down to Chattilon, back where the Valtournenche joins the Aosta valley.  The sosta here was free because the parking meter was not in operation. It was conveniently located by the Conad supermarket and a self service laundry. We washed all of our smelly walking gear, and while waiting for it we shopped in the Conad, picking up some local cheeses from the deli (including Toma, a delicious semi cured cheese that melts beautifully which Paul gave the ‘it’s as good as cheddar’ seal of approval) and some local white wine that had the scent of mountain meadows in the spring.  

Taking the cows up to their summer pasture
Sunset over Chattilon sosta

Valle d’Aosta. Perfect Peace in Torgnon

28/05/18 – 30/05/18

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.

Looking down on the hamlets of 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.

View from the sosta at Torgnon

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.

Small lake/marsh area under a crag
Mist getting lower over our cycle route

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.   

The view from Col Fenetre into the next valley
Picking my way down the snow
Climbing over fallen trees
Looking down over the ski resort
The annoyingly small patch of snow that stopped us in our tracks

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.

  

 

The Mountain with a Hole

24/05/18

Monte Forato had caught my eye while we were driving south through Italy and we’d immediately put it on our to-do list. There was too much snow on the mountain in February though, so we had saved it for our trip north. The mountain is distinctive because of the large limestone arch that creates a hole in the summit of the mountain. It’s not the highest mountain in the Apuan Alps, but because of it’s quirky summit it seems to be the most popular.

The night before we climbed the mountain we stayed in a free sosta (including electricity) in Bagni di Lucca. Bagni di Lucca is a collection of hamlets spread through the valley and the sosta sits on the banks of the river between two attractive and very different bridges. 

Ponte delle Catena – an early suspension bridge (1840) inspired by the Hammersmith Bridge which connects the sosta to the hamlet of Fornoli.
The Ponte della Maddalena (or Ponte del Diavolo) is a very early medieval bridge (possibly originally built in the 11th century). It’s steep arch 

We left Bagni di Lucca to head up to Fornovolasco, initially we had some issues due to a road closure in Gallicano, but we worked around that to find the winding narrow road through the gorge. We held our breath through the narrow spaces and ducked when we encountered rocky overhangs but most of all enjoyed the limestone scenery. There is parking on two levels near the entrance to the village and we manoeuvred ourselves into the uppermost parking area – we tried this a couple of ways eventually reversing up the road and then pulling forwards into the car park. Apologies to the village for the scrape our chassis made in the tarmac where we tried to reverse into the carpark – it was a bit much for our overhang.

We walked through the village to find the start of the walk near the bridge. The walk was well signposted with the usual red and white stripes of the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano). We chose the most direct route up (12) that took us to the famous hole in the mountain. There are meant to be fabulous views from here, but we couldn’t see far and instead had the atmospheric sight of fog creeping through the hole. There were plenty of other walkers, it was one of the busiest summits we had seen in a while, but oddly we didn’t see anyone else on the way up or on the way back down.

Many pathways on the slopes of Monte Forato

The hole at the top of Monte Forato; the arch spans 32 meters and is 25 meters high, the arch’s rock is about 8 meters wide and 12 meters high.After exploring the twin summits of Monte Forato and it’s spectacular arch, (which bore an uncanny resemblance to the arch of the Ponte della Maddalena) we meandered onwards and upwards along the ridge to the next summit of Foce di Valli, the significant drop offs were handily disguised by the cloud which reduced the fear factor to practically zero. Finally we followed path 130 down through a flower studded meadow to the forest and finally back to Fornovolasco.

The ridge was wreathed in fog, we knew there were steep drop offs but what you can’t see…
Views over the meadow on our descent
Cliffs and caves in the woods

The summits were low compared to some of the places we had been walking recently (Foce di Valli was the highest at 1266m), but the walk had started relatively low too so we’d had a good workout and seen spectacular geology amongst the fog. The low altitude had taken it’s toll though because it was HOT, we both decided that we could not do any more walks in 28 degrees (pathetic aren’t we) and although we’d like to see more of the Apuan Alps it would have to wait for another, cooler, time. Instead we would head for the actual alps where we could escape the heat.

For the evening we went to another free sosta at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana where we planned our route back to reasonable temperatures.

Avoiding the Zona Rossi of the Sibillini

19/05/18 – 20/05/18

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.

Looking down on the sosta at Preci
Preci village
Preci rooftops

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.

Fields of poppies under one villages seen from our bike ride
Rubble across the path – note the lovely doors

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. 

Mountain pasture and distant hills of the Monet Sibillini
This church was just about being held together, I wonder whether it will ever be repaired

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.

Monte Vettore and the Piano Grande

17/05/18 – 18/05/18

We were continuing our homeward journey northwards and the next stop would be the Sibillini national park. This area was hard hit by multiple earthquakes in 2016 and we knew it would be potentially difficult to get around with multiple road closures and ‘zona rosso’ marking no-go areas in many villages and towns. Fortunately the tourist office website had a really useful map showing the roads, towns and footpaths that were closed. From this map we worked out a route that would take us through the national park via stops at Monte Vettore and the Piano Grande to emerge the other side at Norcia. As we drove along the SS4 we saw many signs warning us that the main road to Norcia was shut so we hoped that our reading of the map was correct and we would be able to take the back roads.

We turned off the SS4 at Arquata del Tronto and immediately started to see earthquake damage at a level we had not seen before. The town was reduced to rubble in many areas, some of this was due to deliberate demolition, some of it was just the result of earthquake damage. Some houses still stood, looking perfectly sound from one side but open like a dolls house from the other, with furniture still in the rooms. Army personnel were parked in various spots along the road and construction vehicles went backwards and forwards. After our first exclamations of shock we were quiet as we drove through the town, feeling guilty for driving through and rubber necking at the devastation. The road took us up through more similarly ruined villages until we breathed as sigh of relief as we emerged onto the mountain roads.

We stopped on a flat car park under slopes of Monte Vettore with views down into the valley. We spent the afternoon mooching around the area, taking a short bike ride up to the start point for the walks up Monte Vettore and walking the paths and tracks around the parking area.

Bertie’s parking spot on the slopes of Monte Vettore
Enjoying a little bike ride

The following morning we started early and moved up to park opposite the start point for the walk where there was plenty of parking, just not quite as level as our spot.  From here we were hoping that we would be able to walk to the summit – it’s not a difficult mountain, but is still well over 2000m so there would be snow on the top. The theory was that the easy path would mean we would find it easy to cross or avoid any snowy patches.

We set off in fog, unable to see much, but as we ascended the fog started to burn off giving us voccasional views over the surrounding countryside; on our left the unnaturally flat Piano Grande, on our right the green foothills of the Sibillini and up ahead the summit of Monte Vettore and the more impressive snow bound ridge that leads to Cima del Redentore. There wasn’t much tree cover here, grassy slopes were the order of the day, luckily the weather was cool  – just right for walking – and we didn’t need the shade of trees. At the rifugio (closed due to earthquake damage) we stopped for some snacks and to inspect the route in more detail. There was plenty of snow, but mostly on the flatter sections so we were good to go. Only one patch of snow gave us any concern, not that it was steep enough to have injured us if we had fallen, but it would have been an embarrassing slide to the bottom and trudge back up again. Kicking steps in snow is a bit laborious but I let Paul go first! Finally we have managed to reach a summit, it feels like forever since we were last on the top of a mountain.

Paul returning across the snowy slope
The inviting, but far too snowy, ridge to Cima del Redentore
Finally a summit selfie
Looking down towards the Piano Grande

When we got back to Bertie it was still only lunch time, so we moved on onto the Piano Grande for the afternoon. This area, translated as ‘Big Plain’, is exactly what it says. Once it was a glacial lake and the sediment from the lake has formed a wide and completely flat plain ringed by the Sibillini mountains. It is hard to describe how beautiful it was; the expanses of wildflowers bobbed their heads in the breeze, sheep and horses were being grazed on the plains. The only buildings look very temporary, wooden corrals for the horses and farm equipment, caravans for the shepherds. We parked by the ranch in their carpark in the centre of the plain, selfishly hogging the only spot that seemed to be firm. They charge at the weekends and during the summer, but today it was quiet, just us and the ranch workers getting on with their usual jobs. In the distance is the village of Castelluccio – the only settlement here and another village devastated by earthquake, residents only started to return this year when the road was re-opened. 

Bertie’s parking on the Piano Grande

Our attention was caught when a shepherd walked past with a huge bag of mushrooms, then we saw an old fiat panda driving up and down the road and an elderly couple getting out and inspecting the ground every few yards. I don’t like mushrooms, but Paul is a big fan so we went on a bit of a hunt, wandering across the meadows with our eyes on the floor. Eventually we spotted a rock…oh no, it’s not a rock, it’s a mushroom. Paul was chuffed, it was the only one we found but a biggie.

Mushroom!

We contemplated staying here but we couldn’t find anywhere to empty the toilet and it was getting close to full. We stayed for the night in the peaceful stillness, before we made our way out of the plains early the following morning.

One of the things our map hadn’t told us was that, although the road to Norcia was now open, it wasn’t open all the time. During working hours it was shut so that work could continue on repairs. On weekdays you could only travel early in the morning, lunchtimes and early evening. Overnight travel was banned. We had spotted a few cars driving up to the barrier and then having to turn around, we were thankful that we were leaving on a Saturday so we didn’t have to stick to a schedule. 

I always make a point of photographing signs like this so that I can work out what they’re saying later!

 

   

 

  

 

 

A Final Jaunt in the Gran Sasso

14/05/18 – 15/05/18

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.

Looking down on Prati di Tivo

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.

Corno Piccolo and the top of the La Maddonina chairlift

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

In the woods

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.

Bertie doubles as a washing line

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.

At the end of the cycle path we tried to go further by following the river bank, but the railway line stopped us.