We packed up Bertie and used the services in Antey-Saint-Andre before moving further up the valley. The services only had the one tap with a short section of hose attached, and as usual when we have a toilet cassette to rinse and a water tank to fill we assumed that people had used the hose to rinse their toilet cassettes and so we removed it and attached our own hose to fill up our water.
Also a quick note that we hadn’t paid anything to use the parking, but they do charge in high season, a lucky break for us.
Getting to Valtournenche
Next stop was Valtournenche. This is the name of the valley and also the name of the main village and commune in the valley. There is a ski area here that links to the main Cervinia/Zermatt ski area.
We’ve always passed through here – there is a slightly narrow section of road on a corner in the village which is frequently policed during the day and makes it a memorable part of the journey – but never stopped to visit. This time we were going to stay and explore a little more. There isn’t any official motorhome parking but there is a huge free car park for the gondola to the ski area and motorhome parking is tolerated.
One motivation for staying here was to ski with easy access to the lifts. Unlike the Cervina sosta this car park is right by the gondola so there is no worry about transport or ski storage. What we hadn’t realised is that, although Cervinia and Zermatt stay open until 7th May, the Valtournenche slopes were due to close this weekend on 16th April. As we drove up the valley the cloud was lingering and the slopes couldn’t even be seen. Would we even get any skiing in?
We drove north through the village, through the tight section (which really isn’t that tight, but can be a bit awkward if lots of cars are driving in both directions), and out to the parking area. Once down the long ramp from the road to the parking area we had to decide where to park. Sometimes there are just too many options. To stay out of the way we chose to park on the top of the undercover section of parking.
The weather was still quite gloomy and the forecast was for rain and snow in the afternoon so we decided to forego a ski day. Instead we walked into the village, south along the riverside path. There was lots of new building work happening across the water with a large new stables being built and wooden chalets going up. I think everyone is gearing up for the new link to Zermatt bringing additional tourists.
We bimbled around the village. A funeral was taking place in the village square. A few shops were closed (including the CRAI supermarket) but the bakers and butchers were open so we picked up some sausages, some bread rolls and Torcetti; a local crunchy, buttery, sugar crusted twist of a biscuit that we had become addicted to. Returning to the van we made sausage sandwiches while deciding what to do with our day.
The Grotte delle Busserailles
On the road up to Cervinia, after passing through the tunnel above Valtournenche, there is a sign on the left hand side for a restaurant and a tourist attraction. ‘Visitate la Grotta’ it demands. But there is only parking for about four cars and there has never been space for Bertie when we have been past.
I’m always intrigued by caves. While at university I was cajoled by my then boyfriend to join the caving club (Lancaster University Speleological Society if I’m going to give it it’s full name) and ever since I have enjoyed visiting confined spaces. So when we knew we weren’t going to be skiing I had a look to see if we could walk to the caves.
Not only could we walk to the caves, but it also wasn’t very far, a mere 5km round trip. So even if the weather was filthy we wouldn’t be in it for very long.
There are paths along both sides of the river. So we started by crossing the river and following the path above the river and farm buildings. The cloud was low and the path took us through rocky meadows, woodland and scrubby river bank. It felt moody and mysterious with lots of lichen and moss hanging from the trees. With low visibility and without the view of high mountains we could have been back in the UK; wales or the lake district. Only the numerous spring crocus giving an alpine feel.
As the path climbed upwards the moisture in the air became snow. At first a few flakes and then suddenly large flakes that fell heavily and quickly began to settle on the path and our clothes. Suddenly I was wondering why I had chosen to wear my old trainers that had hardly any grip on them. After about a kilometer we crossed a wooden bridge across the fast flowing water. With slippy wooden treads and an oddly sloping camber I had visions of ending up on my backside and sliding under the railings into the stream below. But I managed to keep my footing, I think it’s something to do with aging, this imagining of worst case scenarios.
The river sunk deeper into a pretty gorge and the path became rockier as we approached the restaurant. The entrance to the Grotta was barred with an unlocked door. Unsure of whether we needed to pay or not I went into the restaurant where I was given a couple of tickets for €2.50 each. We had the option of wearing hard hats but it was all very informal. I expect they have someone outside the door in summer high season but we were just left to it.
The Grotta was not actually a cave but a ‘Gouffre’; a gulf or gorge, it’s walls were polished and scalloped, the river cascaded down the far end and ran noisily underneath concrete and wooden walkways. The snow was still falling through the narrow gap above us, whirling and sparkling in the chinks of light from above. It really was a pretty little spot and even better we had it to ourselves.
The land, restaurant and caves are still owned by the Maquignaz family. Descendants of mountaineers John-Joseph Maquignaz and his brother Victor-Joconde, who with Jean-Antoine Carrel and Alexandre Pellissier first explored this little subterranean chasm in 1865, the same year as Carrel was narrowly beaten to the summit of the Matterhorn by Whymper. There are engraved panels showing the men and their achievements, including a quote from Whymper himself who visited the Grotta and wrote about it in one of his books.
The snow must have stopped while we were in the Gouffre. The skies were clearing out, water vapour rising from the warmed ground and the snow starting to melt.
On the way back to our parking spot we followed the other side of the river, crossing again at the oddly sloping bridge to make a figure of eight route. A helicopter passed low overhead and we were concerned that there had been some sort of accident before realising that there was a helipad next to the road tunnel. We stopped and watched it land briefly before taking off again.
This is definitely a worthwhile short walk and could be extended with multiple options for walking further along the river or up the sides of the valley.
We had a quiet nights sleep in the car park. The bar under the gondola station was playing exuberant music but didn’t stay open late. Four other vans turned up during the evening and made us feel less conspicuous.
The following morning the weather was lovely, the skies were blue with occasional white bubbles of cloud. We got ourselves ready for a day’s skiing. Because it was the last day of skiing in Valtournenche we decided to just buy the ticket for the local area and not go across to Cervinia. In the end this was a good decision, Cervinia was windy and foggy and the majority of lifts, including the Valtournenche connection, were closed until mid afternoon.
Most of the skiing at Valtournenche is from the top of the cable car upwards. At the Cime Bianche there is a crossing into Cervinia and on this day there was a temporary barrier ensuring that people wouldn’t accidentally ski over the border and be unable to return.
The single run (number one) all the way down to the car park was open but there were signs cautioning that it was for ‘expert skiers only’. We decided to do that first as it was likely to be in better condition first thing in the morning. The little bit of extra snow from the previous day plus some piste bashing had left it in pretty good condition. Icy in patches and a little slushy at the very bottom but really quite skiable. We descended this ribbon of snow among the greening grass twice that morning. Each time we could see how much busier the car park was getting with many people deciding it was the best skiing in the area.
It was such a shame that it was the last day of the season for Valtournenche. Staying here was a lot more convenient than the Cervinia sosta. However for our next days of skiing we would have to move up the valley.