Sunshine after Rain: walking in Les Alpes Maritimes (Part Two)

Into every life a little rain must fall, and even in the south of France it can be cold and wet in April. A couple of rainy days gave time for rest and reading, and a short damp walk before the warmth and sun returned.

Walk Three – Aspremont in the mist

Aspremont is yet another hilltop village, but on the other side of the Var from our base. In sunshine it must be a delightful little settlement but it seemed vaguely sad in the rain. The GR5 trail passes by so we followed it south along the misty slopes below Mont Chauve d’Aspremont, occasionally spying a ridge of low hills to our right as windows opened in the clouds. This area has suffered many wildfires in recent years and there were burnt patches on the hillside.

Leaving the GR5 we skirted round to climb to the summit fort, a 19th century defensive construction now housing a communications facility. It was weirdly spooky in the thick fog, with a constant electrical hum. Somewhat unnerving.

Below the fort a narrow path past a graffitied ruin led to a track that contoured beneath the opposite side of the hill. This brought us back to the village, and our car. A pleasant short stroll for a damp day.

5 miles / 8 km

1500 feet/ 457 metres

Walk Four – Baous des Blancs et Noirs, dolmens & cairns

The stony desert above Vence is fascinating. We parked at Notre Dames les Fleurs in bright sunshine to walk past Chapelle St-Raphaël, contour round above Vence, and then climb up to the top of the Baou des Blancs.

Notre Dames des Fleurs hosts a museum of modern art in a small chateau, but it was closed when we passed. The chapelle is interesting – locked, as are all such places, but with a bright fresco on the far wall. Nearby is the crumbling ruin of a former chapelle, and in the distance amongst trees is a ruined tower. The trails are very well kept close to Vence and we passed workmen strimming the grass and cutting back vegetation.

After crossing the narrow road to the Col de Vence, we climbed steeply up to the limestone plateau of Les Blaquières and thence to the summit of Baou des Blancs, topped with the customary metal cross. There was even a park bench to sit on to admire the view. Unfortunately however, the sun had been engulfed in a sea mist rolling in from the Baie des Anges and much of the view was obscured.

We retraced our steps to the path junction at Les Blaquiéres and turned east, climbing gradually before gently descending around the head of the Vallon de l’Abey. The mists drifted casually by and the air cooled as they passed. Luckily the clouds lifted as we reached the cliffs above St-Jeannet, revealing the massive wall of the Baou de St-Jeannet rising stark against the dark skies. The lowering clouds gave an added sense of grandeur to an already magnificent edifice.

A short steep descent followed by a short steep climb led to the summit of the Baou des Noirs. Stone walls suggest that this was fortified at some point, as was its sister summit across the valley. Two French walkers, whom we had greeted earlier, were eating their lunch below the ubiquitous iron cross.

We had to retrace our steps again, this time all the way back round the head of the valley to Les Blaquiéres. From here to le Plan des Noves the landscape is littered with heaps of stones: cairns, walls, bories, terraces – all cleared by thousands of hands over the centuries. It is obviously a site of considerable archaeological interest and we passed a sign marking a Dolmen – excavated in 1996 and under restoration – asking us not to touch it. Nearby was a cleared depression (there are many in this area) terraced all round like a gladiatorial arena. I suspect these large circular depressions are huge sink holes filled with soil that make for sweet meadows.

There is much evidence of farming even in these arid uplands, with abandoned farms both ancient and modern. It seems there is an interest in replanting some of the fields with the crops that would once have been grown here; we passed a couple of such fields newly ploughed and planted, along with a working farm, and a beautiful abandoned farmstead, before reaching the road again just below the Col de Vence.

We had been walking on the GR51 for a while and continued along this trail into the Combe de Barbe. At first glance this appears to be another arid stony desert, with walls of white limestone rising on all sides, but on closer inspection it has been heavily terraced in the past, in fact one shallow valley appears to have a stone staircase ascending it. The ruined walls of an abandoned farm blend almost seamlessly into the surrounding rocks. As we walked down the valley the terraces curved to match its contours, damming soil, and containing the water that must run below the surface. Lower down that water emerged to babble quietly, accompanied by birdsong.

We left the GR51 to rejoin the path past the Chapelle St-Raphaël and back to Notre Dames les Fleurs. It had been our longest walk to date, and a fascinating one. And at last the sun had returned!

14 miles / 22.5 km

3642 feet / 1110 metres

Walk Five – Coursegoules, Bearded Vultures & le Sommet de Vériou

What a glorious ridge walk! We parked in Coursegoules, a pretty little hilltop village not far from Bézaudun-Les-Alpes, and wandered its steep streets trying to find the boulangerie that we knew must be there: we could smell it! It took two circuits to locate it, in a tiny shack down an even tinier alleyway, with bread baked in a wood oven at the back of the shed. The smell was delicious in the fresh morning air.

Our route took us north out of the village to climb a well made trail past the Chapelle de St-Michel, then steeply up zigzags to the Col de Coursegoules. This ridge is part of the Montagne du Cheiron, and a left turn would have taken us over the Cime du Cheiron, the highest point on the ridge. In retrospect we should have parked further up the valley at St-Pons and walked that section of the ridge, but we had seen plenty of snow there earlier in the week and didn’t have cold weather kit with us. However, the warmth of the last few days had melted most of it. Ah well, live and learn.

We turned right at the Col, heading east with yet more magnificent views across to the Mercantour Alps, and south to the baous of previous walks. Two huge lammergeier flew past, so close and for a while slightly below us. They are magnificent creatures. We ate our lunch at the Col de Baisse de Vériou, and the bread was as delicious as its scent.

The highest point on this section of the ridge is the Sommet de Vériou, with its ubiquitous cross sitting on a large cairn. This time the cross was not on the true summit but atop a lower one, which could be seen easily from the village below. The true summit was topped solely by a cairn (and me for a short while!).

If you like to run down hills then the descent towards Bézaudun is at a wonderfully gentle angle that encourages speed. The stony trails are mostly replaced with a grassy sward that leads into scrubby terrain lower down. It’s easy to get lost amongst the myriad narrow trods, and I’m speaking from experience here. Unfortunately the local landowners are not particularly friendly & when we did eventually get back onto our chosen path it was blocked by a gate. Luckily it wasn’t far to a quiet lane that led to the valley paths we had seen on the map.

We had realised part way along this route that we had walked sections of it before, and remembered that the valley tracks were not always easy to follow. This had not changed. The paths are marked with splashes of yellow paint, but these are not always clearly visible. At one point the way leads past the village dump. I remembered taking of photo of dead fridges seven years ago, but they had now been bulldozed into a narrow ravine, along with other rubbish. Despite this the views are still lovely, with picturesque barns and attractive cattle.

And best of all the sun was still shining when we reached Coursegoules, the cafe was open for a chocolat chaud and it was warm enough to sit out on the terrace. Another good day out.

10.5 miles / 16.9 km

2854 feet / 870 metres

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