I’m in Hotel Le Chamois d’Or's restaurant for breakfast. I’m sitting with a generous bowl of fresh fruit salad and a pain au chocolat, mesmerised by the steam coming off my espresso. I’m here on a route-finding mission for Inntravel, and today’s walk will take me more than 1000 metres above the Castérino Valley, into the heart of the Alpine paradise of the Parc National du Mercantour.
Angelo, larger than life, is already making his rounds with his infectious laugh and smile, greeting guests and making sure they’re content. As a routefinder and walking guide, I’ve spent countless nights in countless accommodations. The Chamois d’Or has got it right, at least in my books. It’s well appointed but unpretentious, a veritable home-away-from-home. Led by Marina, Angelo and their all-Italian team, they’re some of the nicest people you’ll meet anywhere. Though this is still technically France, the nearby borders changed hands just half a century ago: you’ll just as likely hear Italian as you will French in these valleys, while the local food and architecture reflects the marriage of the two cultures.
The Chamois d’Or is set in Castérino, a tiny cul-de-sac of a hamlet, gateway to the Parc National du Mercantour. Only a couple dozen buildings sprinkle the deep valley. The Chamois d’Or’s bar and outdoor picnic tables set the scene as the hamlet social centre, where you’ll meet other hotel patrons, walking groups, local workers and National Park officials and guides. Conversations après-walk are fun and spontaneous.
I’m excited for the walk. Leaving the Chamois d’Or by foot, a pleasant cobbled track begins its long but gradual climb towards the park and its storybook Alpine pastures. The tracks crisscross the mountains, and date from the early 20th century, at a time when these valleys were Italian; tensions were rising with neighbouring France, and Mussolini was aiming to fortify Italian borders. Military in origin, today these cobbled tracks are the delight of walkers, and the most comfortable 2000-metre-plus paths I’ve walked on anywhere in France.
The rhythmic and steady climb becomes meditative, and my note-writing here focuses more on scenery than on directions (there’s only one track, and nowhere to make a wrong turn). The rhododendron and larch forest begins to thin out; I pass a former military-barracks-turned-mountain-refuge. There are good and open views of the Fontanalba Valley below. Above the tree line the National Park boundaries protect a setting of Alpine lakes and grasses, and at this time of year – early July – a blanket of colourful wildflowers.
I reach the entrance to the Fontanalba rock engravings site, where I walked the day before: an open paradise of small Alpine lakes, stunning vistas, and ancient rock engravings, still basking in the sun after 5000 years. I had first seen the rock engravings fifteen years ago, during one of my mountain guiding school “boot camps”: there are tens of thousands of carvings in these mountains, touted as Europe’s “largest open air museum”. Through the engravings, ancient civilizations have left enigmatic clues about their lives, and the ways they interpreted the world around them.
Today I bypass the rock engravings site, and continue up the lesser-trodden path, which narrows as it climbs on a shelf above the head of the valley. This is the most challenging of Inntravel’s walk options here in the Mercantour. Well above 2000 metres, even the grasses have disappeared, and I continue the climb up the bare rock, though the path remains good. Small fields of snow appear alongside: the last few days before the Mediterranean sun will have them disappear altogether (early July is my favourite time to walk in the high Alps).
Beyond the head of the valley the path vanishes, and the marked itinerary continues through a chaos of green metamorphic rock. No expert navigation skills are required. Frequent waymarks painted on every other boulder lead the way, reminiscent of the GR20 in Corsica. At 2568 metres, the Baisse de Fontanalba pass is marked with a sign, and I’ve climbed more than a kilometre in altitude. From the top my first glance is straight ahead and east: the remote Valmasque Valley comes into view, its three lakes the reward for my efforts. To the south is the blackened and serrated peak of Mont Bégo, sacred to the populations that carved in the stone, responsible for the thunderous weather and life-giving waters. But today the skies above me are the deepest of blue, the kind you’ll often see in clear, high-altitude settings. Small wisps of white cloud pass quickly through the scene.
After a contemplative pause at the pass, and after writing a set of detailed notes, I get ready to start the descent. I pack my things and glance to the right: up on a rocky promontory, no more than 15 metres away, a solitary chamois is looking in my direction, not moving. I smile, take a picture, and start down the steep descent. It’s not scrambling-steep, but a carefully placed hand or two are required to reach the valley, some 200 metres in altitude below.
I reach the Valmasque Valley, and there are no other walkers in sight. A group of chamois is foraging in the pastures just above, and I startle two marmots behind a boulder. The walking in the valley is flat, and on easy paths. The path meanders along the banks of the three lakes. I stop for a lengthy lunch on the banks of the second lake – Le Lac Noir – nestled in Alpine pastures in their full blossomed glory: a carpet of vibrant blue gentian flower sits just above the lake. I take lots of pictures.
The third lake is the Lac Vert, and a mountain refuge sits just above it. Here I meet the first group of walkers I’ve seen since I set out from Castérino, enjoying an omelette at the refuge. The gentleman in front of me asks for some ice cubes in his Perrier, and a chuckle at his expense ensues. I order a blueberry tart and a soda – sans ice cubes – and enjoy my well-earned snack on the vast wooden terrace above the Lac Vert, at 2230 metres. In front of the refuge a group of four ibex are ambling about within steps of the front door. Park officials point out that since the wolves have returned to France (via the Mercantour!), ibex have naturally been drawn closer to human presence.
It’s mid-afternoon. Within no time the blue skies vanish, the clouds turn a dark shade of apocalypse. And the ominous rumbling begins. This is often the case in the Mercantour, where afternoon summer storms are frequent and intense. I take a look back at the refuge, and envision myself taking a cold shower, and sleeping on a bunk among a group of snorers. Nope. I unpause the GPS, and head down the lush Valmasque valley. Fast. Tight zigzags lead past waterfalls and orange lilies. I’d like to spend more time taking pictures and soaking in the scene, but I record some of my fastest walking times since the testing to get into guiding school, under the threat of menacing skies. But all bark and no bite: the storms never do come. I take a final pause at the base of the valley, and turn back around to see the valley framing the high mountains and passes.
I reach the Chamois d’Or and the blue skies reappear. I plonk myself down on the picnic tables beside the fountain, and take off my pack. I trade notes with a small group of walkers, also finished their day’s adventures. Angelo serves me a cold drink (or two), and takes a seat beside me. He offers a few thoughts and anecdotes about the walk I’m to do tomorrow, a walk he’s done no less than fifteen times, when his legs were younger. It’s his favourite walk in the Mercantour, and I have a hard time imagining it more spectacular than what I’ve just finished.