Bousieyas to St Dalmas via St. Etienne, Roya and Longon – D28, D29, D30 & D31

Bousieyas to St. Etienne-de-Tinee – Day 28

The Buddhist refuge at Bousieyas was okay but they were a bit mean. Mean with meat. There wasn’t any. At all. I think it was a veggie refuge. They were also mean to two German fellow hikers who hadn’t booked ahead. We’d met this couple before in the gite in Brunissard, the night before we met up with the other Fools. He was the guy who put hot water on his cornflakes and then pretended it was okay. Just after we arrived at Bousieyas and were tucking into beers al fresco, the German couple appeared and asked for accommodation. They were told ‘no room at the inn’. She bashed her sticks on the ground and said, ‘I am very angry.’ She was. Godfrey commented that he’d never bring his wife Carole on something like this without nailing down the accommodation beforehand. But, there was room at the inn. We had a room to ourselves with three bunk beds so there were two spare beds. We didn’t say anything as we assumed that these would be taken by other hikers. But the next morning we realised that there had been no more hikers and these two Germans could have been accommodated, if not fed. So, it’s official Le Cafe a Marius in Bousieyas is great if you book ahead but be prepared to be turned away even if they have room. Mean.

We’ve made it to St. Etienne-de-Tinee, which has a fabulous church and a pretty horrific roll of honour to the dead from the First World War, worse than the one in Briançon. Whole families wiped out, and this is a small town, not a city like Briançon (a city in France is any conurbation larger than two-thousand people).

Today has been the least dramatic of the lot. For Richard and me it marks a special moment. Today was our 28th, meaning that there are only 9 days left to Menton. We’re into single digits. Almost there.

The route today was nearly 20kms, but remarkably relaxed with much more descent (1395m) than ascent (670m). Here’s how Paddy Dillon depicts it in Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

In fact Dillon suggests a walk as far as Auron, but we decided to finish in St. Etienne de Tinee and hop over the hill to Auron and then Roya tomorrow.

Unlike all previous ascents to the inevitable morning col, this one was different. The gradient was gentle all the way to the top of the Col de la Colombiere. From there it dropped steeply for an hour or so to St. Dalmas le Selvage, a sleepy little village with a prominent church in a spectacular setting. Amazingly, it being a Sunday, we found a small cafe which was open for business – iced teas all round. Richard’s addiction had to be fed. A day without an iced tea stop is not a good day.

From there we had another gentle 250m climb up to the Col d’Anelle and a fairly dramatic descent into St. Etienne de Tinee.

As we descended we all remarked how the flora, mountains, temperature had all subtly changed as we’d crested the col. For the first time we noticed Mediterranean grasses, Cyprus trees, warm wind (I’m not referring to Phil’s exotic flatulence) and even the roofs of the buildings had a more Med than alpine look to them. As the crow flies we’re only about 70km from Nice. In fact, as we entered St. Etienne de Tinee we picked up our first sign post to Nice and the Cote d’Azure. We’re definitely in the south, but not out of the woods, as we’re not going to Nice but to Menton, which involves jumping on to the GR52 at St. Dalmas du Plan, which involves a hook north before heading south through another national park.

When we arrived at St. Etienne de Tinee at 2pm we discovered that the gite didn’t open until 4pm. So, beers all round in a local bar.

Bizarrely, just as we were unlacing boots the lace in my left finally broke. Recalling Richard’s Formula 2 lace-changing performance on the descent from the Brévant I swung into action, rapidly locating my to-hand spare laces in Section D3 of my pack. A textbook Formula One pitstop. Ali Bajwa, take note. Had Sevérine Fontaine, the Ninja of the Alps, been present she’d have been suitably impressed, no doubt.

St. Etienne-de-Tinee to Roya – Day 29

I think today was the shortest on record – 13 kilometres. We’ve come to probably the most isolated hamlet in France – Roya. In it is a gite called Gite de Roya (unsurprisingly). It’s a bit of a rathole. Similar to the one last night in St. Etienne-de-Tinee in that it was shut until someone came to open up at 4pm. Unlike St. Etienne-de-Tinee, there was nowhere to hang out: no bar, no restaurant, no nothing. So, having arrived at just after 1pm we had three hours of thumb-twiddling. Here are the graphics from Paddy Dillon’s Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

The hike here was relatively easy. It involved an initial fairly savage 500m ascent through woods to a higher town/ski resort called Auron, where we made for the only pharmacy to stock up on bits and pieces. Then we took an hour out at a cafe to indulge Richard’s iced tea addiction and our coffee preference, and another of Carole McFall’s cocoabusters, which look pretty good perched next to a cup of coffee. Godfrey reckons there may be up to 400 calories in each one.

The only highlight of the leg to Auron was picking off one of the Frenchmen who’d been at the gite the night before. I spotted him a few hundred metres ahead moving at a very sedate and deliberate pace uphill, using his sticks. Overtaking others is a good way of maintaining a steady fast pace uphill. The thing with Frenchmen is you have to close silently so they don’t hear you and then breeze past not using sticks, say bonjour cheerfully and continue humming the British national anthem or Land of Hope and Glory.

As I mentioned earlier we stopped for an hour in Auron, during which time the Frenchman had caught up and overtaken us. When we set off uphill again to get over the Col du Blainon we spotted the slow moving Frenchman again, and repeated the overtake with a bonjour encore. He passed us by yet again at the Col where we’d stopped to brew up and admire the view, before beginning the hour-long descent into Roya where we passed the Frenchman for the third time in as many hours. Hares and the tortoise.

On the descent into Roya we passed through what looked like ruined hamlets, quite ghostly in many way. Perhaps this had been some agricultural community that had collapsed economically and all these buildings had been left to rot. One wonders what life had been like and what factors had caused this community to collapse. It was around one of these buildings that I spotted wild lavender for the first time. We must be in Provence!

There’s not much to say about Roya except all the roofs are of rusting wriggly tin, including the quaint little church. It looks like the whole place has been repaired on the cheap over the years. Our Frenchman turned up a little after we did. He’s called Jean. Richard reckons that he’s ex-French special forces or some such on account of his disciplined pace and being quite a self-contained chap. But I doubt that. He has an OM tattoo on his left shoulder. More WooWoo than SF. But, A nice fellow in a muesli-eating sort of way (he carries his own).

We’re bunking with him, and the Swiss grandmothers and some other German lady who was not happy to find herself in the same room as men. She should have tried the black hole of Calcutta at the Refuge du Mont Thabor or the communal arrangements at the Refuge d’Entre le Lac at the enchanted lake above Landry – men, women, children, dogs! That’s just the way of it in refuges. Hikers can’t be choosers. Hopefully, the scoff will be better tonight than it was last night.

Great excitement just now that had everyone reaching for their cameras. The church below us is surrounded by sheep being moved from somewhere to somewhere. A slightly bizarre spectacle as they spotted the village’s nicely groomed roses and promptly scoffed the lot.

Roya – Refuge de Longdon – Day 30

We couldn’t wait to get away from the gite d’etape at Roya. We thought that the one in St. Etienne de Tinee was pretty dreadful. This one one was even worse. There are no good words to describe it. If the one in St. Etienne de Tinee had been a rathole, this one was a craphole. Interesting that both were Gîtes de France franchises and not privately owned. The one in Roya stood out for its complete lack of fly control. They were everywhere, crawling on glasses, plates, in the kitchen. A UV fly trap or those sticky traps would have solved the problem.

We also had another Black Hole of Calcutta experience – 8 men and women crammed into a tiny bunk space. Godfrey and I gave up our lower bunks so the two Swiss grannies could be at ground level and have easier access to the door and the loo in the corridor. The ladders to the upper bunks were positively dangerous. Jean the Frenchman tried to climb down at about two am and fell to the ground and somehow ended up crashing into Richard’s bunk. Maybe he just fancied Richard. Who knows. But the night was marked by one person or another clambering about going to the loo. And the usual symphony of snoring. So, no sleep.

Breakfast. More French shite. Tepid coffee in bowls (when will they ever learn). No cereal, and therefore no danger of confusing the cereal bowl with the coffee bowl. Just as well, a break from eating cereal with a teaspoon is welcome once in a while. The bread was heavy and stodgy, but saved by liberal coats of Marmite, which never fails to save the day. So, today I went tabbing on a bowl of luke warm coffee and a couple of hunks of bread and British Kryptonite.

The latter probably explains my stellar ascent of the Col de Crousette (2480m) in a shade under two-and-a-half hours. It’s a steady pull of 1,000m of ascent from Roya through pine forests initially, up through a tight and rocky gorge and then into spectacular open country. None of it was terribly taxing. I was trying to chase down a German lady who’d bunked with us in Roya and had left an hour before us – no doubt discouraged by the breakfast. There was also some guy in a bright green jacket trying the chase me down. He was quite a fast mover. He must have got ahead of Godfrey, Phil and Richard. Occasionally, I’d see this blob of green about twenty minutes behind. During the final approach to the Col I closed on the German in the manner of a Spitfire about to take down a Heinkle bomber. Fortunately, good manners prevailed and I reached the Col a minute behind the German lady. It would have looked too crass to pant past her only to stop at the top. So, victory was hers. Temporarily.

The reward for the effort was a spectacular view south. I made a brew and waited for the others who arrive thirty minutes later. The German lady moved straight on from the Col. We were all headed to the only place that would give us a bed for the night. The Refuge de Longdon in the middle of nowhere. It’s a kind of working farm run by a family and only serves up produce made on the farm. Here are the graphics from Dillon’s Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone showing how to get there.

Godfrey was keen to avoid another pile up like we’d experienced in Roya and sent me on ahead at pace to bag the best room. Roya had been fit to bursting: us, the three Welshmen, Jean the Frenchman, the two Swiss grandmothers and a huge hiking party of 11 that were now mirroring our route – they have their luggage sent ahead. It was essential that we get to Longon first.

At the Col the path continues on uphill and crests a high ridge. Thereafter, it drops for quite a few miles. I passed the Swiss on the uphill and as soon as the ground began to drop I started running. After half an hour I caught the German Heinkle who had a forty minute start on me and this time shot her down and kept running until the river at the very bottom of the valley.

There the track rises gradually initially and then steeply towards an impressive escarpment – Les Portes de Longdon. Somewhat like the Pillars of Hercules, they are the gateway or gorge that leads to a high long and flat alpine valley.

Three kilometres down the valley lies the Refuge de Longon, a long low structure surrounded by cows, sheep, dogs, chickens and a few humans running the place. It is very rudimentary. Whoever built it didn’t even bother to level the foundations. Sleeping accommodation: four mattresses in a half-partitioned part of a barn.

It has a lot of charm and character and seems to be run by a family whose three daughters do most of the serving – ages 14, 9 and 4. Charming. What a place for them to grow up.

We’re a full house. The winged Heinkle arrived half an hour later, but moved on after a meal. Godfrey, Phil and Richard arrived thirty minutes after her and then the rest of them drifted in in dribs and drabs. But, we got there first and bagged our four mattresses in a barn on a slope, which means we’ll all end up on top of Richard by the time the night is out.

Just when you get comfortable that there’s no one doing it harder or faster than you, up pops someone to challenge that assumption. We sat sipping beer in the late afternoon sun with another Swiss international mountain leader or guide. He’d got to Longon from St. Gingolph in 16 days! Wearing flip flops! Because his mountain boots gave him blisters. He’d done it in half the time we had. Which meant that each one of our days had been half of one of ours. Hard to believe. Strange but true. His feet were covered in plasters.

So, that’s how our 30th day on the road ended. It began with a shambolic breakfast, was marked by a spectacular ascent of the Col du Crousette followed by a mad dash to bag the best beds in the most remote refuge in the region.

But, it doesn’t end there. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Refuge de Longon ranks as one of the best if not the best location we’ve stayed at. While it is remotely beautiful the family running it were utterly charming and down-to-earth. We’d been told that there’d be some sort of aperitif and to muster outside at the tables at 7.30pm, which we did. Great platters appeared with baked chick-pea savoury nibbles, home made, and great carafes of rose. So we got fairly plastered before the main meal began. We’d been warned that the first very large bottle of red wine between four was free and thereafter we’d be paying. Where else had we experienced such generosity.

Then we crammed into the dining room, about fifty of us and served a spectacular three course meal made from local produce on the farm: salted meats for starters, rice and a beef stew for main followed by cheese and fromage frais straight from the cows (almost). We were served wonderfully by the 14 and 9 year-olds, which reminded me of the two little six-year-olds serving us at La Chapelle d’Abondance a million years ago on our second night.

And so to bed. Well fed. Contented with an outstanding experience delivered effortlessly by kind people in the remotest of locations. What a complete contrast to the other shit holes we’d recently experienced.

Refuge de Longdon to St. Dalmas – Day 31

Breakfast in the family’s kitchen. Again – awesome simplicity. Grab a place at their hefty table and help yourself to a pile of goodies. Much better than in most places. I was sitting next to one of the Swiss grannies and she spied my Marmite. ‘Oh, Marmite!’ She said, ‘we have something similar in Switzerland.’ Jean the Frenchman was sitting opposite me and never one to miss an opportunity I replied, ‘Great! Really useful stuff. You know that that Nelson’s sailors all had marmite on the morning of Trafalgar and Wellington’s army fed on it for breakfast ten years later at Waterloo. Empire building stuff.’ I thought I noticed the normally impassive Jean flinch momentarily and was about to really twist the knife by adding that had the French had Marmite at Dien Bien Phu the outcome of the battle (an utter disaster for France) might have been different. But it didn’t need to be said.

And on that happy note we tabbed off down Longon valley in the morning chill eager the get on with the day (27kms) but strangely reluctant to leave such a spectacular location and amazing hospitality.

The descent out of Longon in the opposite direction to that which we come was equally spectacular as the ascent. We descended steeply through a gorge, not dissimilar to the Portes de Longon at the opposite end. To the south the early morning light picked out each successive range of mountains. It reminded me of the light at St. Ives in Cornwall. It has a luminescence that magnetises artists. You really have to see it to understand its quality. Magical.

Godfrey and I tabbed along together chatting about work and ‘stuff’. As the sun rose, and there was no cool mountain air, so too did the heat. By the time we dropped into a hamlet perched on the side of the mountain amid terraced streets clinging precariously to the gradient, yet garlanded by flowers and trees, it was quite hot. This was to be the theme of the day.

By the time we’d dropped right into the valley below, Richard and Phil had joined us and we decided to stop in a not-too-salubrious roadside cafe in St Sauver sur Tinee for an Orangina at €3 a pop!

It was then that we spotted our Swiss flip-flop mountain guide (who had left at 6am) ambling up the street. This was a little curious as he’d told us he was ‘rushing’ to Nice to catch a flight. We waved and he said he’d been ‘exploring’ the town. Obviously not in that much of a hurry. But there was something odd about this guy – slightly overweight, not exactly clipping along in his flip flops, and his back pack was half undone revealing the boots that had given him blisters and a large two litre bottle of pop, which was about to fall out. In a phrase, his kit was ‘in bits’. He’s either the coolest trekker in the world, or he’s another of the oddball bullshitters that you find on a journey like this. We’ll never know.

From the Orangina stop the day became progressively harder as the heat and humidity beat down. We completed a 600m ascent in the glare of the sun reaching Rimplas in dire need of iced tea. Being a Wednesday and France closed for the day we were blessed by a vending machine that spewed out can after can at €2 a pop. But I was soaked in sweat, much more than usual. I looked like I’d pissed myself several times over. But this was all sweat. As we battled on this got worse and by the time we finally staggered up the road to St. Dalmas (reminiscent of the long hot slog to Landry during Phase 2), I was quite drenched. I was far from dehydrated. All systems were normal. I had not an inkling of thirst (I never do) but still threw a litre of water down my neck, and out it came as sweat. And that’s how I presented myself to the lady owner of the Refuge des Marmottes – dripping wet. She probably thought I’d swum up the river. Very strange.

So, here at St. Dalmas where we part company with the GR5. Tomorrow morning we head north for a while on the GR52 before hooking back south through a national park that Dillon promises us is populated by wolves and bears. Good to know.

6 days to go.

Stay tuned!

Vital Statistics:

Day 28: Bousieyas to St. Etienne de Tinee:

Day 29 – St. Etienne de Tinee to Roya:

Day 30 – Roya to Refuge de Longon:

Day 31 – Refuge de Longon to St. Dalmas: