29 Aug TG 2019 – Menton, the interlude.
I’ve spent nearly ten days here in Menton. If you have to rest and recuperate, allow swollen feet and ankles to abate, sew up and wash torn clothing and generally recharge, then Menton is definitely the place. We were here so briefly at the end of Menton’s Gambol last September that there was really no time to appreciate this jewel on the Côte d’Azure that nestles on the Italian border.
In fact, Menton has only been back in French hands since 1861. Prior to that it had, since 1793, belonged to Italy. The many abandoned cannons that litter the mountains above Menton are not WWII vintage. They hark back to the border wars of the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic period.
Terracotta-roofed and soft pastel-painted walls with shutters of Cambridge blue (which is really a green everywhere else in the world except in Cambridge), Menton sprawls around the last bay in south-east France from Cap Martin to Ponte San Ludovico and up into the steep foothills of the Alpes Maritimes. The beach – agonisingly pebbled – heaves with Italian, French, Yugoslav and German/Austrian tourists. And many, many, many Russians – they’re everywhere, rash-like. The English are much less evident, though they’ve been here for a very long time. One of the photographic plaques in the central gardens depicts Victorian women playing croquet – combat without mercy! Small wonder that the main hotels are called The Royal Westminster, The Balmoral, Claridge’s (yes, with the apostrophe) etc. I’d imagine that be-furred Victorian women and their modern counterparts seeking winter sun and other ‘diversions’ have had a presence here since at least 1861.
Restaurants are less varied than the people – pizza, pizza, pizza, sea food, pizza, pizza, pizza. But the daytime and early evening ambience is relaxed and safe – perfect for family holidays.
I’ve been up at the campsite, which is within half a mile of ‘downtown’ but accessed via 300 steps. The steps of doom. Much of Menton is built on the steep littoral hills, up which cut numerous steep, winding and narrow steps, a kind of 3D snakes and ladders topography – not much fun when you have to lug a backpack up them on swollen stumps. But, let’s not complain – the amenities at the campsite are more than adequate, where a pitch is €15 per day/night. It’s been so warm each night that I’ve slept on the ThermaRest in a silk liner and woken to spectacular dawns. The tent has really only served a kind of storage shed.
So, having dosed up on anti-inflammatories and repaired and washed clothing, I conducted quite a ruthless cull of my gear. Basically, anything that wasn’t used on a daily basis got binned, including spare never-used clothes and my ‘meat cleaver’ knife. The whole lot got posted back to Chip Chapman at Warminster, lightening my load by 1.3kg. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s an extra 1.3L of water.
My solar panel went tits up quite early on and was binned in Tignes. So, good old Amazon delivered me a new one to the Ibis Styles Hotel in the centre of Menton. We’d spent a night there last year at the end of Menton’s Gambol, so I asked them if they’d be kind enough to act as my Menton post box. They agreed without a hint of wanting anything in return. Thank you Ibis Styles!
The odd thing about sending anything by post back to UK is that it’s obligatory in France to have a legal postal address to send from. The system doesn’t recognise ‘of no fixed abode’ or itinerant hikers. It assumes you’re staying somewhere with an address. Ibis Styles to the rescue again.
So, what’s all this culling and re-jigging of gear all about? Tatiana’s Gambol 2019 ended with the GTA, right? Wrong. That was Phase 1. Phase 2 is to now head over to Corsica and do the GR20, which runs 185km from Calenzana in the north-west of the island near Calvi to Conca in the south-east.
Compared to the GTA, 185km (112mi) doesn’t sound like much. But last year I heard Phil Neame pass comment about the GR20, something along the lines of, ‘You really have to work hard for each step on it.’ And that makes complete sense arithmetically. Although the GR20 is a quarter of the distance of the GTA the gain in altitude over those 185kms is half that of the GTA. In other words, 20,000m or 66,666′. Given that the highest point is Monte Cinto at 2,706m the maths alone tells you that the GR20 is a real rollercoaster.
It has a reputation of being the toughest of the GRs. Paddy Dillon recommends 14 days to complete it. But I know people who regularly do it in half that. Though, they are special people – the French Foreign Legion’s Paras, the 2e Régiment etranger de parachutistes or 2eREP based at Camp Raffalli in Calvi. I knew many of those guys from our days of enduring the siege of Sarajevo together in 1993, when 2eREP seemed to have a large contingent of English speakers – Brits, Americans, Canadians and some Antipodeans.
I got hold of one of them the other day – George W. He confirmed that each year they had to complete the GR20 as part of their annual fit-for-role test. Basically, they’d march out of Camp Raffalli with all their gear, ‘hike’ the GR20 to Conca in seven days, where they’d DFC (draw and fit ‘chutes) at the airfield, emplane in C160s and jump back onto the dropping zone at Calvi, whereupon they’d tab to the ranges to complete their shooting test and then retire back to barracks. That is one very hard core march and shoot competition rolled into an Annual Personal Weapons Test!
It’s also quite a hazardous GR. Hikers are regularly killed by lightening on the ridges. The legendary Circle de Solitude – a hair-raising sphincter-twitching section of via ferrata has been dismantled after a number of hikers were killed in 2015 by rockfall.
But as my thoughts about savage Victorian sun-seeking, croquet mallet-wielding Amazons and 2eREP collide I’m reminded that it wasn’t just Victorian ladies who sought ‘diversions’ in the South of France. Certain British paratroopers in the mid-1980s followed their example magnificently.
Between 1983 and 1987 1 PARA, based at Picton Barracks, Bulford, on Salisbury Plain, was in the Arctic infantry role. The Arctic and warefare therein was traditionally the preserve of the Royal Marines Commandos. But, the British Army’s infantry also provided an infantry battalion on a four-yearly rotation to the protection of NATO’s northern flank. In the mid-1980s this fell to 1 PARA. The first three months of each year were spent soldiering in Norway, followed by a return to Bulford and long leave.
Some of the guys had heard that most of France went on holiday in August and specifically that Frenchmen had two weeks with their mistresses and two weeks with their wives. The wives, it was said took to the South of France for their ‘distractions’ during hubby’s mistress fortnight, many aiming at the Para Legionnaires in Calvi. So, as far as the guys in Bulford we’re concerned there was good shagging to be done in August in Corsica. The more mathematical of them had worked out that if they went AWOL during post-Norway leave and presented themselves as potential French Foreign Legion recruits in Paris they’d get through basic Legionnaire training and, given their awesome levels of fitness, would find themselves in uniform in Calvi in time for the French shag-fest. And that’s exactly what some of them did. By September the shagging was over and they fessed up that they were deserters from 1 PARA. The phone call, adjutant to adjutant, went something like this:
” ‘Allo Andrew, zis ees Jean-Paul, adjutant of le deuxieme regiment etranger de parachutistes in Calvi.”
“Good morning Jean-Paul. How can I help you?” I think the adjutant of 1 PARA at the time was Andy Kennett.
“Err, we ‘ave some of your paratroopeurs ‘ere. Zey are very good soldiers, but we fink it eez time for zem to go ‘ome.”
And so the deserters were shipped back to Bulford. The CO at the time, Mike Jackson, didn’t court martial them but had them jailed locally in Bulford and released back to duties by Christmas. I guess he liked their form.
So, guess what happened the following year?
“‘Allo Andrew, zis ees Jean-Paul, adjutant of le deuxieme regiment etranger de parachutistes in Calvi….we ‘ave some of your paratroopeurs ‘ere…”
Above: Sur le plage – 2REP or 1Para?
I think the pattern was only broken when 1 PARA left the Arctic role. The lengths the blokes will go to! Mind you, I doubt their modern day counterparts in Colchester are as enterprising or adventurous. These days it’s all Tinder and swipe left, swipe right bollocks. No adventure. The pre-digital age was definitely more fun, and required more ABI (Airborne Initiative), naked guts and madness…to which the 1 PARA electric fence-biting competition in the Pyrenees attests, but I’ll leave that nugget for another blog.
When I think what the blokes were like then, the pre-digital blokes that is, I’m reminded of something Chip Chapman told me just before I left for this self-inflicted beasting across the mountains, namely that 10% of the British Army’s personnel are officially obese. That’s over 8,000 taxpayer-funded troops that aren’t fit-for-role. Can’t do their jobs. Oxygen thieves, as we used to call them. WTF! What on earth is the Chief of the General Staff (a direct contemporary, by the way) presiding over, when 10% of the workforce can’t work? How has this pathetically sorry state of affairs been allowed to get to this? Where is the Army Physical Training Corps? Why haven’t commanding officers gripped this shambles? What is the Army Board going to do about this laughing stock statistic? Have the generals all become so cowed by their post-modernist neo-liberal politically correct instincts, not forgetting their aching desire to secure knighthoods and peerages, that sorting out this embarrassment has become too difficult? Too fat to fight. And you want to face down the Russians in Estonia and elsewhere! Basically, CGS, get a fucking grip of this. It’s your job to deliver a capable army. If not, I’ll happily take them on a trip down the GTA and hand you back 8,000 fighting- and typing-fit troops.
So, yeah, the GR20 has a rep. Though, to be honest I have no intention of doing it in seven days, or even fourteen. I’d be happy mooching along it in twenty-one. I’ve no Ninjas to race and would actually like to enjoy it without the pressure of making time and distance each day. As the route is very isolated and refuges cannot provide power, the solar panel becomes essential. Paddy Dillon actually recommends that hikers depart from the route and get down into some of the Corsican villages to sample the food and lifestyle.
On Friday 30th August I’ve got a 05.42 train to Nice and then a 08.45 ferry to Isle de Rousse. I’d imagine I’ll hang around Calvi for the weekend and aim to start the GR20 on Monday 2nd September or thereabouts. I’ll have the Garmin LiveTrack thingy enabled so you can sit back with your glass of Chablis and tune into the progress on the home page of the tatianasgambol.com site, if you’re so inclined.
To follow the route or donate: https://www.tatianasgambol.com