Mercantour, France – My Planes, Trains and a walk.

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Mountain climbing and hiking has now become a major part of my holiday planning. Each time I climb another mountain I know that I want to do it again. A new mountain and a different place to explore.

The holiday research now involves me looking up mountain regions and then building an itinerary around it. My initial destination plan for September was to join a two-day hike with a group to Morocco. It was a pretty bold, step with only two mountain climbs under my belt. The flights to Marrakech was booked and the deposit paid towards the trek, I even had a post climb hotel booked for two nights so that we could chill.

The trip ended up being cancelled due to not having enough people joining the group. The world has gone crazy and people are reluctant to travel to certain areas of the world, my family gave a sigh of relief when I advised that I would no longer be travelling to Morocco for now.

With a heavy heart and non-refundable flights booked on Ryanair I decided to go back to the drawing board. The good thing budget airlines offer, even though you wouldn’t get a refund (unless a valid reason is covered under your travel insurance), is that they offer flexibility to change dates, destination or even names for a fee. We decided to check what destinations are on offer as an alternative on Ryanair’s network.

We did unfortunately lose a little money with our original plan falling through so didn’t want to spend too much more. There are a lot of destinations we could amend our flights to, but we would then find that accommodation was coming out quite costly. Slightly fed up and tired of searching I thought of one more option. My father lives half in London and half in the South of France; this was starting to look like the best option even though I didn’t feel overly excited.

I have been to the South of France on a few occasions to visit my Dad and it is without a doubt a beautiful destination. My hang up, was that the whole plan was to hike; in the past when I have been to France I have mainly sat at the beach/pool so this time, I needed to find a way to combine some off the beaten track activity. I discussed my option with Dad who would be in France at the time I visit, he agreed he was in favour of my new choice of destination and promised me to find an action packed itinerary exploring the mountain regions of France.

The area I need to fly to is Nice, then from here it’s a 20-minute drive to Antibes. Whilst Ryanair fly to a lot of European destinations, Nice of course was not one of them (just to make my life easier). I looked up the closest airports to Antibes; the choices are either Nantes or Marseille. I then looked up train routes from both airports checking which route was easier and quicker. The winning choice is Marseille which is a 2 ½ hour train ride to Antibes. I changed my flights for a small fee and booked my train, we decided to stay a week so that will give us time to explore other areas that we haven’t been to before.

My Dad has spent a lot of time in the South of France so could be a tour guide for this region. He knows all the places to visit that are “the roads less travelled” and true to form came up with an action packed itinerary to an area called Mercantour. Once I researched the area and discussed our plan, I felt quite excited to explore.

The journey to France also started with a new adventure, the usual journey is a straight flight to Nice and then I am either collected by Dad or a taxi. On this occasion, its planes, trains and I want to say automobile but in truth its legs (my legs of course). We had an early flight to Marseille; the sun wasn’t even out yet! Marseille airport is not too big so we were through passport control and baggage reclaim quickly. The train tickets were booked so we had to locate the station. My French is basic to say the least, however they have signs pointing to the station (with a little train image if you are still unsure). Once we stepped outside to head in this direction we were hit by powerful sunny heat, this is incredible as it is only 8 in the morning so by mid-day you could melt into a blob of human mess. The station sign ended and we saw no trains, looking extremely confused at one another we decided to ask at a bus kiosk. It turned out that the station is not within walking distance and we in fact needed the bus to the train station! The bus is frequent and included in the cost of our train ticket, the ride is less than 5 minutes and in all honesty quite a relief, pulling our suit case in this heat for a few minutes was tiring so to sit a little with air conditioning is refreshing.

Once you arrive at Marseille Airport Station you need to travel from here to Marseille St Charles Station. This is the main station that will take you on to all the major parts of France (a French version of Grand Central in New York or St Pancras in London). This takes 20 minutes from the airport. This train isn’t like a posh TGV; it is their local train which isn’t air conditioned, but comfortable and spacious to get your cases on and off, you are not on for long and the train runs regularly. From Marseille St Charles we had our final train to Antibes, no changes required for this but, take a good book as this is a 2 hour journey. Finally, we arrive into Antibes by the afternoon (heat melting time). The walk from the station is only 10 minutes; however in the heat with cases in tow, it felt like 4 days walking in the desert. The journey wasn’t a bad trip, I enjoyed the fact that the train allows you to start in a busy city like Marseille but then half way through, you start seeing the Southern French coastline. Our train tickets we bought in advance as a roundtrip from Marseille airport to Antibes with Voyage sncf.com.

Mercantour National Park isn’t far from Antibes, approximately an hour’s drive. It is a hiker’s paradise with several trails or nature walks. I can honestly say that I haven’t ever heard of this area before, it doesn’t appear to be a popular tourist destination for the UK market. The drive I would class as scenic, you are driving along a ravine with roads cut around winding hills. You will notice your ears popping as your car will make a gradual climb in altitude, there are signs on the way telling you how many metres above sea level you are.

The journey takes you through small local towns with quaint little coffee shops and patisseries, it’s good to have a stop and take in your surroundings while eating a fine tasting pastry. Leaving Nice and Antibes behind allows you to brush up on your French as English is less spoken in the local town and mountain regions, this is what makes it a wonderful place, the real France. Along one of our coffee stops I have a few photo opportunities, I notice beside our table is a praying Mantis. I have never seen one so close before and practically fell into it with excitement. I snap away as close as possible hoping not to scare it away before I take my perfect picture, luckily this was a co-operative Mantis.

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Even though you are not far from the city when visiting Mercantour it is ideal to spend a night or two. At the time, I didn’t know how vast the area is and discovered through research online that there are major mountain hikes and many spectacular summits, one of the popular routes is Les Vallee des Merveilles, which has ancient rock carvings that you can see along the way. You would need to spend quite a bit of time if you wanted to hike the entire area, you can even cross into other parts of Europe through the mountains. Along with the walking, the park offers natural flora and fauna, bird watching and a wolf sanctuary. My Dad organised a two-night break and even had a route mapped out for our climb the following day.

We’re staying at a hotel in an area called Lac du Borean (Lake Borean), the hotel is Le Cavalet hotel which is in a stunning location with the lake opposite and the mountains surrounding you, the hotel looks like a typical wooden ski chalet which fits the area. The location suits us perfectly and is so peaceful. If you are looking for a quiet escape, then this is the place to be. My Dad carefully chose this hotel and location because of the route he has chosen for us, this hotel is located at the base of our walk. You are a little out of the way, the hotel however has its own restaurant. You can drive to the next nearest town which we passed through called St Martin Vesubie, (this is less than ten minutes’ drive) there are a lot of local restaurants and hotels. If you want to be in a local town then this is a good place to stay and good position for you to go on your hike. As we are only staying two nights and preferred to be closer to our start point, then Le Cavalet is perfect. I saw quite a few other climbers with tents camping near the lake, if hotels and camping isn’t for you then you can stay in Gites (French mountain chalets) these are comfortable and can be basic but offers you a great experience.

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we awoke early and have a full hearty breakfast provided by our hotel. We then walk to the base of our journey and check the many maps located around the park which highlights all the various walking routes you can take. The route we are going for is Col de Cerise. If you are unsure which option to walk then you could decide on the day as there are many information centres, the hotel staff will also be able to guide your decision and the maps will offer route information and times of how long it will take. My Dad wanted us to experience walking from France to the border pass of Italy, the Col de Cerise route offers this and sounds incredibly exciting.

The part I’m already impressed with, is the amount of information there is for you. We have in the past used a mountain guide to help us, however you can be a lot more independent in Mercantour. We don’t really have any navigation experience but the information is so clearly mapped out for you. On the map, it shows our chosen route in yellow, as we walk in the direction of Col de Cerise, there are further markings in yellow to guide you as well as signs showing you the way.

The morning seems cool as we start, but as we make our gradual climb, we can feel it warming up. The first part feels like a nature walk through a forest. The walk doesn’t even feel very steep so we don’t even realise that we are gradually getting higher. You’re starting at an altitude of 1480m approximately from the hotel in Lac du Borean.  The walk is gorgeous, I am stopping to take pictures of the natural environment, it’s a pleasant stroll so far. There are a few early climbers out with us which is sensible to make a start whilst it is still relatively cool. We come across another sign pointing us to the Col de Cerise route and advising that from the point we are standing at it will be 2 ½ hours. This is the direction we head towards but come across a gate that seems to have closed off the route. Thinking we will turn and try an alternative, my Dad opens the gate saying its fine as it isn’t locked and we can walk through. There is a sign next to the gate with a notice written in French that neither of us can read. For all we know it could say this route will be your last, but us being the dare devils that we are, we choose to ignore it.

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The sun starts to appear in full force, so much so I must make a quick spare shirt change as I stupidly wore long sleeves! Luckily, we are still in a forest so are pretty shaded from the trees. I look up towards the remainder of our route which still seems quite far away and realise that we will need to make use of the trees now while we have them, because by the looks of it, the higher you go the lesser the shade. It’s a beautifully hot day; our view of the mountain is amazing. It just doesn’t feel like we are in France, the area is very dry as it is September but in another month or two this will all be snowed over and the ski seasons will begin.

I have never been a nature photographer but you will be once you begin this walk. My back pack is filled with my essentials, my cameras, a spare lens, food (packed lunch provided by our hotel) and water. As I see different beetles or bees, or any strange bug that I can’t name I’m snapping away. There are mountain cows in the distance as well, which we cannot see but can hear their bells faintly. We eventually see brown cows gathered in a group grazing, it seems like they are equally trying to shade from the sun which is now in full force. Our pace of walking is slow so I am certain we will not be at the border pass in 2 ½ hours as stated on the sign. That time is more than likely based on a fast and athletic climber, which is definitely not us.

The heat has started to make the journey a lot harder and whilst the terrain is smooth with a gradual uphill climb, the forest has started to disappear. The shaded areas are disappearing making the walk much more strenuous. We hear water in the distance and thankfully make our next pit stop at a beautiful natural spring. This is quite shaded and we refill our bottles with the purest tasting water. We spend quite a while here and splash some water on our melting sizzling faces.

From the springs onwards, it starts to become quite tough, we don’t even realise that we have been walking a few hours already and still not at the top. Another strange observation I make is the fact that in all this time since we left the base, we have not seen a soul. Perhaps we shouldn’t even be on this route, or it just isn’t popular. I must admit, having this route and mountain completely to ourselves is great. I never like a crowded, or touristy place so this is ideal. The terrain has now started to have a lot more boulders because we are very near to our finish line. Each one of us are tiring, but you can tell we are close as the scene has changed from greenery to grey dry rocks and boulders. Finally, I see a couple pass us heading back down, I sigh a little relief in seeing them, we were not entirely sure if we were supposed to be on this route because of the gate at the beginning, however if they are here then we can be too (I hope).

The top of Col de Cerise is here, my father is the first one to pass that finish line, and I follow behind taking my last few steps to see the most incredible sight I have ever seen in my climbs to date! I look back to see how far my travel companion Dipali is from crossing this finish line, she also takes her last couple of steps using every breath she has to have a foot in Italy and a foot in France. I have never seen such an amazing view, it is like I’m standing with a fake background that has been photoshopped. I love getting to the top of a mountain and enjoying the peace and beauty, Mercantour, Col de Cerise is hands down the most gorgeous sight!

Each one of us take a picture with a foot in each country, then sit to enjoy our lunch between two countries at 2543m high. This is the best lunch location I have ever been to, and to top this off, we don’t have to share this experience or view with anyone, well, except a mountain goat that I see from the corner of my eye. The goat is on top of a rock studying these weird humans invading his space, I sit and watch our new goat pal, who tires of us and walks back down the mountain, expertly treading on the boulders at an incredible speed. This particular goat who has a gorgeous brown outfit with a dark shade on his ears and eyes is apparently exclusive to this region of France. I snap a few photos of our pal who stops each time I do and stares into my camera lens as if he is posing, this goat is literally the best model I have ever had and knows how to work a camera.

The time on top sadly comes to an end but we have regained our energy after sitting and eating, there is also a slight pleasant breeze cooling us down.  As much as we would love to sit here for a while we must start making the journey back down.

Like all climbs I have done so far, the struggle is always on the descent. This is not a terrible journey because the terrain has been more of a walk than a physical climb. There are a few boulders to tackle which is nearer the summit but then you are taking a steady downhill walk. I do struggle on one boulder which I must manoeuvre skilfully as it’s a little slippery. This part is quite scary because a slight slip up here could be fatal. This is a drawback of such a quiet path, there would be no one to assist (quite a scary thought). As I step across, my rucksack decides to swing around and pushes an unexpected amount of weight to one side making me slip a little. My father, quickly steps back on to the boulder and helps me with ease getting me safely across, who needs superman with a Dad like mine.

The tiredness has set in, on the walk up we were very chirpy and talkative, now we are silently and slowly walking.  We reach the springs again which we decide to have a break and replenish our water supplies. There is a huge family of brown cows drinking at the stream. We sit on a rock near the water and a baby calf breaks from the group to stand nearer to us out of curiosity. Behind the calf, an enormous cow which I would assume is its mother, also steps forward and fixes her eyes onto us, this must be to make sure we don’t hurt her baby. I nervously get up and tell everyone we should move away as the mother looks as if she is getting herself into a charging position. I don’t want to have completed my hardest climb only to be smashed to pieces by a herd of nervous cows.

Finally, we get back to the base where we began our journey. I am unsure as to how long we have been walking for today. It is only until I look at my phone and realise that we started at around 9 in the morning and it’s now 6 in the evening! This has been the best and hardest trek I have done so far and this isn’t really that much more than my climb to Ben Nevis or Snowdon. Col de Cerise you start your climb at nearly 1500m, the top is 2543m. What made this a tough climb would be the powerful sun rays. There is good stop off points, especially near the stream.

This has been an incredible experience, the chosen route I would highly recommend for so many reasons. To narrow down the top reasons I would say are, the nature trail, the forest combined with a fantastic terrain to walk on, the beautiful spring water streams, the clear route markings that follow you all the way to the top allowing you a safe self-guided climb, but the most important reason is the finish line. To be able to walk the border pass of two beautiful countries and have a foot in each is the highlight. I must hand this to my Dad completely for knowing all the best places to visit and finding the most incredible adventure. Spending the two nights, allowing us the full mountain stay experience and escaping the tourist spots is a must for anyone visiting the South of France. Mercantour is only an hour from the city of Nice, it is a must visit and being less commercial, offers great deals on hotels. I thank my Dad for keeping his promise of an adventure, had he not introduced me to Mercantour I would never have known about this hidden gem.

Follow my hike on you tube

SNCF Voyage train tickets click here https://uk.voyages-sncf.com/en/#/

Information Centre – routes https://www.departement06.fr/en-activite-257.html

Hotel Le Chalet du Cavalet http://hotelrestaurant-lecavalet.com

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