STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Hiking Across the Mercantour National Park
Day 3 – July 6: Boréon to la Madone de Fenestre

August 24, 2022

This article is covers day three of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park known as the “Grande Traversée du Mercantour.” You’ll find links at the bottom to the other days.

I knew as soon as I started researching this trip that day three was going to be a pivotal one. A “make or break” day for me if you will. Why? The second day, from the Refuge Questa in Italy to the small hamlet of Boréon in France was one of the longest of the eight hikes, almost 22 kilometers (about 14 miles) over 7 hours with a lot of descending (which is hard on the knees and feet). Day three wasn’t as long, just under 15 kilometers over 6 hours, but it had a LOT of climbing, 1,045 meters (3,428 feet), the second most of any day. So I figured if I wasn’t up for this entire trip day three would break me with all that climbing after such a long hike the day before. Spoiler alert: I did just fine.

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Leaving Boréon

We left bright and early Wednesday morning, on the trail by 07h00. Unfortunately, we still had to deal with a bit of a detour from the normal route due to Tempête Alex which had destroyed part of the trail in October 2020. This entailed walking a short distance on the asphalt road (never fun) and then taking an alternate trail for the first couple of kilometers. Thankfully we didn’t need to spend anywhere near the amount of time on the road as we did the afternoon before. Fairly quickly we reached a nice trail that was wide and very well-defined, consisting mostly of small loose rock and dirt. With a gentle incline it was the perfect way to begin a long climb.

The detour route was very well marked with large yellow and green signs on the balises which contained the GTM (la Grand Traversée du Mercantour) sign and said, “Déviation Temporaire.” A large black arrow made sure we knew which direction to go. We continued on this route for several kilometers as the sun rose over the mountain peaks around us. Eventually we reached balise #421 where we connected with the normal route and the real climbing began.

The first part of the climb was through some of the most beautiful forested areas that we would encounter on the entire trip. The nearby village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie is a destination point for hikers from all over Europe (if not the world). It’s not hard to see why. With a distinctive Alpine feel, large snow capped mountains, deep narrow valleys with steep rocky slopes, an incredibly rich environment of flora and fauna and overall magnificent weather, it’s a hiker’s paradise.

Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.
Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.

We followed a small river up through a valley full of larch, pine and spruce trees dotted with small pastures and lots of grass and flowers. There weren’t any lakes along this portion of the hike but hiking alongside the river was wonderful and every now and then we would come across a small waterfall. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and it was still relatively cool. A really beautiful portion of the hike.

That said, we did have to work our way through lots of climbing including a good deal of what we call “step” climbing. Walking a level path with a steep incline takes strength and energy but it’s almost always preferable to portions of a trail where you have to continually step up as you would on a flight of stairs. This takes even more strength and can be harder on the knees. Sometimes in the mountains these sections of step climbs are completely natural as large rocks are embedded in the trail which you have to step over. Other times, as was the case in several extended sections on this day, they are man-made.

Over the years someone has spent a considerable amount of time gathering stones and creating what can only be called “mountain staircases.” The good news is that even though these sections are more difficult to traverse they provide a quick increase in elevation. In a few places we even encountered some stone pathways for a short distance where the ground has been dug up and flat stones have been laid next to each other to form a solid trail. No dirt or loose rock. Pretty impressive.

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Refuge de la Cougourde & Lac de Trécolpas

We crossed several small well-constructed wooden bridges and about halfway through the hike (around 09h40) we reached a small refuge, Refuge de la Courgourde. It was not our final destination on this hike, as we were going on to the Madone de Fenestre, but like all refuges it is used as a place to have lunch or stay overnight by many hikers, just those doing slightly different routes than ours. We stopped for a snack and a short rest. They had a small fountain where we refilled our water bottles. There were only a few hikes on this trip where we had the opportunity to take on more water during the hike so we were grateful for that.

I made the mistake of asking if they had a trashcan where I could throw away the wrapper from my energy bar. “Non,” was all the man said and I understood my faux pas immediately. Most of these refuges are miles and miles from the nearest road. The only real way to get supplies in (and trash out) is via a helicopter. They certainly aren’t going to let people leave trash behind as it makes for a lot of work and expense on their end to get it back to civilization where it can be properly disposed of. I should have remembered that and I didn’t ask again at any of the other refuges.

At this point we were getting close to the top of the tree line, but not quite. There were still lots of beautiful coniferous trees all around. We had to cross several rock slides (or boulder fields) during this part of the hike. Most of the time these are not particularly dangerous but they do require some extra care when stepping from one large rock to another. It can get a bit tedious if they are especially large areas but these weren’t particularly too big. In another thirty minutes or so we reached Lac de Trécolpas, the only real lake we encountered on this particular hike. It’s quite beautiful and of particular interest because it has a small island near one end. However, due to the current drought in this part of France the island was now a peninsula.

Pas des Ladres

A slight uphill climb with a series of switchbacks took us towards the Pas des Ladres and the end of our ascent. By now nearly all of the trees and greenery were gone, replaced by dirt, gravel, rocks and stones. The final push to the top of the crest was fairly steep but the path was well defined so we worked our way up it pretty quickly.

Looking back from the top provided an absolutely stunning view of the valley below and Lac de Trécolpas, surrounded by towering mountain ranges and a blue sky filled with perfect white clouds. These are the moments that make trips like this so special and so worthwhile. Doug and I often talk about the fact that we are so lucky to see these places, to experience these views, to marvel before these landscapes. The vast, vast majority of people will never have the chance to experience this wonder. It makes all the hard work, the seemingly endless climbs and unending descents worth it.

The climbing was over and now we began the descent to reach la Madone de Fenestre. The trail was steep and rocky (what else is new), no trees or greenery to be seen anywhere. We encountered a small group of bouquetin (Alpine Ibex) a kind of wild goat that live throughout the Alpes. Both males and females have large, curved horns and their coats are generally brownish grey. They didn’t seem too bothered by us and let us get pretty close so we took lots of great photos. Still, we had no idea if these animals can become aggressive and with the horns that they have we were careful to keep a safe distance. During the first part of our trip Doug was keeping track of the bouquetin and chamois (a beautiful antelope type animal also very common in this area) that we saw. But quickly he realized we were seeing way to many to keep track of and he abandoned that idea.

The long and winding trail took us down the rock covered mountainside, past the Lac de Fenestre in the distance on our left and eventually we arrived at the refuge. A few trees and more and more patches of grass began to appear the farther down we got.

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Doug and I arrived at the refuge a little tired, but overall in great shape. I was both relieved and excited that I had done so well on this stage. It gave me the confidence that I could certainly do the entire trip (barring any unforeseen problems or issues). We ate our picnic lunches and then settled into our bunks in the dormitory. The room here was larger with more beds and more people, maybe sixteen or so in general. Once again, showers and toilets down the hall. We spent the remainder of the day exploring the immediate area. A huge “vacherie” (cowshed) is located just below the refuge and we could hear the distant sound of cowbells ringing in the distance as the cows wandered along the side of a small river.

Dinner was great and we met a Frenchman by the name of Dominique (also a vegetarian like myself) who was beginning at this refuge and making a six day trip to Menton as opposed to our eight day trip from Isola 2000. We also met a group of five young English teenagers (one of whom was a vegetarian as well) who had just graduated from high school and decided to make the same six day journey as a special adventure. We all spent some time getting to know each other, exchanging stories and information, in a mixture of both French and English. It turned out they had seated us all together because they wanted to keep the three vegetarians at the same table. Doug was temporarily terrified he would have to eat a veggie meal, but nothing to worry about, they brought him a fine dinner of penne pasta and beef bourguignon.

The refuge is located right next to the Chapelle de la Madone de Fenestre. Situated about 13 kilometers from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, this chapel is one of the most well known in the area. First built in 887 by the Benedictines it was destroyed by the Saracens in the 10th century. The Templars rebuilt it during the 13th century and converted it into a hospital. Later it became a refuge for travelers making the journey from Nice to Piedmont via the Fenestre Pass. Several fires destroyed much of the chapel over the ensuing centuries and it was looted during the French Revolution.

What exists today was built mostly in the 19th century. It only became definitively French after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1947. Every year two annual processions are made from Saint-Martin-Vésubie on foot up to the chapel to celebrate la Vierge Notre-Dame de Fenestre (The Virgin Our Lady of Fenestre). Sadly, the chapel was closed and we were unable to go inside, but I was able to take a photo through one of the windows.

Follow our path for the day. (Video copyright Michel Peracchia FFRandonnée 2022)

Stats for the day:
Approximate Distance: 14.7 kilometers (9 miles)
Total Time: 6 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +1,045 meters (3,428 feet)
Elevation Gain in Flights of Stairs: 270
Approximate Descent: -680 meters (2,231 feet)

This article covers day three of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park. Click one of the links to read about the other days.

Intro | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8

Juste les Faits:
What: Hiking across the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes
Where: Boréon (Alpes-Maritimes) to Madone de Fenestre (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: July through September
Phone: Office de Tourisme/Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée – 04 93 02 41 96
Park Website: mercantour-parcnational.fr
Hike Website: randoxygene.departement06.fr
Facebook: ParcnationalduMercantour
Download a PDF of the entire Grande Traversée du Mercantour: ParcnationalduMercantour

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Steve and Carole in Vence