Distance: About 17 kilometers round trip
Difficulty: Moderate, climbing for about 1/2 the trip, but nothing too intense
Approximate Time: Around 5 to 6 hours for the entire hike, depending on your pace
The red sand kept shifting beneath my feet as I carefully made my way down a steep incline on the trail. Actually, sand really isn’t the best description for what was making my way difficult. It was more like semi-finely ground shale. Bigger and thicker than sand, but not gravel either. Myla, my border-collie mix, was having no trouble with the descent, running ahead of me on her own, looking back occasionally to make sure I was still coming. All around me the bright blue sky contrasted sharply with the huge red rock formations which this “sand” had once been a part of.
Together with our friends Doug and Maureen, Myla and I were on our way to visit the abandoned village of Amen (pronounced “ah-may”) in the wonderful Gorges de Daluis, a deep canyon through striking red rock formations that is sometimes referred to as the “Little Colorado of Nice.” Our hike would take us up into the mountains surrounding the gorges and through an impressive section of the red rocks.
We had spent almost two hours driving from Vence to the small town of Guillaumes where the hike began. The Gorges de Daluis run for about six kilometers alongside the Var River in the northwest section of the Alpes-Maritimes department. During the summer months the road is often full of cars, campers, minivans, bikes and motorcycles as tourists from near and far make their way through the stunning rock formations. On this early April morning we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.
This valley was not always the tourist destination that it is today. For centuries the inhabitants of many small villages strung alongside the Var River and in the mountains above it lived in relative isolation. It wasn’t until 1878 when a departmental road was built between the lower section of the Var Valley and the small village of Guillaumes that the valley first began to open up. A tramway line was finished in 1923 that greatly enhanced the development of the region, allowing tourists and trade an easy way into the valley. Numerous tunnels and bridges were created to complete the road and tramway line. The tramway only lasted about six years before it became too expensive to continue and car traffic along the road made it obsolete.
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Somewhere in one of my many visits to various Offices de Tourisme here in the Alpes-Maritimes I had picked up a small 8-page brochure entitled Amen, en balcon sur les Gorges de Daluis (Amen, on a balcony over the Daluis Gorges). (Download a copy of this brochure in French or English.) I was already quite familiar with the Gorges de Daluis, having ridden through them many times on my bike and driven through as well by car. I had, however, never heard of the village (well, really it’s what’s known as a “hameau” or hamlet since it is/was very small) of Amen. Not really much of a surprise since the place has been abandoned for almost 80 years, with the last inhabitants leaving just after the World War II. The brochure outlined what looked like a superb six hour hike from Guillaumes to Amen and back. I showed the brochure to Doug and Maureen and they were eager to make the hike with Myla and me.
Just before reaching Guillaumes there is a nice parking area on the left side of the road right next to the Var River at a bridge called Pont des Roberts. We parked there and began our preparations for the hike. The only other people around were a small group of young men heading out to do some “canyoning.” Very popular in the mountains of southern France, canyoning is the sport of “hiking” or “climbing” in a river. Not next to or beside the river, but actually in the river. Since the rivers in this part of the country contain lots of rocks, rapids, cascades and steep inclines this can be quite an adventurous sport.
The hike begins directly across from the small parking lot and is very easy to find. Balise #111 marks the beginning and points to “Hameau d’Amen,” among other destinations. Some informational signs contained material about the gorges, area trails, canyoning and more. We set off if in the cool morning air with bright blue skies above us. A perfect day for a hike in the mountains. Our route resembled that of a balloon on a long string. The first and last parts of the hike covered the same portion of trail with a large loop in the middle.
The trail we were taking dates back to at least the 2nd or 3rd century when Romans used mules to traverse the mountains and the valleys between the Mediterranean Sea and their cities located to the north. Century after century it continued to provide an important route for both commercial and cultural exchanges between the people along the coast and those who chose to dwell in the more isolated mountain villages. This trail was the main route connecting the upper Var valley with the town of Puget-Théniers to the south via the Roua Pass for many centuries. It became less important once the modern road was built in 1878.
The first few kilometers pass through a nice forest of Austrian Black Pine with what I would describe as a gentle uphill incline through a succession of switchbacks. All along this portion of the route residents once cultivated small crops by “terracing” the sides of the mountain. Today broom and thyme grow wild in these long abandoned beds. The trail is well defined and very well marked with yellow paint stripes on rocks and trees. At this point it’s mostly dirt with some loose gravel, not a lot of rocks to worry about.
Beautiful views of the Var Valley can be seen from the trail and the higher up you get the more majestic they become. Shortly the switchbacks end and the trail turns to the left following another small valley into the mountains. At about the 2 1/2 kilometer mark we arrived at a small stone and wood bridge which spans the tiny little Vallon de Tirebœuf. It was here that we found the young canyoners we had seen in the parking lot. They were gearing up for their trip down a stream which would eventually lead them back to the Var River.
Shortly after this bridge the trail became a bit steeper and a little more rockier. We passed a section where someone had constructed a “stairway” in the trail with large rocks to make the incline easier to traverse. A forest of Scots Pines now surrounded us, keeping us cool as the dark blue sky and bright beams of sunlight peaked through the towering branches. Balise #112 appeared right around the 4 kilometer point. This balise marks the turning point where the trail creates a large loop through the gorges. You can take either direction, left or right, and eventually you’ll return back to this same point. We took the left option and headed for Amen.
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The Hamlet of Amen
Even more magnificent views of the valley below came into view as we made our way towards Amen. The road below us snaked along the side of the mountain and once again I marveled at the time, energy, skill and money that must have gone into creating a road like this out of nothing.
Around 5 kilometers into the hike we crested a small pass and made our way into an adjoining valley. A large rock skree covered the trail for a short time but the rocks were fairly small and easy to walk over. Far off in the distance, across the valley, it’s possible to see the small village of Daluis perched high on the mountainside above the road.
Some more switchbacks took us higher and higher into the mountains and to balise #113 where we were presented with the option to turn in the direction of Haute Villetalle and Villetalle Basse or continue on towards Amen, which is what we did. Within just a few minutes the first signs of the tiny village appeared, a glimpse of the top of the church. Another balise, this one #114, appeared and then we were in Amen.
Today it’s hard to believe that at one time, not that long ago, over one hundred and twenty people lived and worked in this tiny community. A priest and a teacher made their homes here. Families worked the land, using every flat piece of earth they could find and creating more through terracing. Now there is not much more than a string of dilapidated structures slowly being overtaken by vegetation. Many of the roofs have been removed and the materials transported elsewhere. Very few of the buildings still maintain all four walls.
The town reached its summit at the end of the 18th century when the village farmers began deserting their crops to work in nearby mines. King Louis XIV granted the Lord of the region, Messire Villeneuve de Beauregard, rights to exploit copper, iron, gold and other minerals in the area. Every year over three thousand tons of ore, carried by mules, was processed in a nearby hamlet known as Léouvé, where today a copper museum is located.
What happened to Amen? Why did it not survive when so many other small villages and hamlets in these mountains did? One likely culprit is the lack of a real road. While the ancient mule path that we were hiking on served the town well for century upon century, there came a time when it was simply no longer enough. Slowly but surely the inhabitants were lured away to nearby towns and villages with roads that connected to the outside world, bringing goods, merchandise and so much more that would never be found in Amen.
The Notre-Dame des Neiges chapel (Our Lady of the Snow chapel) and the old schoolhouse remain as the only two structures in the hamlet which have been restored (at least partially) and maintained. Standing on the edge of the town the chapel features a Provençal style steeple-wall with a bell. The little steeple-wall once contained two arcades, but today there is only one. Dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist it was restored in 1993 and features a painting by J.M. Jaubert.
A small oratoire (oratory) can be found on the opposite side of the town. What clearly appears to be a town cemetery features a stone wall, iron gate and large iron cross, though no headstones or markers are to be found anywhere inside the walls (which seems a bit strange). During the summer months sheep, goats and cows can often be found roaming through the ruined buildings and little dirt streets. In August of every year a pilgrimage is made from Guillaumes to Amen to celebrate the chapel.
The Red Pelites
The red rock that makes the Gorges de Daluis so special (and the neighboring Gorges du Cians as well) is a type of “pelite,” also sometimes called “mudstone” or “siltstone.” It was formed from a mix of volcanic ash and fine mud during the Permian Period 250 million years ago. During this time the sea could be found to the north and the mountains to the south, opposite of what we have today.
Over millions of years layers of limestone, sandstone, gypsum and gray marl were torn and fractured by erosion exposing the red pelites below. Melting glaciers dug the deep gorges through the red pelites and left us with what we now see today. Pressure and heat combined to transform this mixture into the red rock, shale and sand that covers the area. The wine red color is a result of the oxidation of iron which this rock contains.
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A Small Detour to the Clue d’Amen
Leaving the village we noted an unnumbered balise which also offered a route to La Collette, Le Lavigné and Baisse de Barrot. We opted for the direction of the Clue d’Amen where a small bridge overlooks a stream that runs down from the mountains to the gorges below. The trail turns down almost immediately out of the village and can be a bit steep in some places. As I noted at the beginning of this article the red sand-like substance that covers much of the ground can be quite slippery when you are trying to descend.
This is where the portion of the hike that travels through the red rock areas of the gorges really begins in earnest. Very quickly the trees disappear and everything appears red in all directions. Red rocks, red sand, red rubble. The trail became a bit more difficult to follow and at one point we actually lost it for a short time. Gone were the frequent yellow markings on the the trees and rocks which had marked the trail so well at the beginning. Fortunately, previous hikers had left many “cairns” (small piles of stones) to help mark the way. We soon came upon balise #115 reassuring us that we were indeed on the correct path. This was also the place where we made a small detour down to the Clue d’Amen.
The clue itself is a very small portion of a stream with a bridge over it. It lies about 9 kilometers into the hike. Made from stone and wood the bridge provided an excellent place for us to stop and eat lunch. Myla and I walked down to the water where she played a bit in the current. After lunch we retraced our steps back up to balise #115 and began the walk back to our starting point.
A Balcony Trail
The final portion of the hike consists of walking on what is often called a “balcony” trail and it is my favorite part of the trip. The trail winds around the side of a mountain overlooking the valley below and it often really does feel as if you are treading along a little balcony on the edge of the mountain. In some places the drop-off is quite substantial, but luckily the trail is wide and very secure. It’s mostly flat, which is a nice change of pace from the constant ups and downs we had experienced earlier.
At this point all the sand and dirt is red. The sides of the mountains are full of red rocks and sometimes rows and rows of layers of red rock stacked one upon the other. We saw an old abandoned set of buildings, perhaps one was a house and the other a barn? Halfway up the side of a mountain, completely isolated and alone with not single other structure anywhere to be seen. All around the buildings, below and above, to the left and the right, are slabs of red rock, sticking out from the mountain like shards of broken glass. The two buildings sit on what seems like the only tiny piece of flat land on the entire mountainside. My mind filled with ideas about who lived here, why they chose this remote, secluded location and what, in the end, happened to them.
High above us on the right Amen could be seen, clinging to the edge of the mountain side. As we progressed along the side of the mountain we were greeted with more stunning views of the Var Valley below. Way off in the distance to the north Guillaumes was visible, sitting at the bottom of the valley, completely surrounded by mountains.
We came across several interesting signs erected by the Réserve Naturelle Régionale Gorges de Daluis with information about the area and the wildlife. There was even a nice sign letting us know that we were officially leaving the Gorges and thanking us for our visit.
Eventually we looped back around to balise #112 where we had made an earlier split and then we followed the same trail we started up on back to the car. Overall, a very interesting hike full of great trails and lot of things to see. We had absolutely gorgeous weather and a lovely day. This is a hike I would highly recommend if you are in the area and one that I’m sure I’ll do again at some point.
Important Notes: This hike can be done at any time of the year except some parts of winter when there may be snow. I would definitely avoid it if there is any sign of rain or if it has rained much in the previous 24 hours as the trail can get quite slippery when wet. As always you’ll want to make sure you have good hiking boots and plenty of water. I would suggest at least two liters of water for this hike, more if you are hiking in the heat. You will NOT be able to find food and water anywhere along the hike. The best time to make this hike in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest, the best time in the spring or fall is early in the afternoon when things have warmed up a bit. You’ll probably want a hat and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. During the spring and fall you might want a jacket and even gloves and a warm hat. You should always hike with a first aid kit, a good knife, a raincoat, a flashlight and a whistle. If you are hiking alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.
Guillaume is located in the Alpes-Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of southeast France. From Nice, Antibes or Cannes (or anywhere in that area) take the M6202 (Route de Grenoble) north following along the Var River. The road will split to follow the M2205 to the right up into the Tinée Valley or to the left along the D6202 still following the Var River which is what you want. Pass through Puget-Théniers and the road will turn into the D4202. After Entrevaux the road (and the river) turn north. After a few kilometers follow the D902 further up the Var Valley. It turns into the D2202 and will take you straight to Guillaumes.
If you’re coming from the north you’ll want to take the D902 out of Barcelonnette and follow it up over the Col de la Cayole. It will turn into the D2202 and take you straight to Guillaumes.
Park in the small parking lot at Pont des Roberts, about 1 kilometer south of Guillaumes. The hike starts almost directly across from the parking lot.
What: Hiking from Guillaumes to Amen and back in the Var Valley
Where: Guillaumes (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: Spring, Summer & Fall
Phone: Office de Tourisme/Guillaumes – 04 93 05 57 76
Hike Website: circuit-d-amen-9053.html
Download a PDF about the hike and Amen in French and/or English.