Follow the legendary GR5, a long-distance hiking trail, through the eyes of one of our adventurers.
In early September, my wife and I completed the Mont Blanc to the Mediterranean hiking trip—our 12th trip with Wilderness Travel. We had done several trips in the mountains of Europe, including the Great Alpine Traverse. However, this was the first trip that required a permission slip from our doctor to participate. We wondered why… now we know. It is a wonderful trip, full of great sights and tremendous scenery of the French Alps. But it is also a very demanding trip, hiking 8 to 10 hours almost every day and always requiring a significant uphill climb in the morning, followed by an equal descent in the afternoon. It’s a great trip that will get you into shape.
We were amazed in the change in scenery as the trip progressed over 12 days hiking through three national parks. At the start, we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks with deep green valleys. The closer we got to the Mediterranean, however, the land became more arid and the hills were dotted with olive trees. During our hikes, we passed by numerous soaring peaks, mountain lakes, rushing streams and waterfalls. Each day gave us many beautiful views!
Our trip was headed by two very experienced guides—Stephan Renard and Clive Roberts. We had never traveled with either of them, but quickly grew fond of their guiding style. Stephan is a fun-loving Frenchman and Clive is an equally fun Irishman. They appear to get along well with each other and had a tremendous rapport with us. We learned a lot from these two “characters”, including some of the history of the Alps, including the ever-changing border with Italy and the defenses set up and battles fought during the war.
We always pay close attention to the recommended packing list before we start a trip, as we prefer not to over-pack. But in this case, we were glad we paid attention because I think we wore/used almost everything in our suitcases.
The weather in the Alps can be extreme, so yes, we needed our raincoats and fleece jackets, but we also needed our shorts, bandanas, and t-shirts. Of the 12 hiking days, we had perfect, sunny weather for 9 of them. The other 3 days were a little “iffier”, but we only needed our hiking umbrella for one of them. Stephan and Clive indicated that you never know about the weather, but they’ve run the trips many times without any weather issues.
One morning, we did attempt to drive over the Col de La Bonette, the highest paved road in the Alps (8,907 ft), but the guides wisely decided not to finish the attempt as it started snowing near the top and the roads were getting a bit slick. We quickly headed towards lower ground.
The food and wine throughout the trip was very good. Because we were primarily in small towns and villages, we ate simple and hearty foods – beef, lamb, chicken, and trout. Sometimes we ordered off the menu and other times the meal was based on what the restaurant was cooking that day. Most were very quaint places, but all were very good. Two of our favorite meals were a raclette dinner in Pralognan-La-Vanoise (a wedge of cheese is gradually melted at your table and poured over your plate of potatoes, onions and prosciutto), and a pizza dinner at Le Vieux Four in St-Martin-Vesubie. The pizza restaurant was in a narrow, stone-walled building in a little village. We were immediately greeted by Alain, the very gregarious owner, as if we were long lost relatives. He made great individual pizzas in a wood-fired oven—smiling, laughing and talking the whole time.
The food on the hikes was also very good. Depending on the day, we either stopped at a refuge (usually near the top of one of the passes) or carried picnic lunches.
At one refuge, four of us ordered the same “house” omelette. Instead of four omelettes, they brought out one giant omelette—it had to be the world’s largest! I’m sure it was 36” across and 4” tall—made with at least 20 eggs. They must have been hiding a huge frying pan in the back! We were so shocked by the size that no one thought to take a photo.
We were lucky enough to view a small Beaufort cheese-making operation before one of our morning hikes.
We just happened to park right next to the building and Stephan and Clive noticed that they were just separating the curds from the whey and shaping a cheese wheel. Great timing!
As you may know, there is not much wildlife in this part of Europe. Sure, we passed many cows and sheep on our hikes (sometimes right on the trail), and heard and saw many marmots, but very few other animals.
But towards the end of the trip we did run across a group of six male ibex with their large, curved horns. Later, we spotted several chamoix in the Vallee des Merveilles in the Mercantour National Park.
At the end of the last hike as we approached the Mediterranean, we were greeted by Clive, who was driving the van that day. He pulled out a bottle of champagne as a celebration.
It was a nice conclusion to a great trip.
Of course, that was followed shortly thereafter by a plunge into the sea—right across the street from our hotel in Menton.
—Text and photos by 12-time WT adventurer Steve Hathaway, Mont Blanc to the Mediterranean.