Some years ago I walked the GR5 route covering the whole way from just north of Lake Geneva to Nice. On the last week or so we met a couple from Austria, Gerald and Anne, who walked with us for several days but chose, after St Dalmas, to follow the GR 52 to Menton. I really respected and enjoyed their company and kept in contact for nearly a year after. But Gerald was being treated for leukemia and I fear it beat him soon after and the contact was lost. Since then I have wanted to try this alternative trek, in part to recall Gerald’s memory. And this year I did. To be absolutely honest we did not follow the entire route for some practical reasons but we think we caught the best bits at the best times. This is my record of the trek taken with 3 colleagues L, E and D, with many thanks for their company and shared enjoyment and wonder.
We used a combination of IGN maps, blue series TOP 25, and the excellent Topoguide 507 Le Mercantour (16th edition 2015). Please be aware that the GR 52 route has been changed and our, somewhat older, IGN maps show a different route from the guide book. In this case the guide book tallied with the excellent “on the ground” markers. Another very useful aid to route finding is the use of numbers on route signs, generally at path intersections. These numbers are repeated in the guide book and on IGN maps. Generally, route finding is simple and the red/white (for GR routes) and yellow paint splashes (for other main paths) are very prominent but the numbers give great reassurance (one example below).
In order to get to the GR 52 route quickly we flew from the UK to Nice and took a 730 bus from the airport to St Martin Vesubie. There are only two buses a day, morning and evening, but the fare is only 1.50 Euro and it puts you down in the village centre ready to start walking on the morrow. I had made reservations for all our overnight stops beforehand and deliberately avoided staying in what I thought would be the “honeypot” Refuges over the weekend.
On arrival at Nice airport we had a couple of hours to kill before our bus was due. We used this time to establish precisely where the bus stop was. This was not quite as straightforward as I expected and turned out to be outside the airport on a dual carriageway. Once that was established we had a coffee while a very energetic thunderstorm passed over. We found the bus stop and waited anxiously as the timetable arrival time passed by with no sign of our bus. About 25 minutes late it turned up, just about full up. The driver told us to put our rucksacks in the luggage compartments. The ones on the kerb side of the bus were full to overflowing so we had to venture into the traffic side of the bus, which we did slowly and nervously. It was rush hour! The driver lost patience and jumped out and strode into oncoming traffic to open the up and over doors. We stowed our stuff and took the few remaining seats. We were now at least half an hour behind schedule and the driver threw the bus around to make up the time. As we climbed out of the Nice suburbs and onto narrow mountain roads it became quite hairy. But we arrived safely and just about on time.
Our stop for the first night was in Gite La Rougiere. The Gite was just off the town square, a little difficult to find and basic but cheap at 18 Euros pppn for the bed only, though there were basic self-catering facilities. We shared a 5 bed dortoir (2 bunk beds and a single) for the four of us; in other rooms there were two other guests, one of whom had just walked the other way on the GR52 starting in Menton.
There was plenty of choice of eating places that evening though I made a bad menu choice “Reblochon poulet”. I expected some veg and should have asked but what appeared was a bowl of liquid cheese with submerged chicken bits, many of which were distinctly pink. Luckily there was bread as well, but the meal was boring and I worried about possible future effects of undercooked chicken. I am happy to say that this didn’t come about.
Next day we were up fairly early and left with our packs to take breakfast in the town square and buy some items for lunch in a local supermarket.
It was a lovely sunny day and not too hot. A quick visit to the tourist office established that all the cols we intended to use were clear of snow. This first day of walking was deliberately gentle and took us to Boreon where we would join the GR52. The path was for a short way along a road which became a track and then a rocky path. We stopped and had lunch in the shade by the side of a stream. Much of the latter part was through trees by the side of a river/stream until we came out into the open just over a drinking water reservoir.
At this point it clouded over and started to rain but it did not last long and we kitted out in our rain gear needlessly. We walked down to the road right by Parc Alpha an animal park that among other things breeds wolves. We popped into the entrance briefly, mostly to use their toilets, but did not go into the park itself. Our Gite was just up the hill and we arrived at 2.50 just 10 minutes before they opened.
The Gite du Boreon was very clean and comfortable. We were assigned a room with 2 bunk beds. It was quite adequate but a little sparse for room to unpack sacks and hang up washing. Dinner, part of the demi-pension, was great with a quiche and salad starter, sausage and lentils main and fromage blanc with fruit.
Our next stop was a CAF refuge La Madone de Fenestre. There are two main route options. One involves crossing the high Col des Ladres; the other, slightly longer avoids this high col. Based on advice from the Tourist Office and the Gite Guardian we opted for the high route and took an early breakfast at 7 and were away by 8. The guide book indicates that this route will take just over 3 hours of walking. We found these times to be very optimistic when walking as a group and in this case we were about 8.5 hours on the trail. There is over 1000m of ascent and 500m of descent involved.
The day started out sunny but quite cold and we used our fleeces to good effect. Later there was some cloud and it became much warmer but there remained a cool breeze. The GR 52 track and markings run right past the Gite and you start climbing straightaway. The early part goes through woods crossing pretty streams
and passing a private refuge, in a sad state of repair. A short while later the path opens out and the path divides with the two routes to La Madone separating at the Pont de Pierastreche.
There was another bit of climbing before descending slightly to the lake.
After a long descent our Refuge was in sight and we could look forward to a hot drink and shower.