We are now officially back in the mountains after our extended stay at the seaside, having spent the last 3 nights in Puget-Theniers just outside the Mercantour National Park. Since we are only around 1 hours driving north of Nice (we don't want to go too far with each move), I suppose we are really still in the foothills of the French Alps, but with peaks still reaching up above 2000m nearby we are very pleased to be back.
Our habit of finding local fetes and festivals has continued with us chancing upon an open air performance in Puget-Theniers on our first evening (Tuesday) by a Mambo and Salsa group, Barrio Cuba. (Later we found out this was one of 415 free musical events put on by the Conseil General Alpes Maritimes over the Summer). We had no idea what to expect when we saw the posters, but went along as the sun began to set and found ourselves in a very happy, family party atmosphere again. With a small stage set up alongside open air restaurants and people in mid-dinner sat just metres away from the 6 foot speakers (not sure if they expected that!) the locals were soon up dancing round the square to the latin beats. Esther even cajoled me into a short dance towards the end of the evening which is not easy to do!
The following day we chanced a lengthy bike ride through the mountains, following an 86 km route we'd picked up at tourist information that climbed from our motorhome at 400m altitude through a town called Valberg at 1750m. A good chance to stretch our legs. We checked the weather which forecast maybe 1-2mm of rain in the afternoon, nothing we couldn't cope with. We started the day in brilliant sunshine and passed through the impressive mediaeval city of Entrevaux with its fortress, built under King Louis XIV, situated high above. After turning off towards Daluis we started the climbing up towards Guilaumes.
The next part of the route passed through the magnificent Gorge de la Daluis, the “Colorado” of the Alps, a sheer sided gorge carved through the ochre rock with pillars reaching up hundreds of metres from the river below. It was breathtaking and our slow climbing, through 17 short tunnels, on the bikes gave us lots of time to take it in.
Unfortunately after 45km of riding and just as we had started the serious ascending to Valberg, passing 1000m altitude on the now 8% road, the rapidly darkening clouds started to drizzle gently and we realised the sensible option was to abort. It was the right decision, within minutes the thunder started rolling. Descending through the Gorge de la Daluis we'd never seen rain like it, with visibility down to 5m forcing us to hide in someone's doorway until it eased. We did eventually make it back to the motorhome, but covered in road mud and having seriously exceeded the limits of our Goretex. The 1-2mm forecast was a little off!
The rain hung around on Thursday so we recovered in the motorhome and explored the small town of Puget Theniers a little further, looking round the old town with its small narrow streets and being very surprised by the impressive inside of the small modest looking church. The passionate gentlemen who had set up some information on the 16th century carvings and frescos kindly explained their history and importance to the town to us in English.
Waking to sunshine today we decided to attempt another excursion, this time on foot. Checking the weather, we were expecting thunderstorms and rain again all afternoon, so we chose a shorter hiking route from Puget-Theniers up the valley side to around 1000m and a traverse to the beautiful castle at Entrevaux some 6km away which should have taken 4-5 hours.
It was part of one of the GR routes which made us smile as we set off following the traditional GR red and white markers again, as we had done in the Pyrenees last September. However, as the clouds darkened rapidly around midday we again felt obliged to cut the trail short and headed back to the motorhome after around 3½ hours of peaceful hiking, with views over the rolling hill stretching back towards the sea (having even found our first fossil, looking like a smallish 3cm ammonite). This time, however, the thunderstorms just never arrived. It's been a lovely afternoon!
So, now, as we prepare for our next move further into the hills the lesson of our first few days back in the mountains is to never count on the weather forecast and to trust what you see in the skies....and always pack for rain!