Tuesday, 20 August 2013

St Etienne to Sospel - Day One-Hundred and Twenty to One-Hundred and Twenty Nine

As Jake's stomach cramps faded and his bowels fortified, the baton of illness once more was passed back to me. We had ran out of both toilet paper and Imodium, a recipe, I assure, for disaster. Via various tenuous links, Jake had miraculously acquired a connection in the local hospital, where an angel was waiting for him with eight sachets of magic powder.

On our second day in St Etienne we ambled amongst the market stalls, taking the rare opportunity to buy fruit and vegetables, which we ate as we poured over the forty-first, and final, map of our journey.

Eagerness saw us find the path as morning broke. We climbed zigzags to the modern ski town of Auron, where we sat on a bench amongst a host of music-blaring shops and eateries: Free Style, Point Break and my personal favourite, The White Grouse Pub. I ate far too many banana flavoured sweets as our feet took us briskly away from Auron and over the Col De Bianon. Derelict stone farmhouses, filled with lavender, rose bushes and untamed raspberries, led us down to the village of Roya, where children played in the dirt, and grass and clothes hung from drooping washing lines. We set up camp by a bustling torrent. I picked grass seeds from my socks, noting how the previously mundane had become, dare I say it, habitually enjoyable.

Jake had spent the night sharing his pillow with a beautifully green caterpillar that stretched lethargically when we woke. It was the 14th August and our granddad's eightieth birthday. Ted, undeniably, was our inspiration. We discussed his feats whilst steadily ascending to the Col De Collette, where a possible view of the Mediterranean Sea was scarpered by a thick haze. A flock of sheep jangled in the valley below, diverging into lines, like a drop of paint blown through a straw.

The day was beginning to draw to an end, when we bumped into 'Spiritual', a character we had met several times over the previous two weeks. He held out a hand and offered me a stone, more specifically a piece of dolomitic limestone from the Hanging Valley in which we had just passed through. ''It's for the heart'', he gestured. Having snapped our toothbrushes in half several months earlier in a bid to reduce weight, it was difficult for me to drop the weighty stone into my side pocket, but I figured an unhealthy heart would be heavier. We pitched in a dry river gully, which, as the thunderstorm hit, became rather more wet, provoking the ridiculous visual of me scaling the steep forest slope with a tent over my head in the drizzling rain in search of flat ground.

The village of Raure, perched precariously onto the forested walls of La Vallee de la Tinee, was magical, not only for its thirst-quenching lavoir, but for its friendly locals, its loaded flower boxes and its shuttered windows. Deep in the valley's trough I felt a wave of nostalgia for England - oak, apple trees and blackberries - but was soon reminded that home was far from close by, as trees of fig, cherry, olive and pomegranate bowed across the path.

St Dalmas proved to be one of the most poignant junctions of our journey thus far; we were to diverge away from the GR5, a path that we had been treading for a quarter of a year, and instead join the GR52, a more raw and rugged path, that took us back northwards. After a night camped amongst bilberry and juniper shrubs, labyrinthed by deer tracks, our route swung to the east. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes  began to appear, some like cups of cappuccino on stalks, others like flattened peaches, and one species, whose purple concave hats made me think, quite awfully, of an inverted baboon's bottom. We diverted briefly from the GR52, stepping foot in Italy, courtesy of the Col De Fenestre, then the following morning broke through the Pas De Mont Colombe, a shoulder-wide gap in the ridgeline, 2,500 metres up, that revealed a show of radiance as beams of hazy light shot across the valley like an asymmetric kaleidoscope.

We passed a lake drifting with ice, a proud bouquetin and a young German boy who sang 'Survivor', by Destiny's Child, at the top of his voice. Who could blame him? As we climbed through the Baisse De Valmosque, I noted my hunger. Our bodies were craving 5,000 calories a day, but were only getting 2,000. With relish, we ate jam sandwiches whilst looking down into the Vallee De Merveilles, our wildest scene yet. Huge chunks of angled rock, like piles of lego, dusted purple, green and red, lay on the valley slopes.

Our final night of wild camping was spent on a col swamped with mist and cloud. By morning the skies had cleared and we watched the sun rise over the eastern Alps. A daddy long-legs strode across a tangle of brambles. The walk to Sospel took us down to 350 metres, the closest we had been to sea level in five weeks.

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