Hike to Refuge de Cougourde in Mercantour

Summit of Cougourde 2921 m

www.lonelyplanet.fr (link in French) recently listed the Mercantour National Park  among the world’s 10 most beautiful National Parks. A well deserved nomination although not presented as such on their English web sites. There are 600 km of marked hiking trails within the park. The nearest major point of entry is only about 70 km from Nice. This is where the Alps end and meet the Mediterranean Sea.

Today’s hike starts from the upper parking of Boréon from signpost 420 (1670 m alt.)  Boréon just a few km north of St-Martin-Vesubié is a popular point of entry to Mercantour.
GR52 trail ascending from Boréon

The trail is good ascending nicely in a variable terrain to signpost 424. The only drawback was that the trail was quite soiled by cow excrements!

From signpost 424 we first ascended to Refuge de Coucourde at 2100 m. We recommend that you actually walk a little bit past the refuge. There is a beautiful and peaceful spot for picnic just opposite the steep Cougourde mountaintop (2921 m). It is a great place to spot chamois as well, we saw them twice.
Culprits for soiling our trail

Chamois in sight

From signpost 426 near the refuge we took the trail to Lake Trecolpas (2150 m). From the lake there’s a great view to Cime d’Agnelliere (2700 m), a peak we recently ascended, and to Pas de Ladres which is the mountain pass to the next valley and Madone de Fenestre.

Refuge de Cougourde

This is a great hike for almost everybody. Many families were out. Only some parts of the trail require certain agility. In spite of its popularity, it is always possible to find a peaceful spot in the nature. The views are truly great!
Cime d'Agnelliere 2700 m

Ascent: 500 m

Duration: 4 h
Lake Trecolpas

Description in French here

Courgette gratin

Courgette gratin

Tian, a gratin, is a traditional Provençal way to prepare vegetables. Tian is also the name of the ovenproof dish in which the gratin is prepared.

I have read a charming story about the traditional baking time of tian: it corresponds to the length of time it took to bake bread in a communal oven. In the old times, people usually did not have own ovens at home in small villages in Provence. Various tians, tarts, stews and so on were prepared at home and then taken to public ovens or commercial bakeries to be cooked. For practical reasons, the cooking times had to roughly correspond to the time it took to bake the bread.

I have seen various tian recipes. They usually consist of vegetables, eggs, freshly grated parmesan or gruyere, milk and/or crème fraîche and/or rice. The choice of vegetables varies according to the season and availability.

The best courgette for this gratin is the round and firm courgette de Nice. It does not release water during cooking or turn to mash, and it does not have seeds!
Ingredients for 2 servings of tian de courgettes

Courgette gratin, tian de courgettes
Slicing and dicing the courgettes and onions into small cubes

2 servings

1-2 round courgettes de Nice
1 very large or 3-4 small leaves of chard, blette
½ medium onion
1 clove garlic
About 3 tbsp olive oil
2 sprigs of parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs
100 ml milk
1 tbsp crème fraîche, 15 % fat
Cutting the chard into strips
About 3-4 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
3 tbsp breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 180 ⁰C.

Slice and dice the courgettes and the half of onion into small cubes, about 1 x 1 cm.
Warm 1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, and cook the courgette and onions for about 5- 7 minutes until soft and slightly golden brown. Set aside.
Adding the wilted chard into the courgette-onion mixture

Wash and dry the chard leaves and remove the stems. Cut the leaves into strips. Over a medium heat, warm 1 tsp olive oil in a casserole. Peel and mince the clove of garlic, add to the casserole. Add the chard strips, and cook for a few minutes until wilted. Add the wilted chard to the frying pan and mix with courgette and onion cubes.

Mince the parsley.
Coating the oiled dish with breadcrumbs

Oil a small- medium gratin dish with 1 tbsp olive oil. Coat the dish with 1 tbsp breadcrumbs.

Cover the bottom of the gratin dish with a thin layer of courgette- onion- chard mixture. Season with black pepper, scatter a little parsley over the vegetables and sprinkle with 1 tbsp parmesan. Repeat the process until all the vegetables have been used, there will be 2- 4 layers depending how much vegetables you are using.

Layering the vegetables and the parmesan in the gratin dish

Beat the eggs with milk and crème fraîche. Then pour the mixture evenly on top of the vegetable layers. Sprinkle with 2 tbsp bread crumbs and 2 tsp olive oil.

Bake the gratin for 20- (25) minutes in 180 ⁰C.

The tian is ready for oven

Tip: With my French breadcrumbs, Tipiak Chapelure Dorée, it is very easy to get a nice golden brown colour on the crust of the gratin. This because the breadcrumbs have been added a dash of turmeric and paprika powder!

Cime de l'Agnellière from Madone de Fenestre

Summit of l'Agnelliere in sight

It was already 28th of July, and we could finally make a hike in the Mercantour National Park.
This winter’s record snowfall caused a late start for the summer’s hiking season in the high mountains. On top of that daily afternoon showers or thunderstorms have been hitting the mountains in July. Even for today rain was forecasted in the Vésubie valley.

So we made an early start and chose the summit of Cime de  l’Agnellière (2700m) (Link in French) as today’s goal, because it can be reached from Madone de Fenestre (1903m)  in about 2,5 hours.

The hike starts from signpost 357 right behind the Refuge of Madone de Fenestre. The trail ascends rapidly along the GR (Grande Randonnée) 52 marked with red and white signs.

Just before the mountain pass Pas de Ladres (2448m) at signpost 428 the trail turns left to the summit of l’Agnellière. The first part of the ascent is quite easy followed by a plateau, but the last scramble to the summit was a bit hard in the rocky incline. We descended back to Madone along the same trail.

Total ascent: About 800m. Link to the map here (IGN 3741 OT Vallée de la Vésubie)
Duration: About 4h 30.

Easy Red Mullet Nicoise

Easy red mullet Nicoise

This carefree recipe has all the typical flavours of niçoise cooking: olive oil, white wine, garlic, tomatoes, small black olives, lemon and basil. These are tasty and heart healthy ingredients.
These flavours combine very well with rouget, red mullet, which is a popular fish in Nice. In the old times, the people in Nice simply fried whole fresh red mullet in olive oil. The fish was not even cleaned. Nowadays it seems that people prefer fish fillets. Luckily red mullet fillets are regularly available in local supermarkets.

Easy red mullet niçoise

2 servings

About 300 g red mullet fillets
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp dried Provencal herbs
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large ripe tomatoes cut into wedges
50 ml white wine
1 lemon, cut into wedges
2 tsp capers
2 tbsp black olives of Nice.  NB! In restaurants in Nice they do not remove the stones!
About 2 tbsp olive oil
Fresh basil

In a frying pan warm 1 tbsp olive oil over low- medium heat and gently sauté the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes until soft but not brown. Then pour in the white wine, add pepper and Provencal hers, and reduce the heat to very low, almost off.

Preheat the oven to 180 ⁰ C.

Place the red mullet fillets in an oiled ovenproof dish. Press over a little lemon juice from a lemon wedge, save the rest for serving. Scatter the olives and capers over the fish fillets. Then pour over the white wine- onion sauce. Scatter the tomato wedges over the fish fillets, add some more black pepper and drizzle 1 tbsp olive oil over the tomato wedges.

Bake for 15 minutes.
Decorate with basil. Serve with lemon wedges and micro waved new potatoes.

Hiking from Courmayeur to Rifugio Maison Vieille

Today’s hike is actually a small part of Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). At our hotel in Dolonne- Courmayeur, they suggested taking the ski lift to Rifugio Maison Vieille, but we said we wanted to walk up there as the plan was to do a half-day hike from the town anyway.
Starting the ascent at Dolonne

Mont Chetif

The ascent from Courmayeur to Rifugio Maison Vieille is about 750 m.

Great views from the trail
The initial part after the town is a nice path zigzagging in a forest. The trail is good, but the continuous ascent so steep that the French would classify it as rando sportive. We met several hikers descending along the trail, but only us ascending because the TMB is usually done anti-clockwise. After the forest the trail continued along an easy dirt road in alpine meadows.

Approaching Rifugio Maison Vieille

For us, it took about 2h 15min from Dolonne-Courmayeur to Maison Vieille, where we had lunch. We opted for well-made polenta with mushrooms or sausages plus a mixed salad. The service was friendly, they spoke good English and the restaurant seemed to be popular among local workmen as well as hikers. All in all, it felt like more authentic local cuisine than in most restaurants down in Courmayeur.

Rifugio Maison Vieille

After lunch the wind increased and there were more clouds, so we decided to head back to Courmayeur although climbing to Mont Chetif (2343 m; picture above) was planned initially. About 750 m almost continuous ascent was nevertheless a good workout in beautiful surroundings and fresh alpine air.

Descending through Dolonne

Easy stuffed vegetables Niçois style

Easy stuffed vegetables Nicois style

Small stuffed vegetables, les petits farcis niçois, are a classic dish in Nice. There is not any “one and only” recipe to make these, but almost every grandmother in Nice has “her” recipe for the stuffing. This dish could be very time-consuming as sometimes a different filling was used for each of six vegetables! This kind of cooking was for the courageous small ladies of Nice who were not afraid of spending the whole day in kitchen and preparing a true fête.

Basically, locally grown or processed ingredients were used: vegetables, herbs, eggs, cheese, sometimes a bit of meat, sometimes wild mushrooms. Rice was often used in fillings to stretch out the small amount of meat or ham.

My easy, modern twist of this classic recipe is inspired by a plat du jour, dish of the day we once had for lunch at le Gustoso in Cour Saleya in the old town of Nice. And I guarantee that you don’t need to spend a whole day in the kitchen!

NB! Nowadays, it is difficult to find small vegetables that were used in the classic recipe. Even here in Nice, the Spanish imported bell peppers seem to be huge. If you can’t find small vegetables, you may very well reduce the variety of vegetables from the classic six. Large aubergines often have hard skins and can be replaced by green bell peppers.
Ingredients for two servings of stuffed vegetables Nicois style

2 servings

1 small aubergine or green bell pepper
1 small red bell pepper
1 medium round tomato
1 small round courgette
1 medium onion, peeled
Olive oil
About 150- 170 g lean minced beef, pref. 5% fat
1 clove garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp salt
1 medium free-range egg
5 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
1 tsp Provencal herbs
2 tbsp breadcrumbs

Wash the aubergine and cut it in half lengthways. Scoop out pulp from it with a spoon and set aside.  Leave about 1- 1,5 cm shell.
Halve the bell pepper lengthways, remove ribs and seeds.

Microwave the peeled onion for 2- 3 minutes in a covered small dish with 1 tsp water. Then drain and cool. Cut it in half crosswise and remove the centre, leaving a shell of about 3 layers. Set aside the centre of the onion.

Halve the courgette crosswise and scoop out pulp, leaving about 1- 1,5 cm shell. Set aside the pulp. 

Cut the tomato in half crosswise, scoop out the pulp and set aside.

The prepared vegetables ready for filling

Chop all the scooped out vegetables and mix them. In a large frying pan, warm 2 tbsp olive oil over low- medium heat. Cook the vegetable mix for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the minced beef and garlic, season with salt, pepper and Provencal herbs, and continue cooking for about 15 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from heat, allow to cool slightly. Then stir in the egg. 

Preheat the oven to 180⁰ C.

Arrange the vegetable shells on an oiled baking tray. Fill each shell with stuffing.

Grate the parmesan and mix with breadcrumbs. Scatter the mixture on top of the vegetables. Then drizzle with olive oil, 1- 2 tsp per vegetable.
Stuffed vegetables ready to go to oven

Bake for about 30- 40 minutes in 180⁰ C or until the vegetables are tender.

Serve lukewarm, because then the vegetables are tastiest. They make a nice lunch or simple supper served à la Gustoso: place a heap of small salad leaves, mesclun, in the middle of the plate and arrange the stuffed vegetables around the salad. Drizzle olive oil and vinegar over the salad and serve with good bread.

Between France and Italy above the Tende tunnel

Starting point at Chalet de Marmotte

The Tende mountain pass has been the simplest connection between the Mediterranean and Piemonte. It was first a mule track created in 1652, and in 1782 the road was completed. The road tunnel was completed in 1883 and the rail tunnel in 1898. Because of this, the ancient mountain pass was almost totally abandoned. The current border on the ridge was determined in 1947.
Fort Central

Today’s hike starts from the parking (1804 m) at Chalet de Marmotte above Limone 1400 ski resort on the Italian side of the border. The parking can be reached by following a good paved road Trois Amis just after the tunnel on the Italian side. Drive through Limone 1400; follow the road to the refuge.
Great views after Fort Central

Walk first along a good unpaved road to the geographical mountain pass of Tende (1871 m), signpost 340. From there, follow a dirt road east to the central fortress (Fort Central) to signpost 339.
Leaving GR52A at Fort Tabourde

Fort Tabourde

Continue along a good trail to the Tabourde fortress, signpost 335. Up to this point the trail is Grand Randonnée 52A marked with red and white. As far as to this signpost, the walk is easy with negligible ascent offering nevertheless great views in a calm alpine setting.
Crossing the Framoursoure valley
The new trail ended to this unnumbered signpost (about 2100 m)

From this point the trail continues to east now marked with yellow signs. After about 500 m or so it reaches the Framoursoure valley heading north. A sheep pen is on the right hand side. At this altitude, parts of the trail were still covered with snow. It seemed that the route had been recently modified, on the web site just a week ago whereas the latest printed version (2013) had it already updated. The previous longer trail would have turned southeast ascending to the Pépin fortress. Now the yellow signs took us to a new unnumbered signpost(the guidebook says it's 337A) at about 2100 m. This signpost also showed the way to the Pépin fortess.
Mercantour peaks barely visible because of gathering clouds

Following the border crest between France and Italy

We, however, turned left and started descending as the area was more and more enveloped by clouds and the wind was increasing. We suspected that this recent trail change might have been made because of sheep flocks. Sheepherders allegedly use the Pépin fortress as a shelter. There have been several bloody attacks by wolves in the region.
Rhododendrons starting to blossom

We made the hike in early July, and rhododendrons were just starting to blossom. The descent back to the starting point was straightforward. We could admire the great views and flowers –clouds permitting.
Map of the hike

Duration: 4 hours, vertical gain about 450 m. Map: IGN 3841OT Vallée de la Roya; Info in French: Les Guides Randoxygène: Haut Pays 
Map courtesy of Conseil Général des Alpes Maritimes

Best food before a long hike

Pasta with roasted tomatoes anchovies and basil

Pasta dinners before marathon are classic. If you are planning a 5- 7 h hike with a strenuous ascent in hot weather, it is also useful to think a little what you eat the night before.

Still, all is not lost if you couldn't pack a lot of carbohydrates in your dinner the night before. It has been shown that ingestion of carbohydrates 3- 4 h before exercise increases liver and muscle glycogen (energy storage) and enhances subsequent endurance exercise performance.

A carbohydrate-rich porridge breakfast always works for us. We do have a pasta dinner with slightly more pasta than we usually choose. We normally choose quality carbohydrates, whole grains, so it is whole wheat pasta. Most humans cannot tolerate a huge amount of carbohydrates in one meal, because there is a limit how much enzymes our body can produce for a single meal to break down carbohydrates. We are individual. If you get more problems with whole wheat pasta, try brown rice or quinoa. The following recipe works very well with quinoa, and then you could choose chevre instead of parmesan.

We always have a green salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing plus a small slice of low-fat cheese. For dessert we have a good portion of quality sorbet which helps to pack in those carbohydrates. We stick to water. Even a moderate amount of wine or beer can contribute to dehydration and electrolyte loss next day during a strenuous hot-weather workout.

Pasta with roasted tomatoes, anchovies and basil

2 servings

3 large ripe tomatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
A small tin of anchovy fillets, about 10 fillets
1 tsp Provencal herbs
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp capers
2 tbsp black olives
5- 6 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
Fresh basil leaves to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180⁰ C, roast.

Cut the tomatoes in wedges and lay them in a baking dish lined with baking paper. Sprinkle with Provencal herbs, black pepper and olive oil. Roast for 20 minutes.

Soak the anchovies in water to remove some of the saltiness. Dry with kitchen paper and cut in half.

Remove the tomatoes from oven. Divide the anchovies over the tomatoes and sprinkle with capers and olives. Then continue roasting for 10 minutes longer.

Meanwhile cook the pasta, whole wheat penne, fusilli or macaroni. Grate the parmesan.

Serve the roasted tomatoes over a plateful of pasta, sprinkle generously with parmesan and decorate with fresh basil leaves.

Energetic hike from Gréolières near Nice

The village of Gréolières (830m) is about 37 km northwest of Nice. It was originally a stopping point on the Roman road from Vence to Castellane. Nowadays, it has become a popular stopping point for cyclists. There are several small bistros serving a very reasonably priced formules de midi, lunch menus.

Our goal today is Cime du Cheiron (1778m). It is one of the major peaks in the Maritime Prealps. Because this summit is only about 20 km from the Mediterranean Sea as the crow flies, it offers a super panorama over the coast to the south as well as the high summits on the Italian frontier. But the weather can be unpredictable in the mountains…

The hike starts from the signpost 30 on the D2 road. The trail is well-marked with red and white signs (GR 4) up to signpost 194. There you leave GR 4, turn to the right and follow yellow signs.

At about 1600m altitude and after about 2h 15 min  ascent, the yellow signs stopped, and you were supposed to follow an almost invisible path now marked with cairns, small heaps of stones. The weather started deteriorating rapidly with clouds enveloping us. We met a couple of hikers, who were descending from the summit to Gréolières, and they said that it takes up to 2 h to the summit!  So a lot longer than they inform in the booklet Randoxygène Moyen Pays (in French).

We lost the ascending trail along the ridge in bad visibility and eventually found ourselves on another well-marked path running north-south. This turned out to be for paragliders who have a take-off area above the mountain’s southern precipice. The path ended in a blue ski run descending from Cime du Cheiron to Gréolières-les-Neiges, the small ski resort on the northern side of the mountain. We followed the ski run a bit until the summit was visible.

There we decided to turn back because of the gathering clouds. Only scattered clouds were forecasted for that afternoon, so this shows how quickly the weather can change in mountains. In reduced visibility risks increase and there wouldn’t have been any panorama from the summit. The following night a violent thunderstorm hit the region, the nearby towns of Grasse and Puget-Théniers in particular. Flooding, landslides etc in that area were reported even in the national French news. Prudence is certainly the best choice in the mountains –even in rather moderate altitudes.

Total vertical ascent to the summit is 950 m; we probably made about 800- 850 m today.

Another Baou near Nice

Hilltop village of Gattiéres

Baou de la Gaude is the neighbour of Baou de St-Jeannet. Paradoxically it is called Baou de la Gaude although the hike starts from the hilltop village of Gattières (260m). Both of the baous are approximately similar in height, about 800m.
A good workout in beautiful surroundings

The hike starts just in front of the graveyard of Gattières. The initial ascent is GR 51 and marked in red and white. At signpost 18 the trail leaves GR 51. Take the right hand path at this intersection and continue the ascent, now marked by yellow signs, up to the vast plateau de la Colle (820m).Then continue to the south to the summit of Baou de la Gaude, which at 796m is actually a bit lower than the plateau.

Bellet vineyards in distance

The River Var

The initial ascent offers panoramic views to Gattierès, the River Var valley, and to the vineyards of Bellet on the collines nicoises, on the other side of Var. You have actually better views from the plateau de la Colle than from the summit itself. All in all, this hike gives you a good workout in beautiful surroundings.
What is this ball on a pine tree?

By the way, does anyone know what this funny “ball” on a pine tree is?

Total ascent is about 580m, duration 3h30

More information in French in the booklet Randoxygene/Pays Côtier (link to their web site)