Aida in Orange

Orange Roman Theatre

Orange in the Rhône Valley is well known for its magnificent Roman Theatre. In the Roman times, days off were spent at the theatre watching farce, song and dance, and occasionally Greek tragedy. It is said to be the best-preserved Roman Amphitheatre with its 36 m high and 103 m wide stage wall still standing.

In 1869, when still under reconstruction, the first modern time performance was staged, initiating the Summer Opera Festival called Chorégies d’Orange.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was performed on the 2nd and 5th of August in 2017. We were lucky to get tickets in April; there were not that many left at this point! We booked a room at Hôtel Arène, a comfortable hotel in the old town with only about a 5-minute walking distance from the Roman Theatre. We had to book for two nights at a special festival rate. This was not a problem as Orange is in the middle of Côtes du Rhône wine growing area. It is interesting to spend some time visiting the wine shops and vineyards exploring lesser known Côtes du Rhône wines which are difficult to find elsewhere. Having visited Séguret last year, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape previously, we now decided to drive over the Rhône River to explore the wines of the Laudun Chusclan region.

Our visit to Orange coincided with an exceptional heatwave, canicule, with temperatures soaring to 38-39°C in the afternoon. A well air-conditioned hotel room and restaurant were very welcome. We did nevertheless some shopping; cushions were essential! On the day of the opera, we had a light lunch outside under the plane trees before an afternoon nap at our hotel.

The performance started at 21.30 but we were advised to be on venue before 9 PM to find our seats. The weather was now much cooler with some mistral, and even a possibility of thunderstorms was forecasted later that night. Everyone had their fingers crossed that fine weather would last long enough!

Finally, the audience had found their seats, the darkness fell, and exactly at 21.30 the conductor of the orchestra lifted his baton, and the magic of Aida started….

Queyras: Loop trail around Tête des Toillies

The hike we describe is another great tour from St-Véran (2040 m). The village of St-Véran is situated about 115 km from Nice as the crow flies, and it is a 4-hour drive over Col de la Bonette and Col de Vars. This 10.7 km loop trail is truly alpine as it runs above 2500 m (8200 feet) all the time.

Three mountain passes, two countries, and several lakes; this is Tour de la Tête des Toillies! The views are stunning all the way but it is essential to choose a clear day for this itinerary that circles Tête de la Toillies (3175m).

To reach our trail head, we took the shuttle bus from St-Véran (5km; 6€ return fare) that runs during the peak season. The shuttle stopped under the Chapelle of Clausis at 2240 m elevation. From here, we walked 2,6 km along a dirt track towards the Refuge de la Blanche following the signposts. At 2500 m we came to a crossroads that marked the start of today’s loop, and headed south towards Col de la Noir (2955 m). Because of the steep ascent to this mountain pass, that also was the highest point of this hike, we had decided to do the loop anticlockwise i.e. to be done with the hardest climb first.

We continued south along a good trail, passing the beautiful Lac de la Noire (2887 m), and descended further south, then southeast. The verdant plateau and Lac de Longet (2641 m) became visible below us. Above the lake, we merged with the GR trail that ascended from Maljasset in the Ubaye Valley. We followed the GR trail east to Col de Longet (2673 m) that marked the Italian border. From Col de Longet, we had a great view of Mont Viso (3841 m) and several lakes on the Italian side.

After a short but steep descent on the Italian side, we came to another crossroads where we forked left heading north towards Col Blanchet (2897 m), where we re-entered France. The vast green upper valley above St-Véran was below us. We descended along a good path, passing Lac Inférieur, and reached the crossroads at 2500 m thus closing the circle. We walked back to the shuttle bus along the same dirt track that we used in the morning. It is possible to take the trail running in the alpine meadows, too.

Elevation gain: 980 m

Distance: 15.8 km (our log starting from the shuttle bus stop)

Duration: about 6h 30
Tete des Toillies loop trail image

Map: IGN 3637 Mont Viso

Zucchini cupcakes

Zucchini cupcakes

I have seen, and tried, numerous French recipes for zucchini cakes, galettes de courgettes, where you miraculously fry nice, round and high vegetable cakes from a batter in your frying pan. Well, mine just turn out to be flat and uneven.

So, I thought why not bake these fries in the oven in a non-stick cupcake form, which almost everyone has in the pantry these days. I did it, and the result was so good that I want to share it with you.

Serve these zucchini cupcakes with nice steaks, roasted tomato halves, and a glass of rosé for a carefree summer dinner. The recipe is gluten free.

For 6 zucchini cupcakes:

2 eggs
3 small to medium zucchinis
About 50 g grated Parmesan
A small handful of finely chopped parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

Oil a non-stick cupcake form with olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Coarsely grate 3 small to medium zucchinis, courgettes. Chop finely the parsley and grate a good handful of parmesan.

Beat the eggs. Add the zucchini, parmesan, parsley, and black pepper and mix well. Divide the mixture into the cupcake form and bake for 25 minutes.

Queyras: Beauregard Ridge above St-Véran

Leaving St-Véran in the morning

It is possible to start hiking directly from the village of St-Véran, without using the shuttle bus to the most popular trails 5 km or so away.

On the 2nd day of our stay, after having hiked around Tête des Toillies the previous day, we decided to do a shorter hike, and explore the mountain ridge called Montagne de Beauregard above the village. The western flank of the mountain consists of vast alpine meadows, and there are several ski lifts. We could see that this area clearly was less popular although it offered interesting alternatives and great views.

We started the hike straight from our hotel and ended it in a café in St-Véran. We first walked up to Chapelle St-Marie Madeleine above the village. Next to the chapel, there was a signpost that showed the way up along a dirt track to Beauregard and as far as Pic de Chateau Renard. The latter is the highest point of the ridge at 2989 m.

We started ascending along the track as far as a crossroads, where yellow markings indicated that the trail continued left (there were no more signposts), thus leading hikers automatically to Beauregard, to the westernmost tip of the mountain ridge at about 2400 m elevation. It was also the upper station of a ski lift.

To reach the mountain ridge itself, we climbed up from the Beauregard plateau, and very soon found a good trail. We continued along the trail that climbed gently, heading southeast. The ridge consisted of several small mostly unnamed peaks that gradually got higher. The north-eastern flank of the Beauregard Ridge was very steep. Staying away from there, you could well walk outside the trail in most places.

We continued along the ridge till about 2600 m elevation. From here, we had great views down to St-Véran 600 m below us. We started to descend, now taking shortcuts first along the bare upper slope, then along the alpine meadows. We came to the dirt track that we used during the ascent, and walked back to the village.

Note that up on this ridge you can very much make your own hike. It is possible to hike as far as the Pic de Chateau Renard using the trail network and the dirt tracks.

Duration: About 3 hours
Beauregard ridge trail

Elevation gain: 560 m

Distance: 6.4 km

Map:  IGN Mont Viso 3637 OT

Vars: Tête de Paneyron

View to the east from Tete de Paneyron

The round summit of Tête de Paneyron (2875 m) dominates the landscape east of Refuge Napoléon 2 km north of Col de Vars (2108 m) by the D902 road. From the summit of Tête de Paneyron, one can see several 3000 m+ peaks, such as La Mortice (3188/3169 m), Aguille de Chambeyron (3412 m) and Brec de Chambeyron (3389 m).

Tempting as the summit was, we gathered some hiking info regarding Tête de Paneyron. Finding information was easy as some guidebooks had the description, and more was available online, mostly in French although we found at least one report in English. The trail is marked in the IGN map. Col de Vars in situated 106 km north of Nice as the crow flies, and driving there over Col de la Bonette takes about 3 hours.

We started the hike to Tête de Paneyron from Col de Vars. We walked past the cafeteria heading south about 100 m, then followed a dirt track circling the hill east of Col de Vars as far as to a sheep herder’s hut. A little before the hut, we forked right (east) and crossed a marshy meadow before starting to ascend. Some yellow markings were present, but mostly there were just cairns to show the trail. However, on a clear day it was very well visible all the time.

Higher up, above 2400 m, the trail ran along a ridge called Crete de Vallon des Prises. The incline became steeper at this point, with some loose slate. But even trail runners use this route, so the ascent was never really difficult. We reached a ridge just below the summit. The mountaintop was marked with a large heap of stones as well as with a signpost.

We were lucky with the weather, and could admire the 360° panorama before heading back along the same trail.
Tete de Paneyron trail

Elevation gain: 685 m

Duration: 4 h hiking time. Ascent 2h10.

Distance hiked: 9 km

IGN map: 3538 ET Aguille de Chambeyron Cols de Larche et de Vars

Nice to Vars route

Col de Vars and Refuge Napoléon

Refuge Napoléon

When Napoleon in 1815 returned from the Island of Elba, he received a particularly warm welcome in Gap (Hautes-Alpes) on his way back to Paris. In his final exile on St Helena, he wanted in his testament to remember Gap and Hautes-Alpes with private refuges carrying his name.

To satisfy his uncle’s wishes, it was Napoleon III who ordered the construction of eight refuges in Hautes-Alpes. At the end, six were built. Of these, four refuges at Col de Vars, Col de l’Izoard, Col du Noyer and Col de Mans still exist or have been rebuilt.

The D902 road over Col de Vars (2108 m) connects the Ubaye and Durance River Valleys. Refuge Napoléon (1987 m) is located about 2 km north of the mountain pass, and the Vars ski resort at Les Claux (1842 m) is further 2 km northwest.

During the summer season, the D902 road is packed with motorcycles, cyclists, camping cars etc. This year (2017), Tour the France will once again go over Col de Vars.

We have had lunch several times at Refuge Napoléon at Col de Vars when heading north. They have a decent plat du jour but service can sometimes be slow. The terrain on both sides of the road seemed to be perfect for walks, and in fact the IGN map shows numerous hiking paths of all grades starting from the Refuge, the Col, or from the ski resort.

After lunch we headed to the summit of Peynier (2273 m), its telecom mast clearly visible. We took the signposted dirt road behind the refuge. Instead of using the road all the way, we opted for a shortcut along the alpine meadows and some larch woods. The scenery was lush and green.

We, however, ended up a bit too much northeast than intended. We turned more sharply northwest and soon sighted the summit of Peynier. We continued towards a ridge slightly east of the summit, crossed the dirt road, and continued ascending a bit steeper in the alpine meadow. After a while we reached the ridge, found a good path and continued the last stretch along the path and the dirt road to the mountain top.

From the summit we had, as expected, a great view down to the Vars Valley, Les Ecrins massif further away in the west, La Mortice and its adjacent peaks in the east.

We took the dirt road back to the Refuge, this time without any shortcuts!

Vertical climb: 270 m
Peynier trail image

Distance: 7.9 km

Duration: about 2h15 (walking time)

Map: IGN 3538 ET

Lentil-quinoa salad with shrimp

Lentil and quinoa salad

I recently read in the French magazine ELLE about the importance of fresh herbs for a glowing skin. Fresh herbs are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals which are important for our skin and for our health in general. In California, the new trend is to add more herbs and less fruit in smoothies to reduce the increase in blood sugar.

I have always preferred a light meal to a smoothie. When I saw an interesting recipe with fresh mint and basil on a package of green lentils I had to try it.

I have somewhat modified the recipe on the package by omitting cucumber, which is nutritionally mostly water, by replacing the lobster with shrimp, and by adding baby salad leaves. The recipe makes a tasty and light lunch. By all means serve the salad with lobster tails if you want to make a seriously luxurious salad. The recipe is gluten free.

2 servings

100 ml good quality green lentils, such as Puy lentils
100 ml quinoa
About 250 g cooked and peeled shrimp
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tasty tomato, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
About 6 mint leaves, finely chopped
About 6 basil leaves, finely chopped plus some extra basil for decoration
2 tbsp. lemon juice
4 tbsp. olive oil
2 small handfuls of baby salad leaves

Cook the lentils for about 20 minutes in about 500 ml water until they are soft but not falling apart. Drain and transfer into a bowl. Do the same with quinoa and add to the bowl. Refrigerate until needed, can be kept in the fridge until next day.

Finely chop the green bell pepper and tomato and add to the lentil- quinoa bowl. Grind over some black pepper and mix.

Finely chop the mint and basil leaves and add to the bowl. Mix well. Save some basil leaves for decoration.

Make the dressing. Press 2 tbsp. lemon juice and mix with 4 tbsp. olive oil. Add the dressing to the lentil-quinoa- vegetable bowl and mix well.

Divide the lentil- quinoa- vegetable mixture on the centre of the plates. Arrange the baby salad leaves and shrimp on the side and decorate with basil leaves.

Loop Trail to Lac des Cordes

The beautiful Lac des Cordes (2446 m) is a popular summertime hiking destination. Situated above the Cerveyrette Valley, it is walled by majestic peaks such as Pic de Rochebrune (3320 m).

This is a quasi-perfect loop trail offering a lot of variation; vast alpine meadows, some steep ascents and descents, one part even equipped with cable, and on the other hand calm pine and larch forests with easy and soft paths.

The Cerveyrette Valley is quite sauvage. While descending down from the lake, we even thought that we saw a glimpse of a wolf running fast below us in the woods.

To reach the Cerveyrette Valley, you first have to drive through the town of Cervières that can be reached from either Briancon or over the Izoard Pass. The narrow but paved D89T road climbs from Cervières to the valley.

We parked at the limited parking just after the hamlet of Les Chalps (1975 m), and walked along a soft forest road by the River Cerveyrette to the hamlet of Les Fonds (2040 m), where the D89T road also ends and where you can find a bigger parking.

From Les Fonds we first followed the main GR58 trail along a stream up to an alpine meadow where our trail forked right at a signpost (marked as a GR58 variant in the IGN map) whereas the main GR58 continued straight south towards Col de Péas. We continued climbing, crossing some streams. We reached another alpine meadow before the trail turned north, now climbing to Col des Marsailles (2601 m; the highest point of the hike) its southern flank still covered with some snow.

From here, the upper and smaller Lac des Maits was visible below us, and we followed the trail straight north, walking over some snow-covered parts and leaving the lake on our left side.

Lac des Cordes could now be seen, and the trail continued descending in a north-westerly direction to the eastern shore of the lake.

The trail back to the valley started right behind the lake descending rapidly in a north-easterly direction in the Gras Valley. Large areas were covered with rhododendrons in blossom. A bit lower, we dove in a larch woods. A short steep section was equipped with a cable for additional security. However, most of the trail was smooth and easy.

On the way back over the Izoard Pass, we stopped at Refuge Napoléon by the D902 road just under the highest point for excellent blueberry pies and coffee.
Start of descent to Cerveyrettes Valley

Duration: 4h15

Elevation gain: 642 m

Distance: 10,3 km

Map: IGN 3536 OT Briançon Serre-Chevalier Montgenèvre
Parking in Les Chalps

Lac des Cordes trail image