Roughing it in the Ecrins National Park, France
I don’t know if you’re like me, but as I
get older I seem to crave my creature comforts. Gone are the days of shivering
in a cold tent, as the rain leaks in, or trying to cook a meal on a fire which
refuses to light. But some places are only accessible if you’re prepared to
cast aside a degree of luxury.
I’ve long wanted to explore the Ecrins
National Park, about a 90 minute drive east of Grenoble, the largest in France with
some of the wildest and most dramatic scenery in the Alps. The trouble is that
the only way to do this is to stay the night in mountain huts, crammed like
sardines in dormitories, with no foie gras in sight. However France is France
and they take their food seriously and they’re now offering a Tour Gourmand, a gourmet tour, which
goes from refuge to refuge.
The trail starts at Gîte du Plan du Lac, near
St Christophe en Oisans, and I settle down to a hearty lunch with a glass of wine
or two for courage, before hitting the road. The weather isn’t looking
particularly promising but at least it’s dry and the first few kilometres
follow the valley floor alongside the River Vénéon. There’s obviously been a
lot of rain as it’s a raging torrent, and I don’t envy the brave river rafters,
struggling to stay afloat as the river takes them in the opposite direction.
I see the village of St Christophe en
Oisans, perched high above the opposite bank, and the signpost points me up the
steep hillside, directly adjacent to a magnificent waterfall. I get glimpses of
this as I climb, but it’s beginning to rain and I’m keen to reach shelter.
Finally, after gaining 600m of altitude the tiny Refuge de l’Alpe du Pin pops into
view and I collapse with a beer. It’s been tough and I’m now hungry so I ask
the guardian, Sylvie Danjard, what’s for dinner. She replies that it’s soup,
made with foraged herbs and says no more. I wonder if there’s bread and she
just looks at me, but then I realise she’s teasing and of course there’s
sausage, pasta and dessert.
At 1805m, there’s no electricity, the
toilet is outside and the running water comes out of a plastic pipe snaking
down from the mountain. The refuge can sleep twenty, packed closely together on
two platforms, but fortunately it’s only half full. Sylvie is an excellent cook
and the delicious herb soup is served with her homemade bread and a glass of
organic Cote du Rhone. Next are Oreilles d'âne,
or donkey’s ears, a lasagne-like dish of wild spinach sandwiched between layers
of pasta with lashings of cheese. I’m now thinking I’ve eaten my fill but local
sausages arrive, then pieces of Comte cheese and finally her delicious fruit
tart. Everyone of course sleeps well, although I do get complaints about my
snoring in the morning.
The weather is looking better as I set out
early for the next refuge. The track takes me through the forest and then
starts to descend. I’m worrying that I’m going to lose all the height I gained
yesterday but fortunately the path takes a right and into the Mariande Valley,
then follows the Muande stream up to the Refuge de la Lavey at 1797m. This is
a much larger building than the previous night and can take up to 60. Its
situation is stunning, surrounded by 3000m peaks with a snow filled glacier on
the horizon. Facilities are slightly more luxurious as there are inside
toilets, although if you want a shower, you have to brave the outdoors. They’re
famous for serving world food and dinner is typically Nepalese – rice, dhal and
strips of grilled meat.
Next morning it’s cold and crispy and there’s
frost on the grass. After crossing the Muande stream, it’s a steep zig zag up
the mountainside, climbing to 2350m. At this altitude, I’m feeling short of
breath and it’s a bit of a slog, but the magnificent views more than make up
for it. I descend slightly to the Lac des Fétoules, more of a pond really, where
people have camped overnight. From here it’s a scramble downhill, icy
underfoot, back to the bridge over the Vénéon River. There’s another bit of
climbing before we reach the delightful village of St Christophe en Oisans. The
amusingly eccentric Café La Cordée supplies the beers and then welcomes me into
their Hamman - just the thing for washing the dirt and sweat of the last few
The Tour Gourmand continues onwards to a
couple more refuges but I’m now missing my comfort and need a decent night’s
sleep. A taxi whisks me 14km to Vénosc and I take the cable car to Les Deux Alpes
and check into the three star Hotel
Le Souleil’Or. After a couple of
nights roughing it, it really feels like a palace and it’s good to have a room
of my own with a private bathroom. Dinner at their Le Shakisky restaurant is
excellent and it’s relief to be in a village where there are bars and people.
On reflection I think I enjoyed my Tour Gourmand, and the views were stunning.
It might be a while, however, before I spend another night in the mountains,
but at least it made me appreciate what I was missing.
The Tour Gourmand costs €225 all inclusive, and can be booked at http://berarde.com/en/activities/hiking/tour-gourmand-eng
The Hotel Souleil’Or has B&B from €104 per night.
For information about the Vénéon valley, see
For information about Les Deux Alpes, see www.les2alpes.com.
For information about the mountains of
France see www.france-montagnes.com.