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 days away.
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 www.montagne-oisans.com.
For information about Les Deux Alpes, see www.les2alpes.com.
For information about the mountains of France see www.france-montagnes.com.