Walking in the Gran Paradiso National Park

Holiday Italy 2012 .

This year we returned to the Gran Paradiso national park in northern Italy for some walking in this fantastic area. To guide us we mainly used Gillian Price’s excellent book, a must for any walker in this area. This is a joint blog which we wrote while we were staying in Italy as a change from a paper note book diary.

Day 1 30august 2012

Flew from Gatwick to Geneva courtesy Easy Jet. Picked up the hire car and quickly left Geneva direction Chamonix. Heavy rain all the way on the motorway with two tolls. Through the Mont Blanc tunnel 38€ one way. Speed cameras and reminders to keep 150m between cars. Emerged 12 minutes later into dry weather and clearish skies. Light lunch at a petrol station, very low key. Finally left the main roads at Introd and swung round the hairpins up towards Valseverenche and Pont. Hotel right at the end of the road, comfy and friendly. Had a short walk before dinner up towards the glacier . View of a cascade entranced. Hotel old fashioned, traditional courtesy and manners. Large dining room, walls silvered orange and bright yellow. Fine views from the windows and crude paintings of the ranges on all walls.

Friday 31st.

Woke up and saw the glacier out of the bedroom window. Clear start to the day so we set off for the rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II which we reached in a little over 2 hours. When about 10 minutes away it started to snow, small compact balls.

Round metal roofed nineteen sixties building. Welcome hot coffees at the rifugio and then we pressed on. It started to snow more heavily, so after hesitating we decided to carry on though starting to get cold. A quick lunch and changing into long trousers and extra layers improved things and we traversed the route to rifugio Chabord. When we were nearly there Lynette spotted some Ibex and soon we also saw chamois.

Chamois below Rif. Chabord

The ibex were not that concerned by us and moved off the path when we approached. The chamois though bounded away like deer. A very large ibex, head of herd sat on the slope watching the others. He had snorted as we approched and then walked a few paces before settling. There is a small wooden bridge on the ascent to the rifugio where we looked at the glacier which looked very close. Groups of climbers had been up there that afternoon. After a fortifying chocolate and tea we started the long decent to valseverenche where we arrived at the hotel quite tired and cold. On the last part of the steep descent we came across old laid stone slopes where stones had been banked up to make long smooth ramps and then had stones laid on end for grip. These were apparently old mule tracks. A long but satisfying day, magnificent views up and across the valley, where cloud parted to reveal rocky slopes newly powdered in snow, with the cloud clinging and hanging around the slopes it was quite frightening and austere.

Sat 1st Sept

Day started cloudy and at breakfast we saw some snow falling. Decided on a walk from bruil in the val de Reims from notre dame. Drove over and found a prosperous valley. On the way up we saw a convoy of tractors some old restored fiats and lots of newer ones too, some with balloons tied on. Lots of horns blaring. Started the walk in the dry but it started raining soon, and after about an hour and a half stopped outside a park hut in heavy snow. The ranger appeared and confirmed that the weather was not good. We retraced our steps where we found Juniper berries. Small low conifer like plants with dark red berries. When crushed they smelt strongly. We then followed an easy path to the cascade which was spectacular close up.A damp lunch of cheese and bread and we then had another hour or so of easy walking in the trees. Alongside the path was a water channel in the rocks with clear water being fed from the cascade and a thin layer of grey sediment in the bottom, and sometimes orange mushrooms in the damp patches. After a while we came across some tools where the old overgrown channel was being cleared by hand. Water channel being cleared.Back in the neat village we found a welcoming old fashioned cafe/bar – Chez Lydia – and had excellent coffee and warmed up. We visited the park visitor centre and read the story about the bearded vulture which became extinct through hunting but which has now been reintroduced. We think these are the vultures we was a couple of years ago on the three lakes walk. All in all today felt in parts like a winter holiday with the snow and cold.

Sunday 2nd Sept

The kings path. Woke to the sound of rain and low clouds, not a promising start! After breakfast it started to clear and the forecast posted on the information hut hinted at better conditions later. We decided to try the kings path walk starting on the disused roadway up into the mountain. Stopped raining pretty soon after we started. There was a German couple who marched past but who soon stopped and were taking photos. As we got close we saw a marmot in the trees sitting on a rock warming itself. The path entered a tunnel for a short stretch before carrying on down the west flank of the valley. A few more marmots on this stretch before the path turned west and steeply up. Looking over to the east we could see the rifugios vittorio and Chabord way above the snow line which had come down to 2200m the night before. When we joined the 9 there was an inch of snow and we clambered up over a snowy path which had not seen the sun yet. The snow started to clear soon as the path headed south and down. We saw many marmots among the rocks.


They seemed to be coming out with the warmth of late morning and weren’t too bothered by our approach but when we heard a shrill whistle we didn’t see the marmot.

Chamois too and ibex on the walk. Skirting the high cliffs of jagged rocks the traverse took us above valseverenche and over to the piano del Nivolet laid out below, while we kept looking over to the grand range across the valley which included Gran Paradiso which is always shrouded in cloud. The most impressive part of the path was an old game track constructed of large flat stones, today with a veneer of snow. Finally dropping down some way, crossing an old construction track for a road never completed we sat in the sun enjoying the scene, listening to the cow bells from the plain below. There was no need to move to enjoy the place and unexpectedly an eagle sped over from the other side of the valley and hovered over our side, harried by a smaller bird. We had heard shrieking from the rock cliffs above but hadnt seen a big bird before. We carried on working our way slowly down. A small family were resting at the top of the climb from Pont, behind the cross mounted by the most tremendous of views over the valley. Met two men carrying their mountain bikes up, they had nearly reached the cross, and we guess were going to bike on the piano del Nivolet. I guess they had carried them up for 300 metres! An easy walk down for us and we emerged just behind the hotel. A real contrast from the morning rain and cloud, by the time we got back it was warm and sunny. A quick drive down the valseverenche for a cup of coffee before returning for a shower and aperitif. There was a large group of families making rowdy at dinner, a change from the normally quiet couples. During the day the snow has melted a long way up, though all the glaciers have a fresh coat still.

Day 5, Monday 3rd

Last breakfast at the hotel Gran Paradiso. Checked out just after 9 having decided to trek up to the Gran Collet. It started out cloudy but dry as we started up the steep 2a. Saw a couple of marmots and lots of droppings. As we got higher we warmed up and slowly shed jackets and fleecies, but soon the wind from the glaciers started and we quickly put the layers back on. Coming over a ridge we spotted a couple of ibex horns behind a rock like two aerials poking up. He quickly trotted out to inspect us and I got a couple of good photos. A little later we surprised a family of ibex and looking round we saw several chamois perched on rocky ledges peering down at us.

At about 2600m we started seeing snow lying on the ground and as we got higher it started to lie more thickly. The final couple of hundred metres climb got steadily harder as the snow got thicker. The final scramble up a scree slope was slippery and we managed to get to the top. The view of the piano opened up, but what we had not reckoned on was the thick covering of snow on the other side which faced NW completely hiding any hint of path or way marking. Reluctantly we turned round and tackled the unpleasant decent over the scree and snow, trying not to slide on our butts or topple over as we zigzagged down the snowy clay and loose stones.

Near the bottom we saw some tiny raspberries about the size of peas. The rest of the decent was in the rain which had started when we reached the top. It was a tiring 5 hours up and down, but at least we had reached the col. We then drove out of the valley heading for Valnontey via Cogne. We stopped at pont dal to look at the roman bridge but we found that is was covered in plastic sheeting as it was being restored. A warming cup of coffee in the cafe central which opens like a hospitable corner onto the main cobbled street, the only cafe open in Cogne before we wound our way up to the hotel Herbetet in Valnontey. Our room looks south up to the glacier at the head of the valley.We stayed here a couple of years ago and apart from some new twins, the place was just the same as we remembered.

Tuesday sept 4th

The forecast for today was cloudy but with only a 20% change of rain so we decided to attempt a walk we tried a couple of years ago when it was raining hard. Starting in Lillaz up to the Lago Loie and back via Bardonney. Driving to Lillaz was a lot easier than our previous efforts when we walked. Once there we started up the 12 through the woods. Very steep start over roots of the larch and other fir trees, lots of rock steps and pegged steps adding to the agony. Bathed in sweat from the very humid air, after about 90 minutes we reached the ruin of Alpe de Loie where we had a clear view of the valley and surrounding peaks and enjoyed a little rest quite undisturbed with the smell of drying grasses. After another short climb we reached the basin where the Lago De Loie waited surrounded by peaks on three sides. Looked like the left over pond from glacial earth moving and the water was green coloured like some of the surrounding rocks, crumbling on the edge. Cool now so continued past a viewpoint where the cloud prevented long views and dropped into the next quiet valley where a whole new set of ridges opened out, snowy at the tops. Marmots scampered away at our approach, and the farming buildings of Bardoney revealed themselves. A welcome easy descent followed following the river where there were some spectacular cascades. We eventually arrived above Lillaz and came across an English voice encased in bee-keepers garb. There were several beehives above the path where he and a colleague were doing some bee related maintenance. We then diverted from the main path to look at the major waterfall there, enjoying a welcome peach perched alongside the cascade.

Wednesday sept 5th.

A tourist day today. Our first stop was the Sarre castle which was owned by Vittorio Emmanuel 2nd. It has been refurbished inside and out. We joined a guided tour of the main rooms which was in Italian, but the guide had a few words of English to help us as well. The highlight was the trophy rooms which were decorated by hundreds of ibex and chamois horns arranged around the walls and ceiling, a result of the royal slaughtering of what must have been massive herds of the beasts back in the late 19th c. The grounds round the castle were being replanted with an apple orchard. We then went to Aosta and toured round the ancient Roman remains and some of the more recent 15th c cathedral and church, where there was a magnificent surprise in an uncovered mosaic under the choir floor depicting a man fighting a lion, one hand on each jaw as though to tear them apart. The amphitheatre was still well preserved. After a lunch of calzone and pizza we drove round the town and found the Roman bridge which was now surrounded by houses and roads. Nearby the Roman triumphal, pudding stone chocolate brown arch still stands complete though now in the middle of a traffic roundabout, despite it’s poor position, a really impressive sight two thousand years on. Tired feet today after pounding the streets of Aosta.

Thursday 6th

Today we returned to a walk we did two years ago from Gimillan to the larghi lussert. Last time we had to rush back for a bus, but with the car we felt we had more time to spend enjoying the scenery. There were a lot more walkers too this time with several groups on the paths. There were lots of crickets, some green/blue and later in the day some red. We made it to the top lake (largo magiore) and enjoyed an extended lunch, for the first time this holiday not feeling cold at lunchtime at the top of a climb. The walk down was tiring in the heat, but a quick paddle in an ice cold mountain stream soon relieved our aching feet ready for the final descent. The meal tonight was a special selection of local specialities, starting with Lardo which is the fat from a ham, apparently much valued but not too appetising to our palates, served with soft chestnuts in honey and flat bread, then a dish called a soup but which was a bowl with cabbage, potato, meat and a cheese covering in a broth, all baked. The main was a hearty beef stew with cracked pepper and polenta. All this was topped off with a crema de Cogne, a chocolate favoured creamy dish and some local sweet biscuits. We also had the local Aosta Tourette superior wine with our meals at the Herbetet.

Friday 7th

After yesterday’s nearly 8 hours trudging we wanted a more leisurely walk, so we thought we’d try a diy route. looking at the map we hit on a loop from the main centre of Valseverenche which looked quite shady and not too steep. Starting on the 8 up the west flank of the valley we had an easy climb on a farm road through the trees. We eventually came across high pastures and soon met the av2. Carrying on the av2 we soon passed a farm at Alpe de Djouan with the cattle inside and farmers having lunch. On the way down we were surprised to see them both curled on the ground asleep above the farm in the afternoon sun. The cottage was closed and the cattle still peacefully lying inside the shed in the shade and cool. A bit later we stopped for lunch at about 2300 m and could see the peaks of La Grivola, the Herbetet, the Gran Paradiso and Ciafaron on the other side of the valley all quite clear for the first time this holiday. The glaciers were shining fiercely in the bright sun and there wasnt a speck of cloud in the bright blue sky. we could even see through the binoculars the path up the snowfield under GP and some climbers making their way. In the distance to the NE were two peaks which I think we’re the Matterhorn and the minor Mont Blanc de Cheilon. Lots of butterflies today, small blue, small yellow and some larger brown and orange. After lunch a marmot in the hills above us started his alarm whistle and shortly there was a different shrieking noise then silence. We looked up and saw a large brown bird gliding across above us near the cliffs which looked to us like an eagle. Near the bottom there we some meadows with lots of flowers and we finally saw the blue gentians mentioned in the Gillian Price book, which are bell shaped on tall stems. We descended via a different path through abandoned pastures and tumbledown huts, where there didnt appear to have been grazing. these pastures were smaller than at the alp above Orvieille. An easy descent to the southern edge of the village on the 7 and back to the car. A very enjoyable walk, 750m ascent. Breakfasts at our hotels are buffets with selections of bread with jam or honey, juice, coffee and most importantly cakes, and if there isn’t enough sugar there are various croissant filled with jam or chocolate. There is always fruit and salami and cheese, but always biscuits and cakes. The hotel in Pont had a neat egg steamer, round like a space capsule which beeped when the timer concluded. Local honey and peach jam at Pont was special.

Saturday the 8th.

We checked out of the hotel Herbetet today, a most comfortable and friendly hotel, where the food was excellent. I managed to book a hotel in Bruil, in Reimes Notre dame in French! So we made our way round there in the morning and tried again to do walk 14 which we abandoned on the 1st Sept when it came on to snow when only part way up. It turned out to be a manageable circuit into two very different valleys. After leaving the hut at Sort we climbed into the gallon de Sort which was ex glacial moraine with ridges and terminal mounds. It was quite bare of vegetation with only sparse vegetation. The path climbed up to the col de Gollon where we climbed to the small peak and looked over the valley we had just climbed and the next valley Entrelour which looked very lush. Dropping down we came to the junction of the AV2 by the domed huts, now disused. The valley here is wide with lots of grass. A little way down there is a colony of marmots which was the centre of attention of groups of walkers and which would pop out for a quick munch of grass before scurrying for cover when the next walker with a camera started to approach. Cooled our heels in the mountain stream on the way down. Though all descents are interminable this one through young, healthy wood is as peaceful as any. Arrived at the two horse village of two hotels and checked into the museum piece called the Galicia, relieved that my schoolboy French resulted in a booking for the right day. Chilly top floor room, lots of space and three balconies. Bar with all sorts of old photos and mementos and unexplained trophies. Cold beer most welcome before a shower. Dinner was a jolly affair with lots of people, and silver service! In the lounge a stove is burning a log pile, oozing some smoke that makes us cough. Its a stack of stone with a stone chimney and mantel, throwing out heat from the iron and glass door. Wood everywhere, chunks of branches under the tables so there’s nowhere to put your feet unless you are a bird. Very jolly middle aged atmosphere, traditional hospitality, very old couple in charge of the family business. Having being sleeping at night with the window open to the coolness and sound of the cascade at Valnontey, we might be cuddling in the centre of the bed tonight. Saw lovely meadows today and a few remaining flowers giving a hint of what the springtime splendour must look like. Love these quieter valleys with their ruined huts and open alpes. We saw one shy solitary chamois today which eventually bounded away at our approach. plenty of scampering marmots we are getting quite good at spotting.

Sunday 9th

Today we set out to visit the westernmost valley in the area, the Valgrisenche which is billed as the most wild of the valleys by the guide book. The road snaked through Arviers which looked like it had some really old and pretty decayed parts, up to the road to Valgrisenche. As everywhere there were flowers and small vegetable gardens by the properties, not to mention vines a few minutes away from industry like gravel pits and factories. This was the smallest valley road so far and we soon started climbing up the west flank of the valley behind a couple of horse boxes. Just through Bonne, which is perched after a few hairpins above the valley close to the dam wall, a farmer had just brought his cows up to the road and they began crossing to the other side for the lush plants. He spoke to a couple personally to get them to withdraw back to the valley side of the road so we could pass. his voice was sorrowful as though the particular cow he was speaking to had disappointed with poor manners by blocking the road in front of us. Past the main village we saw the dam and started looking for the elusive parking spot. After a false start we found it and set off up the track which passed a dairy farm, the Grande Alpe where the cattle were inside with their bells clanging mournfully. The path was a wide track and easy here and we made the junction of the 13/14 easily. Here we made an unwise decision to go up to the col de mont. this turned out to be a moderate climb up to the Italian-French border which has played strategic roles in Napoleons time and WWII. The path at the top was a challenge because of the loose surface. From this viewpoint we could see a long way into France and back over the valleys in Italy to the east flank of the vale de Rheims. It was an amazing viewpoint over ranges to both east and west. There was a ruined barracks there. We wondered how it had been built, had there been a military road or path over a border? After getting back to the junction the clouds had started to gather and as we started for the largo de XX which was the original intention there were some spot of rain, so as we had not got our waterproof jackets we reluctantly turned round for an easy descent to the car. As it turned out the rain never really started. Although disappointed we didn’t get to see the lake the walk was interesting with spectacular views at the top. While resting at the bottom there was a stream of old 1970’s Renault 5 cars coming up the narrow hairpins, probably some sort of owners club. They all made fierce straining noises as they accelerated up the slope as though ready to explode and send their parts flying before reaching the next crest. Sitting with a waterfall at our backs, cooling down I saw the shape of an eagle circling in the cloudy sky opposite and followed its flight through binoculars as it slowly travelled between the high cliffs. We could see the fan of its big tail and the fingers of its wing ends adjusting in flight. In the car back down through the village we saw the huge dam but the lake behind it is almost empty, apparently due to construction faults. Why was it put here and why is it broken? In the village itself there was a great commotion with police and cars parked everywhere. This turned out to be part of the TDG Tour De Geants and there were some very tired looking runners on the road up to the village. This was about five forty five and they were still going. Back in Bruil we found Chez Lydia, a small but comfortable hotel and enjoyed a good dinner in the homely dining room with a bottle of Spumante wine from Arviers just down the road. After dinner we heard some bells outside and peering from the balcony we saw runners coming up the road to the municipal building at the top of the village. These must be the same as the guys in Valgrisenche. This was at 21:45 some four hours after they were there. Hotel bar full of officials and hangers on from the event, what about participants? they must be lying flat somewhere. We don’t know how long this race is but here it’s advertised for ninth to the sixteenth of Sept.

Monday 9th

Last full day of the holiday. We decided to visit Geneva as part of our tour of the three countries, so after another cake based breakfast we headed for Courmeyer and the Mont Blanc tunnel. On the way we stopped in Villeneuve, an old village on the south of the main Aosta road which we have passed through a few times travelling between valleys. A stroll through the back streets was interesting as many of the buildings looked like old farm buildings, partially unused and somewhat decrepit. There was an old building with a large square chimney which we thought might be a kiln of some kind. Back on the ss26 we stopped at a general supermarket and bought a couple of bottles of locally made wines which we have enjoyed in the valleys. A coffee at the Esso station before the tunnel gave us time to look at the magnificent peaks of mont blanc before crossing over. Italian petrol stations often have a cafe, and this morning there was a group of guys two having a glass of Spumante and one beer while talking about football at the bar. At the tunnel there were several queues of cars and lorries, they let one go every 30 seconds or so so that the vehicles are spaced at the right intervals through the tunnel. In the tunnel we were going downhill all the way so that on the French side we were a long way below that of the Italian side. On the Chamonix side we saw several para gliders soaring like birds above the peaks above Chamonix. We stopped at a viewing place in the cool of trees and looked at a waterfall. relaxed we began a long drive into Geneve, not on the motorway but with roundabouts. We decided to take the d1205 which runs along the same valleys as the toll road, but we hoped would be more interesting if slower. At times the signs confused us but we finally made the outskirts of geneva, crossed into Switzerland and wound our way down to the lake where we saw the fountain first then the lake itself. Missing our intended turn off we drove up the north side for a while looking for a likely hotel. After a few failed tries we thought that maybe the lakeside was not such a good idea, too expensive, decrepit or simply full. The only idea was to head airport wards and expect to find a hotel. Instead we were on our way to France with no turnoff evident. At last we were able to get off the hellish rush hour road and try and find a way back into town. After following a sign for a hospital by mistake, into oblivion down smaller and smaller roads, we retraced and by a fluke I saw an Ibis sign. Naturally it took two tries to find the way round the roads to the entrance and by this time Pete was mixing it up with trolley buses, trams and people rushing home. hotel full. Before we set off P thought to ask at the next door Ibis, after the staff at the budget Ibis had shook their heads to say no rooms anywhere and he hit the jackpot, an experienced staff member who phoned round and got us a room at another IB, only prob we had to get there! With some scrambling around the roads and missed turns we finally got here. we eventually ended up at an Ibis budget after several detours and turnings back. Free bus tickets meant we could go into the city centre, enjoy a beer on the lake side and a meal outside. Lots of trams and bendy buses in town.

Once back in the hotel we turned the tv on and found ESPN showing the start of the Murray jokovitch match. We stayed up till 3 in the morning watching Andy’s first grand slam win. The next day we woke late, had a leisurely breakfast and lounged around until time to get the the airport and lounge around some more. We arrived rather early at the airport, so the helpful checking guy got us onto an earlier flight, well done Easy Jet. .

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