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"Travels With My Father"


No, not...
But:  Menton to Marseille

text:  Eric Sterling Collins – pictures:  Russell Collins

Since the early 1300’s in Provence (thus named for being, in the 2nd century BC, the first Roman province outside of Italy), any traveler coming across two equal horizontal bands of red and white would know he or she had ventured into the seaside lands belonging to the House of Grimaldi, the domain of which extended from Genoa (Italy) to Antibes (France), and that, to this day, still rules over the Principality of Monaco, of Grand Prix and tax evasion fame.

flag of Monaco

In the 1950’s, however, new marks begin to appear, with two crucial differences:  the first being that the white stripe was now above the red;  the second, that these signs in no way warned people they were entering reserved fiefdoms of antiquated feudalism, no, to the contrary, they jotted pathways of freedom, trails open to everyone, at all times:  known as the “sentiers de Grande Randonnée” (long-distance hiking paths), or “GR”s.

GR mark

Created by Frenchman Jean Loiseau just after World War II (the first 28 kilometer path is “inaugurated” in 1947, by 1952 there are 1,000 kilometers of GR trails in France, over 10,000 as of 1972, and nearly 200,000 today), so that people can easily follow clearly marked safe trails without getting lost, dead-ending somewhere, or invading anyone’s private property, the white and red GR emblem now delineates a network of footpaths covering most of Western Europe, mainly France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain (the local names being Grande Randonnée, Grote Routepaden, Grande Rota, Gran Recorrido…).

The GR 51 – nicknamed “Balcon de la Méditerranée” (Riviera Balcony) because it follows the coastline a few miles inland, while overlooking the sea from a couple thousand feet above beach level – is a 508 kilometer long hike from the southeastern border of continental France, the city of Menton, to Marseille, the country’s second most important town.

Such is the trek my father, Russ (the one taking the pictures), and yours truly, Eric, decided to cover in the first sunny days of 2009.

Menton - Castellar 

Monday February 23, 2009

To reach the beginning of the GR 51 in the hills, we first set off on another path, the GR 52, that starts in the town of Menton, at the tiny railroad stop of Menton-Garavan, just a couple minutes from the long sandy beach.

The hike swiftly moves uphill through town streets, then uphill along a countryside dirt and gravel road, and finally uphill along the trail.

Yes, uphill is the key word here, since it takes a bit under 2 hours to cover the two kilometers, rising from sea level (around 16 meters, actually) to 720 meters.  That comes to one step straight up for every three steps forward, which is not quite as bad as climbing a staircase.  Not quite…

Menton, as seen from the hills

We walked in rhythm to the two juvenile golden eagles calling out to one another as they soared high above us, gliding around in search of their prey, and, upon reaching the little plateau marking the high point of the hike, I hoped the two great birds would carry me away if I played possum!

 Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

In the trees just behind the highest point of the hike, the GR 52 keeps on its way up to Sospel, and then on through the Alps, ending in Switzerland, having taken the hearty traveler from the Mediterranean all the way to the cooler waters of Lake Geneva. 

As for us, we hobbled down the path leading to Castellar, officially starting our journey on the GR 51.

start of the GR 51

Our plan is to hike the entire path, from the signpost above Menton that we have now reached, all the way to the end of the road, in Marseille, but to do so by day hikes at first.  The whole trip taking some three weeks of walking, we are going to intersperse these twenty some stages throughout our normal work schedule, hopefully doing two trips per week as soon as the weather allows us to – the goal being to enjoy ourselves, we have decided to skip hiking in the rain, since it curtails admiring the vista.

This Monday being one of the year’s first fresh and sunny days, we decided to get started, and although it only takes about an hour to reach the little town of Castellar, our first stop, we must hike back to the car we left in Menton, so it does take us a half a day to get going.

After a half an hour skirting the mountain to our right, with the sea down to our left, we come out of the trees, and spot the village below us.

Castellar seen from the North East

Castellar’s recent dubious fame comes from the 1991 murder of a shepherd.

On August 17, the day of the town’s yearly festivities (the mayor has since then had the date changed), the body Pierre Leschiera (age 33) was found , he had been shot in the back and then executed with a second blast to the head.   In view of the long standing feud he had with the Verrando family, concerning hunting, those were the people the police focused upon, and, a mere eight years later (!), the trial of Alain Verrando opened…  before seeing him found innocent in 2002.

The investigation then turned towards the man’s nephew, Jérôme Verrando, who had admitted during the trial having made death threats to Pierre Leschiera three days before the murder.  But the second member of the Verrando family was also declared not guilty after a new trial, in 2007.

Then, after 17 years and two trials – of two different men –, the prosecution appealed of both verdicts and opened a third trial before the Appellate Court…  in which Alain and Jérôme Verrando were tried at the same time:  unique occurrence in French courts, with two people acquitted, in separate venues, of the same crime, then tried together in Appeals, not as co-conspirators, but as two separate possible murderers (they were also both heard as witnesses against the other, meaning that in that capacity they swore to tell the truth, but were allowed to lie as suspects!).  The prosecutor singled out the uncle, Alain, as being the culprit, and requested a 20 year sentence, but both men were seen as guiltless and released.

Such is the town the GR 51 enters, at a place where a memorial to the “1st Special Service Force” has been erected, and from which a street – bearing the name of that joint World War II American-Canadian unit – leads to the center of Castellar.

1st SSF street

Also known as “The Devil’s Brigade”, the 1st Special Service Force was created in 1942 as an elite commando unit trained to be parachuted behind enemy lines, and operate on its own in mountainous and snowy regions.  Having started operations during the retaking of the Aleutian Islands (Alaska) from the Japanese, they were then moved to Casablanca (French Morocco) and from there to Naples (Italy) where they took enemy objectives seen as impregnable, by rope climbing up steep cliffs in the night…  but success came with an 80% casualty toll.

From there they went on to shine at Anzio, be one of the first Allied units to enter Rome, and spearhead the invasion of Southern France (August, 1944), landing in the islands of Hyères, and finally ending up here above Menton, once the area was freed.  Having suffered an attrition rate of over 600%, this 1,800 man unit that had accounted for 12,000 German casualties and some 7,000 prisoners, was disbanded in early December, 1944.

However, the strategies and tactics learnt from this precursor were behind the creation of the U.S. Green Berets (Army Special Forces).

Leaving the path just before it enters the village of Castellar, at the spot where we will resume our GR 51 trip to Marseille, we hobble back down towards Menton.

A lot more about Menton on Beyond, Russ Collins' site.

Castellar – St. Agnès

Monday March 9, 2009

After a fortnight of rain, the sun came out this past week end, and we are off for the second part of our trip, starting back in Castellar, at the place where we had turned off towards Menton.

We got off to an unauspicious beginning, by traipsing downhill with so much energy we did not see the white and red paint marking the trail the GR turned into, and had to backtrack after realizing we were lost, thus adding a nice little hour...  well, let us not call it "lost", but "warming up" for the road!

The trail from Castellar follows an old mule path, with stone steps at moments, and skirts the mountain side in a long winding road that does not entail too much going up and down.

Castellar to St. Agnès

It takes a bit over an hour to reach the small village of Monti, where the GR 51 goes right through the center of town, passing in front of the church, before moving on towards St. Agnès, another hour and some away.

church at Monti

Soon after climbing up out from Monti, we encounter the signs left by some scatological Hansel and Gretel:  droppings jot the path the entire way, for several kilometers, until we meet the "culprits", coming upon a goatherd and his flock at the summit, as he and his two quiet dogs are moving the goats back the way we came from...  meaning there will be even fresher markings ahead of us!

local "ladies" eating out of my hand

France is of course famous for its goat cheese, or rather its goat cheeses, since there are many different kinds (French statesman Général de Gaulle once declared: "How can you govern a country that has more types of cheese than there are days in a year?"), and many towns in wildfire-prone areas, such as the Provence, have recently been getting old fashioned goat herds back out into grazing in the open (as opposed to huge stables where the goats remained penned in), since it is a very efficient and cheap way to be rid of the undergrowth that dries up and turns into kindling wood in the summer, fueling the extended fires that plague the area.

The path then winds on down towards St. Agnès, passing two waterfalls, and an old abandoned village in which the roofless vine-ridden houses are still clearly visible, with their two foot thick dry-stone walls.

Though the village itself lies on the inland side of a rocky spur, the old ruined castle (at an altitude of 800 meters and a mere 3 kilometers from the sea) offers an amazing 360 degree panoramic.  St. Agnès thus boasts being the "highest seaside village in Europe", whatever that means. The little town is quite beautiful, however, and does deserve its place among the "Most Beautiful Villages of France", a group of 150 locations that work hard to protect their historic and natural assets.

leaving St. Agnès towards the east

From St. Agnès the GR 51 leads to Gorbio, and we had planned to pursue our day's hike that way, but the day ended just as unauspiciously as it started:  we trudged down the wrong hiking path, and took the long and high road to Gorbio, but, even though it was harder and took twice as long, it was a beautiful trail...  we shall restart from St. Agnès anyhow, and walk to Gorbio again on our next outing, taking the GR 51 this time.

Learn about Castellar and St. Agnès on Beyond, Russ Collins' site.

St. Agnès - Gorbio

Tuesday March 24, 2009

champ des idoles

Having done several other hikes these past weeks, for example to see the Village nègre and the Champ des idoles near Saint-Barnabé--

village nègre

--as well as the recently discovered megaliths close to Les Arcs (since they are small I guess they should be named "mini-liths"), we only returned to Gorbio this morning, having decided to hike back to St. Agnès from there, and catch the GR 51 where we took the wrong path.

After having trekked uphill for a bit over an hour, we explored the village, and climbed to the ruined castle on the mountain peak.

castle above St. Agnès

The grounds the castle is built upon were inhabited at least as far back as the Antiquity, from the 1st to the 7th century, but the castle itself was erected during the 1,100's, at which time the village was located high up, around the citadel.

As of the 14th century, however, the castle become such a large fortress that the village was moved downhill to where it still is today.

Being so close to the sea, and along the ever moving border between Provence, the County of Genoa, and the House of Savoy, the castle of St. Agnès changed hands over the centuries.  Even after it was mostly destroyed by Louis the 14th, the Sun King, in 1691, it still remained important, being used in the late 1700's, in the War of the Austrian Succession (a conflict that involved all of Europe), and more recently, during World War II, when the Fort St. Agnès, dug deep into the rocky spur, became a key part of the Maginot line.

the castle tower

The Maginot line was a defensive position built in the 1920's and 30's, to defend France's borders, running (from North to South) along Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.  Part of it was made up of concrete fortifications, namely all along Germany (the Maginot Line per se) and Italy (the Alpine Line).  Since World War I had started out as a mobile war that bogged down into trench warfare, the French military high command prepared themselves for the next war, which they knew would be a defensive one (the officers voicing the fact the future lay in what Germany would render infamous as Blitzkrieg, were ignored), and built these hundreds of miles of underground facilities, complete with train tunnels and such.  Since Italian Fascism was more of a threat earlier on, construction actually started on the Italian border, in 1928, at which time the Fort Sainte-Agnès was built.

fort St. Agnès gun positions overlooking the sea

Among those who toiled away digging holes in the mountain side, were the Tirailleurs Sénégalais (Senegalese Riflemen), the African troops of Colonial France  that would help liberate Western Europe in the second part of World War II (72,000 Colonial Troops - Black Africans, Indochinese and North Africans - having already died during World War I), and that the French government so gallantly refused to pay military pensions to, stating they were not Metropolitan (ie. White)... until 1996 (at which time few remained alive anyhow!).

In 1994, the people of St. Agnès erected a monument in memory of the Africans who had helped defend France.

monument in memory of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais

The GR 51 from St. Agnès, mainly along an old mule path, is downhill all the way, so it took us just under an hour to reach Gorbio.

the village of Gorbio

Check ouGorbio on Beyond, Russ' site.

Gorbio - Laghet

Saturday, March 28, 2009

We leave Gorbio in the midst of the morning clouds rising from the sea, spilling into the valley and shredding on the crests.  Our half day walk leads us first to the 690 meter high top of Mont Gros ("Fat Mountain"), with its stunning view over the sea and the coastal town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a panorama worthy of the GR 51's nickname:  "Riviera Balcony"...  well, on a fogless day, at least!

the view !

Having moved up through the mist, we enter the clouds that surround us with a haze of light rain, making the trek harder, because of the soggy ground and slippery stones.  Though we cannot see far - some 35 feet - the light is beautiful, with no single source, bouncing off the fog with a "whiteness" we can nearly grab.

trekking through the mist

We follow the uphill trail, that turn into wider paths, and then an actual winding road, before reaching the point from which we snake down towards La Turbie, although turning away before entering the town (at a pass called "col de la Guerre" - War Pass).

Monte-Carlo on our left... our right:  La Turbie (and fog everywhere)

The town of La Turbie is home to the Trophy of the Alps, constructed by the first Roman emperor, Augustus (though his mom named him Octavius, he chose the path of humility and was the first to be called Augustus, meaning "Sacred"!), who ruled from 27 before our era, to 14 after.

the Trophy of the Alps (on a sunny day!)

This trophy is neither a military building, nor does it commemorate a specific battle, it was erected to show the border between Italy and "Gallia Narbonensis" (that first Roman Province outside of Italy), a border later pushed back to the river Var. The inscription on the monument clearly states that it was built (around 6 before our era) once the local Ligurian tribes were finally crushed, and could no longer attack the merchants travelling along the Via Julia Augusta, the Roman road linking Nice (France) to Ventimiglia (Italy), where it continues all the way to Rome, under the name of Via Aurelia.

We wander downhill for the last part of today's trip, following the valleys that run from the hills to the sea, stopping above the hamlet of Laghet, where we branch off the GR 51 in order to visit the sanctuary below us.

the Laghet sanctuary

In the year 1652, the heavenly public relations department sent the Virgin Mary to perfom amazing cures in Laghet's small chapel.  This was an immediate hit, and people were soon flocking here from all over Provence, as well as from neighboring Italian Liguria, to ask for miracles (Mary's services were authentified on December 20, 1653, by the bishop of Nice).  The Carmelite priests managed the sanctuary until the 30's, when it became a location for spiritual retreats, until 1978, when the Benedictine sisters of Paris' Sacred Heart were outsourced to renew the place's activity.

sanctuary entrance

The entrance, and the inside walls,  are covered by several thousand ex-votos, testimonials to the thanks of those who escaped death, saved by Mary's miraculous hand.

20th century ex-voto

On the other hand, the place obviously lacks any "ex-insultos", which should be paired with the ex-votos, since, if the "saved ones" believe that their Free Will was waved in favor of a direct and divine intervention aimed at saving them, they should insult the Lord for putting them in harm's way in the first place.  The:  "Thank you, Mary, for having prevented the car that drove right over me from killing me", should logically be a follow up to:  "Gee, thanks a bundle, God, for having me squished and my bones broken by that car!".

19th century ex-voto

And let us not even get into the "non-votos", since, for example, the 5,000 French people killed every year in car accidents are dying proof that Mary is not always up to par - or else works in her own mysterious ways -, and the families of those lost ones could easily put up a: "In your eye, Mary, thanks for nothing!".

La Turbie on Beyond.



Sunday, June 21, 2009

Today is the first day of summer, and it has now been nearly 3 months since we hiked the GR, the reasons being:  a few days of bad weather, some trips for me (to Paris, the Loire Valley, and Crete), and a great many hikes to other places, mainly so Russ could enhance his site.
Since it has been so long now, I decided to post a few of the most recent treks we made, until we get back to our journey to Marseille.

dolmen with table-stone still on top

We made two trips to visit some cromlechs, so here are pictures of dolmens we saw at one of those spots in the Var, there were a total of four at this site.  It was a great off trail hike, where we used a GPS tracking system to locate the stone formations, and the sun and the compass to move through the underbrush to get to them.

topless dolmen (this is the South of France!)

The word 'dolmen' comes from taol maen, which in Breton, a Celtic language, means "stone table"; whereas 'cromlech' comes from the Welsh, another Celtic language, and signifies 'bent flagstone'.  They are single-chamber megalithic tombs, with a large flat horizontal capstone supported by upright stones.  Despite what Obelix says, they have nothing to do with the Gauls, but date back to the Neolithic period, around 4.000 to 3.000 B.C..

not buried yet!

While I'm resting, Russ is busy putting info about these ancients sites online.

Early June
A bit over a week ago we went up to the Luberon and the Ventoux regions, for several days, mainly doing half day hikes in the morning, and touring various locations in the afternoon.
Javon castle

Though the hikes were truly wonderful, the most picturesque shots Russ took were of the castle of Javon, and the abbey of Senanques.

Senanques abbey

Senanques is a Cistercian abbey, built in the 12th century, one of three in the Provence.  The Cistercians are a monastic order, that was created in reaction to the wealth displayed by monks at the time (the order from which the Cistercians broke became known as the Clunisians).  The Cistercians wished to return to the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia (who founded Western monasticism in the 6th century), and be closer to what they saw as Jesus' ideals of poverty, work, austerity...  Like St. Francis of Assisi, or Martin Luther, did later on.
corridor at Senanques

Thus the Cistercian abbeys, spread throughout Europe, are famed for their very simple and pure design, as well as their lack of ornaments and paintings, only boasting some very basic sculptures.
cloister and steeple of Senanques

The Cistercian monks lived in silence and meditation, and so helped learn and spread knowledge, but, being a working order, they were greatly influential in furthering agricultural, deforestation, marsh-drying and other techniques, throughout the Middle Ages.

During our stay, we also visited the village of Vioux, at the foot of an endless cliff; as well as driving around and then up the Mont Ventoux.

village of Vioux below the cliffs

The Mont Ventoux is the largest mountain in the region, and is mainly famous because of it being a favorite stage of the Tour de France bicycle race, the climb from bottom to top being one of the most difficult in professional cycling.

"snowy" Mont Ventoux (the top is sun-baked barren rock)

In summer the Ventoux only looks covered in snow, but it truly is in winter, as it grows very cold in the area.  Also it is famed for its winds, that can top 200 mph!

Yesterday, we took a drive to the abbey of Thoronet, in the Var, which is another Cistercian abbey (the third one in Provence is Silvacane), also built in the 12th century (it is the "big sister" of Senanques, having been founded a couple years prior, by monks from the same "mother" abbey, that of Mazan, in the Ardèche region).

Thoronet abbey

Though Senanques is still an active place of worship, with six monks living and working there, Thoronet is not.  Thus it has some architectural and art exhibits, as well as concerts in the church, with its exceptional acoustic quality.

church at Thoronet

Like Roman buildings, medieval structures were built to last forever.  It was of course a totally different world back then, in which it took 100 years or more to finish most great churches and abbeys - and with a life expectancy of 35 or so, that meant several generation of workers - and where the most costly were the raw materials, whereas nowadays it is the manpower.  Stone was the foundation of it all, and stonecutters were skilled craftsmen, who signed their work (actually they put their personal mark on every tenth stone they prepared, in order to be paid, since they were not salaried, but received money per amount of work done). 

marked stone in Senanques

Cistercians took many vows, among which that of silence.  This did not mean they remain mute, rather that they speak very seldom and only for specific reasons, one being the morning meetings in the chapter room, where the abbey's life was discussed, as well as a chapter of St. Benedict's rules read - ergo the name:  "Chapter".  Though these rooms are nearly identical in Senanques and Thoronet, the latter has boulders that remain on the floor, hewn so as to make them into benches. 

chapter room in Thoronet

Well, now I shall go have a beer and rest, as even dogs do in the village outside Thoronet! 

Provençal dog

Mid January

A short hike north of the large harbor-town of Toulon you have Rocbaron, a village below the mountains, into which we climbed, rising above the town, until we came to the old castle on the crest. It dates back to the year 1,000, when the people used to live higher up.

yours truly coming upon the ruins

ruins overlooking the morning fog

the courtyard of the old citadel

The vista reaches the castle of Forcalqueiret, over two miles away, which enabled them to communicate impending attacks.

Forcalqueiret, as seen from Rocbaron

Moving back down through the village and into the valley below, we trekked on towards the neighboring village of Puget, in order to go visit an 11th century chapel, which is being restored.

arriving at Saint Philomène

the chapel to the left, and the sculptor's home to the right

Named Saint Philomène around 1840, when the restoration work started, this used to be a village church, but the old town's buildings are nothing but ruins in the woods nowadays.  The chapel was built towards the end of the year 1,000, in a very pure Romanesque style, and was originally called Sancta Maria de Decensa.

to the left, the staircase leading to the main door

The old roof was replaced by a terrace, from which one can look from the town of Toulon, to the distant mountains of the Maures...

the small building on the rooftop

September (2010)

Went out hiking for a week-end with my dad, in the Alps, in the Natural Park of the Mercantour.  We went out for 7 hours, near the mountain village of Venanson.

village of Venanson

The next day, we went up to the Cougourde, where I used to go as a teen.  Up into the mountains...

mountain stream

...where we met some locals!

mountain goat

The end of the hike being at a lake.

lake of Trécolpas

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