Outfoxed in the Valley of Marvels

December 14, 2017
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IN October, my friend Jean-Claude and I went to visit an area that the French call la Vallée des Merveilles, the Valley of Marvels.

Google Maps calls it the Valley of Wonders. Whatever you call it, the valley is in the far southeast of France, inland from the Riviera and just west of Mont Bégo, an ancient name meaning the abode of the gods.

The location of La Vallée des Merveilles, the Valley of Marvels

The Valley of Marvels is high up in the mountains. During the last ice age, it was covered in ice. The rocks were scraped flat, making them into natural targets for an early form of graffiti.

Cleanly scraped rock face in la Vallée des Merveilles

Petroglyphs in la Vallée des Merveilles; the ladder-like shape at the right may indicate fields

Some four thousand years ago, people who were probably related to the Celts carved tens of thousands of images, called petroglyphs, onto the rock faces. The images resemble sketch drawings and were made by hitting the rock face to carve shallow lines, between half a millimetre and five millimetres deep.

Plaque showing the layout of the Vallée des Merveilles

Sign warning of heavy fine for touching or stepping on petroglyphs

Plaque showing bronze age inhabitants of the region

Information sign about the petroglyphs

The name Valley of Marvels does not refer to these rock drawings but to the region’s mountain thunderstorms, called merveilles or wonders by French people in later, Christian times. The word reflects an ancient view of thunderstorms as supernatural.

Rocks and Clouds in la Vallée des Merveilles

Arch of clouds, suggesting a tempestuous climate

It’s thought that the rock carvers lived on the modern-day Riviera, and made pilgrimages up to the valley to carve images which were mainly in honour of a thunder god. Others seem to have been carved in honour of a bull-god, a familiar Mediterranean motif. Many of the carvings depict figures with horns on their heads.

In the Middle Ages these were mistaken for images of the Devil, and the area was shunned. In fact, the valley is pretty spooky at the best of times. So, you can only imagine what the Mediaeval mind would have made of it.

The valley is accessible only on foot, and lies fairly deep inside the Mercantour National Park. It is regulated by an archaeological agency, and tents have to be taken down by 7 am. We drove to a carpark at a tiny hydro lake called the Lac des Mesches and hiked westward toward the valley. We made camp after only three hours, which was a mistake because it meant we had to hike for twelve hours the next day.

Display billboard at the Lac des Mesches hydroelectric reservoir

The route we hiked, starting at the Lac des Mesches (indicated by red and yellow disk saying ‘you are here’ in French). The dashed green line is an internal boundary of the Mercantour National Park, between the conservation core of the park to the left (i.e., west), which is called the cour terrestre, and a peripheral partnership zone called the aire d’adhésion.

The route in, continued westward to the Refuge des Merveilles (named on a yellow highlight background) and various small mountain lakes in the Vallée des Merveilles, which is indicated by purple shading and the legend ZONE REGLEMENTEE DES MERVEILLES ET DE FONTANALBA. This is even more highly protected than the rest of the cour terrestre. Fontanalba is an area adjacent to the Vallée des Merveilles with many rock drawings of its own, though we didn’t go there.

To make matters worse, all our best food was stolen in the night by a French fox. We left the food outside the inner part of the tent because we thought the place was so barren that nothing would happen to it. In the morning it was gone. We know a fox was responsible because it left fox poo in exchange for our salami and cheese. All we were left with was gluten-free rice crackers!


Talking about the Valley of Marvels and its naughty fox

During our twelve-hour hike we climbed two mountains that were each 2,800 metres high. The valley itself is at an altitude of roughly 2,400 metres.

On a nearby lake stands the Refuge des Merveilles, a massive stone hostel with solar power and hot water. We also saw a warden’s hut, and a curious fort set into a cliff, which was probably built by the Italians in the days of Mussolini (from 1861 until 1947 the Valley of Marvels was divided between France and Italy, but became completely French thereafter.)

Jean-Claude beside one of the small lakes in the Valley

Perched rock beside small lake in the Valley

Jean-Claude on a trail in the Valley

Le Refuge des Merveilles

Warden’s Hut, in an impressive rocky landscape

Warden’s Hut, with neat woodpile

The erstwhile border fort, visible as a line of windows in the middle of the cliff

We had our photo taken next to a particularly famous rock carving called “Le Christ,” because it superficially resembles an image of Jesus. It probably pre-dates Jesus, however, by about as far as Jesus predates us. Which is something to think about.

‘Le Christ’: explanatory plaque showing development of this particular artwork from more common bull motif

Myself and Jean-Claude on either side of ‘Le Christ’ (it’s not very big so you have to look closely)

After the Middle Ages, people started visiting the valley again and adding more graffiti. A rock drawing dated 1893 has a certain raw energy of its own. All the same, because of the threat that such additions posed to the older petroglyphs, the valley was eventually placed under strict archaeological regulation.

More historically recent graffiti in the Valley

We saw two houses with French flags flying. Jean-Claude said that this was most unusual and reflected the rise of Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

On the lower levels

A house with a French flag

La Vallée des Merveilles is only one of the attractions of the vast Mercantour National Park. Overall, the Mercantour National Park is an area of great biodiversity. It contains many rare species that were common in the Ice Ages but have now declined elsewhere in France.

Unlike national parks in New Zealand, Mercantour National Park also contains sizeable human populations, in picturesque hillside villages known as ‘perched villages’. Mercantour is popular with the French but seems hardly to be visited at all by English-speaking tourists. It is, in that sense, off the beaten track of Anglophone tourism despite its proximity to the Riviera!

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