Pilgrimage Trails Pass Under Highways?

caipre Nick Platt · 4 min read

July 18—Day 31: Refuge du Fournache to Valfréjus

This was a day of two very different halves. The first half was spent mostly in the Vanoise, entering the park early on and later leaving for the final time. The second half came after lunch, and was spent getting away from Modane, a mostly depressing city especially after several days in the mountains.

The day started at Refuge du Fournache, in a gap on the trail where, however briefly, you’re not in the Vanoise (so wild camping is allowed). I was camped just off the trail, and as I packed up my tent in the morning a few hikers went by. I crossed a bridge back into the Vanoise, and made a relatively short climb up to Col Barbier, passing a few streams and lots of wide, boulder strewn grassy fields.

The guidebook talked about wild myrtille—blueberries—that grew nearer to the col. When I spotted a bush I tried a few: they were awful! I had to spit them out. At other points on the trek I’d had wild strawberries, tiny and bright red, and at least they tasted fine.

Past the col was another balcon path high above the valley. This one was nicer than the ones from the previous two days, and the views down to the towns and forts in the valley were great. After a while the balcon gave way to a really fine path leading down into a forest, the way covered in pine needles and cones with pine trees all around. It’s the best smell in the world, fresh pine. With sweeping curves and steep drops the trail made its way down into the forest, out of the mountains of the Vanoise and into the valley below. I lost count of how many switchbacks there were; I was just thankful to be in a shaded forest rather than in full sun.

I stopped for lunch at another refuge, Refuge de l’Aiguille Doran, just above the city of Modane. I had a typical, simple French plate, an “assiette randonneur,” consisting of a salad and toasted bread with cheese and cuts of ham. I invited a German hiker, Uli, to join me; he was nice, an interesting guy who’d left his job and on a whim decided to make the GR5, starting from somewhere near Chamonix. We had a coffee after eating, and compared routes and experiences. We both agreed that the trekking was best done solo, but that having company for meals was nice. Uli was staying at the refuge for the night, so in the late afternoon I said goodbye and went back to the trail.

I followed a different way from refuge instead of the GR5, heading into Modane and continuing the steep, hot decent that had started way up in the forest. Now the trail was on dusty gravel roads, steeper than most cars would appreciate. I passed through another section of pine forest, the pine cones rolling underfoot like marbles. Eventually I reached Modane, and made my way through the city without stopping—that was the advice given me by the group that head come from Menton, and upon seeing the place I agreed. Drab, grey, concrete buildings and dirty paved roads, plus a sprawling “center” make for an unpleasant city.

Modane is positioned just at the bottom of the valley, so the trail climbed sharply as it left town, making its way up the other side of the valley. You know it’s going to be hard when the guidebook says things like: “Climb a ways straight up a track, steeply at times, to reach a road. Cross the road and climb steeply again….” Besides being very steep, it was just a strange route in general. It left town passing through a construction site at a quarry, then next to railroad tracks, later walking beside and then under a highway via a maintenance tunnel. Though the present trail was really ugly, apparently this was an old pilgrimage route, and there were some fifteen monuments/prayer stations along the way. At the end if the pilgrimage route was Notre Dame de la Gorge, a beautiful chapel with a stone bridge arching over a deep gorge and waterfall. It was some 600m of steep climbing, but I’d felt strong, moving forward with a “Let’s get this done.” mindset.

The ski resort town of Valfréjus was just a little farther on from the chapel and I reached the center of town a bit before 7:00. I went straight to the market to get supplies before it closed, then had a good dinner at a picnic table beside a river only a minute out of town. Just beyond that and right off the trail I found an excellent campsite: level, hidden, and under the trees on pine needles beside the river. Can’t beat that.