Le Refuge de Longon – Parc Mercantour
June 27, 2007
On June 22, 2007, six of us left Beuil (1,442 m) in Bruno’s van and drove over the winding Col de la Couillole (1,678 m) to the tiny old perched village of Roubion. We went through its very narrow streets and through a hole in the rock behind it which led to a one lane unpaved hillside road through woods.
After another twenty minute drive we arrived at the hamlet of Vignols (1,622 m) in the Parc Mercantour. We parked the car and started our walk. The path leads uphill for an hour and a quarter; then there is a forty-five minute walk across a lovely meadowed plateau.
We stopped for a quick snack and rest on the way up. Finally one comes upon the Refuge de Longon (1,890 m) in the middle of nowhere.
We were greeted by a smiling young couple and their infant who run the refuge from June 15 to September 15. They live in the upper floor of the “house” section. Bruno had called ahead to reserve our lunch. There was a big phone antenna at the far end of the building.
We enjoyed an apéritif at one of the picnic tables outside and then ate our lunch at the massive old wooden table inside.
The first course was a salad of mixed vegetables. A bottle of Côtes de Rhône rouge was put on the table.
It was followed by eggplant parmesan and a tray of local cheese.
A pear tart and coffee with homemade lemoncello followed.
The refuge was built originally as a cow milking barn and cheese making facility. The far end, beyond the dormitories, is still equipped for this, but we were told that the cows would not come this year and that only sheep would make the climb up to graze in the lush high pastures. (We passed the shepherds’ stone house, complete with solar panels, in the meadow. Fortunately they had not arrived yet so the sheep had not grazed down the wild flowers.) The French park service provides quite a few of these refuges along the much-used Grandes Randonnées hiking trails. This one is on the GR5 which goes from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.
Hikers can spend the night on mattresses in the dormitories and be served dinner and breakfast at very low cost.
Solar panels provide the necessary power; there is a spring for plenty of fresh water.
After lunch we retraced our steps. The meadow is full of many varieties of wildflowers in the lush grass.
Marmots are abundant grazing near their burrows. They may look like the detested American groundhog or woodchuck, but they are much more appreciated as they stay in the mountains and do not come near houses or villages. Moist parts of the meadow had been uprooted by wild boar in search of grubs, but we did not see them as they forage at night.
The descent seemed more difficult to me than the climb as much of the trail was covered with loose small rocks or gravel. I wish I had bought a walking stick and learned how to use it before I started. I stopped frequently to enjoy the scenery as I could only look at the trail while walking.
The variety of wildflowers was absolutely amazing. I kept noticing new ones. Of course, they changed with the altitude. This is surely the best time of year for this walk when so many are in bloom. Some are quite showy; others are small and elegant.
On the way up we had spotted three chamois above us. They seemed to be a female, who was watching us, and two kids who were grazing, but they were far enough above us that we couldn’t tell for sure. We saw another chamois a bit further along on the ascent, but none as we returned.
In the distance we could see the wooden boxes from which the park service had released some young gypaètes barbus, but we did not see one. This is the largest bird in Europe, similar to the condors of California and the Andes. They had been eliminated from the area by the herders, but like wolves (and bears in the Pyrénées) are being reintroduced here.