Ride Report: Crossing the Mercantour
A week long trail high in the French/Italian Alps - not for the faint hearted!
I’m getting married in December, and our honeymoon is a riding safari in Botswana, which I booked last December before my fiancé had even sat on a horse. I have great faith in him though, and there’s not a lot he will say no to!
As a practice run, and to help him clock up some serious hours in the saddle, I brought Dan on our trip to France. He has been riding now since January and is up to canter level, so I knew he would be fine for this ride, as all riding abilities are catered for. The days, however, are long, and a good level of fitness is required, so I figured if he could manage riding in the high peaks of the Alps then he would manage riding through the delta!
We arrived the day before and spent the night in Nice at a nice boutique hotel in the city centre. We were planning on catching the bus the next day at 5pm to Saint Martin Vesubie, which is the ride meeting point, so we had a few hours to look around the city. It’s a nice place, but I’m not really one for cities, so after a few hours wandering around and having lunch I was more than ready to get out of there. Scott, our guide, was coming to the airport to collect a fellow rider and offered us a lift, so we got the tram to the airport to meet him. Public transport in Nice and the surrounding area costs €1.50 regardless of how far you travel – from the tram to the airport to the bus that takes you all the way out to Saint Martin Vesubie. It is definitely worth catching the bus rather than paying €65 for a vehicle transfer!
On arrival we met the rest of the group. There were 6 of us altogether; Nyin and Phil from Australia who I had previously ridden with in Cuba 3 years before (they hadn’t changed a bit!), Jenny, also from Australia, Eileen from Hong Kong and me and Dan. We had a delicious meal in Les Boreon and discussed the week ahead.
The next morning after breakfast we met our horses – I had Uslaine, a dun pony who was incredibly fit, sure-footed and forward-going. We attached our banana bags to the back of our saddles (an 18 litre banana shaped bag that had to fit all the belongings we wanted to bring for the week – FYI, that is not a lot a space!) and set off for Vinadio, across the border in Italy. The start of the ride saw us in the forests at the base of the alps, picking our way through the best tracks. I led the way for a section and managed to stab myself in the thigh with a low-hanging branch, and resulted in me ripping a huge hole in the crotch of my jodphurs – not normally a huge problem, but due to the limited luggage allowance they were the only pair of jodphurs I had for the week! I managed to protect my modesty with some orange duct tape until that evening when Scott lent me his needle and thread.
The views all week were incredible, whether we were in the peaks or further down in the valleys. You need to be fit for this ride; we rode the horses up to the tops of the peaks (up to 2,600m) but the steep descents required us to dismount and hike on foot, sometimes for as long as an hour. Certain ‘BHS’ rules go out the window when you are mountain riding; you mount and dismount on the mountain side, not necessarily the left side. The horses are ridden in hackamore bridles, and you are actively encouraged to let go of your reins and let your sure-footed horses find their own way on the mountain paths. Scott clearly loves his horses, they are so well looked after and he spends a lot of the day talking to them in French! He also has an amazing dog called Jacqueline who joined us for the week; she was responsible for keeping the group moving forward, in particular the young pack horse who was learning the ropes. She must’ve covered twice the ground we did!
The accommodation was basic but comfortable; 4 nights in hotels and 3 nights in mountain refuges with shared dorms. The second mountain refuge had an outdoor toilet and cold water shower which faced out into the fantastic mountain view – what a great way to have your morning freshen up! Being in Italy for 4 nights meant that the dinners were fantastic, and Jacqueline was treated like a VIP – apparently Italians love dogs. We also met some very interesting people on our travels, all of whom were hiking on foot and were intrigued by the horses, and the route we were travelling. Scott’s ride is unique in that he is the only person who offers a trail in the French/Italian Alps, and he has around 40 different routes to choose from – the last time he had ridden this particular route was about 5 years ago.
Lunch was carried in our saddlebags, a mixture of salads, meats, cheeses, coffee and wine. My favourite day was definitely our last day – we had reached the end of our trek in Belvedere the evening before, and Scott needed to take the horses back up the mountain where they were going to enjoy a month’s rest. Myself, Scott and three of his friends rode the horses bareback for a couple of hours to their pasture, where we turned them loose. I was sad to say goodbye to Uslaine; she had been such a great ride for the week.
Dan coped amazingly well with the whole experience; he is now an expert at mounting from the ground (both on the right side and the left!) and I can tie a banana bag to the back of a saddle in my sleep! Although the riding element of this trip makes it suitable for all abilities, you must be an outdoorsy sort of person and able to cope with spending time in the mountains. Good general fitness is a must for you to be able to handle the descents – obviously it’s easier hiking downhill than up, but some parts are so steep that it can be pretty hard going! A sense of adventure is needed, and although Scott is more than happy to tack up and care for your horse, the help is more than welcome. It was a refreshing change for me to be actively encouraged to get up early to help bring the horses in; they were turned loose in the night with bells on, so you were never quite sure how far you would have to walk to find them! Jacqueline was always on hand to help round them up too. With an average of 7 hours of riding a day, plus 1-2 hours hiking on foot, it was a tough, but incredibly rewarding week.