Via Alpina in Southern France and Italy

This is an account of my walk on the Via Alpina Red Trail, starting in Monaco and ending in Ormea, Italy. I hiked 10 stages in eight days, R161 - R152. It was a great walk, not only because of the vibrant mediterranean nature and landscape, but also because of the hospitable people I met in both Italy and France. The sun accompanied me from early in the morning to late at night, every day, creating a soaring heat deep in the thirties. I survived, and keep good memories of the walk.

Daten Wanderung

  • Wo
    Via Alpina, Italien; Via Alpina, Monaco; Via Alpina, Frankreich | Bewertung 9

    PositivThe Via Alpina is a great project, comparable to the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian trail in the United States. It crosses the well known parts of the Alps, but also lesser known regions which are not less interesting.

    NegativThe trail is a cooperation between many countries and national organisations, and sometimes one gets the impression that not everyone is convinced of the importance of this project.
    I walked parts of the Via Alpina in Slovenia, Austria, Italy, Monaco and France.

    Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, Italien | Bewertung 8

    PositivThe trail has been chosen carefully and chooses the best parts of the Ligurian Alps. The waymarking is excellent. I liked the mix of mediterranean climate and vegetation and the high altitude mountain chains with great views. Another thing is the old towns one passes, sometimes in ruins...

    NegativIf you plan to walk this trail, prepare your accomodation well. In summer, it may be too hot (it was when I walked it).

  • Wann August 2012
  • Km gelaufen 150 km (~93.2 miles)
  • Tage gelaufen 8 days
  • Strecke First part of Red Trail: Monaco - Garessio, R161 - R152. The Italian part of this trail largely coincides with the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri.




    I choosed to start the Via Alpina in Monaco and to follow the red trail. The red trail is the longest of the five diferent trails, about 2.500 km long, a continuous path divided into 161 stages of which I walked 10. About half of my walk was in Italy. It gave me the opportunity to explore unknown parts of the Alps. Very interesting. It was a great walk.

    The path sometimes was hard to find. The French map didn't mention it, the Italian map was inaccurate. The GPX tracks from the Via Alpina organisation were very helpful. Also, the comments from other users on the Via Alpina website were very useful.

    Practical information

    The trail

    I think the Via Alpina is for Europe what the Appalachian Trail is for the United States. It's a great challenge to walk the entire trail. The requirements in terms of condition and strenght are higher than most of the European Long Distance Trails. Still, the trail is not difficult, technically spoken. There are no glacier crossings or places where you have to climb.

    On the other hand, when you plan your walk early or late in season, snow can be a big problem. Any time of the year, the weather can be bad, making situations hazardous, as is always the case in high mountains. 

    Due to snow in spring and autumn, it is difficult to finish the Via Alpina in one season. It's not impossible, though. 

    Finding my way

    The Via Alpina uses existing trails. For example, the GR52a, the Alta Via Dei Monti Liguri. Occasionally, the Via Alpina follows its own course.

    The Via Alpina is not marked every so many steps. You will not be able to find your way by following marks and signposts only. Usually, you will follow a constituting trail, for instance - as said above - the GR52a. Some signposts do have the Via Alpina emblem, others do not.

    Here are some tips to find the right trail:

    1. Buy maps of the region;
    2. Before you leave, study the official website and try to locate the trail on the maps. The French maps I used (1:25.000) did not mention the Via Alpina. The Italian maps did indicate the Via Alpina, but unfortunately rather rough and error prone;
    3. Use a GPS receiver. Download a map and the tracks of the parts of the Via Alpina you are planning to walk. I used Open Streetmap on my Garmin. This is free. And more important: track and pths are on this map. Also, I downloaded the GPX tracks from the Via Alpina website. However, in Italy they were inaccurate. In due time, the Via Alpina organisation will add better GPX tracks. And also, the Open Streetmap community is working hard to get the Via Alpina indicated on the map. 

    Day 1 - Monaco - Peille

    The Via Alpina starts at the Palais Principale in Monaco. A plaque commemorates the opening in 2002 by the Prince of Monaco. The trail goes around the old city, with views over the blue Meditterranean, the old port, the pines and palms. Then it climbs up via stairs, roads and even a public elevator, out of town, along a barren hillside full of fragrant herbs and insects. Beautiful views.

    Start of the Via Alpina (or end) in Monaco.

    Everywhere along the coastline are holiday homes, built up quite deep inland. After a few hours, this zone is over. The path passes the town Peillon, and then Peille. Amazing to see how many houses you can build on top of a hill. Exploring the winding alleys, stairs and gates, you feel like in the Middle Ages.

    So much for the tourist facts. Now the reality: I died from the heat and drank water like a buffalo. No wind, a merciless sun ... I survived.

    In Peille was no hotel nor any other accommodation. Friendly people from a pub helped me: I got the key of an empty house, they trusted me. The people here are most cordially.

    My premium accommodation for tonight

    Day 2 - Peille - Breil-sur-Roya

    The survival strategy consisted of getting up early and leaving well before sunrise. On the picture below you can see the baker shouting at his dogs which heartily wish me good morning.

    Early in the morning: the bakery's dogs welcome me.

    The path climbed through forests to an altitude of about 1,100 meters. In yet soft light of the early sun I viewed eastward at the first serious mountains, on the border of Italy, a few days away.

    Again I went through forests - generations of farmers must have been struggling for a living, but the fields of yesteryear are reclaimed by nature. The trail descended to the market town of Sospel. At 11.00 o'clock, the temperature was already close to 40 degrees. Better have a siesta, enjoying fresh fruit, croissants aux chocolat and all the other goodies that they make in France. Then - still cross-eyed from the heat - a long rest on a terrace overlooking a fountain.

    Queueing for fresh fruit

    I continued my way at 15:00, enjoying the vast and silent forests and the views of the olive groves near Breil-sur-Roya. I reached that town around sunset, sweating like an ox. Again, a pretty town.

    Narrow alleys, shaking hands with neighbours

    Day 3 - Breil - Passo Muratone

    The early regime - getting up before dawn - suited me well.

    The stage between Breil and Saorge is not that interesting. Moreover, it is difficult to find the way. But Saorge is a great reward. The town is built on the slope of a mountain, and is a maze of alleyways, staircases and gates. When arriving from the valley, one has an impressive sight towards the towering walls of the old city.

    I was lucky: during my siesta a village festival unfolded before my eyes, complete with wine, music and dance.

    Fiesta in Sospel

    Beyond Saorge the forest is very quiet. Between the foliage are old deserted villages, now being revived by adventurers who refurbish the lost houses. The climb to the Italian border is very pleasant, thanks to the military road built in the Second World War by one of the warring parties. The road is still intact, hidden in the foliage.

    Old military road: a hiker's highway

    I crossed the border at the Passo Muratone, and a little further is the Rifugio Muratone. But unfortunately, no living soul, closed. Sleep outside?

    Looking over the endless and forested hills towards the Mediterranean, I counted my blessings: just enough food for the night. And just enough water not to die.

    But salvation was at hand: an Italian family defied the cobbles in their Fiat in search of fresh air. They pointed me to another hut, a short distance from here: Rifugio Gouto. There, in a wild west atmosphere, I washed down a late meal with Italian wine in the lap of an Italian family.

    Finally a home to sleep: Rifugio Gouta, great place, nice people

    Day 4 - Muratone - Rifugio Allavena

    Today I followed the mountain range constituting the border between France and Italy. The Italian region is called Liguria, and the Via Alpina largely follows the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, a long distance trail throughout Liguria.

    Great views, all day

    It was a good hike with great views, easy trails, and still a mediterranean flavour. Wandering between 1200 and 1800 meters, the heat was tolerable for the first time this week.

    Shepherd and flock of sheep

    The final destination was Rifugio Allavena, a CAI hut, complete with beach chairs, a sheep flock and shepherd, and one big thunderstorm bang without a single drop of water.

    Rifugio Allavena

    Day 5 - Allavena - Mendatica

    From Rifugio Allavena, the trail traces back to Colla Melosa, reaching the main  ridge. I would not leave this ridge untill late in the afternoon, when descending to the village of San Bernardo di Mendatica, in Italy.

    The trail alternates between France and Italy. This goes on and off till the highest summit of the ridge, Monte Saccarello, about 2.200 m. From there onwards, the route goes east, entering Italy for the coming days. 

    Watching me

    Next to Monte Saccarello is a huge Jezus statue, attracting attention of hikers, bikers and motorcars. The site offers a free view in all directions. The ridge is gently continuing towards the east.

    The ideal walk

    Rifugio Sanremo, indicated on the map, is not open on a regular basis. If you want to stay there, you need to arrange the key and take your own food and drink up. The hut is prettily situated on the ridge.

    So, in fact, between Colla Melosa / Rifugio Allavena and San Bernardo di Mendatica, there are no services. Be sure to take enough water with you. 

    Reward for a long day's labour

    This was my best day, I think, even though it was a bit long: some 8.30 hours according to the Via Alpina website. The descent to Mendatica was long, but pretty, especially because of the impending storm, that never arrived. Prices in this part of Italy are low. In Mendatica I found an excellent hotel that charged me very little money for the night including a very good dinner. 

    Day 6 - Mendatica - Pian dell'Arma

    Yesterday I followed the main ridges, on an altitude of 1500 - 2000 m. I welcomed every little breeze to chase away the heat. Today, however, the trail was again on low altitudes. I got used to the heat, this time.

    A superior feeling

    In the morning, the mist covered the valley and its little villages as if they were flooded in a transparent lake. 

    The path often hit the road, and elsewhere rather forcedly sneaked through dense vegetation. Then it reached a popular col, with hotels and restaurants:  Colle di Nave.

    I had problems finding the way. Up till now, since the Italian border, the Via Alpina followed another well known trail: the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri. This AVML is well marked and encircles the entire region of Liguria, most of the time on high ridges. But now, the Via Alpina quits this AVML and descends to a small village. I preferred to stay high up in the mountains - still hot in the valley. Also, there seems to be a new mountain hut, Pian del'Arma, which is not far situated from this AVML. 

    I phoned to this hut, and they explained me how to get there. A nice hut, it turned out, sheltered by some rocky outcrops, a good cook, and a family of Golden Eagles keeping an eye on it.  

    A family of three Golden Eagles guards the slopes of Pian dell'Arma

    Day 7 - Pian dell'Arma - Garessio

    The first part of this long day, I did not follow the Via Alpina. Rather, I choosed to go up the ridge again, and follow the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri. A good choise. A good path with splendid views all over the region. 

    After a few hours, this AVML joined the Via Alpina coming from the valley. The mist from the valley floor was lifted up by a rather fierce wind. Here, I met two hikers who were about to finish the complete Via Alpina. Four years ago they started in Trieste. And in a few days time they would arrive in Monaco. They passed all seven Alpine countries during this hike. 

    Encounter with sturdy seniors, at the end of their 2.500 km hike across the Alps

    Day 8 - Garessio - Ormea

    Once a rural community, now saved by holiday makers
    Cute little house. Someone is still caring for it
    Bonus: Nice