In the first part of our trekking specials about the Mont Blanc, we have proposed a handful of easy-on-the-feet walks along some of the dama bianca’s most charming paths. Today, we will continue with four trekking tours that share one characteristic: they will all lead you to a rifugio, a mountain hut.
Now, if you had the blessing, as in my own case, to grow up near the mountains, and were brought up by parents who loved mountaineering, rifugi may well have been the first place you spent a night away from home and, certainly, they were a common Summer daily-excursion destination for you and your family. I have beautiful, heart warming memories of the first time I have spent the night in a rifugio (in my case, it was the beautiful Dante Livio Bianco, on the Alpi Marittime) with my mother and father, and slept in bunk beds. I still remember the taste of the polenta e fontina I had every evening there: how delicious it was, to 5 year old me. As my grandmother used to say about white bread during the hard years of the Second World War, “it tasted of everything there was on Earth”.
Funny things, you hear about food in rifugi. Mind, it is always good, earthy, stomach filling grub, because if there is one thing high altitude gives you is the appetite of an Alpini platoon, and people running their kitchens know it. However, depending on where you go, things may get pretty frugal; if the larger ones are very much like B&Bs, the smaller ones, located higher up in the mountains and more difficult to reach, are often a different story. I remember my mom used to tell me that, before I was born, she and dad planned a long weekend up in a rifugio in the Alpi Marittime (I come from the Cuneo province, so those are “our” mountains). When they reached it, they were both starving and were looking forward a nice plate of hot food, but unfortunately a huge group had just lunched there and the kitchen had ran out of hot meals: all that was left was fresh bread and Alpine cheese. Of course, that sounds pretty delicious to all of us right now, but we may, too, have thought it differently after a 5 hour long trek uphill in the mountains and, for certain, that was not what my feisty mother wanted for lunch. Of the same opinion was a young French couple and, after a few minutes of confabulations, this foursome of young mountaineers decided to pick up their backpacks again and walk for another hour or so to reach another rifugio nearby and get hot food. So they left. And they walked. And they reached the other rifugio. Where the only food available that day was also… fresh bread and Alpine cheese.
Well, that was certainly an adventure, but in spite of the empty stomach, my mother had a fond memory of that walk seeking better food from a rifugio to another, as she and dad became friends with the French duo and kept in touch for quite some time. This is actually one of the pros of staying at rifugi: a friendly atmosphere that only enhances that strong sense of camaraderie being on the mountains seems to help developing. This is certainly one of the reasons why rifugi are often a beloved destination for young people seeking for a quiet, yet fun place to stay for a weekend or so: we used to do it, my friends and I, when we were younger, and it was amazingly fun. Food was consumed, shots of grappa drank and new friends made, just easily, just like that.
The next itineraries all centre on a specific Mont Blanc rifugio. Each of them is pretty easy to reach so you will be able to experience life high up in the mountains even if you are not too fond of long walks. My advice, if you decide to go to a rifugio, is to stay for a night or two and enjoy the atmosphere, as it is truly something difficult to find anywhere else and is certainly worth it. Let us begin with the first of our rifugi itineraries, which will lead us to the rifugio Maison Vieille.
Rifugio Maison Vieille
How to Reach the Area
Drive to the Courmayeur Cableway meeting point; you will be able to leave your car in the adiacent, covered parking lot for a fee. The cableway will lead you to Plan Checrouit ( 1.754 mt, about 5.755 ft), where the trekking route begins. The path leading the the rifugio is clear of obstacles and easy to walk.
Once you get off the cableway, take the dirt road on the right that leads to the rifugio Maison Vieille. After only a few minutes on the dirt road, you will come across an alternative path leading also to the rifugio: this is, however, steep and pretty hard to climb. It is better to keep on the main road until you reach a first junction where, if you turn on the right, you will be able to reach the rifugio Le Randonneur, where you can take a little break, or simply end up the excursion, about 1.3 km (0.8 miles) from departure. If, on the other hand, you take left at the junction, you will soon reach the rifugio Maison Vieille. If you are in the area in the months of July and August, you may be able to reach the rifugio with a smaller cableway from Plan Checrouit, however, the walk would give you the opportunity to experience the beauty of the Alpine flora and fauna and of meeting, if you are lucky, the gipeto (bearded volture) a large bird with a wing span of about 9 ft, often mistaken for an eagle.The gipeto is easily recognizable, though, as its wings are pointier that those of an eagle and its tail tends to be longer. This bird has only recently been reintroduced on the Alps, where it had been extinct for quite sometime. For our US friends, it may be curious to know that the gipeto belongs to the same family as voltures and so, yes: it is, too, a necrophagus.
How to Reach the Area
Drive to the main Courmayeur roundabout on the Statale 26, then continue on the Traforo del Monte Bianco‘s (Mont Blanc Tunnel) direction up to La Palud. Pass the village and follow the indications to Val Ferret, reach and pass the village of Planpencieux and keep on driving less then one km before parking at the parking lot no.5 Bertone. A semi private road will take you up to the Leutchey-Désot Alpine pasture, where you will find an easy-to-walk path up to the last section of it, where it becomes slightly more difficult, but certainly not problematic.
Cross the bridge on the Dora river by the parking lot and begin walking on a semi private road that will lead you to the Leutchey-Désot Alpine pasture, at 1796 mt (about 6000 ft). Here, the way to the rifugio Bertone continues on a smaller path. Walk to the junction for the rifugio Bonatti and there enjoy the beautiful view on the valley and the Mont Blanc massif. After you took a little break to enjoy the scenery, take up your walk again following the indications for the rifugio Bertone. Once you reach the junction for the Monte de la Saxe-Testa, walk downhill for about 50 mt and finally reach your destination.
How to Reach the Area
Drive to the main Courmayeur roundabout on the Statale 26 and follow directions to the Traforo del Monte Bianco, to the village of La Palud. Pass the village, continuing always in the Traforo direction, up to the following junction, where you will take for the Val Ferret. After 15 km (about 9.5 miles) you will reach the village or Arp Nouva. Cross the wooden bridge and leave your car in the parking lot by the river Dora. The path is wide and easy to walk and does not present any outstanding obstacle. You may like to keep in mind the main road leading to the Val Ferret is closed at the village of Freboudze from mid July to mid August, but shuttle buses will bring you up to Arp Nouva.
The walk starts from the parking lot by the Dora where a large, semi private road will lead you all the way up to the rifugio Elena. Easy-peasy! The rifugio has a restaurant and a coffee shop and it is open from mid-June to mid-September. There are 130 beds, with both private, en-suite rooms (with two beds) and larger dormitories with shared showers and bathrooms.
If you stay at the Elena, you will be able to glance at what is left of what used to be the largest glacier on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc, the Pré de Bar. The Pré de Bar reached its maximum extension between 1819 and 1920, then geo-physical and morphological changes in the area have litterally signed its death sentence. The glacier is now only a fraction of what it used to be and it will, very likely, disappear within the space of only a handful of Summers.
How to Reach the Area
Drive to the main Courmayeur roundabout on the Statale 26 to the Traforo del Monte Bianco, up to the junction to the Val Veny. Here, follow directions for said valley for 8.1 km (5 miles), when you will reach the end of the road. You can park your car in the area. Keep in mind that, from the end of July to the end of August, traffic is controlled and limited in the area between La Gabba and La Visaille. However, daily shuttle buses run from Courmayeur starting at 7 am, to 9 pm. The walking path leading to the rifugio is asphalted up to the lake Combal. The rest of the way is on a clear and easy-to-walk dirt road.
Walk under the bar blocking the way to cars and keep on walking on the asphalted road for about 2.5 km (about 1.5 miles), when you will reach the lake of Combal, which is very much half the way up to the rifugio. Cross the bridge, and keep walking along the lake for about one hour: this part of the path is entirely on a plain and will lead you to the last, uphill part of the walk. If you are staying for a couple of days, you may enjoy to take the excursion from the rifugio Elisabetta to the Casermetta, in the direction of the Col de la Seigne. The Casermetta is a centre dedicated to the study of the environment of the Mont Blanc area, which can be visited and is of sure interest for all those interested in nature.
Each of these rifugi is easy to reach and could be a lovely place to spend a couple of nights, for all the reasons I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Keep also in mind that these are large establishments, that work very much like B+Bs, so the probability to get stuck eating bread and cheese is virtually nil! We provided the links to each of the rifugi’ s homepages, where you will be able to find more details about bookings, prices and availibility, as well as email addresses and phone numbers to contact the owners directly, should you need to receive more detailed information. I would suggest you take a look at the website http://www.autourdumontblanc.com, the official page of the Mont Blanc area, where these itineraries have been found: the page provides a plethora of interesting and useful links to organize your holiday by the dama bianca.
By Francesca Bezzone