In Europe, the past is never far from the present–even in the wilderness. It’s day seven on a hike through southeastern France’s Maritime Alps, and I’m standing atop a scree-covered pass, getting my first glimpse down into La Vallée des Merveilles–The Valley of Wonders. It’s a mesmerizing sight filled with garage-size red boulders, towers of stones stacked like coins, and dozens of shining glacial lakes. And after a longer look, it’s clear I’m not the first to be inspired by the valley’s grandeur. Nearly 40,000 petroglyphs, some more than 5,000 years old, are etched across the boulders. The ancient drawings depict lightning flashes, bulls, and men with zigzag arms. In addition to the petroglyphs, there’s graffiti left by Romans, medieval travelers, and shepherds. According to local guide Jean-Jacques Dellepiane, this open-air museum has kept visitors awestruck since the Bronze Age.
Dellepiane, our guide for the day, is wiry, fortyish, and an expert in locating and interpreting the best of the valley’s rock art. When he calls a halt for lunch, photographer Carly Calhoun and I break out our meager rations: energy bar, hunk of stale bread, melting chocolate, tattered bag of peanuts. Dellepiane looks at our food and says, “No, no. On a day like this and in a place like this, you must eat well.” He removes a feast from his pack like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. First comes the fromage–pungent wedges neatly wrapped in cloth. Next, the baguette: warm and soft and smelling like a bakery just opened for the morning rush. Then a hunk of spicy sausage. Finally–of course–a bottle of dark, strong local red wine.
“The reason early travelers came up here was because of the water–it was dry in the valley,” says Dellepiane as he slices the sausage with a well-worn, wooden-handled pocketknife. “The storms around Mont Bégo were terrific and terrible. People believed the god of lightning was here, and they came to pray for rain.”
As we study the many different petroglyphs–including The Sorcerer, with arms stretched upward and a dagger in each hand–and enjoy wine and cheese in the clear mountain air, it’s easy to understand why so many others have come before us. What I can’t figure out is why more modern backpackers don’t do the same.
Imagine if you could start a hike high in the Rockies and end it, a leisurely week and a half later, on the beach in Big Sur. Now add cobblestoned villages, a network of cozy mountain huts, and rustic gourmet meals served hot and fresh. That, in a nutshell, is the Maritime Alps, which run between Provence and the Italian border in southeastern France.