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Take a hike in the largest national park in ECRINS Rupert Parker finds out what it's like to take a break in a high mountain refuge, a popular stopover in France, and climbs a glacier to reach an altitude of almost 3600m... I’ve always wondered what it would be like to spend the night in those high altitude French Refuges, which look so cosy, tucked in close to the mountains. Better yet, when I hear about a Tour Gourmand, or gastronomy tour, walking between them, I’m even more interested. So I pack my rucksack and set out for the Ecrins National Park, about a 90 minute drive east of Grenoble. It’s the largest National Park in France and features some of the wildest and most dramatic scenery in the Alps. Perhaps because of that, it remains relatively unknown, its paths less travelled than those famous trails further north around Mont Blanc. I’m told that the walking is quite strenuous and it’s better to take less rather than more. I whittle down my load to a change of clothes, a sheet sleeping bag, toiletries, sandals and of course a large water container. The trail starts at Gîte du Plan du Lac, near St Christophe en Oisans, and I settle down to a hearty lunch with a glass of wine to give me courage, before hitting the trail. The weather isn’t looking particularly promising but at least it’s dry and the first few kilometres follow the valley floor alongside the River Vénéon.
I see the village of St Christophe en Oisans perched high above the opposite bank, and the signpost points me up the steep hillside, directly adjacent to a magnificent waterfall. I get glimpses of this as I climb, but it’s beginning to rain and I’m keen to reach shelter. Finally, after plodding up 600m, the tiny Refuge de l’Alpe du Pin pops into view and I collapse with a beer. It’s been tough and I’m hungry so I ask the guardian, Sylvie Danjard, what’s for dinner. She replies that it’s soup, made with foraged herbs and looks at me. It doesn’t sound like much but she’s teasing and of course there's more to follow. At 1805m, there’s no electricity, the toilet is outside and the running water comes out of a plastic pipe snaking down the mountain. The refuge can sleep twenty, all packed closely together on one platform, but fortunately it’s only half full. Sylvie is an excellent cook and her delicious herb soup is served with homemade bread and a glass of organic Cote du Rhone. Next are Oreilles d'Âne, or donkey’s ears, a lasagnelike dish of wild spinach, sandwiched between layers of pasta and cheese. I’m now thinking I’ve eaten my fill but local sausages arrive, then pieces of Comte cheese and finally her delicious fruit tart. Everyone of course sleeps well, although I do get complaints about my snoring in the morning. The weather is looking better as we set out early for the next refuge. The track takes us through the forest and then starts to descend. I’m worrying that I’m going to lose all the height I gained yesterday but fortunately the path takes a right into the Mariande Valley, then follows the Muande stream up to the Refuge de la Lavey at 1797m. This is a much larger building than the previous night and can take up to 60. Its situation is stunning, surrounded by 3000m peaks, with a snow filled glacier on the horizon. Facilities are slightly better than the previous night, as there are inside toilets, although if you want a shower, you have to brave the outdoors. They’re famous for serving world food and dinner is typically Nepalese – rice, dhal and strips of grilled meat.
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