Hill-climbing heaven in beautiful Bellino
The quiet upper Valle di Bellino offers multiple options for one-day round-trip walks to the many surrounding 3000m+ peaks. It lies between the better-known Monte Viso and Queyras Alps to the north and east, and Valle Maira to the south, and is crossed by the Grande Traversata delle Alpi (GTA). John Main spent three delightful days there in July 2019.
‘Please can I ask, what are you doing here?’ enquired Nicole on our second night at Agriturismo Lou Saret. This lovely old farmhouse is in the hamlet of Chiazale, 1710m above sea level at the upper end of the Valle di Bellino, hemmed in by mountains on three sides. Nicole was puzzled because the three rooms of Lou Saret are almost entirely filled throughout the summer by Germans, stopping for one night on the GTA. We are Scottish, staying for four nights, and planning to do round-trip walks every day. Unlike the higher, more spectacular Alps, this spot offers the possibility of walking to the top of the highest points around on excellent but quiet paths.
Nicole, along with her father Otto, runs the excellent Lou Saret. They both know a lot about the many options for walking round about. We had a map (Alta Val Variata, 1:25,000, Fraternali editori) showing many tempting paths, but no guidebook – there doesn’t seem to be one in English.
Valle di Bellino is tucked into the north-west corner of Piemonte, hard up against the French border. Monte Viso (3840m) is the highest peak in the area. The road up to Chiazale is narrow and quiet and in July the only obvious activity is manual hay-gathering. The valley sides are steep and sometimes rocky, mostly tree-lined lower down, with many distinct peaks above.
‘What is the best walk here?’ we had asked Nicole on arrival. For a long walk, she suggested Monte Mongoia (3340m), or at least the lake and the Bivacco Boerio (3100m) beneath it. The forecast was good so we tucked into a tasty dinner, full of excitement about what the next day might bring.
Day 1 - Monte Mongoia. One foot in France
Breakfast at Lou Saret is served from 6am until 8am. As the nearest shop appears to be many miles away, we were relieved to get a good breakfast. For all three of our walks we took the car another mile or so up to the end of the road at Sant’Anna, which also saved about 100m of ascent. The walks would be doable from Chiazale, and the GTA path is off road, but we were on our holidays! We needed time for a post-walk beer then a scrub and polish before dinner, which is served at 7pm and not to be missed.
The climb to the Bivacco was beautiful and varied on excellent well-signed paths (as are all these walks). After looping around the bottom of Rocca Senghi (which offers a Via Ferrata), a short, steep climb through cow pastures (with one placid bull) led to a higher, flatter valley filled with bright flowers and rocky peaks beyond. None of which, it turned out, were M.Mongoia.
This was a beautiful easy few kilometres but at the end was what seemed to be a remarkably tough climb in two stages, about 600m vertically, to the windswept Passo di Mongoia, the lake and the Bivacco. Maybe it was tough, or maybe the heat and the sneaky altitude (it remained quite lush most of the way) were to blame, but it was good to have a rest and some lunch and take in the views.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the views throughout this trip, so just take them for granted!
We were surrounded by peaks in every direction, none of which we could name, some of which we must have climbed on a previous trip to Valle Maira, and some of which we would be climbing in the next two days.
More to the point, the shattered rocky top of M.Mongoia was immediately above us. It was quite busy, with it being a sunny Sunday in July; maybe a dozen others all told all day. There is a sort of path but as it was all rock or scree underfoot it was impossible to follow precisely. Cairns and paint marks help, but there are an infinite number of ways to get to the top involving as much or little scrambling as you like. The top (on the French border) has a big iron cross, steep drops to the north, and… views. The shapely pyramid of Monte Viso to the immediate east and the high snowy French Alps to the north were the most obvious, and the winding road up to Colle dell’Agnello looked as spectacular as it felt to cycle. (The cycling round here is great too but that’s another story). And if we we’d been a little bit fitter, or had a 6am breakfast, neighbouring Monte Salza (3326) would have been irresistible.
It’s always difficult to judge distances on steep winding paths but we reckon it was about 8 hot sunny kilometres back to Sant’Anna, and a lot of descending, so we were glad we’d cheated with the car. Being a tiny establishment, Lou Saret had Birra Moretti only in 660ml size bottles, but somehow we coped.
Day 2 - Rocca la Marchisa. Another perfect day
‘OK Nicole, what’s the second best walk here?’ ‘Rocca La Marchisa. And it’s only second best because the first couple of kilometres are on a road.’
Yesterday we’d headed due north, today due south. And it did start up a steep bendy road (a traffic-free dead end); actually, a nice easy way to get in the first 300m or so of climbing. It was a cool, grey morning and this valley floor didn’t seem quite as colourful as yesterday. We could see ahead what had to be Rocca la Marchisa, looking quite impregnable. This time the climb beyond the pastures was easier, up a nice steady path through a rocky wilderness, the mountain itself rising in steep cliffs to our left. This must be an old way through the mountains, maybe a mule track, because it was built up in places to ascend in gentle curves to the Colle di Vers (2862m).
This was predictably scenic and now the route to the summit became clear. Or at least, there was a signpost. We had come around the back of the mountain to avoid the impassable slopes we’d been admiring all morning. From here the path picked a way up through rocks and scree, and sometimes disappeared under snow, but was easy enough to follow. Half way, at a lovely little perfectly curved col, you get your first impressive look back down the approach valley. Then some hard work up steep loose scree led to some fine scrambling on big boulders to the very airy first summit (3074m). Which is very close to the equally airy second summit (3072m) with another fun scramble between. There were three people resting up on this top, the only ones we saw all day. Three was quite a squeeze, and they unwittingly enhanced the high mountain experience by forcing our way out over the biggest drops.
The sky was blue in every direction, the horizon lined with innumerable mountains, Monte Viso again the star.
On the way down, in lovely afternoon sun, we felt a little guilty for having accused the valley of looking a bit dull in the morning. There were particularly good views of the whole of the Monte Mongoia walk, and even from distance its high pastures were visibly red with flowers. And, of course, it’s always nice to look back and think, did we really get all the way up there?
Day 3. Monte Maniglia. A change in the weather
‘So, Nicole,’ we asked over our post-walk big beers, ‘what’s the third best walk here?’ She wasn’t sure and went off to discuss it with Otto. He had no doubts – Monte Maniglia (3183m). This looked the perfect finish to our three days here – we’d been north and south, now we were going west, to the very head of the Valle di Bellino, then another 3000m top and the French border again. Only one problem, the forecast was rubbish – a high risk of major thunderstorms from about 3pm. The answer, of course, a 6.30 breakfast.
Sant’Anna was looking lovely in early morning sun, the first time we’d seen the sundial on the ancient church working, as it were. This route initially follows the GTA with a nice steady loosener through pastures before an impressive path carved up the side of a steep gorge. The two-plank bridge at the bottom of this Torrente was only a one plank bridge, which we shuffled across on our bottoms. The next, higher valley was beautifully lit with clear air and long shadows. We could see a long way down to the Valle di Bellino and towards the plains of Piemonte, no doubt uncomfortably hot and humid. The joys of being in the mountains! Monte Viso was silhouetted against the pale blue eastern sky, but already partially clad in wispy clouds.
After the GTA veered off south towards the Colle di Bellino our path started to steepen. For a while we’d been able to see the crest of the ridge we were heading for, but no obvious way up. But now a weakness in the cliffs came into view as did a herd of ibex on the skyline above silhouetted against dark clouds. A little rain shower swept across us. By the time we got on to the ridge at an outcrop of bright ochre soil (Bassa di Terrarossa, 2832m), the western sky was filled with heavy clouds above the tops of the newly revealed expanse of peaks in that direction. The broad ridge running north to Monte Maniglia was still intermittently flecked with sunlight. And the thunderstorms weren’t due for hours. Always look on the bright side.
Not for the first time this trip, things were tougher than they looked.
After negotiating the herd of ibex we’d seen earlier, some of which were reluctant to move off the path and made noises which could have been interpreted as threatening, the path steepened. This and the altitude made progress a little slower than ideal. Monte Maniglia was still occasionally sunny but a few miles further south the sky was black.
Like Rocca la Marchisa, Monte Maniglia has two summits, both of which need a little scramble and both of which are spectacularly airy. All the more impressive for being concealed until the last moment. The ridge continues north but immediately deteriorates into a spectacular shattered vertiginous multi-toothed crest. Time to turn back.
For most of the way down the ridge, the clearly foul weather to the south begged the question, was the weather forecast remarkably geographically precise, or was the bad weather just early? A flash of lightning a few miles ahead wasn’t a definitive answer, but a clap of thunder just behind was.
The air darkened, huge drops of rain started falling, and a marmot ran squealing off the crest of the ridge. Time to do the same, without the sound effects.
We weren’t far down when the storm broke. Thunder rolled round the peaks above us and we were lashed with alternating violent rain and hailstones. Back on the GTA, we passed some long-distance walkers sheltering in a barn and were glad we didn’t have to cross any high cols to get home. Shorts, shirt and cagoule turned out to be a little cool, so we bombed across the high pastures to keep warm – opening rucksacks in the pouring rain didn’t appeal. But the old cliches are the best, and the weather in the mountains changed quickly as we reached the top of the steep gorge. The storm headed off east, the sun came out and we found a hot sheltered corner to dry off and tuck into lunch. And it stayed nice all the way back to Sant’Anna. A perfect end to a wonderful three days walking.
But not quite the end to a wonderful stay in the Valle di Bellino – time for one more, predictably excellent, dinner at Lou Saret, and endless discussion about Nicole and Otto’s ranking of the three walks. And still so many paths on the map, leading to high peaks and cols, on the sunny, quiet side of the Alps.
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