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Prehistoric hike in the Mercantour, through mountains and wonders

In the Mercantour massif, Mont Bégo is familiar with thunder and lightning. All around, the men have worked on enigmatic engravings. Following the Vallée des Merveilles to the west or the Fontanalba valley to the east, one goes back in time among turbulent chamois and Bronze Age engravings.

The mount Bego, conducive to violent thunderclaps and thick fog, has been the subject of assiduous worship for millennia. When the glaciers withdrew from the region 10,000 years ago, they delivered to the sky an immense and grandiose landscape which did not fail to impress the men who passed by: strings of lakes surrounded by large slabs of schist or of finely polished sandstone that awaited the expression of their artistic sense.

5,000 years ago, the enigmatic beauty, the inherent strength of this setting where lightning knew how to fall hard, prompted them to imprint their respect on stone. No less than 40,000 rock engravings are scattered over the gray, ocher and rusty rock around Mount Bégo: on one side, the famous Valley of Wonders , austere and mineral, on the other, on the eastern slope, the hanging valley of Fontanalba, open and sunny.

From Mont Bégo to the Musée des Merveilles, hiking in practice

20 km > 11 h > + 1 500 m / – 1 500 m

Complete description of the hike on the TopoGuide FFRP The Mercantour National Park … on foot Ref PN18 (hike n ° 22)

IGN Top 25 map n ° 3841 OT – Roya Valley & Vallée des Merveilles (Mercantour PN, Alps)

The start of Mont Bégo

It all started with him. At the heart of Mercantour massif, the last promontory of the alpine arc to the south, Mount Bégo dominates the surroundings with its high and powerful stature. We see him tear the horizon from Ventimiglia or Antibes. Its name comes from an Indo-European root Beg, “the divine lord”. A lord who was adored, feared by generations of shepherds who decided to open an open-air sanctuary at his feet. A two-day hike interspersed with a night in a refuge or a single eleven-hour hike for the bravest – takes place in the two surrounding valleys.

The giant plays the great timid and does not reveal himself until after a long approach. Since lac des Mesches, the asphalt track passes near the Vallauria mining, a former silver lead mine and its miners’ village restored by an association. Then, along a stony track, the hiker has time to see in order: the white bottom of a deer, the dark chaos of a gigantic flow of pebbles and the tawny glow of a chamois swallowed by a rocky ridge.


The Valley of Wonders

The rock engravings of Mercantour, which the 19th century scornfully described as “graffiti incised by idle militias or lonely shepherds”. Christophe Migeon

Pass it Refuge of Wonders, around the decline of Valmasque, the path approaches some engravings. Remember that the site is classified as a Historic Monument and that the engravings outside the marked trails can only be visited in the presence of a tour guide approved by the park. The “wonders” of the valley are to be taken in the medieval sense of the term, that of marvels, those amazing, extraordinary, even supernatural things that confused our ancestors.

From the 15th century, a few curious travelers, such as Pierre de Montfort, were driven by local shepherds and told in their travel diaries their emotion in front of these mysterious engravings. The prehistorian Emile Rivière was the first to take a scientific interest in it in 1877, but it was not until Henry de Lumley from the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris to organize from 1967 the systematic survey of all the engravings.

The path goes due north and with several rock slabs engraved with petroglyphs: the dagger rock, the raised slab, the rock of the brilliance, the vandalized rock, the vitrified wall, the Christ or the Rock of the altar after the lake of wonders. Even if interpretive panels help to understand the representations and techniques used, enthusiasts will have every interest in enlisting the services of a guide so as not to miss anything.

Fontanalba Valley

Under Basto Lake, the trail turns due east and descends into the Fontanalba valley. Christophe Migeon

Under the lac du Basto, the path turns due east and descends into the Fontanalba valley. The landscape opens up, becomes more welcoming. Airy chamois play on the slope studded with rhododendrons. Close to Green lake, an oval of jade surrounded by a courtyard of larch trees with an enormous trunk, a loop route of approximately 1.5 km ventures into the heart of an open-air museum. We soon find ourselves at the foot of a dihedral inclined in front of a staircase that seems to go up to heaven. How not to experience the impression of climbing the steps leading to the altar of a temple? It’s here “Sacred way” so baptized by Clarence Bicknell, a botanist living in Casterino in 1897 to identify and catalog the petroglyphs of the two valleys. Engravings follow one another on the right: daggers, horned figures, figures behind plows, maps of cultivated fields … In total, 284 figures punched in the schist over 50 m long.

Until the first half of the 20th century, the locals would picnic on Sundays in the village of Casterino, then the men would leave their wives and children to go upstairs to see the engravings of Fontanalba. On the other hand, the Vallée des Merveilles was not the object of any stroll. It was frequented only by shepherds. Nobody wanted to “go up to Hell” as they said then. The local toponymy, rich in “Cime du Diable”, “Val d’Enfer” and other “Valmasque” underlines the concern of the clergy to put an end to a pagan worship which is as popular as it is not very Catholic. The land breathes sulfur, the fires of Hell and the laughter of the Evil One.

Arrival at the Musée des Merveilles

Besides chamois and deer, a few marmots on the way. Christophe Migeon

To learn more about these intriguing sanctuaries, direction Curtains in the upper Roya valley and his Museum dedicated to the engravings of Mount Bégo. One learns, among other things, that the nineteenth century, vaguely contemptuous, described these drawings as “Carthaginian figures” or “graffiti engraved by idle militias or lonely shepherds.” But the shape of the engraved daggers, identical with that of the weapons discovered in the tombs of Provence or Piedmont in the Age of Copper and Ancient Bronze, leaves no doubt as to their authors. These “graffiti” are the work of southern alpine populations of the third millennium BC. J.-C. and betray their obsession with attracting the favors of heaven and earth for the good of the flocks and the abundance of the crops.

On these rocks, men came to celebrate the earth, their mother goddess, fertilized by the lightning of the bull god. Some of the figures are reminiscent of pictograms and resemble the simplified images which are at the origin of the first Mediterranean writings. It is a symbolic language, essentially religious, where the image makes it possible to establish communication with the divine.

Practical notebook


Departure of the hike from Lac des Mesches, 88 km northeast of Nice on the A8 to Ventimiglia then the D 6204 to Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, then the D91. In July and August shuttle bus from Tende and Saint-Dalmas to Casterino with a stop at Lac des Mesches.


Better to wait until the end of June for this loop because of the risk of snow. The period from July to September seems the most suitable, even from June to October depending on the weather conditions. The Fontanalba valley is accessible longer from Castérino, from spring. The refuge des Merveilles is open all year round and snowshoe hikes are very popular with amateurs. Unfortunately, the engravings are buried and therefore invisible …


Refuge de Fontanalba . A mountain refuge with 35 places to pleasantly cut the hike in two. Half board € 45.50. Reservations can only be made by phone. Phone. : 04 93 04 89 19.

Refuge of Wonders . A refuge on the shores of Lac Long Supérieur. 79 beds in 4 dormitories. Half board € 50.30. Phone. : 04 93 04 64 64.

Hotel Chamois d’Or . In Casterino, one of the main gateways to the Valley of Wonders, a friendly mountain chalet with an elegant and warm atmosphere, consisting of 22 rooms, a restaurant, a spa and a bar. Phone. : 04 93 04 66 66.


Wonders, Engravings & Discoveries . Public guided tour service of the archaeological areas from the Gias des Pasteurs chalet in Fontanalba. From June 15 to September 30, € 15. Phone: 06 86 03 90 13.

Museum of Wonders . Avenue of September 16, 1947, 06430 Tende. Phone: 04 93 04 32 50.


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