A hidden valley in the Alpes-Maritimes revealed its prehistoric treasures following decades of work by a Victorian clergyman.Ray Kershaw follows in his footsteps
“Voilà le Sorcier.” Our guide Yves taps the incised boulder. Like a conjurer’s trick its lines resolve into a face. “The Sorcerer is our star. We think he is holding lightning bolts.” Even after five millennia the image is mesmeric. It could have been carved yesterday, yet it is among the planet’s oldest works of art. We are high in one of Europe’s wildest mountain valleys, in the Alpes-Maritimes département near the border with Italy. Above us soars Mont Bégo, home of the ancient Ligurian gods. Around its rugged summit is a vast open-air Neolithic and Bronze Age art museum. Here almost 40,000 mysterious engravings cover 30 square kilometres: hunters, oxen, ploughmen, horses and old deities forgotten everywhere but in this location. The earliest date from 3,000 BC. Who made them and why? Above all, why here? The place could not be more remote and is snowbound for half the year. Despite the azure sky, the awesome rockscape seems as desolate as the dark side of the moon.
A marmot’s piercing screech interrupts Yves’s explanation and everybody jumps. Suddenly we are cold and ravenously hungry. The midday sun is dazzling, but Mont Bégo is 2,870 metres high. It is still arduous to get here 5,000 years on, but who could resist an invitation to explore the Vallée des Merveilles?
My wife Alice and I join Yves for a picnic on a ledge looking down 300 metres to the icy Lac Long. The Baisse de Valmasque (the rocky Col of the Witches) is just to our north. The Cîme du Diable (Devil’s Peak) is to our south. In every direction there are deities, demons and hundreds of engravings: the Tribal Chief; Christ’s Face; the Giant Bull. In every direction stretch the valleys and peaks of the untamed Parc National du Mercantour; 2,000 square kilometres where chamois, deer, ibex and, increasingly, wolves outnumber the inhabitants. The timeless wilderness is also the newest part of France.
When the future king of Italy Victor Emmanuel II ceded Nice and its hinterland to Emperor Napoléon III in 1860, he retained the serrated snow-capped mountains that form today’s border as a hunting reserve. In 1947 the park’s scattered hamlets and the tiny town of Tende voted to join France, endowing their new nation with a mountain paradise abundant in wildlife and more than 2,000 Mediterranean Alpine plants. Today 700 square kilometres are entirely uninhabited. The Valley of Marvels lies hidden at their heart.
Although fabled in Ligurian folklore, for all but a few shepherds and priests it was terra incognita until 1881. It took a remarkable Victorian clergyman, the Rev Clarence Bicknell, to reveal its marvels to the modern world. Bicknell was the 13th child of a whale oil millionaire and in his father’s London mansion artists such as J.M.W. Turner introduced him to art. Bicknell shone while studying maths at Cambridge, but his questing spiritual nature led to his ordination into the Anglican Church. He toiled as a curate in the south London slums, but his love of science, art, nature and humanity were pushing him towards this lost wild valley and his greatest passion.
Inheriting a fortune, he travelled the world hunting for rare plants before arriving in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera in 1878. This tiny fishing village was becoming a resort for the ailing British rich, who made Bicknell their chaplain, but he resigned within a year, convinced that “all doctrines are a fraud.” He founded a museum, and lavished money on the needy and on earthquake relief.
His obsession was botany. His book The Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera and Neighbouring Mountains contains thousands of his watercolours. One day while roaming in the mountains his life changed forever when he stumbled on the Val delle Meraviglie – the name by which he knew the then-Italian valley – and discovered the engravings to which he would devote his final 37 years. In blistering heat and violent storms, he combed it each summer with his assistant Luigi Pollini. His 1913 Guide to the Prehistoric Rock Engravings in the Italian Maritime Alps remains in print and has never been surpassed.
Bicknell believed that the engravings were offerings to Mont Bégo’s gods whose spring thaws and summer downpours watered the dry lowlands, and that the valley was a blue-domed prehistoric cathedral. The most prolific symbol is of the cow god Bégo, the life-renewing deity of many old religions. Although the Valley of Marvels predates recorded history, its merveilles were not originally the man-made engravings, but the wonder-working spirits which they represent. Many are of Lowry-like matchstick men and deities – human feet point inwards, the feet of gods point out. Are the engravings gifts of gratitude or desperate supplications? Perhaps the mysteries are too arcane for modern minds. Yves tells us that locals were carving figures well into the 20th century: lonely shepherds hoping for wives, or Italian deserters seeking Bégo’s protection during World War II.
With Yves’s stories swimming in our heads, we amble down to the hamlet of Casterino 1,000 metres below. The Chamois d’Or hotel, our mountain base, smells cosily of wood smoke; at 1,500 metres evenings can be cold. Ebullient Angelo, the Italian proprietor, works on our appetites with operatic bravura: tagliatelle with morels, truite au bleu and rack of lamb. A companion on the trek knows the French mountains well, but the Valley of Marvels has been a revelation for him. Digesting tiramisù over Angelo’s best grappa, we enthuse about the day.
Casterino, once in Italy, still brushes the border. Bicknell loved it here and little has changed since his day. Near the upper bridge the lights have gone on in the Auberge Val Casterino, the rustic inn where he first lodged. Half-hidden by trees is the Casa Fontanalba, the house that Bicknell and Pollini built so as to live near the engravings in self-sufficient simplicity.
Tonight the only sounds are cowbells and water. In the deepening dusk the rocks resemble faces. We remember Yves’s warning about the ‘Merveilles syndrome’: you start to see engravings everywhere, even in your dreams.
To understand the remoteness of the Valley of Marvels you must go on foot. After a 1,000-metre slog through dense forests, past waterfalls and gorges, you may feel as elated as those Neolithic artists when they reached the end of their pilgrimage. They walked huge distances, from down the coast as far as present-day Cannes and from the River Po in Italy. Next day, though, we cheat. Alain, a park guardian, offers us a lift. Some Casterino residents are licensed to drive passengers up the hair-raising track, but this white-knuckle 4×4 ride is not for the fainthearted. We marvel at Alain’s nonchalant skill but wish he wouldn’t turn so much when telling us jokes. Thereafter we walk.
Our final expedition begins on a luminous Alpes-Maritimes morning. The meadows are dotted with chocolate-coloured cows and we climb the Vallée de Fontanalbe, on Mont Bégo’s other flank, with springs in our boots. We reach what seems a kind of Eden. Streams meander among tracts of wild flowers; a ladder of lakes is linked by cascades. Here Bicknell discovered a prehistoric picture gallery surpassing anything he had found before.
Yves leads us up the gully that Bicknell called La Voie Sacrée. The red rock is like a canvas where he meticulously counted 284 engravings which he sensed must be religious, but even more lay ahead. The Sacred Way proved a staircase to the secret upper valley, where giant lichen-covered boulders and centuries-old larches resemble a rock garden designed for the gods. Yves, born and bred here, seems not only to know every engraving, but every flower, tree and herb.We pause by the engraving Bicknell named The Tree of Life. Little in the landscape has changed since the last Ice Age. Drifting coils of mist wreathe us in gossamer. A herd of chamois saunters by; golden eagles wheel above; two marmots peer and squeak. The fearless animals too seem under its spell. It is a magical place.
While we picnic on tourta – crisp pastry rolls that Yves brought from home – he explains that the region’s satanic-sounding place names were invented by Catholic priests to deter inhabitants from visiting pagan sites. Yves believes there are still secret adherents of the old ways.
In the valley’s solitude Bicknell’s restless soul found peace. During his four decades in Bordighera and at the Casa Fontanalba he had grown ever more radical. He championed women’s rights, was a pioneer vegetarian, a passionate pacifist and an early exponent of Esperanto – the artificial language that aimed to unite humanity where religions had failed. Searching to the end for plants and engravings, he died in 1918 aged 76. Pollini, they say, bore him outside for a last glimpse of Mont Bégo. For years he had called the mountain “his ladder to heaven”. L’Échelle du Paradis was his name for the engraving that he was sure was the key that unlocked them all.
His death is surrounded in mystery. We hear rumours from people whose grandparents remembered him; that a new mushroom he had discovered and tasted was the inveterate botanist’s terminal experiment. Possibly it’s true. Other people shake their heads. Casterino’s secrets are not revealed to strangers.
Yet perhaps a greater mystery is what happened to Pollini, Bicknell’s “irreplaceable habitual fellow traveller.” In neither France nor Italy can anyone shed light on his fate.
The Casa Fontanalba remains uninhabited. Owned by the Marquise de Breteuil, she keeps the interior virtually unchanged, the walls still emblazoned with Bicknell’s exquisite murals. In his day a sign read: “Welcome be to every guest, Come he north, south, east or west.” His beloved gardens are overgrown and the view of the mountains is obscured by trees. A simple plaque commemorates the extraordinary Englishman, a legend on both sides of the Alpes-Maritimes, yet scarcely known in his homeland.
We make a pilgrimage to Tende to lay flowers on his grave. The town lies stacked against a mountain – a maze of winding alleys where you could dawdle all day – but most riveting for us is the multi-million-euro Musée des Merveilles, its white façades adorned with replica engravings. Bringing vividly to life Mont Bégo’s last 5,000 years, it would surely have thrilled Bicknell, who in Bordighera a century before had created the Liguria region’s first-ever museum.
High above the town we find his tomb in the cemetery facing the mountains where two peaks are now called the Cîmes Bicknell and Pollini. From here the summit of Mont Bégo seems to reach the sky.
By road: Casterino is a 13-hour drive from the Channel ports. P&O’s Hull/Zeebrugge overnight ferry makes a handy shortcut from Scotland and the north of England.
By air: The nearest airport is Nice.
By rail: The train journey from London to Nice via Paris takes 10 hours. The train to Tende takes from two hours and it is then a 14-kilometre taxi ride to Casterino.
Footprint Holidays has five-night walking holidays based in Casterino, including transport from Nice, and accommodation and meals at the Hotel Chamois d’Or. Most walks are self-guided but can be upgraded to include local guides. From 15 June to 15 October, minimum two people, from £595 per person, excluding flights.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Chamois d’Or, Tende. Doubles from €85.
Auberge Val Casterino, Tende. Doubles from €58.
Auberge Sainte Marie-Madeleine, Tende. Doubles from €50.
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