The new Featured Writer is Tamar Yoseloff who has four collections to her name and who often, as you will see, writes remarkable poems responding to art and various media. She and you might be interested in these petroglyphs … or are they ideograms? Cuneiform or rock art? In the heart of the Mercantour National Park in the Southern Alps lies The Valley of Marvels – the Vallée des Merveilles. Clustered around are names you would think were meant to be warnings: Il Lac du Diable, La Cime du Diable, le Vallon d’Enfer. Indeed, the place attracts thunder and lightning, bringing down boulders, splitting open rocks. Something to do with the minerals, I read somewhere. And lightning plays on the summit of Mt.Bego (whose name means ‘divine lord’) at 2,872 metres.
As you enter the Valley of Marvels from the lower end you pass beside the Splintered Rock incised with horned figures, a spiral, images in a grid pattern, daggers – mysterious or secret signs.
These images were made in about 1500BC. How have they survived? A Frenchman we met suggested they might have been coloured once. Soon after, you walk under a high and forbidding black-ish cliff as if entering through a portal into a vast open-air temple. It was early in the morning and the sun was gilding everything it touched. Windless in the valley the temperature was climbing out of the chill night. Ice had formed in shallow puddles caught in dips in the rocks and frost lay in slices beneath stones. A riverlet stormed down the valley between the fallen boulders.
Because of vandalism and the delicate nature of the petroglyphs you are prohibited from leaving the path but, all the same, to see the few engravings that are on the main route through, is to marvel at the connection between man and landscape. And what a landscape: etched by glaciers the summits so jagged they look as if they could make the blue sky bleed, boulders balanced on the edge of ridges and escarpments as if they are warriors or maybe priests observing your progress. In mountian worship all these stones must have been held sacred. Such an inhospitable place for life of any kind is hard to imagine. Yet 2000 species of plants flower and seed through the summer, and no less than 40 of those are unique to this area. A place for retreat, a sanctuary perhaps. Both a paradise and a hell.
At about mid-way the path dips under a gigantic rock balanced between two boulders. ( Like a dolmen though natural.) Mt Bego was a sacred site dedicated to the cults of the Bull God and the Earth Goddess. But the engravings in the Valley of Marvels are apparently not typical of classic rock art. Researchers have identified at least twenty recurrent themes engraved on the rocks – daggers, human forms, wedge shapes, horns, rectangular grid patterns. Before writing existed it is not difficult to imagine shamans, astronomers shaping their thoughts on the mineral rich surfaces – copper, green, blue – as inviting as sheets of paper in their untapped possibility. In the Museum of Tende archaeologists are still puzzling over the images and the language of the symbols, which was first penetrated by a British botanist, Clarence Bicknell in the 1890’s. We must return to visit the museum one day to learn more.
Leaving the Valley we climbed a steep, corkscrew path at the head, leaving behind three lakes glittering in the hot sunshine and where the water reflected the surrounding mountain peaks. Some chamois clattered away across the scree.
At the top a ferocious wind howled in our faces, biting through every seam and stitch in our clothing. And there are wolves and even ermine hereabouts.
Some snow lay in streaks under the summits ahead of us. Scrambling round the far side of Mt Bego we later met a pair of ibex, slow-moving and unperturbed by our presence, their huge horns looking enormously heavy on their heads. To me they seemed like the horns on the petroglyphs.
Although we encountered only a few people in the Valley, clearly the place attracts many modern-day walking pilgrims for the Refuge des Merveilles, located on a cross-roads of paths, was packed, even in September. We shared a fuggy dormitory bunked up with no less than 42 people laid side by side, mainly French but several other nationalities. Even though well-fed after a shared four course meal, I was understandably sleepless most of the night. This gave me time to reflect that, at least, sleep has only one language!
(Fyi, if you want to go there, there are other options than the night in the dormitory )