Years ago, preparing for my first trip to the Abruzzo region of Italy (home of paternal ancestors), I read about the annual Transhumance. In the 1960s when the book had been written, the Transhumance involved many shepherds, tens of thousands of sheep and up to a week of walking 20 kilometers a day from winter lowland to summer mountain pastures. The author described waking in the dead of night to strange sounds, and, looking out his guest house window, being drowsily confused by the sight of of puffy white waves. They were the sheep passing through the village before the dawn, bleating, collar bells softly clanging.
Today, the Transhumance has largely died out. Sheep are still moved seasonally, but usually in truck convoys, for ease and convenience. But for some shepherds, the annual ritual along ancient tratturi, the paths beaten out by innumerable sheep hoofs over the centuries, has meaning worth preserving. Unesco has recognized the Transhumance as an intangible part of cultural patrimony thanks to their efforts.
So I was thrilled when I learned that a Transhumance took place in the Parc National du Mercantour not far from Nice, and that a small number of tourists could take part.
The plan was for ten people to accompany a few shepherds, 1000 or so sheep and numerous dogs for two days as they made their way up a mountain. I was especially lured by the promise of sleeping in our mountain refuge to the sounds of sheep bleating in the nearby fields.
It didn’t work out that way. For whatever reason, 19 tourists were on the journey, not ten, and we didn’t encounter the herd until midday on the first day. The path, described to us as “easy” was certainly not.
About a half hour before sighting the first sheep, we could hear their bells and bleats, and the occasional dog barking. They arrived on the path like a rushing river, forcing us to get out of their way and not interfere with the hard work of the herding dogs. The three protector dogs, who had the job of keeping the wolves at bay, didn’t waste energy herding, keeping a silent-but-deadly lookout throughout.
At night, they had moved on who knows where, but far away enough for us to not hear a baaa. At 6:00am the next morning, knees sore from the unexpectedly rough uphill path the day before, I and several others opted for the minivan ride to the top of the mountain where we waited under the early morning sun the arrival of the contingent.
What a beautiful mountain landscape it was.
We hikers ate al fresco with the three shepherds and two guides before beginning our descent, ending at the train station home to Nice at day’s end. Was it all I expected? No, but there are other Transhumance journeys to consider for next summer.