On the day (when these words were penned), that the total glamour and glitz of the Cannes Film Festival starts, and the weather has been so kind to us that the good burghers of the Côte D’Azur are worried that they might not gain permission to fill their swimming pools this summer due to drought. Our colleagues, are out on the hill above 2,000 metres enjoying abundant snow.
For the uninitiated, just behind the French Riviera, lies the fabulous Mercantour National Park, which straddles the Franco-Italian border and becomes the Parco Alpi Marittime in Italy. This combined area offers a massive playground for nature lovers all year round, with the benefit of being both easily accessible from Nice; plus being completely unspoilt.
The unique influences from north, south, east and west – Alpine, Mediterranean, Ligurian and Provençale – provide the area with a unique combination of terrain. The coast rising up to peaks above 3,000 metres within a distance of some 60 kilometres. There is also a fascinating variety of fauna, and flora with many endemic species, not to mention the historic Vallée des Merveilles, which boasts 37,000 Bronze Age carving on its rocks. Even under a blanket of snow (you won’t get to see the engravings in the winter sadly) you can feel the atmosphere generated by the iron ore filled Mount Bego, which attracts stupendous summer storms, and may have been key to drawing ancient man to the site.
If you are drawn to take a winter holiday in Europe, this is the place to visit – between the end of December and the end of March. While the Alpes-Maritimes does boast some small ski resorts such as Isola 2,000, Auron (primarily destinations for French folk who live on the coast) and Limone on the Italian side, these just scratch the surface and hardly mar the landscape. You can soon be away from clanking ski lifts, ghastly fashion wear and après-ski excesses.
Arriving in Nice airport, you will probably find yourself alone among your fellow passengers wearing walking boots. But fear not, aside from the well known Grand Randonnée walks, the GR5 and GR52 that snake north into the hills, there is plenty more to do.
Hire a car from the airport or take advantage of the splendid value €1 buses, to go anywhere in the Alpes-Maritimes. In a car you are not usually likely to encounter the need for snow chains, but check the forecasts before you leave to see to what altitude the snow has descended. The conditions can change very quickly.
To the North, within an hour, and remaining within spitting distance of Italy, you have the choice of a medley of different valleys: the Vésubie, the Tinée, the Roya and Bévéra, the Var, the Ubaye, and the Verdon.
Taking the path of least resistance, heading north, head up the light industrial and rather gloomy valley of the Var. This is where you could at least stop off at the Decathlon for your must-have socks/gas canisters for your trip, or even the Carrefour to stock up on edible supplies.
Retail opportunities are reasonably limited, away from the coast. Your first and understandable instinct will be to turn off the main road at the village of Plan-du-Var where the Vésubie gorges seem to tempt you, as Alice, heading into Wonderland. The gorges are impressive, the towns medieval and rather down at heel looking. Before you start to ask yourself –where IS the snow? – cheeky peaks start to emerge – head north towards the towns of Roquebillière and the best known village in the Vésubie, Saint Martin (yes, indeed) Vésubie.
In both sleepy villages, where you might be lucky to sight a hound between noon and 3 p.m., you might wonder how you are ever going to get out there amongst the snow without wasting a lot of time.
However help is at hand – at the very least get armed with local maps from the French Institut Geographique National. If you are a non-French speaker you could do much worse than to get in touch with Mel Jones of spacebetween. Mel is Welsh, and runs two comfortable gites (holiday flats in a wonderfully located farmhouse) in Berthemont les Bains (yes there are baths here too!). Mel can help with organising both day trips snowshoeing, and week long packages.
Due to French legislation he is not able to offer more technical activities: ice climbing, ski touring and other snow sports. However, colleague and French mountain guide Pierrot Fiorucci (based in Saint Martin) can offer these more advanced possibilities.
Once on site, accommodation with Mel is highly recommended – even if you want to go out and do your own thing, although daily guiding is offered. Otherwise, the Grand Chalet in Valdeblore, nestled just next to the tiny ski resort of La Colmiane, is a charming place to stay where you will be spoiled by the welcome and great cooking of Luc and Christine van Wynsberghe. Do note that despite the fact that most people you come across, even with limited French, are both charming and welcoming; some hoteliers and restaurateurs can be dour.
In Saint Martin, stock up on local cheese from Sandrine, ham from Marco’s, and bread from any number of delicious bakeries in the High Street, (using the term loosely).
Keeping our sights on a limited scale, there is plenty to see and do. Over the course of a week’s break, there are three west-to-east orientated valleys that feed into the Vésubie – from north to south, Le Boréon, the Madone de Fenestre and the Gordolasque.
Le Boréon is a hamlet, which is scarcely that, at 1700 metres. It boasts a dammed lake, a great cosy chalet to stay in all year round (sleeping up to 13 people), two hotels and more. The major man-made attraction, which is the wolf park, Alpha, is well worth a half day visit to hone your senses for when you are out and about in the wilderness. There’s also a great little resto – O à la Bouche – which has a welcoming fire, mulled wine and Corsican beer.
Throughout days one and two, you can base yourself in Le Boréon and stay in Chalet Longfellow – the summer residence of the renowned American/French cowboy Denis Longfellow (who spends his winters in Sainte Agnès, near Menton). You can either self cater or bring in spacebetween, who organises catering bookings.
On Day 1 why not take a classic and not too strenuous walk up to the refuge du Cougourde. You can stop off for either a cuppa, or overnight, if you wish to stay and explore the beautiful valley at your leisure. Travel to the eerie Lac Trécolpas, Arthurian in the summer (and mightily impressive in the winter time) where ibex are often spotted eyeing their visitors up with some distain. The simple out and back to the refuge is an ascent of about 600 metres, and a distance of 10 kilometres.
The addition of Lac Trécolpas adds another couple of hours to the day for faster walkers. On Day 2 try a classic hike to the gorgeous Lac Nègre – starting as high as the snow line on the road up to the Salèse from Le Boréon. Once you get to the National Park boundary you wind your way up the valley on a gentle incline. While you have the breath, keep your eyes and ears peeled for signs of chamois on the valley sides, nutcracker birds and the majestic golden eagle. After a halt at the col, there is a downhill section heading towards the abandoned village of Mollières – before you come across a signpost heading you up towards Lac Nègre. A splendid amphitheatre in both summer and winter, it is worth the effort.
On Day 3, relax with a morning at Alpha, where you can photograph semi-wild wolves to your heart’s content, and capture amazing shots of your quarry without any encumbrance of fence or wire via well designed lookouts. Spend the afternoon in the village of Saint Martin, which has a fascinating history; its cobbled streets take you back in time to the days of the Templars and the famous Salt Route between the plains of the south and Piedmont in Italy. Stay in Berthemont with spacebetween or try your luck with any of the small but unremarkable hotels in Saint Martin. Recommended for food is the Rendezvous run by Michel and Domi.
Spend Day 4 exploring the Madone de Fenestre. However, in the winter time, it requires a lot of foot slogging up a snow covered road. Walking up to the Madone sanctuary, where there is also a friendly CAF refuge, is a pleasant stroll of 8 kilometres with an ascent of about 400 metres. Be sure to allow for more depending on where you start on the road, which snakes out of Saint Martin. Hardy types can add the Baisse de Cinq Lacs, which add a further 700 metres of ascent to the experience.
On Day 5, and moving south, the Gordolasque is a gem and probably the most Alpine U-shaped valley in the area. You will reach the hamlet of Belvédère, where local honey is available, and boasts the best pizza joint in the area. A rather giddy road leads you up to a water shed and a hotel, Le Grand Capelet, from where you can take a gentle stroll up the valley on the right bank of the river.
Diehards can take a more difficult hike up to Lac Autier (pack crampons in harsh weather) for a 700-metre ascent from the valley base. Accommodation is a little thin on the ground: At holiday times try the Grand Capelet or the Relais des Merveilles, or you may need to head back down to the valley again. Study of the IGN 3741 OT map will give you lots of ideas for walks for a final day.
If you have time, as you head reluctantly south to the coast, swing up and over the famous Col de Turini and step out around the rather haunting area of Authion. The point of three communes offers splendid views down to the coast and, on some days, to Corsica, combined with rich military history. It was the site of the last battle of WWII in France in April 1945. You’ll be glad that you made the effort and topped your break, one which merely scratches the surface of the Mercantour.
Whatever you do, don’t forget the rules of the National Park: Leave it as you find it, check weather conditions and avalanche warnings before you go. ARVAs are always recommended.
Paths are well signposted.
Images courtesy of Rona Allan and spacebetween
Places to stay:
Berthemont – spacebetween gite – www.space-between.co.uk
Le Boréon – Chez Denis – www.horseandventures.com
Gordolasque – Hotel Grand Capelet – www.vesubian.com/sites/capelet.htm
Relais des Merveilles – www.relaisdesmerveilles.com/index.php
Valdeblore – Grand Chalet – www.grand-chalet.com
Eco Gite – www.ecogitemercantour.fr
Places to eat:
Henri’s – Belvédère – 04 93 02 03 30
O à la Bouche – Le Boréon – www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime
Places to visit:
Alpha wolf park – www.alpha-loup.com
Randooxygène guide books – www.cg06.fr
National Park site – France – www.mercantour.eu
French maps – www.ign.fr
French Alpine Club – www.caf.fr
Mel Jones – spacebetween – www.space-between.co.uk
Pierrot Fiorucci – escapade – www.guidescapade.com/guidescapadeGB.html
How to get there:
Easyjet airline – www.easyjet.co.uk
Nice airport – www.nice.aeroport.fr