Meadow moments - Walking in Mercantour

There’s some great walking to be had in the little-known area of Mercantour. Clare Hargreaves heads for the hills

Think of Provence and you might picture sunkissed beaches, C�zanne and salade Ni�oise. Drive just an hour inland from the coast to its northeast corner, though, and you find an area that’s far less visited: the rugged mountain massif of the Mercantour which stretches for around 75 kilometres along the Italian border. Here you’ll discover forgotten villages, dramatic gorges, jagged limestone peaks, spectacular flora and fauna and – surprisingly perhaps – some great art. It’s a wonderful region to walk in, especially in early summer when the flowers are at their best. I decided to find out what the Mercantour had to offer for myself.

Guided tour Our base was the village of Saint-Martind’Entraunes, a modest cluster of corrugated-iron-roofed houses on a glacial moraine ridge overlooking the River Var, in the southwest corner of the Parc National du Mercantour. In winter just 60 souls eke out a living here, tending their sheep or curing ham, for which the village is famous. In summer its population swells as coast-dwellers escape the heat. Its inhabitants are impolitely nicknamed Lou Tavans, derived from Les Taons, in turn derived from Les Hannetons, meaning (dung) beetles, the idea being that news and gossip travels fast and becomes exaggerated in size as it travels from house to house. Saint-Martin’s other claim to fame, bizarrely, is its heated street, the first in the Alpes-Maritimes region, a quirky innovation of its mayor in the late 1990s.

The Parc National du Mercantour is well equipped with paths, signs and refuge huts if you want to walk on your own. I, however, was travelling with a company which offered the choice of being guided or guiding ourselves with the help of its handbook and marked up maps. My companion Fiona and I were in a delicate state having overnighted in a seedy dive en route from Nice and been woken at 6am by the lorry drivers in the room next door. We needed something easy. So we opted for the company of our upland manager’ Alex, an ex-youth worker and artist from East London. He whisked us off in his Berlingo up the road leading into the main Mercantour massif, passing through the hamlet of Estenc, sandwiched between two impressive mountain ranges. This area has always been part of the Comt� de Nice, and frequently changed hands between France and the Kingdom of Savoy over the centuries. It only returned to France in 1860.

“I’m going to give you a flavour of the area,” said Alex, as he handed us our three-course Tuppaware feasts, one of the best reasons for travelling in style with a company rather than solo. We quickly devoured the delicious concoction of flageolet beans, jambon cru from the village and rice; topped off by a divine rhubarb fool. Far better, I mused, than the baguette and brie we’d probably have managed if left to our own devices.

If you’re a botanist, this region is a treasure trove in late June, when most snows have melted. The start of our walk took us through the so-called Jardin Alpin, a pretty conifer wood carpeted with delicate blooms. The Mercantour has more than 2,000 plant species, out of a total 4,200 found in France. They include 220 very rare species, some of them endemic, like the Saxifraga Florulenta with its symmetrical leaves fanning out like on a ceiling rose. Globe flowers, gentians, pasque flowers, cowslips – all vied for attention. And we spotted orchids, like miniature candy flosses, in the grass – apparently there are 63 kinds here.

Soon the gradient rose and we headed up eastwards through woods towards the valley of l’Estrop. We were walking on bare white limestone scree, zigzagging our way up the mountain, following trails used by shepherds bringing their sheep to pasture here in summer. As the path began to level off and we reached a cairn, we saw why this grassy step’ was so ideal for grazing – it was relatively flat, had plenty of water, and was sheltered by grandiose snow-capped peaks. The sheep arrive, en masse, on 21 June, causing traffic jams throughout the valley, and many villages hold a F�te de la Transhumance. But we were a few days early, so made do with the company of some miniature cyclamen that were timidly nudging their way through the snowmelt-sodden turf.

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At the head of the valley we passed the eerie ruins of barrack buildings that were constructed by the French to guard the pass before World War II. It was getting late, so we headed back the way we’d come, passing the tranquil lake just north of Estenc and surrounding flowerfilled meadows.

Rustic fringe Man has always lived close to his animals here, and the domestic architecture reflects this: the lower levels of the houses accommodated livestock in winter, which provided handy central heating for the humans living on the floor above. The attic was used to dry and store hay and other crops so the roof gables on the southern side projected outwards – that way the attic could remain open without letting the rain in. Our second walk, on the southwestern fringes of the Mercantour (just outside the parc national) was designed to show us some of the finest examples of this rustic architecture – plus some stunning scenery.

We started at a point just across the River Var from the village of Villeneuved’Entraunes and, for the first half an hour, followed the Var’s riverbed. Interestingly, since the mid-19th century the river has been divorced from the d�partement named after it, the only such case in France. The 120-kilometre Var now runs through the Alpes-Maritimes, and the Alpes de Haute-Provence, where we were. Arriving at the hamlet of Les Filleuls we zigzagged up through the forests, our sights on the peaks ahead.

Sussis, at the top, was a delight. Here was a clutch of farmhouses, plus a tiny, recently restored chapel, in a gorgeously lush setting. There was further habitation, including a g�te d’�tape, at the hamlet of Les Valli�res, ten minutes further on. But the most picturesque was a farm reached by a scree path clinging to the mountainside beyond it, at La Tardea. It was so remote we marvelled at how anyone could have existed there. The roofs of the house and barn were caving in and being fast devoured by dog roses, but it made a lovely spot to guzzle another of Alex’s portable feasts.

The walk from here is bliss, winding through meadows brimming with saxifrage, orchids and wild lavender. To the north we snatched views of towering white needle-like peaks, tops shrouded in mist, and to the south we spotted the village of Guillaumes in the valley. Nearly four hours into our walk we came across more ramshackle buildings on the edge of a meadow. Inside was some serious machinery – in the early 1900s this was the head of a cable-way to carry milk from the high pastures down to the valley. It seemed sad that the milk we drank at the hotel was UHT; but you can, if you look, find some fine cheeses (mostly using goat’s or sheep’s milk) in and around Saint-Martin. Best known is a Reblochonstyle cheese you can buy at the village shop.

The final stretch took us under cliffs of rock, via ferrata style, then we joined a minor road before zig-zagging steeply down a selection of tracks and paths back to the start. We checked our watches: five hours exactly. It had been another memorable day. Final destination Wherever you are in this part of the Mercantour, the dominant landmark is the imposing limestone spires of the Aiguilles de Pelens. Our final walk would take us to their base. First, though, there was business to do in the village: we were to see one of the religious masterpieces of Louis Brea and his family, who lived in Nice in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their remarkable works are displayed in numerous villages on both sides of the Franco-Italian border. The painting in Saint-Martin is called the Vierge du Rosaire, and is thought to have been painted by Louis’ nephew Fran�ois in 1555. It is one of his most colourful, with its brilliant crimson angels’ robes. There’s another work by Fran�ois in the nearby village of Chateauneufd’Entraunes that’s well worth the visit too.

Detour over, the walk started a few miles north, taking a path off the road. The track we joined was an ancient route that once led from the Var valley over the Col des Champs pass into Colmars in the Verdon valley. We darted across streams, scampered up through pine woods, and breathed in the perfumes of herbs and lavender all around us. Finally, we caught a glimpse of what we had climbed for: the dramatic rock needles of the Aiguilles de Pelens. The rock, a mix of limestone and marl, is particularly friable and prone to erosion, which explains the remarkable shapes. It also makes them dangerous and difficult to climb. The Grande Aiguille (2523m) was first conquered by Victor de Cessole in 1905.

As we reached a grassy bluff, the terrain started to level out and we ambled across orchid-studded meadows towards the Aiguilles. Every now and then the air was rent by high-pitched shrieks; at first we thought the noise came from buzzards but we soon saw the marmots, plump ground squirrels that burrow in the soil of these high pastures. The marmots are just one of 197 species of vertebrates – 53 of them endangered – who inhabit the park. We later saw ibex and chamois, but alas, the golden eagles we’d been hoping to spot were nowhere to be seen.

Emerging near the road by the pass, we stopped at a tiny iron-roofed refuge for a drink, before descending through buttercup-carpeted woods and lush valleys. Passing more ruined farmhouses tangled in the undergrowth, we wondered what treats our host would be preparing for dinner.

 

MAGICAL MERCANTOUR The Mercantour massif marks the extreme southwest end of the great Alpine Arc and runs for most of its length along the Italian border. Important for its flora and fauna, some 68,500 hectares of the area was designated the Parc National du Mercantour in 1979. The parc extends from south of Barcelonnette to the west, to Sospel, to the east, just 16 kilometres north of the coast. The range is mostly made of 350-million-year-old granite, formed as a result of the collision of the African continental plate and the stationary European plate. The western end of the massif, where we stayed, however, is mostly younger marl and limestone.

Traditionally dairy herds and sheep grazed the mountains, but few herds remain. However, the tradition of transhumance, whereby flocks of sheep are driven from the coastal lowlands up the valleys and into the high mountain pastures, continues to this day. Time your visit to coincide with the 21 June and you will find the streets of the mountain villages crammed with bleating sheep being herded by their shepherds; there are even street signposts indicating which way the sheep are to move. Enjoy their milk, turned into delicious cheeses, throughout the year.

Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes, where we stayed, dates from 1154, and has always belonged to the Comt� de Nice. It has a fine Romanesque church that dates from the late 13th century; despite being called the Templar church, the Templars never had anything to do with it. The Gothic portal on the south side is a later addition, but has some fine lion carvings.

FOR MORE INFORMATION www.mercantour.eu Barcelonnette, at the Park’s northwestern end, has a Maison du Parc (tel: (Fr) 4 92 81 21 31). You can also find a Maison du Parc in Saint-Martin-Vesubie, further east (tel: (Fr) 4 93 03 23 15) which many walkers use as a base.