Thursday, 28 March 2013

Easter in the Mountains in the South of France?!!

Need a last minute holiday in France? - Easter is VERY early this year for sure - in Northern Europe we all seems to have suffered a severe dousing of rain and snow - and once the sun does come out we are looking for a bummer crop of grass for our hungry horses!

However one thing at a time - while it might have been raining here at 861m - up higher - and we do have higher! - the snow is astonishing - which has lead most of our ski resorts here - including La Colmiane, Auron, Isola 2000 etc and of course Le Boreon - for the wolf park and cross country skiing - never mind the perfect untrodden opportunities for snow shoeing in the Mercantour!! - staying open for the Easter weekend,

It seems as if people both here and in the UK have rather been hedging their bets - and there does appear to be accommodation available at this late stage in the game - including for our gites in Berthemont les Bains ......

We're also running a snow shoeing week from April 6th - once the holiday flights prices have subsided...this was meant to be a Mercantour Reflections week - but hey ho - let's not put those snow shoes away as's perfect - as when the sun does come out it has been close to 20 degrees in the midday sun - just about okay to enjoy a tartiflette in the sunshine......

A last minute walking break in France - get it booked - fly to Nice and let us do the rest!!!

Vegetarians are very welcome......

Hope to see you soon.....


Wolves in the wild in the Mercantour

Mollières – the only village in the central core of the Mercantour.  It remains a magic place accessible on foot by the Tinée valley – or from Millefonts via the Col de Barn or Col Ferier.   

The “authorised” – those who live in the village may take the 15km untarmaced road from Le Boreon in the summer months – in the winter it is strictly snow shoe or ski mountaineering access for the hardy.   

The village opted to be Italian in the 19th century and regained its “Frenchness” after WWII, at the end of which the village was razed to the ground by the Germans.  Imagine then that the village isn’t Alpine pretty but its isolated location make it magic.  

 It is one of the areas in the Mercantour where wild wolves are most often seen, and if you are not lucky enough to see a wolf you are almost guaranteed to see deer and chamois.

The experience is heightened by a stay in the private refuge which is run by local piano and professional pianist Fred Chauvel – he and his wife Sarah are always delighted to share their passion for the village from their house here – the former presbytery.   

Don’t expect luxury – there’s no mains electric  but you can expect a hot shower and a home cooked delicious meal – followed by a glorious nights sleep….aided by a glass of genepy!!!

Descendants of the original house owners are gradually drifting back to the village to renovate their homes and to fish, nurture a veggie patch – plus if you go there - look out for a garden with a beautiful English style flower border which is alive with insects and even a hummingbird moth since once or twice.

To stay in the refuge you need to call Fred or Sarah – they will arrange to welcome you if you are say more than 6 people – the refuge sleeps about 16 in total. Contact spacebetween for more details.

Spacebetween walking holidays in the Mercantour – include a stay in Mollieres as part of their wolf holiday short breaks, or it can be an overnight stay on a horse trek.

The other side of the Mercantour

Thank heavens there seems to be more of a willingness to co-operate – between the French and Italian side of the “Mercantour” that is!!  The Mercantour spills over into the Parco Naturale Alpi Marittime ...which even on cross border maps has been a big “void” the other side of the border.  The PNAM was created in 1995, thanks to the merger of the Argentera Natural Park (1980) and the Riserva del Bosco dei Laghi di e Palanfré (1979 ).

It is a parc sans frontières for sure which shares many economic and cultural ties. Since 1984 there have been efforts to work together across the 35km border to jointly protect and develop the beautiful mass of over 100,000 hectares.  It is one of the largest National Parks in Italy with of course the same natural beauty and richness of flora and fauna that is found in the Mercantour, and climbing Argentera at just under 3300m is not to be sniffed at. 

The Park was given a slightly different flavour thanks to the hunting exploits of King Victor Emanuel II, with much of the terrain criss-crossed with mule tracks.  These mules carrying the “support” team of up to 200-300 trackers - the entourage of the King.  

In later times, the old paths of the Salt Route were bolstered with military installations as Italy sought to beef up its border prior to WWII.  The legacy of this is not pretty but interesting in military history terms. 
The frontier is easily reached from the French side via the Col de Fenestre and you can be rewarded for your exploits in reaching the “divide” by dropping down for a well deserved dip in thermal baths at Termi di Valdieri, or enjoy the wolf park at Entraque.

Spacebetween run short break holidays on horse and on foot across the border into Italy.

Website -

Templar in the Mercantour

Whatever your religion, I’m not sure that I know anyone who doesn’t get a little “frisson” when the Knight’s Templar are mentioned – we may well all have been over “hollywood’ed” thanks to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the DaVinci Code.  
Never fear however there is of course a serious and interesting cultural history! Whether or not the first Friday 13th was on Friday 13th1307 when many of the Knights were arrested is debatable of course!!
Not keen to be outdone by the likes of Rennes-Le-Chateau we here in the Alpes-Maritimes also have our Templar history - thank you very much.
In our lovely part of the world in the South of France the Templars were stationed in old Roman townships, including Vence where the Templars enjoyed life in the Commanderie in Saint-Martin de Vence which is to the North of the town.  There is a legend that there is “booty” buried in the area – which investigations over the centuries have failed to locate – makes for a nice tale of course and has doubtless had many scurrying for their metal detectors.
Saint-Martin-de-Vence managed the route north of Vence, as the Templar Chateau in La Gaude protected the area above the Var.
Further North of course and into the Vésubie valley, many fine looking hanging villages stand guard over the valley which was an important conduit for the Salt Route, the salt starting out its life in Marseille, to then be shipped along the coast, and hence inland by mule, and over the border into Italy.
One of the finest of these villages is Utelle which had strategic importance due to its elevated position.  Today it has the most stunning views of the Massif of the Mercantour to the North,and down to the Mediterranean to the South.  It used to be an important centre with a hospital and schools and still maintains its handsome 17th century houses, which include several with engraved lintels – featuring symbols of the House of Savoy as well as other more mysterious ones linked to the Templars.  The Saint-Véran church dominates the village centre.  A further 15 minutes drive the Madone D’Utelle sanctuary is reached – this has its own legend – of course.  Visitors can enjoy the special atmosphere of the plateau, browse the church and the local produce shop as well as staying overnight!
Roquebillière boasts a fine Templar church, and your resident expert on Templars inSainte-Martin Vésubie is Eric Gilli – who has studied the history of the area in great detail.  He runs the local museum, as well as running an Association called AMONT which runs fascinating seminars on local history.
If you’d like to know more contact spacebetween who are based in the Mercantour and offer accommodation plus walking and activity holidays in France and Italy.

The “old Salt” in the Alpes-Maritimes

It’s hard to imagine that humble salt has been transported around the South of France for over two thousand years.  This white gold was produced on the salt flats around Marseille, transported East along the coast of the Med and then taken North with the assistance of mule packs. In its hey day up to 35000 mule trips were made in SE France and on the Italian border.
One route leads from Nice and up towards the Vésubie and the head of the valley. The other major route started from Ventimiglia, up the Roya Valley, to the col deTende and then down into Piedmont.  If you are a keen mountain biker you can even cycle this route these days!!
As you can imagine the history this transport has always been hot – with much danger from marauding hoards and super greedy powers that be, with the Savoyards creating a new route between Nice and Turin via the Haute Vésubie – all within the Savoy territory. 
The Col de Fenestre however was not the most practical solution as the high passes could not be tackled during the winter, so the Roya remained an important route.  Many of the fine hanging villages which dominant the Roya were heavily fortified.
Various shenanigans over the centuries lead to the routes being diverted over the Col de Brouis and via Berghe, being extended towards Menton – all in the cause of protectionism!!
From the 15th Century up to the French Revolution in 1789 the Gabelle (salt tax) was a controversial measure, perhaps due to the fact that the clergy and nobility were exempt from it!  It is said in fact that the Gabelle was a significant factor in igniting the French way back when.
Think on when you are flavouring up your dinner this evening!!!
Various stretches of the Salt Route in the South of France form part of the itinerary of spacebetween’s walking holidays in France.

Image - Sospel village centre