Walks in the Mercantour

A short hop on a low-cost flight to Nice, across the car park to pick up the hire car and then thirty kilometres or so directly north along a rather uninspiring dual carriageway. Then one right turn and you are plunged into a deep ravine, with dark cliffs towering hundreds of feet above and the river cascading below. At places the rock overhangs the road, increasing the sense of enclosure. The road winds improbably for a few kilometres through the depths of the gorge; then everything opens out and you are in another world.

The valley sides remain pretty vertiginous but now they are overwhelmingly wooded. Here and there the blanket of trees is punctuated with clusters of houses, small towns and villages perched on unlikely looking buttresses and spurs. This is the Vesubie valley – another 20 kilometres or so and you are in the heart of the Mercantour, France’s newest national park.

With barely a flat piece of ground anywhere the environment seems inhospitable, but it quickly becomes clear that the area has been inhabited for centuries. In one remote corner, The Vallee des Merveilles, are thousands of rock paintings dating from the Bronze Age. In medieval times the entire region must have been bustling. Looking closer you can see that many of the wooded valley sides are terraced, testament to a vibrant population taking full advantage of the fertile ground and clement climate. The settlements are packed tight with medieval houses, churches and sanctuaries dot the hillsides and ancient trackways criss-cross the landscape.

In later centuries the region continued to thrive by being an important salt route to the north, the last stop before the high passes. And later still it became popular with visitors to the Riviera, for whom a trip to the fresh mountain air offered welcome respite from the heat of the coast. But in the last century or more tourism has declined. Many of the medieval towns and villages are depopulated, with perhaps half of the houses in some town centres in dire need of renovation. Stuck between two highly popular tourist areas – the bustling Riviera to the south with its beaches, casinos and marinas, and the ‘real’ Alps to the north with highly developed skiing and mountaineering resorts – these intermediate Alpes-Maritimes have been somewhat overlooked. 

mercantour viewHence the foundation of the Mercantour National Park in the late 1970s, with the dual (and some might say contradictory) aim of attracting more visitors and protecting the valuable wildlife, fauna and environment. On our visit there was ample evidence of investment in the infrastructure, with the building of better roads (and the reconstruction of the ones that seem to be always wanting to slip down into the valley below) and the creation of new visitor attractions, like the wolf centre at Le Boreon.

The protected area covers some 700 square kilometres, with a central uninhabited zone of high-level valleys and peaks, and a peripheral zone with some thirty or so villages. The creation of a national park is certainly fully justified. Quite apart from being extraordinarily beautiful, there is tremendous variety of wildlife in the Mercantour. We saw quite a few chamois close by the paths, although this was October and they may be a little more shy in the busier summer months. On your excursions you may see wild boars, partridges, eagles, buzzards, and marmots. Plant-life is equally diverse. In addition to olive plantations, holm oak, rhododendrons, firs, spruces, cembro pines and above all larches, the Mercantour has more than 2,000 species of flowering plants.

And now is the time to go. The tourism authorities and some enterprising local businesses are doing a good job of promoting the undeniable attractions of the park. We went as guests of Liz Lord and Mel Jones of SpaceBetween, two ex-pat Brits filled with passionate zeal for their new-found paradise (relatively speaking as they’ve been there for quite a few years now). Quite rightly, they see the Mercantour as an ideal destination for the more adventurous British walker, with a mix of easily followed waymarked routes, more ambitious scrambles and, if you really want it, proper Alpine peaks with rock, snow and everything. Best go now before everyone discovers it.

Typical walks
mercantour viewEach of the three walks we did during our stay was clearly waymarked, with times in hours and minutes on the signs for each section of the route. We found these timings fairly generous and without straining ourselves too much, completed most well within the suggested timescale. Purists may complain that this level of signing is a bit heavy-handed, but we were happy to be able to enjoy the views without worrying unduly about navigation. 

On the first day we climbed through the Vallee du Boreon to the Lac de Trecolpas, a tiny tarn nestling high between the peaks. Starting from the Vacherie du Boreon we climbed steadily through woods in their bright autumn colours. Finally where the path reaches barer slopes, we encountered small groups of chamois, only slightly nervous at being approached by humans. A few hundred metres above the treeline a short diversion takes you to the Lac de Trecolpas, shrouded in mist when we visited and therefore exuding an air of mystery. A quick traverse to the Refuge Cougourde and a delightful descent by the side of the river took us back to the start.

On the following day we drove several kilometres through a largely uninhabited river valley to La Madone de Fenestre. Starting from the remote huddle of buildings and church at La Madone we headed up towards the ring of high mountains. Turning into a small hanging valley we reached the col and looked down onto the five Lacs de Prals. The path drops down between this group of small lakes, a superb spot for a mid-walk lunchbreak, and then continues around Mont Caval through woodland to the start point. Another excellent four hours or so to complete the circuit.

On our final day we enjoyed a lower level route starting from the quaint and slightly run-down medieval village of Utelle, hanging on the side of steep slopes and reached by endless hairpin bends from the Vesubie valley floor. The first part was on the long distance GR5 and traversed the ancient terraces that flank many of the hillsides here. The view would have been spectacular, no doubt, but with a heavy mist we only caught tantalising glimpses. However every cloud has a silver lining and the swirling clouds forced us to focus on the flora at our feet. The path is well signed and from time to time there are information plaques on the plants, fauna and geology of the surrounding environment. After a couple of miles we struck uphill to the remote church and refuge at the Sanctuaire de la Madone d’Utelle. Once again, we passed through row after row of medieval terracing and the occasional tumbledown building, all now overgrown with forest and reminiscent of a time when this place must have been much more highly populated.

When to go
There are outdoor activities all year round in The Mercantour, including skiing and snow-shoeing in winter. For walking, the season really starts around April and continues right through October. We visited in October and had a mixture of fine dry and rather damp days. By this time the refuges are no longer open all week and need to be booked in advance if visiting on weekdays. But the walks themselves were gloriously quiet – we only met a handful of people in the mountains during our whole stay. Providing you are prepared to take the small risk of not having bright sunny days every day, this and the spring are good times to come.

How we got there
We flew to Nice from Bristol airport with Easyjet. There are plenty of low-cost routes with Easyjet and other airlines from airports around the UK. Out of the main holiday season prices can be very reasonable indeed.

It is more or less essential to hire a car, unless you are on an 'all-in' guided package, such as those offered by SpaceBetween, in which case you have the luxury of being chauffered everywhere. It takes about an hour from Nice airport to get into the heart of the Mercantour region – the route is easy to follow as it heads north directly from the airport. We hired a very small and inexpensive car through Holiday Autos (part of Lastminute.com) which was more than adequate for the two of us. The pick-up and drop-off point is right by the airport terminal.

Where we stayed
We spent two nights in the gite at SpaceBetween’s beautifully renovated farmhouse near Roquebilliere. From here local experts Mel and Liz run walking and adventure holidays and offer a depth of knowledge of the region which can only make your stay more fulfilling and enjoyable. You can rent their ground-floor gite which is spacious and cosy. The property has stunning views from the terrace – a fine place to enjoy a glass of wine or two as the sun goes down - and 6 acres of land to stroll around in when you are not out walking. Visit the SpaceBetween website

We also spent two nights at Le Boreon, a simple but excellent value hotel at the head of the Vesubie valley. It helps to speak a little French. The hotel is run by the charming Jean-Claude and Brigitte, with whom we conversed in broken French and English about black, grey and red squirrels.

There are plenty of other modest and not-so-modest hotels in St Martin-Vesubie and the other small towns in the valley. The Office de Tourisme in St Martin has details.

Other attractions:

The Alpha Loup wolf sanctuary at the head of the valley is the centre for a project to build a greater understanding of this wild creature. As well as seeing one pack (another genuinely roams wild in the surrounding countryside) you can learn about the historic relationship between the wolf and the humans who have populated the valley through the ages.

The Vallee des Merveilles
In the heart of the park is the famous Vallée des Merveilles, the ‘valley of marvels’. At the foot of Mont Bégo are found some 37,000 rock carvings dating back to the Bronze Age. The images show weapons, cattle and mysterious human figures. Take Mel Jones as your guide and you can be sure to see the best.

Rock, snow and ice
If you want to develop your rock or snow and ice climbing skills, then Mel at SpaceBetween is your man. This is arguably one of the best places to come to extend your experience from plain simple walking into something more technical, whether by venturing onto ‘via ferrata’, onto pure rock or onto the cold wet stuff. Here you can introduce yourself to various forms of alpinism in a slightly less serious environment than the high alps to the north. SpaceBetween will organise an itinerary for you with just the right level of thrills and terrors.

IGN Carte de Randonne, Vallee de la Vesubie 3741 OT is a good 1:25,000 scale walking map of the area. We bought ours from the small shop right next to the Office de Tourisme in St Martin. Or get a copy in advance from Stanfords.

More pictures
There are some nice pictures of the Gordolasque valley, in the Mercantour National Park, on the LaGordolasque.com website.



You can use these pages to browse for walks in specific regions, counties and areas. It is a good idea to narrow down your search to the most local area possible, as the list of walks for larger areas can be very long. An alternative way of searching is to use the Find a Walk tool.

We would like to include a short article for each of the areas on these pages. If an area has no article and you can send us a few hundred words about the area, pointing out its key attractions and other useful information, we would greatly appreciate it.