France's Alpine Walk: The Quiet Route

You won't find hordes of walkers swarming over the Queyras Alps, even in August, says Jeremy Laurance. The air is clear and the slopes deserted. It is France as it used to be...

All holidays are alike in this respect - they are anticipated with delight. Some live up to their promise, some exceed it, but only a few linger in the memory.

Walking in the Queyras Alps last summer was one of these. Well, it was for me. "I don't do uphill!" Madame declared on the first day, eyes blazing, nostrils flaring, as we stood at the top of the 2,800m Col Vieux gazing down at the extraordinary aquamarine lake a kilometre below us. She admires mountains, like me, but preferably from a business-class seat.

Yet she loved the Queyras too - just not quite as obsessively as I did. The landscape was spectacular, the hotels a delight, the food excellent, the walking fabulous. In my dreams I have returned again and again to the flower-decked valleys with their giant boulders and soaring peaks, the sun slanting through spruce and larch forests, glittering off the surface of high-altitude lakes. Balm for an urban worker's soul.

No one we have met before or since had ever heard of the Queyras - a national park in the southern Alps beyond Grenoble close to the Italian border, ringed by 3,000m peaks. It is France as it used to be: uncrowded (even in August), untouristy and welcoming. Its remoteness has kept it unspoilt.

Even the weather was good. Air France pilots call the Queyras le trou bleu - the blue hole. The park has a Mediterranean climate with up to 300 days of sunshine a year. It is the perfect place to go in August when half the world is expiring in the heat on the shores of the Med. High in the mountains, the sun blazes but the air is cool and clear. There are few people (and almost no English). And there is space and peace and solitude amid a landscape of fantastic scale and grandeur.

Each day we walked from one little local hotel to the next, leaving our bags to be transported, following the route notes which were so good we hardly needed the maps. There was no guide, no fellow walkers to bitch about, no buses to wait for.

The first day we ate our lunch sitting in dappled shade some way below the aquamarine lake. From where we sat we could see harebells, aconites, violet crocuses, scabious, campanula, wild raspberries and strawberries - and this, I emphasise, was August. We had it to ourselves until a bunch of cyclists bounced past down the path. They were gone in 30 seconds.

Madame complained about her hips and announced she would shortly need a replacement. She changed her socks - at least three times during the day. In persuading her to come on this walk - eight days of 15 to 20km a day with a 1,000m climb most days - I had omitted to mention that Headwater, the holiday company, designate it as one of the most challenging it offers. By a stroke of luck the route on the first day was mostly, and uniquely, downhill.

By day three we were both struggling. My calf muscles felt like ingots of pig iron. We had spent two delightful nights, treated first to Madame Blais' home cooking in Abriès. Then we were rendered comatose by the copious menu terroir at the Hotel Belle Vue in Aiguilles with its roaring fire and glasses of Chartreuse.

The most memorable climb of the trip was a circular walk of such breathtaking beauty it is the one to which I have returned to night after night in the moments before sleep.

It started from a grassy meadow at Le Pré Premier, 5km from the Hotel La Borne Ensoleillée at La Chalp. We climbed up through a hamlet of what may be the most desirable weekend cottages in the world - wooden chalets with wood fires and little else set on a hillside with an incomparable view of the mountains all around.

As we climbed steadily across the grassy hillside to the 2,500m Col de Néal I spent as much time gaping at the view behind as looking where to put my feet in front. The hamlet lay tucked in a meadow beneath the mountainside while we climbed above it, floating in space. At the top we were greeted by an extraordinary panorama of alpine peaks. We traversed the hillside for 20 minutes to the narrow Col de Lauzon and descended steeply into a perfectly quiet empty valley - huge boulders, wide fields of scree and the Lac de Lauzon far below.

No other walkers passed us in either direction for the rest of the day. It was the wildest valley we had seen, a lush, sun-drenched meadow hemmed in by peaks. Below the lake, the pine trees had been flattened - either by an avalanche or hurricane. Which was how Madame felt by the time we got back to the hotel.

1. St Pierre church, Abriès

There is a lovely Norman arch over the entrance to this church and a conical bell tower of pale stone. Inside it is all Italian exuberance - vines weighted with black grapes adorn the ceiling. In the 19th century some villagers left to seek work in Lyon and beyond and sent back money to restore and improve the church. The organ, elaborately carved, is fake - the village ran out of money to complete it.

CONTACT: Office du Tourisme (00 33 492 46 72 26; abries-ristolas.com).

2. Lac du Grand Laus

At 2,579m, ringed by mountains and crystal clear, this is a stunning spot. On an afternoon in August there were maybe a dozen couples dotted around, eating lunch, paddling in the icy water or snoozing in the sun. Getting here involves a steep zig-zag climb across a ravine, along a footpath that hangs in space, then over the lip of the mountain to the peace of the lake.

CONTACT: Queyras Tourisme (00 33 492 46 76 18; queyras.com).

3. Argousier

We first encountered this vitamin-rich fruit in a scoop of delicious ice cream - tangy with a flavour between orange and apricot - served at the Hotel Belle Vue in Aiguilles. We found the plant next day on the hillside just above town - a thorny bush covered in what looked like rosehips - it's unique to the region. Argousier is packed with vitamin C and is thought to have health giving powers. It is also used to make jam and a delicious local apéritif.

CONTACT: Hotel Belle Vue (00 33 492 46 73 35; bellevue.queyras.com).

4. Château Queyras

Les Queyras were a republic for 400 years before the French revolution. Château Queyras stands on a hillock at the junction of three valleys - positioned to defend the region against France. The 60 sqkm park, set up in 1977 to support traditional agriculture and crafts, in harmony with tourism and winter sports, is centred on the basin of the spectacular Guil river.

CONTACT: Queyras Tourisme (00 33 492 46 76 18; queyras.com).

5. Montbardon

Montbardon is home to a sundial; they are ubiquitous in the Queyras - on the sides of houses, hotels and in the churches, often elaborately painted. They are mostly the work of Italian craftsmen who came over the border in search of work and decorated them with eye-catching graphics and proverbs. "Il est plus tard que vous ne croyez" (It's later than you think) is a favourite.

CONTACT: Queyras Tourisme (00 33 492 46 76 18; queyras.com).

6. Observatory, Crête des Chambrettes

We were promised a 360-degree panorama of the Queyras and we were not disappointed. Snow-capped peaks in every direction, with Monte Viso at 3,841m visible over the Italian border. Behind the observatory is a sheer drop of 300 metres. We sat on the bench in front, backs to the wall, resting our weary feet - and quite alone.

CONTACT: Queyras Tourisme (00 33 492 46 76 18; queyras.com).

7. Hotel Veyres, Ceillac

A French hotel in the old style - the most traditional of all those we stayed in (with the most comfortable bed). Traditional cuisine - vegetable soup followed by a wonderful pork chop - and a lovely waitress. We bought a copy of 'Cent ans au Ceillac' from Michel Favier, the patron, which contains photos by his father, Jean-Paul, of the 1957 avalanche that engulfed the village in chest-high mud.

CONTACT: Hotel Veyres (00 33 492 45 01 91.

8. St Véran

The highest village in Europe at just over 2,000m, it is spread along south-facing slopes which has allowed it to survive at this altitude. It was the only village on our route which could in any way be described as touristy - the single main street was busy with (mainly French) tourists bussed in for the day to see the medieval Catholic and Protestant churches, sit in the bars and restaurants and watch the sun set over the mountains.

CONTACT: Office du Tourisme (00 33 492 45 82 21; saintveran.com).

9. Musée du Soum

This museum of village life in St Véran is a gem. Located in the oldest house in the village, built in 1641, you can see how family and animals lived together, and neighbours would join them to eat, conserving fuel and heat. In the winter months there was only enough fuel to bake bread twice - for the whole village, in the communal bread oven. Each loaf was marked with the family initials, and eaten with soup.

CONTACT: Musée du Soum (00 33 492 45 86 42).

10. Molines en Queyras

The village seemed bleak when we came upon it in the fading afternoon light - but it became our favourite. The warmth of the welcome from Madame Monetto at the Hotel Chamois, her bustling dining room, the view across the steep valley. On our last night we joined a display of folk dancing - and ended up being whirled around the floor by stout village women with strong arms. Bliss.

CONTACT: Hotel Chamois (00 33 492 45 83 71; lechamois.com).

HOW TO GET THERE

Jeremy Laurance travelled as a guest of Headwater (08700 662650; headwater .com). It offers a nine-night walking itinerary in the Queyras from £659 per person based on two sharing, which includes a return ferry crossing, half-board, walking notes and maps and luggage transfers. It also offers an air-rail option from £859 per person. This route is a challenging Alpine walk, so previous experience, good levels of fitness and a head for heights are required.

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