Provence Alpes Côtes d’Azur: A walk in the wilderness
Lucy Gillmore straps on her snowshoes to explore a winter wonderland
Saturday 15 October 2011
"This," says my guide, Vincent Lamy, "is a transceiver or a 'beep'." He flicks it over and shows me how to switch it to seek mode. If he is swept away by an avalanche his matching "beep" will emit a signal and, with the shovel and probe he squeezes into my daypack, I'll be able to find him and dig him out. Right. "It's just in case," he reassures as he adjusts the straps around my middle. "The avalanche threat is only a three today."
We are snowshoeing in the Queyras Regional Natural Park, in the Provence Alpes Côtes d'Azur (PACA). For many, Provence conjures up glitzy images of the French Riviera and the sleepy honey-toned villages evoked by Peter Mayle. However, near Briançon, close to the Italian border, is a mountainous corner that is still relatively undiscovered. It's off the beaten track – and off most tourists' radar winter sports-wise – largely because of its inaccessibility. The closest airport is Turin, two hours away over the Montgenèvre pass. I've flown to Marseille, a three-and-a half-hour schlep by road.
The region has a peppering of peaks over 4,000m, good snowfall, a network of trails and more than 300 days of sunshine each year. But instead of the purpose-built jungles of French ski resorts such as Tignes, La Plagne and Val d'Isère, here you also have pretty alpine chalets. Nevertheless, these are real, rural working villages that just happen to have a few downhill slopes and cross-country trails. It's also perfect snowshoeing territory. The pursuit took off in France in the mid 1990s and although the US is the world leader, France is snapping at its heels. "Around 1.4 million French go snowshoeing every year," says Lamy. And this is one of their favourite places.
We grab our poles and tramp off through the snow, with our bear clawed, beaver tailed snowshoes clipped over our walking boots. Our week-long trek (a mix of linear and looped walks around 8-10km a day) is taking us between a handful of the region's villages, staying in mountain gîtes each night. Gîtes, it turns out, are not simply self-catering properties in rural France. In the Alps they are family-owned hostels. Accommodation is in dorms, but the rooms are cosy, sleeping just five or six in bunk-beds. And the difference to traditional hostels is the homeliness and hearty mountain food.
In Saint-Véran, one of our bases during the week, and Europe's highest village at 2,040m, a sign boasts that it is also one of France's most beautiful villages. More touristy than the other hamlets we are staying in (Montbardon has an artisan cheesemaker – but no shop, for example), it's still low-key compared to most ski resorts.
Le Gabelous, our gîte is owned by the welcoming Jocelyne. It ticks all the "rustic chic" boxes (lots of chunky wood, old floorboards and bright orange and sunflower yellow walls). Other wonders include piping hot showers, a log fire and breakfasts of milky coffee in a bowl, crisp freshly baked bread and homemade jams. Supper is both a mouthwatering spread – involving thick spinach soup, roast chicken and dauphinoise potatoes, a cheese plate and apple pie – and a raucous communal affair.
From Saint-Véran we are trekking up to the Col du Longet (2,647m) and down the other side to the village of Fontgillarde. For the first hour we crunch along a disused road to an old copper mine. Then we turn steeply up past a sign warning walkers to beware of the patau during the summer. These large white dogs protect the sheep from the wolves that prowl these mountains.
The landscape is almost treeless here, but heading down the north side of the mountain we weave between native larch trees and Cembro pines. "The Cembro pine is the tree of the Queyras. The larch is the tree of the Provençal Alps," explains Lamy. Cembro is used for furniture, the larch for construction as it can withstand the harsh weather. The houses are built with one storey of stone topped off with timber. The top floor was originally the hayloft and the villagers would live below with the animals.
Our gîte in La Chalp is owned by Matthieu and his family – who we discover is Jocelyne's brother. Teppio sleeps 28 trekkers, but feels like a family home. There's a huge open grate with a blazing log fire, stone-flagged floors and beamed ceilings. Matthieu feeds his baby behind us on the sofa as we eat another gourmet four-course meal. On the huge old dresser are jars of fresh teas or tisanes: dried mint leaves in one, camomile in another.
Snowshoeing from here, we climb up to Clapeyto, an abandoned village half-buried in the snow. Villagers from the valley below would take their flocks up to Clapeyto's high pastures to graze during the summer months. It's around -15C. The whole world seems frozen. There's not a soul around. All we can hear is the rhythmic scrape and odd squeak of our snowshoes.
After about an hour we leave the marked trail and veer off-piste, heading sharply upwards through the trees. Each step we sink to our knees. The going gets tougher. Without snowshoes, Lamy demonstrates, we would be up to our thighs in powder. Then we reach a plateau and the trees open out, giving panoramic views of the winter wonderland surrounding us. There's crumbly looking snow on the slope above us. "That's a recent avalanche," Lamy nods.
We scrabble quickly past and continue up, stopping for chocolate and dried apricots, then lunch at the pass – chunks of bread, gooey French cheese and sausage with a flask of hot tea. The way down is much quicker as we slip and slide in giant leaps, occasionally going head-over-heels in an exhilarating tumble.
"Once I'd discovered snow touring and snowshoeing," Lamy tells me, "I found downhill too boring." Here in the Queyras, you have the place almost to yourself. You can hear the silence, spot native wildlife. It's like stumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia.
UTracks (0845 241 7599; utracks.com) offers a Queyras Snowshoe Trek from £790 per person including seven-nights’ shared accommodation on a full-board (except for food on the free day in Saint-Véran), luggage transfer between gîtes, snowshoe and walking stick rental and a mountain guide. Flights not included.
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