Provence Alpes Côtes d’Azur: A walk in the wilderness

Lucy Gillmore straps on her snowshoes to explore a winter wonderland

"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.

Travel essentials

Staying there

UTracks (0845 241 7599; 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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Two christmas trees ,Moonbeam (2L), Moonchester (2R) and Santa Claus outside the Etihad Stadium
footballAll the action from today's games
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas