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The lure of the French Alps

The majestic Alps stretch across an impressive seven European countries – from Italy and Slovenia in the east to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, France and Monaco in the west. They were formed by the collision of the European and African tectonic plates.

But even if you’ve visited König Ludwig’s castles in the Bavarian Alps, gorged on Apfelstrϋdel in the Austrian Alps, hiked and dined on cheese fondue in the Swiss Alps or admired alpine lakes in the Italian Sϋdtirol, and think you’ve seen it all, a visit to the French Alps will prove you wrong.

The stunning Parc des Ecrins, a must-hike in the French Alps.

Patches of luscious green velvety grass, sleepy villages tucked away into deep narrow valleys, cute log chalets, roaming sheep aside, the French part of the Alps are home to the highest alpine peak – the Mont Blanc at 4,810.45 meters – although I have to admit that when I look at the map, it seems to lie so close to the border that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which country it is in; officially, though, it’s in France.

Year-round sunshine
What also makes the French Alps unique is its vegetation and climate. “If you’re the sun-loving type, remember the region can boast an official average of around 300 sunny days over 12 months as we have a kind of micro-climate,” says Jean-Claude, owner of the Gite Refuge de la Juliane. The abundance of wild herbs, flowers, shallow rivers and blue skies, confirm this.

Created in 1973, in the heart of the French Alps, lies the Parc National des Écrins – one of France’s largest national parks at 918 square kilometers, and one of its most stunning. It’s marked by steep, narrow valleys and sculpted by the Romanche, Durance and Drac rivers and their glaciers. Craggy peaks soar 2,000 to 4,000 meters into the sky, making it one of the highest parts of the Alps. It’s also home to the elusive ibex and chamois goat-like antelope species, some wolves – which we are told are very timid – and we even spot a harmless grass snake or two on our hikes. Parc des Ecrins is a mecca for skiing – cross-country and hair-raising downhill skiing – and boasts over 700 km of hiking trails. Many of these trails were previously used by smugglers and shepherds before they started to host more leisurely pursuits.

Bourg d’Oisans, 53 km southeast of Grenoble, and the UNESCO city of Briançon are good bases from which to explore the Parc des Ecrins, but we decide to stay in the picturesque area of Pelvoux.

Pelvoux is located in one of the prettiest valleys in the park and is a great base for kayaking, hiking or skiing.

As we weave our way along the scenic route from Grenoble to Briançon, marvelling at the landscape unfolding in front of us, we wonder how Hannibal managed to cross the Alps in 218 B.C. with an army of 46,000 men and 37 elephants without any of today’s modern navigation tools and infrastructure like tunnels, highways and alpine passes.

Cast-away in Pelvoux
Pelvoux is about a 30-minute drive from Briançon. Flanked by sharp towering mountains, it’s in a narrow valley dotted with ice-cold Alpine rivers and cascading waterfalls with a handful of sleepy villages and refuges/gites.

Just a few minutes from Pelvoux, 500-meters walk up a hilltop lies La Juliane, a chalet which prides itself on eco-friendly tourism. As we arrive we receive an enthusiastic welcome from Tucket and Saxo, the resident dogs, followed by their owner Jean-Claude. It’s a cosy chalet built out of dry stone and larch logs, powered by hydro and solar energy and where great attention is paid to sustainable tourism. Inside, it’s surprisingly cool and a refreshing respite from the scorching heat outside, without any need for costly air-conditioning.

Hiking from the La Juliane chalet with Jean-Claude and Tucket.

There are plenty of sign-posted treks from here including La Condamine at 3,000 meters from where you can, on a clear day, spot the peak of the Mont Blanc. Or you can opt for a trek to an Alpine waterfall or glacier. Dinner is a social affair – we sit together with Jean-Claude and his wife Agnes and our fellow guests for a wild-herb infused aperitif (which tastes so good that you forget its alcoholic content) and a hearty home-cooked meal of wild herb soufflé, soufflé with rabbit liver and rabbit in a delicious olive-infused sauce, all topped off with pana cotta. It’s the perfect end to the perfect hike: hearty healthy food with the chance to share experiences and anectodes with our fellow guests and get an insight into French culture.

One of the gems of the French Alps
No visit to the French Alps is complete without a stopover in Briançon, a spectacular town perched 1,300 meters high and a popular start and finishing point for a stage of the Tour de France in July. It’s also the birthplace and home of many an Alpine sportsperson. Famous for its UNESCO-protected Vauban fortifications, its walled medieval town with cobbled streets and candy-colored houses, and intimidating fortresses, you can easily spend a day or two here. The dramatic military fortifications bear witness to the strategic location of this town, close to the Italian border, during previous centuries as a defence post.

The stunning medieval city of Briancon hosts some of the best Vauban fortifications in France and is a frequent stage visit during the Tour de France.

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  1. May 2, 2013 at 8:44 pm

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