We’re about to leave Montier-les-Bains behind. It’s our Summer tour of the French Alps and next it’s time for something a little different. Yes, we’re heading for the fortified town of Briançon. Then we’ll be driving towards the dizzy heights of the fabulous Col d’Izoard mountain pass.
So – what are we waiting for? Let’s hit the road and discover the richness of this incredible region of the French Alps.
Before arriving at Briançon, we’d envisaged staying the night at the Aire in town. Well, we soon changed our mind when we got there! Yes, some locations are better than others and this one wasn’t quite so appealing.
What was wrong then? Well, the area resembled a tired industrial estate. As it turned out, this was ok for a quick park up to visit the town but didn’t justify a longer stay.
After parking up, next came a walk to the centre – mostly on the flat and taking us through the new side of town. Then came a path leading up a steep hill towards the old fortified town of Briançon.
Standing at 1320m high or 4330ft in old money, this is supposedly the highest town in Europe! Wow – quite some title we thought. At first sight, we weren’t too sure what to make of it. Then, this strange looking town close to the Italian border actually quickly grew on us. So much so, that in the end – we loved it!
After a steep walk towards the towering walls of this fortified town, we soon arrived at a huge gate. This turned out to be the Porte de Pignerol – a massive gated entrance to the town. By now, the streets came into view, previously obscured by the stone walls surrounding us.
What a place this is! Not only are the narrow stone streets quite beautiful, but they also have water running down the high street! Now, there’s nothing too unusual in that, but this is like a water feature. Gently flowing through the narrow cobbles.
It’s no wonder that Briançon is a rather special place, because this was actually designed by Vauban – a military architect to Louis XIV. Another surprise came surrounding the town, where a series of mountain forts are built as a defence. All in all, it’s quite a fascinating area.
Now, came views of the new town below and spread out in front of us. Beyond the town from a variety of view points, we stopped to check out more of the views spanning the Alps.
To be honest, the whole place soon turned out to be a bit of a treat. I should point out that Brançon is UNESCO World Heritage listed and we could see why. The colourful streets soon gave way to pavement restaurants and a variety of independent shops. Now more than ever, we began to feel a sense of normality from the strange world we were in.
As we strolled at our leisure, so did many Italian day-trippers. Briançon is so close to the Italian border, it inevitably attracts a mix of visitors.
For us, it brought a welcome break. After driving so many mountain passes over the last couple of weeks, browsing shop windows seemed quite a novel way to spend the morning.
One last view point at the highest point above the old town, gave us fabulous views across the Alps. Now it was time to re-join the route and take on one alpine road with a difference – the Col d’Izoard mountain pass.
The heat of the day was quite intense by the time we arrived back at the campervan. Summer in the Alps can be so hot, yet regular storms bring a break in the weather.
With the sun shining and clear skies, our time had come to leave Briançon behind. One things for sure, before driving the 2360m high Col d’Izoard mountain pass, it’s certainly best to check the weather.
Luckily, for us, our route towards the Parc Natural Régional du Queyras would be under a clear blue sky!
Well, what can I say? Except that this mountain pass, travelling along part of the Route des Grandes Alps, is absolutely breathtaking.
Our drive took us up along the winding road into green meadows and dramatic alpine views. Then, as the route climbed higher, the landscapes began to change – this was getting interesting.
Soon, we realised this was certainly going to be one of the best mountain passes so far on this trip. All the while, we were heading South and with it came a dramatic change in the landscapes.
As the landscapes changed from rolling green meadows to dry, rugged terrain, we knew we were entering a dryer region.
The scenery was just fabulous and as the drive continued so did the fascination in what was to come. This route really lives up to the grand name given as part of the Route des Grandes Alpes. At 425 miles long and starting at Lac Leman before ending in Menton on the Mediterranean, it’s an iconic drive. The Col d’Izoard mountain pass is roughly half way along the route.
Not only is the rocky landscape more dramatic than many other passes, but it’s also orange in colour. Or was it just our eyesight?
Here the grass became parched. Now, there was no sign of snow – which had still clung to ridges on other mountain passes. Above all, the sheer structure of the geography, combined with the actual layout of the road was just awesome.
As our drive continued, higher up we went, yet almost more gracefully. Soon, we pulled over for a quick photo stop and moment to take in the scenery around us. Above us, towering mountain peaks rising upwards to 3000m high separated us from neighbouring Italy.
I think this route is one of the most dramatic routes, we’ve driven. Not only because it’s breathtaking in scenery, but also due to the way the geographical elements dominated the landscape.
It was almost if it was showing us the change right there in front of us. The difference between the snow-capped Alps and the warmer climates of the Mediterranean.
By the time we emerged into greener pastures at Arvieux, we really did feel as if we were on top of the world. Now, with the mountain pass behind us, it was time to park up for the night and reflect on this wonderful region.
In true French style, this little village of Arvieux, provided a motorhome Aire. Not only was it located beside a river, set in the prettiest of surroundings, but it also had a campfire and enough ambience to melt our hearts.
All that was left was for a run up the mountain track beside the campervan, before dinner was served under the watchful eye of mountain cattle.
Oh the dreamy, balmy days of Summer are so magical in the Alps and no more so than here.
After a restful nights sleep, all that was left was to set about on foot through the scenic walking paths surrounding the village.
Soon, a mountain track lead us towards the far end of the valley, where pigs and grazing cattle made the most of the green pastures. It wasn’t long before we came upon a mountain bike event – yes a race! Gosh, in times of the virus, this seems such a welcoming sight – only because it reminds us of how things used to be.
There is charm in bucket loads here. Not only is it a traditional mountain village, with all the trimmings of log cabins and outdoor activities but it’s also still natural and fresh.
We stop to fill our water bottles from the fresh mountain spring and cool our hands before walking back into the full sun.
It’s not long before we take a detour – or should I say make a mistake! Thinking we’d taken a path up the mountain back towards the campervan suddenly proved a little tricky.
The path which had seemed like a proper route, soon merged into the side of the mountain and nothing more than a slope of shale.
Thankfully, with a bit of care and a slow pace underfoot, we eventually made it back to a larger, main track. Time then to leave and venture on whilst the going was good to our next mountain pass – yes I know – just how many are there?!
Well, more of that for next time, so until then – thank you for reading and keep tuned for more adventures!