We were on a three month Summer tour incorporating a large proportion of the French Alps. It’s been a fabulous trip, where mountain drives have become part and parcel of the daily drive. Now though, we were about to set out on an Alpine drive with a difference – The Col de la Bonette. Claimed by the French as the highest road in Europe – this could be interesting!
First though, we are heading towards the Combe de Queyras and the ski resort of Vars. This brings some architectural changes, a mix of old meets new. For us, this sort of spoils the quaintness of the mountain life, but still the scenery lives up to expectations.
Best of all, we were entering the Col de Vars and a new region – Haute Provence. Now came a wonderful series of fabulous gorges, carved out of the rocky cliffs.
Looking fairly inaccessible below, but equally impressive in their entirety, these limestone cliffs dropped towards the river bed. In keeping with the narrow width of the rocky gorge, the actual road became rather tight in places.
At the same time, we navigate narrow, craggy tunnels, whilst a dramatic river flows to our side. This is the first time in a while that we’ve seen water flowing – it makes a welcome change.
We’re glad of the narrow width of our Sprinter campervan, it’s fairly short too, at just under 6m long. This brings an added confidence when driving these roads of overhangs and sharp rocky outcrops.
Next comes an ultra blue lake – a reservoir, glistening in the hot summer sun, where light reflects across the water. The scenery and the variety all add to the thrill of the route.
Time is getting on, the early evening feels upon us, so it’s time to rest our weary heads or rather relax for a bit.
We find a place to park – an Aire de Camping Car, next to the Base de Loisirs. This recreation area and lake are full of Summer excitement, family’s out enjoying the warmth and the freedom they must feel after virus lockdowns.
The air is getting drier and hotter. We are now further South and this little resort of Jausiers is full of leisurely life, whilst the last few weeks of peak season are still upon us.
The parking area is large and dusty – these Aires aren’t everyones cup of tea but we enjoy the freedom they bring. This one is free to use and we’re not alone for the night. We’re joined by several other French motorhomes in a parking area now empty of cars – it’s fine for what we need.
Some days are chores days and today is one of them. Our plans went out of the window the moment we arrive at the gorgeous town of Barcelonnette. It’s located just a few minutes drive away from where we spent the night in Jausiers and we just have to stop and take a look.
We also need a laundry. Our washing bags are overflowing and we really want a laverie to clear the van of the clutter. The laverie we thought was in the town turned out to be a dry cleaners with a service to leave your dirty laundry and collect another time – typical.
Not to worry though, the town is just lovely – little streets and town squares full of eateries and life. It’s strange seeing people congregating still, how weird our lives are at the moment. Yet from bad comes good and no more so than the joy of watching life carry on. We now know this to be a brief interlude of normality.
Barcelonnette is colourful, pretty and well-delivered in terms of tourism appeal. To be honest, it’s a pleasant surprise.
In normal times, I’m sure it’s a picture of bustling travellers gracing those pavement cafes under a shady parasol. As it happens, despite the virus, like everywhere here in France this Summer, the abundance of atmosphere is strong.
After catching up on a supermarket shop just outside of the town centre, as well as filling up with fuel, all we need to do now is find an automatic laverie.
This comes at an out of the way location, in the ski resort of Pra Loup – 15 minutes away. Now we are in 80’s land! Yes, this small resort must have been built all at the same time and remains pretty much in the architectural design of its time.
It all looks a bit worse for wear but there’s a good laverie – perfect!
Next up is the big mountain pass of the day – maybe even the trip – The Col de la Bonette.
This is a road like no other, winding along 15.5 miles of mountains, to the dizzy heights of 8900ft or 2802m. Supposedly this is the highest road in Europe, although the real title stays with the Velota in Spain – something the French prefer to keep quiet!!
To begin the route, we have to drive back towards Jausiers, where the route begins. Now the road leads towards the fascinating Mercantour National Park encompassing 1615 square meters of incredible landscapes.
We set off with excitement and anticipation, hoping for the best but each km bringing better than we ever thought possible.
This drive is simply fabulous. We are soon crossing landscapes much more familiar to Mediterranean climates, yet mixed with lush greenery in between.
Gentle curves, although narrow in places, make the route less harrowing and more gracious than some other mountain climbs.
Add in the mix of Shepherds herding their flocks of sheep and goats crossing the road in front of us – we turn the engine off, wait and watch. Then imagine, the calming lakes and tumbling waterfalls – now we know this drive has something for everyone.
Of course, like most mountain passes in France, this is a cyclist hub of athletic, adrenaline fuelled climbs. We can only watch in awe at their accomplishments.
Coffee time is never far from our minds and a spacious plateau complete with parking area provides a rest stop. We take a moment to stretch the legs. Our parking spot beside a small lake is an idyllic location, surrounding us are high peaks, dramatic views and a lush green section of grassy banks.
We listen to the Marmots singing to one another in the now cooler mountain air. They skip across the grass, playing, teasing and pausing for a quick check on their surroundings.
As the climb becomes steeper, the landscapes become dryer and darker. They now resemble more of a volcanic appearance, where dark and loose stones coupled with steep rocky banks entwine.
This final push to the summit causes a slight confusion – gosh anyone would think we were cycling up!
A cone shaped mound in front of us brings signs of the actual summit. Now, the narrow mountain road splits – with a route to the right in a clockwise and anti-clockwise position. Along with a left turn which leads away from the summit mound.
We aren’t sure which way to go and I try and read the road signs. Nigel has to make a decision – we take the first turning right. A few bends in the road later and we come across a stone marker, indicating the summit.
It’s around 6pm and the road is quiet, just us and a few others, one campervan and a couple of motorbikes. We park alongside the stone landmark pillar and check out what to do next.
Pulling on an extra layer to our Summer attire we step out to investigate!
A shale path from the tarmac road winds up loose stone of the rocky mound – this is the walking path to the actual summit. So, this final section is on foot – that’s novel and we’re more than happy to stretch the legs.
Here, the wind rustles up, ahead of us is a viewpoint, just a little further and a few steps later, we are at a circular stone landmark. The views are amazing – 360 degrees of pure mountain, not a cloud in sight around this desolate mountain peak.
We feel high above everything around us. With barely a touch of snow in sight, this Mediterranean air certainly makes all the difference in these high peaks.
The wind is quite bracing, we’re glad of an extra layer, off season this place will be unrecognisable – snow, ice, harshness resigned for those brave enough to dare tread.
We take in the views as well as plenty of photos, luckily we have the place to ourselves giving time to enjoy the scenery. Incidentally – it’s breathtaking.
We walk back to the campervan, feeling ready to move off the mountain and continue along the route. There’s an off-road track that we can take, but we’re unsure of the width and don’t want to take a risk.
Instead, we continue along the tarmac mountain road and soon pass some interesting sights. Some large but derelict and abandoned forts still stand from the defensive Maginot Line of the second World War. We drive between the buildings, which edge the road beside us.
As we emerge into the wild, grassy banks of the mountain, we see Marmots running through the undergrowth. They are closer here than we’ve ever seen, not shy in showing themselves to passing humans.
By the time we reach the tree line again, we’re emerging into the beginning of civilisation – remote hamlets now in shade from the evening sun.
An historic village awaits for our overnight stop – St Dalmas le Selvage. Thankfully, there’s a small Aire for us to park, beneath the tiny alleyways of the village centre.
The following day, a storm is threatening to hit by lunch, so we take an opportunity to set out into the hills early. We pass plum trees, orchards and Summer berries – these hills are alive with produce.
After a couple of hours exploring some easy, but hilly paths above the village, we meander back to this rustic little place. A scenic river flows beyond the village itself, where some “wild camping” folk in cars and day vans are parked up – their van attire scattered amongst nature. Everything from clothes to camping equipment are laid out across their “pitch” – the sign of the times – brushing teeth outdoors as we pass.
The stone buildings rise towards the sky, clinging tightly to each other, as if for protection. Within the tiny streets, locals chat on their doorsteps. I wonder what life is like in these parts, after all – it seems so simple, living off the land, growing seasonal produce in abundance.
Each vegetable patch, not just here, but in so many parts of France, looks like they could be a prize winner. Storing logs for the long Winter in neatly tendered walls of firewood, resemble a piece of artwork rather than a wood store.
It all seems such a far cry from the busy, commercial lives so many of us have today.
About 4km away is the ski resort of St.Etienne de Tineé – our next stop. We weren’t sure what to expect, but a riverside Aire proves too tempting to miss.
We may have been tempted to move after a look around the town, but the weather changed. Those storms arrive and we hibernate in the campervan, a little frustrated at having to stay indoors for a while.
Once the rains ease, we take our chance – walking the short distance into the old town centre. There’s a leisure lake and campground here, beside a Telécabine, reminding us of the Winter sports these regions still offer.
It’s always fascinating to check out the ski run map – those large displays showing the transition from Summer to Winter fun.
Our parking place on the grassy banks of the river is spacious. A reminder of just how easy campervan travel is in these parts.
We settle in for the night wondering what tomorrow will bring. That’s because next is a hair-raising looking route and our first “Balcony Road” – The Gorges du Cians.
More of that next time!