Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Mercantour National Park

The Mercantour National Park on the northern edge of Provence runs along the border with Italy north west of Sospel, and hosts over 400,000 visitors per year.

Covering around close to 700 square kilometres, the Mercantour National Park is a largely uninhabited  area covering the valleys of the Roya, Haut Var/Cians, Verdon, Bévéra, Vésubie, Tinée and Ubaye - plus a handful of  villages, mostly set in stunning locations perched on hills or outcrops of rock.

The scenery in the Mercantour Park is sensational, and is acknowledged as the best in France.  Its mountains, snow capped from November to March and with views down to the sparkling Meditaerranean make this a very popular place to visit at any time of the year.  Walking and hiking in summer and skiing in the winter are the normal pastimes.  Alongside the mountains are numerous rivers and lakes offering a variety of habitats for animals and a massive range of flora and fauna.

10 kms hike from the Les Mesces Refuge takes you into the Valléedes Merveilles scene of many 3,000 year-old rock carvings of people and animals. Most visitors to the area base themselves in one of the towns on or near Sospel along the south of the park, for instance St-Martin-de-Entraunes, St-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, St-Etienne-de-Tinée and St-Martin-Vésubie. The road here goes up to 2800 metres and is one of the highest in Europe at the Cime de la Bonette.

Wolves have been reintroduced from Italy into the mountainous region, on in the Massif du Mercantour, but this development has not been universally welcomed by the few hardy hill farmers who still tend their flocks and exercise the old tradition of transhumance, where sheep are taken up in the mountains in summer and then down into the valleys in winter for grazing. Sheep can be targeted by wolves, but wolves also serve  useful service in keeping the wild dog population in check. Wolves died out France in the 1930s, but the represent no danger to humans, the will run away if they haven't seen you first, which they invariably do.

Winter is very different and then the focus turns to skiing, with several ski stations opening for visitors as early as December,  the best know among these is Isola 2000 a purpose built station lacking real alpine charm but with fantastic skiing facilities.

The walking and hiking opportunities here are vast and you can find Randonee (French for hiking)  maps in most villages, and this is what the Mercantour National Park is used for in summer.