Created in 1979, the Parc National du Mercantour boasts a unique mixture of nature and culture on its 685 sq km alpine territory made up of six distinctive valleys dominated by mountain tops over 3,000 m. Though omniscient and diverse, the local wilderness has long coexisted with men whose early presence in the area is attested by the scattered remnants of former human activities (rock engravings, chapels, defensive fortifications ruins, military blockhaus, old sheep/cow pens…) and a multitude of hamlets remarkably erected on the steepest slopes of the park’s buffer zone (1,465 sq km). Built in a stair-like fashion amid the lush vegetation, the traditional rock houses give the impression of having literally grown out of the mountain stone. Visitors shall feel amazed at the sighting of such surreal constructions and a little frightened when accessing some of these unconventional dwellings via curvy one-lane roads.
An archetype of such picturesque villages is Roubion. Perched at an altitude of 1,336 m in the Vallée de la Tinée, this charming medieval town of 125 inhabitants makes for an ideal base for those wishing to explore the multiple facets of the Mercantour. Roubion will introduce visitors to the local lifestyle, past and present, while providing easy access to the park’s core area via the hiking trails that run through its narrow, cobbled streets. Refreshing source water feeds the hamlet’s old fountains and taps, invigorating alpine air flows through the tortuous alleys and the unrestricted view on the mountains can be contemplated in absolute silence (prefer a spring or fall visit). The vivid door paintings by Italian artist Imelda Bassanello that depict folk life scenes add liveliness to this picture.
The residents of Roubion―the Roubionnais―are not all native from the region. Some of them decided an inspiring change in lifestyle after falling for the authentic hamlet and stunning wilderness, thus swapping their urban life for an alpine one. In 2006, Babeth, who previously worked as a Career Consultant, and Nadine, a former Paramedic, purchased an 18th-century house situated in the Haut-Village that they finely renovated into an intimate inn and chambre d’hôtes known as Le Rupicapra (rupicapra is the scientific name of the chamois). Nadine later moved on to being a cook after acquiring the restaurant Le Païsot. Should you find yourself in the vicinity of Roubion, make sure to stay at Le Rupicapra where a convivial atmosphere awaits you year round together with great tips for any outdoor activities in the area.
Note that the transhumance will pass through the town next week-end, on October 5: hundreds of sheep will invade the streets of Roubion before continuing on their 5-day journey down to their winter shelter. Every year, this truly pastoral event is an occasion for a celebration that visitors are warmly invited to join. You can click here for more information (in French).
Below is a brief overview of two pleasant hike itineraries I had the opportunity to experiment during my recent 3-day visit to Roubion.
A Relaxing Hike Around Roubion’s Old Bread Basket
From Roubion, a 9-km logging road leads to Vignols (drive or hitch-hike to save your energy for the trail). This lovely pastoral hamlet, bread basket of Roubion until the early 20th century, lies on the park’s core area at an altitude of 1,600 m (valley level). The handful of well-maintained rock houses that compose the village are surmounted by large caves to the north and bordered by the Ruisseau de la Vionène and a larch forest to the south.
Today the green valley remains used as pasture land where sheep flocks are commonly seen.
The Mercantour hosts a rich fauna and flora. However, with a few exceptions, animals are not on display and being constantly alert is therefore the key. This said, one should be able to spot Marmots (Marmota marmota) with little effort around Vignols outside of their hibernation period which spans from October to March. Despite a great camouflage color, the fluffy rodents betray themselves the moment they decide to run away. Curious and friendly, these creatures always make great posers.
As one leaves Vignols behind walking the trail in the direction of the Col des Moulines (1981 m) and Mont Mounier (2,817 m), a curious geological formation resembling an impressive canyon cliff, namely Mont Démant (2,440 m), soon comes in sight. Attached to Mont Mounier, it sharply contrasts in shape, texture and color with this rounded mountain. From the highest point of this natural wall springs a waterfall; feeble in September, it should be much stronger in the spring season when glaciers begin to melt.
There, look up to the skies where groups of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) may be soaring together in circle over the mountain tops in search of carrion―a good pair of binoculars is highly recommended. In flight, the birds tuck in their head, thus hiding their distinctive long, featherless neck. For this reason, they may be confused with Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) also present on the park. However, contrary to the latter which are solitary beings, vultures are sociable animals and travel in flocks. Another indicator are Ravens (Corvus corax) often seen alongside vultures. Closer sighting of the raptors awaited me on my second hike (see below).
Hike up to the Col des Moulines for a panoramic view on the next valley, home to the town of Beuil. On the ridge, you may find specimens of dazzling Ladybird Spiders (Eresus sandaliatus). With its vibrant, contrasted colors and hairy body and legs, this European spider could easily be confused with a venomous exotic species but its small size (9 to 16 mm) should be comforting. Recognizable by their scarlet, black-dotted abdomen, males are much smaller than females which are entirely black and rarely found in the open. Females typically remain hidden in their den their entire life, eating insects that pass by the entry hole and waiting for the males to find them to mate.
Watch your step everywhere or you may well prematurely crush the destiny of the numerous grasshopper colonies that inhabits the valley! The observer shall be impressed by the great variety of size, shapes, color and shades of these chubby insects which are certainly worth observing, so be prepared to kneel, sit or squat down. If you are not convinced by my enthusiasm for what may sound like ordinary bugs, have a look at the pictures below. I attempted to identify some of the specimens without knowing for sure if my findings are fully accurate.
Unfortunately, I could not determine the species of the following specimen (any suggestions are welcome).
All photos were taken on September 20, 2014.
A Ridgeline Hike to the Sommet du Countent
From Roubion, a hike to the Sommet du Countent (1,988 m) through the Col de la Couillole (1,678 m) and Mont Brussière (1,955 m) should ravish those looking for scenic, 360° views―note that this itinerary is entirely situated within the buffer zone of the Mercantour. After a pretty steep hike between Roubion and La Couillole, the trail becomes more progressive with open views on the alpine meadows where sheep may be grazing. Rooting marks are plenty along the way indicating the presence of wild boar in the area. The trail then crosses a larch woodland until Mont Brussière. The European Larch (mélèze in French) is an iconic deciduous conifer of the Mercantour National Park: its soft, silky needles turn a magnificent amber yellow in autumn, warming the valleys before falling off.
From Mont Brussière to the Countent, the trail follows the narrow ridgeline at a constant altitude of roughly 1,900 m, allowing dramatic views on two valleys of distinct character. With its stunning vistas, smooth rounded edges and comfortable grass cover, the Sommet du Countent is an ideal viewpoint and lunch spot on sunny days.
Faithfully escorted by ravens, vultures were particularly active on the day of my hike, gliding back and forth between Monts Mounier and Brussière, and taking a good look at me on the way. One scavenger unexpectedly flew a few meters behind my back, literally skimming the earth, so close in fact that I could hear the sound of its prodigious wings flapping in the air. Other vultures flew fairly low to the ground as well. I saw them again at the end of the afternoon, a few minutes walk from La Couillole. The birds had gathered on the flank of a mountain to rest, with some individuals intermittently taking off to the skies for short explorations.
Taken from relatively far away, my photos unfortunately are of poor quality. You can nevertheless distinguish the yellow tag on one of the raptors’ wings (see photo below). Such tags, which identify Spanish individuals, show the considerable distances that these creatures can travel. However, Spanish griffon vultures appear to have abnormally intensified their movements northward to France from the early 2000’s owing to a sudden scarcity of carcasses linked to EU sanitary regulatory changes. In order to address the mad-cow disease crisis, the European legislation (CE 1774/2002) indeed organized the systematic destruction of most livestock carcasses.
When available, carrion may not be safe to consume for the raptors due to a risk of intoxication by ingestion of diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly administered to livestock animals that is notoriously lethal to the scavengers. In South Asia, this medication has critically diminished vulture populations since the 1990’s (down 99% for some sub-species), thus negatively impacting countries like India were the birds played a salubrious role by effectively disposing of carcasses. Progressively banned from the Asian market from 2006, the product is now resurfacing in Europe where its use was authorized in Spain in 2013.
The widespread use of the drug in Europe could have dramatic side effects on both Griffon and Bearded Vultures (successfully reintroduced in the Mercantour since 1993), jeopardizing decades of joint conservation efforts. With good reason, the withdrawal of the drug and its replacement by meloxicam, a safe alternative, is currently vehemently demanded by bird protection organizations. For more information, you can read about the ongoing campaign by BirdLife International.
You can also read: The EU takes a step forward to prevent vulture intoxication by diclofenac.
All photos were taken on September 21, 2014.
This article is related to another post about the Mercantour National Park: Going up the old salt route to the Col de Fenestre