Going up the old salt route to the Col de Fenestre

St-Martin-Vésubie, Mercantour National Park

The Mercantour (core and peripheral area). The area discussed in the present article is contained in the black square.

The numerous trails that criss-cross the Parc National du Mercantour (French Alps) are an open book into the human history of the area. No matter how wild the landscapes they traverse, all are impregnated with tales from the past, nowadays discretely guarded by nature.

Alpine trails connecting France to Italy through the passes, like the one leading up to the Col de Fenestre (2,474 m) from the sanctuary of the Madone de Fenestre (1,904 m), in the Vallée de la Vesubie, have a particularly rich heritage. In the Middle-Ages, merchants travelled this ancient salt trading route from Nice to the Italian Piedmont, and early on the site of the Madone de Fenestre became a religious sanctuary successively held by the Romans, the Black Monks (Order of Saint Benedict), the Templars and the abbey of Borgo San Dalmazzo (Italy). Today, a chapel still stands in the valley where local pilgrims gather every year.

Driving from St-Martin-Vésubie—a traditional alpine village situated 1,000 m above sea level along the outside border of the park’s buffer zone (see first map)—is the only way to reach the Madone de Fenestre, so having a car is preferable. Other options include taking a shuttle (in July/August only) or hitch-hiking, a common practice in the French Alps. Locals will often kindly stop for you and engage in conversation as they like to chat about their mountains with great enthusiasm. This is how I learned that Alpine ibex (Capra ibex) can habitually be observed at the Col de Fenestre where they enjoy licking the mineral-rich rocks surrounding the pass.

Cows grazing freely - Madone de Fenestre

Cows grazing freely along the trail. The Cime du Gélas is the third peak from the left / Credit: Yalakom

As I set off for the historic pass, I hoped for an encounter with the wild ungulates.

The steep, rocky trail leading to the Col de Fenestre is flanked by dramatic, serrated mountain tops, including the highest peak of the Mercantour, the Cime du Gélas, which culminates at 3,143 m (see photo on the right). As one ascends, trees, mainly larches (Larix decidua), quickly grow scarcer and sparser to be replaced by a barren, grassy vegetation cover hardy enough to serve as cow pasture. The placid ruminants should ignore your presence as long as you keep away from their calves.

Upon reaching 2,266 m, the Lac de Fenestre comes in sight. Unimpressive in size, this bean-shaped lake counts among the many sources of the river La Vésubie which runs down the valley of the same name. Angling is possible as the lake is regularly replenished with alevins.

Bunker - Col de Fenestre - Mercantour

One of the three bunkers at the Col de Fenestre / Credit: Yalakom

The three bunkers erected on the stony hillsides above the lake serve as perpetual reminders that World War II did not spare this desolate area, on the contrary. The fortifications were built by Mussolini’s army―at the time the region belonged to Italy―in view of the small-scale invasion of France through the Alps from June 10, 1940. The Franco-Italian Armistice, by which Italian troops were to occupy the Vallée de la Vésubie and the rest of the French Alps for three long years (see yellow area on the map below), was signed only two weeks later.

France occupied - WWII

A map showing the Italian occupation of the French Alps in yellow / Credit: Eric Gaba

After Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943 (Armistice of Cassibile), Italian soldiers swiftly withdrew from France to be soon replaced by the Nazis. Shortly before departing, the local Italian troops facilitated the escape of a thousand Jews from St-Martin-Vésubie to Italy through the Col de Fenestre. Although many survived, more than a third of them were captured on the other side and kept at the Borgo San Dalmazzo concentration camp, near the town of Cuneo, before being sent to Auschwitz. Today a commemorative plaque hangs at the pass to remind visitors that such abominable events once took place and that freedom should never be taken for granted.

Perfectly mingled with the rugged landscape, the robust bunkers have become cave-like shelters for the young ibex. As expected, a few individuals were to be found around the pass. Since my arrival at the Mercantour, I had been told stories of the wild goats jumping over people’s head, forcing a detour on the hikers on the trail, and even eating from their hands. Seeing females ibex with kids dozing off a few meters off the busy trail, I could now easily believe these rather extraordinary tales.

Outside of the breeding season, males split from females who gather in small groups together with their offspring. It is one of these groups that was resting on the craggy sides of the pass. Finding old rams with impressive horns (between 69 to 98 cm long) generally requires some more strenuous hiking.

Witnessing these animals so serene around men is astonishing given the species’ history. Native to the Alps since prehistory, the Alpine ibex was indeed nearly hunted down to extinction on the entirety of its range from the 16th century, saved in extremis during the 19th century in Italy. At the time of the first conservation measures, the species only survived in Gran Paradiso National Park (Italy) and the Vallée de la Maurienne (France), and living specimens therefore all descend from these two populations. Today, the Alpine ibex is a “Least Concern” according to the IUCN Red List but its reintroduction remains an ongoing process in France (see the red dots on the reintroduction map below) where approximately 10,000 individuals live―out a total of 50,000 in the whole of the Alps Range.

From the Col de Fenestre, one can continue (steep) down to the region of Piedmont, across the Parco Naturali Alpi Marittime which is twinned with the Mercantour since 1987. On the French side, the trail continues to the Pas des Landres. From there, it either goes down to the Lac de Trécolpas (2,150 m), up to the Cime de l’Agnelière (2,700 m)―where the adventurous (reckless?) hiker should enjoy a great view on the Mediterranean sea and the Bay of Antibes―or makes a loop back to the Madone de Fenestre.

On the way back, a group of chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) was feeding off slim patches of grass down in the valley. These ungulates are reputedly shier than their close cousin, the ibex, but can nevertheless be observed from a reasonable distance—a pair of binoculars is highly recommended. Just like the ibex, their camouflage colors can make them difficult to spot on the vast rocky background and even on the green grassy vegetation.

As one approaches the mountain hut of the Madone de Fenestre and loses altitude (approximately 600 m), the valley becomes more colorful, covered by an increasingly lusher vegetation. Although fall is not the ideal season to see alpine flowers in blossom, coming up earlier in the season is a trade-off: one gives up tranquility for colors. Locals will be the first to advise to avoid these mountains during the summer season due to the overload of visitors. The quiet of an early fall day is very pleasant indeed and even discretely colorful. Below are a few specimens of late September flowers encountered along the trail.

With its two rows of sharp, tooth-like peaks, the Caires de la Madone (2,532 m) make for one last impressive alpine sighting before rejoining the concrete road. In the summer, this sheer mountain is a popular climbing destination.

This article is related to: A first-time exploration of the Mercantour from the town of Roubion.

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