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 Continue reading

A first-time exploration of the Mercantour from the town of Roubion (French Alps)

Mercantour - Roubion and surroundings

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

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.

Roubion

View from the end of the road leading to Roubion. Credit: Yalakom

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 Continue reading

The Haus zur Wildnis, a zoo in the forest

Erected at the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) near the town of Ludwigsthal (Germany), the Haus zur Wildnis is a small zoo that keeps lynx, wolves, auroch-looking cattle, and Przewalski horses since 2006. Information about the BFNP, an organic restaurant and lockers are available inside the spacious visitors center, a good starting point for trips into the northern part of the forest known as Falkenstein-Rachel. The Haus zur Wildnis (house of wilderness) is described as a “Tier-Freigelände” and “naturnahe Tierhaltung”, so I imagined it was a reserve or a sanctuary where animals live in semi-wild conditions. In fact, predators are packed in small, fenced pockets of forest and wild horses and auroch-cows are kept in ordinary paddocks, much like farm animals. Not so wild.

I never enjoy observing wild animals confined in man-made habitats because all I see behind the bars is a sterile distortion of nature. It does not get any better when the zoo lies in the woods. The idea of bringing nature to men in a box, even a green one, is a fantasy. Through an illusion of proximity, zoos likely disconnect rather than sensitize visitors to the wilderness because the sightings are so artificial and stranger to the complex realities of nature. Adding patches of green here and there conceals this situation to ensure wider acceptance by the masses but rings as an apology rather than a favor to the animals. Growing up accepting the notion of wildlife captivity as the norm, it seems we already started off on the wrong foot.
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