Alpes de Haute Provence and Hautes Alpes are two of the least populated départements of the Provence Côte d'Azur Region. This is "l'arriere pays", the back country. Few well known historic treasures to speak of but many hidden gems to be discovered. The Alpine Regions of the Provence should be your choice if you want to get away from it all. The anti-dote to the overcrowded Côte d'Azur during the summer time. A region of great beauty, dramatic gorges, beautiful mountain lakes, remote valleys, green forests with villages scattered about and above all the Southern Alps with numerous peaks over 3.000m (8.000ft) and a few over 4.000m (13.000ft).
Outdoor activities range from skiing and snow boarding in the winter to kayaking, rafting, mountaineering, biking and hiking in the summer.
The département Alpes de Haute Provence stretches from the Vaucluse in the west to the Italian border in the east. To the south is the Var and to the north the département Hautes Alpes, the most northern area of the Provence Côte d'Azur Region. A birds flight from southwest to northeast takes us from the lavender fields around Forcalquier, Simiane la Rotonde and Banon in the west, to the fruit growing region of the Durance valley, the spectacular Verdon Gorges and then further on to the elegant spa town of Digne les Bains. You finally reach the Ubaye Valley and Barcelonnette at the foot of the mighty peaks of the Southern Alpes. The spectacular Mercantour National Park is shared with the Département Alpes Maritimes. The Garrigue and oak tree forests of the Var to the south give way to an Alpine landscape with meadows, forests, steep mountains and deep gorges.
Further north, the département Hautes Alpes has an average elevation of over 1.000m (3.280ft). The highest elevation is the 4.102m (13.458ft) Barre de Écrins with the impressive Glacier Blanc, the white glacier. There are only three towns of a certain size: Gap, Briançon, and Embrun. The Hautes Alpes has very little in common with the rest of the Provence except for the fact that it is blessed with a lot of sunshine, roughly 300 days a year. As tourism has developed much later you find fewer soulless ski resorts here as compared to further north. Which makes the area also worthwhile to visit during the summer time: lots of nature pretty much undisturbed from ski lifts, ghastly winter sport facilities and huge, empty parking lots (the type of summer scenery one unfortunaly has to endure in many other Alpine regions).
Here is a short description of the towns, villages and sights we recommend in the area (in alphabetical order):
The village (pop. 895), famous for its goat cheese, is perched on the edge of the Coulon valley. Very picturesque with narrow cobblestone alleys and stone village houses. Walk up the hill through the Vieux Village with its 17th century Église St.Marc and bell tower. Few remnants of the defensive wall remain, such as the ones at the Place du Portail. Also noteworthy the old Hôtel Dieu (hospital), which was restored by a local preservation group. Near Banon is the Gouffre du Caladaire cave, with 666 m (2.188 ft) one of the deepest in France. It is located close to the abandoned village of Montsalier le Vieux but not open to the general public (difficult descend).
The Banon cheese is made of goat's milk, generously salted and pre-matured for 1 or 2 weeks. It is then washed with a local eau de vie and wrapped in chestnut leaves. A good Banon is creamy with a full fruity and slightly oaky flavor. The origin of this much beloved cheese goes back to the 13th century. Like many local products it ran out of favor in the 1950s and 60s, when the supermarket chains started to dictate what one eats. With increasing tourism, the Banon cheese reappeared first on local markets in the 70s. Finally an enterprising local family, the Riperts, launched commercial production. Today La Fromagerie de Banon has an annual output of 200 tons, a good part of it Banon cheese.
Another gourmet specialty are the Brindilles, long, thin, spicy sausages you can buy at Chez Melchio, a well known épicerie and charcuterie on Banon's main square.
Barcelonnette (pop.3.300) was named after Barcelona by Count Raymond Berenger V, who was Count of Barcelona. In 1231 he wanted to create a smaller version of the Catalan city. Little Barcelona is situated at 1100 m (3.600 ft) altitude, a pretty town with alpine character nestled in the Ubaye Valley. A great place for hiking and biking and good base to explore the Parc National du Mercantour.
Saint Pierre des Liens (13th century origin, but totally rebuilt in 1912) and the Clocher (clock tower) are the focal points in the town center. Place Manuel with its many cafés and pedestrian only Rue Manuel are bustling with visitors during the summer season.
In case you wonder about the Mexican connection in town: The three Arnaud brothers from Jausiers in the Ubaye Valley emigrated in 1805 to Louisiana (they founded Arnaudville in St.Landry Parish) and then, 16 years later, moved on to Mexico. They made considerable fortunes there in the textile business. The tale of their success in the New World spread and others followed. As many as 5,000 people from the Ubaye Valley are believed to have emigrated to Mexico and today some 50,000 Mexicans claim Provençal descent. Some of those who returned to Barcelonnette with their fortunes constructed fine mansions, like the Villa la Sapinière, which houses the Musée de la Vallée (10 Avenue de la Libération, Tel: 04 92 81 27 15). The museum explores the history of the Ubaye Valley and the town's Mexican connection.
Nearby Jausiers is the gateway to the Mercantour National Park with its spectacular road to the Col de la Bonette, one of the highest alpine roads in Europe (2.715m/8.907ft), which links the Ubaye Valley with Nice. The road is closed in winter. In Jausiers you might want to stop at the Maison de Produits de Pays de Jausiers, where local produce and handicrafts are for sale.
Briançon (pop. 11.000) sits on a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 1.300m (4.265ft). It is best known for its extensive Vauban fortifications and as a base for the Serre Chevalier Vallée ski area, one of France's major ski regions with 250km of runs. Briançon is definitely worth a visit, read more about it here.
The national park covers 930 sq km (230,000 acres) of magnificent Alpine terrain. It is located roughly 50km southeast of Grenoble and 20km west of Briançon. The main access road into the park is from Argentières la Bessée, 16km south of Briançon. The road leads to the lovely village of Vallouise and further on to Ailefroide with its camping sites and huts. You find yourself right in the middle of the national park with ice-capped Mont Pelvoux to the north and the Barre des Écrins towards the west. This is terrain for serious climbers, walkers and in the winter skiers with more than 800.000 visitors annually. Read more about it here.
The spa town (pop. 17.700), well known in France for its therapeutic hot springs, enjoys a pleasant setting on the Bléone river surrounded by forested mountains. It's a vibrant town offering for its size a surprising collection of art museums, galleries, jewelry shops, cafés and restaurants. The main street is Blvd. Gassendi, named after Pierre Gassendi, a 17th century Philosopher, Astronomer and Mathematician. You find only a few ancient structures here, such as the 13th century Cathédrale Notre Dame du Bourg and a few remnants of the ramparts, but many elegant late 19th/early 20th century villas and gardens, including a small botanical garden. If you are interested in fossils, visit the Réserve Naturelle Géologique de Haute Provence, a geological exhibition of the 46 communities of the Var and Alpes de Haut Provence, which have joined to preserve the many rock formations and fossils in their areas. Le Jardin des Papillons is a butterfly garden, located just outside the town, visits and guided tours by appointment only. The Musée Gassendi is the local history and arts museum.
The Musée Alexandra David-Néel, shows aspects of the Himalayan culture and the life of Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), the first European woman to explore Tibet and the Himalayas. Alexandra studied oriental languages at the Sorbonne, then travelled to Lhasa. She became one of the West's foremost Tibetan scholars. At the age of 59 she moved to Digne but left 10 years later to spend a further 9 years in the Himalayas. She returned to Digne and in 1968, just after her 100th birthday, she planned for a long trip to China. Sadly it was not to be - she died in Digne in 1969. The collection of the Fondation Alexandra David-Néel includes many important pieces from Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim.
The Train des Pignes (Pine Cone Train) is the popular name for the railway connecting Digne les Bains with Nice. The 3 1/2 hour ride across the Maritime Alpes is spectacular. Trains are crowded during the summer time, you need to book well in advance. It is said that in the old times you could collect cones from the pines next to the tracks as the steam powered engine laboured its way up the steep mountains. Nowadays a modern diesel powered engine provides for a faster ride through this beautiful, sparsely populated part of the Provence. You find more information on the website of the Chemins de Fer de Provence, a private company owned by the Veolia Transport Group.
The river Durance, in French La Durance (except for le Rhône all rivers in France are feminine) runs for 325 km (201 miles) from its spring at the Mont Chenaillet (2.634 m/8.642 ft) near the Italian border in the departement Hautes-Alpes to the Rhône just south of Avignon. Until it was "tamed" in the 20th century the Durance was fierce, unpredictable and a cause of major floods. The water flow at the confluence with the Rhône varies between 40 cubic meter per second to 6 000 cubic meter per second depending on the season and flash floods. A 250 km irrigation canal running parallel to the Durance and numerous hydroelectric dams have changed its behaviour. The dams generate the electricity equivalent of two nuclear reactors, roughly 10% of France's hydroelectric capacity.
From Sisteron to the confluence with the Rhône river the Durance is the lifeline for a major fruit growing area in France. Many orchards use unsightly black netting and there are many migrant workers during harvest times. This is the time when horse flies can make life unpleasant here, quite unusual for the Provence which is mostly free of flies and mosquitoes. There are a number of agricultural villages between Sisteron and Manosque, some pretty, some less so. But the valley is fairly busy with the Autoroute A51 and a major train line. The one noteworthy sight is a rock formation on the left bank near the town of Le Mées, the Les Penitents de les Mées. They stand over 100 meters high and 2 km long behind the town and folklore has it that they are a procession of monks who were petrified by Saint Donat as punishment for falling in love with a beautiful young Saracene women. An impressive sight, especially at night when they are illuminated.
The town of Forcalquier (pop.4.375) is located on a steep hill, 30 km south of Sisteron and about 10 km west of the Durance river. In the Middle Ages it was the capital of the Haute-Provence. The town's name comes from the Latin "Furnus Calcarius", which means lime kilns. On Place du Bourguet is the massive 12th century Cathédral Notre Dame de l'Assomption with its 17th century bell towers and a 17th century organ (concerts every Sunday during the summer). In front of the cathedral is a 15th century fountain with a plaque commemorating the marriage in 1235 between Eleanore of Provence and Henry III of England. Nearby is a neatly restored Franciscan monastery, the Couvent des Cordeliers, founded in 1236, one of the earliest Franciscan monasteries in France. A visit is worthwhile, especially to the well preserved cloister. A walk through the town's old quarters leads to the citadel and on to the church of Terrasse Notre Dame de Provence with fine views of the town and surrounding countryside. Forcalquier is a lively market town with character and there are many pretty villages nearby.
Around Forcalquier are charming villages: St Maine, Dauphin, Limans, Sigonces and above all Mane, a gem just 3.5 km south of Forcalquier. Nearby is the Prieuré de Salagon, a beautiful 16th century Benedictine priory with a 12th century Romanesque church, which now houses a museum that explores the old ways of life in the Haute Provence. In the priory's garden you find many of the local medicinal herbs used in the old times and still in use today. South of Mane is the Château de Sauvan, which many consider to be one of the most beautiful classical châteaux in the Provence. It is privately owned but offers guided tours. Further south is the Haute Provence observatory built here in the 1930s.
About 30km north of Forcalqier is the Montagne de Lure, only slightly lower than Mont Ventoux and another great area for hiking. Before you drive up to the summit on Route D53, linking St.Étienne les Orgues with Sisteron, make a short detour east to visit Cruis, a lovely village of 580 inhabitants. Église Notre Dame et Saint Martin in the village center, the old postal relay station (now an excellent restaurant), the village square - everything picture perfect. Driving back to St.Étienne les Orgues, take Route D53 to the top of the Montagne de Lure. It rises through oak and conifer forests. About 4km before the summit a stony road leads to Notre Dame de Lure, a small Romanesque chapel at the place where a 12th century monastery of the Chalaisian religious order once stood. The Montagne de Lure is only slightly lower (1.826m/5.990ft) than Mont Ventoux (1.912m/6.272ft), its neighbor to the west. The two mountains are separated by the Plateau de Sault. Hikers will enjoy the Montagne de Lure. It is much easier with its wide, angled slopes. The summit, known as the Signal de Lure, is reached by the GR6, the trail that goes from St.Véran (Hautes Alpes) to Langon (near Bordeaux). In case you don't feel like walking a lot, you can drive within 20 minutes of the summit. You will be rewarded with one of the best panoramas the Provence has to offer. Don't miss the northern slopes of the Montagne de Lure. A steep zigzag road descents into the Jabron Valley with its steep cliffs and conifer forests. This section of the road is normally closed during winter.
An immaculate thermal spa combining a historic setting with modern spa facilities. The Romans established a thermal spa here, but the town's credentials got kick started in the early 19th century when Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825), the younger and favorite sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and later Princess Borghese, the scandalous femme fatal of her times, frequented the baths here. The town is pleasant with many cafés and restaurants. The remnants of a 12th century Knights Templar fortress tower over it. There are plenty of accommodation options here, a good base for exploring the Verdon region.
A fairly busy town (pop.20.300), the largest in the Alpes de Haute Provence department and an important center for agriculture and commerce. Located at the eastern end of the Grand Luberon and just a few steps away from the Durance it lacks the charm and aura of typical Luberon towns due to its size and the many modern quarters. Many of the employees for the nuclear research facility of Cadarache live here. But it is a good place for shopping, especially on the Saturday morning market. On the outskirts, near Autoroute A51, is the manufacturing facility of l'Occitane. You can tour their operations and buy at the factory outlet.
Historical highlights are the two 14th century fortified gates, the Porte de la Saunerie and the Porte du Soubeyran. Sauniere is the Provençal word for salt. The Porte de la Saunerie was located near the salt stores where the salt tax had to be paid, a flat tax per head which was highly unpopular and was only abolished during the French revolution and later replaced with the income tax, also highly unpopular. At the north end of the old town is the 13th century Porte du Soubeyran with a 19th century campanile. Soubeyran means the highest point in Provençal. Noteworthy is Cathédral St.Saveur with a very pretty wrought iron belfry. There are many stately town houses, ancient churches and chapels in the old center. Manosque was the birthplace of author the Provençal author Jean Giono (1895-1970). The only remnant of the castle of the Counts of Forcalquier is the Tour du Mont d'Or on a hill 1km northeast of the town. You have fabulous views over Manosque and the Durance river.
A perched village near the western entrance of the Verdon Gorges on steep slopes below two limestone cliffs. Famous for its potteries which are shown in collections and museums all over the world. No surprise Moustiers is a major tourist destination with thousands of visitors per day. Read more about it here.
The highlights of the Queyras Region are the Queyras National Park (Parc Naturel Régional de Queyras) and the UNESCO world heritage site of Mont Dauphin, the impressive Vauban fortress near Guillestre. The natural beauty of this region make a trip worthwhile, read more about it here.
The route taken by Napoléon (1769-1821) upon his return from Elba on his way to Paris and a 100 days later to Waterloo. It runs from Cannes to Sisteron and further on to Grenoble. Napoléon came ashore on March 1, 1815 at the Golfe Juan near Cannes and traveled through the Haute Provence to Grenoble in 7 days, receiving a hero's welcome in each town and village. A very scenic route with historic markers on the houses, inns and châteaux where he ate and slept - the French version of "George Washington slept here". Its an interesting trip for history buffs retracing Napoléon's steps. From Cannes the route passes through Mougins, Mouans-Sartoux, Grasse, St.Vallier, Seranon, Castellane, Barreme, Digne les Bains, Malija, Sisteron, Tallard, Gap, Corps and La Mur until it reaches Grenoble. The 180 km (112 mile) drive is well marked and will take all day if you plan a couple of stopovers in between.
Situated on a hill topped by a rotunda, you can see this entirely concentric village (pop. 530) from afar, one of the prettiest hilltop villages in the Provence. Narrow streets and stone houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. This is the center for the sparsely populated Plateau d'Albion region, one of the major lavender growing areas of the Provence, dry and hot in the summer, windy and cold in the winter.
But what was the purpose of the rotunda on top of the hill? Is it a defensive structure or a chapel? One theory maintains that the lords of Simiane built the rotunda similar to the castles erected by crusaders in Palestine. Once you have walked up to the top of the village you find a hexagonal tower dating from the 12th century, built into the remains of a castle, and topped by a cone-like roof. Inside the rotunda is irregularly twelve sided (the 12 months of the year) with a crypt below and an ornamented chamber above - a strange building! A baroque music festival is held from mid-Juy to mid-August. Nearby is the Abbaye de Valsaintes, one of the four Cistercians abbeys in the Provence, with a beautiful garden with over 600 varieties of roses. It is privately owned and can only be visited during May and June.
The Plateau d'Albion is a prime area for hiking and getting away from it all. The 18 underground nuclear missile silos of the Force de Frappe located on the plateau were closed down in 1999. You can organize your own lavender tour here, just drive from village to village or walk on some of the marked hiking trails in the area between Sault, Banon and Simiane la Rotonde. June and July are the best months to see lavender in bloom. There are only a few villages here, such as Montsalier and St.Christol, with its 12th century Église Notre Dame et St.Christophe. The lavender industry in the Provence survives largely on subsidies from the EU's CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) funds. There is strong competition from Eastern Europe and China, where more than 50% of the world's lavender is grown. Life for small growers is harsh, many distilleries have closed. Tourism is a way to keep things going to some extent and local festivals and markets are one way to promote the industry.
Sisteron (pop.7.200) is the northern gateway into the Provence. It is built into the rocks on the west side of a gorge just below the confluence of the rivers Buech and Durance and the massive la Baume montains on the eastern side of the river. Already in Roman times Segustero was an important strategic fortification on the Via Domitia. A citadel of massive ancient fortifications, started in the 11th century and subsequently enlarged many times, towers above the town. You have great views from its highest point, where the Devil's Tower stands.
The old town below is a maze of narrow streets and archways linking tiny squares. Near the Place de la République are the town hall, Cathédral Notre Dame des Pommiers (from porneriuni=open space) and the four remaining 15th century towers what were once the ramparts. Nearby is the Musée du Vieux-Sisteron, the local folk art and history museum. In Rue Saunerie 20, Napoléon took lunch on 5 March 1815 on the route, now known as Route Napoléon, that lead him from Elba to Paris and a 100 days later to Waterloo.
The Verdon Gorge, also called the "le Grand Canyon du Verdon", define the border between the Départements Var and Alpes de Haute Provence. The Verdon river carved a deep canyon into the limestone cliffs here for about 21 km (13 miles). It is much smaller than the Grand Canyon but it's Europe's deepest. This is a nature conservation area, the Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon. The walls of the gorge rise a spectacular ....... read more about it here.