Just an hour north of Nice is one of the largest national parks in France, the Mercantour. It lies just on the border of the Alpes. Mike and I discovered the area a bit last summer after passing through from the Savoie region to the north in our motorhome (good ol’ George, we had to let him go). The Mercantour lies mostly inside the Alpes-Maritimes department of France, literally between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. During the summer, when the crowds and the heat on the Riviera become unbearable, many of the region’s residents leave the beaches behind and head up to the mountains.
Sometimes it takes an hour just to get from Antibes to Nice in August because of the traffic. But head up the Route du Grenoble and you’ll be surrounded by pines, alpine villages and some of the best hiking and mountain biking trails in the country. Mike and I like to go because the cost of a vacation there is quite reasonable. We rented, through the internet site Abritel.com, which has listings from private owners divided into categories for sea, city, mountain and countryside. We got a maison-de-village (like a townhome) in village called Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée (along the Tinée River), €260 for the week (and they didn’t care that we brought the little dogs along, as is the norm in France). Within the village there are about seven restaurants, three bakeries and two grocers. On the weekend there’s an open market in the central square. Aside from not being able to eat out Friday night (every place was full), we had a few really nice meals (the crêperie next to the tourism office has the best crêpes and hot chocolate in town).
As for stuff to do…we mostly sat around reading newspapers at the café in the main square, napping and enjoying long meals. On sportier days we did some hiking around town. There’s a ski lift that goes up to the top of La Pinée, where we had lunch, sunbathed (it may be cooler, but the sun’s much hotter up there), and then hiked back down to the village. We saw quite a few mountain bikers taking their bikes up to the grassy ski slopes on the lift. The tourism office in St-Etienne-de-Tinée sells a detailed hiking guide for trails originating from the village, however it’s only in French (not too many tourists ‘round these parts that aren’t French). Another popular attraction is the Via Ferrata, which I have no idea what it means in English, but involves passing through the mountain tops on tiny rope bridges, using rappelling equipment to keep from falling. Not for the feint of heart! For more info check out the tourism office in Auron, and remember, you can’t sue when you hurt yourself doing crazy things in France. 😉 There’s also a bus to Auron, one of the larger ski resorts in the area, which has more shops and restaurants, but is noticeably more tourist-oriented.
The highest route in Europe isn’t far. We drove through hair-pin turns going up and up and up. The scenery could be right out of Scotland: sheep grazing on steep, rocky hillsides, vast field of flowering shrubs, and on that particular day, no sun. We stopped at Saint-Dalmas, a sad little town that probably hasn’t changed since the early 1900s. There were two hostels and a closed tourist office. It seems its biggest attraction is as a stop on the GR trails. Grande Randonée (GR), or Major Trails, criss-cross this region, going all the way to Italy, Switzerland, the Riviera… it’s the best way to really see the Mercantour. Unfortunately, you can’t actually take dogs inside the National Park (villages within the park are exceptions), so we didn’t do any big hikes. For more info on these trails and guided tours, check out Via-Alpina, although you’ll have to wait for the Spring for the trails to open again. To learn about the Mercantour National Park and see some photos that are much better than mine, check out their lovely website.
At the Côte d’Azur-Riviera Tourism Office site you can browse the selection of villages throughout the Mercantour, request lodging and tourism guides to be sent to you in English, and get a good idea of what there is to do. Once the winter arrives and the snow starts to fall, the resorts in the area get more crowded and expensive, especially Isola 2000. You can always stay on the Riviera in February and drive up to the closest resorts just for the day (Gréolières-Les-Neiges is a popular one with cross-country skiers, and it’s only 40 minutes from Antibes). The tourism office can also send you the regional guide to the “Stations de Ski”, as they’re called.
So if you’re looking for a real escape, love the outdoors, but still want to enjoy French food and small-town friendliness, then try out the Mercantour and the other mountain areas above the Riviera – they’re not just for skiing!
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.