Haute-Provence by the back door
Starting at a high pass on the Italian border, we make an epic journey by bike through the mountains and valleys dominating this remote area of France
On the Col de Larche, where Alpes-de-Haute-Provence meets Italy, prayer flags flutter around a small restaurant. Mountains rise on either side, clad in golden grass, patched with grey rock, soaring to razor ridges. Valleys sink between them, dropping to a silky ribbon of newborn river, the Ubayette. And, above it all, above this wild kingdom, is a sky as blue as an Alpine flower.
I breathe it in. It has taken a year of planning to get here, to begin a journey across Provence’s lofty heartland. But it started earlier, in 2012, when my husband and I visited Digne-les-Bains to discover the outdoor art of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Walking through the black marl landscape around the town, we saw waymarks for a new mountain bike route. France is famed for its long-distance hiking trails but to create a version for bikes is an even more ambitious project.
Yet, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence has achieved it. The departement is unique in hosting three grandes traversees VTT – Chemin du Soleil, TransVerdon and L’Alpes-Provence – and has become a mountain-bike mecca in the process.
We have chosen the last route, 300 kilometres of off-road riding with nearly 10,000 metres of height gain over a leisurely fortnight. It is possible to complete the trip in a week, but the point, for us, was to travel slowly enough to feel the landscape’s heartbeat: to have time to stop, talk, admire, discover.
Our adventure is in two parts. From the Col de Larche in Haute-Ubaye, we will ride over mountains and through wooded valleys to Digne-les-Bains; the ‘Alps’ sector, with high-altitude forts and isolated hamlets. The next stage is ‘Provence’; where rolling hills shelter artisans and fortified villages, where olives and lavender rule the rocky land.
So, finally, our wheels turn. We slide off the col and climb slowly across a sun-bleached mountainside. A few trees struggle skyward, marmots whistle, the distant river rumbles. And then…
A bark, a growl, and a white, shaggy dog the size of a small bear charges toward us. Patou! These guardians of sheep in the Alpine meadows are zealous about their job, and demand a healthy respect. We scramble off the bikes and freeze, still as death. A torrent of sheep floods downhill, two patous at their heels. Alpine silence morphs to a barrage of barking and bleating. The sheep ebb and flow around us, the dogs now entirely concentrated on their flock.
And then, they are gone… We stand for a moment, happy to have shared a moment of mountain tradition.
Further along the trail, a young marmot dashes helter-skelter down the slope, almost under Duncan’s front wheel. But these mountains are not just about startling panoramas and wildlife. They host a series of stone fortresses and bunkers, some dating back centuries and others more recent: crucial components of the Alpine Line. Established as the south-eastern version of the Maginot Line built to defend north-eastern France, this Petite Ligne Maginot was repeatedly attacked, although never successfully.
We stop at a concrete bunker, le Point d’Appui. In June 1940, 20 French soldiers were installed here to defend the valley against 300 Italians. Inside, the bunker is cold and dark, a single curved chamber with side benches, low tunnels leading to lookout slots. We prowl in silence, then emerge into bright light to see choughs swirling across the brilliant sky; it is hard to reconcile the noise and violence of combat with this serenity.
Later, sprawling on a meadow, we watch a pair of eagles soar. Following their flight, we see another fort on the skyline: the 19th-century stone block of Batterie de Viraysse, one of the highest military posts in France. It is in complete contrast to the next find: a low fort on the edge of the valley, with a deep trench at its back – plus a chimney, stone patio and picket fence. Somehow, a piece of history has become a holiday house.
We spend the night in Saint-Ours, one of the oldest Haute-Ubaye villages. Its water was thought to be miraculous; in 1835 more than 6,000 pilgrims were reported to have visited. In the 19th century, villagers mined red marble and coal, but the story ended badly in the wake of World War II with forced evacuation by the Germans. Today it is tranquil, with picnic benches on a grassy terrace and a gite-auberge enveloped in red geraniums.
In the morning, we ride through forest and around a hillside to face the most famous fort of all. Fort de Tournoux juts from a narrow ridge in a complex staircase of towers, barracks and firing points. Building started in 1843 to defend France against both the Duchy of Savoy and Italy, resulting in ‘the military Versailles of the 19th century’. It housed up to 900 men, with drinking water piped from a distant mountain, and electricity from 1908.
At this stage, L’Alpes-Provence follows the Trans Ubayenne, a 100-kilometre trail from the peaks to Lac de Serre-Poncon. Waymarking avoids the paved road in favour of interesting paths, traversing hamlets set into wooded clefts or on small plateaux. By the time we arrive in Barcelonnette we are full of admiration for the route’s creators.
The main town of Haute-Ubaye, Barcelonnette is full of colour and character. Busy plazas are linked by slim streets with influences from Italy – and Mexico. For a century from 1850, there was a wave of emigration to Central America where fortunes were made in retail and textiles. When Barcelonnettes returned, they used their wealth to build extravagant mansions referred to as Mexican villas, despite being the product of Parisian architects.
The town is a commercial hub and centre for outdoor activities – river sports, cycling and hiking in summer, skiing in winter. We spend a night on the outskirts in Gite l’Eterlou, originally a priory and farm. The dinner table is shared with a group of mountain bikers on a time-pressed itinerary. They are envious of our relaxed approach and offer email addresses so we can tell them ‘what Provence is really like’.
We wake to our last day in Haute-Ubaye under a dream-blue sky, one of its claimed 300 days of annual sunshine.
The route hugs the River Ubaye, an untamed waterway that tumbles for 80 kilometres from Col de Longet to Lac de Serre-Poncon, one of Europe’s largest artificial lakes. In part, it traces the railway that never was: a massive project intended to link Barcelonnette with Chorges, 35 kilometres as the vulture flies but many more by train. Work started in 1909 and was abandoned in 1941, overtaken by road links. Now it is a ghost of tunnels and balconies carved into cliffs, a treat for cyclists and walkers.
On the way, we pause in Meolans- Revel, where a family-owned distillery is making waves. Founded in 1996 by Nicole and Daniel Million Rousseau, Lachanenche (named after their village, on the mountain above the distillery) has gained a name for classic digestifs: genepi, fruit and plant liqueurs, eaux de vie. Now, with their eyes on retirement, they are handing the reins to sons Jerome and Benoit.
Jerome shows us around, his eyes sparkling at the challenge ahead. “We use original distilling equipment – these wooden barrels are from 1907 – and our production is almost entirely organic.
We pick wild flowers in the valley and cultivate the fruits, like raspberries,” he says. “In 2013 we began producing pastis, which has 14 flowers and two spices. We are so proud that it won the gold medal at the Concours General Agricole 2016. And now we are making gin.”
He pours a shot and offers it, neat. “We pick the juniper, add rose petal, elderflower, cardamom, distil it three times…” I am no longer listening, just absorbing the effect of pure gin that tastes of sharp air and sunshine.
Instantly, I buy a bottle, to collect when our expedition is over.
Le Lauzet-Ubaye, the village marking our launchpad from river to mountains, has a pretty lake and exquisite arched bridge, the Pont Romain. It straddles a ravine with smooth, sheer walls, white water churning far below its central arch.
Just over three metres wide and 23 metres long, it is a testimony to medieval stone masonry.
We are about to embark on our biggest day: climbing from the river to the Dormillouse massif, above the ski resort of Montclar. A hefty breakfast is offered at the La Lauzetane hotel, our server nodding appreciatively when we ask for eggs. “Yes. You must have protein to ride a bike this far. But you are going to Montclar? Really, it would be so much easier in a car…”
In cool morning sunshine, we start to climb. Although we have eyed this section with respect, it feels easier than we expected – those eggs, perhaps – and we stop regularly to rest and absorb the view. It grows with every switchback, the peaks changing shape as we gain a bird’s-eye perspective. Butterflies and fuzzy caterpillars give way to Alpine gentians, low juniper bushes and, near the highest point, a wolf dropping stuffed with wool.
Our map shows lakes up here but they are so shallow that all but the largest have evaporated. We meet a shepherd with his dogs and a small flock near Col Bas, our crossing point, resting in a hollow that should have held water. His little A-frame hut sits above the dry lake; it looks an idyllic spot.
The pass is narrow, a window to a new world. On Vubach, the shady side, is Haute-Ubaye with dark rocks, blonde grass and few trees. On the other is I’adret, the sunny face of Provence with lower, rounded hills, wider valleys and a different scent entirely. We learn later that Col Bas was once called Col de Provence, marking its boundary with Savoie from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
The drop to Montclar combines old military pistes – Dormillouse is capped by an eponymous fort, built in 1865 as part of the Southern Alps’ line of defence against Italy – and single track. In 2013, Montclar created a mountain bike park and it is now a summer destination for riders of all levels. Our initial problem is avoiding marmot holes and cow splats, but once we are on the bike trails, it is downhill all the way.
Home for the night is paradise: Domaine de l’Adoux, a family-run hotel in parkland below the resort. Owners Odile and Alain proffer a warm welcome and cold beer, plenty of laughs and incredible food. While Odile heats the sauna for our sore muscles, we chat with walking guide Stephane about bikes, local wildlife and life in the mountains.
By the time we return from the sauna, he has been joined by some mates from Montclar: Laurent, who rents bikes in summer and skis in winter; Franck, a mountain biking baker; and Gaetan from the tourist office, also a keen rider. When the conversation moves to winter sports, our numbers are swelled by Raoul, a skier whom Gaetan has phoned “to join the fun”. It is a spontaneous, memorable evening, although Odile suppresses a smile at our tired faces at breakfast.
Still in the Alpine, but losing altitude, we ride past Lac de Saint-Leger and the remote chapel of Notre-Dame de la Salette, with its separate bell tower.
A long climb on gravel reveals the turreted Montclar chateau, and eventually leads to Seyne-les-Alpes. Draped along a promontory, the town is capped by an imposing medieval fort renovated by the engineer Vauban in the 17th century.
Over a river, up to a pass and down the other side, we roll to the hamlet of Verdaches. In the lower valley are shuttered houses, holiday homes reflecting the short distance to the Cote d’Azur. We stop at Gite de Flagustelle, a school until 1985 but now home to mountain biker Patrick, Alix and their three children. A village hall is being built between church and gite, and the water trough has been renovated; a woman is washing leeks in it. “Of course!” says Alix, when I ask if the village population is sufficient to justify the cost. “We are 60 people here!” The evening table is shared with the family, plus couples from Marseille and Grasse, here for a weekend.
We are only two days’ ride from Digne-les-Bains, and leave Verdaches with a sense of destination. A gentle climb leads to Boullard, its handful of houses stepping down steeply from a pink-painted chapel. In the tiny graveyard are just three headstones, the most recent marked with a cross of twigs from a nearby tree.
At the end of this valley is La Javie, surrounded by orchards and lush growth, watered by two rivers. The contrast with tough forestry and sterile marl is extreme, like dropping into a fruit bowl after traversing a desert. Its hotel is closed, so we follow the braided River Bleone to the remote village of Prads- Haute-Bleone.
Wedged between dramatic peaks, with rock ribs shading ravines, it feels other-worldly. At the entrance is a plaque explaining the discovery in 1996 of a rare ichthyosaurus, a 95-million- year-old dolphin-like creature with horrific teeth. There is also a tall pole with a banner showing the flags of 18 countries. It is a new memorial, to the Germanwings plane brought down in March 2015 on the mountains above Prads.
Francoise welcomes us to Gite de Belle Valette, opposite the memorial, and nods sadly. “It was a terrible thing, no one can possibly understand.” Originally from Marseille, she visited Prads for 35 years before buying the gite six years ago. “There is so much here – mountain bike paths, via ferrata, hiking. We have beautiful lakes too, although I warn you that Lac Eau Chaude is very cold…”
We leave Francoise, her beautiful smile and home-made jams, with reluctance. Her warmth stays with us on the chilly run back to La Javie; the sun won’t breach these ridges until after 10am.
Now, four years after seeing the mountain bike waymarks on the terres noires near Digne, we are about to follow them. Approaching La Javie we greet five women stretching into yoga poses by a river, and a group of hunters discussing tactics. Then we drop on to a trail of pale grey grit, which swoops above river-gouged slots, cuts across crumbling crests and slides down flutes scoured by rare rainfall.
L’Alpes-Provence arrows guide us through Draix and Archail, where churches are festooned with flowers and dogs howl at our approach. We push the bikes up small mountains of black marl, navigate rock steps, and plunge down and down. The terres noires are extraordinary, delicate and savage at the same time. It would be impossible to cross this terrain without the route markings, and by the time we land on the plain beside Digne-les-Bains we are physically and emotionally exhausted.
Freewheeling into the town centre, we spy a bar for a celebratory beer. Careless of traffic, we turn toward it and nearly collide with a car. The driver hits the brakes, then laughs and waves: it is Patrick from Verdaches. It’s a funny old world, when you can ride halfway across one of the biggest and least populated departments in France, and see a familiar face at the end of it. We raise a glass to him, to Alpes-de-Haute Provence, and to the next stage of our journey.