The highest paved road in Europe
Welcome back from Summer everyone! I hope that you’re not suffering too much from being back at work/school and knowing that the Summer’s over for another year (except you guys down in the Southern part of the world……you’ve got it all to look forward to very soon!). During the Summer we took a few days to go sightseeing in our backyard. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about some of the places we saw. Don’t worry…..there will still be recipes scattered through the travel posts! This post is all about one single pass in the mountains in the South-East of France. It’s a very important one as, thanks to a little trick that I’ll explain about in a minute, it’s the highest paved mountain pass in Europe: the Col de la Bonette.
Spectacular views, dizzying drops, and paving tricks
La Col de la Bonette became the highest asphalted road in Europe thanks to some clever people adding a loop road at the top of the pass. It’s a short scenic drive that you can take once you get to the top that climbs almost another 100 metres higher than the “real” road, which then gives the Col de la Bonette the award of being the highest pass. I told you it was tricky! The original pass is already at just over 2700m (8800 feet), which is already plenty high enough as far as I’m concerned! We left from Jausiers in the Vallée de l’Ubaye and headed over the Col de la Bonette towards the sea (and home) through Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée in the Tinée Valley. There are no photos going up the spectacular winding road on the Jausiers side as I was freaking out in the passenger seat of the car all the way up. The road is actually very wide and two-laned, but if you drive up from the Ubaye side, you are always on the “outside” lane of the road. There are no barriers and there is a drop down to nothingness, so if you suffer even slightly from vertigo (as I do), you will be almost sitting in the lap of the person driving (as I did). The best thing to do to combat this fear is to drive (or if you’re crazy, cycle) up from the Tinée valley side as the road on that side winds through mountain fields, so that it’s not scary!
At the top of the col de la Bonette, you can go even higher
At the top, you can park your car on the side of the road and walk for a few minutes up to the peak of La Bonette to get an incredible 360 degree view. I have to take the word of my husband and boys for this bit, because at the moment we arrived at the top, my nerves were so jangled that I wasn’t quite ready to go even higher. I do regret the fact that I didn’t walk up now though as the photos they took are fabulous. The path is easy and wide…….next time I’ll do it!
Discovering abandoned bunkers, and torturous trails
The mountains all through this area have been borderlands for centuries, so there are many ruined forts and bunkers to be discovered. The photos above are on the road on the way down the pass towards St-Etienne-de-Tinée. These are ruins of army barracks left over from WWII. You can park here and walk for five minutes to get yet another spectacular view from this bunker ruin below over a hidden valley that can only be reached by hiking down a steep, torturous trail. We saw people heading off to hairpin down into the valley while we were enjoying the view from the top, and searching for marmots. They were already looking a little worried…..probably thinking of the fact that the trail they were now plummeting down would be the one they would have to take to get out of the valley again at the end of the day. There’s nothing more dispiriting than a hike that starts by going down for miles.
How to find marmots
So, as I was saying, instead of hiking, we searched for marmots, and marmots we found! You can see one fat one in the photo below. It was crouched in the grass watching out for all the eagles who were soaring on the wind currents above us. Our mountaineering neighbour told us that if you want to see marmots in the mountains, you have to be hiking around before 10 am, otherwise, they all disappear into their burrows once it gets too hot for them. He was right! On this trip we managed to drag ourselves out of bed early every day and we saw whole cities of marmots running around and whistling at each other where-ever we went.
Watch out for stray motorbikes
If you are driving over the Col de la Bonette, one thing to watch out for are cyclists and motorbikes…….both of them tend to often cut the corners as though they are on some kind of private race-track or doing the Tour de France. Coming around a corner and finding a bike that’s wandered over to your side of the road (yes, it happened to us) will definitely give you an adrenaline rush all the way over the pass.
Where to stop to eat a delicious crepe
We stopped in the pretty village of Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée for a well-deserved lunch once we got down the other side of the Col de la Bonette. The village is a mixture of renovated and run-down; a muddle of mountain-house and colourful Ligurian-style buildings. It truely shows the different influences of the regions that surround it. We ate on this pretty terrace below at great creperie called Le Chamois d’Or (The Golden Mountain-Goat) and drank some calming cider to go with the crepes.
The Col de la Bonette is only open in the Summer months (for obvious reasons!). It’s only an hour and a half from Nice, so if you’re on the Cote d’Azur and want something different than beaches for a day, it makes a fabulous day- or overnight- trip. Don’t forget to bring some warm clothes! Your bathing-suit won’t cut it at nearly 3000 metres.
This post is part of a linkup on this month on Lou Messugo. Go check out Phoebe’s blog to read all sorts of interesting things about visiting France.
By Lisa Watson