The Mercantour National Park hugs the Italian border in south-eastern France, north of the Côtes d’Azur. It includes the spectacular natural landscape of the Alpes-Maritimes in the south and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in the north.
It is traversed by winding roads that hug the steep sides of its valleys.
Many of these roads lead to more than 600km of marked footpaths that wind across its unspoilt landscape. It’s a paradise for ramblers and cyclists.
Some of the climbs are steep but the view from the top is always well worth the effort. This is a view from the Cime du Gélas, which at 3143 m is the third highest mountain in the Alpes-Maritimes.
At the heart of the Park is a protected and uninhabited area that covers some 685 km². This not only includes peaks but also seven long valleys, dotted by deep Alpine lakes. This valley, the famous Vallée des Merveilles (the aptly named ‘Valley of Marvels’), is listed as a national historic monument.
Some of Mercantour’s valleys are partially accessible by road, like this one leading to the head of the Vallon de Casterine. Looking at the sheer sides of the valley, it is easy to imagine the great herds of wild ibex and chamois that once made this region their home.
The long history of territorial exchange between France and Italy is remembered in the landscape of Mercantour. On this steep climb, where you may feel very much like a chamois picking your way from rock to rock, barren peaks of the Alpes-Maritime give way to the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. For almost a century and a half this path was close to the Italian border.
The top of the climb brings you to one of the infantry forts that during the Second World War made up a chain of defences across the French Alpine border known as the Little Maginot Line (to distinguish it from the Maginot Line bordering Germany in the north). This is abandoned fort at the Cime de Pelousette was a scene of intense fighting.
Among the towns to return to French territory after the conflicts was Tende. Today, like other small towns and villages nestled between steep-sided valleys, or clinging onto hillsides, it makes up one of the gateways to the Park.
Hairpins anyone? While others miss all the sights by taking the Col de Tendre tunnel to cross the border to Italy, here you can snake up the steep sides of the Vallon Romanin on the La Ça Canelle.
By staying in the Park and climbing ever higher into the mountains you can get the very best of both France and Italy. Here from the Tête de l'Enchastray, right on the Italian border, you can get a bird’s-eye view into both countries, with the splendours of the Mercantour National Park spreading out beneath your feet.