A hike in the French Alps

It’s incredible that you can be in the French Alps after only an hour and a half drive from Cannes—and yet Stephanie and I had never been to the mountains on any of our previous visits. So in preparation for our September trip, we suggested to her mom and aunt that we all visit Saint-Martin-Vésubie and spend a couple of nights at a bed and breakfast there.

Collage of the open drain that runs through Saint-Martin-Vésubie
An open drain runs through the center of Saint-Martin-Vésubie

With the Parc National du Mercantour at our doorstop, Stephanie and I were eager to get in a significant day hike. The owner of the bed and breakfast suggested that we start at La Madone de Fenestre and hike up to the Col de Fenestre on the border with Italy. Most people then turn back, but since Stephanie’s mom and aunt could pick us up with the car, he suggested we continue all the way to the village of Le Boréon, possibly stopping at the Refuge de Cougourde for coffee and blueberry tarts on the way.

Near the trailhead at La Madone de Fenestre
At the start of the hike

So that’s what we set out to do. Chris and Dou-Dou bid us adieu around 10 and we began climbing up the rocky trail. Almost immediately we spotted two screetching chamois chasing two chirping marmots across the alpine scree. Stephanie had told me about these hard-to-spot, European goat/antelopes before (which most North Americans are familiar with in towel-form only), but she’d never been so close to one, let alone two. Even without zoom lenses, we managed to snag some descent shots (after cropping).

Chamois in the French Alps
Can you spot the chamois? (click here for a close up)
Chamois in the French Alps
Can you spot the other chamois? (click here for a close up)
Lac de Fenestre
The Lac de Fenestre below the Col de Fenestre
Lac de Fenestre
Emerald waters of the alpine Lac de Fenestre

We stopped for lunch a few feet into Italy with a tremendous view through the fenestre (or window) towards the plains of Cuneo, over 20 miles (36km) away. The remarkable thing about our unplanned border crossing (unnoticed by all except the cellphone carrier that immediately texted us the Italian rates) were the abandoned WWII-era concrete bunkers (pillboxes, really) with stepped embrasures staring down the trail we’d just come up. On the Italian side, a particularly large bunker with a flat roof played host to a family of bouquetin—wild goats known in English as ibex.

Pillbox at the approach to the Col de Fenestre
Can you spot the pillbox? (Hint: it’s not the square refuge)
A stepped embrasure in a WWII-era pillbox guarding the Col de Fenestre on the French border with Italy
One of the stepped embrasures
Bunker at the Col de Fenestre on the Italian side of the border
Can you spot the alpine ibex? (click here for a close up)
View through the Col de Fenestre towards Cuneo, Italy
View from the Col de Fenestre towards Cuneo, Italy
Stephanie and Justin at the Col de Fenestre
Stephanie and Justin at the Col de Fenestre

From there we headed to the Pas de Ladres (a lesser mountain pass) which dropped down into a natural amphitheater around the Lac de Trecolpas. As we got closer to the lake, we began to hear the sound of bells reverberating off of the mountain walls. Turns out this particular bell choir was being performed by a herd of cattle grazing around the lake.

Trail towards the Pas de Ladres
Serpentine trail heading towards the Pas de Ladres
Lac de Trecolpas
Picturesque Lac de Trecolpas
Alpine cows at the Lac de Trecolpas
Picturesque alpine cows (click here for the cowbell choir)

As delightful as it sounded to have coffee and blueberry tarts in the midst of the Alps, the detour to reach the refuge would have added at least an hour to our hike, which our sore muscles vetoed. We had started at an elevation of 6,266ft (1,910m) and reached a peak of 8,195ft (2,498m) but would end at 5,301ft (1,616m), almost a thousand feet below where we started. So we trudged onward, down through the forests surrounding Le Boréon, finally ending up, auspiciously, in front of a vacherie, where we treated ourselves to a wedge of their unnamed alpine cheese.

Map and elevation cross-section of our hike from La Madone de Fenestre to the Col de Fenestre, ending in Le Boréon
Map and elevation cross-section of our hike

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