The village of Vallouise is at the centre of many cross-country ski trails. The winter landscape is very different from summer — see my earlier article. The places where people used to grow crops and hay for cattle in the summertime are now covered with snow. “La plaine” (the plain) is an almost flat beginner track with very mild slopes and beautiful vistas toward the village. One of the local bars is home to an excellent brewery.
The Chalets are now surrounded with snow, with logs stored for winter. The fountains are utterly frozen. If you look at the chapel, you’ll notice a sundial. These are quite popular in the valley and often adorn south-facing houses and churches. The tradition dates back to the sixteenth century but sundials became popular in the nineteenth century when the Piedmont artist named Giovanni Francesco Zarbula crossed the border with France and rejuvenated the tradition.
The most beautiful ski trail is called “l’onde” (the gurgling river), which leads to le vallon des Bans. The track offers beautiful views of the mountains and the river but, unfortunately, it does not go deep into the valley due to avalanches. The accumulated snow offers imaginary animals that you may spot when the track just overlooks the river.
Freissinières is not really a village but, rather, a gathering of hamlets in the vale and on the slopes of the mountain. It lies 13 miles south of Vallouise. The village is named after the ashes that cover both sides of the mountain. It was first populated in prehistorical times and, according to local history, Hannibal and his elephants are said to have crossed the vale. The village is one of the last protestant habitations in the area; you won’t find a roman catholic church anywhere. It is now a secluded village which hosts an international ice-climbing competition every January. The vale offers a beautiful ski trail, running on both side of the river.
The village of Nevache lies 25 miles west of Vallouise on the French-Italian border. It is a popular cross-country ski destination in the area with approximately 60 miles of ski tracks. It’s a wonderful place to go snow-shoeing or back-country skiing. The area homes a peak quite similar to the Fitz Roy in Patagonia.
However, this village is unusual because it was part of the Republic of the Escartons. This was a special political status granted to villages on both sides of the French-Italian border between 1343 and the French Revolution in 1789. These villages were granted an autonomous government with elected representatives in feudal times. They adopted a charter in 1343 and were given the possibility to elect their representatives to rule their villages rather than being ruled by a local noble landlord. The other distinctive feature is the number of steeples that you find in the area — with four small steeples on either side of the main one. These small pinnacles are said to represent the four counties of “la république des Escartons”.
The ski trails and backcountry ski opportunities are limitless. You pass old chalets on either of the river Clarée, which is considered as one of the most beautiful highland rivers in the Alps. Footprints in the show of remote locations point to chamois, foxes and even winter hares. Nevache is the last stop of a long cross-country trail, usually covered in six or seven days of backcountry skiing, linking different villages of the Escartons on both sides of the French-Italian border.
Le Col de la Pousterle
This is my favourite cross-country ski trail, through the Pousterle pass. It takes about three hours to ski up to the plateau near the pass but it is definitely worth the effort. The plateau is covered with a larch wood and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys. I particularly like the dead larch trees that stand against the sky, acting as guardians of that unspoilt place.
Cervières and la Vallée des Fonts
This is another section of the Escartons ski trail on the French-Italian border. The starting point lies 18.5 miles from Vallouise. Cervières is also at the bottom of the famous Tour de France pass, Col de l’Izoard. Unfortunately, the village has had a sad history when it was largely destroyed in August 1944. The nearest summit is Le Chenaillet (some 2650 metres high) which was originally a volcano at the bottom of an ocean, 155 million years back in time before the Alps were shaped.
The Chenaillet is a geological curiosity, being an ancient submarine volcano as old as 155 million years, which was uplifted to its present location during the Alpine orogeny. On the slopes of the Chenaillet are well distinguishable pillow lavas and ophiolite rocks. These features are explained on a geological foothpath reaching the summit of the mountain by some didactic panels both in French and in Italian.Source: Wikipedia
The valley is long and you encounter old hamlets which are inhabited in the summer by shepherds with their flocks of sheep. In winter, a wonderful ski trail links all the villages
Most images in this article were taken with a Ricoh GRD 3 or a GXR with the 28mm module. One of the difficulties of making images in such conditions comes from the fact that to keep the camera warm you tend to have it close to your body. Consequently, some condensation gets into the camera and the lens. A sort of misty circle appears in some images but everything can be fixed afterwards with some desiccant in the battery compartment in the camera.