Saturday, October 20, 2012

The French Riviera: It's also about the Alps!

Discovering the mountains above Nice!
This past summer, one of my goals was to make it to the mountains about an hour North of Nice that constitute the Parc National du Mercantour. This banana-shaped national park makes for the Southern part of the Alps, and is shared with Italy.

Luckily I discovered that the local regional council had set up a few buses to reach mountain resorts and trail heads during the summer. These were still running during September, albeit on weekends only.

So about a month ago now I sat on a bus that took me –and only 5 other persons– to the picturesque Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage village. The bus would park up there for the day and come back down to Nice at the end of the afternoon. Roundtrip cost: 5 euros - can't beat that!

Church in Saint-Dalmas

It was a beautiful Saturday, but I only met a few other hikers, including a local who actually drove me to the trailhead that the bus was supposed to drop us at...

I hiked all the way to the Col de Gialorgues, a pass at 2,519 meters altitude (~ 8,000 feet). Nothing by Colorado standards for sure, but when you come from sea level, it's quite some elevation gain! It's actually the same elevation gain as when you live in Boulder and go up a fourteener. You just have more oxygen in the end ;-)

I was actually quickly above tree line and the landscape was just as stunning as when going to Rocky Mountain National Park when living in Boulder. I sort of expected to find decent mountains because after all there are plenty of ski resorts not far from Nice, but actually being there in person to see that was a profound revelation!

Another revelation followed upon my return to Nice. As I told my parents on the phone what I did during the weekend, I was surprised to hear my dad tell me his parents would take him to that same village on vacation in the late 1940s, early 1950s! I knew my dad had grown up in Nice, but I also knew he did not particularly like mountains. I guess at that young age he did not have a choice! Doesn't seem that it's not because he went there on vacation as a kid that he does not like mountains though - he actually had a few stories like going up to the mountain refuge on the back of a donkey...

Anyway, this place is beautiful and with the luscious waters and these stunning mountains, C and I feel quite blessed to be living in this area!

Sheep: white; Dogs: black; Shepherd: blue – herding sheep again a serious business since wolves were reintroduced in the Mercantour in 1992

Blue but not a Columbine (nor a shepherd...)
Quite reminiscent of Lake Haiyaha!

Corsican wonders

Marina in Porto Vecchio
Living in a place like Nice —a vacation spot for many— raised the question for us about where WE would go on vacation ;-) After going North to Alsace when everybody was going South, we went South ourselves a few weeks later, to beautiful Corsica.
Leaving Nice by boat...
Corsica is about 6 hours by boat from Nice, depending on where you aim to arrive in Corsica. We arrived in Bastia after our boat ride was delayed because of bad weather. Actually we later learned that during the first half of our week it would rain in Corsica as much as it normally rains in a month... We could have expected it from the dark weather in Nice on the day of our departure.
La Cote d'Azur se prend pour le Danemark ;-)
In Corsica we stayed near a town called Porto Vecchio on the South-East side of the island. We chose that area as our first visit (in 25 years for me...) because of its concentration of pristine beaches and the vicinity of Bonifacio, a town built on white cliffs above the sea. Bonifacio is built on the Southern most tip of Corsica, only 18 km away from the Italian island Sardinia.

For those interested, the 100th Tour de France next year will start from Porto Vecchio, so you'll see more of it then I am sure!
View from the old town in Porto Vecchio
It's just darn so hard to live off local olives, olive oil, bread and cheese...
The not-so-great weather at the beginning of our stay precluded us from discovering the pristine beaches around. We did go to Bonifacio on a rainy afternoon though and enjoyed the surprisingly still not too touristy town. The contrast between the blue/green of the water and the white cliffs was stunning, even on a rainy day.
Bonifacio on a rainy day: Could substitute for Southern England perhaps?
We also opted for a day in the mountains nearby, up to a small town called L'Ospedale. The sky was definitely grey, which meant we could not enjoy the panoramic views on the coastline, but it was one of these days when the mountains put on their "Borneo" costume (just Google Borneo and look at Images). I tremendously enjoyed the vivid shades of green, yellow, red, and ochre in the forest as well. I half expected I would encounter a centaur or an elf...
Corsica, not Borneo
We also enjoyed a hearty lunch of wild board stew and polenta up there; wild boars are everywhere in Corsica, and hunting season was open (even right by our doorstep as it turned out...). We also did a small trip to the lake up there, which was truly reminiscent of sceneries in Colorado.
Lake at L'Ospedale
We discovered a patch of ripe blackberries by the roadside, so we treated ourselves to a good 2 pounds of these...
Blackberries by the lake

"Is there gonna be enough?"
And then the sun came out again! We were a couple of kilometers up the road from the popular Palombaggia beach, but we actually ended up preferring the next one over, Acciaggju (not sure about the spelling, but actually often mistaken for Palombaggia on the web). When we asked the Corsican owner for the beach that he liked most around, that's what he recommended, and he was right.
The Acciaggju beach at sunset
That beach was not just beautiful, it was peaceful too. Fewer people and boats. The water was still and the snorkeling by the tiny island made of round boulders was just outstanding. I even got to swim with one of these black birds that swims under water to catch fish. He did not seem to really mind my presence and I noticed he could stay under water for quite a while! A flying fish came to show off just for the tourists as well :-)
Round boulders at Acciaggju

Turquoise waters at Acciaggju
A colorful flying fish
Hey, I like it there!
On our last full day in the area, we opted for a boat tour all the way down to the Lavezzi islands via Bonifacio. A couple of companies offer such tours from Porto Vecchio, we just picked the family-owned one that had a smaller boat and the most promising lunch option...

This trip was fantastic as the pictures will attest. Enjoy!
The Corsican coastline – about 100 of these towers surround Corsica, they were used to signal arrivals to the island

Getting closer to Bonifacio...

Much closer!

Here's Bonifacio – the overhang is 15 meters out and over the sea
Heading out to the Lavezzi islands

A last look at Bonifacio
Life's hard —"where are the olives?"— but I know how to keep a smile on my face
The Lavezzi islands – these grey boulders seemingly out of nowhere (or out of the blue ;-) were stunning on their own, but the underwater views and the incredible amount of fish would just blow your mind! Lavezzi are a natural reserve, and one can appreciate the difference!
After a lake from Colorado... rocks from Utah?