Have you ever dreamed about finding a piece of preserved wilderness, a hidden place that would not be too far from home but that would somehow, magically, be overlooked by the hordes of tourists and give you the feeling that you’re almost alone with the grandeur of nature?
Last spring, a couple of friends invited my boyfriend and I for the chance to discover such a place between
the alpine peaks and the smells of Provence, the Hautes Alpes region provided us with a well-deserved break, amazing sport activities and long-lasting memories.
It all started at the airport of Marseille where our friends met us with the car. An hour and a half later, we arrived at our destination, right on the border between the departments of Drome Provencale and the Hautes Alpes, half-way between Gap and Montelimar, lies an amazingly beautiful and preserved regional wildlife reserve called “les Baronnies”. If you’ve never heard of it, neither did we… But we were in for a treat!
Our friends had surprised us by booking two cabins at Terre des Baronnies, an exceptional site in the heart of this region. It is run by Bruno and Aline, a super welcoming couple from Champagne who decided to settle in this region a few years ago.
As we were getting the luggage out of the car, we were struck by the views and a bunch of vultures circling in the sky on the other side of the valley caught our attention. Bruno explained that they were probably attracted by the carcass of a boar or some other animal. There were at least 8 or 9 vultures and more were coming. Apparently they can detect a carcass at a distance of dozens of kilometers.
Our hosts welcomed us with homemade organic lemonade, iced tea and delicious little treats before showing us around.
Terre des Baronnies is a typical « Provencal » hamlet, where the first stone was laid in the sixteenth century. The whole place is simple and elegant at the same time, with beautiful thick stone walls, wooden beams, a traditional bread oven, all adding to the aesthetics of the place. A swimming pool and a wood-fired hot tub were added by the current owners.
The real perk of the place is the half-dozen wooden cabins scattered in the property. Each of them is named after a constellation and they are all different: Cepheus looks like a Canadian trapper’s cabin at the edge of a pine grove; Perseus is ideal for wildlife observation as it is perched on stilts and is equipped with a roof-terrace overlooking the treetops; etc.
All of the cabins have comfortable bedding, creative furniture, a terrace and electricity but no running water (a small tank is available in the cabin to brush your teeth and the toilet is a dry one… But showers can be taken near the swimming pool) and, of course, no TV or wifi. But who needs that in such a beautiful and serene environment?
In the afternoon, we decided to explore the surroundings and, guided by a friend of Bruno and Aline, a specialist of wild plants, went on a “picking walk”. Spring is the perfect season to pick wild flowers and we had no idea that so many are actually edible. Back at the guesthouse, we used them to prepare delectable cheeseballs which became a perfect snack for the appetizer.
For the evening dinner, we had booked the “table d’hote” that Aline is preparing at Terre des Baronnies and had one of the best meals we ever had. Joined by other guests at a big table on the main terrace, the set menu was composed of mostly locally grown products including epeauzotto, a kind of risotto made of spelt (epeautre in French) and the most tender and delicious lamb meat. To accompany these great dishes, a selection of fine wine is available “à la carte”.
The next morning, our friends suggested a walk in the “Gorges de la Méouge”. It is a 7-kilometre long gorge carved by the Méouge river through the limestone rock of the region. The lime colored gorge has wild shapes, small sandy beaches, huge polished pebbles, water holes and waterfalls.
Guided by our friends, we walked up and down the gorgeous gorges (pun intended), the air was charged by the scents of the many aromatic herbs growing all over the place… we saw many small animals and an interesting mix of alpine and Provencal plants, each finding their place according to soil and exposure to the sun.
It was a bit early in the season to go swimming but there was such great weather that day! After a couple of hours of sportive walk, we could not resist it and took a dip in one of the many water holes filled with fresh blue water descending directly from the mountains around.
After a nice lunch, time to try something new! Have you ever heard of quad-bikes? They are basically bikes with four wheels and are the new rage as a summer activity in the alps. Fun, comfortable, safe and accessible to all, they do provide great sensations and a rush of adrenaline when you ride them down a mountain! We started from the top of the Charbe mountain, which is also a famous take-off site for para-gliders and offers the best views on the surrounding areas.
We spent the next night in the more conventional hotel “Les Peupliers” which offers the cosy comfort of a mountain chalet and is situated in Baratier, a little village close to the town of Embrun and the ski resort Les Orres in Hautes-Alpes. Exhausted by all the activities of the day, the hotel spa and hammam was the perfect way to relax before a good night sleep.
The next day was all about water fun! Very close to Embrun, on the southern edge of the Hautes Alpes region, lies the beautiful lake of Serre-Ponçon. It’s actually an artificial lake created by a dam on the Durance river to produce electricity. It is also a great base for all kinds of water sports and, with the sun on our side, we could not resist trying a few including sea kayaking, stand up paddling and a ride on a kind of giant buoy pulled by a speedboat… Lots of fun! All the fun you can have at the sea, except here you have fresh and clean water, and no big crowds. Love it!
For our last day, we had planned an excursion on e-mountain-bikes (electric mountain bikes). I did not quite like the idea of biking up a mountain but, with electric assistance, I was all for it! Unfortunately the weather was not on our side that morning so we had to make do with another round at the spa and another delicious lunch… not bad after all!
As it was already time to say goodbye, I noticed how happy and relaxed we all looked compared to just 3 days ago. The Hautes Alpes were a delightful discovery and we both really enjoyed the long week-end. I hope you will have the same opportunity! If you are stressed out and need a break, this is not a piece of advice, this is a prescription.
For more info about the destination cick here.
Image source:Hautes Alpes Tourism Board
Written by Thierry van Eyll
Pictures by Thierry van Eyll, Boutin and AB Boizet.