Sisteron: from the Alps to the garrigue

The neat but ruined 11th century Chapelle Saint Donat
The neat but ruined 11th century Chapelle Saint Donat

As we drive away from Barcelonnette heading south towards Sisteron, the landscape gradually changes. The mountains are softer, less mineral, greener. The forests, fields and orchards tell us we are slowly entering Provence. Deciduous oak gives way to the shorter, evergreen oak and Provençal pine, and we see the first olive groves; the houses take on a paler shade of ochre, their roofs covered with terracotta tiles rather than flat stone.

We are taking the picturesque route, winding our way down on B roads through mountain passes and hillside villages. Occasionally there are signs for small, almost unknown, ski resorts such as Montclar, reminding us we haven’t quite left the Alps yet. This J-shaped itinerary involves going as far south as Dignes and then, as we reach the Durance valley, veering west and back up north to Sisteron.

From that point, we’re traveling partly on the ‘Route Napoléon’, the road which the former emperor, having escaped from Elba in early 1815, took to avoid running into the royalist troops in lower Provence on his way up to Waterloo.

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Barcelonnette: from the Ubaye valley to Mexico and back

Villa Puebla: one of the few dozens of 19th century 'Mexican' villas
Villa Puebla: one of the few dozens of 19th century ‘Mexican’ villas

Godfather P wastes no time in going up to the youthful-looking stallholder to say he recognises him from a television programme. Local fruit farmer Nicolas Tron is, after all, partly responsible for our visit to Barcelonnette, the town in the Ubaye valley, in the Alpes de Haute Provence, famous for its so-called Mexican villas.

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Grenoble: like a foretaste of Provence in the Alps

Geography lesson: the café at Grenoble's art museum
Geography lesson: the café at Grenoble’s art museum

All that’s left for breakfast is French toast and muffins. I look at the waiter, then at the muffins, and at the waiter again. We’re not especially late but the café, just off the main drag in Grenoble, has run out of croissants and fresh bread. It looks a friendly place, with a nice terrace getting the morning sunshine, and it would be a shame to leave. I turn inquisitively to godfather P and Dr K who appear just as disappointed. Before we have to make up our mind whether to settle for what’s on offer, the waiter volunteers to pop over to the baker’s around the corner. A few minutes later we’re sitting down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a large cup of coffee, and half a fresh baguette each with butter and jam. It’s an auspicious start for our two-day stay, the first stopover on our way to Haute Provence, near Apt.

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Round the Mont Roup

Walking across towards the Sana
Walking past the Sana towards Mont Roup

Just further on from the Val d’Isere classic Tour du Charvet, the Tour du Mont Roup has been on my list of short treks since the beginning of the season – for several seasons, in fact. I got close a few times but weather conditions and other circumstances kept getting in the way, until yesterday, when guide Chris said the words: “Right, today we’re going to the Mont Roup”.

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From couloir du Mont Blanc to Cugnai

Returning from Cugnai: ferme de l'Arcelle
Returning from Cugnai: ferme de l’Arsellaz

Yesterday’s miles of skinning are already a distant memory. Today, we’re skiing; just skiing. After a less than auspicious start –  from the top of Bellevarde down the Super-Santons on yet-untransformed snow and amid brown grassy patches – we headed back up the hill, then through the jardins de Borsat, across to the Charvet and down a depleted but good couloir du Mont Blanc. Once again, with snow being in limited supply, guide Chris ushered us about the mountain in an attempt to avoid crowds, and mostly, as usual, he succeeded .

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Skinning up to the glacier Pers

Skinning up to the Glacier Pers
Skinning up to the Glacier Pers

The north-west wind was still blowing in big gusts over the hill. Overnight it had pushed snow around and further sculpted the upper layers into crinkled sheets. Banks of clouds were sweeping across the surrounding peaks. As the morning began to unfold, the main question was to figure out which parts of the mountain would be most sheltered. In the end, we opted for Glacier Pers. The upper lifts had remained shut because of the wind, so from the Signal drag, we began the long traverse behind the Rochers Pers and above the Lechoir.

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Powder alert over the Iseran

Above the sea of clouds at Pays Desert
Above the sea of clouds at Pays Desert

We were knee-deep in powder, sometimes almost up to the waist, and the tips of our skis occasionally blasted big chunks of snow over our heads. We knew there would be fresh stuff up in the Iseran area after yesterday’s near-uninterrupted snow falls, but that much snow, well, this was an unexpected treat.

Of course we weren’t the only ones eager to taste the powder, so the drill this morning was to keep moving. This meant fewer photo opportunities, as Chris ushered us around to make first tracks down the Combe du Signal, followed by three runs down Pays Désert and finally across to the Col Pers. It was already busy around Pers by that point but Chris miraculously produced some untracked expanses down the Grand Torsai area, just above the gorges de Malpasset.

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Chamois at the Chardonnet bowl

Small herd of chamois above the Chardonnet bowl
Small herd of chamois above the Chardonnet bowl

The promised snow only started falling earlier this morning, with clouds coming down low in resort and closing visibility for most of the day. Stuff on the hill had hardened overnight in a lot of places and the lack of sunshine meant it wasn’t transforming into soft spring snow. It was ‘survival skiing’: you couldn’t see where you were going and the legs took a prolonged battering on icy slopes. But we saw a small herd of chamois just above us in the Chardonnet bowl, standing quite close and not as shy as they usually are. It made up for everything else.

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Spring snow at the Sachette

Hiking up to Col de la Sachette
Hiking up to Col de la Sachette

There was a lot less snow on the hike up to the Col de la Sachette today than a few days ago, but at least we could see where we were going and the sun came out too. Surprisingly, there was some lovely untracked – wind-blown – powder. On our way back, Andreas took us over to the Aiguille Percée, along the corniche, and down to Tignes again on transformed spring snow – a few times.

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