With peaks soaring to more than 3,000 metres in height, numerous glacial lakes and six individualistic and unique valleys, the Mercantour National Park is an exquisite destination, and just an hour away from the coast. This is the last bastion of the Alps, where they finally surrender to the Mediterranean Sea. And it is this juxtaposition of a maritime and alpine climate that influences the uniqueness and diversity of the landscapes and the Park's flora (over 2,000 plant species) and fauna (58 species of mammals, and 153 species of bird).
As elsewhere across Europe, the imprint of Man adds to the richness of Nature, and adds to the cultural heritage of a remarkable region. Lovers of wildlife will have their appetites satiated here: chamois, ibex and mouflon inhabit the crags of mountainsides, while the forest provide shelter for red deer, roe deer and wild boar. Elsewhere, you hear the pert whistle of marmot, or may catch a glimpse of mountain hare and stoat, the latter dressed up in its winter coat of ermine.
Mountain bike descent of the Alpine slopes leading to the Val d'Allos 1500 (Le Seignus) ski resort © Atout France/Robert Palomba
Walkers in the Vésubie valley © Atout France/Martine Prunevieille
Among the valleys – Ubaye, Verdon, Var, Cians, Tinée, Vésubie and Roya-La Bévéra – the proximity to the Côte d'Azur adds the fragrances, aromatic and sensual, of Provence, the Alps and Italy. Above those valleys fly some of the largest birds in the world: the bearded vulture and the griffon vulture both of which, remarkably, had disappeared from the Alps before the start of the 20th century. They were finally accorded the status of protected species in 1981, and griffon vultures reintroduced in the gorges du Verdon in early 1996. The golden eagle flies here, too, and while great in size, seems small compared to the vultures.
Wolves can be found here, too. These dynamic beasts were once present throughout Europe, but were victims of a campaign to exterminate them, resulting in their final disappearance from France in the 1930s. In 1992, one lone intrepid wolf ventured into Mercantour from Italy, and since then, wolves have been colonising the Alps, resulting in an estimated 30 animals in Mercantour alone.
Shepherd's hut facing Lake Encombrette © Atout France/Robert Palomba