Hiking the High Country ofHaute Provence

Hiking the High Country ofHaute Provence

By Julie Ihle

The little blue berry in my mouth tastes like gin. Tour guide Marine giggles, “it is juniperberry, which forms the basis of gin”, she explains.

The abundance of Provence knows no bounds: olives, herbs, citrus and did I mention wine? No wonder Provence has attracted outsiders for eons, most famously the Romans. They named the area Roman Provence, later shortened to Provence, and established towns, all with lavish Roman trappings. TodayProvence is synonymous with the French version of the good life, which is very good indeed.

We are hiking inAlpes-de-Haute-Provence in Forcalquier, away from the hordes of tourists but with a plethora of charming villages, authentic markets and wraparound views of the countryside. Bordered to the west by the Luberon area and the south by Aix-en-Provence, Haute Provence comes within pentanque-throwing distance of the Alps and its towns have an edge-of-the-world feel.

The main centre is Forcalquier, a delightful medieval hilltop town. We arrive on market day and findProvence’s biggest and most authentic market in full swing. The band is playing in the main square, traffic is closed off and all the French foodie favourites are there: lavender, nougat, cheese, cured meats and fruit and vegetables straight from the farm.

Marine, our local guide, takes us on a brief mosey around town and describes with almost un-French enthusiasm the town’s history.

In the Middle Ages Forcalquier was the capital of Haute-Provence and even minted its own currency. Its legacy of fabulous buildings, including Notre Dame Cathedral, Cordeliers Convent (which now houses the European University of Scents & Flavours) and the carillon is a testament to its epic past. Over time Provence’s power base moved south and west and Forcalquier fell from grace. But today this perfectly preserved village is renowned as one of Provence’s most beautiful towns and attracts many writers and artists. It hosts scoresof the region’s most fabulous festivals, including Festival of the Book and CookSound, a music and gastronomy extravaganza. It is also a good base for exploring upper Provence on foot.

With a car and a little research it’s easy to walk independently. However, if you prefer someone else to do the legwork and enjoy a group dynamic, British company HF Holidaysrun walking tours in Provence,based in Gréoux-les-Bains, an hour north-east of Aix-en-Provence.

The walking is fairly straightforward with a choice of an easy/moderate walk or a hard walk each day and a rest and relaxation day. Every day we see a new aspect of Provence, whether it’s a walk through wild gorges, a markettown orclassic lavender fields.

A walk straight out of the Provence playbook sets the scene for the week. Valensole, a typical hilltop village, gives way to gently undulating countryside, especially made for an idle wander. We amble past neat rows of lavender bookended by low-slung hills and past remote hamlets before edging up to a plateau, with a panorama stretching to the pre-Alps. Then it’s time to hightail it back to Valensole for a post-walk pastis.

There are other unexpected delights. There are fascinating medieval, medicinal and aromatic gardens at the ancient Benedictine Abbey of Salagon, very much in keeping with Provence’s leading role in perfumery.

Another hillside surprise is Bories, as they are known in the local dialect. These strange stone yurt-shaped buildings were once used by shepherds. They gave shelter against both the cold and the heat and were the ideal place for a siesta and today are used by families for picnics.

As well as its unusual buildings and charming villages, Haute Provence offers fascinating glimpses of the sometimes elusive wild France. As we follow the banks of the Verdon River, passing immense limestone rocks created from centuries of water and wind erosion, our guide points out pre-historic caves high on the cliffs. The area’s primeval history is detailed in the truly excellent Museum of Prehistory of the Gorges du Verdon at Quinson.

For me the highlight wastraversing craggy ridges with stupendous views of Lac de Sainte-Croix,followed by walking on an old Roman road to one of France’s most charming villages, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. This atmospheric village, divided in half by a gushing mountain stream, is famous for a gold-painted iron star suspended on a heavy chainon the steep ridges above the village. Legend has it this was erected by the Duke ofBlacas to give thanks for returning safely from the Crusades, after being taken prisoner.

Apart from the awe-inspiring scenery, one of the best things about hiking in Provence is the excuse to indulge in the best of Provincial cuisine. The area is known for its tapenades, olive oilsand goat’s milk cheeses. Mediterranean vegetable dishes like artichoke braised in white wine and the famous ratatouille reign supreme. There are other surprisestoo,like almond cookies, more reminiscent of Italian biscotti than French pastries. The fast food speciality of Provence is, of course,pissaladière, a thick pizza dough topped with olives, anchovies, garlic and capers, which is as delicious as it sounds.

As always in France, it’s the little things that add to the beauty of the landscape. The delights of the patisserie or the marking of time of the church bells,which when juxtaposed with dramatic scenery make hiking in wild Provence such a joy.

Fact File

HF Holidays runs walking holidays to Upper Provence, based in Gréoux -les-Bains for 7 nights from A$1770. www.hfholidays.co.uk

For the independent traveller, a range of self-guided walking tours in Provence are offered by Inn Travel www.inntravel.co.uk with bespoke accommodation.

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