Day 18 — July 18, 1996 (Thursday)
18.07.1996 - 19.07.1996
Slept late and had a leisurely breakfast. Ed decided he didn’t want to do as much driving today so we would explore the Parc National du Mercantour at our doorstep. First stop was the park office in Barcelonnette where we got a couple brochures with pretty minimal maps.
After one wrong turn, we landed on the D902 out of Barcelonnette and drove through the Gorges du Bachelard. The scenery was beautiful but the road was very narrow. This, combined with the French dislike of guard rails and penchant for driving with the left wheel over the center line, made for rather exciting driving — especially with a drop of a thousand feet if you went off the road. (Did I mention the French don’t believe in shoulders on their roads?!)
It really was beautiful, and there were very few people on the road. Most were very polite and whoever was on the inside pulled over. There were lots of torrents and most had a waterfall. We stopped and photographed some of them. World's Most Spectacular Roads web site
We stopped for a sandwich at Guillaumes at a little sidewalk café across from the City Fountain. It was cool and pleasant. Leaving town, I told Ed to turn toward Valberg. As it turned out, I was one turn too soon and we ended up in Péone which is lovely but not where we wanted to be. Having no choice, we continued through Péone and on to Valberg the long way. We got on the D30 where we should have been and drove to Saint- Sauveur-sur-TInée where we turned north.
Passed through major ski areas that were overrun with zillions of tourists and tacky pseudo chalets on shorn mountainsides. We were glad to get past that at Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée (although our pretty-decent road ended there too!) We found ourselves on the Col de la Bonette. The two-kilometer-long teardrop shaped loop around the Cime de la Bonette peak is the highest paved road in the Alps. The road narrowed even more and wasn’t exactly what I’d call paved the entire way, and we climbed and climbed. We passed the tree line and the remarkable dark red rocks and reached alpine meadows. Earlier in the day we had stopped in a meadow (Col de la Cayolle) and photographed an amazing variety of flowers. There were violets of different shades and other flowers I didn’t recognize.
As we neared Col de la Bonette, we spotted sheep (and a few goats) covering the mountainside — and the road, as it turned out. I took sheep photos! We spotted several chubby marmots running across the road, but they were too fast to star in my photos. Finally passed even the grass line and there was nothing but the sky and our 1½-lane road threading through rocks dotted with snow and an occasional torrent. We were on the top of the world. Col de la Bonnette / Most Dangerous Roads web site
Reached the summit and started down a series of hair-raising hairpin (lacet) curves. I think Ed got more than he bargained for in a “restful” drive through the park, but it was a wonderful trip. Mercantour National Park web site
Got back to discover a TWA jet from New York to Paris exploded near Long Island. My French isn’t good enough to get the details, so guess we’ll find an English paper in the morning.