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Alpes Maritime et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence 2011 Travel Journal and photos

Located in the southeast corner of France are the regions of the Alpes–Maritimes and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the southernmost parts of the Alps. Close to the Mediterranean, they delineate the boundary between the French region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and the Italian regions of Piedmont and Liguria. Stretching along the Italian border, villages of the Vallée de la Roya cling to the mountainsides, sporting micro-climates that are half Mediterranean, half Alpine. I’d been to Nice on previous occasions and, as I settled into a hotel near the train station, this time I planned on using it as a base for several excursions. Operated by SNCF, the French national railway company, trains traveling the Nice - Breil-sur-Roya - Tende route (le train des Merveilles) are marked with hieroglyphics found in the Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders, part of the Parc National du Mercantour, unfortunately inaccessible due to snow). As the train climbs ever higher and nearly doubles back on itself, one can glimpse amazing feats of 20th century engineering: suspension bridges that span corrugated mountains and steep rivers gorges; hairpin roads carved along the edges of mountains; and some thirty tunnels. This is not a ride for those afraid of heights!
The Vallée de la Roya was made prosperous by the transport of Mediterranean salt by mule convoys over mountain tracks to Italy. Day hikers now disembark at the higher villages to walk these old paths, and catch a train back to Nice from where-ever they are at days end. Some wonderful Italianate-influenced villages and chapels exist in this part of France. In Sospel, lovely apricot and golden hued houses and churches provided a stunning backdrop to flowering forsythia, quince and tulips. During WW II, Germans held the town until near the end of the war. An important crossroads in the middle ages, much of Sospel has been restored, including its landmark bridge, the Pont Vieux. Connecting the two parts of town separated by a river, its tiny mid-way tower once collected tolls along the salt route. In Tende, the Musée des Merveilles had replicas and photos of the rock engravings I couldn’t visit, as well as exhibits on pre-historic life. I suspected something about the Baroque façade of the église de Saint-Michel might find its way into one of my pieces. The late March weather was sunny and beautiful and, after returning from the mountains later in the week, I wandered around Menton and on into Ventimiglia, Italy, pretty towns with views of the sparkling Mediterranean. Another day I took a bus to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a lovely seaside estate with nine themed gardens. Although a bit of a ride, the visit was well worth the time spent on a crowded local bus from Nice, as was the journey to Antibes to see the Picasso Museum.
Following these short trips, I collected a rental car and left Nice and the coast behind, heading for the valleys of the Vésubie and the Tinée rivers. Hairpin roads revealed dramatically perched villages and views of the broad valley far below. These areas were breathtakingly beautiful but required my full attention to driving because the roads were often without guardrails. Luckily there was not that much traffic! Around many a bend I happened upon a lovely penitents chapel that had to be photographed and explored, inside of which might be a Renaissance fresco. Although I was not always successful in finding them unlocked, the chapels nevertheless were visually stimulating in their isolated settings, many of which required a short hike to reach. Snow lingered in the higher elevations and I passed a local ski area in the middle of one village, still open for the season and swarming with kids in the middle of a weekday. In a restaurant later that day, an older couple shared a glass of rosé and invited me to visit their farm. Following their directions, the next day found me negotiating a one-lane road winding through a protected, forested region that just kept going up. Eventually at the top, the road leveled out with uninterrupted views of mountains and valleys before me. Their wonderful farm was tucked behind a south-facing hill which protected them from the worst of blustery, wintery winds found at this altitude. On this warm spring day, however, it was glorious sweater weather. I was given a tour around their farm, and they were especially proud to point out their small cheese-making facility. Afterward, I joined them for a simple meal of fresh salads, bread and their delicious cheese, along with lunchtime regulars of several farm workers and the postman. Apart from the sound of cow bells emanating from the valley below and the soughing of wind through the trees, I was aware of a complete and utter silence as we sat around the rustic, outdoor table. What a luxury!!
Further west in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the Gorges of the Verdon are known as the Grand Canyon of Europe. This sparsely populated region held many surprises, not the least of which was the startling color of the Verdon River. Water matching the color of my turquoise chalcedony ring ran the entire length of the gorge and eventually formed a blue-green lake where the Verdon had been dammed, a towering blockage which created a sense of uneasiness when viewed from the top lip down. I learned later that the vibrant color was due to glacial minerals suspended in the water. Touted now as one of the greatest natural wonders of Europe, the gorge was not “discovered” by outsiders until relatively recently. Because of its inaccessibility, the 20-plus kilometer long canyon had a reputation of being haunted so it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the French government realized its potential for tourism. Sheer limestone cliffs rise above the meandering Verdon River, with several viewing points just off the main road where I could readily understand any comparisons with the US Grand Canyon. Continuing my journey south of the Verdon took me past small villages basking in the sun, and fields of aromatic, fragrant lavender. The landscape began to level out and distant views of the Mediterranean begin to re-appear. As I wound my way back to the coast I felt, and breathed, the cooler, crystalline salt air mixing with the hotter, drier, scented air of the inland fields. After so many days of quiet, solitary travel, it was almost with distress that I merged with the many cars on the motorway leading back to Nice airport. Truly, a memorable spring break!
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Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011

 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Alpes Maritimes et Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 2011
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