The seclusion of the Parc National du Mercantour was a magnet for one expat couple, who now take visitors out to explore this magnificent area on foot, as Deborah Curtis discovers
Most people’s idea of a winter holiday in the snow involves skiing in some form or another, but for international mountain leader Mel Jones and his wife, Liz Lord, the perfect way to take their guests out into the mountains is on snowshoes.
They run Spacebetween, an adventure and walking holiday business based in Berthemont-les-Bains on the edge of the Parc National du Mercantour, in the south-east corner of France. In winter, when the peaks and valleys around their home are covered in a blanket of irresistible powder snow, they head out with groups of walkers to enjoy this pristine, unspoilt landscape on foot.
“The nice thing about snowshoeing is that although it’s quite physical, because you’re using all your large muscle groups, it’s much easier than walking in the snow in a regular walking boot because you stay on top rather than sinking into it,” says Liz. “It’s slower going though, so we would be really happy to do 300-400 metres of ascent in a day. We don’t cover a huge amount of ground unless we’ve got a group of people who are very fit. We don’t want to slog it; we want everyone to enjoy the day and when the temperature allows, we try to get a nice little picnic spot with a good view for lunch.”
Walking in snowshoes also enables their groups to steer clear of the busy resorts in Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-deHaute-Provence, and explore unspoilt areas that are off the beaten track.
“We like to take people off-piste because the best thing about snowshoeing is that you can get away from the rest of humanity,” says Liz. “We head out into virgin snow where you can have a bit of fun!”
And sticking to these quieter spots also brings their visitors closer to nature. “You can see all sorts of animal tracks: deer, wild boar, hare and bird tracks for example,” says Liz. “It’s interesting for people to see the traces of animals passing through, and these are much clearer in the winter than they are in the summertime.”
They are also always on the lookout for evidence of the wild wolves which now live undisturbed in the 685km park having re-migrated over the mountains from Italy in 1992.
“We try to spot them in the wild but it is very difficult,” says Liz, “You sometimes see scat, fur and tracks, especially in winter, and we know a couple of abandoned lairs, which are very interesting. The people who come are usually interested in the wildlife – including chamois, marmots, ibex and the wolves – but you also have the great scenery, and you can walk all day without meeting a soul.”
It was the beauty and isolation of this little-known region which captivated Mel, 63, and Liz, 54, in the first place, and changed the course of their life together.
“Without actually expressing it between ourselves, we’d both got to a stage in 2001 when we were getting itchy feet,” says Liz, whose background is in marketing and new product development. “I was working for a small company in Dorset, and we took a new product – a piece of gym equipment – down to an exhibition in Cannes.”
They drove down to the south of France together and then Mel, who was on leave from the engineering company he was working for at the time, headed north to explore the Mercantour.
“He looked at the map and saw there were mountains so he came up here and he loved it,” Liz says. “He went out walking for three days and saw nobody. It is surprising that there are mountains to over 3,000 metres just an hour from Nice. The Mercantour is stunning and the Alpine terrain quickly drops down to maquis and olive groves in the French Riviera back country before dipping down to the blue of the Med.
“We came up here again on our way back to the UK, and we both liked it. From there, we hatched our cunning plan to come and run a lifestyle holiday business.”