Go­ing the

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

Living France - - LIFESTYLE -

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.”

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