The French Alps of the Mercantour and Queyras National Parks, a short trip with Alan Bernard, 12 - 20 July 2022
Tuesday 12 July
Our early departure from Heathrow arrived at Nice 15 minutes early, our ‘mandatory’ Covid QR proof and eu-PLF (Passenger Locator Form) were, of course, of zero interest to the Passport staff! A mix-up over the hire car, resulting in an upgrade to an MG EHS PHEV, a very smart SUV with a mere 500km on the clock, delayed us considerably but eventually the sat nav guided us out of the airport heading north towards Auron, close to Saint Etienne de Tinée. Alan was driving on essentially quiet and super-smooth roads as we made our first slight detour to visit Rimplas, a lovely small village in the Mercantour National Park, some 90 minutes north of Nice where the two of us had been in July 2000 – and it hadn’t changed at all. The 30°+ temperature was tempered by a fair breeze, but it was still very hot.
Auron was reached around 5pm and the Hotel Edelweiss duly located at the far end of the extensive market square. Restaurants were either closed or very busy and the chosen dinner venue didn’t turn-out to be a great success.
Wednesday 13 July
Buffet breakfast at 8 at the adjacent Le Blainon Hotel (ours wasn’t doing breakfast) was relaxed and good. The local supermarket supplied our lunch items and shortly after that it was my turn to drive the relatively short distance to St Dalmas le Selvage, a village we’d tried to book into initially. The roads were very quiet, and the car very smooth. Having parked, we strolled the nearby tracks and soon became immersed in butterflies on a hot sunny day, returning to the car for our sandwich lunch. Marbled Whites (Melanargia galathea) had been the butterfly of the day, very abundant. By now the clouds had rolled in but we returned to the morning’s tracks and even though the heat was still very ‘heavy’ the butterflies had calmed down and were much more photographable.
St Dalmas is a very small, old, rustic village, and having checked-out the hotel we’d fancied, we then found a busy corner café for a coffee. We departed around 4pm and were back at Auron some 30 minutes later, to my sweltering west-facing room for a shower, download photos etc. Having met to update the species list, at 7pm were ready for La Chaumière, a pizza restaurant run by a hospitable and fun lady, for me a Quatre Saison and a glass of the grandly-named Grimbergen beer, all rinsed down with a glass of local Génépi.
Thursday 14 July
We planned to be even more local today, selecting the hairpin and its stream en route to the Auron ski lifts. Parked alongside the heli-pad. Damon Blues (Polyommatus damon) were everywhere, dominating the species list. The lovely Titania’s Fritillary (Boloria titania) also made a very pleasant re-acquaintance. The entire morning was spent exploring about 300m of track and hillside and as cloud cover began to form we made our way back to the car for lunch – just in time, in fact, as the rain began to fall heavily.
We abandoned the hunt and returned to Auron to look for a coffee as the rain cleared. A late afternoon visit to the ski centre produced Great-banded Graylings (Brintesia circe) and nervous Marmots, and some blues and fritillaries on the wild lavender, but by 5pm we were back at the hotel, a table booked in the restaurant. Today, being Bastille Day, the town square was very busy, with live music and the arrival of a travelling circus for the next couple of days or so.
Friday 15 July
I drove away to Isola 2000 and up the Col de la Lombarde at 2,350m on a blue-sky day and parked just over the busy Col amidst fantastic scenery. There were many new high-altitude species on remarkably dry, crispy, vegetation but our #1 target, Cynthia’s Fritillary (Euphydryas cynthia), could not be found. A further stop was made by the lake on the right-hand side where Purple-edged Copper (Lycaena hippothoe) was flying. A third stop was made further down the valley, almost across from the border post with Italy, where we lunched. Returning towards the Col we stopped again near another small lake on our right but not much was happening. There were lots of people about, and too many motor bikers, not to mention aspiring Tour de France cyclists. Our descent started about 3.30 and down below the tree-line we pulled in at the roadside to check-out a stream that ran through a hairpin bend. The only Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus) of the trip was nectaring on thistles in the company of a Niobe Fritillary (Argynnis Niobe) and Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).
Booked a table at La Chaumiere for our gala dinner (?!) and enjoyed a very pleasant evening, thinly cut pink roast beef with a side salad and fries, another Grimbergen, another Génépi, followed by one on the house.
Saturday 16 July
Up early today for a long transit north to Guillestre in the Haute Alpes. Away at 9.40, then climbed the stunning Col de la Bonnette, the highest in Europe at 2,715m – 8,907’ – endless tight zig-zags, speeding motor bikes that were suddenly overtaking on bends, cyclists, and cars. Weekend traffic! Stopped for 45 minutes just before the summit, where several Common Brassy Ringlets (Erebia cassioides) were on the wing, and Al found a weary Glandon Blue (Plebejus glandon). We became aware of an old boy (older than us) watching us and when I caught his eye he enquired ‘macro photography?’ to which I replied, ‘oui, les papillons’. He then announced that he was an entomologist and what a disastrous year for butterflies it was in the Alps, so dry and a shortage of nectar sources.
The road goes through a gap towards Jausiers but also loops around the Col, a detour we took, but would have been better off giving it a miss. The geology was reminiscent of a slag heap and motor bikes fringed the roadside, people milling about and too many cars. If there was a stunning view we didn’t get to see it. The Col de Vars came up next, lower at 2,108m, and having cleared the top we soon stopped around 1pm for our standard lunch, on another beautiful day. Once through the various villages that make up the Vars commune we took a right turn into the Val d’Escreins Nature Reserve, soon stopping amongst the pines. Large Ringlets (Erebia euryale) dominated the scene, and Al also located a solitary Scotch Argus (Erebia ligea). In fact, as had been the case on previous trips, we were to spend a lot of time to determine precisely whether wed got these ids correct, much assisted by dipping into Matt Rowling’s website.
Sunday 17 July
We’d stay pretty local after yesterday’s hike, so ventured out east out of Guillestre up the spectacular Gorges de Guil taking the right turn towards Ceillac and making our first stop shortly before the town. A small stream offered puddling opportunities and we picked-up Marbled Ringlet (Erebia montana), Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) and others. We pushed on to the car park at the end of the road and found uncut meadows, the Prés de Chaurionde, alive with butterflies, notably Large Ringlets which were ‘everywhere’, Apollos (Parnassius apollo), various Fritillaries and Blues. Lunch was taken around 1.15 coinciding with the disappearance of the sun, good for photography, and fortunately the forecast afternoon rain didn’t happen. As butterfly activity tended to fall-off around 4pm each day we slowly packed-up and returned to the hotel c5.20 for the customary beer on the terrace. A heavy shower happened as we ate at the restaurant La Bollee but had passed by the time we left. As the evening had been so good we booked for the same time tomorrow.
Monday 18 July
A diversion was in place due to today being Market Day. The Col d’Izoard – 2,360m - was today’s destination and just through Arvieux we took an opportunistic left turn towards Le Coin, a small hamlet on the hillside. Crossing the wooden bridge and taking the track through the woods was immediately productive yielding a Comma (Polygonia c-album), Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) and further on, in more open habitat, we added Blue-spot Hairstreak (Satyrium spini) and Berger’s Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis). An unusual sight was a string of young people, and some adults, being pulled along on foot by husky dogs, presumably keeping the animals fit for winter duties.
On reaching the superbly panoramic Col we parked and explored the hillside, busy with walkers, noting the significant amount of early-stage building works that will commercialise the site and make it even more attractive to bikers of all persuasions. Our lunch spot was a large car park overlooking the Refuge Napoléon du Col d’Izoard and the hillside gave us plenty of time to sort-out Shepherd’s Fritillaries (Boloria pales) and Mountain Fritillaries (Boloria napaea), some Grizzled-type Skippers, and also a Dewy Ringlet (Erebia pandrose). Across the road, the hillside hosted a Glandon Blue in fair condition, very nice! As clouds began to form we decided to start back, stopping just once at a hairpin, more notable for the descending stream of motorbikers than any butterflies. Thunder rumbled distantly on arrival at the hotel around 4.45 but the rain soon started to fall, heavily, as we refreshed ourselves with, yes, a beer under the awning. After doing the day list, and the rain having been short-lived, we went back down to La Bollée for a very pleasant evening, good food, ambience, and a bottle of Haute Alpes locally produced Chardonnay.
Tuesday 19 July
Usual start with the emphasis on staying local today given the 5-hour drive to Nice scheduled for tomorrow. Drove past the hotel going north having been to the supermarket and I was soon taking the zig-zags through the woods down to the Guil river bridge, parking up on the other side. Gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus) nectared on mint growing alongside a small stream and one of the White Admirals flew past. And then there was an Emperor high up in a poplar! It was a fairly tired Lesser Purple Emperor (Apatura ilia) and occupied me for some time! Taking the road west towards Eygliers we soon stopped again near the bend at Durantelles where another Emperor was seen on the ground. This was a lovely female which was not unduly concerned by our presence, flying around, then coming back to its damp patch: up to three Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta) males jousted on the wing before returning to their perches, then doing it all over again, and again.
The afternoon was spent back at the Val d’Escreins where lunch was taken under the shade of some pines. The hot sun, and humid conditions, made for difficult photography, and a couple of further stops in small clearings were notable for Geranium Argus (Aricia eumedon) – at last! Got to the hotel around 4.15, list at 6.45, then down to our hotel’s top-rated restaurant, the Dedans Dehors that Alan had booked earlier, tucked away in the old town near the church, and requiring the assistance of a couple of young girls to escort us to it. Run by a young bohemian couple exuding energy and customer service, we enjoyed really good food and a bottle of Hautes Alpes red. Rain started during the meal but had almost stopped by the time we left, the live folky musicians undeterred. Back at the hotel I waited until 9.45 to check-in for tomorrow’s BA flight and emailed the boarding cards to the maitresse d’hotel who had kindly offered to print them for us.
Wednesday 20 July
We woke on a cooler, largely overcast morning, perfect for the c5 hours driving-time transit to Nice. Alan took the wheel at 9.40 over the Col de Vars where we made a stop just over the top, pulling-in by the small chapelle Sainte Mairie Madeleine. Niobe Fritillaries were here. The roads were relatively peaceful, lacking the manic bikers. The Col de la Bonnette was topped in due course and we parked again at the bend we’d stopped at on the way up. Alan found a male Eros Blue (Polyommatus eros), a bit the worse for wear, but lovely all the same. Lunch was eaten at another stop from where I swapped seats with Al, pulling-in just before the St Dalmas junction to check-out the roadside lavenders.
Shortly having passed the Auron roundabout I stopped again to visit a bridge over the river Tinée and to see who had texted me. It was BA at 2.30 announcing the cancellation of our flight!! Being so close to familiar territory we decided to see if the manager of the Hotel Le Blainon in Auron could put us up for the night, and, pleased to see us again, said he could! I later asked him if he would kindly print our new boarding cards – of course!
A final field visit was agreed, albeit late in the day having gone past 4pm, and we returned to the hairpin bridge en route to the ski lifts, but there was little doing. We surprised our hostess friend at La Chaumière for pizzas at 7.30, a pleasant reunion, another Grimbergen for me, a couple of scoops of ice cream, Génépi, and then another ‘on the house’.
Thursday 21 July
The square was quiet, very peaceful on another early lovely morning, set the sat nav which had Nice airport as a previous destination. The roads were largely deserted and a pleasure to drive on. Plenty of time until boarding at 1.05pm. The flight was delayed about 40 minutes, but at last we were homeward bound.