Andrew McCluggage waxes lyrical about a beautiful, and almost secret, valley in the Briançonnais area of France and explains why he thinks the Clarée Valley is a true jewel of the Alpine crown.
In the 1970s, the beautiful and pristine Clarée Valley briefly entered the consciousness of the French public. For in a moment of madness, the French authorities sought permission to build a motorway to Turin right through the middle of this Alpine wilderness. Fortunately, the plans were scotched by the fervent objections of environmentalists, led by the formidable Emilie Carles. Since then, the Clarée has been largely forgotten by the world. For those who while away their spare time wandering through hills and mountains, that is a very good thing.
The Clarée is located in the French Alps, in the northern section of the Briançonnais, which is just on the French side of the border with Italy. It is a region largely unknown to English-speaking walkers, probably because it is a little bit harder to get to than Chamonix and other areas closer to Geneva.
However, the Briançonnais is surely one of the most picturesque places in the Alps. And, for many, the Clarée Valley is the highlight of any trip to the Briançonnais.
The Clarée is a long, wide valley of stunning grassy pastures, and is bisected by the crystal clear, fast flowing River Clarée and flanked on both sides by wonderful snowy peaks. The villages in the valley are small and undeveloped and ooze the ambiance of times gone by.
The sheer length of the valley means that opportunities for the walker here are myriad, and there are numerous books in the French language focusing on this one valley alone. Yet in English there were none until now, making life difficult for the English speaker. Hopefully, Cicerone’s new guide Walking in the Briançonnais will change that because the book devotes a whole chapter to the Clarée Valley: more than a week of walking in this very special place.
Many of the hikes in the Clarée are long because this is epic walking country. For example, there is the incredible circuit to Pic du Lac Blanc, which passes along an exposed knife-edge ridge to an unforgettable summit offering a 360-degree panorama of the whole region and beyond.
On the way you pass a variety of sparkling mountain lakes, filled with trout and adorned with reflections of the surrounding peaks.
There is also the stunning outing to the historic forts of l’Olive and Lenlon, great for history buffs as well as those who just want to soak up the sublime scenery. And the long and tough Tour of the Massif des Cerces should not be overlooked: numerous high mountain passes and azure lakes are the order of the day here as the walker passes through some very remote and beautiful terrain.
But that is not to say that there is nothing for those who want shorter routes. The bucolic surrounds of the valley itself provide plenty of easier or shorter options: a trip to the Refuge de Buffère is straightforward yet still allows you to soak in incredible views. And there is the added benefit of some lunch or a beer (or both!) at the refuge itself, which is located at high altitude.
Another easier walk is to the lovely pastures at Col des Thures near the French/Italian border.
In early summer the carpets of wildflowers here need to be seen to be believed.
And you will want to spend some time beside the lake at the col, which makes a fabulous picnic spot right in front of the mighty Mont Thabor.
‘Busy’ in the Briançonnais equates to ‘quiet’ elsewhere
Getting to the region is not the challenge it once was: it is easily accessible from Turin, Marseille, Lyon, Milan and Nice. And there are plenty of flights from a variety of airports in both the UK and the rest of Europe. You can come by train but you will get the most out of the area if you have your own transport. Cars can be cheaply rented at all the airports.
And the Clarée Valley offers some fabulous places to stay. There are many mountain huts (or refuges): some of these are only a few minutes’ walk away from parking but others are hidden high up in the mountains. All of them have vistas to die for and will feed and water you, too. There are also gîtes and B&Bs, mainly in the idyllic village of Névache. And there are a couple of magnificent campsites set beside the picturesque river.
And despite all of the attractions, you will not find the crowds here. Yes, it is comparatively busier in the peak French summer season (four weeks from 14 July), but ‘busy’ in the Briançonnais equates to ‘quiet’ elsewhere. Most of the time, peace and solitude among mountain scenery of indescribable beauty is easy to find. Those who do visit, however, normally return – again and again.