Situated in the far south-east of France, bordering Italy, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is named after the rugged mountains dominating it and the region of Provence. Not especially big or populous, the department nevertheless gives the visitor a sense of space and freedom, because of the soaring 3000m peaks and wide vistas which abound here. The area is famous for fields of lavender, cliff-top monasteries and snow-capped summits. Renowned as a destination for lovers of The Great Outdoors, it also has some hidden gems for culture vultures and those who prefer low-octane activities.
The department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence has a slightly convoluted history. The traditional province of Provence, in existence since the Roman occupation in the first century BC, was subdivided into the three departments of Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Basses-Alpes in 1790, during the French Revolution. This was the state of affairs until 1970, when the department of Basses-Alpes was renamed Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. There was no change in the boundary, it was a matter of nomenclature – the inhabitants felt snubbed by living in the "lower Alps", which had derogatory connotations. The "Alps of Upper Provence" had a much better ring. In earlier times, the region suffered from frequent invasions (by the Greeks, Romans, Franks and Saracens in turn) until the Middle Ages, when it enjoyed a period of prosperity. Today, monasteries and churches from this period can be seen throughout the department.
Outside of these two cities, the Alpe-de-Haute-Provence is sparsely populated. Of the four arrondissements that make up the department, those of Barcelonette and Castellane are the least heavily populated in the whole of France.
The climate of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is varied - Mediterranean in the south-west, and Alpine in the the far north-east where the peaks of 3000m and above are found. This is a surprisingly dry region, with annual precipitation of under 750mm. The wettest months are April, September and October.
Average maximum temperature in Saint-Auban
|Period ||Celsius ||Fahrenheit |
|January-March ||12 ||54 |
|April-June ||21 ||70 |
|July-September ||27 ||81 |
|October-December ||15 ||59 |
A circuit of the Villages et cités de caractère is a must. Eleven towns have been specially selected, each offering distinct cultural events, authenticity and a picturesque location.
Alpes-de-Haute-Provence has three natural parks and one geological park, of which Les Gorges du Verdon is perhaps the most spectacular. The awesome Verdon Gorge is the highlight. This is the second biggest canyon in the world, and a breathtaking sight.
Test the waters in Digne-les-Bains or Greoux-les-Bains, where sulphorous, thermal springs gush to the surface. Rheumatic and respiratory illness have been healed by these natural spas for millennia – they were known to the Celts. A one week treatment costs as little as 160 euros.
Take the train des Pignes from Digne-les-Bains. Passing through 50 tunnels and several viaducts, the train takes it steady, offering you plenty of opportunities to enjoy the view without expending too much energy.
Kids will love Pra Loup Resort, which runs summer and winter programmes especially designed for youngsters. Playgrounds, story-telling, sledging and ski lessons are all on hand, so adults can hit the slopes, visit the nearby National Park or just relax.
Museums, galleries and culture
Digne-les-Bains is home to the unusual Alexandra David-Néel Museum, named after a famous female explorer. The collections housed in her former home recollect her journeys through the Himalayas.
The museum in Barcelonette charts the fascinating history of the Ubaye Valley, influenced by the emigration of many locals to Mexico in the 19th century, and their subsequent return.
Little-known outside France, vineyards close to the border with Haut-Alpes produce some renowned vintages. The Domaine la Blaque and Domaine de Régusse are two estates near Manosque, producing the Coteaux de Pierrevert wine. Sample the award-winning wines by visiting the tasting rooms of these two domaines - just be sure to phone in advance.
With few large centres of population, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is not ideal for shopaholics. Away from the highstreet, however, the area has much to offer. Over 80 artisans markets - Les Marchés aux Saveurs – take place throughout the region, where you can buy everything from olive oil to Moustiers pottery.
If you like cheese, visit the Forcalquier plateau to stock up with the regional speciality – Banon Tomme. This goat's milk cheese is traditionally dipped in eau-de-vie and wrapped in chestnut leaves, giving it a beautiful flavour and appearance.
South of the famous winter playgrounds of the Three Valleys and Val D'Isere, and less well-known, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence nevertheless has plenty to offer skiiers and snowboarders of all abilities. There are good pistes, including numerous black runs, and prices are reasonable, with a focus on family skiing. Do your homework carefully before you choose your resort as they vary greatly. Pra Loup is a great family-oriented resort with half a million annual visitors. L'Arche, at the other end of the scale, is barely more than a village and geared to cross-country skiers. Many resorts have day care centres, snow playgrounds and alternative activities for family members who are too young (or prefer not) to ski.
Long-distance paths GR5 and GR52 pass through the department, taking in some of the beautiful landscapes and fauna of the Mercantour National Park, home to chamoix, marmots and golden eagles. In summer, there are plentiful low-level routes to be enjoyed as well. If you prefer to hike unburdened by a backpack, several UK tour operators offer packaged walking holidays in the area, including luggage transfer.
As well as skiing, winter sports include snow-shoeing, ice climbing and dog-sledding. In the summer, gliding is popular, especially around Sisteron. Experience the grandeur of the Alps from a height during a paragliding or hang-gliding course, with Allez-Up Holidays.
Canoeing the turquoise waters of the Verdon River or Saint-Croix Lake is not to be missed. Equipment can be hired from Verdon Canoe, and the weather is suitable from March to September.
Food and drink
Alpes-de-Haute-Provence enjoys the best of two culinary worlds, what you might call Alpine-Mediterranean fusion food! Lamb from Sisteron, wild spinach ravioli and raspberry tartlets are some of the specialities, and dandelion, truffles and cèpes attest to the importance of wild food in this regional cuisine.
For tasty but inexpensive local fare, look out for the Bistrot de Pays sign in restaurants – it's a scheme designed to safeguard rural economies and traditions as well as promoting delicious, local food.
Ease of access
There are two international airports close by - Marseille-Provence Airport at Marignane and Nice-Côte d'Azur Airport. Both are c.150km from Digne-les-Bains. BA and EasyJet fly from the UK to both destinations. British Midland also fly to Nice, and Rynair fly to Marseille. Those with more time on their hands might take the train from the UK - Eurostar to Paris, then an onward service to Digne-les-bains, changing trains once en route. It's a 12 hour journey in total. Within the department, transport links are good thanks to the A51 motorway and two train lines. Given the terrain, it can take a little time to reach "nearby" locations – the mountains tend to get in the way!
Value for money
With easy access on budget airlines or by train, reasonably priced accommodation and family-oriented resorts, this is an especially good value destination for a family. Better value than the nearby Cote D'Azur in summer, and cheaper than the main Alpine resorts in winter, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence keeps your bank manager happy at any time of year.
Extremely beautiful and varied, it is hard to do Alpes-de-Haut-Provence justice with just one visit. Tourists return year after year for the scent of wild thyme and rosemary in summer, and the snowy slopes in winter. It's not hard to see why.