Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, quite simply, is Upper Provence. Along the Côte d’Azur and the Riviera, this region is usually referred to as l’arrière pays – the back country. And, like “the sticks” the world over, it isn’t known for its cosmopolitan centers, historic treasures or sophisticated resorts.
The Pre-Alps that stretch across the top of Provence from the edge of Vaucluse to the Italian border are scattered with tiny villages, some pretty, others rugged and workaday, one (Dignes) big enough to be called a town. None of these places, of themselves, could be considered a “destination,” principal or otherwise. But if you love dramatic landscapes, nearly vertical gorges, calm mountain lakes and valleys so deep and tight they have their own climates, you can’t help finding Haute Provence thrillingly beautiful.
This is where the mellow- , vine- , olive- and lavender-covered hills give way to abrupt and challenging Alpine landscapes. There is no clear line of demarcation. Instead, the landscape folds back and forth upon itself, seeming to suggest the giant tectonic forces that created the Alps. One moment, you will be staring up at arid, deeply eroded limestone peaks – hot and almost lifeless, some of the least populated areas in France. Turn a corner for a rapid descent to the floor of a gorge only sixm(20 feet) wide, so damp and cool that water seems to seep out of its moss-covered walls.
This is kayaking, rafting and canyoning territory, an area for real, open-air or lodge camping, for gîtes and hostels. There are splendid hikes, lake-based watersports, heart-stopping drives, mountaineering and the uniquely European climbing sport of via ferrata. In this chapter, the principal destinations are the gorges and mountains themselves, rather than the villages and towns that provide stopping places in a landscape so wild that much of it was undiscovered before the beginning of the 20th century.
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