Do not be surprised if, while wandering the backstreets of Barcelonnette, a jewel of a town in the pretty Ubaye valley in the southern Alps, you see a themed shop selling Central American rugs and other wares. Do not be surprised by the tacos and burritos on offer, because this jewel of a town has strong and surprising historical links to Mexico that it still celebrates today.
In the 19th century, several sons of the valley emigrated to the Americas, stopping first in Louisiana before heading to central Mexico, where they became involved in the textile trade. One of them opened a department store, others interested themselves in factories and finance; word spread in the Ubaye and more émigrés followed. Then, having made their fortunes, many of these successful sons came back. Even now, on the outskirts of the medieval heart of Barcelonnette, opulent villas méxicaines constructed between 1870 and 1930 quietly hide behind high hedges, surrounded by lawns, a testament to the unlikely riches that flowed to this valley from Mexican cloth.
Even putting the Mexican connection (and the name, which is indeed believed by many to make reference to the larger and more famous Spanish city) aside, it could not be said that Barcelonette is quintessentially French. It sits at the crossroads of important ancient trade routes between Provence, the Dauphiné region and Piedmont in Italy. For hundreds of years it was constantly being fought over and passed between warring powers, and in fact was burned down and rebuilt more than once. Architecturally and decoratively, it has an Italianate feel, with an abundance of sundials adorning the painted walls of important buildings.
These days, despite the Italian border only 40km (25 miles) up the road at the top of the Col de Larche, the French are here to stay. It has a southern feel, though, being at an altitude of 1,130m (3,710ft), it cannot be called ‘Mediterranean’ any more. People sit out in the cafés drinking coffee and there are two boulodromes competing for the attentions of the local population of boules (French bowls, also known as pétanque) players. The shop fronts are all quaintly decorated à la française and the opening hours (a few closures) are positively French.
The Ubaye is something of a paradise for outdoorsy types, so Barcelonnette is also a tourist town, popular with hikers and bikers, kayakers and cyclists – or skiers in the winter – and in the evenings everyone returns to town weary from the trail, road, slope or white water and congregates in the Place Manuel for aperitifs and hearty bistro meals.
Cycle out of town and there are seven road passes that rise above 2,000m (6,600ft) to aim at. Plus the Col du Parpaillon, one of the Alps’ most famous and dreaded gravel cols, is just up the road. And for French Tour de France riders, the Ubaye is a lucky place. Last time the Tour finished here, in 2015, Romain Bardet won at the nearby ski station of Pra Loup, the same venue where, in 1975, Bernard Thévenet beat Eddy Merckx, securing that year’s yellow jersey and putting the first nail in the coffin of the ageing “Cannibal’s” long dominance over the peloton.
However, for recreational cyclists the jewel in the crown has to be the Col de la Bonette, the so-called “highest road in Europe,” which starts five kilometers (3.5 miles) from the town center. This 25 kilometer (16 mile) climb is possibly the most beautiful in the Alps, taking you up past herds of goats making delicious cheese, to Alpine meadows, high-altitude lakes and 19th-century forts built to defend Nice from an Italian invasion. The top of the road is at 2,802m (9,190ft), making it certainly the highest paved through road in all the Alps. And if there are a couple of dead ends in Austria or Spain that go higher, that doesn’t lessen your achievement or make the view any less stunning.