France’s Fete de la Nature is my all-time favorite French fete. You can have the much ballyhooed Fete de la Musique with its battalions of amateur musicians banging away on every streetcorner or the widely-ignored Fete des Voisins which is supposed to prompt neighbors to resolve their squabbles over a glass of wine. For me the Queen of Fetes is this Nature Festival which aims to get people out into the countryside and learn a thing or two about the birds, bees, trees and plants lying just outside the city gates.
Since the festival is poorly publicized few realize what a glorious opportunity it is to discover the countryside with experts both knowledgeable and passionate about their subject. It’s not as though France’s network of hiking trails are unknown. Au contraire. There’s a regular parade of hikers scrambling up and down the mountains on pleasant weekends. But in the race to the top, few stop to look around and wonder about their surroundings.
And imparting a sense of wonder is what makes the Fete de la Nature such a special event. As I’ve previously written, the Parc Mercantour dispatches its expert gardes-moniteurs (park rangers) to lead small groups on themed walks involving beetles, birds, butterflies, Mediterranean plants, flowers and forests. The walks are not terribly arduous although it helps to have good shoes and some experience with mountain walking.
The Parc Mercantour has a series of programs that stretches across its vast terrain but I chose to focus on the Roya Valley with which I have some familiarity. My first walk on Saturday was with Jean-Marie Cevasco who led Milieux méditerranéens de l’Ubac à l’Adret et histoire des plantes, vallée de la Roya which was essentially an examination of Mediterranean plants and flowers along the route to the ancient Cruella Tower in Breil-sur-Roya. The richness of the flora was astonishing. Naturally my primary interest is “what can I eat” and “what will kill me if I eat it”? We learned to recognize wild asparagus, chicory and valerian as well as what plants to avoid. Most interesting was a type of saxifraga that is endemic to the Roya Valley as well as miniscule snails that live on lichens.
The second walk with naturalist Laurent Zimmermann focused on the intersection between man and forest in Saorge. As elsewhere in Europe, the villages in this region have depended on logging for centuries leaving nary a trace of ancient growth. But forests are resilient and Mr Zimmermann explained the biology of forest regeneration as a function of light, shade and pollination as well as the actions of the national park in insuring the forests’ survival. As Mr. Zimmermann specializes in ornithology, we listened for the calls of various birds most notably the fauvette de tete noir (Eurasian blackcap) with its distinctive song. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a biology class so it was good to finally recognize pines as opposed to firs as well as the white oaks that carpet the region.
Both guides are highly knowledgeable about all matters relating to the ecology and topography of the region making them a wellspring of information for any type of off-the-wall query we could throw at them from the dangers of rockslides and avalanches to the controversial wolf vs. shepherd problem in the national park.
No, I cannot remember the names of every single plant, tree and flower the guides pointed out but I can now recognize some of the main ones. The point is that it sparked my curiosity and I learned a way of looking and paying attention that will enrich my future hikes.Follow me!