The Hautes-Alpes make up the area of high mountains to the southeast of Grenoble and south of the Massif de la Vanoise. To the east lies the Italian border and to the south, the Alpes de Provence. The region is sliced in two by the Durance valley, with the Parc National des Écrins lying on the western side of the divide and the Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras on the eastern. At the head of the Durance valley, where the Guisane and Durance rivers converge, is the ancient fortified city of Briançon which makes an excellent base for exploring the surrounding region.
Located 100km east of Grenoble along the N91, Briançon is the capital of the Écrins and one of Europe’s highest towns at 1350m above sea level. The town is essentially split between the steep, narrow streets of the ville haute (also known as the Cité Vauban), which sits high above the urban spread of the modern and charmless lower town (ville basse), itself of little interest save for the Télécabine de Prorel, which shoots up from avenue René-Froger, linking Briançon with the Serre Chevalier ski resort. It also provides a head start to mountain walkers.
The ville haute looms on the cusp of a rocky outcrop high above the Durance and Guisane valleys. Fortified originally by the Romans to guard the road from Milan to Vienne, it’s encircled by lofty ramparts and sheer walls constructed by the French architect and soldier Sébastien Le Preste de Vauban in the seventeenth century. The highest point of the fortifications is the citadelle, which looks over the strategic intersection of five valleys and guards the start of the climb to the desolate and windswept Col de Montgenèvre, one of the oldest and most important passes into Italy.
Spreading southeast of Briançon to the Italian border, the Parc Régional du Queyras is much more Mediterranean in appearance than the mountains to the north, with only shallow soils and low scrub covering the mountainsides. The open land along the park’s rolling roads makes it particularly enjoyable to spend a few hours driving up to St-Véran, an Alpine village near the Italian border. There are some good walking opportunities: the GR58 or Tour du Queyras path runs through St-Véran on its circuit of the park, and the GR5 passes Ceillac and Arvieux on its way from Briançon towards Embrun.
The Écrins national park is worth a trip for the sheer variety of sports that it offers in a much less crowded setting than Mont Blanc. The best base for exploring the area is the village of Vallouise, 19km southwest of Briançon on the D902. From Vallouise, there are several excellent shorter walks that take you into the heart of the Écrins or you can follow the GR54, which makes a circuit of the park and passes through the village.
Vallouise itself centres around the Romanesque church of St Etienne, which has a gorgeous, partly frescoed porch. The buildings lining the two or three streets fanning out from here are typical of the region; striking, three-storey farmhouses consisting of a vaulted ground floor (for livestock), a first-floor living quarter, and an upper floor which would have served as a granary.