STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Le Col de la Bonette –
The Highest Paved Road In Europe

June 24, 2022

As you travel north from the Mediterranean Sea into the Alpes there are several routes which you can take. One of the most popular runs from Nice through the Tinée Valley to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. It’s a beautiful road that runs through stunning rock gorges, exquisite Alpine forests and wonderful green pastures. Along the way you’ll pass through several marvelous villages including Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée and Isola. Another dozen or so medieval perched villages (such as Ilonse, Roure and Bairol) lie in the mountains to the east and west, accessible by (mostly) short, steep, mountain roads that are sometimes so narrow only one car can pass at a time.

By car it will take you about one and a half hours to reach Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée from the coast, if you drive directly through. You could spend several days making the trip if you stopped at every village and site along the way. Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is the last village in the valley and if you want to continue further north you’ll need to drive up and over the Col de la Bonette (sometimes also referred to as the Col de la Bonette Restefond) which connects the Tinée Valley with the Ubaye Valley. It’s another 26 or so kilometers on a mountain road that winds its way up to what is called the highest “paved” road in Europe. The word “paved” is very important here and I’ll tell you why a bit later on.

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The Col de la Bonette is one of the most famous mountain passes in France, if not all of Europe. At an altitude of 2,715 meters (8,907 feet) it is the highest pass in Provence. It lies between the Cime de la Bonette and the Cime des Trois Serrières, connecting the Tinée Valley with the Ubaye Valley and providing the most direct link between Nice and Barcelonnette. Much of the road on both sides of the pass is located in the protected area of the Mercantour National Park.

The Col lies on the border of the Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence departments (both part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region) and very close to the French border with Italy. As you travel up either the southern or northern side you’ll find waterfalls, forests, rivers, streams, mountain pastures, lakes, grass fields and more. The trees thin out as you get higher in elevation and the landscape takes on an almost lunar feel in places. It marks the highest point the famous Tour de France cycling race has ever reached when in 2008 the sixteenth stage of the race made a loop around the Cime de la Bonette.

A Little History

At one time this road was simply a mule track extending up into the mountains from the Tinée Valley. It was widened and converted into a road in 1832 and on August 18, 1860 Emperor Napoleon III issued a decree for the creation of a road between Nice and Barcelonnette and deemed it should be classified as an “imperial road.” The road would provide a good deal of strategic importance for the newly attached French territory, especially in preventing a possible attack from the Italians. In fact, today there remain ruins of various military buildings and fortifications strewn along both sides of the mountain, including units that were once part of the Maginot line. The Fourches Camp, located on the southern side, was occupied until the Second World War.

In 1896 the main portion of the road was completed, reaching from Nice to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. Seventeen years later the next portion of the road, extending to Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage was finished. The current road was not completed until 1964 and it took over ten years for the final section to be finished, the small loop that continues on from the actual Col and circles around the summit, the Cime de la Bonette at an altitude of 2,802 meters (9,193 feet). This little addition allows the road to claim to be the “highest paved road in Europe,” though there is some debate about that. 

The various military complexes which lie on both sides of the col are a reminder of the tensions and hostility that existed between France and Italy for decades (well, centuries really). Forming a part of the vast Maginot Line of fortresses, fortifications, camps and garrisons that France built in the early 20th century, these various structures mostly all abandoned today.

The Tour de France has featured the Col de la Bonette in its route four times over the years. The first was in 1962, followed by 1964 and 1993. The last time it was part of the race was in 2008.

Is it Really the Highest Road in Europe?

Almost all the official literature you will find about the Col de la Bonette claims that it is the “highest paved road in Europe.” There is a signpost at the foot of the climb that says, “Col de la Bonette – 2,802 meters above sea level, highest road in Europe.” As I mentioned earlier, there is actually quite a bit of debate about this.

The Col itself lies at 2,715 meters and is usually ranked as the seventh highest paved road in Europe. However, when you factor in the small loop road that runs from the col up and around the Cime de la Bonette to a height of 2,802 meters it’s a different story. Some still only rank it fourth at this point but others point to the fact that the three other roads which are sometimes ranked above it are not completely paved or are private roads.

There are three other Alpine cols (road passes) whose altitudes are higher than the actual Col de la Bonette: Col de l’Iseran (2,770 m), Stelvio Pass (2,757 m) and Col Agnel (2,744m). Another road near Granada, Spain reaches a height of 3,392m but is not a through road.

It’s not the Col de la Bonette itself which can lay claim to the “highest paved road in Europe,” but the Cime de la Bonette. At 2,802 meters this “scenic loop” is not a “col.” It is however, the highest “paved” road in France and is the highest “through” road in Europe. To be clear, the official designation as the “highest paved road in Europe” is only true when you factor in the fact that it is a “through” road.

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The Southern Side

From the south the climb up the Col de la Bonette begins in Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée and stretches for 26 kilometers. It covers a change in altitude of 1,652 meters with an average percentage of 6.4%. There is one short section where the grade reaches 10% and on the loop around the Cime de la Bonette it tops out at a whopping 15%. It’s a long, relentless climb with no let up along the way. As a cyclist who has made the ride from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée to the very top I can tell you that last little stretch to the Cime is a killer. The fact that it comes at the end of a very long climb doesn’t help at all.

From Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée take the M2205 north. You’ll find it at the northern end of the village, it’s well marked and there are numerous signs pointing the way. After just under 5 kilometers you’ll cross over the Tinée River on a bridge and arrive at an intersection where you can continue to the right on the D64 to the Col de la Bonette or go to the left on the M63 to the tiny mountain village of Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage. If you have the time, a short detour to Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage is worth the trip (it’s only 3 kilometers away).

Cascade de Vens & Pont de Vens

Once you’re on the D64 headed towards the col keep an eye out for the Cascade de Vens, a beautiful waterfall on the right side of the road (actually, it’s pretty hard to miss). How big the waterfall is will depend upon what time of the year you are there, but it never disappoints. There’s plenty of room to park your car and take a few photos.

Just past the waterfall, on the left, is a tiny little yellow sign which says, “Pont roman 0h.10” with an arrow pointing down a small trail. As the sign says, it’s just a 10 minute walk to this old bridge and I would highly recommend you make the hike down there (it’s quite easy). This ancient bridge, known as Le Pont de Vens, once served as a crossing for donkeys and man traveling north to the hamlets of Pra and Bousieyas and the Ubaye Valley or east into Italy.

Back on the D64, just past the bridge, the road turns and you’ll have another chance to see the waterfall from a different angle.

The Hamlets of Pra and Bousieyas

This portion of the trip continues to feature expansive green fields and large forests of trees spread out on the sides of the mountains. It’s a beautiful, peaceful and quiet drive most of the time, though in the high tourist season the road can get quite busy (especially with motorcycles).

After another few kilometers you’ll reach the small hamlet of Pra. In France cities, towns and villages are divided into two categories: communes and hamlets. In general anything with a significant population (though sometimes it can be as low as 100 or even less) qualifies as a commune. The smaller villages are known as “hameaus,” hamlets under the jurisdiction of a nearby commune. Most hamlets are very, very small, sometimes just a handful of buildings, though others can be larger. Pra is not particularly interesting (it’s rather run-down) but if you want you can park your car along the road and take a stroll through the little village.

Another hamlet, Bousieyas, is just another 3 kilometers up the road, and I find it much more appealing. A cluster of five or six buildings dominate the little village, all set very close to the road. There’s a small church (though I’ve never found it open), several “gites” and a very popular restaurant that always seem to be full of people. Past Bousieyas the trees begin to thin considerably and the landscape becomes covered with grass and flowers. Huge pastures blanket the mountains in all directions. It’s not uncommon to see large herds of sheep, goats or cows grazing on the hillsides.

Le Camp des Fourches

The next major site along the road is Le Camp des Fourches an old, abandoned military outpost. Not the kind of “fort” that we often find in the mountains of this region, le Camp des Fourches is really a set of barracks located at 2,291 meters above sea level. The camp was built between 1896 and 1910 and continually improved upon until World War II. There are 26 small stone buildings, 20 of which are almost exactly the same, which provided living quarters for soldiers. The other buildings consisted of a command post, an officers’ mess and a telegraph station.

The camp was equipped with kitchens, shops, a bread oven and more. Up to 150 men could live there. A cable car was built during the 1930s which connected the barracks to the hamlet of Pra. For most of its existence the camp was permanently occupied though the number of soldiers decreased dramatically in the winter months when only a small staff was present. Intense fighting occurred on the nearby Col des Fourches during 1940 and again in 1944.

Today the camp is completely abandoned and mostly in ruins. Between 2016 and 2018 some restoration work was done to secure the site and keep it from sliding into total devastation. Numerous signs are now situated on the walls of buildings with lots of information about the history of the camp and what the various buildings were used for. There’s lots of parking and I would definitely encourage you to stop and walk around a bit on your way up the col.

From le Camp des Fourches it’s approximately 7 kilometers to the Col de la Bonette. Along the way you’ll encounter a variety of small monuments, another small military compound and a large oratory. Even in the early summer months you will no doubt encounter snow along the sides of the road and on the slopes of the nearby mountains once you reach this elevation.

One of my favorite parts of traveling up the col, either by car or bike, is seeing marmots. Officially they are large ground squirrels with 15 different species that live in Asia, Europe and North America. They’re only active in the summer, spending the rest of the year hibernating underground. They are the “heaviest” members of the squirrel family. The ones found in the Alpes (the Alpine marmot) are adorable little creatures that run alongside the hills, often crossing the road in front or in back of you as you drive along. They’re only seen at a certain altitude and this stretch between le Camp des Fourches and the col is where we see them the most.

The Oratory of Notre Dame du Très Haut

Just next to the summit, on the southern side, if you look up and to the right, you’ll see the Oratory of Notre Dame du Très Haut. Sculpted by Adrée Diesnis this monument was installed in 1963. The statue inside depicts the Virgin Mother and Child and every year a special pilgrimage is held on the last Saturday of July. Residents from both the Tinée and Ubaye valleys (along with many others from all over area and beyond) celebrate with a mass and a procession between the Oratory Notre Dame de Très Haut and the Plateau des Sources de la Tinée.

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The Cime de la Bonette

From the actual Col, what in English we would refer to as the “pass,” a two kilometer long teardrop shaped loop reaches further up the mountain, closer to the actual peak, known as the Cime de la Bonette, at 2,860 meters. A marker lies at the actual highest point of this little loop road. From there you can take a short foot path up to the actual peak where you’ll be presented with a fantastic 360° panoramic view of the entire area. An orientation table allows you to locate and identify most of the prominent Alpes mountain peaks within view, including Pelvoux, Queyras, Viso and more.

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The Northern Side

From the north side the climb begins in the town of Jausiers. At 24.1 kilometers it’s not quite as long as the southern route and the change in altitude is just a bit less as well at 1,589 meters. The average percentage though is a tiny bit higher at 6.6% with the steepest section being about 9%.

From Jausiers take the D900 to the C4 which leads in only one direction, south. I find the northern route is not quite as interesting or captivating as the southern route, but it still has plenty of charm. The first section of road features an abundance of forests, rocks and small pastures. After about 5 kilometers (and a few switchbacks) you’ll reach the tiny hamlet of Lans. After another 6 or 7 kilometers you will arrive at the Halte 2000 chalet, a small restaurant with fantastic views of the valley. A garden, terrace and fireplace help set the mood for a wonderful meal in the mountains. As the name implies you are very close to the 2,000 kilometer mark in altitude at this point.

Lac des Eissaupres & Fortin de Restefond

From this point on the trees begin to thin and you’ll find lots of meadows and pastures on the slopes of the hills and mountains. Another 5 kilometers takes you to a small lake, Lac des Eissaupres. It’s a perfect place to stop and admire the countryside. The lake isn’t very big, but it’s quite beautiful, situated on a small section of flat terrain.

Another 3 or 4 kilometers takes you to the Fortin de Restefond (also known as Casernement du Restefond), another set of military barracks, this one located 2,558 meters above sea level. Construction on these barracks began in 1901 and was completed in 1906. There are four main buildings: three rectangular structures arranged in a u-shape around a central courtyard that can each accommodate one company of soldiers and a small square building which served as a guardhouse.

Between 1912 and 1913 other buildings were constructed near the original structure, including an officers’ quarters, a kitchen, an infirmary and some stables. Just as with the Camp des Fourches on the southern side a cable car was built that extended six kilometers north along the road to an area called La Prégonde. Various other small structures can be seen along the road nearby including defensive bells and mortar hoppers.

All the buildings are now completely abandoned and in a state of disrepair. Unfortunately, unlike Camp des Fourches, no restoration or renovation has been done on these structures and they appear to be progressively deteriorating.

From here it’s just a short 3 kilometers or so to the col. The landscape becomes much more bleak with the beautiful green pastures giving way to dirt, rock and scree. A few kilometers before the summit the Cime de la Bonette will come into view and it makes for some spectacular photos.

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Cycling The Col

As with most of the large mountain passes in France there are cycling markers placed every kilometer on both sides of the Col. These mark the current distance from the start, distance to the finish and elevation. Additionally, they list the average grade of the following kilometer so cyclists know what is just ahead of them. I have mixed feelings about these markers. On the one hand they are truly wonderful milestones which provide a lot of information when you are climbing a long mountain road on your bike. However, there are times when I am in the middle of a long climb and I don’t want to be reminded every kilometer just exactly how much farther I have to go!

I’ve read that the northern side is the most popular with cyclists because it is easier to get to Jausiers (via Barcelonnette) than it is to reach Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. I’m not so sure about that. I think a lot of people come up to the southern side via Nice and the Côte d’Azur and when I’ve driven over the col I’ve see more riders on the southern side than the northern side.

Regardless, both sides are actually pretty similar in difficulty. There’s only 2 kilometers difference in the length and 1/10th of 1 percent difference in the average grade. I have only climbed the southern side by bike so far, but hope to do the northern side someday soon.

Access

The Col de la Bonette can be reached via Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée from the south or Jausiers from the north. From the south take the M6202 out of Nice until it turns into the M6102 just pas Plan du Var. Follow the signs to take the M2205 up the Tinée Valley until you come to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. From the north take the D900 to Jausiers and then the C4 up to the col.

The Col de la Bonette, as well as much of the roadway on both sides, is closed during the winter due to snow. The pass usually opens up sometime around the middle of June and closes down again in the middle of October.

Juste les Faits:
What: Le Col de la Bonette
Where: Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée (Alpes-Maritimes) or Jausier (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) (Google Maps)
When: June through October
Phone: Office de Tourisme/Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée – 04 93 02 41 96
Website: tourisme-alpes-haute-provence.com/col-bonette
Facebook: La Route de la Bonette

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Steve and Carole in Vence