One of my very favorite villages in the Alpes-Maritimes is Saint-Martin-Vésubie, located at the northern end of the Vésubie Valley, about an hour and a half north of Vence. Over the years I’ve visited it many times by bike and by car. I’ve gone up for their annual Marché de Noël (Christmas Market) several times. Nestled at the foot of a towering mountain range where the Vésubie and Boréon valleys meet, it is one of the main gateways to the spectacular Mercantour National Park. While Saint-Martin-Vésubie is the last village along the Vésubie Valley, if you continue further north up into the mountains for about another 9 kilometers you’ll arrive at Parc Alpha, a wildlife park and educational center. It’s a small, but very interesting animal park in an absolutely gorgeous mountain setting. Known mostly for its three packs of wolves, the park also has many other attractions and activities. Carole and I, along with our friend Gloria, spent an afternoon at the park one Friday in August. We had a great time and would definitely recommend the park to others, especially families with young children.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
By the early 1930s wolves in France had been hunted to extinction. In the 1990s they slowly began to reappear as packs spread from Italy through the Alpes and into France. Recent sightings have occurred all over the country, in at least 38 departments, from the Alpes in the east to the Pyrénées in the southwest to the northern Atlantic coastal areas. However, the vast majority of the wolves are still to be found in the Alpes and Jura mountains.
In 2018 a “Wolf Plan” was adopted by the government with the goal of establishing a threshold of at least 500 animals. This is the number which experts believe is necessary to prevent the animals from becoming at risk of extinction once again. In 2020 there were a reported 580 adult wolves at the end of winter, up from 530 the year before. While the yearly increase has been steady, these numbers are still far smaller than those found in other countries like Italy, Romania and Poland.
Today wolves remain a protected species though the government does allow for annual “culls” to keep their numbers manageable, mostly due to pressure by livestock owners who say their flocks are under attack. French farmers reported almost 4,000 wolf attacks in 2019 which led to the deaths of over 12,000 animals, mostly sheep. The government helps the farmers with financial compensations and resources for fencing, dogs and shepherding, but it has not been enough to satisfy the powerful agriculture lobby whose members are adamantly opposed to the continued growth of the wolf populations.
Parc Alpha offers visitors a rare and unique opportunity to observe wolves in their natural habitat. To really enjoy the park, see the various parts and get the most out of it, you should plan to spend at least three hours. Of course, you can stay longer, there are lots of different activities and sites which can easily keep you busy for an entire day. We brought a small picnic lunch and really enjoyed eating outside in the wonderful forest setting. A dedicated picnic area is available if you prefer to eat there. In addition to the wolf viewing areas there is a children’s play area, an adventure course in the trees, a nature walk through the woods, a souvenir shop, free lockers to store your belongings and a snack area with sandwiches, sweets, local products and drinks. A full service restaurant is also open during the summer months.
Keep in mind that the park is located at a height of 1,500m (almost 5,000 feet) and the weather can be quite different from what you find along the Côte d’Azur. Snow can be present from December to March and even in the summer the temperatures can be quite cool, especially in the evening. Make sure to wear suitable clothing and come prepared. The afternoon in August that we spent at the park was absolutely gorgeous. Brilliant blue skies with large fluffy white clouds and temperatures in the low 70s. It was a welcome escape from the hot and humid afternoons along the coast.
The ticket office and a gift shop are located at the Boréon reception chalet when you first arrive at the park. You’ll also find information about the Mercantour National Park and the various other activities throughout the Vésubie Valley. From here it’s a short walk up the “Pas du Loup,” a short path through the woods to the Pont de Cerise, a small bridge that serves as the actual entrance to the park. After you cross over the bridge you’ll find two large “cow houses,” the Vacheries de Cerise, old wood and stone stables where three “spectale scénographiques” (audio-visual shows) that tell the story of the relationship between men and wolves are located (they are in French).
Currently there are three wolf packs (23 wolves in total) living in the park in what you might call the “semi-freedom” of enclosed spaces of natural vegetation:
- The Boréon pack (wolves from Canada)
- The Erps pack (wolves from Europe)
- The Pelago pack (white wolves from the Artic)
There are observation areas for each of the three packs comprised of wooden decks and barriers with glass windows. On the day we visited we were only lucky enough to see a couple of the white wolves. No wolves were be found in the Erps and Boréon areas. It was a bit disappointing to tell you the truth. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was certainly more than just two wolves. It is possible that the wolves are more active at different times of the day or different months of the year and we just happened to visit on a “slow” day.
The three new white wolves joined the park in June 2020. Named Graya, Gryda and Freki, they were born in an animal park in Belgium and came to Parc Alpha via a European exchange program between animal parks designed to promote and conserve genetic diversity. Each of the white wolves weigh just over 100 pounds and are quite comfortable in the Boréon climate of the park.
Each pack is “fed” once a day by trained employees and the schedule is spread out over the course of the day to provide multiple opportunities for visitors to observe. We arrived in the afternoon and both the Boréon and Erps packs had been fed earlier in the day. The Pelago pack was due to be fed at 3:45 so we made sure to head to the observation area to have a look. I have to be honest, this was a bit anticlimactic for us. There are three observations areas for the Pelago wolves, Lookout Pélago (10), Lookout Vitré (11) and Lookout Alpha (12). The daily schedule said the wolves would be fed at Lookout 10 and/or 11.
We settled in at Lookout 10 and had a good spot right up next to the windows. Three employees walked out on schedule carrying a bucket and moved up towards Lookout 11, which was, unfortunately, just out of our view. They walked back a few minutes later. We assumed they had left food from the bucket near Lookout 11. We couldn’t really see anything from our lookout so we moved up to Lookout 11, which by now was very crowded with visitors. We caught a glimpse of two or three wolves in the woods, but really they were hard to see and we were a little disappointed with the experience.
During the summer, one of the highlights of a visit to the park is the falconry show which is held twice daily, at 2:00PM and 4:00PM. More than ten birds of prey are featured including eagles, buzzards, owls and vultures. We caught the 2:00PM show and it was a lot of fun. Two “falconers” dressed in traditional clothing work with the birds on a large grassy field. One bird after another is brought out to the field where they perform flights over the heads of the crowds sitting on the ground. I was particularly impressed with this show and the training of the birds is remarkable. There was a very big crowd for the 2:00PM show that we attended and everyone, especially the children, seemed quite enthralled. Keep in mind that the falconry shows are only held from July 4th to August 22nd each year.
There are currently two male chamois, Attis and Ouréa, living at the park in a special enclosure. The animals arrived in October 2017 and make a nice addition to the park. Chamois are very similar to deer or antelope and can be found throughout France in the high mountains. It’s not unusual to come across one or more while hiking at high altitudes, but many people who do not hike in the mountains have never seen one up close (even in the mountains you won’t get to see them as close as you do here). Having them here at the park presents a great opportunity to observe them from a close perspective.
A Family Affair
While adults will certainly find much to like about Alpha Parc I think families with small children will probably get the most out of it. A variety of fun and educational chidren’s activities make it the perfect way to spend a morning, afternoon or entire day with kids. Puppet shows and creative workshops are just some of the fun activities you will find throughout the year. There’s even a ventriloquism show during July and August.
The park offers a full one-day “training” opportunity for 150€ that should be fascinating to those with a deep interest in wolves. In the morning you meet with a wolf specialist and get a private tour of the facilities. You also meet other trainers, assist in the counting of the wolves and the preparation of the food in the laboratory. In the afternoon you are free to explore the park on your own. Reservations are required for this outing.
There is a one hour morning workshop for a falconer “apprentice” where one of the professional falconers will share their knowledge and passion about the birds with you and allow you to as close to the birds as possible. This opportunity is available for anyone over the age of 8 and costs an additional 10€.
Birthday parties for children ages 3 to 10 can be arranged at the park. They generally last about three hours. A facilitator accompanies you and activities include a “workshop,” face painting, birthday cake and candy and a special visit to the wolves. Birthday parties are only held from May to November and you must make a reservation in advance. For groups of less than six the price is 12€ each, for groups of six to twelve the price is 10€ each. One accompanying adult is free and other adults pay 9€. A similar program can also be obtained for older children (10 to 15) at a price of 14€ per child. Note that during 2020 NO birthday parties are being scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The park offers a special celebration on Halloween with a variety of shows, activities, workshops and more. Children up to the age of 12 who are in costume even get in free! Be aware that this special outing may be cancelled for 2020 though no official announcement has been made yet.
Guided tours of the park are available at 30€ per person and private after hour visits are available for 90€. A late night star gazing observation can be attended for 15€.
If you’d like to spend the night at the park there are several comfortable gîtes and treehouses available though these will often fill up quickly during the high season.
During the winter season you can also combine your visit to the park with activities at the nearby Boréon Nordic Center. Secure snowshoe routes, nordic double-lane skiing, toboggan runs, skating and classic ski slopes are all available.
And, of course, consider making time to visit Saint-Martin-Vésubie. It really is a wonderful little village and there is a lot to do and see there.
From just about anywhere on the Côte d’Azur you are going to want to take the A8 to Nice and then the M6202 up along the Var River valley. Just past the town of Le Plan du Var is a big roundabout and you’ll turn right, taking the M2565 (Route de la Vésubie). The M2565 will take you all the way into Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Continue through town on the M2565 and just outside of the village take a right on the M89 (Route de Boréon) which will take you directly to the Parc Alpha.
All tickets are good for one day. The ticket price for an adult is currently 14€ during the high season (July 4th to August 30th), 12€ during the middle season (May 1st to June 22nd and August 31 to November 11) and 10€ during the low season (December 19th to April 30th). Children’s tickets are 2€ less (12€, 10€ and 8€). Children under 4 are free. There is a family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children at a reduced price.
The park is open every day from 10:00AM to 6:00PM during the high season. At other times it closes at 5:00PM. During the low season it is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. The park is closed from mid-November to mid-December.