Watering hole

Cattle on the way to summer pastures pause in St.-Véran, the highest village in Europe and one of the French Alps’ most idyllic. (La Queyras Tourism)

Gasping for breath in the thin Alpine air, we peered into the thick veils of clouds, desperate for a glimpse of the Italian plains stretching somewhere below. Above us, Monte Viso, the 12,600-foot, twin-peaked colossus of the southern French Alps, appeared briefly through the mist. But in the distance? Whiteout.

Striking a precarious pose on an icy ledge, my hiking companion Chris swung a climbing pick around his head. Then, primed on the works of Roman historian Livy, he proclaimed to the shrouded peaks, "Soldiers! … You have now surmounted not only the ramparts of Italy, but also of the city of Rome."

It sounded pompous and absurd at that desolate height, but it lessened our disappointment and suited the location. This, after all, was Hannibal country. If the latest theories are correct, it was over this treacherous path high in the Alps that the bold Carthaginian general led his army of about 35,000 troops and 36 elephants more than 2,000 years ago.

Starving, decimated by fierce Celtic tribes and with snow thick underfoot, the great military column is thought to have rested on this mountain peak at the end of October 218 BC. Hannibal, intent on launching a surprise attack on Rome, gathered his exhausted troops the next morning and, revealing to them the fertile plains along the Po River far below, urged them downward into Italy.

The pass is known today as the Col de la Traversette and is one of the highest and most remote in the French Alps. It lies above La Queyras (pronounced "lah qway-rah"), a region of rugged valleys that only now is undergoing low-level tourist development, despite its position north of Provence and south of the elegant fortified city Briançon.

My wife, Eva, our two sons and I journeyed to La Queyras in summer 2003. Driving in trepidation along a road carved into the gorges of the Combe du Queyras, we emerged through a tunnel at the base of a picture-book castle guarding a valley of rich meadows.

Certainly La Queyras, a spur digging into the Italian border, has always been an isolated bastion. From 1349 to 1789, a medieval confederation of seven towns here formed its own independent, democratic government — the République des Escartons. Even today the enclosing mountains keep the place secluded, which is reflected in the facilities. There are no ATMs, no shopping malls, no traffic lights. Pampered tourists will search in vain for a luxury hotel.

Yet, for visitors, the 160,000-acre La Queyras Regional Nature Park has its own rewards. La Queyras remains one of the most traditional areas of the southern French Alps, and the landscape around the Guil Valley — featuring jagged-edged schistose Alps and pastured slopes — is, in turns, imposing, charming and austere.

In nearby valleys, pretty villages grace mountainsides. Even the weather is distinctive. The region is renowned for blue skies — with as many as 300 days of sunshine a year, making it one of the sunniest climates on the Continent.

For hikers, La Queyras offers wide-ranging trails and a sense of solitude rarely found elsewhere in the Alps. Plus, in season, its meadows are swathed in flowers and might provide a chance glimpse of ibex, chamois (a type of antelope), marmots and rare golden eagles.

Although the cozy guesthouses and traditional chalets scattered throughout the valleys are more than comfortable, we checked into the Hotel L'Astragale in St.-Véran. At 6,560 feet, St.-Véran is the highest village in Europe inhabited year round and one of the most idyllic in the French Alps. The old village features wooden fountains, communal ovens and houses decorated with elaborate sundials.

The Hotel L'Astragale resembles an Alpine farmhouse but offers modern rooms, well-sprung beds and balconies with dramatic views over the surroundings. The design reflects the unique architecture of the region, which, in turn, has been shaped by the harshness of traditional Queyras life.

The village's stone farmhouses are topped with elaborate constructions of weather-beaten larch wood rising up to three stories. In winter, the upper floors, called la fuste, were used to dry and store hay and grain. The stone-slab ground floor served as a family living area and stable; the cattle functioned as an organic central heating system.

When the guide at the Musée du Soum, the oldest house in St.-Véran, explained this setup, my sons, 11-year-old Brian and Colin, 9, responded with revulsion: "No way!" The guide assured them that bovine-heating was no fiction and that families in the village lived this way until 1976. The boys were then doubly thankful for the heated pool, sauna and other amenities at L'Astragale.

'No, not for 'Annibal'

We caught up with Chris, a work colleague, and Inez, his wife, in La Cour St.-Jacques restaurant in Aiguilles, a small valley town surrounded by larch forests. The two were roughing it in a campground alongside the Guil River. They had spent the previous week hiking, horse riding, mountain biking and stargazing.

But now Chris was keen to track down Hannibal.

An amateur historian, Chris had long been fascinated by the Punic Wars, the three bitter conflicts in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC that secured Roman dominion over the ancient world. I was less enthused. It was only after showing me an article on the race between Denzel Washington and Vin Diesel to make a Hannibal biopic that he convinced me to visit La Queyras. That two of the biggest names in Hollywood were slugging it out to film the exploits of Carthage's greatest son and his lifelong feud with Rome added spice to the destination.

After a hearty meal of raioles, Alpine ravioli stuffed with a paste of dried walnuts and saffron, and gratin dauphinois, a mixture of sliced eggs, potatoes and milk, Eva took the boys back to the hotel. Chris, Inez and I retired to the bar to enjoy a nightcap of Chartreuse, known locally as the "elixir of life."