Col de la Bonette: Nos montagnes à la carte #2

Don’t look too hard at the Bonette’s claim – seen on signposts the length of the ascent from Jausiers in the north and from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée in the south – that it is the highest road in Europe.

There are a few paved roads that are higher.

And it’s only the highest inter-valley route (ie, the highest road that actually goes anywhere) if you accept that the Cime de la Bonette loop around the mountain’s peak, above the col, is not cheating.

Look instead at the Tinée river, which you follow up to where it is but a tumble of clear water flowing through a high valley to rival in beauty any further north in the Alps.

Look at the white pinpricks of the tiny Alpine daisies in the meadows that, for a few short weeks after the snow’s retreat, lose their ochre colour and blasted demeanour and turn the most intense, celebratory acid green.

Look at the sheep following their shepherds across the folds of the mountain above the tree line.

Stand for a moment on the top of the cime, that dark pyramid with its 15% slopes that rip any remaining air out of your lungs, and then walk to the very top. There, at 2,859m, you’ll see the painted panorama naming each peak around you, and you can listen to the bells of the flocks on either side of the dividing ridge, those on one side dwelling in the high Alps, and on the other in the lower pastures towards the Mediterranean.

Look at the remains of the grand forts that guard this ribbon of Tarmac, and imagine the life of the soldiers up here in the winter - when they would throw planks between the roofs of the barracks to create tunnel walkways under the thick snow above, and winch up their supplies from Bousiéyas, a hamlet hundreds of metres below.

The Bonette road was built by Napoleon III when Nice and its surrounding county were ceded to the French by the Italians, in 1860.

By pledging to create this Route Impériale, the Frenchman was making a statement that he would protect Nice, a jewel on the azure waters of the Mediterranean, and not let this part of the world be menaced by the Italians any more.

Then look at the concrete hulks of the Second World War bunkers that also guard the road and the passes towards the border, and realise that one man’s determination can only last so long, and that the life of a mountain is almost infinitely longer.

Find, if you can, the secret road to the Col de la Moutière, and take the tough gravel track from the Moutière to the top. Then descend back into the world of heat and scent where you’ll find the best pizza in the world waiting for you..

And there you’ll realise, if it hadn’t struck you already, that this is one of the best climbs in the Alps, of whatever height, and that the prodigious altitude just gives you longer to appreciate its charms.

Read more about where we ride and our local climbs in our Montagnes à la Carte series. Or visit us in Nice and experience them for yourself.

Photography : Greg Annandale
Words : Max Leonard