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."
Chris mentioned his quest for the Hannibal trail to the barmaid.
"No," she said to Chris, shaking her head. "You didn't come all the way from America for this."
"Not America," he replied in broken French. "Munich. We live in Germany at the moment."
Still she could not comprehend. "No, not for 'Annibal," she said, intoning the general's name. She smiled, shook her head again, and the amber pendant around her neck reflected the light in a multitude of shades.
Customs die slowly in La Queyras. The region is still rife with legends of witchcraft and sorcery. In the case of amber, mountain women wore it for centuries as an ineffective talisman against goiter. The disfiguring malady caused by a lack of iodine plagued the region until the 20th century. Was the barmaid's jewelry a fashion statement or a vestige of folklore? None of us asked. Maybe a bit of both; the jeweler's shop next door to the restaurant also displayed many fine ornaments crafted from the resin.
The barmaid's incredulity was understandable. Although Hannibal's crossing of the Alps at the start of winter is considered one of the most remarkable military feats in history, there is no evidence to indicate which pass he and his frozen elephants traversed.
Based on texts of Livy and the earlier Greek historian Polybius, scholars have identified a dozen likely routes. Napoleon thought he crossed at Montcenis; Edward Gibbon, author of "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire," claimed Col de Montgenèvre.
The Col de la Traversette was first suggested in 1805 — a theory largely ignored until the 1950s. For centuries, only traders and smugglers used the pass; scholars avoided it not only because of the difficulty of the climb but because of "the ease with which triggers are pulled in that area," as historian Gavin de Beer wrote.
American academic John Prevas rekindled the debate in 1988, when he claimed that Col de la Traversette was undoubtedly Hannibal's route. He'd spent six summers scaling every pass on the French-Italian border, trying to match the geography with historical descriptions of Hannibal's journey. His conclusion: Only the Guil Valley leading to the Col de la Traversette matched the historic texts.
Why would Hannibal, one of the most astute generals in history, take his army over one of the most demanding routes in the Alps? Prevas, again drawing on Livy and Polybius, argues that duplicitous guides led Hannibal into a military ambush in the Combe du Queyras, believing that those who did not die in its treacherous gorges would later perish crossing the snow-covered Alps.
Undoubtedly Prevas will not have the last word on the matter, but his description of the Col de la Traversette in his 1998 book, "Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy and the Punic Wars," captured our imaginations. Even if it was not Hannibal's pass, Chris and I resolved to climb it.
How did the elephants cross? Nowadays, the pass is part of a strenuous high-level walking circuit, the Tour de Monte Viso. It crosses into Italy near the 9,917-foot-high Pointe de Marte. Snow lies year round on the summit and few people take the trail, even in the height of summer.
Although neither of us claimed to be as hardened as Hannibal's mercenary troops — Nubian horsemen, slingers from the Balearic Islands and Gaelic swordsmen — we had the advantages of Gore-Tex clothing, stout boots and a car ride to Petit Belvedere, near the head of the Guil Valley.
The day was fine when we started, the sky clear and blue. Four hours later, when we climbed the last meters of a long snow chute, the clouds were closing in and a fierce wind clawed at our packs. It was cold, bleak and icy, and what should have been an inspiring view of the Po Valley toward Torino (Turin) resembled a television tuned between stations — with reception worsening fast.
As we clung tightly to this massive bulwark of ice and stone straddling the border, it became clear what an astonishing feat Hannibal's crossing was. Regardless of exactly where he crossed, it would have been onerous. It is, however, difficult to imagine a route more perilous for an army than the Col de la Traversette.
" 'Annibal. It's a nice story," Thérèse Comte, a representative of the local tourism office, had said to me, sounding skeptical. "It is difficult to imagine how anyone could cross that pass with elephants . Though to be honest, no one here thinks much about 'Annibal. It is still a poor region and most people are busy enough trying to earn a living rather than worry about such matters."
Although La Queyras presents stunning, bucolic scenery and a respite from the pace of urban Europe, for us it was Hannibal's ghost that breathed life into the landscape. After descending into Italy, Hannibal raged through the country for 16 years. He was always outnumbered by the Roman armies yet never lost a battle. He failed only at the gates of Rome itself and spent his final 20 or so years in exile.
Our path home was easier. After a meal of bread, salami and delicious local Reblochon cheese, we turned our backs on shrouded Torino, hoisted our packs onto our shoulders and retraced our route back into the arms of our waiting wives and children.
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On a general's trail
From LAX: Lufthansa, Air France, KLM and Aer Lingus offer connecting service (change of plane) to Lyon, France. Restricted, round-trip fares begin at $570. La Queyras is a 190-mile, four-hour drive east from Lyon.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (the country code for France), 492 (the area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hôtel la Ferme de I'Izoard, La Chalp, Arvieux; 46-89-00, fax 46-82-37, http://www.laferme.fr . Chalet, built to resemble a traditional farmhouse, has 23 rooms, from comfortable to luxurious, with exceptional views. Doubles begin at $77.
Les Chalets du Villard, Quartier le Villard, St.-Véran; 45-82-08, fax 45-86-22, http://www.leschaletsduvillard.fr . Open June-September and December-April. Offers 21 studios and three luxury "comfort and health" studios. Apartments are available in the village. La Gratinée, the hotel restaurant, serves traditional dishes, including fondue. Doubles begin at $108.
Villa Serre Poullin, Aiguilles; 46-76-63, fax 46-87-48, http://www.villaserrepoullin.com . Nicely restored family-run guesthouse with three rooms in the rustic town of Aiguilles. Doubles start at $57.
Le Cazet, Quartier Pierre-Belle, St.-Véran; 45-81-39, fax 45-86-36. Three simple double rooms in a clean, restored village building; open summers and ski season only. Doubles start at $31.
Hôtel L'Astragale, St.-Véran; 45-87-00, fax 45-87-10, http://www.astragale.queyras.com . An Alpine farmhouse design with modern rooms, well-sprung beds and balconies. Doubles from $90.
WHERE TO EAT:
Restaurant La Cour St.-Jacques, Aiguilles; 46-71-20. Noted for its duck dish, magret de canard au coulis d'argousier; $47 for two.
Le Chamois, Molines en Queyras; 45-83-71. Traditional regional food prepared by a passionate French chef. Specialties include raclette and the veal dish côte de veau façon Queyrassine. Entrees $10-$30.
Hôtel Beauregard restaurant, St.-Véran, 45-86-86. Carré d'agneau flambé à l'alcool de mélèze, a lamb dish in larch alcohol; $50 for two.
Restaurant Lou Goustaroun, Abriès, 46-76-47. The fondue d'échauguette au génépy is a favorite with locals; $43 for two.
TO LEARN MORE:
La Queyras Tourist Office, Maison du Queyras, 05470 Aiguilles; 46-76-18, fax 46-81-44, http://www.queyras.com (French only).
French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, http://www.francetourism.com .
"Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy and the Punic Wars," by John Prevas.
"Hannibal," historic novel by Ross Leckie.