France’s newest national park, called Parc National de Forêts, is located nearby vineyards of Champagne and Burgundy. Before, this 240,000-hectare area was called Plateau de Langres and it was rarely visited.
That may change, because the country’s 11th national park is only three hours from Paris. “The ‘national park’ label allows people to change their vision of the territory, elevating it and giving it value. Residents now recognize its incredible wealth and resources: natural, cultural, human,” said Claire Colliat, mayor of the village of Saint-Loup-sur-Aujon, on the park’s eastern border.
Parc National de Forêts is a good example of how to create national parks today. It took a decade-long political process of negotiations with farmers, hunters, town councils, and local nonprofits, and not without resistance.
In 2007, a national environment roundtable decided on a plan to add new parks by choosing areas representative of the country’s emblematic ecosystems. After a two-year, country-wide search, the French Ministry of Ecology chose the future Parc National de Forêts to safeguard lowland leafy forest.
“The forest had been here since the Middle Ages. The reason it wasn’t completely taken over by agriculture is because of the rocky soil. This limestone forces the trees to grow slowly, so the trunks of these 200-year-old oaks are not thick, but the strong wood is prized by barrel makers,” said Sylvain Boulangeot, manager of the nonprofit Maison de la Forêt.
Those trees anchor the ecosystem, providing habitat for birds, bats, insects, and mushrooms. Now, the national park is going to be a European center for forest studies. The core protected reserve will remain pristine, making it a perfect site for the study of biodiversity and adaptation to climate change.
“Because there wasn’t big agriculture here historically, the biodiversity was preserved,” explains Marion Delforge, the park’s manager of sustainable development.
An example of this biodiversity is the marais tufeux (a unique complex of limestone-layered marsh microhabitats dating to the last Ice Age.) and the sabot de Venus (Venus slipper), which is a rare, spectacular orchid that’ll get you 15,000-euro fine for picking it.
During park negotiations, Delforge met with some 60 individual farmers and they all were initially reluctant. But, the agricultural community came to understand the park’s goal of sustainable land management. By July 2020, 95 different towns had voted to become part of the park.
“There’s a different mentality now in the creation of a national park. [We’re] working closely with local actors on conservation and respectful agricultural practices,” said Delforge.
Today, a lot of people share their love of this land through ecotourism operations, such as forest therapy practice, yoga sessions that follows the sound of buzzing bees, and donkey farm where visitors can participate in donkey hikes.
“We locals hadn’t necessarily been conscious of the area’s richness. Now, the national park casts the area in a different light. New jobs will hopefully keep young people here, and I think entrepreneurial outsiders will also be an engine for local development,” said Nathalie Pierre, an area native.
Mathieu Bouchard, a former baker in Dijon, has relocated and opened a BnB with his wife. He said, “It’s an incredible opportunity to live in a national park. The forest is my second home; it’s where I go to think, to reflect. And the starry nights, with little light pollution, are amazing.”
Dang, what he said makes me want to live near a nicely-developed national park. Unfortunately, there’s not many of them in where I live. Ah well, if you’re a French citizen, you should go to this area or maybe start your own ecotourism business there. If you do, I wish you the best of luck.
Retreat from Spain’s overtourism to Catalonia’s national park
If you’ve got four hours to spare and you’re tired of Barcelona’s crowd, then you really should go to Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. That name translates from the Catalan as “winding streams and lakes of St. Maurice”.
That beautiful-sounding name is fitting, because the park has a picturesque mix of glacial lakes, waterfalls, and rushing streams, spiked by towering granite peaks with flanks clad in fir and pine forests. In spring, carpets of wildflowers roll out on the high pastures.
Due to the park’s wide range of altitudes, it has a variety of alpine vegetation. There are forests of oak, European ash, beech, and common hazel. Former meadows and pastures used for farming are now usually covered with grasslands and shrubs, dominated by secondary forests with Scots pine.
On the west side of the park, at the spa town of Caldes de Boi, you can rest your feet in hot springs. Then, you can also go to the town of Taüll and enjoy the historic churches of Santa Maria and Sant Climent. In winter, this area becomes the realm of skiers at the Boí Taüll resort, which reaches 2450 meters (8,060 feet).
For you who are old architecture lovers it’s going to be an extra treat for you when you go to the steep-sided valley known as Vall de Boi, because it has the most impressive group of Romanesque churches that dated back between 11th and 14th centuries.
Now, when you leave the town and head into the hills, that’s where the breathtaking views of nature are. You can look for Estany Perdut (Lost Lake) and Agujas Perdut (Lost Mountains) and then find the century-old bonsai pine tree growing out of a rock near the Estany Llong (Lake Llong), or eek out the famous 600-year-old black pine that has stood here since 1492.
You can definitely see wildlife here like capercaillie, rock ptarmigans, golden eagles, griffon vultures, and bearded vultures. Bearded vultures (common name for brownish black-feathered lammergeier) are an indigenous bird species with a wingspan of almost 3 meters (10 feet). In the lakes and rivers, you’ll find a lot of brown trouts.
There are asps or aspic vipers, though, which are poisonous snake species that you shouldn’t provoke. So if you want to have a long hike in this national park, learn about these snakes (and other potentially dangerous wildlife) and keep an eye out for them.
Due to the park’s high altitudes, with its tallest peak Pic de Comolaforno at 3.2 kilometers (2 miles), many of the trails are open only in spring and summer. Between May and June, the streams are at their fullest, and colorful wildflowers begin blossoming in June and July.
In summer, the weather is changeable so you should prepare yourself well. The park’s trails are well marked, and the longer routes have refuge huts. One of the treks is the Espot-Boi, which spans about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and takes around 9 hours to complete.
Really, if you have well-developed, well-managed national parks around you, you should go there and experience nature now. Anyways, happy hiking/trekking!