People who want to see the full expanse of the sky, feel connected to nature and escape the coronavirus pandemic often end up exploring the mountains of the Queyras Valley.
Here, they’ll find Saint-Véran, a village that sits at 2,042 metres in the Alps, close to the Italian border, and populated by 180 people.
Highest village claim
The village’s inhabitants and several French reports claim that Saint-Véran is the highest village in France because of the position of its mairie, but other villages in France, and in Switzerland, Italy, Russia and Georgia, reach higher, with their mairies listed above the two-mile high landmark figure.
Blue cheese and honey
Saint-Véran is surrounded by the Col de l’Estronques, the Château-Renard peak and the Col Blanchet on the Italian border, and is situated in the Queyras, a French valley famous for its blue cheese, honey and its Vauban-style fort (Vauban comes from the name of one of Louis XIV’s famous architects and engineers).
‘Where the rooster pecks the stars’
The village attracts hikers and astronomy lovers and, in recent times, throngs of tourists looking to escape the regulations of the pandemic.
The village has also seen renewed interest in its active crafts industry.
It was listed tenth in the most beautiful French villages in 2021 as part of a competition organised every year by French TV channel France 3.
Tourists say they have come to Saint-Véran because they feel disconnected from nature at home when they walk the streets, and that they want to make the most of the village’s lofty position là où le coq picore les étoiles, or ‘where the rooster pecks the stars’, as locals refer to their home.
Preserved by remote location
Saint-Véran is reminiscent of France from times past, especially when compared with most nearby alpine villages and stations, which have morphed into modern ski resorts.
The village’s well-preserved character is mostly explained by its remote geographic location.
To reach Saint-Véran, travellers had to cross the mountains and the fort of Mont-Dauphin, which was strategically built during the seventeenth century by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban to warn villagers of Italian invaders.
Only one route to Saint-Véran is passable in winter.
Summer walking trails
Once there, however, tourists can walk around traditional fustes (the name that has come to describe the village’s pretty houses), the Monument historique listed church, the Protestant temple and the Le Soum museum, dedicated to the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century agriculture.
During the summer, the village offers countless trails for beginners, intermediate and advanced hikers around the region, with some of them taking on a 70-kilometre-long trip across the Italian border.
Telescopes for hire
Good hiking skills are also required to watch the skyline from the observatoire astronomique de Saint-Véran, the astronomical observatory created in 1974 at 2,936 metres, and the Maison du soleil (The sun’s house).
The observatory has three telescopes, which visitors can hire for a day or a week’s space sightseeing.
During an event he was hosting at the observatory on 15 February, scientist Jean-François Gély used one of the telescopes to photograph the moon.
The picture caught the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and was crowned “picture of the day” by the agency.
Impact of pandemic
The peace and wilderness of Saint-Véran was shattered during the coronavirus pandemic, when people fled the cities to escape the restrictions of their urban lives.
The alpine village was, however, no different from the cities in being severely hit by enforced restaurant closures.
Saint-Véran is also the home of more than 30 wall-mounted sundials, with several waiting to be renovated and more being added by newcomers.
The village church’s sundial reads: Lou plus aouto coumunoutas inte se mangeu lou pan de Diou, a local dialect which translates as “the highest village where the bread from God is eaten.”