Many land border crossings between countries can be dull affairs with little to no scenery and lots of bureaucracy. Thankfully the open borders of Europe make the paperwork nonexistent and the natural richness of surfaces like rivers, forests and of course mountains can provide a beautiful backdrop.
One of the most scenic frontiers that we planned along our route driving from Spain to Italy was Mont-Cenis/Moncenisio (French and Italian names respectively) that sits in the heart of the Alps and divides France from Italy.
There remain no remnants of the border guard office from times past, it is rather the very distinct cultures and the formidable mountain road itself that lets you know you’re in quite a different place.
The French Side
We stayed on the French side of the mountain (Mount Ceins) during the first two days. The mountain roads provide many road and mountain bikers with a heart pumping ride to the top. In the valley just below sits the town of Langesbourg, a picturesque city complete with pinewood homes, beautiful summer gardens and stone roofs that stand the test of time.
The city is clean and inviting and there are both homestays and hotels available for visitors. Simply walk up from the valley floor in any direction and you can find trails, ancient castles and high mountain passes that are seasonally open. It’s amazing to go on one of these hikes in full view of the town below and hear the bells of the church ringing in the distance.
In comparison to the Italian side we can say the French side has a better marked system of trails, but the Italian side certainly wins out for the friendliness and engagement of the local people.
The Italian Side
We hiked two days on the Italian side of the border as well. At the top of Mount Cenis sits a massive lake that really feels otherworldly. It is as big as an inland sea and campers of all sorts sleep along its shores. The clouds move a lot and weather changes fast so we recommend crossing to the Italian side and seeing it at first light of day.
Once we made it to the Italian side we wanted to visit the first city of Italy on the border. Having the same name as the mountain (Montecenisio) it is a charming place where you can see a couple restaurants, city hall, church and a few homes all in the span of a two minute walk. The town embodies the quintessential small-town Italian feel. People are friendly and curious and we became fast friends with the demonstrative and excitable restauranteur who was proud to have us visit his family establishment.
The real magic is that the town is connected to a series of trails that weave through locals forests, fields, streams and pathways. At times the trail markings are a little hard to follow, but the views are incredibly worth it. The trails are two historic roadways, one over which Hannibal allegedly drove his troops and elephants in a bid to sack ancient Rome and the Via Franciscana, an ancient pilgrims way from the Alps to central Tuscany in the town of Assisi.
We recommend both sides of the mountain for tourists looking to get an experience of French and Italian Alpine culture in summertime. The rock formations, waterfalls, lakes and commanding views are some of the best in Europe and the small town character that brings good wine and food at the end of every hike is irreplaceable.