Paragliding the South Alpes, situated in the extreme South-East of France, is a fantastic introduction to European flying. More correctly, they are the Maritime Alps which straddle the border of France and Italy, and extend right down to the Mediterranean Sea.
The great combination of good weather and varied terrain mean that good opportunities exist to paraglide all year round.
On the French side of the Maritime Alps there are three significant rivers, the Roya, Var and Verdon and their tributaries. To the North of the Maddalena Pass are the Cottian Alps.
A short multi-cultural spelling lesson - Europeans put the 'e' in Alpes, elsewhere it tends to get shortened to 'Alps'. Also, paragliding is known as parapente.
These are not the highest Alps in Europe, the highest peak being at 3299m, or 10,824ft. That's high enough to need oxygen, if you went paragliding the South Alpes above this altitude for long enough!
In a few words, warm and dry. With three hundred or so sunny days every year, no wonder this region is popular with paraglider pilots. It's basically a Mediterranean climate that is warmer than northern France, particularly in summer.
Despite the many fine days, sudden onsets of clouds, rain and thunder amongst the mountains whilst paragliding the South Alpes is not unusual. The peaks are often obscured by cloud around midday, while the valleys remain clear.
Winter often sees these conditions reversed with valleys full of fog and low cloud and the mountain peaks jutting into clear air. Makes for some great arial cloud-scapes, make sure you have your digital camera ready!
Just about all types of paragliding are possible in the South Alps region, slope soaring along the coast, thermalling across foothills, mountain soaring further inland - both ridge and thermal driven. All year round, some of these options are available.
Nearly all ridge flying is done on south-facing sites thanks to the prevailing southerly winds and an amazing array of long, parallel ridges, extending far back inland.
So, you can just hop on a ridge and fly up and down it all day, or maybe catch a thermal and paraglide north into the higher mountains, using both ridge and thermal lift. If you're good enough. ;-) The thermals in this region can top out at 4000m (13,000ft) during summer. Fantastic!
Thermal flying conditions range from the very strong around sites such as Col de Bleyne and St. Andre-les-Alpes, to the more moderate near Gourdon and Gréolières. One of the big US schools actually makes regular trips to Gourdon with paragliding students. Nearly all the good sites in this region have easy driving access. Whew! These are no training hills!
In some areas of the South Alps, the atmospheric conditions must be excellent since 8m/s (1600fpm, 16knts) thermals are reported even during winter! That blows me away.
In central Australia, known for its great thermal conditions during summer, winter thermals are pretty pathetic. I can clearly remember bouncing around in a really rough 1m/s (200fpm, 2knts) thermal near Bond Springs airstrip one chilly, gusty day, in a Schweitzer 1-34. The wings were making that 'oil-canning' sound... wobble wobble