Author, Florence Chatzigianis, constantly “walks the walk” exploring her favorite western Cote d’Azur trails. Nicolas Chatzigianis
Story and Photos by Florence Chatzigianis
Every year, close to 10 million people visit the Côte d’Azur, more familiar to most English-speaking vacationers as the French Riviera. Yet despite the destination’s perennial popularity, the region’s spectacular network of footpaths remain a well-kept secret ….. until now!
The volcanic Estérel Mountains, between Cannes and Saint-Raphael, have an intricate network of hiking paths.
Over a wild footpath with red volcanic rocks crunching under our hiking boots, we walk up above the seaside town of Le Trayas into the Estérel Mountains of the Côte d’Azur. A swarm of cars weaves along the coastal road below. Up on our track, we no longer belong to the world of gridlock streets, of rushed highways, of tight air flight connections.
It’s Sunday, our hiking group day. In this southeastern corner of France, the weather is so good that we rarely miss a day. Purple-flowered lavender and tree heath surround us, the heath brushed up like a broom sweeping the cloudless skies.
“Do you think you’ll get used to France?” asked my cousin when I returned to France after twenty-some years in the United States. “Not sure,” I answered. “Ask me again next year.”
Far below our footpath, beyond the train tracks that run to Nice and the Corniche d’Or road now muted by distance, a string of maroon-colored coves bite into the coastline. “I can’t get used to the buzz and glamor of the Côte d’Azur,” I whisper, “but I can certainly get used to this.”
The turbulent history of Chartreuse de la Verne monastery began in 1170.
Below us, the city of Cannes spreads along the coast. Looking beyond Cannes and into its huge embracing bay, we spot the two islands of Lérins, looking like stepping stones in the sea.
Just like the rugged Estérel Mountains, the islands of Lérins (Ste Marguerite and St Honorat) hold a dear place in my heart. Cars are forbidden so you must discover the islands on foot, following a 15 minute ferry ride from Cannes’ western harbor. And on the islands, you savor a slice of the region as it existed before it turned into the Côte d’Azur.
The smallest, St Honorat, has no other construction but its old fortified monastery, its abbey with archways lined with roses and potted geraniums, its seven little chapels (one of them still in ruins) that circle the island, and its two Napoleonic canon ball furnaces that await orders. Few local postcards show St Honorat at all.
“Do you know the monks on St Honorat have the best little cookbook in town?” exclaims my hiking buddy Michèle, waving her hiking stick toward the islands. “Recipes are all made with Lérina Verte or Lérina Jaune liqueur (Green or Yellow Lérina liqueur) concocted by monks there from the essence of 44 plants.”
Prehistoric burial site of Gaoutabry dates back 4,500 years.
“Look at the bubbles,” says Michèle. We turn our heads. Half way down to the Mediterranean Sea, a group of houses is tucked into the mountain side, plump and round like melons. “They belong to Haute Couture designer Pierre Cardin,” says Michèle, always ready to enlighten our friendly group of nature-lovers. We wonder out loud about the convenience of rounded walls. “Whatever happened to common sense?” laughs hiker Jean-Claude as we stop to take a sip of water from our bottles before the more strenuous leg of our walk uphill.
Tucked between the towns of Cannes and Saint-Raphael in the French Riviera, the Estérel Mountains are striking to visitors with their red rocks and their jagged crest lines and pitons above the Mediterranean Sea. The ranges were born 250 million years ago from a few active volcanoes that centered around the current Mont Vinaigre and the Dramont.
Less crowded in May or September, Cap Dramont offers gentle beaches, forest trails and a traditional fishing port with an American WWII history.
We make our way inland into the Estérel, huffing a bit as the path continues to upward. “I’ve been hiking the region for twenty years,” volunteers Jean-Claude. “I’m a bit slower now, but I get to observe more this way. No, I never tire of it,” he tells me. “Even the same path changes with the seasons.”
The distinctive crinkly flower of the grey-leafed cistus is common in rocky areas between April and June.
And so it does. In spring, the Estérel blooms with the pink chiffon flowers of grey-leaved cistus, the white flowers of sage-leaved rock rose, the purple bracts of Stoechas lavender. In the winter, it’s the Strawberry tree that displays at once both white flowers like tiny bells and bright red balls for fruit. In February, the mimosa bursts into yellow. In early autumn, the Calluna heather displays its purple flowers. In the intense heat of summer, many plants sweat their fragrance to shield themselves from the sun. It’s only then that we opt for shorter early morning or evening strolls or for shaded hikes.
There is no fashion along the wild footpaths of the Côte d’Azur, just seasons and a changing light that paints the scenery anew each day. Is this why the footpaths of the French Riviera seem deserted next to the region’s trendy beaches? Hikers long not to be seen, but to see, to discover, to slowly experience.
I tell JC and Michèle of my latest visit to Cap Taillat, a protected cape on the St. Tropez peninsula. It is linked to the mainland by a thin finger of sand or isthmus. Because the hike from the Escalet beach to this protected cape is easily accessible, I take there anyone who visits us. It has become a familiar neighbor to me: the salt-ridden wind, the sight of pine trees and Holm oaks sheared by the wind, and the sun that reigns over this wild peninsula. In early Spring, there was hardly a soul on Cap Taillat.
Cap Taillat’s shores of white sand and granite were already occupied by 200 BC.
Is this real jewel of the French Riviera undiscovered? Not exactly. On one of my recent coastal walks on the Sentier des Douaniers, or Custom Officers’ Path by St. Tropez, I passed a hiking group of over thirty jolly trekkers. Each one of them gave me a smile and a “bonjour” (a single global “bonjour à tous” – good day to you all – makes a good reply). But the footpaths rarely seem crowded, even if they meander by view points that make postcards look inadequate.
The Estérel Mountains, St Honorat, the St Tropez Peninsula …. these all belong to another side of the Côte d’Azur, a side that speaks to me, a side that lingers with me long after any visit.
“Will you hike with us to the St Tropez Peninsula next Sunday?” asks Michèle as we wind our way down to the coastal road and wrap up our half-day hike.
“Sure thing,” I answer. “I never tire of it.”
Colorful markets on Tuesday and Saturday mornings enliven St Tropez’ Place des Lices.
The focus of Florence’s walks is the western side of the Côte d’Azur (St. Tropez, Hyères, Fréjus, St Raphael). Here are two useful websites to help you plan your stay in the area: www.st-tropez-lesmaures.com/ and www.saint-raphael.com/en/.
To most, the full length of the Côte d’Azur stretches from Hyères in the west all the way to Menton on France’s southeastern border with Italy. Along the way it takes in the Hyères and its Golden Islands, St. Tropez, Fréjus, Cannes, Nice, Antibes and even another country, the tiny principality of Monaco.
It is worth noting that many families now stay in a holiday villa in France when hiking France’s Cote D’Azur.
Florence Chatzigianis is a hiker, travel writer and tourism adviser. She has written for Via Magazine, France on your own, and is a regular contributor to the Riviera Times. She is the author of 26 Gorgeous Hikes on the Western Côte d’Azur, published by AzurAlive Press in February 2008, available through Amazon online or your favorite bookshop. Each year, Florence walks hundreds of kilometers of way-marked footpaths that crisscross southeastern France. She is a member of the French Hiking Federation (FFRP) and works tirelessly to encourage visitors to discover the region’s lesser-known footpaths and cultural gems. www.azuralive.com.