The Alpes Maritimes, France
The Maritime Alps offer one of the great outdoor playgrounds of Europe with high Alpine mountains almost stretching to the coast – those who live or stay there can easily enjoy a good walk in the morning and within an hour be swimming in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Having spent much of his life enjoying the delights of the Yorkshire Dales Pete has been living in Grasse for over 5 years during which time he has explored the area and taken on many of the walking challenges in the area. He has selected 5 of his favourite walks, photographed them and described them below. In his ‘spare’ time Pete runs a successful company selling villa holidays throughout Europe, no doubt he has some suitable villas in this excellent walking area (click here for details)
Pete recommends 3 excellent guidebooks which can be picked up from any local tourist office and each has 30 to 40 walks in each. They are the Guides Randoxygene (Pays Cotier, Haut Pays and Pays Moyenne) – they may be in French but easy to follow and my O Level French was sufficient.
- Montagne de Thiry (approx. 5 hrs)
- Circuit du Mont Bastide (approx. 4 hrs)
- Cime de Cheiron (approx. x hrs)
- Gorges de L’Esteron (approx. 4 ½ hrs)
- Bau de l’Arc (approx. 2 1/2 hrs)
- Arches du Ponadieu (approx. 2 1/2 hrs)
- Circuit des Blaquires (approx. 3 hrs)
- Montagne de L’Audibergue (approx. 3 hrs)
- Caps de la Presqu’ile de Saint Tropez (approx. 4 hrs)
Montagne de Thiry (approx. 5 hrs, 70 ms climb)
This is a pretty tough walk where you basically head straight up the mountainside via a fairly steep zigzag path to the summit, then drop back down a little, traverse along just below the ridge, nip up to a second smaller summit then head back down.
Its all south facing so it gets hot when the sun’s out and you definitively need two litres of water each. You are rewarded by fabulous views of the Alps and the Mediterranean (on a clear day), an amazing variety of flora and fauna, including lizards, vultures, wild peonies and wild dwarf iris.
Drive in: From Cannes drive up to Grasse, then follow the “route Napoleon (one of the most magnificent roads in France)” D6085 up to St Vallier de Thiey. Continue in the direction of Castellane, over the Pas de la Faye then descend down into the valley of the river Nans. Cross the bridge over the river and turn immediately right into the car park.
From the car park follow the small road/track towards the “maison Forestiere” and the first signpost b66. Careful as there are two walks starting here one goes along the river but you are going up the mountain.
You will pass the maison Forestiere (on your right) and follow the forest track up the hill for about ten minutes. Pass the sign 67 then take the track off to your left signposted Sentier de Thiey following the yellow markers, walk up through the woods then cross the main track and follow the nice looking small track though the woods, again following the yellow markers on the trees, posts and rocks.
From there it’s a series of zig zags taking you up though lovely pine woods initially, then a wonderful area of small limestone rocks, gorse bushes and in the spring a whole hillside of beautiful wild iris and orchids as well as many other wild flowers.
Eventually you will come into another area of pine woods (Austrian and Black pines), you pass a spring (on your right) and come to a sign number 69 then 70. Carry on to the sign number 71 then it’s a steep exposed climb up the last section to the summit. Here you will find a vast plateau (sometimes with snow in Spring) which is a great spot to eat and even sneak a nap, (it can be windy if you are unlucky). This is another area alive with wild flowers including wild peonies, violets and dwarf daffodils.
You then drop back down to signpost number 71 then 70 and 69, head along towards 68. Then take the small track to your left signposted to Canaux, follow this along to the signpost 178. Then it’s all downhill via the signpost 72 to the 127 and 66 then join the path you came up at signpost 67. Then simply retrace your tracks back to the car.
This walk is best done mid April to mid May to get the best of the spring wild flowers. The snow in the high mountains is often unstable at this time of year, ruling them out and it’s starting to get too hot for the coastal walks, so this type of “mi-cotier” walk is ideal. You really need to be equipped with a 40 litre pack which will allow you to carry clothes for both very warm weather and the cold (though not extreme). There has been snow on the top at this time of year in the past.
Walking in the southern Alps is unusual, the weather matters, particularly when its hot or raining, you should check the weather forecast before leaving and if thunder storms are forecast definitely don’t go, if its rain or snow certainly think twice. Usually it’s full on sunshine, so you need to make sure you use blocker, wear a hat and don’t get fried. Manage when you go, what you wear, take enough water, be careful to protect yourself and it’s wonderful.
Circuit du Mont Bastide (approx. 4 hrs, 600 ms climb)
This is a good varied walk which allows you a good work out, a visit to one of the prettiest villages on the French Cote d’Azur and some fantastic views of the coast. It’s a walk of two halves really, the first bit, although really quite steep is frequented by quite a few tourists as many people get the train to Eze sur mer then walk up to the village. But if your there early, as you need to be or you will die in the heat, its fine. So you park up by Eze station (you do need to pay except on Sundays or national holidays) and there are not many places so that’s another reason to get there early.
The first section from Eze sur mer is up a path which is often like a gigantic staircase (a bit like Malham), it’s verdant and pretty with some wonderful views of limestone cliffs and theMediterranean. Then you come to the medieval village of Eze which is well worth a visit, it’s quite compact and there is a lot to see.
For the next section you join the main road out of the village heading west, then just before the road tunnel you will find the path on the right, there is a sign post. This fairly steep path leads up to the summit of Mont Bastide 570 metres where you have fabulous panoramic views. Unlike the first section which is lovely and peaceful you get some road noise on this bit but it’s worth it. From the top you go down the other side making sure you carry on to the wooden barrier and pick up the signed path just beyond (don’t be tempted by the earlier path off to the left which is to the parascending launch site unless you fancy a base jump!). Then follow the path down and you will eventually hit the residential outskirts of Eze sur mer where you follow the tarmac road and every now and again you will see steps which allow you to short cut across the hairpins of the road. You arrive back at the coast road on the opposite side of the station from where the walk started.
We liked this walk though we actually found we did it in more like three and a half hours including a quick zipp round Eze village and a pause for a sandwich but we were in our stride and its wasn’t a hot day. You will need water as it gets very hot by the coast here and it’s a fairly steep ascent in parts.
Cime de Cheiron (approx. x hrs)
This is a testing linear walk, it starts with you practically on your tip toes and it just keeps going up with little respite until you reach the summit at 1,778 metres, having started from 830 metres. Its 950 metres up and down and it feels like it towards the end. The guide says 5 hours (non stop) we took 6 including about half an hour for stops.
It’s a really good walk to do in early winter as you get the joy of the snow capped highAlpsin the distance. I’ve done it in the Spring as well which was also very nice, you just need to make sure the snow has gone. The top of this walk is also the top of the highest ski lift for the Greoliere les neiges ski resort which is over the other side of the mountain. Best not to do it when it’s hot as you are very exposed to the sun most of the time.
You park in Greoliere village (where there is a useful café for the end) then walk back down the road a bit. You will see some steps on the left, go up them and then you will find the number 30 sign which is the departure point. From there just follow the path up and up to the sign 193 where you take the left turn following Cime de Cheiron, you will come across red and white markers up to the sign 194 on the ridge. The views back down on thevillageofGreoliere, the ruins of the chateau and the church are wonderful.
You need to take very careful note of your bearings at the sign 194 as there is another path (GR4) which goes straight on (which you don’t take) and when you return it is easy to take it by accident as the sign itself is a bit hidden in the trees (you will see what I mean on the way down). So take a right at the 194 sign and from here your followingcairnsand it’s a bugger as there arecairnsall over the place. We took to strategically sticking bits of lavender in ours to avoid getting confused as we got lost first time we did this walk and you really don’t want to be up there when the light goes and the temperature plummets. So you are following thecairnsthrough the woods and you will eventually spot a massive cairn on the horizon, head for that. Carry on towards the mast which you can see ahead then follow the path off to the left (there are actually two which run parallel, you want the one which is most walked on (ultimately they lead to about the same place). You will then come to a ski piste (blue run), you need to walk up it a bit then you can get onto the good ground to the right and follow along parallel up to the last bit where you need to join the ski run again for the steep finish, then gain the viewing platform. There you have panoramic views of the highAlps, the Gorge du Loup plus the sea, Groliere les Neige ski resort and I think it is the Gorge de Verdon, anyway, great views they are, well worth the effort. Be very careful going back down particularly the bit up to the massive cairn as its easy to wonder off down the wrong track, also when you get towards the end of the wooded bit near to the 194 sign as you don’t want to take the wrong track.
Great walk, bit of classic, nice mix of terrain.
Gorges de L’Esteron (approx. 4 ½ hrs, 65 ms climb)
The Gorge d’Esteron offers a bit of all sorts, there are picture postcard Provencale villages, stunning river gorge views, beautiful woodland and the high mountains of the Alps as a backdrop.
As is often the case in these parts the walk is pretty tough and there is a sting in the tail. It starts with a steep zigzag up to the 1000+ metres summit from the charming village of Bouyon (700 metres), then it’s a long meander down to the next village. This is followed by a long traverse along the side of the gorge which takes you down to about 350 metres, then finishing with another steep zigzag back up through woodland back to Bouyon.
There are a couple of areas where you can go wrong (and we met a very flustered, sweating, chap who did) so some care is required, particularly as you are getting out of Bouyon at the start. Although there is plenty of woodland it can get really warm and plenty of water is essential. Its particularly special end of May early June when the spring flowers are out and the terraced fields are alive with butterflies. You may see the occasional big lizard which will probably scare the bejabers out of you as it scurries to hide.
Drive in: From Nice take the RD6202 up the Var valley towards Digne and Grenoble, turn and cross over the river at the Pont de la Manda. Go right at the first roundabout and continue to Carros on the RD1. Then follow the RD1 via Le Broc to Bouyon. Park in the main car park in the village of Bouyon if you can, which is towards the top of the village. Best of all put Bouyon in your gps.
From the village car park, where you will see a white and yellow roadside marker D8 12, Alt 700m, walk up the road about 50 metres and you will see a wooden sign b5 (your heading for Les Ferres). Go up the steps and carry on, via the Aiguillete road, to the wooden sign number 6, then up the hill again towards Les Ferres (don’t go left). Carry on and keep an eye out for the small track off to the right (indicated by the yellow marker, the first of many you need to follow).
Continue through the woods and the steep zigzag up to sign number b100 then over just past a summit at 1048 metres. The path then heads down to the sign number 116 where you cross over a wide path (which the guide calls the canal de Vegay track) and take the slightly hidden, unlikely looking path, down the other side (look out for the yellow marker). Carry on down this path to the sign b45 (it’s a bit steep and slippy in parts) which is close to the village of Les Ferres. Carry on the path towards Les Ferres and look out for a small road on your right where there is a stop sign, and the b44 (which was broken), you need to turn right down this forest track (there is also a red sign headed Piste de D.F.C.I.) You can take a quick tour of the village before heading off down here if you fancy.
You follow this wide mainly unsheltered track for about 3km until you come to sign number 102 (359m) where you take a really nice path which has stunning views of the gorge and the river below (you can optionally take a path down to the river and the pont de la Cerise at this point and maybe take a dip, only snag is you have to walk back up!).
Carry on along the woodland path, past a Madonna plinth where the path goes downhill to the left (not straight on) until you come to the sign b103 (stunning views of the Baus de la Clave cliffs). Here you need to be careful as the path you want goes up the hill (look out for the indication to Bouyon painted in orange on the rocks) as opposed to going straight on which is also indicated as being to Bouyon but is longer.
Its quite a zigzag slog up the hill through lovely woods until you eventually come to a tarmac road, turn right and pick up the path (yellow markers) on the opposite side of the road (the b2 sign should be there but was missing). Its then about 15 minutes fairly easy walk to the B1 sign and the village, cross the village (there is a nice café for a cool drink which you will probably feel you deserve) and back to the car park.
This walk lies in the mid-mountain section of the Alps Maritime and is ideal for hot days when the coastal walks are unbearable but the high alps are still restricted due to snow. Lots of water is essential, 2 litres each is advisable. Look out for the weather as if it turns it can get nasty quick, so you need appropriate clothes! An IGN map is essential as the guide book (see below) is a bit vague and the wooden b signs are indicated on the map which is very helpful. We loved this walk and will definitely do it again but will start early to catch the cool of the morning next time as the afternoon heat was murderous!
Bau de l’Arc (approx 2 1/2hrs )
The Bau de L’Arc circular walk is outstanding. Even the drive in along the Esteron valley is stunning and the prettyvillageofCuebris(the departure point), snuggled against a massive cliff is a gem. The surrounding area is so unspoilt you feel like you have the world to yourself indeed we didn’t see anyone at all until the last section of the walk.
The guide book describes the walk as “rando moyen” or medium, I would add “tough” to that, we were certainly feeling our calf muscles on the lengthy decent.
When you arrive at Cuebris you should drive through the village and then you will come to the car park on the other side, in a dip. The starting path runs from there up the hill in the right hand corner. At the top of there you will find the B105 post.
There follows a fair ascent through beautiful pine woods along a really nice path, a bit steep at times, until you eventually come to the B310 post. Here the guide book is not so clear. There is a path immediately to the right which takes you to the summit of Bau de L’Arc and back. The next one on the right is the one you want to take to go back down the mountain around the front of the Bau de L’Arc (this one isn’t signposted nor marked but you will eventually pick up yellow markers).
The descent is great, albeit long and pretty steep and a bit hairy in parts. Towards the bottom of the valley you cross a stream, keep an eye out just after that for the fabulous, very steep gorge on your right which you can just see through the oak trees. It is a taste of the gorge you are eventually treated to a superb view of right near the end of the walk, which is actually a departure point for a canyonning descent.
At the end there is a gentle rise back up to the village so there is no vicious sting in the tail to this circuit which I have to say we appreciated as the descent was pretty taxing.
We did this walk on a hot day and whilst we sweated plenty we appreciated the considerable amount of shade on most of the route. The scenery which is not unduly blocked out by the trees is varied, at times beautiful and frequently spectacular. All in well worth doing, we liked it, a lot.
Arche du Ponadieu (approx 2hrs 30 mins, 200 ms climb)
The Arche du Ponadieu walk is a great on to do in early September when it is still around 30 degrees C and if your not in the high mountains you need some shade. The guide book describes it as easy, don’t be fooled its more like easy/medium as although you might only have 250 metres gradient to deal with it’s down the steep side of a gorge.
The access road is tricky to find, you take the main RD6085 route Napoleon from Grasse to Saint Vallier de Thiey and drive through the village, past the Spa supermarket on you left, over the mini roundabout then take the next left, a small unlikely looking road which leads off between narrow walls, goes across a ford then follows the top side of the gorge (which is below on your left). In parts there is only room for one car but there are passing places, just keep going, it is just over 3.5km from the village and you will come to the only obvious parking spot on your right where there is a small iron cross and a sign about the local nature.
From the car park walk down the road just a few metres and you will see the wooden sign number 81 on the valley side of the road that’s the start point.
You then follow the path right down to the bottom of the valley where you will eventually come to a beautiful area where the river comes through a hole in the rock. The water is freezing cold and crystal clear and there is a pool deep enough to swim in if your mad enough. A wonderful spot to savour, enjoy a picnic and contemplate what look like mysterious faces in the rock.
Then you need to retrace your steps back to where the path crosses the GR510 at signpost number 80, turn left and follow the valley upstream. The GR path follows an ingenious covered canal along the side of the valley where you can enjoy the views especially from the couple of rocky points where small ladders have been installed and meets the road. Turn right at the road which is mostly gentle uphill and it leads back to the car park. You can carry on along the GR as far as you like before turning back if you want to extend the walk.
We liked the walk a lot, especially as there was no one down by the river when we got there, the sun was throwing reflections on the walls of the massive hole in the rock through which the river flows and it was a beautiful place to experience. A very good afternoons walk.
Circuit des Blaquires (approx. 3 hrs, 30 ms climb)
This is a nice easy walk which takes you up onto the heights above Vence where you have panoramic views of the plateau, the Alps in the distance (snow capped in Spring) and the coast.
Drive in: From Vence take the D2 towards Coursegoules (it is signposted to Colle de Vence in the centre of town). The road takes you north for 5km and you will see parking space on the right of the road where there is a signpost (578m) for Circuit des Blaquiers on a wooden post. If you come to the switchback bends you have gone too far.
From the signpost at the parking area take the path up to the Mangia Pan plateau following the yellow markers (all along the walk follow the signs for Circuit des Blanquires and the yellow markers which are either on the trees or rocks being careful when they are L shaped as you need to turn in the direction indicated).
At the junction in the path at the top of the hill take the right towards the east. Carry on past a stone ruin (look out for the left fork indicated by the yellow marker) then follow the pathway up the hill to the top of Blaquieres mountain (809 metres) which has two Chene Verte (green oak) trees. Here you have fabulous panoramic views of the sea and the surrounding mountains.
Follow the path down the other side and round to the left (over a rocky stretch marked with cairns) then via back round towards the east and past an area of dolines (piles of limestone rocks indicated eventually by a sign).
At the path junction next to the electricity pilons follow the path down the hill (west) back towards the road D2 below. Just before reaching the road the path veers to the right through some woodland (you will see a house just below to you left) then the path runs parallel with the road for a while. Finally you come to the road, follow the road up the hill (take care on the road, its best to use the small path on the opposite side of the road) for about 400 metres and you will come back to the parking spot.
You may like to finish with a stop in Vence which has a nice old town. Art lovers may also appreciate a visit to the Matisse chapel (about 15 minutes on foot from the centre) which was entirely designed and decorated by Matisse, entrance is 3.5€.
We did the walk in Spring, 2nd April and did combine with a visit to the Matisse chapel. I recon it would get pretty hot doing this walk in the summer but it would probably be very pleasant if started very early or undertaken in the evening. It’s a pleasant walk, nothing amazing but a nice one to start with to get a feel for the area, the scenery and the path markings without risk, in this area known as the mi-cotier (mid-coastal) section of the Alps Maritime.
Montagne de L’Audibergue (approx. 3 hrs)
This is a fantastic walk which you can adapt in all sorts of ways as there are loads of options, all of which are easy to pick out on a clear day. The classic walk is a three hour effort but anyone in their right mind would stop for a picnic on the ridge and enjoy the views. There is the option from June until end September/early October of taking the chair lift up to the top which allows all grades of walkers a chance to get up high. You can even take your mountain bike up and come down via a whole range of tracks from easy to very tough if you want.
I’ve done this route walking and with snow shoes, either way it’s a good work out, the views are incredible at the top and there is a nice mix of fairly high mountain and beautiful woodland.
There is easy parking at the parc de La Moliere ski lift from where you basically follow the line of the lift up to the ridge at the top. You can either walk straight up by the lift or follow the zigzag path, we did a bit of both. Carry on up beyond the top of the ski lift and you will come to the view point which has a map detailing the panorama. There are views of the sea and the Lenin islands, the Esterel range, the gorge de Verdun, the high Alps of the Mercantour and everything in between, it’s stunning.
At the top turn left (as your looking at the sea) and just follow the ridge along until you come to the top the Audibergue 1642m (you will find signpost 176 behind the ski lift cabin near the edge of the ridge). We had a picnic here and were treated to triple low level fly pass by a private plane then best of all the most incredible fly past of at least fifteen eagles or vultures (I couldn’t tell which). They flew past about twenty metres from our heads, just below us, so you could see the feathers rippling on their massive backs and huge wings (I was so fed up I couldn’t get my camera to focus and kept getting blank skies). You see it’s a point where the thermals rise and just a bit further along the ridge is the main thermal lift which they use to gain height for the next circuit of their mountain patrol. These fantastic birds were so close you felt you could almost touch them. They are often to be seen here so its worth waiting around.
Here you have an option, because if you want to extend the walk you simply carry on further along the ridge then loop back round though the woods to the Station de l’Audiberge. We headed down though, again there are options, either you follow the ski piste (marked by posts) or you just wander straight down (which is a bit steep and loose) which is what we did. At the bottom there is one of the best mountain restaurants in the area La Christiana (telephone 04 93 60 45 41)you may well want to lunch here but you do need to book).
As you come down the mountain you should head over left (as you look down) as you need to hook up with the path which starts at the point where there is a bend in the L’Aups ski lift. You will find the signpost number 173 tucked away in the woods a bit, near to a more obvious sign for La Mouliere. From here you just follow the relatively easy and rather pleasant path through the woods (just keep following signs for La Mouliere) you will arrive back at the start.
You will know you have had a walk by the end, particularly if you add the extension. This is not one of those get away from it all and everybody walks as there is lots going on.
Caps de la Presqu’ile de Saint Tropez (approx. 4 hrs)
This is a beautiful walk best done in the Winter months as there are not too many people then and its not too hot. It’s a coastal walk along one of the most beautiful, undeveloped stretches of the Cote d’Azur. In fact it’s pretty rugged and although you don’t need boots you do need a good pair of Merrils or equivalent or a decent pair of trainers.
Its all south facing so you get a lot of heat reflection from the sea so even in the winter we got through a couple of litres of water. It’s around 12 kilometres (6 there and back) and if you get your timing right you are rewarded with a beautiful sunset at the end.
We did this walk taking in the Cap Lardier first then on to the Cap Taillat which is almost an island except for a connecting strip of sand. You can carry on further if you like.
You need to park along the sea front as near to the end of the beach as you can (as that’s where the walk starts) at Gigaro Plage, which is about ten minutes drive from La Croix Valmer (its well signposted) not far from Saint Tropez. Get there early as you will need to in order to get parking on the front (there is a small car park as well) unless your going on a Sunday in the winter (when parking is free of charge) when its not too bad. Pay your parking as required as they are razer sharp with the fines here.
The walk starts at the end of the beach where you will find a map on a board and a some other information on local flaura and fauna. I recommend you stick to the coastal path all the way as the views are so great (there are a couple of occasions where you can take the inland options which take in some hills). Other wise there is just one bit where you need to follow the beach round where the path is not obvious. It’s all very well signposted and super easy to follow.
From early May to end October I recommend you take your swimming gear, even a snorkel and mask.
You will probably see plenty of lizards, the Mediterranean pines are stunning as are the cork trees.