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View from the Col de Tende on the French-Italian border with peaks at over 3000m
When I moved back permanently to Monaco in 2002, one of the first things I did was to take advantage of the fabulous weather all-year round (which, as a Londoner, I’ll never take for granted!) and start exploring the beautiful mountains and villages located behind the coastal strip of the Riviera that had always fascinated me as a child but had never had the opportunity to visit.
The wonderful Mediterranean climate of the Côte d’Azur provides plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors and to partake in activities such as canoeing, canyoning, rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking, skiing and hiking – since I love the great outdoors but hate sports that require equipment and effort, I’ll concentrate on the latter in this article! Over a decade after I started hiking, there are still hundreds of trails that still remain for me to discover, so you will never get bored or run out of things to do.
Waterfall close to Saint Dalmas le Selvage in the upper Tinée valley
The southern Alps are peppered with some wonderful and very well-maintained and signposted hiking trails which are listed in mini-guidebooks edited by the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes (the local authority which is in charge of roads, transport etc in the department) and which, a rarity in France, are a worthwhile use of public money!
Some of the Guides Randoxygène – the free hiking bibles for the Riviera
These guidebooks, called “Guide Randoxygene”, unfortunately only in French for the moment, are available for free at some tourist offices on the Riviera (though might not be available in others as they are often out of print). You can also read the interactive versions of the guidebooks on this link or find the full details of the individual hikes on this link.
There are three types of walks depending on the time you have and the distance you want to travel from the coastline:
Coastal walks (Pays Côtier): these are generally quite easy walks, both following footpaths along the coastline (like the beautiful Cap Martin, Cap d’Ailand Cap Ferrat coastal paths) or across the mountains that follow the coast, like for example the Tête de Chien mountain overlooking Monaco, the Nietzsche trail up to Eze Village or the Esterel mountains west of Cannes.
The beautiful Esterel Corniche d’Or to the west of Cannes
Some of the coastal paths can be done with just a pair of trainers but I’d advise hiking boots for the mountain walks as the trails can very rather pebbly and therefore slippery. These can be done at any time of the year but unless you really don’t have the choice, I wouldn’t do any coastal trails during the summer months, simply as it’s not very nice to walk under the hot sun at sea level and it’s very easy to get dehydrated.
View from Mont Gros, just 15 minutes from Monaco, east over Menton and the Italian border
Slightly inland – a lovely picnic on the banks of the Siagne river, close to Grasse
For me, coastal walks are ideal on a beautiful crisp winter’s day when the daylight hours are shorter but you still want to go out and grab some fresh air, as the winter blue sky on the Riviera is absolutely incomparable (and you can sometimes get a glimpse of Corsica from the mountain tops).
Hinterland walks (Moyen Pays) are graded in difficulty (from easy to “sporty” ie. difficult) and generally involve hikes leaving from villages between 10km and 30km from the coast. These already provide great variety, affording some nice sea and mountain views from the summit and the opportunity to have a good traditional lunch or a coffee after the walk.
View over the Col de Brouis, between Sospel and Breil sur Roya, just 20km behind Menton and the coastline
Another advantage is that they don’t require massive drives from the coast, maximum an hour but provide a substantial “culture shock” coming from the cities. I personally recommend the walks based to the east of Nice, especially the Tinée, Vésubie, Bevera and Roya valleys: the mountains are more abrupt and the landscapes therefore more dramatic than those to the west.
The Roya valley and the perched village of Saorge
As hinterland walks can also get pretty hot in the summer, the ideal time to do them is in the autumn or the spring. Make sure you have proper hiking boots and sticks for all these walks.
Mountain walks (Haut Pays): these are also graded according to difficulty but tend to require more organisation simply as they involve a longer drive from the coastline: even so, you’re unlikely to have to travel more than 100km (so two hours) to get to your final destination, as the Alpes Maritimes are not that big.
The view from the Col de la Bonette, at 2800m the highest road in Europe
These are obviously the most spectacular walks simply due to the fact that you’re really in the Southern Alps, taking the hiker across some widely varied Alpine scenery and up to altitudes of around 2.000m above sea level. Most of these walks take place in the Mercantour National park, which is subject to slightly stricter regulation but no big deal.
One of the lakes near Fontanable at 2000m altitude in the stunning Vallée des Merveilles
These mountain walks are best done in the summer months (May to October), but be warned that even at 2000m it can get very hot in places like the Vallée des Merveilles so make sure you have plenty of water and suncream, as well as plenty of food. Don’t get off the beaten track as things can get pretty messy if you fall down, especially as there isn’t much mobile phone reception up there. Some trails are also quite fun in winter, but make sure you have snowshoes, I’d advise novices to go in organised groups which have proper insurance.
As many of these walks are a bit longer, if you have the time, find a hotel in one of the nearby villages (such as La Brigue, Tende, St Martin Vésubie or Saint Etienne de Tinée) and get there the night before so that you can enjoy a nice hearty dinner and then get up early the next morning for a nice walk.
La Brigue in th Roya valley, a lovely place to spend the night and enjoy a nice meal before going on a hike in the Vallée des Merveilles
In terms of getting to and from the hiking departure points, using a car is a must and will make your life much easier. There are bus services to some villages (pretty limited and uncomfortable if you are carsick on windy roads) and there is a train line that covers the Paillon, Bevera and Roya valleys from Nice and the Roya valley from Ventimiglia, but timetables are pretty limited so taking public transport will remove any form of flexibility in your itinerary.
As you can see the French Riviera has much more to offer than just snazzy beach resorts, so what are you waiting for? Just get your hiking gear and enjoy the great outdoors!
View south over the lush Roya valley and towards the coastline from the Col de Tende at the French-Italian border
- As I mentioned, the bible for Sunday hikers is the Randoxygene websiterun by the Conseil Général des Alpes Maritimes, which in addition to the list of recommended hikes, also contains plenty of practical advice and tips about the equipment you need and general safety. Unfortunately, the public service effort hasn’t gone as far as an English translation for the numerous foreigners on the Riviera so you’ll have to use Google translate if you don’t understand French.
- If you want to go on organised walks, there are plenty of walking clubs that organise very interesting monthly hikes to various mountains led by professional guides, for example the Club Alpin Monégasque: just be aware that the walkers are very experienced and fit so make sure that you are in relatively good shape before joining otherwise you’ll be left behind.
- Riviera Rambling: an interesting website in English dedicated to hiking on the Riviera, as the name suggests!
If you arrive in Monaco at Jardin Exotique, the road takes you down to the Casino where there is a traffic light; you either turn right to go down to the port, left to Roquebrune Cap Martin, or across and down a small road through the Casino gardens to the Place du Casino. One of the drivers of the Bus de Soirée, whose job can be pretty lonely in winter time when there is no late night open air cinema and few tourists (he works at night so that he can go fishing in the daytime or tend his vegetable garden in the hills behind Menton) told me that on every tour he looks forward to stopping at the light and admiring the only really elegant view in Monaco, over the Boulingrins gardens and fountains to the floodlit Casino. It is just as magical in daytime; the sun shimmers through the leaves of the trees and the dancing fountains, the gardens are ablaze with brightly coloured flowers and the tourists flock to take photographs.
Catch the magic
The French word Boulingrins, which dates back to the 17th century, refers to a decorative parterre of flowerbeds and fountains, as seen above at the gardens around the Casino in Monte-Carlo. Photo © Monte-Carlo S.B.M.Although there are wonderful views over the Principality from Jardin Exotique, the ramparts of the Palace, Oceanographic Museum and the Casino terraces, the view over these elegant gardens in the heart of Monte Carlo is special … but it is soon to be lost. Take your camera now and capture the magic. The fountains are to be taken away as… “Société des Bains de Mer has a new project to accommodate the shops from the Sporting d’Hiver and the Avenue des Beaux-Arts in …while it carries out renovation work at the Sporting d’Hiver and the Hôtel de Paris. Curved buildings will be erected around a winding, tree-lined alleyway in the middle of the Boulingrins Gardens … These amazing, innovative structures will have a unique shape, echoing the curves of the garden … and will make this new shopping area in the heart of Monte Carlo more attractive. They will be set up in the first half of 2014 for a period of four years.”
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