Europe continues wrestling with the most thuggish winter weather it’s seen in more than a decade. Most of the continent was head-dropped* in December, splashed* in January, and is now on the verge of tapping out.***
But we’ve stayed close to the Mediterranean for the past couple months: in Spain’s Costa Blanca Mountains, on the Spanish Island of Mallorca (south of Valencia), and now in France, on the Cote d’Azur. Though the weather has been unusually cold and rainy for this palm-fringed region, it has still allowed us to hike more days than not. And we’ve done it in relative comfort. Compared to a typical winter back home in the Canadian Rockies, it’s been luxurious here.
Our current abode is the ancient city of Vence, slightly inland from Cap d’Antibe, Cannes, and Nice. In a country rife with ancient villages and towns that are certifiably gorgeous, Vence is a gem. Our apartment is literally on the wall that once deterred would-be assailants from ransacking the original village. When we look out our window, we can peer up at the foothills of the Alpes Maritime rising immediately above us, or we can gaze down-valley toward the Med. We’re within a couple-minute walk of numerous pâtisseries and boulangeries d’artisan (pastry shops and artisan bakeries). We’re virtually next door to the cultural center, where we sat front row while a superb jazz quartet performed a brilliant homage to Antônio Jobim, the Grammy Award-winning Brazilian songwriter, composer, arranger, singer, and pianist/guitarist. And all around us, in every direction, are hiking trails. We are as happy as we can be, regardless of the weather.
If a winter hiking holiday appeals to you, we recommend Vence, France. You’ll find lots of accommodation options on www.homeaway.com. After arriving in Vence, go to one of the tabacs (small shops selling tabacco products, newspapers, magazines, etc.) and buy the IGN 1: 25 000 topo maps titled “ET 3642” and “ET 3643.” You’ll also find IGN topo maps at Carrefour hypermarkets along the Cote d’Azur.
Compared to Spain’s Costa Blanca and Mallorca’s Serra de Tramuntana, the mountains of the Cote d’Azur are more heavily treed, with less exposed rock, so they’re not as dramatic. But they’re beautiful and intriguing nonetheless. And they compensate by offering a vastly more extensive trail network, better maintained trails, and superior trail signage. Walking and hiking are more ingrained in French culture. And French tourism organizations understand that trails are a vital asset. As a result, you can expect to see excellent signage at trailheads and trail junctions, plus painted blazes en route. Hiking here can be physically challenging but is never a mental chore.
The following Cote d’Azur trails, all within easy reach of Vence, kept us striding eagerly. We’ve posted photos of several of them among the first 30 images under “France” on the Photos/Videos page of our website.
Circuit de Cavillore
2- to 3-hour loop gaining 300 m (984 ft)
Starting just above the beautiful perched village of Gourdon at 740 m (2427 ft), a well-constructed, switchbacking trail provides an easy, scenic introduction to the area.
Circuit du Castellet
3-hour loop gaining 450 m (1476 ft) including spur to summit
From St. Jeanette (a ten-minute drive from Vence), the trail ascends over the crag towering directly above the village. The summit overlooks a big swath of the Cote d’Azur.
Balcon du Loup
5- to 6.5-hour loop gaining 800 m (2624 ft)
After climbing above the village of Pont du Loup, the trail follows an ancient aqueduct traversing a valley wall. It allows you to hike comfortably and safely along sheer cliffs. You’ll also proceed through eight, long, dark tunnels, so don’t forget your headlamp. The hike ends with a long, steep, switchbacking descent of Pic de Courmettes on a paved road.
Plateau de Calern
4-hour circuit gaining 250 m (820 ft)
Start near the Obervatoire du CERGA, northwest of Gourdon. Panoramic views are constant. Mt. Cheiron dominates the inland horizon. En route you’ll often pass remnants of ancient civilization, including wells, agricultural plots and, of course, walls.
Gorges de la Vesubie
4- to 5-hour round trip gaining 700 m (2296 ft)
This astounding trail is the one we’d recommend if you had but one day to hike near the Cote d’Azur. It’s an ancient mule path (much of it cobbled) allowing a highline traverse of the soaring, nearly vertical, 800-m (2624-ft) gorge wall between two villages: Le Cros d’Utelle and Utelle. Start at the tranquil hamlet of Le Cros d’Utelle. After a brief ascent, you’ll generally contour all the way to the slightly larger settlement of Utelle. A circuit is possible, but it entails significant elevation loss (which you must regain) and affords little new scenery; better to hike out and back. Afterward, drive road D19, on the gorge’s opposite wall, between St. Jean la Riviere and Levens. The road is an engineering marvel allowing you to fully appreciate the trail you just completed. We frequently stopped the car, got out, and stared in awe. If we hadn’t just hiked there, we wouldn’t believe it possible.
4- to 5-hour circuit gaining 450 m (1476 ft)
From the village of Gillette, high above the Var River Valley, hike around Mt. Lion. Time permitting, follow a short spur to the 1049-m (3441-ft) summit. Scenic highlights include a close perspective of 1550-m (5084-ft) Mt. Vial and an aerial view of the Esteron Valley. Before or after the hike, visit the perched village of Bonson.
Baou de l’Arc
3- to 4-hour loop gaining 630 m (2066 ft)
After sauntering through the meticulously maintained, ancient village of Cuebris, you’ll ascend past an impressive waterfall and top out on a lofty crag. On the descent, you’ll hop a stream just above where it careens into a defile and over a cliff. Just before returning to the village, you’ll cross a bridge over a creek roaring through a chasm. From Vence, the quickest way to reach Cuebris is via the N202 highway in the Var Valley, then the D17 through the lovely villages of Gillette and Roquesteron. After the hike, take the long way back to Vence by driving the D1 through the perched villages of Consegudes, Ferres, and Bouyon. Proceed southwest to Coursegoules, then follow the D2 back to Vence.
4- to 4.5-hour round trip gaining 810 m (2657 ft)
Many of the roads in the mountains of France are mind boggling, like this smoothly-paved lane climbing from the bottom of Vesubie Gorge all the way to the perched village of Utelle at 800 m (2624 ft). And the trails continuing beyond these French roads tend to be equally marvelous, like this one leading to a peaklet on the edge of the gorge. Views extend into the burly mountains of Parc National du Mercantour.
8- to 9-hour loop gaining 800 m (2624 ft)
Rising 1778 m (5832 ft), Mt. Cheiron is the highest Cote d’Azur peak within 30 km (19 mi) of the sea. Beneath the mountain’s south face are two quaint villages— Coursegoules and Greoleries—where you’ll find trails ascending to Cheiron’s summit ridge. There’s also a trail along the mountain’s 5-km (3 mi) spine, and a trail linking the villages, so it’s possible to hike Cheiron as a loop. Midwinter, however, the peak will likely retain too much snow to allow easy striding. If so, consider a short, three-hour roundtrip starting in Coursegoules at 1020 m (3346 ft) and gaining 480 m (1574 ft) to the ridgecrest at 1424 m (4671 ft).
2-hour loop with negligible elevation gain
After ascending mountains or contending with chilly weather, this often-sunny seaside walk can be a welcome change. Start in Beaulieu sur Mer (immediately northeast of Nice) and follow the coastal path around Cap Ferrat. You’ll often be walking within a few meters of ocean swells crashing on the rocks. Just above, you’ll glimpse the massive holiday mansions of the obscenely wealthy. Be thankful France has a socially-minded government that keeps paths like this open to the public rather than allowing the local moguls to extend fences into the water. Two other coastal walks worth considering are at Cap d’Antibes and Cap d’Ail.
*A “head drop” is a pro wrestling move causing the victim to be dropped on his head, often resulting in an actual (as opposed to fake) injury, such as a concussion or even a broken neck. The intention is for the full force of the move to be absorbed in the victim’s upper back and shoulders, but a head drop always involves legitimate risk.
**A “splash” is any move involving a very large wrestler dropping his full weight across the body of a smaller opponent. It was originated by Big Daddy, a 1970s British pro wrestler whose signature move was the “Daddy Splash.”
***A “tap out” is when a wrestler taps on the mat to acknowledge submission. It means he is giving up due to the unbearable pain his opponent is inflicting on him.