Hiking Côte d'Azur: challenge the Maritime Alps on foot
Unlike the splendid but easy coastal trails on Côte d’Azur, the more challenging hikes grip the soul with bird’s-eye azure horizons. Not far from the Mediterranean shores hikers, mountain bikers and climbers, turn their pleasure from seasonal mountaineering with the skiers. The upwards spiking nature of the coast between Nice and Menton rolls inland into the Maritime Alps. The French departmental Alpes Maritimes span hundreds of kilometres of trails, so making your choices easier, here I share the most accessible routes reachable either from a train station or after a short car ride from any town or village in Côte d’Azur.
As much as I love hiking the green valleys inland in Colorado, with lakes spiked Alps or the rolling bounty of the Waiheke island in New Zealand, the Mediterranean has a special aura. Capri, Port Cross, Sardinia, Sicily around Etna and many of the volcanic Greek islands, they all lift the veil of the azure mystery surrounding these sea-locked peninsulas. Yet, even for the most adventurous of us our home holds a particular, more personal value – perhaps this is why for me hiking Côte d’Azur feels more comforting and intellectually stimulating. Such an emotional relationship buffers the strenuous physical effort that any steep mountain hiking involves. Hiking the Maritime Alps feels rejuvenating.
Some of the following trails on the Maritime Alps are manageable, while panting, in 40 minutes of constant upwards marching. Others take you through a forestal blazon of paths circling around hillsides for hours. According to time available and your energy level on the day, go for the perfect circuit. Matching your momentous zeal with the right activity is essential for balance – to live happily, free, not enslaved by the mind and the orders of others. Hiking with a flexible partner does wonders!
Sentier Littoral to Roquebrune Village
Sandwiched between the Monte-Carlo Beach and Country Clubs the Sentier Littoral coastal walk snaking along the Cap Martin to Menton is quite an easy feat. Yet, you can fortify the scenic coastal stroll with an explorative detour uphill to the under the radar, but stunning medieval Roquebrune Village. This short, but with hundreds of steps cut hike is more meditative for its vacant human presence. Except for the mental peace disruptive traffic on two road crossings, I rarely encounter a wandering soul there. Follow the marked escaliers (stair cases), some widely set, others tight so you can dare to stride over two at once, for a challenging workout up from the more frequented azure coast. Cross the rail bridge just before the Roquebrune-Cap-Martin Gare (train station). Winding up on Avenue de la Gare flowing into Avenue Vilarem until reaching the Agip gas station on the busy Avenue de la Côte d’Azur, turn right and carefully cross the road to take the sign-posted Escalier Saft that runs into yet another earth-bound ladder of Escalier Chanoine Grana. The private gardens of the tiny family houses sport enviable sea views – the entire Bay of Roquebrune lays bare just behind your hard firing gluts. Bear left on the widened staircase and it will funnel you up to the rocky village, that once belonged to the Monaco’s Grimaldi family. Relish in the medieval stones maze, passing under tunnels and the jungle of narrow alleys. A visit of the peaking fort rewards with gripping views over the rooftops, the church of Sainte Marguerite and all the way to Italy. To gourmandise the journey, there is a small deli shop near the church selling great cheese and wines in a charming cave at the back. Do not sip too much though as a vertigo may knock you off the steps veering down. Occasionally, an antiques seller in the village rolls the treasures out.
Although this hike is not exactly climbing the Maritime Alps, upon descent your knees may crack under the pressure. A longer, yet less steep circuit sets from Chemin de Menton just behind the church and the village fountain. Pass the millennial olive tree until reaching the chapel of Saint Roch. Following the signs downhill will eventually land you in the centre of Cap Martin. There, ask for Sentier Littoral, the coastal route between Monaco and Menton. Use your phone’s navigation (Google works) or follow this map. Put Roquebrune Village before going up and Gare de Roquebrune as your return destination.
BEST MONTHS: January, February, May, June, September, October
TIME: About an hour up and down, depending how long you graze in the village.
Steeper, but slightly longer is the Nietzsche trail from Eze sur Mer up to the surreally mesmerising Eze Village. Arriving by train, bear right along the main road and cross over once you spot the sign Sentier Nietzsche on the other side. Alternatively park along the main coastal road if there is a spot available. It is essential to wear tight shoes with a good sole grip. Along the rocky, dusty trail only partially shaded by forestry, your worn out spirit gets a philosophical boost through the posts of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s insights. To illustrate the German author, he mused upon the superficiality of the Greeks, cultural differences and the essence of human nature. Aphorisms and lines from one of his most celebrated books Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Perhaps for Nietzsche’s allure, this trail is so famous that you will rarely walk it alone. Even in the scorching heat of summer, groups of school kids, fit lanky adults and turtle walk embracing red-faced hikers frequent the picturesque cliffy route. One hour is the average up, but I manage in 40 minutes. Once up, you can curve around the medieval Eze, refresh with a drink or a casual lunch by the pool of the Relais Châteaux hotel La Chèvre d’Or, but you can also climb higher than that – spiritually and physically. Pass the tourists hiving in the postcard village, cross the Moyenne Corniche road, pass the Galimard perfumery and stride up the residential road, up to the “Blue Devils” road, literally (Avenue des Diables Bleus), cross, and straight ahead roll into the protected parkland. Walking the twisty and dusty roads of the Maritime Alps gets better with every turn as the views of the entire bay between Cap Ferrat and Monaco flash out. Beware, cars are allowed and the panoramic views lure many lazier motor-tourists up. Once you reach the parking by Fort de la Revère on the summit, continue along and find a shaded picnic table to replenish your energy. The views are angelic! The way down through the park keeps you glued on the panorama, but once back in Eze Village the slippery rocky Nietzsche trail gets trickier upon descent, so you can opt for a bus or taxi ride back to the seaside.
BEST MONTHS: January, February, May, June, September, October
TIME: 40min-1h up to Eze Village + 40min – 1h up to Fort de la Revère. About four hours in total.
Nearby, back along the Mediterranean from Villefranche you can wind up to the Mont Alban above Nice. I have climbed up only once, but walking through the built-up Villefranche and then in a bit seedy park, was not my cup of tea. Once atop, the views are great, but a similar spectacle awaits you in the gated Park du Château in Nice, a safer choice.
From Monaco to Tête de Chien
This by the Monaco residents popular trail winds up from the paved Mediterranean Sentier du Littoral to the medieval village of La Turbie. As you move onto the rocky stream of paths, passing a well-preserved Roman playing field, wonder at an eco insect house, and colourful graffiti artfully sprayed on a derelict house near the peak of Tête de Chien. The cliff resembles a dog’s head sticking, as if alert, into the space, hence its puzzling name. Once there, the view reveals Monaco as you have probably not seen it yet. Soaring like a bird above the glamorous Principality, the Monegasque wealth plays out. Zoom in all its verdant rooftops, historic hotels lining the legendary race circuit, mega yachts docking in its ports, secret gardens lost in the dense urban siege of bricks, concrete and glass, and the soaring eccentric or truly enviable penthouses. Choose a clear day to spy on this luxuriant marvel of the Côte d’Azur tucked right under the Maritime Alps.
You can start hiking from the sea level – arriving at the Cap d’Ail train station or parking your car as I suggested in the easy hikes post. From the whereabouts of the Mala beach in Cap d’Ail just follow the narrow residential roads up to the centre of the town. If you walk along the coast all the way from Monaco, you can start winding up towards Villa les Camellias Museum, further along the Avenue de la Gare to the main thoroughfare on Avenue du Trois Septembre. You can also park there in the centre of Cap d’Ail right next to the Tourism Office. From here, take the Escallier Costa Plana to the left of the Total gas station. Veering right on the Route Francois Siccardi, and eye on Chemin des Amandiers, a tight car-free path (the vicious motorbikes can swing through so stay alert) guiding you through Cap d’Ail until you reach the tail of Avenue de General du Gaulle. Then turn right and soon the Moyenne Corniche road lights blink at you red, press the button for green, and cross. Turning right uphill, look for wooden posts on your left heralding “Tête de Chien” and take a sharp left to the path. Soon, the views start rewarding your effort. The green turf bordered by stones is an ancient Roman playing field, and just behind on the horizon nests Cap Ferrat. The higher you go, the more you see. Another tricky road to cross will appear soon to the right from a small cart racing track. There is a sharp curve hindering the traffic downhill so be vigilant. Once on the wild hillside keep zooming in on the yellow “I” marks along the rocky trail and follow them, turning only when its shape tuns into a boomerang. It will not take long to reach the cliff spiking above Monaco. Relish the full view if a cloud-free day permits. Still, I love the shroud of mystery, when the overhanging clouds hoover around the mountains, revealing, a morsel by morsel a sneak peak of the Principality and the sea. Wander around and check out the street art den grown through with wild, vine crawling foliage. I call this an alternative tour of Monaco’s whereabouts.
My map of the hike from Cap d’Ail beach through Sentier du Littoral up to Tête de Chien.
BEST MONTHS: January, February, May, June, September, October
TIME: 1h up from centre of Cap d’Ail, almost 2h from Fontvielle in Monaco.
Fôret Fe La Mairis above Menton
More in the forested gulp of the Maritime Alps, nests this verdant mountain park filled with hiking trails suitable for any level of hiker if you stick to the lower trails. The higher parts through the forest can be very slippery, so shoes with a good grip are highly recommended. Here you need to get by car either arriving from Menton towards Monti (about 15 min drive – map here) or the A8 highway, exiting after Gorbio. Patiently swirl the wheel through sharp, narrow Route de Sospel, watching the road closely until spotting a gate with a sign right on the crest of one of the uphill turns. Park next to The Motocross Monti circuit (free) and then walk back towards the road to enter the trail. Perhaps because it is closer to Italy, it is trickier to find your way around the Fôret Fe La Mairis. The aloof Italian attitude infected the confusing signage. If your memory is not sharp, take photos with your phone to identify the road you walked so getting back can be tracked easily. The views span the Mediterranean at first, but as you walk around the mountain the peaking Alpine sharpness strikes you with its other way of clarity and peace. There are rarely any visitors so the picnic tables along the route are all yours. It would be a shame not to use their hospitality so pack some snacks and savour the brisk mountain air.
There are hundreds of trails further in the mountains. Most become inaccessible to hikers with the snow coverage between December and April, but for the rest of the year they let you to sneak peak into abandoned or scantly inhabited ancient villages. Like being an explorer, the Marco Polo spirit awakens in you, when entering these old mountain settlements. Enjoy the crowd-free stroll and inhale the invigorating mountain air to the full capacity of your lungs. It calms and naturally releases the city stress.
BEST MONTHS: May, June, September, October.
TIME: About 2 hours and more on the scantly marked circuits.
This eco-friendly, brain-stimulating and lungs invigorating activity was one of the most essential survival tolls of our ancestors, and although we do not have to walk today, the sedentary lifestyle and rather stress-inducing gyms will unlikely prolong our lives and ultimately happiness. Still, being in nature is more. Perhaps the liberty we sense while outdoors, not constrained by the human interventions into the primordial sound landscape and distracted by the urban noise, streams from the genial, pleasant waves of nature’s symphony. If you focus on the sounds around you and thing about its affect on your mind, mood and ultimately, the body, not only will you enter a meditative state of mind, but you may get closer to nature, and perhaps even the Universe. To keep it beautiful for all, bring a reusable water bottle and do not throw any waste outdoors.
Get out and hike the landscape – the rolling hills, the horizons widening mountains and the grounding fertile valleys. Côte d’Azur is the perfect destination to wander on your two feet.