Go Hiking on the French Riviera Back Country

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When you want to go hiking on the French Riviera, there are good reasons for preferring either the coast or the back country, the mountainous arrière pays

"back country - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

One possible reason for going one way or the other is undoubtedly the right psychological “match” between hiker and route.

The coast at its best is friendly and open, but can also be loud, brash and more than a little vulgar. The arriere-pays, on the other hand, is calm and majestic, but the villages can feel a tad claustrophobic. It is often said that the residents of coastal towns and mountain villages eye each other suspiciously, but I am not sure whether that is really true. (Many people buy or rent in the back country for the simple reason that flats are a great deal cheaper.)

Visitors and hikers, conversely, do have a choice, so make sure you pick the type of environment in which you feel most comfortable.

There are, however, also important practical and logistical considerations. On the coast, public transport facilities are excellent, and you can easily (and very cheaply) get around. Moving into or around the arriére pays is a completely different story. If you have a car and are not afraid to manage the extremely narrow serpentine roads, you will be fine.

Otherwise, you will have to be ready to compromise. There are different types of compromise, and over the next few weeks we will present some of the possibilities that you have.

One such possibility is taking one of the daytrip tours into the arrière pays that are offered by the bus company Zest (which operates the local transport networks in Monaco and Menton). For the peak holiday season (July and August), Zest has set aside two buses that operate a weekly schedule (Mo to Fr) of five tours each, offering a total of ten tours. Most of these take you to one particular place, perhaps stopping once or twice on the way, but one – labelled “Moulinet” after the village at the heart of the excursion – provides a proper tour through the area. (For a full list and the remaining dates for 2016, go to the Zest Bus site to download the programme. )

The tour serves as a perfect introduction into the Mercantour National Park, taking you through the Route du Col de Turini …

"Col de Torini - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

… to the Chalet Charles Alessi, 2000 metres up in the air, the gateway to the fascinating Circuit de l’Authion.

"Chalet Charles Alessi - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

The circuit itself is approx. 10 km long. The route mainly proceeds on level ground, with only a few climbs, and we encountered many families with young children along the way. Its panoramic views feature many scattered fortifications that were built in the late 19th century (at a time of high tensions between France and her Italian neighbour) to strengthen the near-by border.

"ruins of fortifications in Mercantour - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

You will also pass what is left over from the Cabanes Vieilles

"the Cabanes Vieilles - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

… which housed 2,000 German occupying troops in WWII and were destroyed in 1943 during fierce battles with the Americans.

Now here’s the catch: we did this circular trail in the bus, which is possible because our bus was small and the route is shared by hikers, mountain bikers and agricultural vehicles.

"hiking route in Mercantour - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

There were only a couple of spots where we could explore the territory on our own (for roughly 30 minutes each). There is, as you can imagine, only so much that you can possibly do in such a short period of time, but the landscape is overall so gorgeous – these are already the Alpine highlands, after all – that you do not have to walk far to make amazing discoveries.

"sampling the alpine- Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

As I said: you have to be ready to compromise, and if you participate in a tour like this, you will need to content yourself with a few brief walks. It’s no more than a first taste of this wild and wonderful area – an encouragement, perhaps, to come back and to dedicate more time to it.

On the other hand, there are also benefits: you will have the time for a leisurely lunch in Moulinet and be able to explore the village – which is nice, particularly if this is the first time that you visit one of these isolated human settlements in the mountains that have clearly seen better times.

"village of Moulinet - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

On the way back, you will also have the opportunity of visiting the hilltop church of the Madone de la Menour, …

"church of the Madone de la Menour - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

… one of the most amazing sites in the area.

"cruficifix in front of the church - Go Hiking on the French Riviera"

Zest will run day trips into the arrière pays until the end of August, but if you are too late for 2016, do not despair: the company has been organizing its Navette de la Patrimoine tours for 5 years now and is already preparing the schedules for next year.

More about these tours – and how to take advantage of them if you want to go hiking on the French Riviera and its back country – in next week’s post.

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2 comments to Go Hiking on the French Riviera Back Country

  • The back country can reveal many wonderful sights, Marcia. And yes, it feels desolate alright, which is why population in these towns are way down, some have less than 200. I do feel sympathy for the young people here, though we don’t see many. Most have moved out. Crops are also down because no fresh blood to continue farming. There are many terraced plots along the mountain side that have been abandoned, once lucrative olive farms.

  • The sights here are just gorgeous, Michael. I didn’t know about this part of France -despite it’s obvious beauty, it feels so desolate.
    I was wondering as I read what it’s like to live there year round. what’s their main crop, what big city the young people go to when they leave, and how it must have felt having 2000 German troops in their midst during the war.

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