Castellar is a vaguely picturesque medieval village just to the north of Menton on the French Riviera, and on its own (we might as well be honest about this), it is not worth the trip. Castellar’s 972 inhabitants may hate me for saying this, but such are the risks of boldly speaking truth to power.
Still, there are generally quite a few visitors around, even at this time of year. So what attracts all these people to Castellar?
As it happens, the village is quite closely situated to several major hiking routes. Also, as we found, Castellar provides one of the Riviera’s best views …
… but before you get there, you must put in a little hard work.
Want to Scrape the Riviera Clouds Hiking Up Castellar?
First, take bus no. 6 from Menton which takes you to the centre of the village. Now walk back to the penultimate bus stop, approx. 200 m down the access road, and descend the stairway on your right.
At the lower street level, there is a chapel immediately on your left hand side, and about 50 metres further, there is a steep path going down with a sign pointing in the direction of St Agnes.
We are now standing on the GR 51, the legendary 500 km long east-west hiking trail, which is also called the “Balcony of the Cote d’Azur”, that runs parallel to the coast all the way from Menton to the outskirts of Marseille. You can turn left here and walk the 10 km or so to St Agnes, but that is only one possibility.
We follow the GR 51 in the other direction, continuing straight past the parking lot and leaving another chapel – St Sebastien – on our right hand side. The road goes steeply further up, and after a short while, you will come to a fork.
The trail on your left hand side – a minor route, signposted in yellow – leads you to the Col St Bernard. We, however, continue eastward along the GR 51 in the direction of the Roc de l’Orméa and Col du Berceau, at 1132 m one of the higher peaks of the area.
At this stage, the views are getting better and better …
… while the scenery becomes more dramatic by the minute.
This is what strikes me every time we visit the hinterland of the Riviera coast: it only takes the briefest of trips, in this case a 20 minute bus ride from the coastal town of Menton plus a short walk, to reach a different world. This is the equivalent to taking bus no. 329 from our old north London home, strolling out of Enfield bus station and walking straight into the green desert sands of Aldebaran, roughly where I would expect to find Pearson’s Department Store.
Down this stretch of the trail, the Plan de Lion south of the Orméa Rock is about a one-hour walk away from the crossing. This should be a realistic target for a short and easy hike. Once you are there, you have three options, depending a little on the time of day and the season (the availability of daylight hours).
Just behind the Plan de Lion, the GR 51 intersects with the GR52, the other great hiking trail that cuts through the region, a cross-alpine route between Valdeblore and Menton.
If you turn left into the GR 52, you can continue around the Orméa Rock before taking another left turn for the Col St Bernard and returning towards Castellar on the “yellow” trail that we have encountered before. (This is option no. 1, a hike of altogether approx. 8 km.)
Or you can turn right at the intersection, following the GR 52 all the way to Menton. (That would be option no. 2).
You can actually see Menton from the plateau of the Plan de Lion. Down there, the sun will be shining, even if you have your head already up in the clouds. You can almost see the people – well, you can see their cars – and imagine how they are enjoying the sweet coastal life. They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars. But you know you had it coming, you know you can’t be there.
Because you went on a hike to Aldebaran. Further up, into the freezing fog, or down where the palm trees grow and the mimosas are in full bloom: the choice, Wanderer, is yours.
We for one took the easiest of options (no. 3) and headed straight back to take the next bus to Menton.
Finally, some technicalities. If you have come to Castellar by car, you will not need me to tell you that you have to return there to pick up your vehicle. That obviously restricts your options.
If you have come by bus, please note that neither no. 10 (which can take you back to Menton if you have hiked to St Agnes) nor no. 6 (the line between Menton and Castellar) quite match the frequency of north London’s 329.
There are in fact only three buses back to Menton from either village during any weekday afternoon (St Agnes: 3, 5:50 and 7:30; Castellar: 3:40, 5:55, 7:40), so you must organize your schedule around these departure times.
Please note also that neither St Agnes nor Castellar are the kind of places where you would want to be stuck for a couple of hours with nothing to do. Particularly not on days when Castellar’s Cultural Centre – featuring an undoubtedly fascinating exhibition of prehistoric dwellings – is closed.
The safest option – because you are independent from any such schedule – is the hike down the GR 52 to Menton. This is advertised as an 2-hour walk, which goes mainly downhill.
Come to think of it: this is something that we shall try the next time we are up in the clouds at Castellar. Rest assured that we will keep you posted.