Hiking in France
We headed back to the Mediterranean for some unfinished business.
The Sentier Littoral Revisited
Last year, my son and I visited the southern French town of Toulon to hike along the Sentier Littoral, the footpath that stretches along the entire length of the country’s coastline.
When we inquired at the local tourism office for some tips on accommodation, they tried to dissuade us from hiking the Sentier in one stretch and strongly advised us to “pick and choose”, in practice to go for a series of day hikes rather than one continuous stretch. (We persisted anyway, with mixed results.)
And the one-day trip they praised more than any other, called “Balade Royale” in some of the older imprints of their brochure, started practically a couple of blocks away from the tourism office itself in downtown Toulon. I must say I was tempted at the time, however briefly.
So this year, when I returned to Toulon with Mrs. Easy Hiker, we decided to take the local tourism officials by their word and check whether the Balade Royale was really as glorious as advertised.
Immediately, however, I could see that there would be one or two problems. First, the map of the hike had a long “purple” middle section. “Purple” on these maps designates “transitions”, as the brochure calls them, places where, for whatever reason, you cannot walk directly along the coast but are rerouted through the suburban hinterland. I know from last summer’s painful experience that “purple” sections are best avoided.
Secondly, sections in Part 1 of the trail – from the historical Tour Royale south of Toulon harbour to the equally historical Fort St Louis – were “temporarily closed” after what the “Sentier Newsletter” provided by the tourism office called the “violent storms” of November 2011. So, apart from the “transitional part” between the town’s beaches and modern hotels, the only section that remained open and accessible was, in fact, the trail’s final section beyond Cap Brun.
We took the bus (line 23, just opposite the tourism office), getting off at a stop called Sainte Genevieve and walking a few steps back before descending towards the sea – just follow the signs pointing to the Sentier Sous-Marin and to a place called Restaurant Bernard.
Down by the sea level, the restaurant is located at the end of a short lane on your left hand side, but you should continue straight to the sea and then turn right, in the direction of Cap Brun.
This is a great walk, across the beach and some mighty rocks in between the sharp-edged cliffs and the sea, and there is a little settlement at the end which was – on the day we arrived – under continuous attack by some fairly angry waves.
The only problem is that the walk is very short, and when we climbed up the hill just after Cap Brun, we found that the trail which was signposted to lead us back to the Mourillon beach area in the direction of Toulon had been blocked off. So you have no option but to make your way further uphill until you hit the main road again from where you can take the bus back to Toulon ville.
That was, it must be said, a fairly anticlimactic way to end our walk. In theory, we could have returned to Toulon to continue the trail with Part 1, but after this disappointment, we were not really in the mood. (It must be said, too, that Part 1 of the trail is also very short. At best – at a rough guess – it was a little over a kilometre long.
The “practical instructions section” of this article, Part 1 (if you so wish), ends here. This paragraph is a transitional section, which will lead you straight towards Part 3, the “rant section”. You can continue, if you want, of course, but don’t say you have not been warned.
The idea of the Sentier Littoral can be traced back to Napoleon and the French Revolution. In Napoleon’s view, the French coast represented a national treasure, and he gave all French citizens a universal right to access. A strip at least three meters wide, he decreed, would forever be the property of the entire nation. The Sentier Littoral is therefore a part of the national heritage, part of the Republican family jewels so-to-speak, and it would be a brave politician who abandons or sells them.
Politicians, however, as we all know, are not brave – and they are not brave because they have learned how dangerous that can be. Politics operate a process of natural selection: brave politicians – men and women who mean what they say and for whom words and action do not inhabit separate universes – are generally shot down (by this influential group or the other) long before they can reach positions of influence. Politics is the survival of the most cowardly.
So, when influential citizens from the town complain about the ramblers in front of their expensive beachfront property, as I suspect they do from time to time, politicians do not come out openly in support of their rights to privacy. Rather, they find, after due consideration, that it is their duty to protect the public from the dangers of unsafe trails, temporarily closing “certain sections” for safety reasons.
And since the land behind the Sentier Littoral has, over the last twenty or thirty years, become one vast suburban sprawl, it is increasingly rare to find continuous stretches of more than one kilometre, two if you are really lucky.
I, for one, will go somewhere else next summer.