Easy Hikes in the South of France
What do you prefer: the glamour of the lowlands or the solitude of the mountains?
When does the hiking season start ? Obviously, this depends very much on where you are. In some parts of Germany, they turn this into an “official” event with speeches, oompah bands and Bratwursts, and the date for this celebration is usually some time in late April. So the easiest answer is: the hiking season starts when winter is well and truly over.
In our part of the world, winter has been cancelled this year – or, more precisely, cut down to a single rainy week in January.
Still, hiking in December, even around the northern Mediterranean littoral, is not a great idea: it may be sunny all right, and quite mild, too, but days are short, which means that for a daytrip, once you have taken into account the time you will have to spend on trains and buses, you have to leave at 8 in the morning to get any proper hiking done at all. (In other words, you have to rise well before dawn.
Now I don’t know about you, but for me, that is not how a “fun day out” starts.)
Mid-February, conversely, is okay. Actually, it can be quite nearly perfect. Days may not be as endless as they are in June and July, but they are long enough: it gets dark at around 6-6:30 pm, a time when you will want to be on your way home even in summer. The weather is often brilliant – with temperatures of 15° C in the shadow but feeling much, much warmer on a sunny day.
Actually, mid-February on the French Riviera looks and feels a lot like May in less blessed spots. The other day, we saw this season’s first guy in shorts and T-shirt.
Intrigued? If you are thinking of doing a couple of hikes around the area anytime soon (and are relatively new to the game), here are a few bits of general advice.
Hiking on the Riviera
The Riviera (on both sides of the French-Italian frontier, so this applies to both countries) can, for hiking purposes, be roughly divided into three strips of land: first the coastline, then the moyen pays or “middle country” which is the stretch of land just behind the coast: the “near mountains”, often with spectacular views over the sea, and finally the arrière pays where things can already get decidedly alpine.
The mountains climb quickly over here, and you can find the first 1000-metre peaks a few miles north of Nice and Monaco.
It always surprises me how quickly things change as soon as you leave the coastal towns: almost immediately behind the city limits, the colour scheme of the landscape narrows down drastically and everything looks drenched in grey, nature turns barren, and the trails are often quite lonely, while the few villages you encounter feel withdrawn and at times downright hostile.
The purely coastal trails, meanwhile, also have their drawbacks inasmuch as they can easily feel a bit, well, same old same old – the first one is always great, but after three or four of those, it feels almost cruel to say, the novelty of cloudless skies, azure water and subtropical vegetation can begin to wear off. Trails can also be fairly busy, crowded even, and you are never far away from the vulgarity of the “bling-bling” Riviera.
Eventually, every visitor of the area will find out for themselves which way they are inclined, but just by reading this, you may already have an idea what side of the divide you fall on, which of the two you are more likely to prefer: the lush glamour of the seaside or the forbidding austerity of the mountains.
Until then, you may be best off by trying to combine the charms of coastal walks and mountain hikes as much as possible – which means, for practical reasons, a hike through the moyen pays.
Here, you can have the best of both worlds: underneath in the valley, there are palm trees and motorboats amid the hustle and bustle of the tourist towns, while above you, you can marvel at the lonely majesty of rocky peaks. The moyen pays leaves you the choice – it all depends on the way you look at it.
So what I really want to say is this: if you are planning a trip to the French Riviera, in winter or in summer, make a hike part of your itinerary. You may want to adjust your walking plans to the season – sensibly not tackling snow-bound altitudes in mid-winter and avoiding the really long and steep climbs in July or August – but there is always a bit of nature to explore.