Esterel Massif: Roaming the Red Hills of Provence
Holidays in rFance
Hillwalking might not be the first thing that most Irish people think of when you mention the French Riviera to them.
James Bond, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly… You never see them do much hillwalking, do you? Not for long, at least, unless it was for the purposes of a good rock-climbing chase scene. No, they always got around by using the road and usually in a nice sports car.
The trouble is that while getting around the Cote d'Azur is possible by car, you invariably run into a traffic jam along the way - especially in summer. I've finally discovered that the way to really "do" the South of France is to walk and cycle as much of it as possible.
My wife and I were staying at Mandelieu-La-Napoule in the fabulous Mimozas Resort - an Irish-managed enterprise surrounding a lake and backing onto the oldest golf course on the Cote (the unimaginatively titled 'The Old Course') and as part of the preparation of our legs for walking in the hills, we cycled the 8km seafront route into Cannes.
When I say "cycled", it was cycling on electric bikes. For those who may have experienced them in Ireland, the French ones go faster: they can potentially reach 100km/hour. I pushed mine as far as 42kph. They were faster than taking a car - even though it was quiet and it was still officially winter.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to meet our trekking companions down in the lobby - Carolane Zuliani from the Mandelieu tourist office, and experienced mountain guide Matthieu Whyte.
The latter is the product of an English father and a French mother, so he had a very good level of English. Furthermore, he had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Nepal, so we knew that we were in good hands.
A copious picnic had been prepared by the team at Mimozas. My wife and I had a fairly small rucksack between us but Matthieu had a Himalayan-sized back-pack and carried most of the meal like a modern-day Sherpa. We made a deal with him though and promised that we'd try to bring most of it back down in our stomachs.
We took the coast road known as the Corniche d'Or - a 40km section of the N98 that goes from Mandelieu to Frejus. Mandelieu itself isn't one of the highlights of this golden stretch of coastline: it doesn't have any outstanding features to set it apart from the other more well-known towns along the coast. But it is the Cote d'Azur nonetheless. It has that Riviera charm along its seafront, with its marina and harbour sheltering millionaires' yachts. It has a castle that you can visit and which serves as an art gallery, and it's about as laid-back a base as you'll find in this often busy overcrowded part of the world.
The short spin along the Corniche d'Or took us westwards on winding smooth tarmac that offered breath-taking glimpses of glittering blue sea and which twisted past some more alluring spots whose names we noted with a promise to return.
Theoule-sur-Mer really caught the eye. It's a cute Mediterranean town tumbling down to a cute Mediterranean harbour. What is even more head-turning on the outskirts of this town is the amazing Palais Bulles. Literally, it means Bubble Palace. It sits on a clifftop high above the road looking out on the Bay of Cannes and it was designed by Hungarian/French architect Antti Lovag for the designer Pierre Cardin.
We stopped at a car park and got out to organise our rucksacks, marvelling at the inviting blue sea, the green vegetation and the red mountains towering behind us. Although it was still only February, we had been blessed with exceptionally mild weather. The sun was blazing and the forecast promised that it would climb to 17 degrees.
I hadn't bothered to put on any sun cream, my wife had some kind of beauty product on with built-in sun protection, Matthieu was French and weather-bronzed and Carolane said that she had "Italian skin" (her people came from Calabria) that wouldn't burn under the February sun.
The Esterel Massif is made of strong red volcanic rock. There is virtually no water in these hills - a fact that some hikers overlook when they set out expecting to be able to replenish their water bottles along the way. The startling landscape reminded me of images of Arizona or Australia. The slopes on the Southern side have more in the way of scrub vegetation, while the more humid Northern side has more by way of trees.
Along the road, we had seen a lot of Mimosa trees. Mandelieu is known as the Mimosa capital, and these yellow-blooming delicate-featured trees are visible seemingly everywhere during early spring.
On the Esterels, however, the most common tree is the cork oak. Their gnarled barks and freaky formations make for a fascinating and exotic sight for Irish eyes.
Matthieu told us how these trees are the great survivors. Every decade or so, wild fires sweep through the Esterel range, reducing most of the Massif's vegetation to ash.
When the fire risk is high in summer, it's not uncommon that the entire place is closed off to the public. The cork tree comes with its own thick layer of insulation that the forest fires can't penetrate. They lose their leaves all right but they come back the next year, as determined as ever to live a long life in the red hills.
Following very discreet markings on the rocks, we followed a trail that snaked its way ever upwards, over pathways of chunky rocks and precipitous lengths of dusty trails, on our way towards our chosen summit - the Pic du Mont Roux (453m).
En route, the views were panoramic and tear-inducing. The Mediterranean Sea never looked so blue, so peaceful and so glittering. Looking across to the west, we could see the dramatic St Barthelemy Rocks (part of the same range) rise into the sky. Beyond, the verdant coastline zig-zagged off in the distance.
We could make out the St Tropez Peninsula. Further along by the coast, and inland there were yet more mountains; while to the east, the more densely populated peninsulas gave way to the sweeping Bay of Cannes, with Nice and Monte Carlo clearly visible as we climbed higher. Looking straight out to sea, we could even make out the coastline of Corsica.
The Lerins Islands - Ste Marguerite and St Honorat - sat pretty off Cannes. The latter of these two islands holds a monastery where St Patrick is believed to have spent some time before embarking on his Irish mission.
In fact, St Honorat (or St Honoratus) himself first set up in the Esterels in a stone hut. Matthieu pointed it out to us from a distance. But, he said, even in the fifth century, word got around quickly about the superstar monk and his peace was so destroyed by tourists/pilgrims that he was forced to find an even quieter spot on an offshore island that's now named after him.
When we finally reached the top after about two hours, we simply didn't know where to look. There were dizzyingly beautiful views in every single direction. Even though there was virtually no wind at the top, we sat in a sheltered spot with a view of the sea to tuck into our picnic. There were gourmet sandwiches, salads with mayonnaise, plenty of water, cans of fizzy drinks, doughnuts, pear tart and some wonderful red wine from Aix-en-Provence.
We made our way back down the mountain mostly in a kind of revered silence. I made sure to ask Mathieu about snakes (yes there are some, but you rarely see them even in summer) and wild boars (you will also find some here, but they're incredibly shy) and my knees felt like they had been hit repeatedly with a doctor's reflex-testing hammer.
As we finally walked over a low wall and found ourselves back at the car park on tarmacadam-ed civilisation, I was thinking that I learned two things at least: There's nothing quite like the combination of great French food and wine, chat, exercise, conquering a really big hill, sunshine and stupendous views that let you appreciate the Côte d'Azur in all its glory away from the traffic. The second thing I found out was that I can still get sunburnt in February.
Just off the shore of Riviera, the Lerins Islands represent another paradise that will take you away from the hustle and bustle of the Côte d'Azur and there are not many places where both the Man in the Iron Mask and Saint Patrick have both been resident.
There are plenty of regular departures throughout the year from Cannes, Mandelieu and elsewhere. See www.abbayedelerins.com
The Chapelle du Rosaire in the town of Vence was artist Henri Matisse's magnum opus. It opened in 1951 while the artist was on his death-bed.
The Dominican chapel was entirely designed by Matisse, from the building's physical structure down to the choice of seating. Blue and yellow stained glass bathes the simple white walls. It's a lesson in tranquil simplicity. For further info, visit www.vence.fr
Apart from the fact that the weather is still generally great but there are no summer crowds, the other wonderful advantage of visiting the Riviera in winter/early spring is that the ski slopes are just over an hour away. The nearest resort is Valberg and day ski passes as well as day insurance passes mean that you literally pop up, ski and come back to base again.
For further information, see valberg.com.
Sunday Indo Living