Explore the region on your own two feet where fresh air is available in lungfuls and coastal views can render you speechless. The following hikes vary from 2 hours of beachy bliss to 12 hours of hell on earth. Whatever level of torture you choose, you will certainly escape the Riviera crowds with not an ice-cream kiosk in sight.
NICE-VILLEFRANCHE: Walk up an appetite
LUCERAM: Will climb for camembert
LES CALANQUES DE CASSIS: Take a walk on the wild side
LES SOURCES DE LA SIAGNE: A walk in the park
GORBIO: Walk back in thyme
VILLARS-SUR-VAR: Trek to tranquillity
GR52: The hike from hell
Nice-Villefranche: Walk up an appetite
How about walking one of the most spectacular footpaths in the world, soaking up glorious sea views and ending your efforts with a fine seafood feast at an unpretentious little roadside restaurant? The sporty part will take around two hours, and just think – when you reach your destination you’ll be able to eat like a cochon, guilt free. In fact, if you download the Moves app, you’ll be able to see exactly how many calories you burnt and then satisfy your voracious appetite by eating those calories and more!
For the greatest sunset experience ever, set off from Nice at 19h in order to arrive at the restaurant in Villefranche for around 21h (to book a table on the terrace in advance, see number below).
First, set off at the east side of the Port along boulevard Franck Pilatte (which turns into Avenue Jean Lorrain) past La Reserve and Coco Beach right up until you reach the crossroads at Boulevard Maurice Maeterlinck. Here you will take a right, passing a Century 21 on your right and a Carrefour on your left, and you’ll continue along this road until you pass the Palais Maeterlinck. This is where you’ll find the signposted “Sentier du Littoral” coastal path, your start point for a rugged creeky, cliffy, beachy, oh-my-gosh-look adventure.
Take the stairs down and follow the path all the way around the Cap de Nice (about an hour and a half) where eventually you’ll arrive at the Port de Darse in Villefranche. From there you’ll take a left around the port until you see Hotel de la Darse and your off-the-beaten-tourist-track destination, La Trinquette.
If it’s a Friday or Saturday night you’ll be treated to live jazz or world music in a beautifully relaxed atmosphere while you tuck into mussels, sea bass, steak-frites, raviolis – and half a litre of rosé at least. Sound good? Go on, then – get your shoes on.
[On the way back, you can either take the train from Villefranche – or walk off even more calories by taking the main (lit!) road all the way back to Nice]
30 avenue du Général de Gaulle, 06230 Villefranche sur Mer
04 93 16 92 48
Lucéram: Will climb for camembert
North up the Paillon valley from L’Escarène lies Lucéram, a peaceful little medieval village – and every Christmas, Luceram gets filled withcrèches (nativity scenes). Quite literally, there are mangers in every nook; street corners, air vents, flower boxes, fountains, you name it. Everywhere you look there’s Mary and baby Jesus. This may or may not be your thing. If you have a Facebook account you probably spend half your life looking at babies.
Regardless, venturing into Luceram on any Sunday of the year makes for an extremely peaceful end of week treat. For a sporty 3-hour hike, try the steep-ish Circuit du Grand Braus, which begins in the centre of the village and continues up the hillside.
If, like me, you’ll only hike if there’s a good enough reward at the end, this hike is a great one. Your reward is camembert au miel “bio” grillé au four. An enormous honey-soaked, oozy, baked round of goo. The restaurant, La Bocca Fina, is right at the bottom of the finish point and will be worth the climb.
4 Place Adrien Barralis, 06440 Lucéram
Les Calanques de Cassis: Take a walk on the wild side
Do you own a sturdy pair of hiking boots with superior grips? If not, don’t even attempt this hike. This randonnée, 2 hours drive from Nice, begins on the western side of Cassis and involves extreme climbing up white limestone cliffs. It’s hot, dusty and exhausting and when you’re not holding onto a rock wondering how the hell you’re going to hoist your leg up to the next crevice, you’re clambering up and down valleys over small pokey stones that are exactly the wrong size for shoes with thin soles.
However, if you do own good boots and you’re game for a memorable adventure, you’ll experience the breathtaking views from France’s highest sea cliffs. The colour of the water is simply sublime, you can bathe in clear Evian-style unspoilt water, and there’ll be lots of ooh-ing and ahh-ing and Buddhist words about appreciating the moment.
It’ll take you 5 or 6 hours, you’ll sweat bucketloads and you’ll need at least four litres of water each. My “hiking family” and I found ourselves with half a litre between six of us and two hours to go. We went from being grossed out by each other’s backwash to practically making out with each other to get the last dregs from the bottle. We started fantasizing about which drinks we would order at the finish line… like an orangina followed by a coke followed by a massive glass of water with ice.
Oh and lastly, for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to pack sunscreen. I still have T-shirt burn lines five months later. It was so horrendous I had to wear long sleeves to Bikram yoga.
It is fun though, promise.
Les Sources de la Siagne: A walk in the park
If I had a list of “favourite hikes on a Sunday that aren’t too strenuous” this would be at the top.
On this one, I could actually hold a conversation while walking.
You’ll drive to just north of Lac de St-Cassien and the villages of Montauroux, Fayence and Callian for a peaceful 3-hour walk through an ancient oak forest, past waterfalls, natural bridges and caves. At one point you may get a bit soaked walking through a waterfall but that’s all part of the fun.
In fact, it’s SO scenic, it would be rude not to stop for a picnic of fondue bourgignonne, smelly cheeses and bagna cauda. Who says you can’t carry a fondue set and several bottles of wine on your back? Or at least someone can.
Gorbio: Walk back in thyme
Perched behind Menton, Gorbio has all the traits of a medieval mountain village; windy alleyways, stray cats, water fountains, sad looking flowerpots, a baroque church, a town hall and super friendly people. Any walk that’s on a loop and ends up with a carafe de blanc at a charming local restaurant, gets my vote.
For this 4 hour walk, you’ll park your car in Gorbio, walk uphill for an hour, reach a plateau colonized by sheep, then head west and marvel at the astonishing views over Menton. Then as you head downhill you’ll be treated to never-ending sea views and a plentiful supply of wild sage, thyme, lavender and rosemary that you may or may not steal lots of, and may or may not actually use.
Villars-sur-Var: Trek to tranquillity
If you’re looking to unwind after a busy week, this mini-hike overlooking the River Var valley offers total tranquillity. On a sunny late morning in early November, we only encountered one other person – and her dog – in two and a half hours. And the fresh mountain air… oh my. That mixed with the cozy scent of firewood as you navigate the mountain path is a treat and a half. As you climb, you’ll pass the pretty Chapelle Sainte-Brigitte, the saint known to protect against illness and, at the top, you’ll reach the Chapelle Saint-Jean with its Roman portico. You’ll also pass some mistletoe (a great excuse for a smooch) not to mention a hundred opportunities to switch your iPhone to panoramic mode.
Like all hikes, it would be rude not to round it off with a hearty lunch on the village square, and Les Platanes offers exactly this: copious dishes of niçoise cuisine with a big smile and a small price. All in all the perfect Sunday.
GR52: The hike from hell
Forget leisurely hikes along lakes, this is a hardcore 7-day climbing adventure. I’m almost too traumatised to tell the tale. But I will anyway. Here’s the diary I kept during the mountain highs and lows.
Day 0: Nice – St Dalmas
6.45am: “Hiked” to bus stop around the corner. Never seen 6.45 before. No one about except butchers and youths in track suits. Boarded bus with a dozen or so hikers in their 60s who talked too much. Tried to sleep with legs wedged between two 50-litre backpacks and sharp turns in road. Arrived in mountains at St Dalmas at 9am. Cold. Forced to wear fleece. Found tea and croissants. “Hiked” 20 minutes down to village, sat on a bench and watched a religious procession that included a live chicken and a priest with an electronic cigarette. Tried to sleep but got woken up by a marching band. 12pm had escalope de veau à la creme & frites in lovely garden at village restaurant. 2pm checked into private room at reasonably clean gite, Les Marmottes. Siest-ered until 6pm, David dropped toothpaste down his only long sleeved T-shirt and then we ate a 3-course dinner with a family from Grenoble and a mysterious Polish girl who had been hiking alone for the last 3 weeks. All in all decided hiking is actually quite pleasant.
“Where the hell is the emergency Ziplock first aid bag? How could we have left it at home? How?? We have tanning cream and herbal tea but no plasters.”
“Stop blaming me! I didn’t take it out of the backpack, I swear. Until an hour ago I couldn’t even work out how to open the back pack.”
Day 1: St Dalmas – Le Boreon
24 km uphill, 9 hours, 37, 956 steps
Nothing could have possibly prepared us for the torture we were about to face. Imagine climbing a mountain with a 45-degree gradient for hours on end, laden with a 7-kilo backpack. I couldn’t believe the extent of this neverending escalade. My back killed, my calves were burning, my lungs were giving up. My body was in total shock.
“You’re looking at me as if you just found out I was your brother,” said David. “Let me know when you’re ready to speak.”
At 11am I spoke my first words of the day.
At one point we passed a French family with two donkeys. The donkeys were carrying their backpacks. Why on earth didn’t anyone tell me about the donkey option?
We also passed a herd of the most enormous cows I have ever seen. Which explained the enormous cow shit we had to climb over for 9 hours.
Eventually, after several hundred more ravines and hills covered in giant rocks, we reached the yurt. Yes, yurt. Except the owner of the yurt was off chasing 2 runaway horses and an unwashed version of Jared Leto informed us that we would be sharing it with the falconer and his wife. The who…? Who are these circus people? I peaked into the yurt and it looked like a squat. Then the owner arrived back, muttered something about the yurt and offered us a room in the house. Which smelt of horses, but hey, at this point I would have slept on the kitchen table. After a much-needed shower, we hobbled with wet hair and broken everything to the nearby Gîte du Boreon where we shared tartiflette with the funnest Dutch people in the whole world.
Back at the horse house – after hearing the wolves howl and legging it back as fast as possible – we gave each other leg, foot and shoulder massages (falconer and his wife were a no-show thank the lord) and went to sleep.
I don’t want to carry a backpack ever again.
Day 2: Le Boreon – Madone de Fenestre
14km, 6.5 hours, 26,763 steps
Put on the backpack at 8am after a piece of stale bread and a goodbye giggle with the funnest Dutch people in the whole world. Everyone told us today was going to be easy. 4 hours they said. Ahahahaha! It was 6.5 hours of sheer hell struggling to trek up an even steeper mountain than yesterday while negotiating thousands of angry rocks and boulders – and 2 hours of dangerous downhill rock climbing thrown in for fun. There were more cows (not bothered), sheep (not bothered), and some baby deer (not bothered). And no, I don’t want to stop and buy cheese at the Vacherie. We got more blisters, severe backache and shooting pains in our shoulders.
When we eventually arrived at the refuge (another word for homeless shelter) it was full of happy French people scoffing Camembert and playing scrabble. I could think of plenty of 4-letter words to describe our day. We shared a room with a friendly couple from Grenoble who gave us a sweet but patronising smile when we spoke of our horrendous backpack carrying pilgrimage. They carry 11 kilos each. Of course they do. We have entered an alternate Stepford Hiker universe where no one feels pain.
Another low point came when the bar staff (yes, the homeless shelter at least had a bar) informed us that tomorrow the rocky horror hell show will involve more of the same – but for 10 hours straight. My lip started to quiver and David held my hand tight. To soften the blow, he took me to the souvenir shop. He promised to buy me some chocolate but all they had was plastic replicas of the Madonna and the pope. So we came back lay on the bunk bed and massaged each other’s feet. Dinner was nice. Soup, turkey à la crème with rice, cheese, compote de pomme. But then we had to get into our sacs à viande (“meat bags”), a sleeping bag sheet that protects you from, well, other people’s flees.
“Honey?” I called up to the top bunk, “Are you in your meat bag yet? Ok, me too, good night.” And so to bed, dreaming of crisp white sheets fresh out of the laundry and a fluffy bath towel not made of micro fibre.
“My stick is stuck”
Day 3: Madone de Fenestre – Refuge des Merveilles
27.4 km of hell, 12 hours, 39,346 steps
Was ordered out of bed at 6.30 and tried to get dressed on the bottom bunk without waking the couple from Grenoble. For the 3rd day running, breakfast consisted of dry bread, no plates. Made a make shift plate out of serviettes, then it was time to set off for 10 hours of misery. Again, we were not prepared for the TWELVE hours that in fact followed.
To summarize, today had the eeriness and isolation of Deliverance with the exhaustion factor of Frodo’s slow motion trek to Rivendell, and several hairy 127 Hours rock climbing near-disasters. I never want to see another rock for as long as I live. Even if that means never going to the beach in Nice.
Imagine the longest, most gruelling climb of your life over loose stones and boulders, all the while trying not to look up or down or lose your balance. Then imagine finally reaching the col 2700m above sea level and having to slide through a one metre square hole to be faced with an even steeper descent on the other side. The sun is hitting your head like a fucking hammer and you’re praying to dear God that you will not slip. Please don’t let me slip, please don’t let me slip. That’s if you haven’t already broken a leg earlier from skidding on a layer of who-knows-what-animal dung. Now imagine that you finally get down the mountain and realise that is just the beginning of hours and hours of the same. How much would you cry? We tried to boost our morale by thinking of as many songs with the word “rock” or “alive” in as we could. But we were too tired to sing.
When we eventually reached the Refuge de Nice (where today should have ended if David hadn’t overestimated our physical and mental strength) I collapsed on the ground with my backpack in floods of tears. He went to talk to the owner who broke it to us that we had another 7 hours ahead of us. It was like a bad dream. I couldn’t even comprehend what he had just said. I started begging David to ask the man to call a helicopter or something, but there was no point. No phone signal. “Do NOT break down on me now,” he said, “we have to get ourselves out of here before it gets dark. I need you to be strong.” So we ate a rice salad and an apple in silence, hugged it out and carried on. It’s amazing what the human body can do when given absolutely no choice in the matter.
The next 7 hours are a bit of a blur. We were on another level of consciousness. Some happy hikers picnicking on a rock told us there were some chamois ahead that we might see if we were lucky. But it was gonna take more than a goat-antelope hybrid to raise a smile. At this point a rainbow coloured unicorn could have crossed my path and I wouldn’t have noticed. We even passed some of the most stunning lakes in the world. Turquoise, flat as a pancake and not a single sound for miles. But sadly, we were too exhausted to appreciate them.
Same with the snow. Snow in August. I really enjoyed side stepping uphill while trying not to skid on the icy parts. Although I’m not sure if I enjoyed this more than crossing streams over slippery rocks with a RIPPED LEFT SHOE. For the last 2 hours, David committed the most selfless act of all time and took my backpack from me, carrying his own on his back and mine strapped to his front. I have no idea how he did it. We soldiered on, trying to fix our minds on the prize, even though the prize was a night in another homeless shelter.
The moment we arrived at the refuge was unforgettable. Everyone was already inside at the dinner table munching on their second course. We asked ourselves how these people can slog on after such a draining day and decided they must have all spentfour years training and stretching and sleeping in oxygen tents. Their kids probably hike without complaints. I bet their photos are never blurry either.
At the dinner table, I could barely move or speak. It felt like an effort just to lift a spoonful of soup from the bowl to my mouth. We completely ignored the six Germans next to us. Even politeness had gone out of the window. When dinner was done, we were shown to our “dormitory” which consisted of a 10-person bunk bed. 5 single beds pushed together on the bottom and the same on top. Without even bothering to get changed, I crawled onto the hard bed and lay there for an hour watching the Germans come and go, rustling the contents of their backpacks with mining lamps on their heads. I was even treated to the sight of a 60-something German’s privates as he was getting changed for bed. This was after hearing his bloodthirsty screams as he attempted the ice cold shower next door. And later, while trying to fall asleep, I could hear a young Frenchman in the toilet crapping his pants. David and I turned to each other under flee-ridden blankets and gave each other a despairing smile. Six months previously we had been looking for an adventure we would never forget. I’m pretty sure we will never forget this.
Day 4: Refuge des Merveilles – home sweet home
6 hours, hike, bus, train, coach, walk, bed.
When David presented me with the news that there was a road with REAL cars and REAL houses and REAL life just 2 hours away, and that we could make it back to Nice somehow, I cannot even describe the relief that swept through my body. I simply could not fathom the thought of another 3 days of hiking. I don’t need to be a hero.
So we loaded ourselves up for the last time and set off along a flat but rocky path down to civilization. Every step down killed my thighs, knees and feet, but at least we were on our way home. We started fantasizing about what we would eat when we got home. A giant steak with a mountain of frites, or maybe dirty junk food in bed. After 3 hours, we reached the road but couldn’t find the bus stop, so we tried hitchhiking. I now understand why backpackers who look like they haven’t washed in years and have their shoes held together with duct tape are not a very attractive prospect to passing motorists. I wanted to yell, “But I’m from Nice, I usually straighten my hair and smell of Jo Malone.” Eventually a hippy told us a bus would be arriving soon and that there was no bus stop, just to flag it down. And that’s exactly what happened. The moment we boarded the bus felt like the ultimate victory. From the bus, we boarded a train. From the train we boarded a coach and from the coach we walked back to our apartment at the port, taking the back streets in case anyone recognised the crusty sunburnt versions of our former selves. As we trawled up the four flights of stairs to our apartment, we decided it would be the last climbing we would do in a long long time. And that dirty junk food in bed was some of the sweetest tasting calories of my life.