French Riviera hiking vacation
We’re just back from a trip to the French Riviera, and I expect I’ll be writing a few blog posts about that.
I feel a need to start, though, by explaining my attire.
About the red hat
I have travelled the world (well, Europe and the Americas, anyway) with this green hat that has served me well, and that I still have, but for this new vacation, which was a walking tour, I felt it was time for a new hat.
Jean’s had a series of hats over this same time frame, most of them Tilley Endurables brand. This is a Canadian company that was built around these well-made, lifetime guarantee, water resistant, floatable, breathable, hats. So I thought I’d get me one of those.
And I just couldn’t resist the bright red one. It was fun, it seemed to suit me, it was Tilley.
What I didn’t think about was that red just doesn’t match with everything. And it particularly didn’t match either of my Gortex jackets, one turquoise and purple, another pale mauve, that were basically the required outwear for a walking tour. And though I didn’t have to wear the jackets all the time (mostly, we had nice weather), it also didn’t go with my light blue top, or my deep blue top, or my purple top, which again were of the breathable fabric one kind of has to wear when exerting oneself outdoors.
Then, at one point, we got enough rain that I felt compelled to pull out the rain pants, which I hadn’t worn since the 1980s, and were therefore a lovely 1980s turquoise green. So picture this in your mind: Turquoise green pants, pale mauve jacket (if only I had the other coat that day, but no!), and red hat.
In fact, you’ll have to picture that just in your mind , because I refused to let Jean take any photographic evidence of it.
Of walks and weather
The two things I fretted about most before our “Walking the French Riviera” tour were fitness and weather. Though the tour was classified as leisurely / moderate, we’d found with the Amalfi walking tour that the Exodus definition of “moderate” could result in pretty seriously sore muscles. So this time I thought I’d prepare a bit, by doing more workouts that emphasized lower body strength.
But for weather, obviously, all you could do was try to bring clothing suitable to different conditions. (Even if it doesn’t all match.)
We went on five walks in total, all focused on a different aspect of the Riviera landscape. Our excellent guide Stéphanie would stop at various points to give information about what we were seeing around us. Though interesting, I wasn’t great at remembering that many of those details.
I have no trouble, however, remembering the weather each day.
Walk 1: Cap Martin
This one started right from our hotel in Menton. We did a seaside walk around a cape, then went up into the medieval town of Roquebrune. And though I say “up”, this walk was more on the leisurely side of leisurely / moderate, with an elevation gain of 350 m. Length was 12 km.
We were pleased to find that we were in the fitter half of the walking group of 12, and even more pleased to find that although rain was predicted for the day, it was more like just cloudy. There were a few sprinkles, but nothing too bothersome, and not really interfering with the views.
We saw interesting vegetation in the Cap part—olive trees, lemon trees, cactus (which Jean got a little too close to), pepper trees (like, the spice. Which I didn’t know grew on trees.). And Roquebrune was a fairly dramatic, somewhat Italian-looking city. This part of France is very close to Italy, in fact, and a lot of areas have traded back and forth between the two countries over the years.
Walk 2: Sospel
This was our first mountain walk, a bit more of challenge because of the ascent (460 m) and because the path was rougher. To get to the trail head, we took a bus along the narrow, twisty mountain road. The day was predicted to be nice, so I decided to omit the rain pants and waterproof backpack cover, to make things a little lighter.
We pretty much started with an hour’s climbing, but found it quite doable. Our guide was very good at keeping a reasonable, steady pace, so no one got worn out by early over-ambition. Of course, we would stop periodically for the slower ones to catch up. We learned about some of the wild animals in this part of France: though the only ones we saw were squirrels, we did see evidence of boars, who dig up big piles of dirt. We learned that wolves had been wiped out in France, but they are now migrating back from Italy—which isn’t pleasing the French farmers.
At the top was a bunker, built around 1934 in anticipation of war.
We climbed up above this, where there is now a popular site for para-gliding, so a bunch of astro-turf has been laid down. Not the usual thing to see on a mountain top.
We had lunch here, and it was all very pleasant, until some nasty clouds started gathering.
So we gathered up our stuff and started heading down. But there’s only so fast you can climb down a mountain trail. And it did start to rain. And then it rained harder. And then there was thunder and lightning. And then there was hail.
(That would be one thing I hadn’t fretted about in advance: What if I’m caught in a hail storm.)
It soon turned back to rain, and it was just miserable. My jacket was waterproof, but I hadn’t put the hood up in time, so water eventually gathered in there and started running down into the jacket. I had gloves, but they weren’t truly waterproof. No rain pants, and “quick dry” pants aren’t so useful when being constantly rained upon. At least my waterproof boots appeared to hold (though I later found they were a little wet inside; I think the wicking socks did their job).
When we got to Sospel, the rain had finally stopped. We had a bit of a wait for the bus, so we toured around the town a bit. But in the time it took us to get a coffee, it started pouring again for our walk to the bus stop. Yay.
At least the bus was warm and dry.
Walk 3: Monaco to Eze
We did manage to dry everything out overnight, partly thanks to our heated towel rack, and the Tuesday forecast was really good.
Nevertheless, I packed rain pants, as I would for all remaining walks.
This would be the most challenging walk, I think, because of a significant descent required—775 m. But we cut out some of the ascent by taking the train to Monaco [I’ll do a separate post on some of the city visiting we did], then a bus to La Turbie.
From here, we climbed, getting amazing views all the way. It was just a perfect day weather-wise, as though a reward for the previous day.
Then, after lunch, began a long series of downs, first to town of Eze, a town built on the edge of a cliff.
Being in Eze itself was a little weird, as it consists of weaving, tunnel-like streets, so you feel a bit like a rat in a maze going through it. But we did stop for a drink at a cafe before doing the final descent, down to the seaside.
There were a lot of stairs at this stage, and many people found that pretty challenging. Again, Jean and I did fairly well with it. I thought that I might have sore muscles the next day, but I was pretty good. I guess the working out worked out. (Jean claimed to be fine also, but I did catch him sneaking Naproxin.)
Walk 4: Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
This was the walk after our “free” day, and it was the flattest of them all, just around two capes, through beach front.
It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful, easy 11 km walk on nice paths. We started with a train ride (France has a fantastic train network, by the way) to Beaulieu-sur-Mer, then just walked the easy route. Whereas other walks had been more isolated, here there were many beaches, and so many people out sunning themselves.
We finished this walk around 2:00, leaving us enough time to visit the Villa Ephryssi de Rothschild, which I’ll cover separately.
Walk 5: Castellar Menton
This was another mountain walk, and the forecast wasn’t great, so I wasn’t as much looking forward to this one. Still, the morning was very nice. The plan was to take a small bus to the town of Castellar, then walk up to the Italian border, and back down to Menton.
The road to Castellar was even more twisty than the Sospel road. We walked through the small mountain town before heading up on the trail. It was a fairly easy one as uphill climbs go, because the path was pretty wide and the ascent gradual. The path to the Italian border was more challenging, as it was narrower and more rocky. But everyone made it up.
We did have a good morning, but once again, on the way down, it started to rain. Lighter rain, though. And yes, this time, I had the rain pants, and put up my hood, so it wasn’t too bad. We actually had a choice here, of taking the bus or walking back to Menton. In the light rain, everyone agreed to do the walk down.
But then it started to pour. And as we got wetter, more and more people started to change their minds about walking. Until finally, Stéphanie (the guide) declared that we were all taking the bus! She felt it would be too slippy to attempt the walk down (had there been any volunteers remaining for it).
We did get off the bus at an earlier stop, though, to have some time to tour the old cemetery of Menton.
And hereth endeth this tale of walks and weather.
Cities of the French Riviera
I had never heard of Menton, France before this trip, but that’s where we stayed the whole time. It was a great home base. Quieter than Nice, but still offering plenty of interesting shops, good restaurants, and attractive architecture, especially in its Old Town. Our hotel fronted right on the beach, though our view was of the other side, the mountain. Still not too shabby.
I can’t say we did anything particularly notable in Menton, however. We kept intending to visit the nearby Jean Cocteau museum, but never made it past the gift shop. So I could see going back and giving the place a bit more focus sometime. I would recommend it as a place to stay when visiting that area.
Monaco wasn’t far from Menton at all. It is theoretically its own country, though one very much dependent on France, and that doesn’t require a passport to visit.
We had thought of spending part of our “free” day here, but ended up deciding against it. So we really spent only about a half hour, 45 minutes here, before one of the walks. It was enough time to climb up the central square and get a little bit of a sense of the place…
… which is that it is very crowded, very dense, and completely paved over. There is no room left here to build anything else. Many people who work here have to live elsewhere.
(And I guess some might be interested to know that when we took the bus to the airport, it did drive on the famous race car track.)
Nice is where we did spend our free day, and where we finally visited a museum, one devoted to artist Marc Chagall. I enjoyed that more than Jean did. I like Chagall’s whimsical style and use of primary colors. I had no idea he’d done so many works based on the Old Testament, and was amused how many of those had a touch of eroticism. “That’s Jacob fighting the angel,” I told Jean. “I don’t think fighting is what they’re doing,” he replied. Unsurprisingly, I guess, Chagall did a whole series based on the Song of Songs (i.e., the “dirty book” of the Bible).
Other than that, we just walked around in Nice, down to the beach, and through its old section. It was more crowded and not quite as charming as Menton, but somewhat more appealing than Monaco.
Rothschild Gardens near Villefranche-sur-Mer
Villefranche-sur-Mer seemed a lovely little town:
But we spent our time after our Thursday walk at Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa and Gardens, one of those huge private homes that is now a heritage site that tourists can visit. Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild had ample time and money for decorating, and also pretty good taste:
But most special and impressive were the extensive outdoor gardens, featuring many imported plants. Much of the house was designed to provide excellent views of these gardens.
Every 20 minutes, you had a chance to view the “musical fountain”, which means the water from various fountains gyrating in time to broadcast music. I’m not sure if that’s authentic to the time of the Rothschild’s, but it was interesting to watch.
Looking after number 1
At one point, Stéphanie, our guide, affectionately dubbed us “the toilet group.”
Because this particular walking group was heavily weighted toward women of a certain age, which meant that we all spent an inordinate amount of time waiting around until everyone had a chance to go pee.
On the Amalfi walking tour we’d done previously, pretty much every walk included a stop in the middle of it at a cafe or convenience store where, for the price of a coffee or chocolate bar, anyone who needed to could also use the facilities.
But on these France walks, it seems you often had an opportunity only at the start, then at the end of the walk. Of course, at the start, the urgency tends to not be so great, but then there’s that concern: If I skip this chance, how bad will be the wait for the next one? Hence, the waiting around for the pre-emptive bladder emptying.
For me, though, other aspects factored into the decision of whether to go now, or wait it out. Because with French public toilets, you never really know what you’re going to get. And I don’t just mean missing toilet paper.
Flashback: It’s 1992, we’re in Dieppe, France, and I really have to go. So we stop in for a meal at a restaurant. After giving our orders, I head toward the facilities, have a look, and immediately head back to the table.Honeymoon souvenirs
“I can’t use that,” I tell Jean.
He, mystified, heads to the facilities to see for himself what horrors await. He shortly returns, laughing.
It was my first encounter with a Turkish-style toilet.
We’ve been to France a number of times since, and I had never encountered another such facility—until this trip. In fact, calling it a “toilet” probably isn’t accurate, as all it is, literally, is a hole in the ground, with two spots for your feet.
And I still can’t use that, so when it was on offer, I was definitely skipping that “opportunity”.
The French also have a certain concern with cleaning the facilities between use, which of course is nice—unless you’re not aware of the method of cleaning. Like, that when you pull the cord to flush, it will also spray water around to clean the whole general area! Regardless of whether you’re still in there…
And no, I did not get caught in that, but others in my group did, having to spend some time in wet pants afterwards.
Thereafter, I would skip that style of bathroom as well.
Then there were the pay toilets that require exact change, though that isn’t as bad when you’re in a group, because someone can usually help you out. Some of those also have a cleaning cycle between use, which—again—is nice, only it’s not a super-fast process, so you’re extending the group wait by lining up for those. One them actually conked out after two uses.
Another more modern example had a voice guiding me through the bathroom process (all in français, of course): thanking me for choosing the lower-water flush option and explaining the actual flush would occur after I exited; warning that I had 20 minutes (20 minutes!) before the door would fly open; etc. It was sort of hilarious.
Then, on one walk, we actually did stop midway at cafe with a perfectly normal toilet, and what did I do? I became inexplicably unable to unlock the door until those outside told me I was just turning the lock the wrong way.
Nevertheless, I did not give up on cafe bathrooms.
I just left them unlocked. (Kidding!)
Other than its lack of in-house wifi (which we solved by bringing our own), we were pretty happy with our hotel room in Menton, which was Hôtel Club Le Balmoral. The hotel’s location, I think I noted, was fantastic: very central, facing the beach on one side. The room and bathroom was a good size (for Europe), and—a feature I find annoyingly rare in hotels—was furnished with well-placed desks and shelves and full-length mirrors, such that we could set up to work on our tablets, easily arrange the toiletry items, and confirm that, in fact, my outdoor clothing really didn’t match from head to toe. 🙂 The room temperature was a little bit of an issue until we remembered that with European hotels, you can actually open the window (no screens!), and the natural bit of air conditioning did the trick there.
So the only problem was the food.
It wasn’t all dire. They certainly used a good supplier of food ingredients such that breakfast buffet, which we had every day, was very good: delicious croissant, very fresh fruit salad, nice cheese and ham. Similarly, the cheese course that was always included with dinner featured some wonderful French cheeses. And whoever did the desserts had some talent; those were always nice—lemon meringue pie, ile flottante, crème caramel.
But the cooking was a problem. Overcooked, dry fish. Under-seasoned soup. Mushy, overbreaded shrimp. Spring rolls so tough you could barely cut through them. Oy. They were somewhat better with meat—the lamb tangine we had one night was probably the most successful of the week’s entrees—but it was definitely disappointing to be in France and not be able to count on getting great food.
And it wasn’t just us being over-fussy foodies. We had four hotel dinners included, and everyone in the group complained about them. (In fact, if we hadn’t enjoyed the company of our group so much, we would have skipped some of those dinners….)
Fortunately, the restaurant meals did make up for that, to some degree. Best of the lot was Table d’Oc, which I’d read about before leaving, and which ended up being very close to the hotel. It was a small, funky, fairly casual place with a nautical theme, despite not being particularly focused on seafood.
Prices were quite reasonable, offering three-course meals for 21 Euros (about 32 dollars).
I started with roast vegetables with a duck stuffing. Jean, unsurprisingly, started with a cold terrine of foie gras. What was surprising? How it was served:
His expression was priceless when this was served. The waitress was very amused. “Nous recommendons de ne pas tout le manger.”
He found it some of the best cold foie gras he’d had, but nevertheless managed to leave some of the container for others.
As a main course, I had more duck, sliced and served in a pepper sauce. That came with carrots, long green beans, and scalloped potatoes. All very good. Jean had the pork and morels, which tasted amazing, and the same veg as I.
For dessert I had the lemon meringue pie that this area is known for (Menton is the lemon capital of France), and Jean had the crème brulée, with the brulée done right at the table:
Except for an unusually long wait for the bill, it was quite a lovely evening out.
Another pretty successful meal was at Le Cirke, which I read about in The Guardian. This was a somewhat more expensive seafood place. Jean started with a seafood soup, while I had an octopus and white bean salad. Then we shared the paella, which contained only seafood—no chicken, no sausage. All well-prepared and tasty.
Lunch most days was on the trail, so was basically unexciting sandwiches and granola bars. But in Nice on our free day, we did have lunch at a bistro, enjoying some pasta in a pot.
Later that day we joined much of the rest of the group to see what they were doing for dinner, which turned out not to be the greatest idea. I thought the group of 8 might split into 2 or 3 smaller groups headed for different locales, but instead everyone took off together, which of course made it more difficult to find a place that could accommodate us all. One place claimed to be able to, by putting tables together outside, but then he proceeded to basically ignore us for some time: no menus, no drink orders, while attending to other tables and other people arriving. Most of the group got kind of offended by this and decided to leave; Jean, I, and another lady decided to stay.
Our “congenial” host than got a bit irate about the departure and started barking at us to change tables, whereupon Jean pretty much wanted to leave, also. I was kind with him on that, but the lady we were with didn’t seem to catch on (admittedly, she didn’t have as many years experience as I at reading Jean body language), and persisted in ordering us some wine. So, we ended up staying.
The service did get civil, if never quite friendly (this would be a rare time you’d wish they tipped in France, so you could not leave one). But, upside: The food was really good. Jean had gnocchi with gorgonzola, followed by duck with morels. I had grilled calamari with arugula, followed by risotto with a half lobster. And it was a pleasant evening in terms of the company.
But we would never go back to that restaurant again.