France: Four hikes beyond Menton
High above the Côte d'Azur
.Text & photos: © Paul Smit
It's a subtropical dream: hiking amongst the fragrant flowers, enjoying an occasional snack of figs, grapes or blackberries, with a view of both the Alps and the coast.
The city I most enjoy visiting on the Côte d'Azur is Menton. The wide sandy beach is frequented more by local families than tourists, and the shops in the small winding streets are not filled with nouveau riche but with Italians from just over the border. The influence of Italy reverberates in everything, symbolised by the baroque church towering over the old city centre.
Menton is a great base camp if you want a beach and culture vacation combined with nice walks. If you'd rather leave the coast behind, first stay at Gorbio and then move on to Ste Agnes, France's highest village littoral (coastal village). You can also combine the day-trips with the two-day trip into a short week of hiking. Then you start and finish in Menton, and on the road you stop over in Gorbio, Ste Agnes, Castellar and Torri (Italy).
Gorbio - Col de la Madone de Gorbio - Cime de Galian - Mt. Agel - Gorbio (altitude difference 777 m.)
Gorbio, lying on the slopes behind Menton, is in my opinion the most beautiful village littoral in the Côte d'Azur. And that's saying something, because really, all villages here are picturesque. Eze is the most well-known one and it is enchanting. But every other building is a souvenir or antiques shop, coffeehouse or ice cream vendor. Gorbio is more authentic. It has the same charming alleys and arches, is also lying on a hilltop, but there is not one shop to be found. Not one! Children play in the streets, people live their lives. You will find only one bar and one restaurant, in front of the mediaeval village gate, on the village square with its two-metre thick elm and a fountain.
The floral fragrances embrace us as soon as we leave the village. The old donkey trail, climbing up through the terraces, is bordered by flowers. Up higher, where the terraces are less well-kept, old neglected figs mingle with the wild flora and in the end we are walking in pure wilderness. Now, in June, broom is the dominant vegetation. Its flowers here are four times as large as the broom I am familiar with. The smell is bigger than life too, it smells like a thousand honey pots have been left open. >>>
<<< Here and there nothing grows at all. The water as it seeps through has slowly eaten away at the limestone, leaving behind metres-high and razor-sharp fins. A textbook example of a 'karst' landscape.
Day trip 2
Gorbio - Ste Agnes - Cime de Baudon - Col de la Madone - Gorbio (altitude difference 933 m)
The next morning we leave the village by the same GR 51. Once again we traverse the voluptuous terraces above Gorbio. Ste Agnes, where we arrive later that morning, is far more barren. Being more than 400 m higher this is not surprising. It was built on a summit for protection against the attacks of the Saracens. To be more precise, right behind the summit: it cannot be seen from the coast. And yet it was not the location that warded off the sea pirates, but the girl Anne. Haroum, a powerful Saracen, was so impressed by her beauty and bravery that he met to her demands to gain her hand in marriage: to end his piracy and convert to Christianity. >>>
<<< This is our first unhindered view of the north. We are impressed by the height of the mountains in that direction. They are the three-thousand-metre peaks of Mercantour, culminating in the Argentera, just over the border in Italy. From the Cime de Baudon, the highest point on our walk, the view is even more complete. Now the coastline is also included. >>>
Day trip 3
Sainte-Agnès - Col de l'Olive - les Cabrolles - Sainte-Agnès (altitude difference 450 m)
I return to the Menton area in mid August. This time I opt for the cultural countryside and not only as a contrast to the nature walks. Mid August to end of September is harvesting season. Or that's what it should be. Lots of fruit doesn't get picked anymore these days. If no one walks by, the sad destiny of rot and decay awaits it. >>>
<<< For the figs, lower down the hill, it is still a bit early. But the first ones are starting to ripen: you can break them open by hand. >>>
<<< We also come upon some grapes. They are hanging in bunches over a fence. Just asking for trouble! Are we saving France's most noble fruit from decay or stealing from someone's garden? >>>
First day: Castellar - Col de Berceau - border pass to Italy - Chiesa - Cimone - Villatella - Torri Superiore (ascent 676m, descent 967m). Second day: Le Grand Mont (border crossing) - Colla Bassa - Castellar (ascent 1170m, descent 879m, including climbing Grant Mont (1378m) another 129m)
Autumn goes on forever in the Mentonnais and is pleasantly mild. Two weeks before Christmas I explore the last trail, which is the most beautiful of all. This is partly thanks to the season. In Italian Torri, the overnight spot for this two-day trip as well as the lowest point with its 80 metres above sea level, the lemons and oranges are ripe and juicy, the olive crop is being harvested and the first mimosas are blossoming.
It is also the toughest trail with the biggest altitude difference, traversing Le Grand Mont, known as Grammondo to the Italians.>>> <<<I descend from my cloud: a green and mountainous landscape, terraced as far as the eye can reach, with a bright white chapel in the middle. Agriculture is far more intensive here than on the French side. I have crossed over from one of the richest parts of France into the poorest corner of Northern Italy. >>>
<<< Here you can bear witness to the last death throes of the Middle Ages as well as the advent of the new era. For fifteen minutes I walk along with an old man and his mule, saddlebags full of olives. Elsewhere large nets are stretched under the olive trees. The ripe olives fall of their own accord and when 'harvesting time' comes, the farmers pitch up in their three-wheel pickups or 4x4 Fiat Pandas and empty the nets. These products of a more rational time still do not mar the olive forests in the least. The nets resemble morning fog drifting between the tree trunks. >>>
<<< The real Christmas surprise however is my lodging for the night: Torri Superiore, the higher lying 'suburb'. The whole place is one single building, apparently a collection of towers (Torri) of sometimes five storeys high, creating a maze in which you could spend the whole day getting lost. Torri Superiore is an eco-village and its citizens form a communal living group. In eight years time they remodelled the village into private residences with a communal area. Visitors are welcome there. Bed, breakfast and organic meals together cost only 25 Euro. >>>
<<< In the afternoon one of the residents takes me with her through a multitude of hallways to a fully equipped high-tech office. I learn that more and more eco-communities are following the example of the oldest ecological communities - Findhorn in Scotland and Auroville in India - and connecting to a global network. The expansion of this network ran apace with the growth of the Internet, without which it could not exist. Torri Superiore, a mediaeval smudge at the end of the world, reveals itself to my amazement as the organisational nerve centre of the Europe-Africa regional network. >>>
<<< I walk the last kilometres in the falling dusk, safely beneath the clouds again, to Castellar. This is also an old village, but obviously richer than what I have been seeing in Italy. It has arraigned itself in Christmas finery and bathes in the light of a thousand lamps, high above Menton and the Côte d'Azur.
Translated from the Dutch by Elise Reynolds
Like to read the full text? Or have a look at all the other photos first?
All rights reserved. No permission for reproduction, including copying or saving of digital image files or text, is granted without prior written authorisation from the author.
This feature has been published in OP PAD and VIVRE L'AVENTURE, leading outdoor magazines of the Netherlands and France.
back to top