Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Start the Tour

Please begin the blog at the beginning of our French Riviera vacation with Overview: Vacation Basics

The Road to Saint-Tropez

Having enjoyed Thursday's long, beautiful hike we were ready to strike out again for Saint-Tropez. We wanted to see more of the village and then drive around the peninsula to see the land and the distances for the other coastal hikes. We decided not to try to do another long hike. This last full day would be for sightseeing.

We left Mougins and headed down the A8 to the Le Muys exit for Saint-Tropez. Everything was great until we got to Saint Maxime. Then, traffic was at a standstill. Comparing Friday to Thursday, was so different! The traffic was almost non-existent on Thursday. After one hour of sitting in traffic, we turned around and decided to make the most of the day by driving back up the scenic N98 coastal highway to St. Aygulf and the Villepey Lagoons.

We stopped along the coast for a nice lunch, then continued on. The Villepay Lagoons are across the street from the beach. We could see some of the beautiful birds, the easy boardwalk paths, but decided not to take the hike. We just enjoyed driving the coast again on our last day and headed back to Mougins in time for dinner in the old village.

RETURN TO FIRST ENTRY: Overview: The Basics

Saint-Tropez peninsula: Another favorite hike

Our expectations of Saint-Tropez were dashed. In a good way! We expected modern, high rise, glitzy. Instead, we found a quaint village. Yes, there are upscale stores. However, the village and harbor are quite charming. We see the reason why this is such a favorite destination. We parked in paid parking near the harbor. We arrived before 9:00am on a Thursday morning before the crowds.

We were there to hike, so off we went in search of the trails described in 26 Gorgeous Hikes on the Western Cote d'Azur.

We stopped off at the tourist information office to get a detailed map and ask whether the restaurant at Salins Beach (Plage des Salins) would be open. They called, but no one answered. So, we stopped off at a take out place and bought sandwiches and chips. We had brought a large bottle of water and some nuts. You can get sugar coated peanuts in many places, but we bought a large jar at the grocery and then packed a small amount in a plastic bag for hiking. Again, we had our day pack and good hiking shoes. We also wore lightweight hiking pants for this one due to the warmer temps (70s F).

We found the trailhead at the Portalet Tower, but then the trail jagged back into town a bit. We missed that little spur and found ourselves on very difficult coastal rocks. We realized our mistake and climbed straight up the rocks to the cemetery to pick up the marked trail.

Back on track, we continued on the sentier littoral on the Saint-Tropez peninsula. There were no handrails on this trail. The terrain was varied. It could be rock, sandy beaches or shaded (and muddy) paths. It could be steep or flat. Narrow or wide. Scary or safe.

The only certainty was 5.2 miles of hiking on the first leg to Plage des Salins!

A great lunch spot at Pointe de la Rabiou:

The restaurant at Plage des Salins had just opened that day. It was too crowded for us, so we bought some cold water. We found out that there were no buses running back to town, so after a bit of rest, we decided not to continue on the hike to Tahiti Beach, but to hike the road back to Saint-Tropez. We're not exactly sure of the distance, but it seemed like 3-4 miles back to our car!

We enjoyed the hike immensely. Walking along the road back to town, we also enjoyed the fact that with resorts/villas on one side of the road, there were vineyards and little farms on the other side of the road. The land was flat enough to make the road walk fairly easy, though long.

We decided to try to come back on Friday to check out the other hikes.

NEXT: The Road to Saint-Tropez

Gourdon, Tourettes-sur-Loop, Haute de Cagnes

After some spectacular coastal drives and walks/hikes, we decided to head for the hills. Gourdon is a 40 minute drive from Mougin. We had already seen St. Paul de Vence, so we planned to include Tourettes-sur-Loop and Haute de Cagnes.

We didn't really "do" anything except make the scenic drive with stops in these villages. Being mid-week in the shoulder season, there were no crowds. For us, it is all about being in these places.


We enjoyed a nice little lunch outdoors in Tourettes-sur-Loop. The market was just closing down when we arrived.

Haute de Cagnes (near Cagnes-sur-Mer):

NEXT: Saint-Tropez: Another Favorite Hike

La Corniche d'Or: Fréjus, Saint-Raphaël to Cannes

We decided to head west to check out the routes to some hikes in the book, 26 Gorgeous Hikes on the Western Cote d'Azur.

From Mougins, we took the A8 to the exit at les Adrets-de-l'Esterel. The road intersected with the N7 that goes past Mt Vinaigre (one of the hikes mentioned in the book). Since we were scoping out driving distances/time, we continued on to Fréjus in search of Pic du Cap Roux and Pic de l'Ours (more hikes in the book).

When we got to Fréjus, it was almost time for lunch. We took advantage of the free parking next to the beach at Fréjus. The beach is very pretty there, sandy and well-maintained with planted palm trees, gardens, walkways and arbors. There are also historic sites in the old town, but seeing such wasn't a focus of our trip.

The pretty beach at Fréjus:

Harborside lunch of croque monsieur (grilled ham and gruyere sandwich) with pommes frites (fries).

After our leisurely lunch break, we headed toward Saint-Raphaël on the N98. The road section along N98, La Corniche d'Or, links Saint-Raphaël to Cannes. The road was opened in 1903 by the Touring Club de France.

Another roadside pause in Saint-Raphaël to look around. We could envision staying awhile in the area.

The popular game of boules:

This must be Pic de l'Ours?

We were so sidetracked by the scenic drive and little towns that we decided to forego mountain hikes.

NEXT: Cap d'Antibes: A Favorite Hike

Cap d'Antibes: A Favorite Hike and Location

Our next daytrip from Mougins was to Antibes. We drove down to the harbor and liked what we were seeing of the old town. However, we'd heard about the sentier littoral around the Cap d'Antibes (cape) and wanted to see the trails before seeing the old town.

Until we planned this trip to France, I had no idea of the well-documented and well-maintained trails (sentier littoral) available for hiking/walking. Through the Slow Travel Forum, we had gotten some information from AzurAlive, including the book on hiking the western Cote d'Azur.

Before heading out to Antibes, I asked our concierge for a map. When I told him we wanted to hike the Cap d'Antibes sentier littoral, he looked a bit appalled. I guess he doesn't get many requests for hiking?

At first, we made a wrong turn into a harbor parking lot. This was interesting because we saw the actor, Jude Law, driving a Porsche into the lot when we turned around. We easily found our way out to La Garoupe Plage (the Garoupe beach) to the beginning of the sentier littoral. There is free parking in a lot there along the beach and a few restaurants (some associated with hotels). Arriving early in the day for both the parking and the hiking is advisable. We had coffee at one of the snack bars, then headed out to the trail.

I must tell you that we were awestruck by the beauty of the cape! That's probably an understatement. We fell in love with the landscape and the views.

This was more of a hike than a walk. I recommend sturdy walking shoes. We were both in hiking shoes. We had a backpack with water and snacks. The sun was very bright, but the temperatures were warm enough for short sleeves, yet cool enough for comfortable hiking with the lack of humdity. It was very windy, too. Be prepared!

There are places on the trail where you must be sure footed. There are warning signs (peril of death) about the surf washing you away into the sea. There are places on the trail where a person with balance problems or a fear of height may be challenged. In fact, it would be extremely dangerous had the French not gone to the trouble of installing railing along the trails! That said...it was fabulous and we'd hike it again and again!

At first, the hike starts out very easy:

And fragrant with the blooms of pittosporum and other flowers:

You walk past fabulous gardens and villas along the way. There are cameras, guard dogs and other deterrents along these properties of the rich and famous.

Then, the trail gets really interesting as you look down the cliffs into the sea:

Fortunately, there are some climbs that have been made safer by the installation of stone steps and railings:

The terrain is both breathtaking and intimidating ...all the way around the coast:

Once you finish the sentier littoral, you'll come out to a paved road that leads back to La Garoupe. Walking through the little roads, you're surrounded by villa walls. Once in awhile, you can catch a glimpse of the beautiful homes and gardens. It is quiet. It is shady. It is peaceful. It is very easy to see the appeal. As we were walking through town, my husband went into a few small hotels to chat with them about their rooms/rates (for future plans). He also picked up some real estate brochures (just for fun).

The beach at La Garoupe is sandy and nice. We had a fantastic lunch at La Rocher, a little "snack restaurant" beside the beach. We had delicious salads with beef strips and veggies with a side of pommes frites (French fries). A good portion of wine and water, topped off by a shared ice cream sundae concoction. The food was more like a gourmet restaurant than a snack place. Yet, the prices were very reasonable with huge portions of fresh food.

At the end of our meal, we sat by the beach for a very long time. We felt like we'd found the perfect paradise...great trails, great food, beautiful views...ah!

NEXT: Gourdon, Tourettes-sur-Loop, Haute de Cagnes

les Îles de Lérins: Peaceful island walks near Cannes

On Sunday, May 4th, we walked from our Mougins apartment down to the patisserie for a pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) and cappucino. The bus stop for Cannes is right in front of the patisserie. We decided to take the bus (1 Euro each way) rather than pay for parking in Cannes. As mentioned before, the buses in this region of France are modern, clean and comfortable...but, you may have to stand up when it is crowded. This was an easy 20 minute trip.

Once in Cannes, we headed toward the water but found that all kinds of preparations were underway for the film festival. We took a few tacky tourist photos and decided to head down to the ferry port to get out on to an island (les Îles de Lérins are located just off of Cannes).

A ferry to St. Marguerite was ready to leave and we quickly bought our tickets (12 Euros round-trip) and hurried aboard.

Going to St. Marguerite is about getting away to quiet strolling paths, beautiful views, pretty flora and beaches. There is little on the island other than the remains of a prison (Man in the Iron Mask), a couple of places for food, and the rest is park-like with fabulous pathways. We were there for walking the paths. You don't need serious hiking gear for these paths. I wore my Keen mules (no socks), a skirt (skort, actually) and did just fine. Most folks were in shorts with their swimsuits underneath, walking in all kinds of fancy sandals down to flip-flops. It was a Sunday and the island was clearly an outing destination for French families.

We picked up sandwich jambon cru for a picnic lunch. We decided to check out the prison first (free on Sunday), then find our way through the labryinth of paths that crisscross the island...there are many choices.

After a nice, leisurely afternoon around the island, we decided not to wait for the last ferry since the island was full of French families. We took the next to last ferry and saw that many were turned away who arrived at the port too late to get aboard.

Docking back in Cannes, we decided to have a nice beverage (and visit the 5 star loo) at the Sofitel Hotel bar. We sat outside, sipping an apertif, and watching the yachts and people.

We took a walk through the Cannes market where antiques and art were on display. This wasn't your average market. These were very, very nice...and some very exquisite...items.

While we would have liked to linger, we also wanted to catch the "next to last" bus back to Mougins. It was a good choice, too. We made it aboard, but it was very crowded with families carrying beach gear from their Sunday outing. A point to be made...even with the crowded buses, the French were very polite. No pushing, shoving. And, seats were given up to the elderly, handicapped or those with babies and small children.

NEXT: La Corniche d'Or coastal drive