Sentier du Littoral

If you’re looking for somewhere to go for a couple of weeks by the sea which would be warm at the end of April, you can always consider Nice. There are plenty of hostels, but I ruled out dorms and most of the hostels were dorm only so I looked for budget hotels.

Nice airport is small and pretty easy to figure out. You need to get a bus into town. It goes along the promenade into the center. I got off a few stops early and walked into town on the prom. The hotel was easy to find, close to the square Messina, a very good location.

My hotel room wasn’t ready so I went down and sat on the beach watching some guys playing volleyball. Next morning, I walked down through the old town markets again towards the beach. They were brilliant and I got some strawberries to eat on the beach for  breakfast.

Nice is a pretty good city but I didn’t want to spend two weeks there. It is easy to get up and down the coast from there by train so I booked a couple of nights next in Cannes. A month before the film festival, the town was fairly quiet and I got a very central hotel for the cheapest price of the trip.

There is a hill behind the beach with a great view of the harbour from a monastery on the top, and you could see over to the St Raphael hills. The sun broke through after the rain and as I wandered down through some windy small streets, I started to see things to photograph. Now Cannes seemed a different place. The streets had more people, beautiful women walking the prom and some beach volleyball going on.

Close to Cannes is the island of Ile  San Marguerite, a twenty minute trip, but so different from Cannes. The island has no cars, is about 5 miles in circumference and is very beautiful and peaceful. Beautiful views across the bay towards the St Raphael headland, views across to a second island, and views to the snow capped alps. I bought a large pack of crisps for lunch and walked around the coast of the island. The island was wooded and had small beaches nestled in among rocks.

The next day I got the high speed train through to St Raphael. St Raphael is a relatively unpretentious resort and quite laid back. I walked the prom towards Frejus and again there was volleyball. I sat and watched the guys and girls punting the ball around. It reminded me of American and Australian beach culture and I was wondering if all countries are starting to look alike at the beach.

The next day the weather was good and I got up early, and having enjoyed walking on Ile San Marguerite, I set off to walk the Sentier du Littoral coastal path east back towards Cannes. The route goes round the Cap d’ Esterel to Agay, a small resort town.  The path was cut into the red volcanic rocks of the headland. The route passes through small bays and beaches and across promontories. The Cap du Dramont is a headland where the path rises up to the top of the cliffs and the vegetation is fantastic – a beautiful wilderness. There are a number of paths going off in different directions and I ended up at an outlook looking into the next bay with a brilliant Mediterranean panorama.

The next excursion was a catamaran across the bay to the legendary St Tropez. The boat crosses the bay, past Frejus on the right then the next set of hills along the coast. We came into the bay. I hadn’t been to St Tropez and as we saw old pastel painted buildings along the port bow I knew this was it. The harbour was so full of enormous boats that the pretty French fishing village image was destroyed. The streets were busy and I was glad I was there out of season.

Getting to the end of the harbour there was an arch in the wall, and looking through was the same pastel panorama seen from the catamaran. By timing it correctly it is possible to get round to the houses without getting soaked.

I saw a signpost for Sentier du Littoral and realized that this continued around the St Tropez headland. I only had a few hours but decided to walk as far as I could in the time. The path was along wild unkempt beaches with quite a number of shipwrecked yachts. They looked like new boats and it seemed a little crazy to leave them washed up on the shore at the mercy of the sea. Inland was very expensive looking villas, often with no one around and there were signs prohibiting entry with high fences to protect the rich from the lower castes.

Returning to the boat, the crew wouldn’t allow anyone on the top deck and they told us it was going to be rough! They weren’t kidding. As we got out away from the shore the waves were big and the catamaran was heading straight into them at full speed, dropping down into the troughs then smashing into the next wave. The waves were going right over the top of the boat washing right across the upper deck. The crew passed around sick bags. It seemed people inside the boat were faring worse than those of us stood at the back. A few macho types sat in the seats at the back unmoved, but gradually looking greener. I stood at the back holding onto a pillar. It was amazing.

Time to go back to Nice and I went down to the station ready to leave. I hadn’t enjoyed the train journey out because the TGV was such a closed environment. It was difficult to get any idea of the country you were passing through. As a way to get quickly from A to B they are great, but as a train trip they suck; so I bought a ticket on an old TER train. The ancient train was nearly empty and I opened a window and hung out the window. The train went slowly, it was a glorious day, and I got the most amazing views of the coast.

Nice beach is split into public and private parts. On the public beach the young hang out, beautiful bodied in groups of friends. It is open and hot, you have to take your own drinks and food, though there are some beach boys bringing beers. The private parts have loungers and umbrellas with waiter staff. There are areas roofed off for fine dining. Two worlds next to each other but so dissimilar. I went on the free public beaches, they had far more life to them.

I had more time to wander now than when I arrived in Nice and I found the rest of the old town up against the promontory and the end of the main beach. On top of the promontory is a pleasant park that is great to go up to as the sun was going down. The old town has some amazing smells especially on the spice stalls and in the flower stalls.

While the Sentier du Littoral isn’t an unbroken path on the Riviera coast, there are enough decent lengths of it to do some good walking and discover some parts of this coast that are still largely unspoiled. On subsequent trips to the Riviera, I’ve used Google Earth to find more paths along the coast for good days out.

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