Visitors to the French Riviera between Nice and the Italian border can experience many heavenly hikes. Signposted walks take you alongside the glorious blue Mediterranean sea, past some of the richest real estate in the world and through gorgeous villages. Australian Susan McDonald has enjoyed many walks in the South of France and shares some of her favourites…
The Rich and Famous
There are many paths to explore along the French Riviera, most are signposted. One of the best is the dreamy peninsula of Cap Ferrat which begins on the Promenade Maurice Rouvier. Flat, paved and picturesque – from the beach in Beaulieu, walk towards the tiny fishing village of St Jean Cap Ferrat. Along the way you’ll pass La Fleur du Cap, a pink villa which once belonged to David Niven. Recently restored for $10 million, it was also home to Charlie Chaplin in the 1950’s and was briefly owned by Dodi Fayed, Princess Diana’s suitor. The walks here offer a romantic glimpse into a world of affluence – and seriously good gardening.
Castles and pine trees
On the waterfront of the quaint village of St Jean, the terrace of the boutique hotel, La Voile D’Or has fabulous views towards Beaulieu. Pushing on past Chateau St Jean, you’ll spot a sign about a mean dog in shouty capitals, if the glass shards and barbed wire on top of the enormously high stone fence don’t’ get an intruder first. Once owned by Hungarian princess Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, this venetian style villa can be glimpsed through a curtain of trees nestled beside the sea.
A little further on, the steep staircase to La Plage Paloma beach takes a wily walker on a sweeping curve along the water’s edge and past historic sites situated high on the hills. The famous St Hospice can be glimpsed through the pine trees. Named after a hermit missionary who created small stone huts here in 560AD, it marks the first Christian settlement in the area. Access steps for platform sunbathing and swimming have been cut into the rock. Huge gates keep lush gardens and enormous houses secluded from prying eyes. Then, Villa Santo Sospir appears. In 1950, Parisienne socialite, Francine Wesiweiller invited the avant-garde artist Jean Cocteau for dinner. He stayed for 12 years painting walls with dreamy frescoes. Private tours can be organized with her former private nurse now curator, Eric Marteau through the website: www.villasantosospir.fr
In the footsteps of Matisse
Walking the coastal paths gives you a new perspective on a place. Much of the littoral path around Cap Ferrat created by Australian mining millionaire, Sir Edmund Davis. In the Roaring Twenties, it was made famous by the beau monde, the beautiful people, who built extraordinary homes and held extravagant parties. Davis purchased a magnificent Italianate villa on the tip of the Cap called La Florentina from a French aristocrat. The path must have increased his enjoyment of the area. Another Australian, the hugely eccentric Lady Kenmare, renovated the villa into a magnificent sanctuary after the war after German soldiers had been billeted there.
There is something special about the light in this part of the world. Artist Matisse was fascinated by this small pocket of paradise ‘where the light plays the first part and the colour comes afterwards’. A shimmering sun and bright sea is framed by vertiginous garden wonders.
Dine like a movie star
Lunch on the terrace, La Veranda of The Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat is worth the trek required. It is a superb place to stay and beyond the reach of mere mortals. But the food is excellent, and the view from the terrace is breath-taking. You definitely feel like a movie star on the wonderful curved marble staircase to the foyer.
Wander a little further to the pink Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild which has a delightful tea room and gorgeous themed gardens. A No 1 Trip Advisor destination, this great monument was built by the fabulously wealthy Baronness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothchild. She hosted lavish garden parties here until 1934. She loved the colour pink and would greet visitors dressed in pink from her boots to her parasol. French writer Jerome Coignard declared, ‘Baronness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothchild created an idyllic universe in her residence on St Jean Cap Ferrat’. Filled with art and priceless 18th century porcelain, the five bedroom dream home is testament to a woman of great taste, and a good deal of money. Spend a half day here if you can, the gardens, complete with a singing fountain shaped like the deck of a cruise liner, are spectacular.
Tip: Walk in the morning when the sun is low and the air retains some of the crisp morning clarity. Once the eucalyptus heats up and scents the paths it is time you’ll have the perfect appetite for lunch. Book in advance if you can, the best places are always busy.
From the heavens to the Sea
The sedate and timeless village of Eze is perched on a hill near Monaco. Climb the well-kept paths to the exotic gardens, Jardin Exotique d’Eze, located in the ruined 12th century castle to feel close to heaven.
The great philosopher Nietzsche took this uphill every day to clear his head for his complicated writings. Easy to find next to Chateau d’Eze, the signposted Chemin de Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s path), is wonderfully inspiring. Downhill takes about an hour with some scenic stops along the way. Rocky and uneven in parts, this hike requires sensible shoes. Nietzsche wrote ‘the ground keeps me rooted, my mind is in the heavens.’ As you turn the bends in the path, the hazy sea reaches out in front of you, boats bobbing, the sun beating down, a bubble of peace and serenity. At journey’s end, you can’t help but feel a moment of pure appreciation.
Tip: Visit Eze early and catch the fun bus ride up the hill from Eze-sur-Mer train station. On the way back, drop into the beachside restaurant, Anjuna, for a well-earned cool drink, possibly some afternoon dancing and to feel part of something bigger than you ever imagined.
Party like it’s 1922
The Cap d’Antibes walk is renowned. The path Chemin de la Garoupe leads to Sentier Littoral at the end of the beach. With superb lookouts over the rugged coastline, wearing good shoes is a must and take a hat for shade. This can only be walked on calm days as the tides and sudden drops can be dangerous. After about an hour of walking, the high walls of Villa Eilenroc come into view. The gardens are supposedly haunted by Greta Garbo and share a border with the vast and infamous Chateau de la Croe. Edward, Duke of Windsor, the former King of England who abdicated the throne to be with his twice divorced American wife Wallis Simpson, stayed here in the 1930’s.
There is a small cove and beach called Plage de Galets, popular with the locals and the path can be found beside the main gates of Eilenroc. Though open infrequently, it is worth a visit if you happen to be there on a Wednesday afternoon (2pm until 5p.m.).
Hotel du Cap Eden Roc
The final destination of note is the legendary Hotel du Cap Eden Roc which has been in business since 1870. The walk along Boulevard JF Kennedy takes you past enormous villas and gates. The footpath can feel a little suburban until the beautiful hotel comes into view in an 11 hectare park of olive groves and rose gardens with sweeping vistas to the sea. Take the side entrance past the guards and enjoy lunch with astonishing views of the swimming pool which has been hewn from rock and features a diving board into the sea. The Fitzgerald’s, Hemingway’s and Murphy’s (Sara is notorious for taking her pearls to the beach for some sun baking), all stayed here.
Tip: Take the No 2 bus from Antibes train station through the town, along graceful avenues and past enormous villas and you can peep into the gorgeous gardens. Get off at stop Phare (lighthouse) in Cap d’Antibes and walk down the steep footpath to La Plage de la Garoupe.
Susan McDonald is a High School teacher who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband, children and dog. She loves France and in particular, a little corner of the eastern French Riviera, making Villefranche-sur-Mer her part-time home each year, and immersing herself in the life of the locals, the history and the sun.
More walks on the French Riviera/Cote d’Azur: cotedazurfrance.fr/en