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Explore Eastern Provence with a Cicerone Guidebook - Sample Route

Cover of Walking in Provence - East
3 Nov 2014
17.2 x 11.6 x 1.7cm
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Walking in Provence - East

Alpes Maritimes, Alpes de Haute-Provence, Mercantour

by Janette Norton
Book published by Cicerone Press

Guidebook to 30 varied day walks in the east of Provence in the Alpes Maritimes, Alpes de Haute-Provence and Mercantour, with practical information for the walker. Walks span from the Esterel on the coast to the Mercantour, and include the Verdon Gorge and Geological Reserve of Haute Provence, from bases such as Vence, Grasse and Digne-les-Bains.

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Provence’s sunshine and Mediterranean charm attract many visitors to its coast, yet the area also has much more to offer the walker. The countryside inland boasts a range of scenery from remote mountaintops to spectacular gorges. History is everywhere, in medieval villages, arcaded streets, abbeys, churches and castles. 

This guide covers the eastern regions, with its companion volume, Walking in Provence: West, covering the rest of this fascinating and historic landscape. The walking is incredibly diverse, and explores the country that hugs the Côte d'Azur and Italian border. The Alpes Maritimes rise craggy and wild above towns as unique as Grasse, Cannes and Monaco. The Mercantour National Park in contrast is a partially uninhabited area of high mountains, alpine lakes and red rock gorges known for its wildlife. Further north in the Alpes de Haute-Provence is a largely unspoilt geological playground, including such spectacles as the Verdon Gorge with villages and ancient sites throughout.

Suitable for all walkers of average fitness levels, the walks range from 4 to 21 kilometres in length, and are graded for difficulty from short, easy routes to more challenging walks that can include precipitous sections, but no special equipment is needed.

  • 30 day walks in the Alpes Maritimes, Alpes de Haute-Provence and Mercantour in the sunny south-east corner of France
  • walks illustrated with clear sketch maps and height profiles, as well as inspiring photographs
  • all the practical information required for a perfect trip from public transport to maps and market days
  • Seasons
    walks near the coast can be made at any time of the year, but the high trails in the Mercantour are restricted to snow-free months in summer and autumn
  • Centres
    Vence and Grasse (Alpes Maritimes); Digne-les-Bains and Castellane (Alpes de Haute-Provence); Guillaumes and the Val d'Entraunes (Mercantour)
  • Difficulty
    circular day walks, suitable for averagely fit people and graded Easy, Medium or Difficult, depending on length, total ascent and terrain; easy walks are short, while difficult ones take up to eight hours and may include sections which are precipitous or difficult to navigate; no special equipment is needed.
  • Must See
    dramatic mountain ridges, alpine lakes and deep river gorges; perched medieval villages, ruined castles and churches; the red rocks in the Estérel on the Mediterranean coast to high mountains in the Mercantour

Update received from reader Mick Borroff, January 2016. Thanks to Mick.

Note: Mick walked this walk - Route 19, on 22nd October 2015.

The route described by Janette has recently been upgraded with an improved path and additional railings in place along all of the Verdon Canal wall. The old ladders adjacent to the tunnel have been replaced by metal stairs. The small hut beside the tunnel entrance now houses a series of fascinating information boards about the canal.

The direct ascent to the Chapelle Ste-Maxime from the beginning of the Vallonet de Ste-Maxime described under the main route has been permanently closed by the authorities for safety reasons due to severe stonefall danger. The line of this path forking left has been blocked by trees at the bottom but there was no signposting of the closure here. Once the chapel was reached, the closure notice was displayed beside the line of the former route and a second notice attached to the signpost.

The route now continues up the Vallonet de Ste-Maxime and circles around the south side of the chapel to join Janette’s alternative route. The new route is clearly waymarked and well signposted. This adds about 1.2km to the original main route.

The description on page 163/164 could be modified to read:

“Bear left away from the edge of the gorge into a narrow bushy valley called the Vallonet de Ste-Maxime, where you glimpse tall cliffs each side. About 5 mins later, ignore a blocked former path on the left and continue up the valley through boxwood and oak following the red/white markings of the GR99. The path traverses above the Ravin de Ste-Maxime and after about a kilometre reaches a T junction. Turn left as signposted to Chapelle Ste-Maxime. In another 200m, turn left at a signpost vat a second T junction where the alternative route avoiding the tunnel is joined and followed on a narrow footpath with the gorge on the right, until you reach the Chapelle Ste-Maxime (2hrs 5mins).

Return the same way following the yellow waymarked path signposted to Carrefour de Ste-Maxim/Quinson back to the signpost v at the junction with the GR99, so the markings are red/white instead of yellow (2hrs 20mins).

Follow the sign ahead to the Carrefour de la Draille des Vaches and Quinson. The wide path still climbs …”

NB Add 20 mins to all subsequent timings.


Updates received from reader Phil Dover, November 2015 

Walk 9: Esterel Circuit

There was no sign marking the path along the Ravin des Trois Terms and Lac Ecureuil, and the top third is badly washed out.

Note from the updaters of this guide: It sounds as if this section is no longer maintained, probably due to repeated flooding. It is therefore best to use the shorter route from point 1 to point 3.


Walk 19: Lower Verdon Gorge

The start of the narrow path from the Vallone de Ste-Maxime has no markings now and have been obstructed with brushwood and at the top by the chapel there is a "Sentier interdit" notice but we didn't find it difficult to do.

Note from the updaters of this guide: This part of the route was flood damaged some years back and may be unstable. The tourist office does not want to signpost it until it has been fully secured.


A short history of Provence
Provençal writers and artists
Plants and flowers
Regional specialities
Travelling to Provence
When to go
Clothing and equipment
Using this guide
Alpes Maritimes
Location of Walks
Walk 1 Baou des Noirs and Baou des Blancs
Walk 2 Baou de St-Jeannet
Walk 3 Chemin du Paradis
Walk 4 Pic de Courmettes and Puy de Tourrettes
Walk 5 Baou de St-Jean
Walk 6 The Route Napoléon
Walk 7 Vallée de la Siagne
Walk 8 Pic du Cap Roux
Walk 9 Estérel Circuit and Lac de l’Ecureuil
Walk 10 Mont Vinaigre
Alpes de Haute-Provence
Location of Walks
Walk 11 Three Chapels Walk from Digne-les-Bains
Walk 12 Walk in the Réserve Géologique
Walk 13 Bigue du Siron
Walk 14 The Cousson
Walk 15 The Cucuyon
Walk 16 Rochers des Mées
Walk 17 Gorges de Trévans
Walk 18 The Verdon Gorge – Sentier Blanc-Martel
Walk 19 Lower Verdon Gorge
Walk 20 Sommet de Crémon
Location of Walks
Walk 21 Moulin de la Barlatte
Walk 22 Plateau de la Lare from Sauze
Walk 23 Gorges de Daluis
Walk 24 Circuit from St-Martin d’Entraunes
Walk 25 Col des Champs from Entraunes
Walk 26 Lakes Circuit from the Col de la Cayolle
Walk 27 Mont Pelat
Walk 28 Circuit above Péone
Walk 29 Mont Mounier
Walk 30 Around Mont d’Auvare
Appendix A Route summary table
Appendix B Maps
Appendix C Tourist information
Appendix D Market days
Appendix E Glossary of Provençal words

Sample Route

Rochers des Mées
Start/FinishLes Mées, 420m
Distance7.7km; short route: 3.5km
Total Ascent345m; short route: 180m
Time2hrs 30mins; short walk: 1hr 35mins
MapIGN 3340 ET Digne-les-Bains/Sisteron 1:25,000
AccessFrom Digne-les-Bains, take the N85 in the direction of Sisteron for 18km and then, at a roundabout, look for a sign (second right) to Les Mées 8km. As you go along this road you will see the spectacular column of rocks to the left. Park in the main square of Les Mées which is up left at a roundabout.
SignpostingWooden signposts and infrequent yellow splashes.

This walk gets close to the spectacular group of jagged rocks, the Rochers des Mées, known as les Pénitents (the Penitents), one of the most fascinating geological features of the region. Standing in columns 2km long and 100m high, they are made of puddingstone, a mixture of shingle, pebble and sandstone formed by erosion thousands of years ago. They are so named because they look like a group of penitent monks in long brown robes, their pointed hoods hiding their shame.

The legend of the Penitents tells how, during the time of the Saracen invasions in the 10th century, a local lord captured seven beautiful Moorish maidens and brought them back to his castle. One day the monks from a nearby monastery happened to catch sight of the maidens and immediately fell in love with them, captivated by their dusky beauty. This was witnessed by the puritanical hermit St Donat who, as punishment, turned them into stone, condemning them to eternal penitence for their desires.

At the side of the square (Place de la République) there is a map on the wall of the church tower of the various walks. Go uphill, heading east, on the Rue Clovis Picon, following a sign to Vieille Ville and Sentier des Pénitents.

After a few minutes ignore a sign to the left indicating Aire des Pénitents coté nord des Rochers (this is the way you will return) and continue straight past the old washhouse dated 1902 on the right. Further up is a sign left to the Chapelle St-Roch. It takes about 5mins to climb to this chapel which was built on Roman foundations. There’s a good view down onto the village which has attractive tiled Provençal roofs, not common in this area. Continue straight past an old chapel on the right until you reach the entrance to the municipal campsite at the top (5mins).

Keep right on the paved road by the side of the campsite following a fence. When it starts to bend left look carefully for a sign on a tree and yellow splash indicating a narrow path along a wall at the back of the campsite (10mins).

Walk along the wall and bear left at the end where there is a tunnel to the right with a pipe issuing from it. Zigzag up this path keeping to the yellow splashes and ignoring all offshoots (two have yellow crosses and lead to the Chapelle St-Roch but should not be taken as they are very eroded). The path winds steadily up the hill which is south-facing and coastal Mediterranean in character. It is stark and arid, dotted with pines, and there are delicious smells from numerous thyme and lavender bushes. Be careful where you put your feet in places as the hillside is made of puddingstone and is very eroded. Down to the right is a narrow valley (Ravin de la Mort) and beyond are tree-covered slopes.

The path reaches an attractive clearing with pines [1] (40mins). There is a magnificent view into the valley with the busy Route Napoléon and the Bléone river on its way to meet the wider Durance flowing south from Sisteron. Here there is the option to shorten the route.

Shorter route round the back of les Pénitents

The second left turn, signposted les Pénitents, is a shorter but more panoramic route which goes directly round the back of the rocks. To the right is the longer route along the ridge of the mountain with lovely views. Do not take the path immediately left - the sign ‘danger, non balisé’ indicates that it is not maintained. Go down the path signposted Les Pénitents through woodland; this slope is north-facing so the vegetation is lush and bushy, quite different from the one you have climbed up. After a hairpin bend it descends to a fork a few minutes later. Take the signposted fork right which goes up steps made out of logs and almost immediately reaches a promontory where you get a first rear view of the rocks. Here there is a memorial to Jean Miller, creator of this walk, who died in 1978.

From now on this attractive path undulates along the back of these magnificent rocks with log steps to help when on the up or downward slopes. After 10mins you are directly behind your first Penitent, with a view along the ridge of the precipitous cliffs. In all there are five places where the path goes up close to the top of these fantastic columns, and you can appreciate their bizarre rock formation and their enormity as you peer down at the valley below. After the last rock on the left-hand side you start to go down steeply and surprisingly quickly, considering the height of the rock faces (the path is at times eroded). At the bottom there is a T-junction [3] where you turn left to rejoin the main route (25mins from [1]).

From the clearing go right along the ridge signposted San Peyre, initially upwards through attractive pine trees with views on both sides. Then go through woodland and into the open, gaining height all the time. The path climbs up quite steadily to reach an open clearing with panoramic views all round (1hr).

It becomes a wider track as it bears right and then continues up between stunted bushes to reach another clearing. Follow the path to the right as it starts to gently lose height. You can see ahead another path round an amphitheatre of hills with three electricity pylons on them – this is part of a longer walk called La Haute Montagne. Shortly after you pass the ruins of the Chapel San Peyre on the left, little more than fragments of walls hidden in ivy and bushes. The track reaches San Peyre, a confluence of paths and a lone pine (1hr 10mins).

Turn down left signposted Les Mées par Bel Air (straight on goes to a lookout point) and traverse a wide bush-covered shoulder to get onto a promontory. Here there are views of the valley below with a canal and rows of fruit trees. To the east are the mountains north of Digne-les-Bains. There is as yet no sign of the Penitent rocks which are hidden by the tree-covered slopes of the ridge (1hr 20mins). Take a narrow path down fairly steeply through stunted oak forest and fork right immediately, following the yellow splash.

The trees are widely spaced which lets the sun dapple through delightfully. The view of the valley comes and goes, particularly of the wide Canal du Moulin below which seems to disappear into the side of the mountain (if you look at a map, it indeed tunnels beneath the Penitent rocks and emerges at the other side of the village of Les Mées – what an engineering feat!). You can also see the River Durance, an ugly industrial site beside the canal and a small airport.

The path goes down quite steeply on a stony track through bushes and grassy clearings and then bears left along a balcony path, getting nearer to the canal and the busy road to Les Mées. It descends again to reach a wide jeep track at a T-junction [2] (1hr 45mins).

Turn left signposted Les Mées along a wide flat jeep track which narrows to a pebbly path through a low barrier where the track has eroded and then widens again. Here you get your first view of the Penitent columns. The track also discreetly crosses the canal where it disappears among bushes into a long underground section. Just before you reach the rocks, the shorter path down from Les Pénitents joins the jeep track from the left [3] (2hrs).

Suddenly the sheer pebbly brown wall of the first Pénitent looms above quite alarmingly as the path continues along the bottom. Ignore all branches going up left.

The Penitent rocks of the Rochers des Mées

You get dizzy peering up at the pointed peaks high above and wondering whether anyone has dared to scale them, they are so smooth. The floodlights along this path makes these peaks look spectacular at night.

The track undulates slightly downwards and through another barrier where it meets a road (2hrs 20mins). Turn left – along here the cliffs are even more spectacular with the dark holes of caves and smaller indentations, a nesting ground for crag martins and jackdaws which are darting in and out.

At a fork go left (no signs) leading to the outskirts of the old part of the village with the steeple of the village church on the horizon. Keep straight till the first Aire des Pénitents signpost, then turn down into the village square (2hrs 30mins).

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