Walking in western Provence

James, Cicerone's retail sales manager, tells us how he, with his wife and family of two teenage daughters went to Provence to enjoy the hills of the Var – even in the heat of August.

A long-awaited holiday this August gave our family of four a relaxing break in an amazing part of France that was new to us – Provence West. A low-cost flight took us into Nice, but we could have as readily taken the train to Avignon. We were based near Brignoles in Var, which, like many French towns, is not done justice to by the regular guidebooks. Quite apart from being central for superb galleries, historical sites, the coast, extreme sports, and great food and wine, we were wonderfully placed for some outstanding walking country. It was a pleasure to be able to road-test three trails from Cicerone’s Walking in Provence West.

But it’s hot in August, so we built up to the longer walking with the easy Walk 27 to the iron Ste Croix cross from the lovely village of Nans les Pins. All access and trail instructions for this – and the other walks – were spot on and up-to-date as we climbed steeply out of the village behind the Chapelle de la Misericorde, winding out of the village and into the dark, but fragrant forest above. Much of this part of the country is heavily forested, and provided welcome shade as we wended our way steadily upwards along the Sentier Botanique. Our younger daughter attempted to spot each of the 44 signs noted by the author identifying the plants and trees, and, although we clocked most of them, she rapidly lost interest (she blamed this on the heat!)

Turning left at the faint bushy path as marked – although the sign had been knocked over – the trail became a little steeper and eventually we emerged from the treeline to stand at the summit cross, with a sudden, dramatic and far-reaching view at our feet.

The forest beneath stretched for miles, broken by occasional villages and the looming bulk of nearby ranges. The Montagne Ste Victoire, which Cezanne painted many times, looked absolutely stunning. (Well he didn’t paint it, he painted pictures of it.) Behind us, and much closer, the Ste Baume Ridge created a divide of opinion in the family; Mum and Dad were keen to climb it at some stage but both teenage daughters less sure. Directly beneath us lay what was left of the 12th-century castle, with the village far below that.

James consults the route description from a printout

We backtracked down to the castle and, defying a few rusty safety signs, had a poke around in the ruins. This was clearly a substantial settlement in its time and would make a good location for the local Game of Thrones Enactment Society [GOTES in French]. Quite a steep path led back down to the village through its neat cemetery and back to the square where we enjoyed welcome drinks and ice-cream. We even managed to catch a wireless signal strong enough to allow us to watch, via iPlayer and a phone, a friend’s appearance on ‘University Challenge’. The café waiter was definitely bemused, but John’s team won, so that only made a perfect day even better.

The rocky ridge of Ste-Baume

A day or two later, and equipped with supplies of the national food of France as a bribe (Haribos, need you ask?), we went for the bigger 14km walk. This was a walk up the holy Montagne de la Ste-Baume starting from the Dominican Hotellerie beneath Mary Magdalene’s famous shrine. AKA the Mountain of Divided Opinion. Having seen Mary’s skull in the crypt of the cathedral at Ste Maximin only a few days earlier, complete with a sort of golden wig, we thought we would tackle the mountain up which she and her companions were transported by angels.

003 Provence Maincol
In some ways, the limestone Ste Baume resembles a kind of celestial French Ingleborough.

The route described in the guidebook is outstanding, with a long, gently rising forest section snaking eastwards below the mountain scarp for about 6km. As at Nans les Pins, there were many botanical wonders to observe, but we were keen to keep moving before the day really heated up. From the obvious glade with the giant beech mentioned in the book, the path suddenly got a lot more exciting as we burst – well stumbled – out of the tree line. Here, the view unfolded in front of us, and we realised how much climbing we had already done.

The next section was really lovely, twisting through ravines and clefts in the limestone and again reminded of Yorkshire – a sort of miniature Gordale Scar, but in a cosmic-sized Malham, with fantastic views opening up to the north. It’s worth taking the longer route via Le Paradis before turning right with a little bit of mildly exposed scrambling, and emerging on the ridge-and the GR9 – at around 1100m. The trail now follows the ridge back in a westerly direction, parallel to the forest path below, but a kilometre or so to the south and several hundred metres higher. We had the ridge almost completely to ourselves over the two summits of Signal des Beguines and Jouc d’Aingle, although we encountered a couple of locals later who, after an exchange of photos, one of which turned out to feature a lot of ground and our boots, promptly abseiled off the ridge. There are quite a few bolts along the edge.

The views from the ridge are 360-degree. As well as all of the local Provencal hills and towns, we could see out to the Alps; to the south the Mediterranean; and to the west, downtown Marseille.

A cooling breeze kept the walking much more comfortable than we had feared, and although the path twisted in the odd direction at times, there were always paint splashes to follow. The only thing missing was the family spaniel; he would have loved it. (Actually a pint would have gone down well too, especially as an antidote to those Haribos, which can quickly pall.)

The town of Rougiers, with castle above

Approaching the drop to the Col du St-Pilon, the first of many religious crosses and shrines appeared, as did a few tired-looking pilgrims who had come up from the Hotellerie and grotto below. The path then turned north and rapidly dropped from the col, improving as it did so and becoming paved and stepped. Back down into the woods we reached the junction for Mary’s Grotto, which, distressingly, was now far above us. The devout pilgrim peak bagger among us decided to climb up the 150 steps [seemed like closer to 160], in the footsteps of numerous Popes and Kings to the shrine complex. Here, silence is the order of the day – a stark contrast to the constant chitter-chatter of wife and daughters. It was very crowded, but calm, silent and lit only by hundreds of candles. Some more saintly body parts are on display, and the grotto has a particularly sombre crypt area. But the monks were very cheerful! (Still no pint, although there was a shop which didn’t stock Haribos.)

It seemed a long way down the wide steep path back to the Hotellerie and that final welcome cool drink. As a spectacular and varied walk, we strongly recommend this one to anyone lucky enough to be in this part of France. It even managed to impress my youngest daughter, who, initially pessimistic about going on a 14km hike on her holidays, announced at the end that it was ‘soooo much better than DofE’. Result!

Orientation table at the chapel of Ste Jean above Rougiers

On our last half day we had time to visit the sleepy village of Rougiers, and walk the short 5km route up to the Chapel of St Jean and castle ruins. In some ways this was a similar, but yet wilder walk than the first one, and with a road section at the end. Again, after a steep section up through the forest, we emerged above cliffs at a brilliantly colourful orientation table above the medieval village. The table pointed us towards London but we couldn’t quite make it out. The chapel and extensive castle ruins are just behind and above. Once more we were spoilt with amazing views to the north.

Just a few hours later we were back on the dark wet tarmac of Liverpool airport, unprepared for a closed M6. Isn’t is always great to be back from holiday?

I am sure we will return to this part of France; it has fabulous walking (and there is a very useful Cicerone guidebook) and we’ve only scratched the surface.

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