Meet A Hermann Tortoise

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At some point in time, the Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni) was commonly seen slowly strolling the Maures and Esterel Mountains of the French Riviera. Nowadays, the tortoise is considered almost extinct in the wild in Southern France.

Why? Because these tortoises are adaptable, many folks grabbed them to keep as pets. Forest fires and land deforesting gave the animals another fatal blow.

We've talked about the Tortoise Village in Gonfaron before here on AzurAlive, Le Village des Tortues (SOPTOM), home to over 2500 tortoises of all kinds. Since its creation, the village has releases over 8000 Hermann tortoises into the Maures.

As local hikers, we are seeing regular signs that the tortoises are coming back to the Maures Mountains. Last month, we spotted one by hiking trails in the Petites Maures by Roquebrune-sur-Argens. Last week, we spotted another one by La Bouverie on the Petit Redon hiking footpath. A good sign for the local SOPTOM efforts and for the local eco-system.

Happy hiking! Turtle


Winter Hiking in the Petites Maures

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It may be crispy cool weather this January on the French Riviera, but the sun shines. Perfect weather for a hike!

We talk a lot about the Estérel Mountains for hiking on the French Riviera. But the Estérel Mountains aren't the only seaside mountains on the Western Côte d'Azur. The Maures offer a huge number of trails, some of them with gorgeous views of green forested hills and the coast and sea that glitter from St Raphael to St Tropez.

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The Petites Maures are the smaller hills that you'll find behind Saint-Aygulf and Les Issambres. Fewer people know about them. To some, the Côte d'Azur is just about beaches. They're missing on a lot of fun!

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One easy way to reach the Petites Maures is the take the D7 road heading toward Roquebrune-sur-Argens from the coast. Turn left into the Château Vaudois and park just ahead of the winery's gates. You're at the foot of the Petites Maures.


French Presidents and Fort Bregançon

Begancon Sitting on a tiny rock in the Var in the South of France and perched 35 meters above the sea, the 17C Fort of Brégançon is property of the French State. Since 1968, it has been an official presidential residence.

Some presidents love Brégaçon more than others. President Général de Gaulle was the first president to have slept on the premises in 1964. The fort was in dire shape at the time. De Gaulle swore never to set foot on it again.

French president Georges Pompidou stayed at the fort a number of times, as did Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Mitterand wasn't as fond of the spot. He visited, but only stayed overnight once. Chirac enjoyed Brégançon although he reportedly felt imprisoned on the site.

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That's not surprising. Sheer cliffs surround the fort like prison walls. It reminds me of California's Alcatraz. The would-be island rock hangs on to the continental coast by a jetty. During official visits, guards wander all around the Bregançon by boat. Only paparazzi helicopters manage to approach the fort close enough to snap juicy pictures.

Nowadays, presidential residences are under close scrutiny of another type. Money. With French presidential budget pressured to shrink, the four presidential residences (Château de Rambouillet, Domaine de Marly-le-Roi, Domaine de Souzy-la-Briche and Fort de Brégançon) are closely watched for their expenses. Together, they cost half a million (528,000€) euros in yearly maintenance. And thus, most of them have recently been handed off to municipalities and to the Minister of Culture. Not Bregançon. It may be on the French Riviera, but it's the least expensive of the four residences to maintain.

Thus the Fort de Brégançon remains the emblematic presidential residence it has been since 1968.

Will you spot current French president there? Sarkozy may love the Var, but it isn't at the Fort de Bregançon that he most often vacations. Carla and Nicolas prefer Cap Nègre, close-by in the Var and the location of the Bruni-Tedeschi family home.

Cabasson Beach by Begancon


A little Hike in the Petites Maures Mountains

Angry Col du Bougnon The weather started on the damp side for this week's group hike on the French Riviera. We had a serious rainfall Monday morning around 3AM, a tropical shower with buckets falling all at once, the kind that pounds rooftops and pavements and wakes up a sound sleeper. By 5AM, all was quiet.

So we hesitated to head out to the Maures Mountains for a trek, but the pull of the wild won out...

From Sainte-Maxime, we headed up the N98 coastal road to the D8 street by San Peire that makes it way by the Hameau des Issambres to the Col du Bougnon. Parking is plentiful at the Col du Bougnon, right by the archery range.

Note: In our hiking guidebook to the French Riviera, we describe hike #15 on page 88 as "Col du Bougnon." Due to the intense rainfall of early November, we don't currently recommend this hike as the F35 footpaths up and down Cabasse have been eroded and deeply furrowed. Try this hike instead.

Col du Bougnon Hike Map, Maures MountainsWe followed the F232 footpath alongside the flanks of the hills, leaving the F35 footpath on our left. The footpath makes it easy to walk: it's wide, sandy and makes it way over gently rolling hills. In about 20 minutes, we reached a major intersection of the F232 path with the F120, with a water cistern marked RAG9 at the hilltop.

Rather than take the F232 and then the F35 to Cabasse currently deeply ravined, we continued straight on the F120 footpath, the larger path that heads North-West. After another 20-30 minutes of country walk in the Maures, we spotted the green water cistern marked RAG8 on the left at the top of a hill and in the bushes.

Col du Bougnon Hike, Maures Mountains

Note: If you're just looking for a 6km hike (about 1hour 45 minutes), turn back here.

We continued all the way down to the next major intersection and turned on our happy heels to head back before nightfall. Night time comes a little quicker in the hills in Winter. We wanted to be back by 5PM.

The city scape to the east is not Roquebrune-sur-Argens, but Puget-sur-Argens with its industrial base. And out to sea, we spotted the Dramont semaphore. T'was another inspiring walk in the Maures Mountains of southern France.

Looking for more on-foot adventures in France? Take a look at this latest English-language hiking guidebook to the western French Riviera.

Col du Bougnon Hike, Maures Mountains

 

Google Map to situate the hike's starting point:

 


The Maures Mountains: Singular and Plural

The Maures Mountains

The news came this morning: French photographer Jean-Marc Fichaux died in a moped accident Saturday, October 18, 2008.

Jean-Marc Fichaux lived in St Tropez, a city he cherished and often photographed from all sorts of revealing angles.

Together with Pierre Nembrini, Jean-Marc authored a grasping photography book about the Maures Mountains: "Les Massif des Maures, pluriel et singulier."

The Maures Mountains embrace the peninsula of St Tropez yet remain mysterious and mostly unknown. Their colors run deep with the browns of tormented chestnut tree and cork oak trunks, with the silvers of an impenetrable maquis brush and the shadows of crevasses that slice the mountains.

The Maures Mountains live in a world far from the buzz of the nearby St Trop bay. This artistic photo album manages to catch the wild spirit of the mountains. It also catches a ray of the artist's soul.


Lake of Escarcets

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On a sunny Saturday like today, only a few visitors strolled around the Lac des Escarcets, this protected man-made lake craddled by the Maures plain. Where was everyone? Possibly stuck on the coastal road to St Tropez, fuming with frustration as a line-up of cars crawled and baked...

Meanwhile at Escarcets, we sat by the lake on a pink rock, flat, smooth and rounded at the edges like a giant mushroom hat. As it turns out (thanks to the explanations of expert geologist Jean Marchal), the rock is a volcanic rhyolite. We cracked a rock or two to observe its cement-like texture. In front of us, the low-lying expanse of the Maures mountain range hid the sea behind it.

Although it's June and hot, the Maures plain is lush with bright yellow Spanish broom (Spartium junceum).
The many cork oaks around the lake spread wide and healthy, likely invigorated by water. Small grasshoppers bounced everywhere around the lake.

In the Spring, the Plaine des Maures is wonderful for colorful flower hikes. You'll find orchids growing wild here, the Serapias neglecta being the most common. It flowers in March-May in purple blooms that look like tongues sticking out. Also in bloom in the spring at Escarcets are wild tulips and irises. After rainfalls, puddles of water attract gurgling amphibiens. Because of its bio-diversity, the land is protected and about 1000 hectares (2400 acres) of it are owned by Conservatoire du Littoral.

Escarcet makes for a pleasant stroll and picnic around its footpaths.

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Getting there: From the A8 highway interchange, at the roundabout, take the D558 road, heading towards La Garde Freinet. After about 6 km, a sign on the right indicates the Lac des Escarcets. Park there or head down the rough and bumpy dirt road all the way to the lake.


Dolmen de Gaoutabry

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If you have seen monumental Stonehenge in England or the tall and thick prehistoric menhirs that point to the sky in Brittany, the Dolmen of Gaoutabry, with its dozen of thin upright megaliths, appears modest.

However, this prehistoric burial site dates back to the early Copper Age or Chalcolothic period some 4500 years ago and provides the largest prehistoric burial site currently known in a dolmen-rich Var Department of France. Since 1988, it is a classified historic monument.

Set on private property but open for all to see (pedestrian access only), the Dolmen's megaliths encircle an area of 9 square meters or 97 square feet (6 meters long by 1.5 meter wide). It sits at the summit of a hill in the western side of the Maures mountain range, 4 kilometers north of the village of La Londe les Maures.

Re-discovered in 1876 by the baron de Bonstetten, the east-west laying Dolmen has the particularity of
being "extended" rather than single-chambered: it includes, in a row, a chamber, an anti-chamber and a hallway that opens up exactly due west. Within its megalithic walls, the cremated remains of 34 individuals were discovered along with a number of arrows and tools many of which are under display today at the Archaeological Museum of Saint-Raphael.

To some, the Dolmen's extended chamber and the orientation of the ancient burial site speak of a symbolic "reversal of birth": the dead were brought in through the hall with its two "legs", through the anti-chamber or "belly" to rest in the site's chamber or "head."

Within its open megalithic walls the Dolmen de Gaoutabry still harbors many mysteries.

Want to escape the crowds of the Côte d'Azur and stroll on the region's most gorgeous footpaths?
Check out our latest hiking guide.


The Tortoise Village of Gonfaron

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In the Tortoise Village, a couple of minutes away from the village of Gonfaron by the plain of the Maures, 2500 inhabitants crawl, swim, or snooze in the sun. Their carapaces or upper part of their shells appear like brown sea-shells locked together like a puzzle.

Azuralive_sickturtleIn the village's "Institut Mérieux" clinic, a few turtles stay put in their cubicles as they recover from the bites of dogs, the crush of car wheels or the slicing blades of lawn-mowers. When a turtle's carapace is ripped, the clinic repairs it with a mesh of flexible glass fiber and with polyester glue.

The clinic takes care of more than 300 ill tortoises a year, each one brought by individuals, police or customs. The entire village welcomes more than 1000 new chelonians each year, ill ones and healthy ones too. As the Village makes clear throughout its park-like setting, its goal is always to release the animals back into the wild.

While the tortoises abound in the village, they are threatened animals outside the perimeters of this tortoise park. They are hunted by humans for their flesh and for their shells; they are hunted by dogs and rats while they hibernate; they are losing their natural environment to urbanization and in the Maures, to forest fires.

The most endangered French reptile is the Hermann Tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermani). Once alive all around the Mediterranean coastal belt, the Hermann tortoise now survives in an narrow stretch of forest in the Maures Mountain Range and in Corsica. It was to save the Hermann tortoise from extinction that the SOPTOM, a non-profit organization for the safeguard of turtles and tortoises, created the Tortoise Village in 1988. Since its creation, the village has releases over 8000 Hermann tortoises into the Maures. Today, the Village welcomes Leopard tortoises, Corsica tortoises, Greek tortoises, freshwater "cistudes", Marginated tortoises, Balkan tortoises, Russian tortoises and the tortoise from Madagascar

Placochelys The Village is a tool to fight the extinction of tortoises, but it is also a lively and enthralling means to teach history. It takes you through a walking history tour of the ancient creature, from 300 Million years ago until today. Plastic turtles the size of a fridge lurk behind the panels that tell their story. A mere 250 million years ago lived the Proganochelys, the first reptile considered a turtle with its ribs fused against it carapace. A ghostly roar hums by the plastic giant Proganochelys. Kids shriek and get a little closer to their parents.

You may well encounter a Hermann Tortoise "in the wild," on your walks in the Maures. Chances are that it would have transited through Gonfaron's Tortoise Village or possibly been born there.

And if you don't spot one strolling around the countryside, you can always visit the Tortoise Village. The village attracts plenty of families eager for a way to learn more about this pre-historic animal or just looking for a fun afternoon.

Check out the Tortoise Village at: http://www.villagetortues.com/

While visiting around Gonfaron, why not take a hike and discover more about the region?
Get your hands on a thoroughly tested hiking guide to the Western Côte d'Azur (on sale now on Amazon!), click
here.


Hike: Col du Bougnon

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Aside from being almost entirely deserted this time of the year, the Maures mountain range of the Var have the added advantage of opening up incredible viewpoints. 

From the top of the Bougnon hill, about 9 km from the seaside resort town of Sainte-Maxime,  the dark green wooded hills of the Maures bounce across the horizon for miles. From the peak of the Cabasse, the bay of Saint-Raphael appears to the east like the cusp of a hand that holds the sea. To the south, the Issambres, then the tip of the St Tropez bay.

Rusty dirt paths slice through the mountain flanks. They serve as access roads for fire-fighters, but also for mountain bikers and hikers.

The Bougnon hill and the peak of the Cabasse didn't disappoint us today. Clouds cleared enough to show us the sea tucked behind the hills. 

The hike is 1.5 hours, with a steep climb and downhill at the end to reach the Col de Cabasse and its panorama.

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Getting there:
N98 seaside road from Saint-Maxime. Turn left into the D8 heading to "Roquebrune-sur-Argens par le Col de Bougnon."  Pass Le Hameau des Issambres and park next to the archery range on the left. In front of the range, a D8 street sign indicates "Col du Bougnon, Alt 154 m."

Hiking:
Head up the F232 "Cabasse" fire road. Leave the F35 to your left as you climb (this will be your return route).  When you reach a crossing of paths by a green cistern labeled RAG9, continue on the F232 path, the left-most track until you reach the F35 at a hairpin intersection. Take the F35 on your left all the way to the intersection point with the F232.

Note:
The F35 section of the hike involves an energetic climb followed by a equally leg-burning descent - though the climb is tough, you're uplifted by bushes now (in mid-march) starting to flower in whites and purples, cork oaks in their sinuous trunks, and the caress of a cool sea breeze whooshing from below the hills.


Chartreuse de la Verne Pics

Below are a few more pictures from magical Chartreuse de la Verne, to add to our original blurb.

www.flickr.com