However the French Riviera is anything but routine. Even in the wettest of winters, it sneaks in a few days of sunshine. On those bright days, our hiking group swells in numbers. Everyone longs to exit the house or office and soak in the sun rays!
So it's a mere 47 hikers that we accompanied yesterday along the GR51 path by Roquebrune-sur-Argens. Big challenge. As many French heads of state have said, we the French are a lovable group but entirely unmanageable! We paced like shepherds from head to tail of our long line of hikers and back again, to keep everyone more or less on the same footpath and safely back.
Note to reader: Signing up for a guided hike anywhere? Make sure that they're heading out with fewer than 25 ramblers!
A word about the GR51 footpath, also called the Balcony of the Mediterranean. This "chemin de Grande Randonnée" or long-distance footpath crosses the French Riviera East-West, settling its tracks on hill crests with tasty views. It goes on from Menton to Marseille. In the Maures Mountains, you'll find it at Roquebrune-sur-Argens, over the Flûte mountain trail as trail Le Vernet, down by Plan de la Tour, Grimaud, Bormes-les-Mimosas.
For our afternoon hike, we settled for a 5.5 km round-trip loop.
Round-trip Distance: 5.5 km
Round-Trip Time: Approx. 2 hours with time to enjoy the views
Terrain: Initial trail on dirt road (be aware that 4x4's occasionally drive on the initial section of the trail), then mostly sandy path. See photo below.
Required: Hiking boots or shoes. Water. Despite the neighboring water reserve (Le Castellar), you're in nature here and you'll find no water fountain or shop.
Start Point: The below Google map gives the starting point, off the D7 road that goes from Roquebrune-sur-Argens to St Aygulf. Take the dirt road that leads to the Les Claux campground or gîte, 100 meters on the right from the Total gas station when heading toward St Aygulf. It's not far from Roquebrune. You'll notice a green panel with "Moulin à Huile - Clos St Martin" opposite this dirt road.
Parking: Head up 50 meters on the little road and turn right into the F7 Chemin Neuf road. Park on the side of the road, away from traffic.
Walk up the rough road to your left. It heads up and zigzags among a few cork oak trees to a Y intersection.
Take the path on the left (the path that continues up ahead leads to a fence marked "Réserve du Castellar" - this is a water reserve where public access is forbidden).
The sandy path heads up gently and opens up views of the St Raphael bay and of Les Petites Maures mountains ahead. You'll notice a string of wooden treetop hides. Hunters use these to track larger game such as wild boar (sangliers) or deer during hunting season and on authorized hunting days.
Continue on the main path for about 2 km until you reach a sign that indicates F8 Le Vernet. This is the GR51 which changes its name from Chemin Neuf to Le Vernet.
We'll exit the GR51 here. Make a right and take the path that goes up along a narrower and somewhat rocky path.
After 250 meters, make a right into a narrow path that heads into low-lying bushes. There's a mimosa tree (was at least in 2009) at the intersection here. This wild path makes a sharp turn left after 10 minutes or so and crosses a small forest of mimosa trees. Lovely in February when they blossom in bright yellows.
Path reaches at T. Make a right here. The path now heads down and you spot the Rocher de Roquebrune reddish rock that stands behind the town of Roquebrune-sur-Argens to your left.
At the first Y intersection, continue straight.
50 meters later, at the next Y intersection, make a right. You're heading back down toward the F7 Chemin Neuf which you reach after a manageable downhill - stay on the main path on this downhill.
When you reach the main F7 Chemin Neuf, go left. This is the hiking trail you took at the beginning of the hike.
When hiking in the Maures or in the Esterel Mountains, I always recommend you come prepared with a IGN TOP 25 map. IGN stands for the Institut Geographique National that produces these excellent hiking maps.Top stands for Topographical which gives you a good idea of terrain topology. 25 stands for the map's scale: 1 cm of map = 250 meters of real terrain.
For this hike, the map needed is the 3544 ET IGN map. These maps don't come cheap, but shop around. I find that prices vary from single to double. They're available at this reputable Elstead Maps web site, or from the IGN site directly at about 8 euros.
Interested in more half-day hikes on the French Riviera? Check out our highly-acclaimed hiking guide below on Amazon.co.uk (and a few copies left on Amazon.com too!)