Sentier du Littoral

Not having had more than a few days holiday for some time I was looking for somewhere to go for a couple of weeks by the sea which would be warm at the end of April. I checked out the web and the best value flight was Nice. I’d been through before, but not stopped there, we had flown into the airport with cycles, cycled along the waterfront and headed off towards Italy.

I figured Nice and around would have a good backpacker network which would make the trip affordable. Booking the first and last couple of nights before I went, I found there were hostels but they were nearly all dorms. I was hoping for single rooms, which had been pretty common in other locations I’d hosteled at recently. So bottom end hotels it would have to be.

Nice airport was small and pretty easy to figure out. I needed to get a bus into town. It was 4 euros and went along the promenade into the center. I got off a few stops early and walked into town on the prom. The hotel was easy to find, close to the square Messina, a very good location. Going through some corridors and up some stairs, I got to the hotel door – it was locked with a note in French to call a number. Thinking it may be lunch time I decided to go down to the beach, watched some guys playing footy then went back. This time someone let me through the locked door, and I sat on a chair in reception waiting eating the complimentary boiled sweets. No one came so I would have to make the call to the number. The call went OK – he didn’t speak English but we reached an understanding with my basic French and his smattering of English. They had left my room open, and he would come round soon to give me the key.

I found a good supermarket, and wandered round the town. There were lots of African guys selling leather bags, but it was chilled out and it seemed like a pretty good place. Next morning I walked down through the old town markets towards the beach. They were brilliant, and I thought I’d get a peach for breakfast then I saw some cheap punnets of strawberries, so I ate strawberries on the beach for  breakfast. The water was very cold and the pebbles were painful after the cold water. A marathon went past on the prom, and loud drumming music gave the place a jungle feel.

My plan was to play it by ear, just finding places to stay as I went along, but the difficulty I’d had finding cheapish rooms on the internet had made me rethink this approach. I looked for an internet cafe, couldn’t find one. In the end saw a bar with ‘Internet’ on the sign. I bought a beer, and booked hotels for several nights in advance.

Nice had seemed like a pretty good city but I didn’t want to spend two weeks there so I booked a couple of nights next in Cannes. A month before the film festival, the town was fairly quiet and I got a very central hotel for the cheapest price of the trip. I’d been to Cannes before, got off the train, wandered around, not been impressed, got back on the train and gone off elsewhere. I decided to give it another go, because I’d seen there were some islands offshore that sounded worth a visit.

Three days into the trip, I still wasn’t sure what I was doing in the south of France, and certainly not in the holiday spirit. Walking around in the rain in Cannes: flash shops, overblown hotels and boats wasn’t helping. What was I doing there? Cannes prom is dominated by two huge monstrous buildings for conferences and exhibitions. They reminded me of the Bradford & Bingley Bank HQ building, enormous ziggurats and very ugly. The beach to the east of them looked like a giant sand moving project.

Walking round the prom to the west of the buildings I went past the harbour, and came to a very small beach. It had a view of the hills between Cannes and St Raphael. Close by was a kebab shop and remembering from my first holiday in France the frites we got from the campsite cafe, I thought I’d get some French chips and take them back to the beach. My spirits lifted a little, with the sea, the view, and eating chips.

Behind me there was a hill, and I thought I’d wander up there. There was a great view of the harbour from a monastery on the top, and you could see over to the St Raphael hills also. The sun broke through and as I wandered down through some windy small streets I started to see things to photograph. I didn’t have my camera with me so back to the hotel for it, now Cannes seemed a different place. The streets had more people, beautiful women walking the prom and some beach volleyball going on.

The next day I went down to the harbour and got a boat across to the Ile  San Marguerite, a twenty minute trip, but so different from Cannes. The island had no cars, was about 5 miles in circumference and was very beautiful and peaceful. Beautiful views across the bay towards the St Raphael headland, views across to a second island, and views to the snow capped alps. I bought a large pack of crisps for lunch and walked around the coast of the island. The island was wooded and had small beaches nestled in among rocks. Possibly mowed out in season now it was quiet and I was really glad I’d stopped off at Cannes.

The next day I got the high speed train through to St Raphael. I was sat next to a French guy and he told me how he had sailed around the med on a yacht and listed all the big name ports and resorts they had stopped off at. He was very dismissive of Africa and Nice and just seemed to want to talk.

Arriving in St Raphael, a relatively unpretentious resort and quite laid back. I walked the prom towards Frejus and again there was volleyball. I sat and watched the guys and girls punting the ball around. It reminded me of American and Australian beach culture and I was wondering if all countries are starting to look alike at the beach.

My hotel was in the old town, it stank of bleach but the receptionist was friendly, and my initial disappointment of its dated rooms and slight shabbiness changed, and I started to like its rather odd decor. I guess I was starting to settle in. The old town was very small, a few streets around an old church. The church housed an archaeology museum with finds from sunken Roman wrecks. The tower had a great view, and I wanted to ring the large bell.

Two of the most important buildings of the town were next to each other – the tourist office and McDonald’s. McDonald’s was packed out every day and night with the early teen crowd. They were the cool crowd and as I walked past I felt very old. The tourist office had loads of info on what to do, and I got a pile of brochures and tried to figure out what I was going to do for the next few days. There were a few things that seemed worth doing but it would depend on the weather.

The next day the weather was good and I got up early, and having enjoyed walking on Ile San Marguerite, I set off to walk the Sentier du Littoral east back towards Cannes. Even in very late April the day was getting hot by 11am and I set off before 8am. The route went round the Cap d’ Esterel to Agay, a small resort town. The coast wasn’t too hilly at that point, and the path was cut into the red volcanic rocks of the headland. I was on my own once I got past the giant harbour to the east of St Raphael. I had no map so took a photo of a board showing the route with the digital camera to refer to.

The route passed through small bays and beaches and across promontories. At one point the route was closed and I was diverted onto the coast road for about a mile which wasn’t too pleasant. It reopened for a park near the Cap du Dramont. By the headland the paths rose up to the top of the cliffs and the vegetation was fantastic – a beautiful wilderness. There was a number of paths going off in different directions and I ended up at an outlook looking into the next bay with a brilliant Mediterranean panorama.

Going down to Agay, I started to meet French walkers. I’d stripped off to the waist in the heat and must have looked pretty disheveled after 10 miles in hot sunshine. One group of properly kitted out older walkers made joking comments to me on my appearance, but I was at the end of my walk and they were just starting in the midday sun.

The next excursion was a catamaran across the bay to the legendary St Tropez. I had watched a corny French farce the previous night, a bit like Carry On but a more nudity so I had this view that it would be all naked girls frolicking on the beach. The boat was less than half full with plenty of room on the top deck for everyone. Two English girls looked to be without men, and I wondered about them. The boat crossed the bay, past Frejus on the right then the next set of hills along the coast. We came into the bay with St Tropez, with an absolutely massive cruise ship moored across the bay, the largest I’d ever seen. I hadn’t been to St Tropez and wasn’t too sure what to expect. But as we saw old pastel painted buildings along the port bow I knew this was it. We pulled into the harbour, with the French mums talking about how they needed to get straight to a cafe for coffee. The two girls wandered off hand in hand, they weren’t interested in men.

The harbour was so full of enormous boats that the pretty French fishing village image was destroyed. The streets were busy and I was glad I was there out of season. Around the harbour artists had put up easels with some generally very bad art. Apparently they put the art up in the morning, cleared off then turned up in the afternoon when they might sell the work.

Getting to the end of the harbour there was an arch in the wall, and looking through was the same pastel panorama seen from the catamaran. It was quite pretty. By timing it correctly it was possible to get round to the houses without getting soaked. Impossible to drive into in summer St Tropez was still busy and fairly unpleasant in spring, after being there an hour I’d had enough of the town.

I saw a signpost for Sentier du Littoral and realized that this continued around the St Tropez headland. I only had a few hours but decided to walk as far as I could in the time. I walked first past the graveyard, and into the nearest bay. There was an empty restaurant and the coffee the French ladies had been talking about seemed a possibility. The waiters were laying tables ready for lunch and as I sat down I realized this place was going to be very expensive. It was and the coffee they begrudgingly sold me was the most pricey of the trip. On I went. The path was along wild unkempt beaches with quite a number of shipwrecked yachts. They looked like new boats and it seemed a little crazy to leave them washed up on the shore at the mercy of the sea. Inland was very expensive looking villas, often with no one around and there were signs prohibiting entry with high fences to protect the rich from the lower castes. The path went away from the beach after a while and I decided it was time to turn back.

Returning to the boat, the crew wouldn’t allow anyone on the top deck and they told us it was going to be rough! They weren’t kidding. As we got out away from the shore the waves were big and the catamaran was heading straight into them at full speed, dropping down into the troughs then smashing into the next wave. The waves were going right over the top of the boat washing right across the upper deck. The crew passed around sick bags. It seemed people inside the boat were faring worse than those of us stood at the back. A few macho types sat in the seats at the back unmoved, but gradually looking greener. I stood at the back holding onto a pillar. It was amazing, a bit of an anticlimax to arrive back at St Raphael.

That Sunday the weather was really bad, very windy and rainy. I tried to go for a walk with an umbrella but it was impossible. The shops were shut. The beaches and beach cafes deserted. There was nothing to do. I called home to hear a friendly voice and wondered what I was going to do. The only place open was the small 3 screen cinema, so I went to see ’17 ans encore’. I was surrounded by 13 year old French girls with their little brothers. It was a little embarrassing. The cinema was old style and quite nice. It had an odd concave curve to the floor, low in the middle and higher at the front and back. There were a couple of French yobs sat behind me kicking my seat. I didn’t watch the whole movie. It was dubbed in French with no subtitles but was so obvious that wasn’t a problem.

The next day the weather was still bad and I bought an English paper. SWINE FLU fever had hit the media. We were all going to die. I thought about it. Would it be better to catch it in France or the UK. I wasn’t sure.

It was my last day in St Raphael and I decided I had to go swimming in the sea. I put my trunks on and headed down to the beach. It was hot today and there were quite a number of people there. I parked my towel and shortly afterwards an elderly couple came and set up right next to me. The woman was very solid Teutonic looking, and as I looked I realized I was getting the treat of a full view of her naked upper torso, very close up. Time for that swim. The water was very cold, but I got in and did a bit of splashing around.

I’d checked out the bars along the beach towards Frejus but now realised that there was another set of bars underneath the promenade that I hadn’t seen. Here the young were hanging out. I got a beer but at 6 pm they all closed. That day I got burned quite badly.

Time to go back to Nice and I went down to the station ready to leave. I hadn’t enjoyed the train journey out because the TGV was such a closed environment. It was difficult to get any idea of the country you were passing through. As a way to get quickly from A to B they are great, but as a train trip they suck; so I bought a ticket on an old TER train. The ancient train was nearly empty and I opened a window and hung out the window. The train went slowly, it was a glorious day, and I got the most amazing views of the coast.

Coming out of Nice station a woman fell in front of me. She had tripped over the pavement edge and fallen smashing her nose. It looked like it was broken it was bleeding profusely. All I could do was help her into a sitting position, give her my non too clean hanky and then get her onto her feet after a while. A French girl came to help and called the medics.

Nice beach was split into public and private parts. On the public beach the young hung out, beautiful bodied in groups of friends. It was open and hot, you had to take your own drinks and food, though there were some beach boys bringing beers. The private parts had loungers and umbrellas with waiter staff. There were areas roofed off for fine dining. Two worlds next to each other but so dissimilar. Needless to say I was on the free public beaches, they had far more life to them.

I went to a couple of exhibitions while in the town. The Museum of Modern Art and a photography exhibition in a theatre converted to a photography gallery. The museum had been constructed by Nice’s corrupt mayor along with other municipal buildings along a strip. Large ugly buildings that were disparaged in the guide books. The exhibitions were OK but not great. The view from the top probably the best thing about the museum.

I had more time to wander now than when I arrived in Nice and I found the rest of the old town up against the promontory and the end of the main beach. On top of the promontory was a pleasant park that was great to go up to as the sun was going down. The old town had some amazing smells especially on the spice stalls and in the flower stalls. A woman in one square was singing French songs for the crowd. People were now swimming in the sea. It looked milky and on close inspection non too clean.

The photographs I had taken so far were of urban and beach landscapes, but after a beer in Le Queenie I started thinking about street photographers who talked about shooting from the hip. I thought I’d have a go. The prom was busy with strollers, and I walked up and down photographing in this way. It was very hit and miss and I could see why street photographers have to take many rolls to get good shots.

My final night I treated myself to a pizza at a beach restaurant. I had mainly eaten from supermarkets. It kept the costs down and some of the supermarket food unlike the UK, was superb. My favourite some cooked peas and spicy sausages. The flight back I was sat next to a very large upper-class man. He was curious about my peach cocktail, and ordered one as well, a strange drinking companion but it was fun.

While the Sentier du Littoral isn’t an unbroken path on the Riviera coast, there are enough decent lengths of it to do some good walking and discover some parts of this coast that are still largely unspoiled. On subsequent trips to the Riviera I’ve used Google Earth to find paths along the coast for several good days out.

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