The South of France has got to be one of the finest places in the world for hiking. I make this controversial statement because of the tremendous number of hiking trails, the tremendous variety of trails, and the proximity of the trails to wherever you are in this region.
You can start in the city of Nice and hike out on the Grande Randonnée GR5 -- all the way to Amsterdam. Or branch off to other Grande Randonnée trails to Italy, or Switzerland, or other parts of France. If Nice isn't convenient, you can do the same thing by starting on the GR4 from Grasse, or the GR51 from Cannes.
The Grande Randonnée GR51 is called the Balcony of the Côte d'Azur, and it's just that. Following along the southern slopes parallel to the coast, you hike along a "balcony", without an excessive amount of climbing (except for the start), with a magnificent view along the way.
If the maze of clearly-marked Grande Randonnée trails criss-crossing France and Europe seem a bit too much for you to start with, there are more local trails (usually marked with bright yellow dabs of paint) that can be found in most towns, villages, hamlets and even completely unpopulated sites around the back country, Beyond the French Riviera.
Hiking Walking Books for Provence and France are the place to start for day-hikes in Provence. In addition, we'll document some our favorite hikes here:
Cap Roux Hike in the red hills of the Esterel, near Cannes, visits the 5th-century hermit's cave of Saint Honoratus.
Cros d'Utelle Hike. This is a 5-hour hike from the Cros d'Utelle (Vésubie Valley), via the Col d'Ambellarte to the Crête de la Madone and looping back to the start.
Corconne Hike. A pleasant 3-hour loop from a nice little village in Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat Hike A hiking path along the very edge of the Mediterranean seaside, a refreshing breath of nature amidst the famous French Riviera.
Utelle Hike A 5-hour hike northeast from Utelle village in the Vésubie Valley, towards Le figaret and returning south along the edge of the Gorges de Vésubie.
Venanson Hike A 6-1/2 hour loop hike though the forests by the village of Venanson, at the upper end of the Vésubie Valley, near St Martin-Vésubie.
Bornes - Signposts
A borne is a wooden signpost marking a hiking waypoint, sometimes a junction, and sometimes just a point along the route. These bornes are put up by the departements (such as the Alpes-Maritimes), the same people who look after the petite randonée (PR) trails marked in yellow. The bornes (usually) have an identifying number that (often) matches a number on the IGN 1:25'000 maps. The bornes are often signposted, with different directions marked out — but you'll need to have a map to know where those, sometimes remote, destinations are located.
Most of the hiking trails in the region, Grande Randonnée (GR), Petite Randonnée (PR) and other local trails, can be hiked by normal people without special equipment. The only "difficulty" is usually a matter of how steep the climbs are, and you can get that from the contour lines on the maps or the hiking guidebooks. Trails are usually well marked and, by design, great for hiking, often through the shade of the trees. Trails on steep hillsides zig-zag up or down to reduce the incline. Trails are designed for walking; having to clamber over rocks is very, very rare, and the use of ropes or other special equipment is not necessary. One possible exception is when the trails go over high passes (cols), perhaps over 2000 m altitude, in the "winter". Passes can be blocked by snow for a very long season, from Fall to late Spring. The Gendarmerie or Office de Tourisme for the mountain towns will have that information (phone numbers are listed in Beyond).
July-August is the peak tourist season, but 90% of the tourists are crowded on the beaches. You will have to call ahead to reserve in the Gites or the Refuges for overnight stays, or you can carry your tent and sleeping bag with you.
We're talking about the hunting season because it's of concern to many hikers. We personally feel less comfortable hiking during hunting season, but don't want to rule out one of the prettiest times of the year in the woods. Whether you agree or not with hunting, the vast majority of French hunters are sensible, careful and polite. Accidents do happen every year, but they are few, and usually occur between the hunters themselves.
In the South of France hunting season begins in mid September. The boar (sanglier) hunting begins mid August.
Flies and Mosquitoes
We haven't had serious problems with mosquitoes, but always carry repellent anyway, and it sometimes comes in handy. There are certain areas, such as the Camargue, where you'll want a lot of mosquito repellent.
We've had some problems with flies, and haven't found a good solution to combat them. We've never run into blackfly, that is apparently a serious problem in other parts of the world. One of our readers and serious backpacker, Jan Volker, contributed a particularly bad experience (below).
Before you hike anywhere it's best that you do some research on what types of poisonous plants you could expect to encounter. And, it's a good idea to learn some basics of the most common poisonous plants that you run across without expecting.
The Kremp Florist has a public service webpage about poisonous plants that's clearly written and very informative. The guide is specific to North America, but useful information for hikers anywhere. A link to this webpage is provided below (External Links - Poisonous Plants).
Other than the poisonous plants that can cause you pain on contact, there are many tasty-looking plants that are very poisonous when ingested. Don't eat any wild plants or berries unless you are absolutely sure of what you're dealing with.
Comments contributed by Rudy Penczer, Nov 2000
We did go to Provence hiking in November and had no weather problems and no hunter problems. The "November" problems that we had, did impact us and I would not return in November because of them. Sunset at 5:30 and breakfast at 8 leaves a short day. Many hotels and restaurants were closed either for the season or for November.
Comments contributed by Jan Volkers, 8 Oct 1999
There are little flies called "Arabies". When they sting you don't feel much but.......the day after!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Still got the scars. When it happened it was beginning of April, 1999. Took tons of penicilline to get rid of the inflamations. But....otherwise, exept Gordes (which is a posh little enclave of posh foreigners), it was very nice. I came from Fontaines and ended in Bonnieux, where I had to stop. These flies interfered.