Seduced by the Red Rocks of the Estérels

Conor Power sings the praises of a walk in the Estérel Mountains from the top of the Pic du Mont Roux

I’m not a great walker, I’ll admit. I’ve developed a strong dependency on motorized transport to get me from A to B and even though I live in one of the best places in Ireland for hill walking, I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve been rambling amongst the rocks and trees either here at home or elsewhere.

I have been to the Côte d’Azur on a number of occasions, but I’d never got fully acquainted with the Estérel Mountains until this visit.

Target in Sight: the Pic du Mont Roux seen from about half way up

Target in Sight: the Pic du Mont Roux seen from about half way up

My wife and I travelled in the company of the efficient and youthful Carolane from the Mandelieu tourist office and the highly experienced tour guide Matthieu Whyte. The latter is the product of an English father and a French mother, so he had a very good level of English. Furthermore, he had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Nepal so we knew that we were in good hands.

With the assistance of the tourist office and our Irish-managed base at the magnificent Mimozas Resort, a copious picnic had been prepared. My wife and I had only one small-sized rucksack between us so most of the picnic was carried by Matthieu in his Himalayan-sized back-pack.

Although it was still only February, we had been blessed with exceptionally mild weather. The sun was blazing and the forecast promised that it would climb to 17 degrees. I hadn’t bothered to put on any sun cream, my wife had some kind of beauty product on with built-in sun protection, Matthieu was French and weather-bronzed and Carolane said that she had “Italian skin” (her people came from Calabria) that wouldn’t burn under the February sun.

Barren Beauty: An ancient Cork Oak observes trekkers clumping past on the Estérel Massif

Barren Beauty: An ancient Cork Oak observes trekkers clumping past on the Estérel Massif

The Estérel Massif is made of strong red volcanic rock. There is virtually no water in these hills – a fact that some hikers overlook when they set out expecting to be able to replenish at will along the way. The startling landscape would put you in mind of images of Arizona or Australia. The slopes on the Southern side have more in the way of scrub vegetation, while the more humid Northern side has more by way of trees. The most common tree here is the cork oak tree. Their gnarled barks and freaky formations make for a fascinating and exotic sight for Irish eyes. Bernard told us how these trees are the great survivors. Every decade or so, wild fires sweep through the Estérel range, reducing most of the Massif’s vegetation to ash. The cork tree comes with its own thick layer of insulation that the forest fires can’t penetrate. They lose their leaves all right but they come back the next year, as determined as ever to live a long life in the red hills.

Following very discreet markings on the rocks, we followed a trail that snaked its way ever upwards, over pathways of chunky rocks and precipitous lengths of dusty trails, on our way towards the summit at Pic du Mont Roux (453m above sea level).

Worth the Effort: Conor, Fiona and Mr Whyte tuck into a gourmet lunch (note the presence of the wine bottle) at the top of Pic du Mont Roux

Worth the Effort: Conor, Fiona and Mr Whyte tuck into a gourmet lunch (note the presence of the wine bottle) at the top of Pic du Mont Roux

En route, the views were panoramic and tear-inducing. The Mediterranean Sea never looked so blue, so peaceful and so glittering. Looking across to the west, we could see the dramatic St Barthelemy Rocks (part of the same range) rise into the sky. Beyond, the verdant coastline zig-zagged off in the distance. We could make out the St Tropez Peninsula. Further along by the coast, and inland there were yet more mountains while to the east, the more densely-populated peninsulas gave way to the sweeping Bay of Cannes, with Nice and Monte Carlo clearly visible as we climbed higher. The Lérins Islands – Ste Marguerite and St Honorat – sat pretty off Cannes. The latter of these two islands holds a monastery where St Patrick is believed to have spent some time before embarking on his Irish mission. Looking straight out to sea, we could even make out the coastline of Corsica.

When we finally reached the top after about two hours, we simply didn’t know where to look. There were dizzyingly beautiful views in every single direction. Even though there was virtually no wind at the top, we sat in a sheltered spot with a view of the sea to tuck into our picnic. There were gourmet sandwiches, salads with mayonnaise, plenty of water, cans of fizzy drinks, doughnuts, pear tart and some wonderful red wine from Aix-en-Provence.

As we made our way back down the mountain in revered silence (mostly), I was thinking that I learned two things at least: There’s nothing quite like the combination of great French food and wine, chat, exercise, conquering a really big hill, sunshine and stupendous views that let you appreciate the Cote d’Azur in all its glory away from the traffic. And the other thing was that I can still get sunburn in February.

Where Exactly?

Get Yourself There:

We flew with Ryanair, who fly 3 times per week direct from Dublin to Nice. (www.ryanair.com)

Staying There:

We stayed at the very swish Mimozas Resort in Mandelieu-la-Napoule. With its cracking cuisine, re-vamped decor around a beautiful lake, it’s Riviera life on relaxed speed setting. The beach is a 10-minute walk and the Croisette in Cannes is just a bike ride away. (www.mimozascannes.com)

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