Hiking Along The French Coastline
The “Sentier Littoral” is the footpath that stretches along the French coastline. All of it.
In Napoleon’s view, the French coast represented a national treasure, and he gave all French citizens a universal right to access. A strip at least three meters wide, he decreed, would forever be the property of the entire nation.
In theory, you can therefore hike along the entire coast of the French Mediterranean, from Menton near the Italian border to Collioure in French Catalonia. In practice, however, as we shall see, this is not quite so easy.
We went hiking along the French coastline and chose the Sentier’s section around the peninsula which lies to the west of Toulon. We spent the first night in Toulon, then took the ferry to the Presqu’ile Saint Mandrier first thing next morning to follow the coast westwards to Zanary-sur-Mer. That, at least, was the plan.
French hiking trails, if they get it right, get it very right.
They have certainly not undergone the theme-park treatment, and nobody could accuse them of being overly twee – the cardinal sin of some of their German cousins. Instead, they display a magnificent, almost breathtaking disdain for the hiker, for what he might be able to do (his physical limitations), what he might like or what he might be interested in.
They are, in short, as pitiless as the nature that surrounds them.
“So Monsieur does not like to trudge through a parched, featureless landscape for hours? Tough – because that’s exactly what Monsieur shall have to do.” (Followed by an evil Gallic cackle, presumably.)
But you have to admit, even while you are stuck in one of those parched landscapes in the middle of a hot summer day, that this is an attitude which demands a certain kind of respect.
Unfortunately, however, French hiking trails do not always get it right, and when they get it wrong, they get it very, very wrong.
The Sentier Littoral near Toulon is a good example for this.
Some of the views along the trail and some of the stretches that manage to combine them for kilometres at a time are simply wonderful: cliffs, trees hanging on for dear life on rocky slopes, the great blue yonder of the Mediterranean, and all of it drenched in the dry, razor-sharp light of the south.
On much of the trail, however, you are left to imagine all of this while trudging through suburban wasteland, the neither-country-nor-town sprawl that has blighted so much of the French South. It is like hiking through LA.
The Sentier Littoral, quite simply, should not be hiked in one continuous stretch. Never mind that it appears as a single line on the hiking map which is endorsed by the FFR (the French Hiking Association).
The brochure of the Toulon Tourism Board is more honest. It still represents the Sentier as a straight line, implying that the short day hikes it proposes may be laid out as one continuous journey, but it clearly suggests to pick and choose.
The key difference in approach is that the continuous line of the brochure is colour-coded: Green means a trip for all the family, a beach promenade after lunch with grandma and small kids in a buggy. Blue is more of a proper hike, while the red sections are long, arduous and occasionally difficult. The Black section – there is just that single one – presents challenges that the average hiker may not be ready to master.
The real problem areas, however, are the Mauve sections of the trail. They are “transitional stages” which interconnect the parts that make the Sentier so attractive, and invariably, they lead you away from the coast. The original idea was, of course, that the entire trail runs directly along the sea, but the fact is that there are stretches where this is no longer possible. The necessity to restrict access to parts of the coast because of sewage plants and nudist beaches did not exist in Napoleon’s times.
A bigger problem, however, is that the modern Littoral Laws from 1976 and 1986 have largely allowed local councils to adapt Napoleon’s high-minded declaration of fundamental access rights to local conditions and requirements – including the “requirement” to issue building permissions as a way of maximizing the local tax intake.
In many parts of the South, sadly, there simply is no longer any nature left for hikers to enjoy. It is, nevertheless, still possible to have a great hiking experience along the French coastline (Mediterranean), and the two-day trips that I would recommend – one short and one long – manage to show the French South from its best and most attractive side.
For the short trip
- take the ferry from Toulon to the Ile St Mandrier, the “almost-island” on the other side of the bay (which is connected on its westernmost edge to the mainland only by a causeway).
Walk straight through the harbour area, keeping right past the Town Hall, and take the passage “to the beach” (the “plage”) to reach the southern side of the isle (from where you can see Corsica on a clear day).
Turn right uphill, walk around the fence of the military installation on the top of the hill and then just follow the coastline. The last stretch – where you will need to watch your step while carefully tiptoeing and occasionally leaping from stone to stone – was probably the highlight of our entire trip.
From the beach at St Elme, take the bus back to Toulon, and you will be back in time for your afternoon coffee.
For the long trip
- take the line 81 bus to Fabregas. Get off at Fabregas – the terminus – and take the road on the far side of the roundabout, descending to the beach in a 10-minute walk.
At the beach, turn right to follow the yellow markings (the “balisage”) on a detour around the nudist beach. The trail will take you steeply uphill and then to a stretch on an asphalt road (which, fortunately, is not too busy) before guiding you inland across the southern tip of the peninsula. There is certainly no more urban sprawl here. There are no trees, either. The landscape here is covered with shoulder-high bushes, the landmark “maquis” of the French South.
On a sunny day, you will need sunscreen or at least a hat. We did not bring either and had to wrap yesterday’s dirty shirts around our heads to get at least some sort of cover. (I have the pictures to prove this, but you have to pry them from my cold dead hands. Easy Hiker Jr. and I both looked like a pair of Gumbys – “My brain hurts!” – from Monty Python.)
Also bring plenty of water, twice as much as you would take with you on an ordinary hike. You will need it!
The high point of this trip is Notre Dame du Mai, the chapel that you can see for miles during your approach. This is a great place for your lunch break – not least because you have done all the hard work by now and can look forward to the far less arduous descent back to civilization.
To continue, walk towards the antenna and take the downhill path behind the guardrail which is, misleadingly, marked with a yellow “X”. (The sign almost certainly applies to the uphill path around the fence of the antenna installation, which, indeed, fails to lead you anywhere in particular.)
If you have missed urban sprawl, it will find you again soon, shortly behind the hamlet of La Lèque.
Continue until you reach the beach resort of Le Brusc and take a bus from here to one of the larger towns up the coast such as Zanary-sur-Mer.
That’s what we did. Alternatively, you can also hike up the coast – which is basically just one long beach from here – under the gaze of the French holiday makers who will clearly think that this strange sweaty person in long trousers and heavy shoes has just descended from the planet Zork.