The Good, The Great And The Ugly On Hiking Along The French Coastline

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Hiking Holidays in Europe

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.

"Toulon centre on a hiking trip along the French coastline"

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.

"The landscape along the hiking trail in Ile St Mandrier"

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.

"The French coastline through Sentier Littorale Presqu'Ile St Mandrier"

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 stony seaside hiking along the French coastline in Ile St Mandrier near Toulon"

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.

"View of the marina from the hiking trail along the French coastline"

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).

"Toulon harbour for ferry ride to Ile St Mandrier for hiking along the French coastline"

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.

"another seaside view when hiking along the French coastline in Ile St Mandrier"

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!

"Chapel seen from hiking trail in Ile St Mandrier near Toulon"

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.

"Presqu'Ile St Mandrier hiking trail near Toulon"

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.

It’s your call.

Read more of our easy hikes in the South of France HERE and HERE

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21 comments to The Good, The Great And The Ugly On Hiking Along The French Coastline

  • But Hideko, you are not alone in not speaking French. Many Anglo Saxon visitors also find it hard to find the right hiking trails, which is why we are trying to do as many and write about them for those who want to discover these scenic trails. I hope you find our hikes interesting. And if you need more information about any trail, don’t hesitate to contact us. Enjoy your hiking in the French coast! And thanks for dropping by.

  • Hideko Pirie

    I am ashamed to say that I do not speak French. I had hard time finding a few hiking trails last fall because I could not ask the directions to trailhead in French. I stopped by several places (including the Tourist Offices) for the hiking maps, books etc. that written in English. I did not have any luck there too. I am heading Nice area again in April and I am counting on your Blog/FB as my guides. Thanks and looking forward to find these places.

  • This is fabulous! I’d love to do this hike when my kids are a little older. Thank you so much for all the detail. Great post.

  • Cherina, it was really a very satisfying hike all in all. As a matter of fact, I can honestly say, this is one of my favourite hikes.

  • What a thorough description of this walk. Despite all the hardships it still sounds amazing. I have hiked through the French Pyrenees but would love to do more hiking in France. Great pics!

  • Hi Amy, nice of you to drop by. I understand perfectly how it was when you visited there. Our hike was earlier in the year and it was also scorching hot. And I usually seek out the sun when sitting in the terrace of a Paris cafe. Not in St Mandrier.

  • Amy Hume

    Well, Michael, we did make this trek to Presqu’ile St.Mandrier this past August. The ferry was quick and cheap.
    Pretty island! but sigh,,, I could not fully appreciate the charm of the place because that that was one of summer’s hottest! Blazing hot! It was 35C and the streets were deserted but the cafes were full. Not even the lavender ice cream could drag us out to explore more. After getting off the ferry, we had another round of cool drinks at that shop, to the left of your photo of Toulon harbor. Maybe we’ll hike that open path again when the weather’s friendlier.

  • Jenna, so many hiking descriptions out there only give general information. And hikers like you and I would love to have a bit more detail about a trail we want to take so we can weigh it if it would be the right one for us. I’m trying my best to give hikers such extra information for each hiking trail I hiked. Glad that you appreciate it.

  • I love that you outline exactly how to access places and how difficult the hikes are. So useful. I have never hiked in France but would love to someday soon.

  • Too bad about the urban sprawl parts of the Sentier Littoral. But nice to know there are still some good hiking opportunities to be found. Nice pics!

  • Thanks, Christina and glad you dropped by

  • I had never heard of the Sentier Littoral before. Great to get such a thorough and honest introduction to it.

  • Sorry, I didn’t mean to confuse you about Mont Blanc. We did not summit. We did a seven-day hike around the massif, staying in refuges with other hikers from all over the world. It was a great trip. You can see some pics here:
    http://www.pbase.com/peterdudley/tour_du_mont_blanc_2002

    Peter

  • Thanks for dropping by Peter. The Tour de Mont Blanc must have been quite an experience. I believe it is the only major summit you can climb without being a real mountaineer.

  • Good report, Michael. Thank you. Back in 2002, my wife and I did the Tour du Mont Blanc with a group; then did some day hikes on our own while we were based out of Aix. We used public transport to get to the trailheads. It was a good/bad experience. One hike we quite enjoyed went from Cassis to the calanques. The views were spectacular. We got a map from the tourist office and also referenced Lonely Planet’s book – Walking in France.

  • Debbie, the South of France is many people’s preferred destination, by the French to start with, because of the coastline. It certainly is mine.

  • Ted, hiking along the French coastline can truly be great, IF you pick and choose the right trails. I tried as best as I could to put in as much information here because when we were preparing for this hike, there was hardly anything online that we found useful.

  • Jeremy, the heat was like in Arizona. In Paris, I would usually seek out the sun when having a drink in a French cafe. This time, my son and I almost left to find another cafe when the one we chose didn’t have any more tables in the shade.

  • From the pictures it seems they have it right. They look beautiful. Although, no one is going to take crappy pictures on purpose unless they are out to prove a point. This post gives a lot of great information.

  • I can see how the beauty of this hike would entice many people to give it a try! Walking along the coast would be very beautiful.

  • Wow, what a fabulous hike! It seems so French! Part exhilarating and beautiful, part frustrating. Seems like there are trails for all hiking levels. The most beautiful stretch seems to be your last photo around the Notre Dame du Mai. The hike along the coast is beautiful. And as a guy with pale skin, I always wear sun screen! No embarrassing photos for me! :)

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