A walking holiday in France’s Maritime Alps is the quickest route to relaxation, despite the EU referendum, finds Alison Gray
We went to bed in the mountains of the Maritime Alps region of France fully paid-up members of the EU, and woke up heading for the Brexit. With no TV and mobiles out of range, we heard the result of the EU referendum from two fellow walkers from Norway. “You’re out!” they declared gleefully, “Come and join with us!” Our French patron expressed dismay at our departure before confiding that Frexit would definitely be his choice if France didn’t need EU money so badly.
We were in the Alpes Maritimes on a walking holiday that seemed to be highlighting all the things we have in common with our European neighbours; a love of nature, sunshine and good food. Our seven-day route took us from the high mountain pass and a boulder marking the border between France and Italy where goats roamed freely – we bought their delicately flavoured cheese at a market the following day – to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. As we walked we saw the vegetation change from the lush grasses of alpine meadows to the scrub, or garrigue, as we approached sea level. Butterflies fluttered ahead of us and we breathed in the perfumed air as our legs brushed aromatic plants like lavender, rock roses and thyme.
We’ve done a few hillwalking holidays in recent years and On Foot is a particularly classy option. The route notes written by Richard Petitjean, who has lived in the region for more than 30 years, are comprehensive without being patronising and there are different options at some stages – choose to add on a circular walk, do a bit by train or even take a rest day. We flew to Nice from Edinburgh and took the train two hours into the mountains and, with lots of tunnels, sometimes through them, to reach our first base camp, Hotel Fleur des Alpes in La Brigue. With dinner, B&B and packed lunch organised for us, all we really needed to do was to walk. We took the easy option on day one, a circular route from La Brigue to Tende which featured a pretty climb through wild flowers on good rocky paths with plenty of butterflies and interesting beetles to marvel at. Part of the magic of this kind of holiday is the speed at which you can disconnect from your daily challenges. Pretty soon all you are thinking about is the path under your feet and whether to have white or rosé with dinner.
We’re not long into today’s 10km circuit before we come across varying degrees of holiday homes dotted around the valley, from simple huts to the odd big villa with solar panels. Our favourite is a little cottage with an outdoor shower, a piece of hosepipe rigged up behind a bamboo screen in the garden, complete with a cracked shard of mirror propped up on a wall. We imagine going feral and living here, trotting down to the Sunday morning market for supplies. We had a look at the market before we set off, but it was just a little one and Robi our hotelier told us that the late spring and summer had not pleased local farmers whose produce was not as far along as it should be. There’s actually a splendid array of veggies from a van with an Italian registration plate – maybe the weather is better over the border. We are really close to the border with Italy, walking across it later in the week. This part of France belonged to Italy until 1947 and there are lots of Italian names on the houses still.
It’s a pleasant descent through the woods to Tende, a bigger place than La Brigue, and pleasingly bustling for France on a Sunday. If we were being lazy we could take the train back – but we decide to explore the medieval portion of the town, through winding alleyways past ornate front doors, before picking up the return path to La Brigue. Back at the hotel the evening menu for hungry walkers was typical of what you can expect – couscous with merguez sausage, lamb and chicken with a slice of lemon tart or clafoutis for dessert. You can have guilt-free pudding every night on a walking holiday – another bonus of this kind of trip.
Day two saw us bid farewell to La Brigue and head for the Roya Valley and Fontan, and it was a day of highlights – from crossing under a spectacular old railway viaduct on the way out of the village, admiring the Italian architecture, to a pit stop at the hamlet of Granile where we enjoyed Coke and a slice of homemade quiche at the tiny open-air cafe. We were the only customers as the elderly patron and his wife sat down to their lunch – delicious looking salads, the same quiche as us and half a bottle of red. The afternoon was no less enjoyable, with views of the incredible perching villages of Berghe Superieur and Berghe Inferieur – the translation is confusing – one isn’t better than the other, just bigger. One stop on the train brought us to Breil and the Hotel Roya which does B&B only so you are free to choose a place to eat, and organise your own packed lunch. It’s another example of how flexible the On Foot holidays are – you stay in quirky little places, there’s always something interesting to see on the walks – and the meals are a mix, some provided by your hotel, some not.
The next day’s walk, from Breil to Sospel, just might have been our favourite. We sourced our packed lunch from a fantastic bakery just off the main square, eschewing the tasty-looking filled rolls for delicious “more French” spinach-filled pastries and courgette bakes. For afters we were encouraged to try a local speciality – an orange perfumed bread dotted with nigella seeds and dusted in sugar – let’s just say it was interesting. We stopped at the pretty flower-filled village of Piène Haute for lunch before a particularly scenic walk through the Gorge de Bévéra along the fragrant Sentier Botanique, where we breathed in the gorgeous scents of aromatic plants and herbs. Sospel was the perfect place to stop for two nights – especially as we got the chance to visit the bustling produce market and one of our nights coincided with Fete de la Musique, when France takes a day to celebrate music in all its forms. We enjoyed two teenage guitarists belting out riffs over rosé and a pizza, but when their short set reprised Smoke on the Water, it was time to call it a night.
Sospel to Ste Agnes was another breathtaking day as we caught our first glimpse of the sea and were bowled over by the village of Ste Agnes, which emerged before us like something out of a fairytale, an apparently ramshackle collection of ochre coloured buildings clinging precariously to a slab of rock.
Our final walking day saw us headed for the picturesque village of Roquebrune and a celebratory lunch. From there we trained it to our last stop, Menton, and a lovely hotel directly opposite the sea. Boots off and flip flops on. ■
• On Foot Holidays offer a seven-night self-guided walking holiday from La Brigue to Menton for £745 per person sharing a double room, including all breakfasts, two evening meals and four picnic lunches, luggage transfers, walkers’ pack and local support. Flights and transfers excluded.For more information, tel: 01722 322 652 or visit www.onfootholidays.co.uk