Sunshine & Limestone: walking in les Alpes Maritimes (Part One)

After a long, dark, cold winter it was time to search out spring sunshine. The Alpes-Maritimes are a lovely place to walk in April, although Easter was so early this year and the winter so harsh that Spring had hardly begun and the land was still clothed in its winter colours. We were based close to St-Jeannet, one of the many tiny hilltop villages that dot the flanks of the river Var in the densely populated region north of Nice.

Walk One – The Baous of St-Jeannet

Azure blue skies and brilliant sunshine made this walk a delight. The pretty village of St-Jeannet dates from the Middle Ages and its honeyed limestone houses huddle round a church and chateau above the Var river. The view is marred now by modern housing and factories lining the flat land along the river but it is still an impressive place.

There are many trail options but we took the path west below the massive Baou de St-Jeannet, a huge bastion of rock that towers over the village. It is pocked with caves and a Mecca for climbers.

A steep climb towards the top of the valley culminated at the ruins of the Chateau de Castillion, a tower and walls still imposing in their decline. We had climbed up past olive groves and through holm oaks and were now reaching the level of deciduous oaks.

Beyond the ruins a contouring path leads round the head of the valley and along the gently rising promontory onto the baou. This is a popular walk as the views from the summit are spectacular, over the Var towards Nice and Antibes and back towards the Mercantour Alps.

Lammergeier (Bearded Vultures) were circling on the up-draughts close by. I counted six stacked above one another. Although it was quite busy at the viewpoint the shattered landscapes soon swallowed the crowds and we were back to solitude as we reversed our route to the chateau ruins.

A gentle descent along the GR51 (Grande Randonnée – France has a superb network of these long distance trails http://www.gr-infos.com/gr-fr.htm ) was followed by an equally gentle ascent past a borie, a stone beehive-shaped shelter surrounded, somewhat disturbingly, by the twisted remains of WW2 shells.

Navigation is made easy by the well maintained signposts at every path junction, although there is ample opportunity for confusion along sheep trods and farm tracks that do not appear on the map. This nearly happened shortly after the borie before the descent to Jas Jausserand when were were led astray by a narrow path. The clints and grikes of the limestone can make following a trail tricky. This is where GPS and downloaded IGN maps assist, although we always carry paper maps too.

Jas Jausserand is a working sheepfarm at the head of a valley. We had passed the ruins of many other such Jas – Provençal for sheepfold – so it was good to see one in use. Socks and underwear on a washing line suggested that the shepherd was at home. The valley floor below was terraced with semi-circular stone walls damming the flow of the precious soil to create meadows for grazing, and the distant sound of sheep bells carried clearly in the afternoon stillness.

Another ascent led to the small summit of la Colle, followed by a level stroll to le Gros Chêne – the Large Oak, a huge ancient pollarded holm oak that dwarfed all the other trees we had seen. Such ancient trees are rare in France where wood is treated as a crop and harvested regularly. Children were playing around its base and families picnicked in the meadow nearby.

It was a short descent to another baou – the Baou de la Gaude. This one appeared to have been fortified in the past. Once again the views were magnificent but we didn’t linger long as the rough terrain was tough on the legs and we were tired. Retracing our steps to the shallow col below la Colle we took a steep and stony path leading down to the Vallon de Parriau where a broad track led back to the cafes and bars of St-Jeannet.

13.6 miles / 21.8 km

3346 feet / 1019.8 metres

Walk Two – The Ascent of the Mouton d’Anou

The oddly named Mouton d’Anou is a small rounded limestone summit above Bézaudun-les-Alpes, topped as so many French summits are, by a cairn and a wrought iron cross. We set out from le Broc, another ancient hilltop village of rendered stone houses perched on a rocky outcrop above the confluence of the rivers Var and Esteron.

The climb up to the Mouton d’Anou is an absolute delight. The narrow path winds up through terraced oak pasture, passing beehives and ruined huts. As we climbed we noticed more and more wild flowers; firstly green hellebores, their petals delicately edged in crimson, then tiny daffodils, increasing in numbers to cloak the woodland floor; higher still there were the mauve flowers of cyclamen and the vibrant blue of miniature star shaped flowers that I think were a type of anemone.

We had walked in solitude until the summit where there was a couple sitting eating their lunch. Once again the views were superb, back towards our walk of yesterday over the baous, and out to the snowy peaks of the Mercantour Alps. We didn’t linger as today there was a cold wind blowing and the blue skies were being invaded by clouds.

Lunch was another picnic, followed by a descent on a broad track to a junction where we decided to visit the Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Peuple perched on a small knoll above Bézaudun-les-Alpes. Unfortunately what appeared to be a track on the map was a tarmac road, but it wasn’t long before we were climbing a steep path up to the Chapelle, a typical ochre-washed French mountain chapel. An Easter service had been held there earlier after a procession from the village.

Bézaudun-les-Alpes is beautiful. A tiny hilltop village surrounded by white limestone hills, some of which still bore the snows of winter. The tall stone houses shelter narrow alleys and steep steps, which nestle around the high tower of its chateau and the competing tower of the church. Had it not been Easter Monday there may have been cafes open for a hot chocolate on a terrace, but today we were not in luck so headed steeply down into a deep valley with running water, the first we have seen or heard in this desert landscape. Primroses and blue anemones abounded in this sheltered place.

Some paths are better maintained than others, and the contouring path below le Puy was narrow and eroded. It became more overgrown as it passed a poorly maintained and littered farm and through fields with semi-wild boar rooting the ground. Both yesterday and today we had been amazed at the industry of earlier generations who had cleared the land of stones, building them into walls or piling them into huge heaps and cairns. I felt a sense of sadness at their neglect.

Despite the difficulties with lack of maintenance it was still possible to find the yellow flashes of paint that indicated the route. This narrow path joined a broad farm track that descended swiftly down the Vallon de Font de Roche to St-Germain and a short road walk back to the car.

12.3 miles / 19.8 km

2760 feet / 841 metres

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