Hiking Trails in the Estérels, French Riviera

Estérels French Riviera

Located in southeastern France, the Estérel coastal mountain range straddles both the Var and Alpes-Maritimes departments. Of volcanic origins, the massif is roughly 32,000 hectares of rugged terrain awaiting exploration. Mont Vinaigre is the highest peak at 618 metres. According to the Estérel Côte d’Azur tourism office, there are 72 trails for biking (road, gravel and mountain), hiking, and walking that crisscross the range, including many within the protected Forêt domaniale de l’Estérel. We highlight here a few of the popular trails. From the coastline Sentier du littoral (previously the customs footpath) to the forested hills of the Pay de Fayence there are many hikes in the Estérels for all ability levels.

French Riviera Hiking in the Estérels

Les Gorges du Blavet ©Estérel Côte d’Azur

French Riviera Hiking in the Estérels

Sentier du littoral ©Estérel Côte d’Azur

Discover the Alpilles Vineyards in Provence

AOP Les Baux de Provence

Launched in 1995, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) Les Baux de Provence was a bold step for a group of winemakers. They joined forces to carve out a unique identity in the ocean of, at that time, mediocre Provencal wine. Previously (since 1972) these wineries fell under the umbrella of the AOP Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. The les Baux vintners felt that their production was blurred in the vast volume produced by that large AOP. Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) Les Baux was re-established in 1995 reverting to the original appellation formed in 1956. Today ten vineyards are members of the AOP and follow the same guidelines for making wine.

Discovering vineyards of the Alpilles Provence

The Stunning Alpilles

The landscape of the Alpilles is not exactly the land of milk and honey. Rather this is a harsh alpine climate that supports the growth of grapes, almonds, herbs de Provence, and olives. Known as the Alpilles (small Alps), this 30km band of jagged limestone cliffs and scrub brush is a protected regional park infused with wild aromas of herbes de Provence. At its highest point, the ridgeline of the mountains is only 498m (1,634 ft). Yet the gnarled limestone fingers reaching towards Provence’s blue heavens are simply arresting. The Park and its unscathed terroir are why the vineyard owners felt that their wines would be better served under the AOP Les Baux de Provence banner. Continue reading here for information about these vineyards in the Alpilles.

Alpilles Vineyards in Provence

Clos de Montmartre a Vineyard in Paris

Nutmeg had read about a small vineyard in Paris, located in the shadows of the Sacré-Coeur spires. The last time either Ginger or Nutmeg had been to Montmartre was in the 1980s. After a crazy taxi ride complete with construction bottlenecks, pre-Christmas traffic, impossibly narrow streets and hills only fit for funiculars they arrived in the middle of a mob scene. A clear Saturday afternoon right before sunset, it was immediately obvious why there had been a 30-year gap since their last visit.

Sacre Coeur

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Easy Visit to Bordeaux and the Famous Vineyards

Some time ago (number of years not to be disclosed here) Nutmeg travelled to San Sebastian, Spain via train. At that point, backpack travel was heavily influenced by “Europe on $20 a Day” and where your Eurail pass would take you. So, she and her travel companion spent a total of two hours in Biarritz and about the same in Bordeaux.

A visit to France’s southwest was long overdue.

This time G&N are not travelling on Eurail passes or sleeping in hostels. They were booked on a six-day guided walking tour through the Pays Basque. Nutmeg convinced Ginger to visit Bordeaux, its famous vineyards and venture to the Atlantic coast for a few days before the walking trip started. As their available time shrunk, so did the itinerary. In the end, they decide on two nights in Bordeaux, two in wine country and two in Biarritz. Spain would have to wait for another time.

The drive from Provence to Bordeaux is a relatively painless journey on super-highways. Just over six hours later they arrived in Bordeaux’s historic centre at the Mama Shelter. The hotel is close to shops, historic sights and it has a long cocktail list. What more do you need? G&N decided to go for a short pre-dinner stroll to orient themselves and do a bit of sight-seeing in the dying September daylight.

Bordeaux Street Art

Beautiful Bordeaux

If you could fall in love with a city, it might be Bordeaux. A pedestrian-friendly walking and cycling path stretches the length of the milk chocolate coloured Gironde River. Along the way you see skateboarders, box lacrosse players, hip-hop dance moves and much more. Bordeaux has a young vibe thanks to its university (Nutmeg says, “Wish I had thought of that”).

Bordeaux Panorama

However, the city is not young. Traces of human settlement in the area date to the 6th century BC. Burdigala was the Roman name for Bordeaux an important trading post in the “the land of waters” – present day Aquitaine. We can all thank the Romans (not Robert Parker, but that is another story) for the birth of the wine trade in this region.

Bordeaux Gros Cloche Gate

Other than the sweeping bend of a muddy river the first thing that struck Nutmeg upon arrival in Bordeaux was the gleaming limestone buildings. It is no wonder some call the city “little Paris.” UNESCO awarded Bordeaux World Heritage status for its notable 18th-century architecture in both private and public buildings.

Bordeaux City Hall Hotel de Ville

The next day dawned with a threatening sky, but the Weather Channel App challenged nature with a sunny forecast. The app was correct. G&N headed to the tourist office to purchase the 24-hour version of the Bordeaux City Card. Once activated the card allows for access to many historical sites, museums and the use of public transit. The only issue is on Mondays (the day they bought their passes) several places are closed. Buyer beware!

Bordeaux Monument aux Girondins

Their timing was perfect to join the 10 am walking tour which starts at the main tourist office. The tour (in English) lasts about two hours. It is an informative overview of some key events in Bordeaux’s history and main sites. Highly recommended by G&N. However, the guide’s lack of enthusiasm for her job was evident. Perhaps she wanted to do the French tour, or stay in bed? Who knows.

Bordeaux Pont Chaban Delmas

Bordeaux Cité du Vin

The balance of the day G&N walked and walked and walked. Although their phone logs disagreed, their total walking distance was between 17.8 and 19.5km. Certainly, far enough to justify the glass of wine that is part of your entry fee to the Cité du Vin (museum, shops, restaurants and exhibition space dedicated to wines of the world). And, the bottle they shared at dinner.

Bordeaux Cité du Vin Belvedere Wine Tasting

Bordeaux Eglise St Louis de Chartrons

Exploring Bordeaux Wine Country

Day two. It was time to head to wine country, which is literally on Bordeaux’s doorstep. Their first stop was Pomerol and then onto Saint Emilion. There were plenty of signs for renowned vineyards, but few indications that degustation (wine tasting) was welcome. The winemakers were in full harvest mode and hosting tourists to sample their wines was not a priority.

G&N had been warned that these wine country villages lacked charm, except for Saint-Émilion. Situated on a hilltop surrounded by stone terraces, the remains of rampart walls and this village oozes with medieval history. Saint-Émilion is also brimming with wine boutiques and other opportunities to part with some of your hard-earned cash. G&N arrived in time to join the guided “Underground Tour” which includes a visit to the monolithic church. In 90-minutes they had gained a better appreciation for Saint-Émilion’s history – don’t miss this tour. Tour details here.

Adjusting Travel Plans

Their dinner reservation at 20h left just enough time for a little wine shopping and relaxation. Thanks to Visa the shopping part was executed without any trouble. The relaxation part, however, took a turn for the worse, Nutmeg strained her knee (it’s an old age thing), and basically, dinner plans were thrown in the air. What was to be a gourmet dining experience, turned out to be Ginger searching for pizza. Ever the boy scout he returned with pizza, grilled veggies and a bottle of Bordeaux red. Nutmeg was virtually immobile in the second story apartment that they had rented.

The next morning was bright and sunny but clouded by Nutmeg’s immediate vision. How was the heck was she going to get down two long flights of stairs? And, then scale the uneven cobblestone street. Ginger to the rescue! He executed a masterful car-jockey move and managed to drive through the tiny streets during the morning delivery “window” and before the roads were closed to pedestrians.

Blaye Visit Cut Short

Nutmeg’s virtual friend J.Christina suggested that they visit the citadel at Blaye before crossing the Gironde River by ferry. Unfortunately, walking more than 100 meters, even with hiking poles, and anything that looked like stairs was out of the question, so a visit to this remarkable site was not going to happen. The following is from J.Christina’s original blog post “Blaye, France: Le Citadelle de Blaye.

Blaye rampart walls-J.Christina

Let me introduce you to Blaye, France, a petite but mighty hamlet, sitting at the southern tip of the Gironde estuary, formed by the confluences of the nearby Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Blaye is a historical and powerful commune from medieval times, where the Citadel of Blaye and its military fortifications sit majestically over the waters of Western Europe’s largest estuary.

Le Citadelle de Blaye, a medieval fortress, along with Fort Médoc and Fort Paté, formed a military defense system during the 18th and 19th centuries to protect the downstream port of Bordeaux from sea invasions and wars. It is a legendary example of engineering genius and Romanesque architecture designed and built by the famous engineer Vauban and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. A picture-postcard town, with scarred ramparts that bear witness to battles and conflict through this gallant maritime route.

Enchanting Blaye-J. Christina

Nowadays, the citadel is a living monument, where inside the bastion, a warren of cobblestone streets, stone houses, artisan shops, cafes, and wine shops, still thrive. From atop the medieval walls of this photogenic Blaye Citadel, there are stunning panoramic views of the estuary and across to the famed Médoc. It’s a place here photographers return time, and time again to catch a shot of the golden light that reflects on the estuary waters.

Please click here to read the balance of her post.

Crossing the Gironde estuary by ferry takes 15-25 minutes, depending on the tides. As described by J.Christina, at this point the Garonne and Dordogne rivers have joined, and the roiling, tan water is heading towards the Atlantic. The ferry captain must manipulate tidal forces and river’s current to execute a sweeping crossing of the estuary. Once on the other side, the famed chateaux of Médoc are within easy driving distance. However, in most cases, an appointment (or guide) is required to visit these “temples” of wine.

Over the week, Nutmeg’s knee got progressively better helped by many terrific wines.

Bordeaux Wine

Image credits: Photos of Blaye citadel and street scene in Blaye by J.Christina


Key websites for trip planning:

Bordeaux Tourism 

Saint-Émilion Tourism

A Visit to the Tarascon Castle and the Legend of a Monster in Provence

The Heart of Darkness or Niger Focus (later Nerluc) might have been an appropriate name for the hamlet located on the shores of a murky, swampy river. The muddy, opaque waters fueled rumours cultivating the nightmares of residents who asked was the beast:

A huge serpent?
A dragon?
A fierce half-lion?
A vicious turtle?

Tarascon Monster #Tarascon #Tarasque #ProvenceLegends @GingerandNutmeg

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Pablo Picasso at Rest near Aix-en-Provence

Château de Vauvenargues is located in the village by the same name, a few kilometers from Aix-en-Provence. This castle has a lengthy history.  The present structure was built on the site of a former Roman settlement. Over the centuries, Provencal counts and then the Archbishops of Aix occupied the castle. Clearly, it pays to be the doctor of a king; in 1474 Roi René gifted the Château to his physician Pierre Robin d’Angers.

chateau-de-vauvenargues

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Learn about Casanova and the Jardins d’Albertas of Bouc-Bel-Air in Provence

Whether fiction or not, Nutmeg thinks it is appropriate that Casanova the infamous Venetian writer, gambler and reputed womanizer is weaved into the history of les Jardins d’Albertas.

This garden, owned by the Albertas family, is located just a few minutes outside of Aix-en-Provence in the town of Bouc-Bel-Air, where the ancient village was built on a bouc (small hill).

The roots of the Albertas family stretch from Alba, Italy to Aix-en-Provence, where their influence on the Provençal city is notable. Henri and his son Jean-Baptiste d’Albertas, both held the high-ranking title of Président de la Cour des Comptes (Court of Auditors).

Jardin d'Albertas FountainOne of the most recognizable and photogenic squares in Aix is Place d’Albertas.  This sunny plaza carved out of the narrow winding streets of the old town resembles a small Italian piazza. Henri felt that the exterior of his home and his “view” were not distinguished enough. He commissioned a local architect to renew the façade of his house and establish a vision for the future square. The work done in 1745 included the demolition of buildings across from his house in order to create the plaza. The fountain was only installed in 1912.

Jardin d'Albertas middle level

It was Henri’s father Marc Antoine, who through marriage had acquired a plot of land outside of Aix-en-Provence in 1673, now known as the Jardins d’Albertas. The land had previously been envisioned as a garden although it was Jean-Baptiste who developed plans for the classical Franco-Italian garden. The drawings from 1751 include a chateau that was never built.

Jean-Baptiste was assassinated in 1790, on the eve of the French Revolution, and never witnessed his vision completed. The garden was neglected for many years; it was not until 1949 that Jean d’Albertas began restoration work.

Jardin d'Albertas Le Grande Canal

Towering plane trees provide a leafy parasol for the driveway and garden’s entrance. Visual dimension is created within the rectangular plot by multiple terraces. Symmetrical water basins and statues form a highly appealing result.

It is almost surreal on a blistering Provencal day to believe that there are natural spring sources feeding the water features. In reality, it is clever engineering creating the supply of water to decorative ponds and fountains, as well as liquid nutrition for the plants.

The official entry to the Jardins d’Albertas is through an imposing metal gate, which is adorned with the Albertas’ family crest.

Jardin d'Albertas grille d'entree

On the right, just after the gateway is la salle de fraicheur designed as an imitation grotto. You need to allow your eyes adjust to the dim light and let shoddy first impressions go, the spider webs certainly do not help. Spend a few moments and you begin to recognize remnants of seashells that would have at one time decorated the entire ceiling. Empty alcoves remain, begging their statues of the seven planets to return.

Jardin d'Albertas salle de fraicheur

The Grand Canal is a large rectangular basin establishing the horizontal width of the garden. A statue of Neptune contemplates his fluid mirror, which reflects his botanical surroundings. This pond with its concrete border physically defines the boundary of the garden and symbolically represents a private river.

A grass lawn leads to the next water feature, le Bassin des 17 jets, or so it was named on the 1751 plans. Here, eight tritons blow water jets from their horns, and the back wall of this fountain creates the physical edge of the first level. The fountain appears to be almost announcing the heavyweight of testosterone emotion just behind it.

Jardin d'Albertas Fontaine des 17 jets

Four male statues stand ready for military action at the edge of this second level. Hercules, David, Mars and the gladiator Borghèse are a powerful stone representation of mythical heroes.

Jardins d'Albertas

 

It is only in the final section where the garden has a slight feminine touch with two sphinx statuettes bearing the Albertas’ family crest.

Jardins d'Albertas

 

The garden is easily covered in an hour although you may want to linger in some of the shady sections and contemplate what it may have looked like had the original vision been achieved.

The unfinished garden might be a little like the Casanova love story. The famous man is said to have stayed in Bouc-Bel-Air in 1769, but did not realize that Marie-Anne d’Albertas was his previous lover. They never met again.


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Sunny Sunflowers Why We Love The French Tournesols

Provençal postcards, Pinterest boards and Instagram are filled with photos of sunny sunflowers. Long before the Internet these beautiful flowers inspired Vincent Van Gogh to paint a still life series called Tournesols (Sunflowers). He painted the first of the group in 1887, in Paris, and then later (1888-89) in Arles.

Sunflower Continue reading

Retail Nightmares Big-Box Shopping in France

Nutmeg is here to tell you that Big-Box shopping is the same nightmare in France, as it is in Palm Springs, Chicago, Airdrie and Scarborough.

Big-box retail (think Target and Walmart) has evolved as a cost effective development strategy, under the guise of offering consumer convenience.  Without boring you all with the details, this concept works well for the landlord and tenant as no party is too “invested” in the location.  The big-box retail model has evolved from “destination” single stores, into power-centres where the customer can spend an entire day cruising hundreds of outlet stores. 

Market bags

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Visit Beaucaire for Visions of a Different Time in Provence

Beaucaire is a small Provencal town located on the banks of the Rhone river and the Rhone-Sète canal, the name means beautiful stone. There is evidence of a Gallo-Roman settlement in this hilly area as early as 11 B.C.. The ancient community gave way to a medieval town in 1067 and the establishment of a castle in 1180.Beaucaire Castle Provence Travel

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