Explore the Côte d’Azur on foot all year-round for breathtaking views and try these day-trip hikes around Nice and Vence.
Our plan was to take the bus to the village of Saint-Jeannet and find the start of the hike up to the Baou de Saint-Jeannet.
“But no,” one of the owners of the hotel we were staying at in Vence (the excellent La Maison du Frêne) said during le petit déjeuner. “You must do the Baou des Blancs. It is better.”
It is better, he explained, because the start is “right here,” in Vence, so you don’t need to take a bus to Saint-Jeannet and then wait for another bus back to Vence after the hike.
That made sense. Plus, the owner said, the view is even better from the top of the Baou des Blancs. We would be able to see the entire coastline stretched out in front of us, perhaps as far as Corsica. “It is beautiful.”
And so, off Susan and I went, to the summit of the Baou des Blancs, which turned out to be a challenging and glorious hike, and a perfect example of how hiking is one of the most underrated activities you can do in the French Riviera and surrounding mountain villages such as Vence. It’s also a great way to get away from the throngs of tourists that visit this popular destination and see a bit of the countryside that attracted Matisse, Chagall and Picasso.
On our trip, we did day-trip hikes from our base in Nice to Eze and St-Jean-Cap-Feret, and scampered up the Baou des Blancs from Vence. We never did make it up the Baou de Saint-Jeannet, but that’s what “next times” are for.
Up to Eze
We took the train from Nice to Eze station, which is a bit deceiving. The station is near the water, and there’s a sign that says the altitude is 18.9 meters above sea level. The actual village of Eze is at 427 meters above sea level.
And there’s one way up: the Chemin de Nietzsche footpath named in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche, the famed German philosopher. He spent time in Eze, thinking deep thoughts, writing poetry, and often climbing up and down this path.
The start of the path is about 100 meters from the train station. It’s quite steep and rocky, so wear appropriate shoes and bring water with you. The sign says the hike takes 90 minutes, which proved to be an accurate prediction.
You weave around and up the cliff, sometimes submerged in a forest, other times with views down to the coastline and sea, and of the St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula a few kilometers to the west.
And then, you emerge from the path into Eze, at the gates of the Château de la Chèvre d’Or, a quite luxurious 5-star hotel. We arrived in the midst of a food festival, which meant the usually bustling, narrow, and shop-filled streets of Eze were extra bustling. After wandering through Eze, we eventually found our way back to the Château de la Chèvre d’Or and started back down.
“Going down is harder than going up,” a woman told me as we passed her and her husband on one of the steeper, rockier patches of the path.
“Yes, it’s a lot harder to fall up,” I joked. She got my joke and laughed.
Once around the peninsula
St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is home to many of the most expensive and lavish villas in Southern France. It also has a walking path all the way around the perimeter, providing, for a lot less than the purchase of one of these stately manors, incredible and priceless views.
From Nice, we boarded the #15 bus from just in front of the Modern Art Museum. The ride along the coast was a bit nerve-wracking. I don’t know how French bus drivers navigate the narrow, two-way-traffic coastal roads, but they do. It was an impressive display of driving.
We got off at the last stop, in the port, and found the tourist office. The woman at the tourist office gave us a map and showed us how to find the start of the five-kilometre hike, which was only a couple 100 meters away.
Off we went, along the path, only a few metres from the rocky shore and the beautiful blue sea. This first section of the hike, to the lighthouse, is almost completely flat, while the second half includes a bit of “up” as the path follows along the top of the rocky cliffs. From this section of the hike, the views are to the west, to Nice and Antibes.
For the final section of the hike (back to the port and bus stop), you cut across the peninsula, along “regular” roads, the least scenic section of the hike.
Be the water
Baou is a Provençal word and refers to a rocky, limestone hilltop with a somewhat flat summit. There are four above Vence, lined up in a row (from west to east): Baou des Blancs, Baou des Noir, Baou de Saint-Jeannet and Baou de la Gaude. It seems to me they would all offer basically the same, amazing views, but who am I to argue with the owner of a Vence-based hotel who likes to hike?
The first kilometre of the hike is along the D2 road to the Col de Vence. There is steady car traffic, but a sidewalk the entire length. Look for and follow the hiking-path sign (on the left) for the Baou des Blancs. This takes you safely off the D2 and up (of course) a path that eventually leads back to the D2 and the Poney Club, a pony farm that offers rides.
This is where the real work begins and continues for about two kilometres to the top of the Baou des Blancs. It’s rough and rocky, and the views down to the surrounding mountains and to Vence and the Mediterranean are spectacular.
At the top of the baou is a large iron cross and two benches. We spent half an hour at the summit, eating lunch and taking in the view. And wondering …
“How the heck did they get the cross and these benches up here?”
We debated the possibilities and eventually settled on “helicopters.”
The route down is the same as the way up, and the rougher areas, that were a bit challenging on the way up, are even more challenging on the way down.
“You have to be like water and take the path of least resistance,” said Susan, who led the way and flowed down the mountain like a stream of eau.
Lead photo credit : © Steve Wartenberg
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