Alps to Riviera, France, 2005

Last year I went on a walking holiday in France with two friends. We started in Nice, got the train to Sospel and then walked to the coast at Menton. Between them we saw some beautiful scenery, drank some lovely wine and ate fantastic food. I can’t share the alcohol or steak, but you can see the pictures…

We started the week in Nice. I’d heard great things about the place but, on the whole, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I’ll be positive and say this is probably because they were digging the whole town up to install a new tram system, or because we didn’t spend very much time there. Anyway, this means that there are no decent pictures.

So we got the train on to Sospel, a small town at the bottom of the Alps. The town itself was at the bottom of the valley but our hotel was half way up. This was a tiring walk, especially carrying bags, but the view was worth it. M even got a view of the valley. Me and P were less lucky getting the awe-inspiring view of a small hut.

The next day we took a quick train journey down the valley and headed back to Sospel. The walk started in a pretty, small town called Breil-sur-Roya and headed out up into the nearby hills. After days of a sedentary life-style, then a day on a plane and train, suddenly walking uphill came as a bit of a shock. However looking back over the town between heavy breaths made it worthwhile.

The walk continued up and down over hills and through valleys (but mainly up hills). It was a warm day and come lunch time we were hot and tired. Luckily there was a shady square in Pi?ne Haute, one of the towns en route. We stopped for a bite to eat and to sleep on benches for a while.

The afternoon continued in pretty much the same vein, but gradually leveled out as we made the final approach to Sospel. It was a bit cruel really as we still had to climb up back to our hotel! Luckily this was a holiday, so we were in no rush. We stopped in the town for an ice-cream and hoped that our leg muscles wouldn’t seize up while we ate.

The next day was the biggie, in the sense that it gave the whole holiday its name! It was then that we left Sospel and walked all the way to the coast. Okay, we cheated a little. We got a taxi a short way to the start of the walk (up a big hill and round the corner) but we did do most of it!

We knew that this was going to be a long day. Not only had we tired ourselves out on the previous day, but this was a longer walk. (I won’t say how long as you’ll just realise how unfit we all were.) The day starts off on a long, slight incline but it doesn’t take long before we’re heading up the side of serious hill.

P’s strategy on the flat is to walk a pace or two ahead of his colleagues, thereby giving the impression that he’s walking faster than everyone else. For this hill he took a new strategy. He decides that the best way is to sprint up as far and fast as he can until his lungs were on the verge of collapse and then stop and wait for us. M makes the mistake of trying to keep up and is continually going fast, getting out of breath and slowing right down to recover. I take to a steady slog.

It’s tiring for us all but we make pretty good time and are still ahead of the suggested itinerary in the book, even with the impromptu lung-transplant en route.

This is the worst “up” part for the day. The rest of the morning is spent going up and down smaller inclines. The sun eventually burns away the morning mist and after a while we realise that we can see the Mediterranean.

We reach a large clearing around noon and decide to stop for lunch. Some dark clouds that have been massing since early morning are starting to look particularly oppressive and we fear that we’re going to get drenched. None of us are really prepared for heavy rain. A bare tree looks eerie against the dark sky.

But we’re lucky. There are a few spots of rain just as we’re eating our sandwiches. After that it still dark but it’s fine.

Most of the rest of the afternoon is heading down hill towards the coast. Anyone that tells you that downhill is easier that uphill clearly hasn’t done much walking. The paths are harsh, unyielding tarmac and very steep for the early part of the afternoon and my knees quickly begin to ache.

We rest regularly and even pop over the border into Italy at one point. The last and in some ways hardest part of the day was walking across town to our hotel. All our energies had been spent on climbing and descending hills and I don’t think any of us were expecting the cross-town part to be quite so long.

The hotel is pretty decent when we arrive. It’s right on the sea front and only about 500m from the Italian border. We shower and collapse (not necessarily in that order) and eventually hit the town for dinner.

Menton is not a huge town. It’s long and thin, with the Mediterranean on one side and a stack of hotels and houses rising quickly into the hills on the other. There is an impressively large marina with some equally impressive yachts glinting in the sun. The strip of sand that stretches East into Italy was heavily populated much of the time. The main shopping strip has the usual array of restaurants and gift shops. Menton is quite pretty and clean, but is clearly heavily geared towards tourists.

On our last full day we decided to leave the undeniable attractions of the South of France and move up-market. Monaco was just a short train-ride away and, we figured, a good way of passing a few hours.

The first thing we noticed about Monaco was the size of the train station. The platform is about twice as long as the train. We suggest another train line from the tracks to the station exit to no-one in particular. There are building works right outside the station, so first impressions are not great.

Wandering up into the old town, we see a lot to indicate the vast wealth of this tiny principality. The marina here is huge and is crammed with very expensive looking yachts; the streets are immaculately clean and all the buildings are well maintained; and every car is shiny, new and has a high chance of being German. It does not, however, ooze with character or charm. Even if I somehow became super-rich I think I would still choose to pay my taxes and live elsewhere.

(On a more sombre note, our trip to Monaco was on the 7th July which, as anyone who lives in London will tell you, was a good day to be on holiday. The first I knew how serious it was when my sister rang me on my mobile. She never rings!)

We have a rather tense last meal back in Menton as M insists on dining in a fish restaurant despite the fact that I’m allergic to some and dislike all other sea-food. I only narrowly avoid killing her when she announces that the first of her main courses is not good. Instead I sulk with the one non-fish dish on the menu.

On the final day we have a vaguely leisurely start and head on the train back to Nice, then on a plane back to Heathrow. So overall, a great holiday. Over with far too quickly, but then aren’t they always?