Nature in Provence-Alpes-Côte-D'azur
• How can you sum up the Mediterranean region, with its coastline, Provence and the southern Alps? From the Camargue to the inlets in the Var, from the summits of the Queyras, or the Briançon region to the heights of the Mont Ventoux, not forgetting the vast Verdon canyon, the region is full of exceptionally beautiful landscapes and protected areas. There are two quite different national parks in the region. The Ecrins boasts legendary summits and glaciers: the Meije, the Pelvoux and the Barre des Ecrins (with its peak at 4,102 m). The Port-Cros preserves an enchanting island world, right down to the seabed. Very shortly there will be a third national park, the Calanques (between Marseille and Cassis)! But the region also holds the record with five regional nature reserves. In addition to the Queyras, there are the Alpilles (with their vast olive groves), the Luberon (with its vines and orchards), the Verdon (with its fields of lavender) and the Camargue (with its farms for breeding bulls and horses).
• The region is decidedly rich in nature and also has beautiful, slightly quieter sites: a superb beech grove at the foot of the cliff of la Sainte-Baume, the discreet bays and madragues in Toulon harbour or the Calanques, mountain lakes at Ubaye or in the Hautes-Alpes, the scented garrigues of the massif des Maures and the Alpilles.
• Classical scenery is plentiful in this area of contrasts. But this mosaic of different territories has conserved a unity of climate, culture and history. The transhumance of the flocks of sheep links the southern regions (the Crau plain, the hills in the Var) to the so-called Southern Alps, via the winding Val de Durance.
Gastronomy and local produce
• In each season, there is something in the region to whet visitors' appetites: the PDO muscat grape from the Ventoux (an eating grape) or PDO olive oil from the vallée des Baux, and also delicacies such as the authentic black nougat, the "Calisson d'Aix" made from almond paste, candied fruit from Apt-en-Luberon, the "berlingot" from Carpentras (boiled sweets made from fruit juice), the PDO fig from Solliès, etc. And the hillsides in Provence, bathed in sunlight, produce a collection of fine AOC wines which are highly successful. Take some time to go and explore the paths leading to the wine producers in the area around Ventoux. The Mediterranean vineyards are also delightfully conducive to wine tourism.
• Hiking is also very well catered for. Naturally, there is a lot going on high up in the mountains, but the GR 9 which takes in all the emblematic summits of Provence (Sainte-Victoire, Luberon, Sainte-Baume), all of which climb to an altitude of about 1,100m, and of course the "giant": the Mont Ventoux, 1,912m high. The slightly more original GR 49 (known as the Martel way) explores the bottom of the gorges du Verdon. Part of the coastline has remained in its untamed state in spite of the popularity, in the Calanques or the Var (cap Lardier, near Saint-Tropez!). But remember that during summer it is more difficult to get away.
• The Camargue, i.e. the Rhône delta, is criss-crossed with pastures for the bulls, rice paddies and salt marshes, home to the famous, now sedentary pink flamingos. Its network of dikes provides many tracks for effortless mountain bike rides. A typical example is the 25 km route between les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and the Gacholle lighthouse, between the Étang de Vaccarès and the sea. And the hills in Provence with their scenic routes pass are scattered with old villages with their stone houses and the steep paths. Enthusiastic and experienced cyclists from all over the world are eager to try the (very steep) slopes of Mont Ventoux, but cyclotourists prefer the less demanding and well-marked Luberon à Vélo route, 236km, which they can take at their own pace.
Nature on the Riviera
• A luminous sky that attracted many great painters is a perfect background not only for the Baie des Anges and the Cap Ferrat but also for the mountains in the Mercantour, at nearly 3,000 metres and wild enough to provide refuge to packs of wolves. But the actual Vallée du Loup is in fact simply a deep fracture sculpted by a mountain stream in the rock in the countryside inland of Grasse! The hillsides in the Pays de Vence and the "baous" (cliffs and caves) of Saint-Jeannet, the villages perched high on the cliff road above Monaco and Menton (Peille, Peillon, Sainte-Agnès, the red rock of the Estérel massif which plunges down into the Mediterranean and the luxurious vegetation by the sea complete this postcard from the Riviera, a delicate patchwork of colourful landscapes.
Gastronomy and local produce
• Renowned the world over for its fragrances, with Grasse as the capital of perfume makers and its last fields of flowers which still supply the major luxury brands, the Côte d'Azur also has its particular flavours thanks to its privileged climate: the fragile and discreet Menton lemon is the first that comes to mind. The 'cailletier' olive, the small black olive exclusive to the area around Nice, has a PDO (protected designation of origin) label (for the oil, the fruit, and the paste). And don't forget to 'skip' over to the small Lérins islands (off the coast of Cannes) to appreciate the remarkable vineyard of the Cistercian monks in the abbey on the l'île Saint-Honorat!
• With its mountains that literally drop into the sea, its terraced hillsides and its steep, winding roads, there is very little space left for green routes; cyclotourism here is pretty demanding. Mountain biking on the other had is very popular and well catered for, with mountain resorts such as Gréolières, Valberg, Auron and Isola 2000. At the end of the Tinée valley, the road goes via the Bonette-Restefond pass (2715 m), which is sometimes included in the Tour de France, and listed as one of the three highest road passes in Europe: ambitious cyclists take note!
• There is a lot more potential for hiking here. From the massif de l'Estérel , a geological cousin of the mountains of Corsica, rises the Pic de l'Ours and the Mont Vinaigre (618 m), with pine and oak forests to explore... but not in summer (it is too hot and hiking is not permitted). Connoisseurs know that in February the massif de Tanneron is covered in a yellow mantel (when the mimosas are in bloom).
• The countryside inland from Nice and the Roya Valley offer spectacular walks above the terraces, through a string of villages known as "eyrie villages" (Coaraze, Sospel, Saorge, etc.). The slopes of the Vésubie and the Massif du Mercantour (national park) are very appealing for their resemblance to the Alps. The jewel of the maritime Alps however is the vallée des Merveilles, for its mountainous landscapes and its themed hiking trails, looking for surprising, original stone carvings on the rocks in full sunlight!