attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

acs_0357

It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

acs_0324

Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

SaveSave

secret garden: serre de la madone

Menton, France has a Secret Garden beauty, rich as it is in dilapidated grandeur. img_3917

There are candy pastel hotels tucked in the hills, once wedding cake-grand but now closed with broken windows. The small downtown area houses murals, fountains, and statues that show their age. A striking yellow staircase leads from the Basilique St. Michel down to the sea, but it begs for a fresh coat of paint.

This pearl of France could use some polishing.

That’s what makes it special, though. It’s cozy, instead of glamorous and glitzy like other spots on the Côte d’Azur. It’s calm (though admittedly I’ve never been here in prime tourist season).

Menton has long been a haven for foreigners, so much so that the town holds a sort of “tourist cemetery” high on a hill with a view of the sea. img_3889

Menton also contains a number of botanical gardens, many of them created by foreign botanists attracted to Menton’s unique climate. Menton is typically about three degrees warmer than other parts of the Riviera on any given day. It’s sheltered from harsh weather by the hills surrounding it, meaning that plants found nowhere else in France can still flourish here (not the least of which is the Menton lemon, celebrated every year with a monthlong festival. To see what I thought of that, click here).

I visited Serre de la Madone, a garden designed by Lawrence Johnston, a wealthy American (though he died in 1958 before he saw the project come to fruition).

Like much of Menton, it’s a cozy contradiction: nine hectares of manicured wildness.

img_3909 Despite the villa, greenhouse, and mossy statues, the garden lacks a human presence. It feels as if it was designed and then left alone, left to the elements. Actually, that is what happened, to a certain extent. When Johnston died the development of the unfinished garden was left to the plants, as he didn’t leave any plans. img_3905

There’s upkeep of course; there was a man weed-eating when I was there, the noise cutting through the tropical tweets of the birds, but the garden cast a spell even so. It seemed beautifully abandoned, despite evidence to the contrary.img_3886

I slipped over stones and ducked under vines, noticing subtle movement everywhere.

Frogs startled, splashing into algae-green pools, thick like pea soup. They croaked from lily pads, perhaps motivated by mating season, so loudly it actually hurt my ears. img_3902

Beetles and dragonflies whirred, and ants marched steadily. img_3930

Brilliant orange fish bobbed, friendly, to the tops of pools.img_3913

At the end of a shallow pool sat a greenhouse that looked both abandoned and ready for guests, a Mad Hatter’s tea. Fat lizards scurried up the walls.