La Couronne de Charlemagne above Cassis

Couronne de Charlemagne

La Couronne de Charlemagne, the crown of Charles the Great, is a distinctive hilltop (329 m according to the IGN map, although our GPS recorded max 312 m) above Cassis. It reminded us of the Baous above Nice because of its form. We called it the baby Baou because of its smaller size. With some imagination, the hill may have the form of a crown, too.

Charles the Great created a large empire attaching Germany and parts of Northern Italy to France and had himself crowned the “emperor of Romans” by the Pope in 800.

On a beautiful mid-February day, we set from Pas de la Colle by the Route des Crêtes (D141) towards Couronne de Charlemagne. If you start from Cassis, you have to walk along the streets and roads initially. We had hiked over 17km in the Calanques the day before, and thought a shorter walk would suffice today. We got inspiration for this hike from a French hiking book Le Rando Malin. La Provence des Calanques au Luberon by Claudine Francini (Mémoires Millénaires Editions).

From Pas de la Colle (parking by the road), we first walked uphill along the D141A road following the GR51 itinerary little over one km, where the road ended near the top of Baou de la Saoupe. We continued along a good and wide trail (still GR51) heading north. The trail descended a bit to Pas de Julien before starting to ascend to Couronne de Charlemagne that was all the time well visible in front of us. The trail was easy and the ascent short.

The view down to Cassis was great in spite of some maritime low clouds emerging from the sea. Some of the Cassis vineyards were just below us. The trail continued east, descending gently. We were above the railway tunnel and one of the tunnel’s ventilation shafts soon came visible. Here, we forked right (south) leaving the GR trail. There were no signposts nor markings, but it was easy to follow the wide trail, and we walked past the next two ventilation shafts leaving them on our left side. We continued south till we reached a crossroads where we forked sharply right (west) to Vallon de la Bécasse along another dirt track, and soon came back to our starting point at Pas de la Colle.

Leaving GR51 near railway tunnel ventilation shaft above Cassis

Duration: 1H 50

Climb: 259 m

Distance: 7 km
Last crossroads back to Pas de la Colle
Couronne de Charlemagne hike trail

Map IGN: 3245 ET


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Pistou soup recipe

Pistou soup

In Nice, Italian minestrone is a popular winter soup. Our supermarket in Nice sells Italian vegetable mixtures for minestrone soup.

In spring new baby vegetables arrive in shops, and the ingredients change. I have made the traditional delicious La Soupa de’Prima from local spring vegetables which may be difficult to find elsewhere, such as small violet artichokes, local chard and new broad beans.

La Soupe au Pistou is made from vegetables that are easier to find elsewhere, and it is just as tasty! I have lightened a little the pistou recipes that I have seen by leaving out the small pasta shapes. So you can enjoy this excellent spring vegetable soup with a slice of good bread and freshly grated parmesan cheese for protein.

The recipe makes about 6 servings and the leftovers can easily be frozen. It makes a perfect light spring lunch.

6 servings

2 tbsp. olive oil
2 round Niçois courgette or 1 large long courgette, diced
3 small new potatoes, diced
3 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tomatoes, chopped
200 ml green beans, cut into about 2 cm lengths
200 ml peas
200 ml féves, broad beans
1,2 litre vegetable stock
3 tbsp. tomato purée
Black pepper
Freshly grated parmesan

For the pistou:

A bouquet of basil
5 tbsp. olive oil
A pinch of salt

In a heavy casserole such as Le Creuset warm the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the chopped courgette, potatoes, shallots, garlic and tomatoes for a few minutes. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil.

Add the broad beans, tomato purée and black pepper. Cover and simmer 20 minutes.

Add the green beans and peas and continue simmering for a further 10 minutes.

Meanwhile make the pistou by crushing the basil leaves with olive oil and a pinch of salt until you get a nice purée which does not have to be totally smooth.

Divide the soup into individual bowls. Add about 1 tbsp. pistou in each bowl. Serve with grated parmesan and tasty bread.


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Mountains above Gorbio

The Village of Gorbio

The medieval village of Gorbio (360 m) is only about 3 km from the coast at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The road to the village is narrow and winding, and makes the distance seem much longer. Gorbio is well visible from the nearby A8 La Provencale motorway, but the atmosphere is tranquil and secluded. The surrounding mountains are well over 1000 m, notably Cime de Baudon (1264 m). They protect the village from freezing northern winds, giving it a certain microclimate.

Today’s hike took us from Gorbio first along Vallon du Rank to Col de la Madone (925 m) not far from the southern face of Baudon. During the ascent, we actually climbed through the low coastal clouds that were hanging above Gorbio between 600 and 900 m. At Col de la Madone, we turned south then southwest to Plateau de Cabanelles. Several Radio Monte Carlo radio masts could be seen there. They seemed to be more or less dismantled of the transmitting equipment.

The trail continued south to Baisse des Cabanelles (1050 m). From here, the trail descended under Mont Agel (1148 m). At this stage, the clouds were gradually disappearing. The coastline, specially Cap Martin became visible, making this part of the trail very picturesque. There were a few crossroads, but the way back to Gorbio was well signposted. The last km or so back to the village follows The GR51 along a paved road.

Ascent 750 m
Duration 5 h
Distance 9.3 km
IGN Map: Nice Menton Côte d’Azur 3742 OT
Trail image

Image of trail courtesy of Google Maps


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Coastal trail around Île des Embiez

The three islands of Les Embiez are situated west of the Cap Sicié peninsula, just off the coast of Six-Fours-les-Plages. Salt was produced here until 1958 when the islands were bought by Paul Ricard. He is best known as a pastis magnate as he introduced the most famous pastis of France carrying his name.

He constructed a large marina, hotels and restaurants on the largest island. Being an environmentalist, he built an oceanographic museum near the northern tip. Vineyards already existed there when Ricard bought the islands. The western and southern part of the island are still surprisingly sauvage, much more so than one would think after having read some guidebooks. The coast there is dotted with small beaches with crystal clear water, many of them are best accessed by a kayak or dinghy.

We took the ferry from Le Brusc (15€) and reached the island after 12 minutes. From the port we turned right heading towards the oceanographic museum. The coastal trail started behind the museum. It is an about 2-2,5-hour tour along a paved road and natural coastal paths. These numerous small trails running through the maquis are worth taking whenever possible. Right after the museum, at Point Saint-Pierre we had great views of the two smaller islands, Île du Grand & Petit Rouveau.

We headed south where the cliffs got higher and higher. At the southern tip, we climbed to the island’s highest point at Pointe du Coucoussa, dominated by an ancient observation tower. The vineyards were visible from here, as well as the coastline with Les Calanques in the west and Cap Sicié in the east. A narrow straight separates the island from the Gaou islands that are connected to the mainland by a pedestrian bridge.

From Pointe du Coucoussa, we walked back to the harbour passing some of the vineyards.


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Mediterranean pork tenderloin fillet

Mediterranean pork tenderloin fillet

The classic South of France cassoulet combines white beans, both fresh and preserved pork, sausages, and duck preserved in its own fat. We once had cassoulet at a food festival in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Although it was tasty and succulent, all that pork fat was more than us modern people would want more often than once in a lifetime.

The following recipe is my twist of the classic cassoulet. I chose lean pork tenderloin fillet, good quality tinned white beans and increased the amount of fresh tomatoes and tasty tomato sauce. I call this recipe Mediterranean, because the combination white beans and pork is traditionally just as common in Tuscany. If you want to make your cassoulet Toulouse style, reduce the amount of tomatoes, tomato sauce and pork tenderloin and replace with Toulouse sausages, pieces of fresh duck breast and carrots.

I used tinned white beans for convenience. If you want to start with dried white beans, soak them overnight in water. The next day drain the beans discarding the soaking water. Cook the beans in fresh water about 1 hour or until soft. They should be very tender but not falling apart. The cooking time depends on how fresh the beans are.  Cooked beans can be frozen.

4 servings

2 tins of good quality white beans
About 500- 600 g pork tenderloin fillet
16 black olives
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
200 ml good tomato sauce
4 coarsely chopped tomatoes, pref. plum tomatoes
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. dried Provençal herbs
Black pepper
Parsley to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180° C.

Warm the olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan and sauté the shallots and garlic for a few minutes. Rinse the tinned beans under running water and add to the pan. Add the chopped tomatoes, vinegar, tomato sauce, black pepper, and herbs and stir.

Butter an ovenproof dish and place the pork fillet in the middle. Arrange the tomato- bean mixture around the pork. Bake in the oven for 1 hour per 600 g fillet. Pork needs to be well-done but not dry.

After 45 minutes add the olives to the bean- tomato mixture. If it seems a bit dry, add a little water as well. Cover with tin foil if the dish gets too browned and continue baking for 15 minutes more.

When the pork is cooked, transfer it on a carving board and slice. Divide the bean- tomato mixture on the plates, place the pork slices on top and decorate with parsley.
Mediterranean pork tenderloin


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Alpine trail above Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage

Ascending in Vallon de la Braisse

We got inspiration for this hike from a French guide (Mercantour Alpes du Sud Le Guide Rando:  by Patrick Mérienne). In the book, there was also an excellent description of how the vegetation changes with altitude.

Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage (1500 m) is a commune and a village in the northern part of Alpes-Maritimes. Two thirds of the commune are inside the Mercantour National Park. It is known as a cross country skiing and a snowshoeing resort in winter, and as a hiking centre during the summer months.

We drove through the village of Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage, and continued about 6 km along the now narrower D63 road that went to Col de la Moutiére. We parked at 1960 m altitude, not far from the Refuge de Sestrière and signpost #57 which was our starting point. This part of the road was paved, but there was a warning of an unpaved section higher up. The starting altitude was subalpine dominated by larch woods, but also some pines, wild rhododendrons and blueberries. Some larches in this area are said to be over 700 years old. Above 2200 m the vegetation became more alpine with both smooth meadows and rocky areas. Sporadic larches were seen as high as at 2500 m.

The trailhead at signpost #57 was also the entrance to the Mercantour National Park. There were several parking spots by the road, although the one at the signpost was very small.

Thanks to excellent markings by yellow the trail was easy to follow. We crossed a torrent along a footbridge and ascended in the magnificent larch woods for about 40 min before reaching a bigger clearance with Cabane de Braisse by the trail. The trail levelled off a bit, then continued ascending, following a stream, and passing the last larch woods. We came to a section of alpine meadows before the final steeper ascent to the mountain pass where signpost #59 was located. Just below the mountain pass, one trail continued to Col de Sanguiniere nearby, and further to Estenc in the upper Var Valley. The other trail forked north, towards Col de la Moutiére.

We took the same trail back to our starting point.

Vertical ascent: 640 m
Soft alpine meadow in Vallon de la Braisse

Duration: 3h 30 (walking time)

Map: IGN 3639 OT Haute Tinée 1

Driving time from Nice: 1 h 55
Two very old larch trees by the trail in Vallon de la Braisse


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