Distance: 5 kilometers one way, 8 kilometers round trip
Approximate Time: About 2 to 3 hours depending on your pace
There are four major capes on the eastern end of the Côte d’Azur: Cap d’Antibes, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Cap d’Ail and Cap Martin. All four of these capes feature excellent hiking trails that are fairly easy for most people and quite popular with both the locals and the tourists. They are all quite similar in some ways and a bit unique in others. It’s an easy drive from Vence to any of them and I like to hike them all on a regular basis.
Cap Martin lies about halfway between Menton and Monte-Carlo and just like the other three it features rugged rocks, gorgeous views and magnificent landscapes. The hike begins at the Carnolès train station which is just west of Menton. It ends at the Roquebrune-Cap-Martin train station which is just east of Monte-Carlo. This provides a lot of options on how you’d like to finish the hike once you’ve finished. You can simply take the train back to where you started (less than five minutes); you can walk back along the streets through Roquebrune-Cap-Martin; or you can do what Carole I did when we made this hike on Christmas Eve: we took the train to Monte-Carlo, walked around the city for a bit and then took the train back to our starting point at Carnolès. Whatever you decide, you really can’t go wrong.
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About Cap Martin
In the 1st century the Via Julia Augusta, one of the most important roads of the Roman Empire, stretched from Italy to Marseilles. The road passed through Cap Martin on the way from Ventimiglia to La Turbie. The perched village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, situated high on the hills overlooking the cape, dates back to 970. The cape became French in 1793, then moved to independent status under the protection of the King of Sardinia and then once again became French in 1861.
In the late 1800s, during the French Belle Époque, luxurious villas with names like Villa Cyrnos (occupied by the wife of Napoleon III), Villa Cypris, Villa Zamir and Villa Torre Clementina began to spring up all over the cape. The Grande Hôtel du Cap-Martin was built in 1890 and over the years accommodated guests such as Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth of Austria until it was sold as apartments after World War II. Over the years this cape has been associated with a great deal of illegal “imports.” The trail we walk along today was used in the past by custom officers as they patrolled the area in search of pirates, robbers and illicit importers. Today the cape is part of the municipality of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and enjoys a thriving economy based on agriculture, tourism and retail shops.
Starting the Hike
The best place to begin this hike is at the Carnolès train station which lies just west of Menton, a couple of blocks from the seashore. It’s usually not too difficult to find parking nearby. From the train station walk straight down Avenue François de Monleon to the beach and turn right on Promenade du Cap-Martin and then left on Avenue Winston Churchill. There are a couple of portions of the coastal trail along Avenue Winston Churchill, but they don’t last long and each time they bring you back up to the street when you run into a restaurant or some other business. That’s OK, they are still worth taking and you’ll find a few places where you can take smaller trails down closer to the water.
Eventually, after passing several restaurants and beach resorts, you’ll come a small parking lot and after that the true beginning of the trail. You’ll see a large sign (a “balise”) that says, “Sentier Littoral” (coastal trail) and “Plage de Carnolès.” It’s the first of seven such markers along the trail, each one numbered sequentially. It lists various points along the trail such as Cap Martin, Dragonnière, Pointe de Cabbé and Plage du Beach, along with estimated times.
The Roquebrune-Cap-Martin train station is at Pointe de Cabbé and the sign estimates a walk of 1 hour and 20 minutes. In reality, it will probably take you a bit longer if you stop and take photos or wander down any of the small trails to the water’s edge. Also note that there is a large gate at both ends of the trail that will be closed during bad weather. In many places the trail is very close to the water and over the years there have been cases of people being swept away by the ocean during storms, so the city is very careful about closing the trail down if the weather get’s bad.
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Around the Cape
The entire trail, from start to finish, is paved in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just very rough concrete, sometimes it’s nice flat stones anchored in concrete and sometimes it’s some form of smoother concrete. You really can’t get lost and the trail is always wide enough to allow for many people coming and going in each direction. There are only a few spots along the way where there is a drop off on the left side and in all of those instances a fence is present to protect you. There are some steps and stairs here and there, but nothing that should discourage you from making this hike, even if you don’t consider yourself much of a “hiker.” There are special signs posted every 1/2 kilometer with a reference number so that if someone is in need of help they can be easily located.
The highlights of this hike are the amazing rocks along the water’s edge, the views of Menton and Monte-Carlo and the wonderful, lush pine trees and vegetation growing along the trail. While the cape is indeed sprinkled with fantastic villas, you can really see any of them from the trail. The coarse, jagged, white limestone rocks that run along the edge of the water all along the cape are truly impressive. Worn by the sea over millions of years they seem to spring from the ground like fields of rugged plants turned to stone. If you’re very careful you can often walk out onto some of these rocks, but I wouldn’t suggest it unless you have really good boots and are very sure footed. If you happen to hike along the trail when there is some wind in the area you’ll likely see some amazing displays of water crashing against the rocks and sending huge sprays of mist into the air.
As you make your way around the Cape you’ll see several different parts of the Côte d’Azur. At the beginning there are fantastic views of Menton, it’s bay and the coast of Italy. As you make the turn onto the western side of the cape Monaco and Monte Carlo will be stretched out against the horizon. There are numerous opportunities to leave the main trail and take secondary trails down to the water. Sometimes these are somewhat “official,” meaning you’ll find a concrete path and concrete steps. Other times they are simply trails formed over the years by other hikers. In several places there are platforms built on the edge of the water for swimming. I like to take all of these little side trips because you never know what you’ll discover and because the views down at the water’s edge are sometimes quite breathtaking.
You’ll reach the end of the hike at Pointe de Cabée where you’ll also find a wonderful little beach. Carole and I most recently made this hike on Christmas Eve and the sun was just setting behind Monte Carlo as we came upon the beach. It was a very beautiful site. From there it’s a short hike up to the Roquebrune-Cap-Martin train station. The trains run in both directions on a very regular basis (about every 1/2 to 1 hour) so it’s quite easy to just hop on the train back to the Carnolès station or pop over to Monte Carlo for a visit.
Renowned French architect, designer, writer, painter and urban planner Charles-Édourad Jeanneret, known as “Le Corbusier,” loved to walk along the Cap-Martin trail. So much so that in the early 1950s he built a small, simple cabin for himself along the western side. He also designed a series of similar vacation cabins nearby, though these were not actually built until after his death in 1965. This trail is now officially known as “Le Corbusier Promenade” and you’ll find a small statue of him near the beginning of the hike.
If you’d like to see more in the area on your visit you have a lot of possibilities.
Menton is the last town on the French coast before the border with Italy. It’s much smaller than Nice and much more laid-back. There’s a wonderful old-town and a long promenade along the shore lined with restaurants and cafés. A number of superb beaches can be found and the town is full of shops and boutiques to explore. The Cimetière du Vieux Château (Cemetery of the old Castle) is a fascinating place to spend some time. High up on a hill overlooking the old town, there are a large number of foreigners buried here including a Russian prince.
The old village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (don’t confuse it with the new town near the water) is high up on a hill overlooking the coast west of Menton. It’s about a ten minute drive from the cape and is well worth a visit. Incredible views of the coast can be had from the Place des Deux-Frères where you’ll also find what is said to be one of the oldest olive trees in the world. There’s a castle at the top of the village which you can easily reach walking through the small streets and narrow passageways. The village is a popular place for the rich and well to do French Riviera crowd and it can get a bit crowded in the high season.
Monaco and Monte-Carlo are just a few kilometers west of the cape. You can take a bus or train, you can drive, or if you’d feeling extra adventurous and haven’t had enough hiking you can easily walk. I’m not a huge fan of Monte-Carlo, but it is certainly worth a visit if you’ve never been there before. There’s a lot to do and see including the Casino, the Hôtel de Paris, the Prince’s palace and the amazing Oceanographic Museum. It’s a short walk from the train station down to the town and you can easily walk to any of the sites.
If you a have a car it’s also worth driving up onto the cape to catch some glimpses of the villas and get some nice views of the area. The Parc du Cap Martin is a large park full of old olive trees, gardens and interesting sculptures.
Important Notes: This is a hike that can be done at any time of the year. I would avoid it if there is any sign of rain or if it has rained much in the previous 24 hours as the trail can get quite slippery when wet. As always you’ll want to make sure you have good hiking boots and plenty of water. I would suggest at least one liter of water for this hike, more if you are hiking in the heat. You will NOT be able to find food and water anywhere along the hike, but it’s not real long. The best time to make this hike in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest, the best time in the winter is early in the afternoon when things have warmed up a bit. You’ll probably want a hat and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. During the spring and fall you might want a jacket and even gloves and a warm hat. You should always hike with a first aid kit, a good knife, a raincoat, a flashlight and a whistle. If you are hiking alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.
To get to the Gare de Carnolès from the west take the A8 and get off on exit 57. You’ll pass through the village of La Turbie and then take the D2564 down towards Menton. Very close to the station you’ll get on the D6007 and then it’s just a few blocks more. We were lucky to find parking right in front of the train station, but you might have to look around a bit more depending on what time of the day and/or year you arrive.