What most visitors do not realise, especially in the summer months, is that the “Alpes Maritimes” area where the Riviera is based is named that way for a reason: basically because, just behind the coastal strip, lie the Alps in all their glory (actually, they’re quite visible on any flights heading towards Northern Europe).
The mountains, which go up to over 3000m in the Alpes Maritimes, cover almost 90% of the department, which makes for great hiking in the summer and skiing/other snow sports in the winter for those that way inclined. This is the main reason that Nice spent loads of money on an ultimately unsuccessful bid a couple of years ago to host the 2018 Winter Olympics: I thought it made sense, at least on paper and was a good idea to get away from the general stereotypes of the Côte d’Azur.
In this respect (and actually many others), the French Riviera is a bit like California: in April for example, you can go skiing in the morning and have enough time to get back to the coast and spend the afternoon lying in the sunshine on the beach, given that some of the ski resorts are only 90 minutes’ drive from Nice
The most easily accessible resorts from Nice are Auron and Isola 2000, with other resorts such as Gréolières-Neige, Valberg and Limone Piemonte (in Italy) also within easy access for a day trip.
Limone Piemonte is my personal favourite, even though I’m not a great fan of skiing, mainly because of the culture shock you get crossing the border into the Piemonte area of Italy. It is located north of the Roya Valley just across the border, passing through the Col de Tende and its historical but rather dodgy and ancient tunnel. Access is possible by car (2 hours from Nice, 90 minutes from Monaco) or by a beautiful train journey from Nice, again through Ventimiglia – that takes slightly longer. The skiing is reportedly good (altitude of 1000m) but the main draw for me (you see where I’m getting!) is the quaint little village with excellent restaurants serving mountain-influenced Italian food: plenty of game, polenta and great pizzas at reasonable prices.
Naturally all these places are fully and more easily accessible during the summer and are wonderful for hiking, which I love, and all sorts of other “adventure sports”, which I don’t, as they generally involve dangling from great heights from a rather thin rope or getting very wet!
The hinterlands are generally separated in different valleys, the main ones being from west to east: the Var, the Tinée, the Vésubie and the Roya Valleys (my personal favourite, straddling the border between France and Italy), plus on the Italian side the gorgeous Val Nervia. I’ll write in a bit more detail about the individual valleys in due course.
Your blog is great! I’m traveling with my family (6 of us) in late June and staying in a rental in Villefranche. We would be interested in doing some hiking in the Alpes Maritimes, but we are not renting a car. Are there any local tour operators that do trips to the mountains (at a reasonable price)?
Dear Jennifer, glad you have enjoyed the blog! Depending on how far off you want to go it is possible to go hiking without a car but it will make life much easier if you did rent one as public transport around the hills is a bit tedious, especially if you are in a large group. One option is to get to Breil sur Roya (train to Nice and then to Breil, about 90 minutes each way, very scenic) and then take a hiking tour from there. Here is a company that organises these, unfortunately their website is only in French http://www.royaevasion.com/Randonnee-vallee-de-la-Roya-Mercantour-Alpes-Maritimes.html, prices are quite reasonable for the area. Otherwise, there are plenty of hiking trails within easy walking distance of Villefranche, this website has all the details: http://www.randoxygene.org/pge/rando_pe/affiche_rando.php?rubrique=1&zone=3&rando=53¤t=pc-60&ct=pc