The Red, Volcanic Massif de l’Esterel
The Massif de l’Esterel is a large natural area of red-colored rocky mountains located between Cannes and St Tropez, on the western side of the French Riviera. The red cliffs and mountains that represent the massif rise steeply from the coast and are one of the most breathtaking natural phenomenon in the world.
This low-altitude volcanic mountain range of 32,000 hectares, with red porphyry cliffs, is located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It covers the south-east of the Var, a small part located in the Alpes-Maritimes, France. The massive covers an area of 320 km², of which 130 km² are officially protected forest.
The red rock scenery and the far-reaching views make it a particularly interesting region to explore.
L’Esterel was named after the fairy Esterelle, who intoxicated and deceived her ardent lovers and thus fittingly made her home on the Coast of Illusion.
Between Cannes and St-Raphaël, this fairy Coast of Illusion provides one of nature’s strangest interludes: a wild massif of blood-red cliffs and promontories, with sandy or shingle beaches amid disheveled porphyry boulders tumbling into the blue, blue sea. It’s the kind of romantic landscape where holy hermits like St Honorat and unholy brigands like Gaspard de Besse felt equally at home.
The handsome Gaspard, from a bourgeois family of Besse-sur-Issole , was himself the stuff of romance novels — a generous highwayman with courtly manners, a lover of good food and wine, a scholar who entertained the jury at his trial in Aix by reciting passages of Homer and Anacreon in Greek. When they hanged him anyway, many a woman wept bitter tears (others wondered where he hid all his booty (it has never been found).
Unfortunately, the virgin cork forests that once hid Gaspard’s band in the Esterel have been ravaged by fire, particularly in 2007 — environmental tragedies with the side effect of clearing sites for property brigands and their grotesque cement-mixers, who race neck-and-neck with the forestry service’s gallant attempts to reforest the arid mountain with drought and disease resilient pines and ilexes.
Come in the spring, when wild flowers ignite this Fauvist volcanic fairyland; in summer, to lower the risk of accidental fires, the internal roads are often closed to traffic.
There are three ‘parts’ to the Massif de l’Esterel:
L’Esterel: The Coast
The coast road which follows the southern border of the Massif de l’Esterel is one of the most scenic coast roads in France. Between Mandelieu-la-Napoule and Saint-Raphael is the most pretty, with the red mountains of the Massif de l’Esterel to one side and coves and beaches to the other. (The section of road east from Mandelieu towards Cannes is rather industrial.)
In many places the cliffs of the massif reach the sea, forming small coves surrounded by the red rocks, with more jagged rocks emerging dramatically from the sea.
Along the coast road there are a few small resort towns and beaches (see below for guides to these towns), but it is the natural scenery that is the big attraction to the area.
Away from the water, be sure to leave time to explore the hills that surround the town. The Mont San Peyre is a volcanic dome to the south of Mandelieu-la-Napoule and near the coast which has an easily followed pathway to the summit (there is a viewpoint and table d’orientation on top of San Peyre), while the open wooded slopes of Mont Turney are also close to hand.
There are several points where you can access the massif and reach the highest peaks – sometimes a small walk is required to reach the highest points – and each has its own attractions, and most have impressive views stretching far out along the coast and across the Mediterranean.
There is little in the way of villages to discover within the Massif d’Esterel itself, and a great deal of the forests that once covered the area have been destroyed by fire (there is still an area of forest towards the north) but what remains is still very impressive.
There are several marked trails for hikers and off road cycling in the Massif d’Esterel and these are the best way to explore the region. Among the most popular are those to the Cap du Dramont, the peak of Mont Vinaigre (the highest point in the Massif), the walk to the viewpoint at Cap Roux (our favorite of the walks we have done here), and the Blavet Gorges at Bagnols-en-Foret to the north.
Les Calanques de l’Esterel
Discover imposing rocky cliffs and multiple wild coves characterized by the contrast between the red color of the granite rock and the turquoise blue sea. Easily accessible, they form one of the most remarkable landscape of the French Riviera. Many ancient shipwrecks also lie in the shallow waters near the coast.
You can hike along these impressive formations and enjoy the breathtaking views over the Mediterranean sea, or book a boat trip and take a look at them from the sea. But don’t forget your snorkelling gear, as you won’t be able to resist the turquoise waters.
Wondering how to get to l’Esterel and its coastal towns? Check out our guide: How to Get to the Esterel Area.