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Climbing in South of France

By Tuan

It is difficult to say which are the best cliffs since there are so many, in a short distance (Aix-En-Provence, Marseille, Nice, and the Verdon) are all within 2 hours and half drive from each other. Some generalities:

Some good places


1. Les Calanques (between Marseille and Cassis): a great place for the scenary. Some of the cliffs are directely above the see, in a very picturesque setting which has conserved a certain wilderness character, and makes a great vacation destination. There are many different spots which are all different. It is not generally speaking a sport climbing area, since the routes are several pitches, and have sometimes a (relatively) complicated access, and (relatively) traditionnal uncertain equipment. Cassis is the most beautiful calanque, but also the most turistic. Sormiou offers well equiped climbing directely above the see. Grande Candelle, because of its remoteness, is always crowd-free and offers good routes too. Get the new (multilingual) guidebook. For pure climbing it would not be my favorite destination. There are several moderate multipitches routes though, which is not the case of all cliffs. Farther from the coast Les Goudes, Saint Michel... have sport climbing. You don't need a car for En Vau: take the train to Cassis, walk to the harbor, take a boat to En Vau. From there, you can reach Grande Candelle in a half a day hike, and Sormiou in a day, this makes a nice hiking/climbing combination. If you intend to stay in the Calanques for several days, take plenty of water, since it is not easy to find, if possible at all.

2. Buoux (near Apt): the mecca for hard sport climbing. Tremendous amount of technical routes in the 5.11 5.12 5.13 range. The place is usually rather crowded. In summer will be too hot and its a pain to hitch to the crag - stay at Les Cedres camping in Apt as this is where all the climbers (with cars) hang out if they're not staying in gites

3. Sainte Victoire (near Aix): sport climbing at the bottom of the cliff, one the first pitch (often the second has trad equipment). Beautiful and very numerous slabs. The top part of this high cliff has also some long routes with old equipment, and is not too popular, apart from "Le grand parcours".

4. Dentelles de Montmirail (Avignon): sport climbing, one to three pitches.


1. Verdon gorge (Castelanne): the most spectacular place. The cliff is vertical over several kilometers large, and more than 300 meters high. The climbing is extremely good, but there is not much to climb under 5.9. There are two categories of routes. The first ones climb only the *last(s)* pitches and are sport equiped (but Verdon standard is 5-8 m, which is more than usual). Great to experience the void (scary rappels) but be sure to be able to do the climb if you decide to lead. The second ones start from the bottom to climb the whole cliff, which makes for long routes. There are traditionnal crags (natural pro often useful) and modern routes as well, but only three of these routes are easier than 5.10c. Verdon is too cold in winter. Multilingual topo (FFME). Good swimming is only a hitch down the road at Moustiers where the gorge opens out onto a lake - the jump from the bridge is a good challenge - 45ft into deep water. - stay at Jean Paul's campsite in the village of La Palud - take a grade or two off your normal leading standard to get used to the place - you're a long way up! - smile for the cameras when you top out - millions of tourists drive round the loop road at the top of the gorge and watch the climbers!!

2. Presles (Grenoble): this cliff shares some characteristics with Verdon. The access is only by the base, and thus there is no short routes. The rock is not as solid as in Verdon, and therefore a helmet would be useful in popular periods. There are however a number of great routes. The equipment is pretty good.

3. Orpierre Not awesome climbing but pretty good and very user-friendly: bolts three feet apart on 5+'s - a good place to push your grade from 6a - 6c not so good for 7+ grade climbing. Very pretty spot.

Cote d'Azur = French Riviera

1. La Loubiere/Tete de Chien (Monaco): sport climbing. Several different cliffs, the place is nice though a little urban. Big variety, has a lot of overhangs, but slabs and crags as well. There are a few routes of two or three pitches, but most of them are very hard. In the one-pitch style, all the levels are well represented. Anything at la Loubiere's main crag is nice. It has a variety of levels. The crag next to it "Dalle a l'Oiseau" has a lot of easy routes. In the level 5+/6a, there is a lot of good stuff near "Dalle a Jules", which gets less crowds than the two previous. Next to this spot are perhaps the most famous and beautiful routes, like "Passagers du vent". I haven't climbed them (too hard). If you want to climb in the shade, there are some stuff on the "North face", and in the "Secteur Jacob" (only hard, overhanging stuff. Seems to be the favorite place of local hardmen). Less difficult overhangs are in "Secteur des surplombs". The site can be accessed without a car, from La Turbie (which is a turistic place deserved by busses).

2. Saint-Jeannet (Nice):

La Source: A sport-climbing area of short climbs which is over-equiped. It is sometimes in the shade and makes relaxed climbing. There are some very good stuff there, though (ratings tend to be more severe too).

South Face: several one-pitches routes on this large and high face which is in fact not vertical: a walking trail leads to the base of each of the four little cliffs which are staked one above another. You can pick up a route in each of them, and you end up to the top. Sometimes modern, sometimes old equipement, different styles of climbing, including cracks and chemneys

SW face: long routes (4-7 pitches). Traditionnal equipement (= rusty pitons) and lose rock in some routes, modern one and excellent climbing on others, be careful. I recommend Peril Jaune, Directissime, Jardin Suspendu, Tonton Walker, all 5+/6a. Easier classics are Mallet, and Dominante. The hard classic is Maffia, it is supposedly very sustained and beautiful (haven't climbed it). Ask locals if you can, because it is not that easy to find the start of the routes, as well as the way down. The place is accessible by busses.

Nice/ Coco Beach: you can climb in Nice, and this an excellent summer spot (and a summer only one !). Go at "Coco beach" which is after the harbor. At the east side of this beach, there are overhanging blocks which are above the water. Under the most overhanging part, there is enough water and no rock, so you can fall head first. I have a friend who used to do most of his training there (seems to pay, he climbs 8b now), and tried unsucessfully to teach me knee jams there.

There are also cliffs in Esterel (between Saint-Raphael and Cannes), vallee du Loup (Gourdon-Greolieres), near Toulon (some of them very important), in brief, everywhere.


lots of small climbing areas that are great in summer if climbing is getting hard down here. All levels and lengths.

some faqs:

How do I get to the cliffs ?

To my knowledge, public transportation should work for some spots (mentionned in the description) For the other places, a car is needed, but hitchiking is not too bad. The guidebooks contain relevant information about access and lodging.

Where can I find a partner ?

The practice of finding one's partner at the cliff is not extremely popular in France, mainly because there are a lot of climbers and associations, which makes it easy for people to have partners. However, in sport climbing areas, there are a lot of people at the base of the cliff, where the routes are very concentrated, and thus it is quite easy to hook with a group. Remember however that a lot of Frenchmen do not speak english. Verdon and Buoux have an internationnal frequentation which makes meating people easy at the campsite.

Guidebooks ?

Get them locally. Climbing is very popular in France and most sport shops will have them ! To plan your trip, these might be useful: Rock Climbing Guide to Europe, by David Jones, French Rock, by Birkett.

A traveller's viewpoint

The following was written by Barry Romberg (brom@erols.com). It offers advice that I cannot give since I've always climbed in France as a "local".

The only way to travel is with a rental car. We were there for a month, so we ended up living out of it. There are relatively few climbing area's close enough to major cities to do the train thing. If you plan on hitting more than 1 or 2 areas, the car is your best bet. MAKE SURE you reserve the car from the US, well before your departure. You will find the rates to be up to 3 times as expensive if you wait to do it over there. We rented mid size car for 30 days, put over 9000 Kilometers on it, and spent only $900 !!! Seems expensive at first, but it is a small price to pay to be able to lock up your stuff, have the mobility to get to scattered climbing areas, and do 120mph on the highway. We pretty much lived out of the car, spending every third night or so in a Bed & Breakfast ($40-$100/night). Be aware that your domestic auto insurance company will not cover your insurance abroad, but, if you reserve and pay for the car with ANY gold Visa or Mastercard, your insurance is covered. Don't let the Rental Company sell you any more insurance! About the highways, gas it about $4-$5 US per gallon (equiv), ouch. Tolls on the Autobaun type roads will cost about half the price of gas. Some try to take the backroads to avoid this - NOT recommended. The time you will save by going 100+mph will be well worth the price of the toll.

OK, enough about transportaion, lets get to the CLIMBING. Damn there is a ton of climbing in France. The whole country is bolted to the hilt, however. The only trad we found was at 11,000 feet in Chamonix. Many of the "Sport" routes are actually mixed routes, however. So bringing a few small-med. sized cams is a great call. GUIDEBOOKS, Try to buy the guidebooks you plan on needing here in this county. That is the only way to ensure they will be written in English. We sort of explored our way around without a definite iteinerary, so that wasn't an option. Our weak translation cost us a few scarry rappels and routefinding mistakes.

While in Chamonix, don't miss the awsome alpine trad. "The Mont Blanc Range Topo Guide" is available in English at many of the local bookstores and climbing shops. If you plan on buying any hardware for your trip, it might be worth waiting until you get there to buy it. I found hardware prices 20%-40% cheaper in Chamonix (even with a poor 4.9 fr/$ exchange rate). Soft Goods (clothing) was about the same or more expensive. Make sure you stop by the Patagonia Shop in downtown Chamonix. Great local Beta available from those folks! (in english).

As a final note, try to get to Marseille (riviera) to a place called Les Calanques. We climbed a 5 pitch 5.10 on sun bleached limestone in "Bec de Sormiou" The route started on a beach and ended at the top with an incredible view of the Mediternaian. Its a must climb called "Le Couchant/Couloir Tanner".

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