If you love taking a hike in the forest, one of the best is through the Forêt de la Sainte-Baume.
The History of the Forest
The forest is small with the area being only 128 hectares. Protected for several centuries, the forest of Sainte Baume is incredible due to the variety and quality of the species of plant life. There are Beech trees, Oak trees, Holly trees, Maple trees and Scottish Pine trees which are remarkable. The climate here is perfect because it is both cold and humid and there is an abundance of shade. The flora and fauna are quite particular because of their location between the Mediterranean forest and the Alpine Forest. This forest has also been called “The Virgin Forest” and “The Relic Forest” due to its association with Saint Mary-Magdalene. The area is known as a place of peace and spirituality and there are annual pilgrimages to the grotto that is located in the rock mountain above the forest. Visitors and hikers, but also botanists, naturalists and foresters make their way here every year. The peak of the rock mountain just above reaches a height of 1148 meters.
The Legends of the Forest
There are numerous legends about this forest and they begin from the Paleolithic period. According to one of the legends, in ancient times, barbarian rites were practiced on altars that were set up in the forest. From these alters a massive amount of blood rushed down to cover the moss. Another legend calls the water coming from the mountain “Our Water Mother” because it was thought that it flowed from the tears of Mary Magdalene and was omnipresent. For this reason, the site is considered Holy Ground. The beauty and protection of this forest owes itself to both its history and legends. Since it was first discovered, this area was both feared and revered due to its position in the shadow of the cliff of the mountain and its dark forest. The protection continued with the legend of Saint Mary-Magdalene supposedly living here for 30 years after coming to Provence.
The dense trees allow this area to maintain a good amount of humidity in order for mosses and lichens to develop and there is also black humus because of the large amounts of dead leaves that stay on the forest floor. The position of the Beech forest helps to avoid drought problems when the area gets too hot in the summer, but due to the microclimate maintained by the forest itself it gets enough rain to maintain the Beech forest. This forest, populated by northern species, forms a particularly rare ecosystem in the Mediterranean region. The Beech, the Yew and the Maple trees are in contrast with Mediterranean vegetation mixing Scrub Oak and Aleppo Pines. This other dry forest has few mosses and lichens on the trees and rocks, few dead leaves on the ground and almost no humus on the forest floor. Due to this, there are problems with drought in this part of the forest. This area is also exposed to the sun and wind and more susceptible to fires.
The different plant life of the forest of Sainte-Baume therefore, has two different but neighboring ecosystems.
Hiking the Forêt de la Sainte-Baume
The hike begins off of the D80 road not too far from the town of Plan-d’Aups-Sainte-Baume. There are two places to park your car, one is near the Hostellerie de la Sainte Baume and the other is near the Couvent Sainte Marie-Madeleine. There is a little snack and gift shop located here, as well as bathrooms.
Located just behind both buildings is an open field leading to the forest. Walk down the long, wide dirt road towards the forest and you will come upon a small bridge with a sign indicating you are now entering into the Forêt Domaniale de la Sainte Baume. Once you cross over the bridge, you may take either trail going left or right. My personal preference is the trail to the right; it is more a “forest” experience.
Taking the trail to the right, you will be walking along a dirt path that is relatively flat. This path will eventually turn left and start leading you into the forest. The path is clearly marked most of the way by white and red trail lines on trees. It’s nearly impossible to get lost so you don’t need to worry about that, just stay on the path. During the fall and winter season, which I prefer to hike in, the forest is of course less dense since there are no leaves left on the trees, but it is no less impressive when you are there.
As you start your journey into the forest, the path through the trees starts out easily. There are rudimentary stairs made of stone which are situated between wooden fence posts. Once you have found your way past this, the forest become denser and you will also notice lots of very large boulders and moss growing everywhere.
As you continue to travel through the forest, there will be times when the trail is flat and times when the trail takes you up. Though there isn’t any part of the trail that is terribly steep, there are some places where it becomes more sportive, but I’ve seen both the very young and very old take it with ease so it should not be a problem for anyone.
As you make your way closer to the mountain of rock, the air becomes very cool and humid. It is quite noticeable. I always bring a jacket and wear it during certain parts of the hike. I end up doing the on/off thing because as you go around the trail some areas are warmer than others.
At a certain point you will get a wonderful visual of the rock mountain. It’s absolutely amazing to look at and is quite enormous. One you see this, you will also notice that all around you are giant boulders covered in moss and plants.
The trail will lead you to an oratory (Christian monument) which indicates that there is a Grotto near by which you can also hike to. It is carved into the mountainside. Just a little further up, you can actually see the monastery that is “hanging” from the mountain. You will then come to an intersection of three hiking trails. At this intersection, you can either go back down the way you came, turn left to go back another way or turn right to continue to the Grotto and the summit.
If I am not interested in seeing the Grotto that day, I usually turn back and descend the same way I arrived, through the forest. I prefer this route of return because the path to the right of the intersection is less forest and more open trail.
Once you get to the bottom where the forest becomes a plateau (where you started the journey) turn around and take a look at the monetary in the mountain rock, in case you had not noticed it when you started the hike. On a clear day, it’s quite amazing! It is the cluster of buildings that you can see just above the tree line and half way up the rock mountain. You just can’t rap your head around the notion that it was built that high up and how the heck did the builder even get the construction done.
The Snack and Gift Shop
Once you are back down on the plateau, I suggest going to the gift shop. They have some nice postcards, information and religious gifts. The shop is small, but nice.
If it is spring or summer, then I would suggest going to the snack shop as they offer ice cream and drinks and it’s a good place to rest up and use the bathroom before leaving.
If you enjoy hiking as much as I do and would love to do more of it in Provence, a great book with lots of good hikes that I recommend is Walking in Provence-West:Drôme Provençal, Vaucluse, Var (Cicerone Guides).
As always, I would love to hear how your adventure went so please let me know by leaving me a comment below and tell me what your favorite part of the hike was.