Roger Wilkinson recounts a spring climbing trip around Toulon in the south of France with members of the Lancashire Caving and Climbing Club.
I first became aware of Toulon as a climbing venue a few years back when passing through the
area. I was astonished at the amount of rock and the stunning Munro-scale mountains which push
themselves into the very suburbs of the city.
Although climbing there is not the rural idyll that it can be in some other parts of France – after all, this is the Cote d’Azur and a major naval and commercial port – but many of the crags are located high up above the city with views across the coastal zone.
In mid-March we found the crags virtually deserted, and this is truly an area where all levels of ability are catered for. Even the lowliest grades have a good number of quality routes, something which doesn’t apply at many Spanish venues for example, where it often seems that any easy routes are poor quality offerings up some poor rock at the outer edges of the crag.
It goes without saying that there is also a mass of routes to attract harder climbers although this is an area neglected by Brits and seems to be the preserve of local climbers.
Delightful slabby climbing at sector Baudouvin on Mt Coudon.
So in March 2012 a dozen assorted members of Lancashire Caving & Climbing Club turned up to sample Toulon’s sunny south-facing crags.
I’d imagine those crags get unbearably hot in the summer, but for my money March, possibly April and October would be the ideal times to visit.
It is claimed as a 12 month climbing venue, and I’m sure if you get the sun you could climb comfortably throughout the winter.
We had found a good place to stay near Le Beausset, just inland from Toulon, owned by an English family. It consists of four small gites scattered through a small wooded area and includes a pool.
Now although there’s plenty of amenable climbing, here’s a word of warning on grades.
If you’ve climbed in the Ariege or in Buis and the Dentelles, or Orpierre you’ll find the grading in Toulon area quite competitive, to say the least, so it is fortunate for the likes of me that there are plenty of 4s and 5s. I never got on to the 5+s!
Probably my favourite of all the crags is Baudouvin, high up on Mt Coudon, a 1000m+ mountain on the NE edge of Toulon.
There is only a couple of dozen routes there, but no duds. I’ve about climbed it out now but the routes bear repetition. The rock is superb and the polish is anywhere between manageable and non-existent.
The long sustained routes the sensible side of vertical must be as good as any in France in the F3-F5 range. For my money the best (but only by a whisker) is Que Dalle, at the more-polished left end of the crag. In the Ariege it would be 5c or 5c+ but here it gets a lowly F5. A tricky athletic start (avoidable) leads to a superb direct wall climb, well bolted but always precarious, which eventually leads to easier rock then a little sting in the tail.
Further on, at the right hand end is a group of 6 brilliant and long (some over 30m) routes such as Olabaf and Sakapof Dissident. The first time we went I kept saying “Just do one more…” – only a thunderstorm put a stop to the fun.
Further up Mount Coudon is another, much more extensive crag, with the emphasis on harder routes and there’s even the odd trad line there. Sector Grandes Voies caters for those looking for more of an adventure with some good multi-pitch offerings. This is Mount Coudon Main Area, and is reached by driving almost to the top of the mountain and then taking a scrambling descent.
Good quality rock (but polished on the popular routes)!
There is a nice little crag, Sector les Des, near the descent path with some easier offerings of good quality, but watch the grades – the very easiest are fine, but then there are some alleged 4s which are good but shocking sandbags. D4 is a good example – given 4 but worth about 5b+ (and ***) for me.
As might be imagined, these elevated crags do attract the wind which in winter might be a problem. It can obviously be a bonus in hot weather, but this can prevent access to the crags, as the approach roads are closed in high fire risk periods, i.e. when it’s hot, dry and windy.
If you need to avoid the wind there are other crags on Mount Faron, also on the fringe of the city, which can fit the bill. Lierres is the most secluded and has the impressive steep Sector Lucky Luke, but also the pleasant Sector Dalles Faciles which has routes between F2 and F7a with the emphasis on F3 – F5.
Though some lines are shiny, the climbing is pleasant, though not as facile as the name suggests. For example, Savonnette, at F5 is quite stiff for the grade as well as being steep and energetic, but a quality route nevertheless.
Here you can also find the excellent multi-pitch offering of Le Pitonnee, available in a choice of F5 or F6 options.
Another crag which may be sheltered, if there is an easterly component to the wind, is Citerne, on the western flank of Mt Faron. This crag is very accessible for the locals and is used by school groups, so can be a bit shiny.
One of the many excellent routes on Faron Citerne.
Again, the grades are very stiff, but if you’re an. F5 climber there are lots of good F4s and F4+s. The sector referred to in the local guide as Citerne 3 has a whole line of successive three star routes between 4a and 5b (though, inexplicably, these routes only get one star in Rockfax).
Many of the F4s have boulder problem starts which in reality are about 5b or 5c, but aidable, then settle to good climbing at the stated grade (perhaps that’s why Rockfax doesn’t rate them). My favourite, if only for the name, was Un Ours pas Comme les Autres, which involved a great variety of climbing moves, and didn’t start with a desperate bouldering move.
If you’re wanting a really easy time, you can find near the right hand end a sector consisting mainly of F2s and F3s, short, but suitable for the less ambitious.
Mount Faron has another good south facing crag (though I never took to it), high up under the Telepherique cables. This can also be amazingly sheltered when it’s hard to stand up in the car park about 200m away.
Clearly visible from the motorway west of Toulon and from Citerne is an impressive mountain with a long double tier of crags on its south side. This is the Baou de Quatre Ouro, whose name is rendered in a variety of different ways in guides and on maps. However spelt, it seems to mean peak of the four winds or somesuch so be warned.
There are several hundred routes on this mountain with some easier offerings but mainly F5 upwards with the emphasis on F6 and F7. Les ET, given 4+, makes a good steady 6 pitch outing with a walk-off descent. It has a fearsome shiny, steep, hard and poorly-bolted start, but thankfully there is a more appropriate alternative start a few metres to the right. .
Perfect conditions for a ‘laid back’ climbing holiday.
Needless to say the area offers plenty of hard climbing too. Close to Toulon can be found a number of large good quality crags such as Cimai, Destel and Tourris to name but three, while other places within about a 75 minute drive include the Calanques, Mont Ste Victoire, Chateauvert and Chateaudouble.
In the autumn when the sea is at its warmest there is the opportunity for some beach action: there’s a sea cliff at La Cride (not recommendable) and about an hour’s drive away beyond St Raphael is the delightful Pilier de Soleil, a granite crag close to some lovely little secluded bathing beaches.
For the climber accessing crags around Toulon a car is pretty much essential, the traffic can be a bit of a problem and navigation to some of the crags requires a little bit of map-reading ability, but after a day or two it all falls into place.
East to west travel through Toulon isn’t too bad as there’s a motorway tunnel under the centre, but west to east is another story.
We found the local 1:25,000 IGN map was well worth its price-tag and a satnav useful. We didn’t see any broken windscreen glass in any of the car parks, but I guess the usual precautions would be wise.
We flew Easyjet from Liverpool to Nice then drove under 2 hours to out gites, though I believe flights to Marseille can be equally convenient.
So despite a few minor gripes, and if you’re not bothered about grades that flatter, I wouldn’t
hesitate to recommend the Toulon area to anyone wanting some out-of-season bolt clipping.
It isn’t a quiet rural ambience, though the crags do seem peaceful enough, but if you want low grade but
high quality sport climbing within easy reach of the UK it’s hard to think of anywhere better.
• Guidebooks: Escalades Autour de Toulon (2 volumes). Hard to buy in UK but available from
Decathlon in Toulon and from Amazon.fr.
• Cote d’Azur (Rockfax) widely available.
• Maps: 1:25,000 IGN sheet 3346OT, available from The Map Shop, Upton-on-Severn (whose
service is outstanding).