One of the historic delights of Cote d’Azur is its many mountain-top towns, or as they are often called – perched villages. They are primarily in the southern Alpes that stretch down to the sea east of Nice and cover much of eastern Alpes-Maritimes, and most of them are relatively short drives from Cannes, Nice or Menton. The ruggedness of the mountainous terrain makes for some very winding roads with sharp drop-offs to the side, but as is typical throughout France, the roads are well-kept and more spectacular than scary.
The origins of these perched villages go back to the Dark Ages when the relative serenity of Roman rule disappeared and coastal areas of what is today Cote d’Azur were left to the mercy of Saracen raiders from Africa and Spain. This caused people in coastal towns like Cannes, Antibes and Nice to flee inland, and once there, they joined existing residents in moving to the highest accessible spots they could find to protect themselves. When the Dark Ages ended, there was some movement back to the coastal towns, but those that remained inland stayed on the mountain tops as the dangers presented by Saracens in an earlier day were replaced by the threat of marauding highwaymen and sporadic wars between local lords. Most of what exists today in these perched villages was built or rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries, but there is the occasional church or castle ruins that date back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
Some of these perched villages like Eze, Gourdon, Ste.-Agnes, Haute-de-Cagnes and St.-Jeannet are either on or close to the coast and have lost some of their historic appeal as they became either part of the suburban life of Cote d’Azur’s larger cities or so exploited for tourisms that they do not seem quite real. Others like Mougins and St.-Paul-de-Vence are fortified villages on hills, not mountains, and although well worth a visits for other reasons – and they will be discussed in a future blog post – they are not true perched villages. The best of the region’s perched villages are further north and east and more off the heavily-visited tourism paths with Saorge and Peillon being two of the most interesting.
This is not to suggest those that are easy to get to should be ignored, and some like Ste.-Agnes, Eze and Gourdon are well worth the time spent. They, however, do not truly deliver the feel of yesteryear the way Saorge, Peillon and some others do.
Ste.-Agnes, for one is well worth the visit even as its population gains in recent years show its suburban inclination as it is only a couple of miles from the center of Menton. Its 12th century castle ruins are noteworthy for its location on a 2,625-foot peak that overlooks the Mediterranean and provides spectacular views of Menton and Monaco down below. It was supposedly built by a Saracen prince that had married a local girl; was rebuilt in the 15th century; and then destroyed by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the 17th century. The accompanying village is the highest in France close to the sea. Ste.-Agnes’ strategic location is further attested to by the fortifcations that were dug into the rocks near the old castle in 1932 as part of the Maginot Line that was to protect France from invasion from the east. There are also delightful hilltop restaurants that can add to a visitor’s pleasure.
It also hard to ignore Eze as it right on the Moyenne Corniche that runs from Nice to Monaco and is the most visited of Cote d’Azur’s perched villages. It has the remains of a 12th century castle and good views of the coast below, and it has the added pluses of an exotic garden (lots of cacti) and a five star hotel. Of course, with all this comes endless gift shops and cafeteria at the entrance that make it little hard to feel one is visiting the past.
Gourdon is a little further from the population centers, but still only 10 miles from Grasse, and it is extremely picturesque when viewed from below. The defensive value of its location is easy to see and there are remains that suggest its being fortified by the Romans, and its medieval castle has been fully restored and is open to visitors. It is now a national historic site.
For those who are willing to drive a little further and see perched villages that really bring back the past, a relatively easy day trip from Nice or Cannes can include Peillon and Saorge. Head north out of Nice on Route 2204 and about 10 miles from the Nice city limits there will be a sign saying Peillon. After visiting Peillon keep going north toward the town of L’Escarene – and on the way it is not bad idea to stop off for a quick look at Peille, a medieval village that is not a perched village, but still interesting. From L’Escarene, it is over the mountains – still on Route 2204 – to Sospel and then up to Saorge. Saorge is about 60 miles from Nice, but if one comes back on route 6204 though Ventigmilia in Italy, the larger highway keeps the return to Nice to about 90 minutes.
What makes Peillon so interesting is that it is the first perched village going north that one can see from the road – and truly wonder how one gets up there. It has a good road going up, though, and at the top there is nice hotel and restaurant. The medieval village itself is totally free of restaurants and gift shops, and it is an easy fortified perched village to see in less that an hour with a feeling of truly walking through the past.
About 30 minutes north of Peillon is Sospel, which is not a mountain village, but a crossroads town that is a good place to stop for lunch and is not without historic significance of its own. In the center of town is a toll-bridge with origins that go back to the 11th century and that took advantage of its strategic location along the Bevara River to collect money from those passing through the area. On a hill above the city is Fort St.-Roch, also built in the early 1930s with cannons imbedded as part of the protecting Maginot Line.
Saorge with its size, location and history may be the most interesting of Cote d’Azur’s perched villages. It is high up in the Southern Alps, but easier to reach than it looks from the valley below – and large enough to have had a population of over 3,000 when it became part of France in 1860. Its fortress, which is just ruins today, was able to hold off the Revolutionary army for more than a year in the late 18th century. It also has a full range of churches marking the passage of time. There is an 11th century gothic church with a 15th century Italian style tower and a still operating 17th century monastery with a baroque style church. Its population is down to a little over 400, but this is enough to provide eating options within the village without negatively impacting the medieval appeal.
Visiting Eze, Haut-de-Cagnes and/or Ste.-Agnes provides a peek into what Cote d’Azur was like after the Romans left and before the tourists arrived, but it is places like Peillon and Saorge that really takes one into yesteryear.. For the truly adventurous, there are many more perched villages as one goes north and east toward the Italian border.
Note: This includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.