Every area has its hidden gems, and in Cote d’Azur, two of the best are the village of Entrevaux and Le Train des Pignes that conveniently share a common ground. The Train des Pignes is a one meter gauge railroad that manages to wind its way through the Southern Alps along the Var River for a 95 mile, almost four hour run from Nice to Digne. The scenery is spectacular as the train follows the riverbed between the mountains, but going the full route makes for a long and somewhat tiring day with the scenery eventually getting repetitive. Fortunately, a little more than half the way is the fortress village of Entrevaux that allows one to enjoy the train and scenery and spend a few hours seeing one of Cote d’Azur’s most historic villages and citadel.
The train has its own station about two blocks north of the Nice’s main train station and serves a working purpose as a commuter train for residents of several small towns north of Nice, and only four trains a day make the full trip to Digne. It takes about 45 minutes to get beyond the Nice suburbs and then it is through the mountains with stops at Plan-du-Var, Touet-sur-Var, Puget-Theniers among others small villages and then Entrevaux. There are 19 stops before Entrevaux, but the trains only stops at seven of them unless someone wants to get on or off.
The village of Entrevaux was founded in the 11th century when the Catholic bishopric that had been established in the nearby village of Glandives in Roman times was moved to the more defensible site of Entrevaux. This site was on a hill surrounded on three sides by the Var River, and ramparts were built around the newly established village.
When the County of Nice shifted allegiance from Provence to Savoy in 1388, Entrevaux found itself in the uncomfortable position of being only a couple of miles inside the border on the French side. This meant that it was no longer just a mountain village with an antiquated castle and ramparts to protect its citizens from the occasional pillaging of brigands, but rather a line of first defense between two countries.
The danger of this situation became a reality in 1536 when Entrevaux was betrayed by its lord Jacques Glandives; was taken by the troops Charles V of Spain who controlled Savoy; and about half its population was massacred. Those remaining, though, took revenge by rebelling and killing Charles V’s governor. They then offered the village to the king of France, Francis I, who in appreciation made it a royal town of and exempted it from taxation.
This strategic location between Savoy and France kept Entrevaux in French military plans. In 1658, a bridge guarded by towers was built over the Var River and in 1690 the castle sitting high above the town was rebuilt as a more modern citadel by Vauban, France’s famed military engineer. The new fortifications were tested in 1707 by troops from Savoy, but local resistance was adequate to hold them off until relieved by French troops.
The walled village of Entrevaux is unique in that it has to be entered through a gate house; then across a long what was once a drawbridge; and finally through a vaulted gate between two towers. Once inside, it is much like all medieval villages with its stone buildings, narrow streets and medieval gothic church, but then there is the citadel. It is perched far above the village and appears to be impenetrable from all sides. The walk is quite doable after paying the 3 euros and takes about 15 minutes. The view at the top is spectacular, and the citadel is open for visitors to see its rooms, courtyards and dungeons.
The walled village is thankfully free of gift shops and restaurants, but right across from the village is a small area with restaurants and other retail outlets. This includes one restaurant that provides sandwiches and snacks after the normal “12 to 2” lunch time.
If one takes the Train-des-Pignes beyond Entrevaux to Digne, the scenery continues to be spectacular, and there is an excellent restaurant near the Digne station. The train station is not within easy walking distance of the city itself, but that should not be a concern. Digne is an attractive, modern industrial community, but not a tourist site.
There are other ways of seeing Entrevaux. My first visit was by car and included staying overnight in Castellane, a town more frequently considered a gateway to the spectacular grand canyon of France, the Gorges du Verdun, which will be a subject of a later blog. Castellane is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the coast and 30 miles from Entrevaux. It also has an interesting tourist site of its own, the Notre Dame du Rock. This church is built on a rock about 500 feet above the city on a site that was once a Roman fort. An added plus in Castellane is the Nouvel Hotel du Commerce with an excellent restaurant.
This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.