France looks on course to reach its ambitious target of 100 million visitors per year by 2020 after figures released by the UN show that a record 89 million tourists visited these shores in 2017 – an increase of six million on 2016.
Visitor numbers had suffered in recent years follow in a series of terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere across France in 2015 and 2016, but holidaymakers are now returning in their droves. The report from the UN’s World Tourism Organisation shows that global tourism jumped 7% last year with France well ahead of second-placed Spain. With 82.3 million tourists in 2017, Spain overtook the USA as the world’s second most popular destination, despite terror attacks of its own and independence demonstrations in Catalonia. In 2016, America welcomed 75.6 million visitors – 300,000 more than Spain. Currently, tourism generates 7% of France’s GDP although the government hopes to increase that figure to 10%.
In further good news, British magazine The Economist has voted France as its “country of the year” for 2017. The centre-left leaning political magazine gave particular praise to France for the voting in of Macron and his party La République en marche. They judged that the president, despite coming from a “party full of political novices”, had “crushed the old guard”, “swept aside the ancien régime” and “transformed the national political debate”.
According to The Economist’s website: “Rogue nations are not eligible, no matter how much they frighten people. (Sorry, North Korea). Nor do we plump for the places that exert the most influence through sheer size or economic muscle – otherwise China and America would be hard to beat. Rather, we look for a country, of any size, that has changed notably for the better in the past 12 months, or made the world brighter.” ■
Source/Credit: Justin Postlethwaite for FRANCE TODAY
The French Riviera is a garden-lover’s paradise, a sun-soaked horticultural heaven lined on its southern edge by the twinkling Mediterranean. From Antibes to Cagnes-sur-Mer, Gourdon to Grasse and Nice to Beaulieu there are some 80 gardens and parks open to the public, with enough diversity in styles and floral content to satisfy the most exacting nature-lover.
Many gardens are inextricably linked to their location’s heritage – and put them on the map in some cases – or showcase certain species, such as mimosas in Mandelieu and sun-sapping succulents in Èze’s vertiginous, cliff-top botanical garden. Others, such as the jaw-droppingly beautiful Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild go one step further and present an array of garden styles in one dazzling location. Wander around this Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat marvel, and one minute you’ll be immersed in Provençal lavender fields, the next achieving Zen-like calm in the Japanese garden. There are nine unique gardens here, each of them authentic in form, all immaculately planned and tended. Especially enchanting is the rose garden at the upper tip of the grounds – a feast for all the senses provided by 100 varieties of scented blooms. And the views out onto the yacht-dotted bay are simply stunning.
Plenty of the Côte d’Azur’s gardens provide the chance to explore adjoining historic private houses. Ephrussi is an obvious one, while other unmissables include Renoir’s former home and studio in Cagnes-sur-Mer – the painter fell under the spell of the olive trees of the Domaine des Collettes and moved there in 1907 – and the garden of Château de la Napoule, an often unheralded gem that clings to the shore in Mandelieu. Bought in 1918 by the American Henry Clews, its garden alternates English and French styles, with a soupçon of Venetian, Roman and even Moorish influence thrown in for good measure.
Villages in Bloom
Other places, meanwhile, can lead you nicely up the garden path to a fully rounded village visit, such as in Gourdon, perched 500m above the Gorges du Loup a few miles from Grasse. It was André Le Nôtre, Louis XIV’s gardener, who prepared the imposing château’s initial jardin designs, before the lord of the castle, wealthy Grasse lawyer Louis Le Lombard, oversaw further aesthetic flourishes. Spot box and ancient limes plus Judas trees adorning the main terrace, set off beautifully by pools, before strolling around the medicinal garden and Italian terrace to complete the noblesse experience. (Eagle-eyed film fans may recognise the perched village from afar – early in Hitchcock’s 1955 classic To Catch a Thief, the police are seen heading towards it before Cary Grant’s John Robie gives them the slip.)
In and around Menton, the characterful coastal town reputed for its flowered-up outlook (there are bloom-bedecked edifices everywhere, plus an annual lemon homage that sees the streets come alive with all manner of citrus-centric wonders), there is an array of great private gardens to see, including Val Rahmeh. This tiered, exotic botanical beauty was created by Lord Percy Radcliffe, former Governor of Malta in 1905, and now under the care of the French Museum of Natural History. It features 700 species of plants and trees, including kiwi and banana trees, Japanese and South American varieties – and you might also spy the rare sacred tree of Easter Island, Sophora Toromiro…
Perhaps more mesmerising, however, is the Serre de la Madone, a ‘greenhouse garden’ created around an extended farmhouse in the Gorbio Valley by Paris-born American plantsman Lawrence Johnston. He boasted serious form – he also designed the garden at Hidcote Manor in England, where he lived as a naturalised Briton with his mother – before spending the 30 years until 1954 acclimatising exotic plants to the Riviera climate. The shaded, maze-like trail around the garden follows the contour of the landscape and is organized in themed terraces punctuated with statues and fountains. On a sweltering Riviera day, the cool trickles punctuate the still silence to tranquil effect.
Finally, while it’s not strictly just a home but also a place of calling (monks have been here since 1645), the Gardens of the Monastery of Cimiez in Nice are a treat for a spiritual saunter. Restored to their former monastic glory in the 1920s by Auguste-Louis Giuglaris and sited near the ever-popular Matisse Museum, there’s a wide path dividing a broad esplanade, bordered by a bower of rambling roses.
The Art of Gardening
Some of the region’s many prestigious museums offer a handy excuse to enjoy a lovely garden experience, like a bonus cultural aside. The garden at Fernand Léger Museum in Biot was designed and laid out by Henri Fish, in close collaboration with the architect André Svetchine. Set in an expansive, rolling meadow, it’s sprinkled with cypress trees and framed by olive trees, providing ample viewpoints from which to admire the multi-coloured mosaics adorning the building’s façades.
Art, garden and building (the latter being the work of Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert) have been combined equally harmoniously at Fondation Maeght, set high on Colline des Gardettes in the celebrated artist magnet of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Ponder the contemporary sculptures dotted around the green hideaway by the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Fabrice Hybert, as well as a remarkable garden-labyrinth with ceramics and sculptures by Joan Miró.
Finally, for a museum garden with specifications given by the very artist whose name is above the door, head back to the elegant suburb of Cimiez in Nice. It was Fish again who heeded Marc Chagall’s creative input to fashion a fine outdoor space. Visitors on 7 July, the artist’s birthday, are guaranteed flowering agapanthuses, while picnic fans can take their place any day on the lawn and admire the pool that reflects one of artist’s vibrant mosaics.
It’s not just private gardens that will appeal to plant lovers on the Côte d’Azur. Local authorities take immense pride in their public spaces and treat their parks as havens for residents and visitors alike. In Nice, for example, the 12-hectare breathing space Promenade du Paillon, conceived by Michel Péna and inaugurated in 2013, has brought both beauty and function to the former site of the aesthetically challenging bus station. Among the 128 jet fountains and adeptly created beds, locals can enjoy a picnic or snooze at lunchtime or, as the name implies, promenade with friends and family away from the bustle of nearby Vieux Nice or Place Masséna.
Elsewhere, in Menton, a gentle stroll around town with tour guide and plant expert Christophe Canlers reveals some wonderful sights, notably the splendid banana trees framing the entrance to the mairie (do pop in to see the Cocteau Salle des Mariages). They perfectly complement the palm trees – so prominent and joy-giving all over the region – in the square in front. “Everything grows in Menton” says Christophe joyfully as he gleefully points out an aloe vera plant here or cactus plants there. There’s also a ‘killer plant’ that destroys all around it – be afraid!
There are countless other Riviera strolls in public places that offer horticultural rewards with a unique ambience. Hugging the lapping shore of Théoule-sur-Mer (on the westernmost side of the Côte d’Azur, where the Corniche d’Or begins), Promenade Pradayrol is a botanic discovery walk that snakes for 750 metres. As well as the 39 species on show, it also happens to be the only way to get to the Plage d’Aiguille, a stunning secluded beach with a brilliant little restaurant nestling nearby.
A Fest of the Best
The good news for visitors to the region in 2017 is that the inaugural Côte d’Azur Gardens Festival begins – and it also invites a cross-border sojourn to Italy. Taking place throughout April, Jardival is being led by the Alpes-Maritimes department and aims to create “high-profile initiatives designed to improve tourist facilities, boost innovation and protect the environment in an illustration of the deep, long-standing ties that exist between France and Italy”.
Villa Rothschild in Cannes, Menton’s Villa Maria Serena, Grasse’s Jardin des Plantes, as well as San Remo’s Villa Ormond and the very grandly titled Province of Imperia’s Villa Grock, have all undergone renovation and improvements in time for the festival.
Among the highlights will be ten pop-up gardens 20m2 in size (with a prestigious ‘best in show’ prize on offer) and five photo-ready locations – Antibes, Cannes, Grasse, Menton and Nice – getting involved with flower arranging workshops, gardening technique advice, tasting sessions, culinary events, professional stands and plant markets. In Nice, the Promenade de Paillon will be transformed by the addition of a new 1,400m2 garden.
It’s about time the region’s magnificent gardening heritage was celebrated in such public fashion. If you love flowers and plants, and you’re keen for a hit of spring sunshine, there’s nowhere like it.
When thinking of the French Riviera, Nice in particular, the senses become engaged: the sight of the azure Mediterranean Sea, the sound of the waves softly lapping the shoreline, the feel of the pebbles underfoot as you walk on the beach, the smell of the salty sea mist in the air, and mostly, the taste of local specialties, such as salade niçoise and socca (a pancake made from chickpea flour and served warm with black pepper). With a Mediterranean climate and average of 300 days of sunshine, the area is indeed attractive and booming.
When thinking of the Dordogne region, Sarlat in particular, the senses become equally engaged: the sight of medieval architecture and castles, the sound of market vendors selling their wares, the feel of cobblestones underfoot as you walk through the historical center, the smell of countryside air, and mostly, the taste of local specialties such as foie gras (duck liver that originated in ancient Egypt around 2500 BC and now is emblematic of French gastronomy) and black truffles (an edible fungus that averages 500-1000€ per kg). With the variety of four distinct climatic seasons, the area is a kaleidoscope of landscape colors.
Both places are famous for their cultural activities that attract tourists from far and wide, especially the outdoor markets promoting local produce and regional specialties: Cours Saleya in Old Nice and Place de la Mairie in the historical center of Sarlat. Tourism is vital to both: Nice has a population of approximately 340,000 and attracts an average of 5,000,000 visitors a year, while Sarlat’s population is around 10,000 with an average of 1,500,000 visitors per year. Due to its smaller size, the town of Sarlat has a more drastic decline in visitors than the city of Nice during the winter months, not to mention overall colder temperatures, yet both host cultural events to attract tourists during the low season.
Trivia & Tidbits:
the meaning of Nice (Nikaia in Greek) is the Goddess of victory; it became part of France in 1860
the original name of the Promenade des Anglais was “La Strada del Littorale” and it was originally made of marble
Albert 1st park is named after a Belgian king and is the oldest garden in Nice
the Carnaval has been a tradition for 700 years
the name “Côte d’Azur” was coined by the writer and poet, Stephen Liegeard, in 1888
the destruction of the castle on Castle Hill was ordered in 1706 by Louis XIV, but this resulted in the city’s growth
Nice’s traditional flower is the carnation; Nice’s specialty olive is the “caillette”, and tapenade is called the “caviar of Nice”
candied fruit was a favorite delicacy of Queen Victoria
Cours Saleya market was named after the sun “soleil” and has been Nice’s main market since the Middle Ages
Architecturally: Italian colors are ochre and yellow; French colors are beige and white – as seen in Place Massena
Sarlat-la-Canéda (or simply Sarlat) is located in the Dordogne département of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in southwestern France
Inhabited since Gallo-Roman times, Sarlat became prosperous at the end of the 8th century
The town suffered from the Norman invasions and then from the Hundred Years War, owing to its position as a frontier region between the kings of France and England
Sarlat, one of the most popular of the Dordogne villages, developed around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin
Most of the town has been preserved and is representative of 14th century France with authentic restoration work
Sarlat’s weekly market has been in existence since the Middle Ages
Known for its regional specialties of foie gras, duck confit, walnuts, & truffles
Sarlat’s emblem is the salamander, due to its S shape and also because it once was featured on the coat of arms of the French monarchy
Host to an annual film festival since 1991
For traveling, you can’t beat the accessibility of the Nice airport and the city’s extensive bus system (except when there is a strike, bien sûr!). By contrast, the Dordogne’s rural setting and its smaller airports significantly increases overall travel time, resulting in difficulty in getting to and from international destinations, except perhaps to the U.K.
As for ambiance, while living in Nice, I woke up to the cacophony of cars, buses, and pedestrians, inherent with city living and its hustle and bustle of activity. Compare that setting to Sarlat, where morning birdsong and the sound of an occasional car passing by is the norm – a matter of urban vs. rural setting, each with its pros/cons & sounds: Chacun à son gout (to each his own)!
If you’ve travelled to or from Nice on the train, you may remember the train station there as a rather dismal and somewhat confusing place. People crowding together to get through to the platforms, bumping elbows and closely guarding pockets and purses. Always a “traffic jam” by the entrance to the platform as a horde of travelers tried to navigate through the crowd to stamp their tickets, as required, in the little yellow machines.
The ticket office stood off to one side, awkwardly designed so as to require queuing up in a long line to wait for an agent.
Outside and below this office, a lone and uninviting restaurant with few other options nearby.
In fact, I think many would agree that the whole area in and surrounding the Gare de Nice was one to simply get away from as quickly as possible.
Now, dear past and future visitors to Nice, all that has wonderfully changed! This once disheveled building and its environs has had a major facelift.
The building itself has been lovingly restored. The ornate grillwork over the main entrance has been polished up, and the lovely set of arched doors now enter into a spacious, open and light-filled room. The large square ceiling has been painted like a chapel and the platform doors to the trains are now opened up, giving travellers the freedom to come and go. No more crowds squeezing through a limited area.
The train schedules are projected onto the side of one wall giving it all a clean updated feel, and there are other bright new schedule signs throughout.
And those little yellow machines to stamp the tickets now sit rather sheepishly by the platform doors, still pretty but humbled.
To the left of the main waiting room is a new Relay store for your magazines newspapers and candy; to the right, a shiny new sandwich shop where you can stock up before boarding your train to Paris or Avignon.
The far end of the station is now the ticket office, complete with a ‘take-a-number’ machine and bright décor – purple and yellow chairs for waiting and tables where you can plug in a laptop.
All these changes are refreshing and welcome! But there’s more. The exterior of the station has also had a makeover. The huge open plaza in front is now home to a modern tourist office and a Paul boulangerie/patisserie.
These changes to the station have had a larger impact on the entire area near the Gare, with people relaxing at restaurants across the street. From super sketchy to stylish, it is a remarkable transformation!
The overhaul of the Nice Gare is not complete; the work goes on. But already the new look and feel of this busy station on the Côte d’Azur will make landing in this charming city a treat.
Nice is glamorous. Let’s be honest, it’s what you picture when you imagine Nice; sauntering along Promenade des Anglais, ogling yachts you (probably) can’t afford (yet), and enjoying a drink outside whilst soaking up the Mediterranean sun.
With all that effort, everyone needs a break now and then, and a break is what these two sites can offer you. If you’re into the hidden, off the beaten track visits then here are places to see in Nice that will showcase the authentic history of this sunny city.
Now an upper-class residential area, this small hill-top neighbourhood in the north-east of the city was a favourite destination of Queen Victoria, who regularly stayed at the Regina Palace Hotel, Even further back, the Romans established an arena, amphitheatre, baths and basilica. This was the settlement of Cemenelum, the capital of the Roman province Alpes Maritimae, and was itself a rival to the nearby city of Nice.
There’s also a beautiful Franciscan monastery, used since the 16th century, and definitely worth a moment of quiet contemplation, away from the bustle of the city below. When I visited, there were a few office workers taking advantage of the monastery’s quiet gardens for a moment of calm, and more like me, sauntering along before enjoying a cold drink in the shade around the park’s refreshment kiosk. Whilst you’re up there, to add even more culture into the mix, you can visit the Matisse Museum, devoted to the French painter who lived and worked in Nice from 1917 to 1954.
A lovely oasis of calm although, I would certainly recommend the bus up and down – the hill is particularly steep, and not much fun on a hot day…
The Palais Lascaris is a seventeenth century gemstone, cunningly tucked away on rue Droite, and if you didn’t know it was there, it would be easily missed. It’s currently home to a collection of musical instruments. But even if you have no interest in this aspect at all, the décor and architecture of the former aristocratic home are worth the entry fee.
If you are interested, however, then the collection of over 500 musical instruments is one of the finest you’ll encounter, including both the historic and the famously-connected.
The rooms the exhibits are displayed in are restored to their original glory, and give a real insight as to how the nobles of Nice lived in the Old Town’s glory days, before the wealthier families were moved out of what was then a going down-hill area, and into the New Town and countryside beyond. Talk about grandeur!
Sun and sea, nature, villages perched, beauty, diversity, art, activity, traditions, & yachts: some words that come to mind, from living here for over 8 years, but what stands out the most is (Mediterranean) BLUE! The one thing I would change would be to have sandy beaches in Nice, rather than pebbly ones.
Overview of Nice and all that this area has to offer – watch new Tourist Office video HERE
Nice has only been part of France since 1860, when Italy reluctantly gave her up to repay France for helping defend itself from the Austrians. The Mayor’s office likes to say that ‘Nice chose France’, but the truth is that the famous ‘vote’ was rigged: there were no ‘non’ ballots printed! This mixed heritage gives Nice its fabulous melange of French and Italian, as seen in its architecture, colours, cuisine and lifestyle.
2. The original Nike Town
During the Greek Empire in 500BC, the hill above the Old Town was named Nike, which is Greek for ‘victory’, making Nice the original Nike-Town. During its multi-century Italian period it was called Nizza, and since becoming French just 150 years ago, it is called Nice. The people of Nice are Niçoise, like the famous salad, and have their own dialect called Nissart.
3. A tourist hub for 400,000 years
Yes, it’s true. An archaeological dig (which is now a museum) on the hill above the Nice Port found that Nice’s earliest tourists arrived almost 400,000 years ago, and were transient cave-dwellers that came to Nice once a year to hunt woolly mammoths. And tourists have hardly stopped flocking (though the mammoths are a lot harder to find).
Riviera view: Photo: Michel Riallant/Flickr
4. The Heroine Laundry Lady of Nice
In 1506, this town of only 3,000 inhabitants was attacked by a flotilla of 20,000 Franco-Turks. After weeks under siege the town was still hanging on, and the attackers once again tried to scale the walls. With very few soldiers left to mount a defense, washer-woman Catherine Segurane climbed up on the walls herself and tried to beat back the attackers with her laundry bat. Incredibly, her blow killed a warrior, whereupon she impulsively grabbed his flag, lifted her skirt, and made a gesture like she was wiping her behind with it.
The attacking soldiers were humiliated; and the next day, weary and demoralized, the army gave up and Nice was saved. Segurane is considered emblematic of the Nice spirit, and there are small monuments to her throughout the old town including a cannonball from the siege suspended on the corner of rue Droit and rue de la Loge.
5. Secret passageways for Jews
In the Middle Ages, the town’s Jewish community was forced by law to reside on one gated street called Street of the Jews, where they were locked in each night. In response, the non-Jewish townspeople, having lived harmoniously with their Jewish neighbours up to that point, tunneled a network of passageways under the buildings with secret doors back out to the village.
You can still see the Street of the Jews (Carriera de la Juderia, between rue Rossetti and rue de la Loge), but it is now called rue Benoît Bunico, named after the Italian statesman who pushed through the legislation, 200 years later, giving equal rights to Jewish citizens.
6. Famous Brits on the “English” promenade
The Promenade des Anglais takes its name from these uppercrust English (Anglais) tourists, who would promenade along the sea with their parasols… a strange sight to the working-class Niçoise. Among the celebrated Brits were Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and dancer Isadora Duncan, whose dramatic decapitation took place in front of the Hotel Negresco, when her long scarf caught in one of the wheels of her convertible.
Sitting down in Nice. Photo: samtup40/Flickr
7. Lunch with a bang!
In 1860, Sir Thomas Coventry and his easily-distracted wife were living in Nice. Having become increasing frustrated by his wife’s lack of punctuality in presenting the noonday meal, he approached the Mayor’s office to propose a daily noon cannon shot, like back in his home village in Scotland, and offered to foot the bill.
Some years later, Sir Coventry returned to Scotland and took his little cannon with him, but by that time the locals were so used to their midday alarm that they petitioned the city to carry on the tradition, and it continues today.
8. Elton John calls it home (and he’s not alone)
Modern celebrities include part-time resident Elton John, whose yellow hilltop villa above the Port can be seen from the top of the Chateau. Other notable Riviera Rock Stars include Tina Turner, Keith Richards and Bono… see photos of their digs here.
Story continues below…
9. The Monster’s Lair
After the war Nice, like the rest of Europe, was in bad shape. The Old Town was so run-down and poverty stricken that it was referred to as the “Babazouk” or The Monster’s Lair. Even in the 60’s most families in the Old Town didn’t have refrigeration and still bought ice chipped off the ice man’s cart. Laundry was still washed by hand in communal tubs and garbage was dropped from the windows into the rat-infested streets below.
10. The Great Nice Sewer Heist
In the 70s, a man named Spaggiare dug through sewage tunnels for months before robbing the Societe Generale Bank on avenue Jean Medecin of the equivalent of 29 million euros in cash and jewels.
The spectacular heist saw the bankers finally get into their vault, only to find the words: “Without hate, without arms, without violence”. Spaggiare made a “clean” getaway, too (well, as clean as possible considering the sewage”.
I recently had tapas and a cocktail at a piano bar in Nice, as I enjoy trying out new places.
Being a Friday evening, the jazz band began tuning up and started their first (early) set to add music to the lovely ambiance of the place. My only complaint is the champagne was served in a tulip glass that seemed small (or maybe I just wanted more!) but the cocktails were generous servings, as well as the food.
All in all, Le Kosma is a very nice, cozy place to relax, enjoy a cocktail and tapas while listening to some great music. La vie est belle!
NOTE: The “Village House for Sale” on the sidebar is located in village #7 on this list!
The Alpes-Maritimes department in south-east France, including the world famous Côte d’Azur, is home to several hundred medieval hill villages, fortified towns and ruined iron age camps, and many are close to Nice. The “villages perchés” vary from little more than a pile of ruins to perfectly renovated sophisticated small towns, some are now the ancient centre of a modern town, others are gloriously isolated deep in the countryside. Some are almost at sea level others over 1500m high in the mountains. What they all have in common though is that they are built in strategic locations, to protect themselves from invasion, often on rocky outcrops or cliff faces; places hard to access and easy to defend. They tend to centre around a church and castle at the top with winding narrow cobbled alleyways, twisting down to the ramparts. These lanes are sometimes covered, forming tunnels, they often turn into steps and are nearly always far too narrow for cars. They were built for donkeys, horses and carts but nothing any bigger which makes for an interesting spectacle when a modern day resident has a large piece of furniture delivered! (Surprisingy they are very nearly all still inhabited).
I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to all the hill villages in the area, especially when you consider there are plenty more in the neighbouring Var department and across the Italian border in Liguria, but I’ve visited plenty and love discovering new ones. Here’s my choice of the 13 best easily reached from Nice and surrounding towns (in no particular order), with a brief description.
Gréolières (not to be confused with Gréolières les Neiges, the ski resort nearby) is a small, easily accessed hill village as it isn’t too steep. It lies dramatically on the edge of a cliff over looking the Loup river. The drive to it and just a bit further past towards the ski area is spectacular and one of the main reasons to go. The village, which has a handful of restaurants, is unpretentious, existing for locals rather than the tourist market It’s extra pretty in the snow which it regularly gets during the winter.
Gourdon is the real jaw dropper of the region. It is practically carved out of the rock at 760m altitude but surprisingly within its walls it has a castle (where Queen Victoria once stayed) and a garden designed by Le Nôtre (he of Versailles fame no less). Unfortunately the castle is no longer open to the public but a wander around the tiny village is worth it for the views alone. Only 20 minutes from Lou Messugo I take all our visiting friends here and pose them in the same spot! This aspect shows just how precarious its location is, over looking the Gorges du Loup. It’s a very popular place for paragliding.
The hill village part of Châteauneuf de Grasse is hidden away from the road and easily missed despite being in quite a built up area only 4 kms from the city of Grasse. It’s a quiet residential place where you won’t find shops or cafés, just sleepy cats lazing in the sun. Every October it holds a festival dedicated to the humble pumpkin when the place comes alive but for the rest of the year it’s wonderfully tranquil and seemingly empty. I’ve written in more detail about the Fête de la Courge and Châteauneuf itself previously.
4. LE BAR SUR LOUP
Le Bar sur Loup is one of the most picturesque and perfectly formed hill villages with a castle, keep and chapel popping out the top. You can see them in the photo above. Despite what many websites say about the village the tourist office is no longer in the keep but has been replaced by an excellent restaurant “le Donjon”. Le Bar sur Loup is known for its production of bitter oranges and celebrates them with a wonderfully fragrant fair every spring at la fête de l’oranger. A must if you are in the area at the time.
5. TOURRETTES SUR LOUP
Tourrettes sur Loup is famous for its violet production, grown for the perfume industry in Grasse and for crystallised candy and like many of these hill villages it celebrates its flowers with a festival in the spring. To get to the old part of the village from the central square (unfortunately a carpark) you pass through an archway and enter the quiet alleys, where you’ll come across charming and unusual red houses amongst the stone buildings. For the best view of the village approach from the road from Grasse (rather than Vence).
6. ST PAUL DE VENCE
St Paul de Vence is probably the most well known of the Côte d’Azur hill villages owing to its association with some of the world’s greatest artists. Over the years names such as Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and many more have either lived here or been inspired by it. The town is the location for one of the best private modern art collections in the world, the Maeght Foundation, and nowadays is chock-a-block full of art galleries and studios. It’s an art lovers paradise and it’s exquisitely beautiful. The lanes are perfectly paved and every building is renovated and maintained to a high standard. The downside to this is that it gets very crowded. Take a look here for tips on how to avoid the crowds and more detail about the lovely St Paul de Vence.
Hauts-de-Cagnes is slap bang in the middle of the conurbation of Cagnes sur Mer-Nice, is very easily reached by public transport from all over the Côte d’Azur and yet it is relatively unknown. Being in the centre of an urban area it is hard to get a good distant photo of it, with one of the best views being from the motorway! My shot above was taken on a gloomy day where you can just about make out the mountains behind; when you notice it peeking above the busy streets of Cagnes you realise it’s begging to be explored. There’s a quirky fact about Haut-de-Cagnes, they play square boules “pétanque carrée” on the steep streets, the balls being square so they don’t roll downhill!
Biot is another of the hill villages which finds itself today as the historical and tourist centre of a much bigger but otherwise rather nondescript town. It’s small but very lively with plenty of restaurants,cafés, boutiques and art galleries. It holds a weekly market every Tuesday morning. Biot is famous for its hand blown glass which you can see being made in a small workshop on the main street and in the biggerVerrerie de Biot just below the village on the main road to the coast. It is also well known for its very popular annual medieval festival every April.
Mougins is located between Cannes and Grasse and rises in a spiral of streets from the plain around. Seen from above it is most unusual. It has become known as a centre of gastronomy with many fabulous restaurants including some with Michelin stars and an annual food festival. It is also packed full of art galleries and the home of a small but good classical art museum. One of the most attractive aspects of Mougins village I think is the trees that grow through the restaurant terraces in the main square.
Carros is a surprising stunner of a hill village, one that very few visitors ever see owing to the reputation of its namesake modern town. Modern Carros, built about 40-50 years ago is a hideous grouping of soulless apartment blocks and industrial buildings but go beyond this, a few kilometres up the hill and you’ll be well rewarded. The views are some of my favourites of all the hill villages around, stretching up and down the Var river valley to snowy mountain peaks and the Mediterranean at Nice. The 12th century castle at the top of the village houses a rather unlikely International Centre of Contemporary Art and there are some interesting modern sculptures juxtaposed in the ancient streets.
Peillon, as you can see from the beautiful photo above, sits in splendid isolation surrounded by forested mountains and valleys and yet it is only 12 kms north of Nice. It is tiny, peaceful, completely pedestrian and entirely empty of tourist tat and other commercial enterprises except for an unlikely secondhand clothes shop! At the top of the village next to the church you’ll find a panoramic map pointing out the nearby peaks and distant cities.
Saorge is another completely untouched, in places run down, fully authentic hill village oozing charm and character. Looking out over the gorgeous Roya river its houses are built in about 5 layers up and up the steep mountain side meaning that the little lanes are often tunneled through the buildings. There are bridges and secret passages everywhere, cool and calm in the summer heat. I defy anyone not to fall in love with this gem of a perched village.
Eze village is a superstar of hill villages and along with St Paul probably the most visited in the region. Its proximity to both Nice and Monaco make it popular with cruise ships but this don’t let this put you off, just choose your moment to visit wisely. Its unique attraction is its botanic garden perilously hanging off the rock. The views from Eze, particularly from the gardens, peeping through cacti and sculptures, over the warm tiled rooftops and across to St Jean Cap Ferrat are truly splendiferous! Within the village walls you’ll find souvenir shops, cafés and an achingly beautiful 5 star hotel that mere mortals like me can only gaze upon and dream…
For some 13 is unlucky so I’ve included a bonus 14th choice particularly interesting to visit at Christmas…read on…
Lucéram is known as the Christmas village for during the month of December it comes alive with a “Circuit des Crèches“. Literally every tiny alley, every balcony, every doorway and every nook and cranny is decorated for Christmas with ribbons, baubles, tinsel, pine cones and santons, traditional Provencal clay figurines. The idea is to follow the circuit of Nativity creches (or cribs) around the village spotting the hidden ones and marvelling at the bigger scenes. The photo above is of a model of the village with santons, located in a room at the entrance to the village. Read more about this lovely tradition here.
My advice for visiting hill villages is to explore the back alleys, get away from the main streets and lose yourself in the myriad of twisting dark lanes. Look out for interesting details and a sudden shaft of light. Breath in the smells of the flowers in bloom or the damp odours of hundreds of years of history. Move away from the crowds and you’re sure to find yourself alone even in the most popular places. If you think you can’t visit these places with kids, think again. Above all make sure you visit at least a few of these gorgeous historical places while on the French Riviera, they are such an important and lovely part of its charm.