13 of the best hill villages near Nice

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).

Peillon village near Nice France at sunset

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.

1.  GREOLIERES

Gréolières

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.

Gréolières in snow

 

2.  GOURDON

Gourdon

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.

Gourdon paragliding Alpes Maritimes

 

3.  CHÂTEAUNEUF-DE-GRASSE

Châteauneuf Grasse Village

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.

Châteauneuf Grasse

 

4.  LE BAR SUR LOUP

Le Bar sur Loup distant view

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.

Bar sur Loup staircase

 

5.  TOURRETTES SUR LOUP

Tourettes sur Loup Alpes Maritimes Côte dAzur PACA

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).

Tourettes sur Loup street

 

6.  ST PAUL DE VENCE

St Paul de Vence Côte dAzur France

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.art galleries in St Paul de Vence

 

7.  HAUT-DE-CAGNES

Haut de Cagnes Côte dAzur France

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!

Haut de Cagnes square boules carrées

 

8.  BIOT

Biot village Alpes Maritimes France

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.

arcades in Biot Alpes Maritimes

 

9.  MOUGINS

mougins village near cannes in france

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.

Mougins near Cannes France

 

10.  CARROS

Carros village perché Alpes Maritimes France

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.

Carros Village sculptures

 

11.  PEILLON

Peillon village near Nice France at sunset

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.

Peillon Côte dAzur France

 

12.  SAORGE

Saorge hill village Alpes Maritimes France

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.

Saorge village near Nice France

 

13.  EZE

Eze village viewed from Grand Corniche

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…

Eze Côte dAzur France view from jardins exotiques

 

For some 13 is unlucky so I’ve included a bonus 14th choice particularly interesting to visit at Christmas…read on…

BONUS:  LUCERAM

Lucéram model of village with Santons

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.

Lucéram Christmas village

 

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.

CREDIT/SOURCE: reblogged from http://www.loumessugo.com/

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Château en Fête

A mid-summer, Family-Fun Festival in a medieval village on the French Riviera!  How are YOU spending your summer vacation?

If at first you don’t succeed…

It was Friday morning, with the market in Valbonne in full swing and a lot of people shopping and milling about.  I was doing a “meet the author” book event at the English Book Centre in Valbonne for my books “Solitary Desire – One Woman’s Journey to France” and “Sun, Sea & Savoir-Faire – A Travel Focus on the French Riviera.”   Thanks to Lin Wolff, owner and operator – I was graciously hosted and well-positioned in front of the shop ready to meet and greet customers.

Lin had casually mentioned that even when well-known author, Stephen Clarke, had done a book signing at her shop, it had been difficult to get business!  So, what were my expectations?  Basically, to enjoy the lovely morning and profit from a little publicity, rather than book sales.  Unfortunately, there was building work, with a noisy cement mixer, next door to the bookstore, so my trailer video music, as a way to hopefully attract curiosity and attention to my table, was drowned out.  No worries – I just greeted those who walked by, talked at length to a few, handed out business cards, and people watched.  All in all, it was a very pleasant, sunny morning in a lovely town – success can be measured in various ways!

So, ……I’ll try again, and so I did the following month.  Thanks to Lin, I hosted a mid-summer aperitif book event in the late afternoonAgain, it was very quiet, as I sat in the shade in front of the bookstore waiting for passers-by.  Fortunately, the cement mixer was long gone.  I ended up meeting some very nice expat couples and two lovely women, one who had driven from Cannes specifically to meet me.  All in all, a personally rewarding afternoon for the success of meeting new people – priceless!

Entrance

English Book Centre

Owner, Lin Wolff

Owner, Lin Wolff

Book table

Author, Kim Defforge

May Day – Celebration in a Medieval Village

This year’s Fête du Travail (Labor Day) was extra special for two reasons:

  • the local Cercle des Amis was celebrating their 140 year birthday, known for playing “boules carrés”   (video link)
  • the main village square’s six-month long renovation had just been completed & in the nick of time!

Flowers were proudly displayed throughout the village, as people (and the local mayor) partied and danced in the (medieval) streets!

Festival:

Village Square Before (2 smaller photos), During,  & After:

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See Fête du Travail 2012 here

Le Bambouseraie (Bamboo forest)

Just five minutes from Anduze, while in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, I went to a unique and exotic attraction, well worth a visit – a bamboo forest and natural park, created in 1856 by a famous botanist.

The bamboo forest is a spectacular site, including japanese gardens and houses made of bamboo. I learned that bamboo grows 1 meter (about 3 feet) in just one day and becomes “an adult” in about 2-3 months; I was equally surprised at the various types of colors and patterns (photos below). There was a lot to take in, while strolling and enjoying the natural surroundings, both relaxing and invigorating at the same time. Near the park exit, there is a very chic souvenir shop, with all kinds of useful merchandise in all price ranges. (I bought some bamboo-patterned napkins.)

The Bamboo Plantation in Figures
– Size: the park has a surface area of 12 hectares. (about 26 acres)
– 4th largest arboretum in France: the park has approximately 200 varieties of bamboo and many spectacular trees (The Bambouseraie is classed as a European Conservatory for its collection of Phyllostachys – bamboo, by the CCVS (Conservatory of Specialized Vegetal Collections).
– The most visited Garden in France (with Villandry): 360,000 visitors per year, of which 20% come from abroad.
– Most visited natural site in the Gard.

Stats Source: http://www.avignon-and-provence.com

Medieval Village Festival

I attended one of the four summer series of festivals, held in August in Cagnes-sur-Mer:   the one at the castle/château in Haut-de-Cagnes, hosting various musical troupes and a pyrotechnic concert. What was really interesting was the stage box for the drums, which also served as its storage and transport container, with everything folding inside it, as a all-in-one concept!

The main square in this medieval village was crowded, with interesting people of all ages enjoying the performances, dancing to the instrumental drum beat and “dancing to the beat of their own drum,” as well !

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Doors – an exhibit of art !

The textbook definition of a door: used to enter and exit a space and is typically a rectangular panel that swings on hinges within a rectangular door frame. OK, simple enough, but doors can be different sizes, made of various materials, such as wood and metal (or combination thereof), as well as painted individual colors – to create a personal touch, and perhaps even, to stand out from the rest.

As I was walking in a nearby village, I couldn’t help but notice the doors, which were not only personalized by choice of color and material, but also by the external hardware (nails, hinges, door knockers, and door knobs) and accessories of glass, bells, buzzers, and curtains. The doors were also in various shapes, in order to accommodate each door’s frame and stonework, exhibiting many ‘faces’: new, shiny, old, weathered, whimsical, and even chateau-like! Each door had it’s own look and personal style, and so, I tried to imagine the corresponding personalities of the inhabitants – based solely on these artfully-exhibited and individually-beautiful doors!

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