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 bigger Verrerie 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. I’ve written about how to make visiting hill villages with children fun with plenty of advice and ideas based on experience. 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.
Have you been to any hill villages? Would you add any others to my list?
***Update Nov 2016*** I have written about another gorgeous hill village nearby which had I visited before I wrote this, I definitely would have included it in this list. Take a look at Sainte Agnès here.
If you enjoyed this, why not PIN it!
Photo credits: thanks to From the Riviera to the smog for the beautiful photo of Peillon at sunset (shown twice), Christophe Jacquet for the first picture of Châteauneuf, ALK3R Blog for the first photo of Mougins, Jim magic for the first photo of Eze.