Sainte Agnès is a tiny little village located high on a ridge above Menton on the Côte d’Azur, only a couple of kilometres as the crow flies from both Italy and the coast. It is known as the “highest coastal village in Europe” as it sits at just under 800m altitude while being practically on the sea. Owing to its strategic location it has some interesting fortifications including a medieval castle and more recent 20th century defences. Naturally this all makes it a pretty spectacular place, both to look at and to look out of.
Come along with me as we visit Sainte Agnès, officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France. This prestigious national award, les plus beaux villages de France, has been given to 159 communes across the country (out of a total of 32,000) for exceptional beauty, heritage, culture and history. Another village with the title nearby is Gourdon.
To get to Sainte Agnès you have to have your wits about you as it’s a rather hair-raising 20 minute mountain drive up from the coast. The road is narrow and winding, with steep drops sometimes without any protective barriers.
You pass through several tunnels on this two way road (it is NOT one way despite the rather alarmingly narrow width you see here in these photos).
We followed a cyclist up; hats off to him! Not for the faint hearted.
You feel like you’re on top of the world with magnificent views down to the Mediterranean and across the mountains. In the photo below you can see Menton and the A8 motorway.
When you arrive in Sainte Agnès there are a couple of car parks, one of which is next to a rather ugly concrete structure which I initially thought was some sort of very unsypathetically constructed water tank. But it turns out its a bunker built in the 1930s as part of the Maginot Line defences, a line of fortifications, weapons installations and obstacles along many of France’s borders designed to protect the country from the menace of Fascism. This historical fort which descends 4 storeys down into the rock can be visited at weekends during winter and every day in the summer months.
For more information including times, tarifs and hours of the Maginot Fort click here. Having parked the car we wandered into the village. Every commune in France no matter how small has a mairie/hôtel de ville (town hall) and Sainte Agnès (population around 1200) is of course no exception.
We visited on a beautiful day in November and practically had the village to ourselves. Everything was closed except one small café.
The village consists of narrow, steep cobbled alleyways which occasionally cut through vaulted passages like the one in the photo below. There’s no car access and it would be difficult to push a pram/buggy around. I can’t imagine how anyone with any mobility issues could live here, but then that’s the case with all the perched hilltop villages in the area.
We visited on a gorgeously sunny day but even so in November these narrow paths don’t get much sunlight; lovely and cool in the summer, but just plain dark and damp in winter. I love visiting places like this but I can’t imagine living here.
You can see from the church clock that it’s just gone half past twelve and yet the shadows are deep and long.
We stumbled across this little bookcase full of books to swap and borrow. Such a great idea.
And finally came across the only open café, in a rare sunny spot, which we didn’t eat at as we had other plans!
This auberge looked charming, but it was closed.
Up and down we strolled….
This restaurant has an amazing view…when it’s open!
The inhabitants of these hill villages always decorate their doorways and tiny little patches of street with plants and flowers.
We discovered an activity for children to help make the most of their visit to the village. It appeared to be a sort of treasure hunt with questions and enigmas in French, English and Italian to work out. As JF and I were sans enfants we didn’t pay too much attention but apparently it’s available at the tourist office. Along with the lending library, another great initiative; Sainte Agnès seemed to have some pretty smart ideas.
Having exhausted the labyrinth of alleys it was time to head up the steps behind the village towards the medieval gardens and château. You can see some pretty wiggly roads in the photo below.
The steps took us up above the village rooftops. From here you can see just how squashed in and narrow the place is.
We climbed high above the houses until we reached the medieval gardens with wonderful lookout points.
The village of Sainte Agnès may be on the list of officially beautiful places, and there’s no doubt it’s attractive, but I think many other local hill villages are prettier. What does make Sainte Agnès stand out however is its surprising gardens located above the village just below the ruined castle.
These gardens seem to defy nature. They are planted to invoke the 5 senses with a variety of medicinal herbs, flowers, fruit trees and a vine, all clinging to the side of a mountain and dating back to medieval times. Devising the watering system must have been a challenge, Menton is after all the place in France with the most sunny days a year.
As I mentioned before, we visited in November which obviously wasn’t the time to see the gardens at their best, but despite the approaching winter, they were still very attractive. And the views were truly wonderful.
Perhaps not ideal for those with a fear of heights – the vertiginous drops over the side of the steps were impressive – but for those with a strong constitution, the gardens in Sainte Agnes are free to visit and maintained by volunteers, and an absolute delight to experience.
The castle, perched even higher still, is in ruins and you explore at your own risk. The oldest parts of it date from the end of the 10th century and owing to its strategic position has played an important role in defending various marauders over the years.
Despite such warnings of danger I felt the most safe at the very top as there’s a decent height solid stone wall all around the lookout. There are also panoramic maps pointing out places of interest in the 360° views.
The photo below shows the castle from above.
Finally as we drove away from Sainte Agnès we had one last look back at the pretty village sitting under its ancient château and marvelled at its perilous location. However did they build these places high up on mountain tops hundreds of years ago? It’s really quite a thought.
If you’d like to find more hilltop villages to visit in the Côte d’Azur back country or get ideas on how to make visiting these places with children fun, do take a look at these previous posts I’ve written.
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