Above and Beyond the Riviera

© 2009 by Patricia Woeber

Alpes-Maritimes, France

The Cote d’Azur brings to mind luxurious hotels and the cachet of the Mediterranean coast stretching from Cannes to Menton, yet this strip of land is connected to another world. To the north, a mountainous backcountry offers a diversity of cultures and outdoor activities.

Both elegant coast and wild backcountry are part of the Alpes-Maritimes departement, which is tucked along the Italian border in southeastern France. This area of Provence possesses the seaside, the mountains (as high as Mt. Gelas at 10,300 feet) with an alpine landscape of fir forests, and the high rocky land of the Mercantour National Park. So why not enjoy it all? Stay in deluxe hotels, discover ancient hillside villages, puzzle over ancient pictographs, and hike in nature so dramatic it will knock your socks off.


Although the Riviera boasts its famous hilltop villages, such as Eze and Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the backcountry has its share of ancient villages with narrow cobblestone streets and stone houses. It takes just an hour driving north to reach them. In the Roya Valley, the lovely village of Saorge (11th century) has medieval houses strung together like a necklace across the mountainside. The streets are beautifully hand-paved with water-smoothed oblong river-pebbles. alps31The hillside village of Venanson seems to float on a ridge, and gives spectacular views overlooking the Vesubie Valley River. And in Breil-sur-Roya, tall, narrow, attached houses have retained their medieval character. This town is only 24 kilometers from the Mediterranean.

For centuries these villages were completely isolated as the main road by-passed them. Instead it ran farther west, over the Tende Pass through the village of Sospel, with its 11th century bridge, which sprouts a medieval watchtower in the middle of the span. The new road was constructed some 30 years ago, bringing the modern world closer.alps4

The Roya Valley has been described as Italian, but with a French accent and sense of discipline. Constant reminders of this mix are evident: flat bread covered with tomato paste (like pizza), espresso coffee drunk strong and black with lots of sugar, and the Breil dialect that incorporates Latin words. On some “newer” buildings (16th, 17th & 18th century), decorative accents and walls painted with warm pinks and yellows give an Italianate flair reminiscent of the Italian Riviera.

History explains this blend, as for centuries the Roya Valley was half French and half Italian. Part belonged to the Duke of Savoy, who favored his land as the best hunting ground. In fact, the upper Valley of the Roya only became part of France in 1947 after World War II, when the people of Tende and La Brigue asked to become part of France. Some of the Riviera, including Nice, did the same in 1860.

In the Alpes-Maritimes, nature has taken its course with great dramatic appeal, cutting away at mountainsides and leaving behind steep canyons with a palette of colors. For example, the Roya Valley has areas of purple rocks with green striations, while the cliffs of the Daluis Gorge are an antique, ruby red, and the nearby Cians is yellow. Some gorges north of Puget-Theniers are black, as if sprinkled with ash, and the Gorge du Paganen’s  grey rock would fit right into Dante’s underworld.

In the Mercantour National Park, thousands of engravings dating from the Bronze Age (1800-1500 BC) adorn rocks, for this high place was sacred to the ancient inhabitants of the valley. The surprisingly small drawings were scratched into ochre-colored flat schist rocks that had been smoothed by ice during the Glacial Age. Professional guides lead hikes to the most interesting sites in Vallee des Merveilles (Valley of Marvels) and Fontanalbe and can interpret the engravings. A visit to either site is a full day’s outing. For these trips and other outdoor sports contact professional guides in Saint-Martin-Vesubie and Breil-sur-Roya, north of Menton. Another way is to drive north from Nice on the N202.

alps11Whatever one wishes for – gurgling streams, perhaps, or deep, dramatic ravines – one is sure to be able to find it here. This includes swimming, kayaking and other water sports, fishing, rock climbing, horse riding, and mountain biking. Within the Mercantour’s rocky terrain lie 4,000 kilometers of marked trails for walkers, hikers, and bikers. The Roya Valley alone has 25 mountain lakes, so gorgeous scenery is a given.

Before World War II, Saint-Martin-Vesubie was a fashionable resort with ten hotels, but during the post-war economic slump tourism fell off. Today, with only two hotels, the place is unknown, when compared to the Riviera. Yet this town, cradled between fir-covered hills, is a perfect base for hiking in spring and fall. Le Boreon, also for hikers, offers cross-country skiing in winter. Alpine skiing is found at La Colmiane.

The spiritual distance of the mountains is greater than the hour it takes to get back down to the coast and its deluxe hotels. Beaulieu-sur-Mer, between Monaco and Nice, has ultra luxurious La Reserve de Beaulieu, resembling an Italian Renaissance villa, with hand-painted furniture heightening the décor of the rooms. Restaurants, rooms, and the heated salt-water pool, are a splash away from the sea. In Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the deluxe Royal Riviera Hotel claims the largest pool on the coast as well as a private beach. These hotels’ gourmet restaurants attract European royalty.

Local tourist sites include the Italian-style palatial villa and gardens of the Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. In Beaulieu-sur-Mer, the Villa Kerylos is a pure re-creation of an ancient Greek mansion.

Along the waterfront in Nice and Cannes, locals stroll the palm-lined promenades. In legendary hotels such as the Carlton and stucco mansions, champagne corks pop at breakfast. The towns offer lively outdoor food and flower markets.

The Alpes-Maritimes certainly has something for everyone.

THE DETAILS: Spring and fall are the best times for hiking. Guides are in Breil-sur-Roya and Saint-Martin-Vesubie.
French Government Tourist Office: www.franceguide.com
Air France : www.airfrance.us
Castel du Roy hotel in Breil-sur-Roya: www.castelduroy.com
La Reserve de Beaulieu: www.reservebeaulieu.com
The Royal Riviera www.royalriviera.com

Patricia Woeber was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the United States at the age of 21. Her travel articles have been published throughout the United States and Canada. In 2004, the French Government awarded her the Medaille d’Or du Tourisme (Gold Medal) for her extensive articles on France.  At the moment, she is polishing her book of travel adventures filled with stories of extraordinary situations ranging from wonderful to dangerous.