Les Alpes Maritimes
Perched Villages and
Painted Churches
North of Nice and between the Vesubie and Roya Rivers is a stunning area of mountain valleys and formidably rugged mountain country.
You are nearly in Italy here and there is a character noticeably different to the flashy and flamboyant Mediterranean resort towns or the grandiose high Alps to the North. This is largely because, after centuries of bouncing backwards and forward as a political pawn, much of this area only became part of France in 1947 following the end of the Second World War.
The Frontier between France and Italy
The French Département centred upon Nice has a long history of shifting allegiances, understood only after some research into the history of the Kingdom of Piedmont and the part that it played in the unification of Italy.
In brief, we discover that from as early as the 14th century Nice was ceded alternatively to France and the House of Savoie, the rulers of Piedmont. Towards the end of this saga, it was taken by Napoleon but returned to Savoie on his defeat. However Austria, as one of the main beneficiaries of the Congress of Vienna, maintained a strong position of occupation in all of northern Italy.
In the struggle to evict the Austrians in the lead up to unification, Napoleon III agreed to assist King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont on condition that Nice be returned to France. This duly happened but without the region of the Haut Roya which was allowed to stay within Piedmont (subsequently Italy) because the royal house had long established hunting grounds there.
The situation was only finally resolved following the second world war when, with Italy defeated, a plebiscite was held and, in accordance with the wishes of the people, the Roya lands were finally reunited with France and the boundary came to its present geographical position along the partage of the waters.
Perched Villages
Perched high up in the hills are picturesque villages, built to withstand attack from the successive invasions. Now safe, some have fallen into disrepair but most have being undergoing the restoration so typical of the most attractive isolated villages throughout France.
You see the villages perchés from far away and wonder how on earth they can be reached. Then you see a road, winding round and round the perched eyrie and if you have the courage you take the nail-biting narrow road and eventually reach the outskirts of a village. You abandon your car and walk up narrow streets, up and down stairs, through archways to more stairs and still upwards till you reach a church at the very top. Our favourites were Tende, Saorge and Peillon.
The churches in these villages are decorated with colourful paintings in the naïve 15th century Italian style. A number of celebrated artists made a living travelling from village to village decorating churches in this most distinctive and exuberant style. The very best, however, is not in a perched village but in the tiny Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines in an isolated location beside one of the little streams of the Haute Vallée de la Roya.
At the time of our visit, inspections of this little church were being closely monitored because a prized statue had recently been stolen. The custodian of the local tourist office in La Brigue came with us in our car to unlock the church and provided additional information. Now there are established times for visits.
Incredibly detailed and brightly coloured frescoes entirely cover all the walls of the chapel depicting the stories of the life and death of Christ, the resurrection and the Last Judgement. From the times when people didn't read, the graphic lessons in these frescoes are infinitely better than many thousands of words. The rarely awarded three stars of the Michelin green guide reinforce the specialness of this experience.
When it comes to walking, the picturesque small town of Sospel is a good base. A fan of GR's, all deriving from the GR 5 converge here, to finish their journey together to the Mediterranean at Menton. There are opportunities to follow the GR 51, 52 and 52A and there are also many shorter walks some of which have been detailed in a brochure produced by a local walking group. We spent a few days enjoying these walks and also explored an area to the north west where there were 360 degree panoramas of the mountains bordering France with Italy.
To our very great surprise we also came upon the well preserved remains of the fortresses of the Maginot Line built in the aftermath of World War I to protect France from any future invasion by Germany.
This line of defences was constructed between 1929 and 1940 - a massive, state-of-the-art defence system of underground fortresses and tunnels linked by tramways to transport machinery, armaments and supplies. It ran virtually the length of the country.
History tells us that the northern line of defence failed to stop the German invasion along the Belgian frontier in World War II. However, the southern line worked perfectly, crushing an offensive by the Italians attempting to take Nice. An Italian army of 350,000 attacked along a line from the Swiss border to Menton on the Mediterranean but the defences held and the invaders were stopped in their tracks.
Now largely forgotten, the relics of the Maginot line are visited by walkers in the mountains or military historians who love to relive history and climb all over the ruins.
This is a refreshingly different area not greatly visited by tourists. It was therefore even more amazing to see that the wine list in our Sospel hotel included several Australian wines. The patron, it eventuated, was a frequent visitor to Australia and loved the wine so much that he had bought great quantities to cellar and serve in his restaurant.
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The perched village of Saorge
The rooftops of Saorge
Peillon on its hilltop
La Brigue sits in a valley beneath limestone cliffs
Interior of Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines
©peintures murales.free.fr
Restored bridge in Sospel
A damagted fortress on the Maginot line
A forest pathway near Sospel
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