Discover France’s Secret Villages

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Like a game of connect-the-dots, my girlfriend Ellen and I walked for five days between medieval hamlets perched on rocky bluffs in an area delightfully off the beaten path with

Walking in the Maritime Alps leads to the Mediterranean Coast

Our trek started in the lofty heights of the Alps and ended in the warm coastal town of Menton, where we tossed aside our daypacks and plunged into the blue sea.

Rocky, snowcapped Alps tumble down to the dazzling waters of the Mediterranean coast along the French and Italian border. My love of France and its sleepy villages fueled my choice to hike through this Mediterranean wonderland, not far from the region’s hub of Nice.

Every morning we laced up our hiking boots, filled our water bottles, and began a 4-6 hour hike on ancient mule trails and cobbled pathways. We traversed wooded forests of Aleppo and Scots pines and lush landscapes of wild lavender and yellow flowers dripping from mimosa trees. During a lunchtime picnic of warm and soft baguettes stuffed with ham and cheese, we watched eagles soar from craggy silver-blue peaks. When the trail descended to the sea, we walked through olive groves and fragrant lemon orchards.

Far from our everyday lives, we found ourselves focused on more uncomplicated concerns, such as following butterflies or counting wildflower specifies.

Many days we didn’t encounter another hiker on the trail. We only carried our lunches in our daypacks, supplied by the innkeepers while our luggage was transferred to the next night’s accommodation. A map with route instructions, all hotel reservations, breakfasts, most dinners and lunches were provided by an English walking company that has offered 30 European walking itineraries, in 13 countries, for over a decade. The walking tour may be done with a guide or customized just for you and friends. The hikes are graded for difficulty and there are often options for shortening the walk.

Of course, there was the European charm and history to the unspoiled towns we passed: We couldn’t take enough photos of the pastel-painted homes, cobbled stoned lanes, chapels, flowerpots and red-tiled roofs.

We dined on local specialties such as liver pate, prosciutto, wild boar stew, fresh fish from the coast, and one evening we topped off the feast with a huge slice of homemade berry pie.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We felt a supreme sense of accomplishment as we walked up to the country inn at the end of the trail. We savored a sense of arrival and toasted our accomplishment with a cold beer or local wine. In St. Agnes, the owner of the inn offered us a special cocktail; an aperitif made from a family recipe of crushed peaches and Prosecco. The warm welcome and personality of our hosts, and their delicious home-cooked meals were an exclamation point at the end of each day. 

As the day’s hike was over, we relished the quiet time to watch Pascal’s horse graze in the meadow with the backdrop of the mountains in the distance. Pascal is a superb chef. She served a four-course meal including hand-made pasta with organic veggies from her garden and a homemade cherry clafoutis (a delicately baked pastry with fresh cherries from a neighbor’s tree) for dessert. Breakfast was a feast too, with hot croissants (Pascal drove into town to buy them when the patisserie opened), fruit, bread, cereals, granola, delicious homemade preserves, and yoghurt. As if on cue, a feisty fox ran through the meadow while we ate sipped café au lait on the sunny terrace. We experienced this rare brand of hospitality again and again, proof that the hiking company knows their hosts well. Pascal’s country inn provided a peaceful and quiet setting, just perfect for us, and one we would never have discovered without the help of .

Ancient sundials were painted on the walls of the convent and decorated the facades of many homes in Saorge.

The view from the garden of the Franciscan Monastery in Saorge.

Secret Hill Towns

St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sospel is the largest in the Alps-Maritime region. Construction took 121 years, beginning in 1641 and completed in 1762.

Saorge. Nicknamed “The French Tibet” because the village clings to the steep mountain slopes above the Roya River. Saorge is perhaps the most beautiful spot in the Roya Valley. Its medieval architecture is mostly. Many stone houses were decorated with carved lintels over the doorways, dating to the 15th century. We explored the two churches (16th-century St-Sauveur) boasting an Italian organ and the breath-taking Baroque church in the Franciscan monastery. 

Sospel . The town was a staging point for the old Salt Road, transporting precious salt on the historical trade routes between Nice and Torino (in present day Italy). Big profits paid on the convoys of salt made the town quite wealthy. The 11th century bridge, straddling the Bevera River, was a toll bridge along the salt route. The bell tower was restored after it was badly damaged by bombs in World War II. 

Views from Sainte Agnes, our last stop on the hike before we reached the sea.

Sainte Agnès. Officially classified, as “One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages”, Sainte Agnes is preched like an eagle’s nest on a rocky precipice high above the Riviera.  We wandered the sinuous and vaulted streets and passageways, then climbed to the castle ruins at the top of the village.As the sun slipped behind puffy clouds, we dined with unobstructed views of the steep mountains and the French Riviera far below. Historically, the village was a coveted military site and protected the France-Italian border. A concrete bunker and fort was built into the cliff as part of the Maginot Line defenses before the Second World War. The underground rooms and fort are open to visitors, but not every day or off-season. Sainte Agnes has been occupied for 3,000 years. The Romans were newcomers when they built a fortress 2,000 years ago.

Just when we thought we’ve seen and tasted the best the Maritime Alps had to offer, we followed the salty smell of the sea to the end of the trail.

The picture-perfect town of Menton is known for palm trees, mimosas, lemon groves and ice cream.

Oh so many choices of fresh seafood in Menton.

Menton is often called the “Pearl of the Riviera” due to its privileged position between the sea and the mountains.

OnFootHolidays spoiled us with a night at a luxury hotel on the “promenade” overlooking the sea.

The weather was near perfect, sunny and warm. We packed away our hiking clothes and took a sunset swim in the sea and sadly bid au revoir to Southern France.

Way to go
The trip was provided by , which offers 30+ self-guided walking tours in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Portugal, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, England, Turkey, Bulgaria, Czech R, Austria.

Our five-night trip, with accommodation, luggage transfers and most meals, cost $950.

 

The narrow, colorful lanes in the old town of Menton.

Tracking our daily walking and climbing. Ten miles on day one.

 

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Category: Adventure, Cultural Exploration, France, Travel, Girlfriend Getaways

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