Exploring the Alpes-Maritimes
Wild, dramatic scenery just back from the coast
The four river valleys which tumble down from the Alpine foothills to the eastern corner of the Côte d’Azur – the Var, Tinée, Vesubie and Roya – make for wild and dramatic scenery dotted with venerable villages. They are an easy day trip from the Riviera, and the unpretentious village hotels can make a good base. Once in the hills, the contrast with the glitzy coast is stark, and the peace and quiet a relief.
For a quick sortie from the coast, there are several enticing villages close by – Peille, Peillon, Coaraze, Sainte-Agnes and Luceram. For a longer trip, you could follow one of the valleys going out and another returning. Try to include the Gorges du Cians which runs between the valleys of the Var and Tinée west of Nice. Perhaps the most exhilarating of all the gorges in the region, Cians’ plunging red-rocked chasms make for some hair-raising driving.
The main road which follows the River Var from Nice, the N202, cuts through a flat and boring landscape to begin with. Out of view to the west is savage and unpredictable mountain scenery, the region scored by clues – narrow rocky clefts filled with torrents of water. A 160-km circuit of these clues can be made from Vence.
Still following the Var, by Puget-Théniers the scenery has changed dramatically for the better. This is a medieval town with fine wooden statuary in its church. Entrevaux is entered by a gate in its Vauban-built defensive walls. Inside, little has changed down the years. The terrific Gorges de Daluis lead to Guillaumes with its ruined château and pleasant cafés. Valberg and Beuil are ski resorts on the twisting road to the Tinée valley. Pause to look inside Notre Dame des Neiges at Valberg, a charming mountain church with a brightly painted interior. The road (D30) continues past Roure, largely unchanged and glued to the mountainside, and on to Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, surrounded by chestnut trees.
North of Saint-Sauveur, the lovely upper valley of the Tinée leads to the major ski resorts of Auron and, nearby Isola 2000, and to the beautifully situated village of Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée, which is famous for its lovely painted chapels.
Also easily approached from Nice by the N202, the impressive, multi-hued Gorges de la Vésubie reach to a left turn for the largely unrestored fortified village of Utelle and, beyond, the spectacular panorama at Madone d’Utelle.
Further north, Saint-Martin-Vésubie is an attractive summer Alpine resort and excursion centre, gateway to the Parc National du Mercantour with its varied wildlife (chamois, marmot, wild boar) and fine hiking (the tourist office in Saint-Martin has details).
Further east, the old Turin road, N204, follows the Vallée de la Roya. After Breil comes the Gorges de Saorge and then suddenly, dizzyingly perched on the clifftop high above, Saorge itself, well worth a visit (the turning is at Fontan 3 km north). At La Brigue is the lovely Chapelle de Notre-Dames-des-Fontaines, richly decorated with 15thC frescoes and standing alone in a fertile valley. Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende is a starting point for trips in hired jeeps (the tourist office has details) to the strange Vallée des Merveilles, remote and forbidding, its harsh rocks covered in Bronze Age engravings.