Leave the French Riviera with its crowds of tourists and mega yachts and follow the breathtaking back roads high into the hills above the coast to discover towns and romantic small villages of Provence once lost in time but rediscovered by writers, poets and painters for their alluring charm.
Fortified hilltop towns perched on cliffs in the Alpes-Maritimes district of Provence look out toward the sea and the surrounding hills covered in vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees. Guarded by ancient fortified gates and towers, ramparts and Roman ruins, each beautiful village beckons you to explore.
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Park outside the gates and wander through narrow passageways and winding cobbled streets lined with bougainvillea, oleander and potted plants. Enjoy the old honey colored stone buildings with thick doors and painted shutters and the occasional cat lazing in the warm sunshine of a lace curtained window. Peak into tiny alleyways that lead into courtyards filled with fragrant roses and geraniums. Browse in small boutiques selling paintings and handmade crafts.
Stop at a café on the main square to relax under an umbrella with a glass of Provençal rosé wine, order a simple salad Niçoise or noisettes of lamb and enjoy the beautiful moment.
If this sounds too good to be true, perhaps it is at the present time with travel restrictions in place for most of us. What we can do is remember our past travels and dream of when we can once again visit this charming part of France with tiny villages dotting the hinterlands high above Nice and yet only at a 30 minute drive from the French Riviera and Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport.
The small medieval village that I was just describing above is Tourrettes-sur-Loup, known as the “City of Violets“, and yes it really is as romantic as it sounds. On our last visit, we arrived in the late morning, parked at the edge of the village and entered through the passageway beneath the medieval clock bell tower and had the village basically to ourselves. Everywhere you walk, there is one picturesque spot prettier than the next. At the back of the village there’s a lookout point next to the ramparts where there is an exceptional view of the countryside and the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. After wandering along the narrow streets lined with limestone houses along its ramparts and peeking into boutiques, artists galleries and local craft workshops, we knew that the lovely village was well worth a visit for its authentic atmosphere.
St. Paul-de-Vence, only about 6 miles away is another fortified hill town that is on most tourists “must see” list. While hordes of tourists, more than two million people a year, visit St. Paul, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting. The town has been restored into a picture perfect village with many of its 16th century ramparts, arcades, winding flights of stairs and ancient wells.
Since my first visit years ago, the town is now mostly souvenir shops and high end art galleries and I feel it has lost a lot of its authentic Provencal way of life. You share the beautifully kept streets with bus loads of tourists filling the shops that sell typical souvenirs, expensive paintings, clothing and ice cream. Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed over the years are the magnificent views over the hills toward Nice and the coastline. You will also still see old men playing pétanque in the shade of large trees at the popular Place du Jeu de Boules just opposite the famous Colombe d’Or hotel know for its priceless art collection.
If you decide to visit St. Paul, I would suggest going early in the morning or visiting in late afternoon to avoid some of the crowds. If you plan to lunch at the famous Colombe D’Or restaurant, make reservations well in advance and if you want to visit the Maeght Foundation, with its famous collection of 20th century art, make reservations online.
If you are staying in the area, also visit the walled, hilltop medieval towns such as Vence where you can visit the Chapelle du Rosaire, also known as the “Matisse Chapel” and Grasse, the world’s capital of perfume, Biot, Mougins, Gourdon and other wonderful villages nearby for a peek into Provence’s past.
If you decide to explore this region of Provence and want to splurge on a hotel, there isn’t a more beautiful one than the luxury resort Château Saint-Martin & Spa. It is perched on a hilltop overlooking the historical village of Vence and has 32 acres of landscaped grounds. The historic chateau retains a wall and original drawbridge that dates back to the time when the site was the stronghold of the Knights Templar back in 1150. The rooms are very spacious and comfortable, the last time we stayed, our room had a large balcony offering lovely views of the pool and the Mediterranean sea. The hotel’s main restaurant serves delicious light seasonal dishes and has been awarded one Michelin star.
Another hotel I would recommend is just below St. Paul-de-Vence. Le Mas de Pierre, a Relais & Chateau hotel, is closed for a large scale renovation and extension project but is planning to reopen in the spring of 2021. The hotel is beautiful with a good restaurant, gorgeous pool area and lovely terrace and gardens.
We haven’t been in years but if you are looking for a small budget hotel with A/C and a parking garage, the Hotel Diana in Vence might be just what you are looking for.