Distance: 74 kilometers (46 miles)
Time: About 4 1/2 to 5 hours depending on your pace
Difficulty: Difficult (a lot of climbing)
Elevation Gain: 1,724 meters (5,656 feet)
73 Villages by Bike Challenge: 1 village
The tiny, remote village of Aiglun is not all that easy to get to. There is only one road which passes through the town, the D10. You can come in from the northeast via the D17 and Sigale or Roquestéron or you can come in from the southwest via Le Mas. It really is a small village with a population of less than 100. Clinging to the side of Mont St. Martin high above the Estéron river, the old houses of Aiglun are grouped together around the church and the town hall. If you’re looking for a quiet, relaxed place to simply enjoy nature, Aiglun might be just the place for you. There are beautiful views of the valley below along with lots of trees and sunshine. It’s one of the villages on my list for the “73 Village by Bike Challenge,” so I recently set off on my bike, along with my friend Semon, to visit the town once again. I had passed through Aiglun once before (when I did the 73 Village Challenge the first time), but to be honest I didn’t remember much about it. For this ride we began in Gréolières, made our way over the Col de Bleine and then took the D10 through Le Mas.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
Gréolières & The Col de Bleine
It was a cool July morning when we set out. It had rained a bit off and on over the last few days and there was a possibility of some “scattered showers” in the early afternoon, so we wanted to be back before any of that came through. Leaving from Gréolièrs we took the D2 headed west. The climbing starts immediately and after about 1km you’ll come to a church (Église Saint-Étienne de Gréolières) and the ruins of an old castle (Castle of Hautes-Gréolières). In about another 1km you’ll reach the famous “James Bond Descent,” so known because it was featured in the James Bond movie GoldenEye. But, of course, we’re climbing at this point not descending. Have no fear, you’ll get to descend down through this fascinating section of road at the very end of the ride (and I’ll discuss it more then). The climbing lasts for about 5km after which the road begins to flatten out a bit. At about 7km you’ll come to a large roundabout with the turn off to Gréolières les Neiges, a small ski resort. Keep straight on the D2. The road is almost flat at this point with some gentle rolling ups and downs that never last for long.
At about the 10km point you’ll come to a unique wildlife reserve called “Réserve des Monts d’Azur” where herds of buffalo, deer, chamois, boar and other animals roam free. From here it’s just another kilometer or so to another large roundabout where you’ll connect with the D5 (Route de Saint-Auban) heading north. This is the start of the climb for the Col de Bleine. It’s not a big col. It’s fairly short (4.4km) and it’s not too steep (the average grade on this side is 6.3%). It’s a really nice little climb with very little traffic. The road is in very good condition and the scenery is fantastic. Tall pine trees surround you on all sides as you climb up towards the summit of the col. The road is actually pretty straight most of the time on this side of the mountain, there are not a lot of switchbacks or turns. At the top of the col you can stop for a photo, maybe a little something to eat and just a short rest. Take note of the memorial for the Americans shot down near here in 1944. More about that later. Then it’s down the 5km on the other side. Be careful here. This side does feature several very, very tight switchbacks. The road will turn 180° several times and it does so on a dime. If you are going too fast you will have a very hard time making the turn, so watch for them and brake accordingly.
Le Mas to Aiglun
At the bottom of the climb the D5 continues to the left (west) towards Saint-Auban, but what we want is the D10 which heads northeast and will take us to Le Mas. There’s a bit of a climb for a couple of kilometers and then the road levels out for a short distance. You’ll find yourself right on the edge of mountainside with a very deep valley below you on the right. The views are spectacular. There are still lots of tall pine trees all around and you’ll see some amazing rock formations as well. In a few kilometers the road will head down and from this point on it’s basically all downhill for the next 11km or so through Le Mas and almost into Aiglun.
For such a small village (a population of around 150) Le Mas is home to a variety of interesting religious buildings. You’ll find a 12th century Romanesque church (The Church of Notre-Dame) built by the monks of Lérins, a 14th century Chapel of White Penitents and two other chapels (The Chapel of Saint Arnoux and The Chapel of Saint Sebastian). There are the remains of an 11th century castle, an old mill and the Arboretum du Sarroudier, established in 2005 with the goal of creating the largest private arboretum in France. Located 900m above sea level the village overlooks the Gironde river and you’ll find beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. In 1944 an American B-52 bomber crashed on the nearby Col de Bleine and the villagers of Le Mas hid the soldiers until France was liberated. My friend Semon chose to cut short his ride in Le Mas, stopping for a cup of coffee and then heading back to Gréolières by himself, so I was on my own for the rest of the ride.
After you pass through Le Mas you’ll continue on the D10 (really, it’s the only way you can go!). About 1.5km outside of town there is the possibility to turn right on the D110, but you’ll want to continue straight ahead on the D10. Unfortunately, the road gets a bit worse at this point. It becomes narrower, much less smooth and there is a fair amount of rock and gravel on the surface. It’s still downhill so be careful while you are on this portion of the route.
In another 5km the road will make a big turn to the left and the village of Aiglun will come into view across the valley on the right, high up on the side of the mountain. Shortly you’ll reach the Pont d’Aiglun, a small bridge that crosses high above the Esteron River. Just before the bridge there are two very small, very dark tunnels. They are not lit at all, are barely wide enough for just one car and can be quite wet at certain times of the year. Luckily, there is hardly ever much traffic on this road, but take things slowly and carefully while going through these little tunnels as it can be a bit intimidating. The downhill portion of the road ends at this point and from the bridge it’s about 2.5km of climbing up into the village of Aiglun.
At 624m above sea level, Aiglun sits perched on the southern slope of Mont St. Martin. The first mention of the village can be found in a charter of received goods from 1039. Over the subsequent centuries the village and surrounding lands passed from one family to another until it returned to the state of France in 1760 as part of the Turin Treaty. When the French departments were first created in 1790 Aiglun was part of the Var department, but it was moved to the newly created department of Alpes-Maritimes in 1860. Its population peaked in 1851 (about 380) and by 1968 there were only 50 people left in the village. It has since rebounded a bit, but as of 2017 there were still only 91 permanent residents.
Aiglun is famous with climbers because of its steep walls of more than 200 meters which offer a variety of routes of high difficulty. The Esteron and Girone rivers are popular with swimmers, kayakers and canoers. You’ll find an 18th century church, Church St. Raphael, and two chapels: Chapel de Notre-Dame and Chapelle Saint Joseph, both dating from the 18th century. Various cultural programs and festivals take place throughout the year. It’s a charming, modest, serene little village in a very peaceful and lovely setting.
Aiglun > Gréolières
When I reached Aiglun I spent a few minutes looking around the village, refilling my water bottles and having a bite to eat. Then it was back on the D10 retracing my route to Le Mas. It’s all uphill and the July sun was now shining brightly. All threats of rain seemed to have vanished, at least in this area. By the time I reached Le Mas I was ready for a break and some cool water which I found in the village fountain. Then it was back up over the Col de Bleine from the northern side, this time almost exactly 5km with an average grade of 6.2%. Then a quick trip along the plateau and down into Gréolières.
The “James Bond Descent”
I promised I would say a bit more about this famous little bit of road. About 4km before you reach Gréolières you begin to see some fabulous rock formations which the road cuts right through. This leaves portions of the stone and boulders on both sides of the road creating some stunning little passageways through the rock. The road winds in and out, following the curve of the mountain slope as you pass quickly through these formations. There are a couple of tunnels, but they are quite short. It’s a very scenic piece of roadway and it was featured in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan. Driving a silver Aston Martin DB5 Bond battles it out with a woman driving a red Ferrari 355. At one point in the video below you can clearly see the village of Gréolièrs in the background as some bike riders climb the hill. It’s always a blast zooming down this road and since it is often the last little bit of cycling at the end of a long ride (if we are ending in Gréolières), I always consider it something of a reward. Back in Gréolières I packed up my bike and drove home to Vence.
Important Notes: There is a lot climbing on this route. Basically you’re either going up or down, there is very little level ground. The traffic is usually not too bad throughout the ride and in face, for large portions of it, you many not see many cars at all. If there is any sign of rain I would suggest leaving the ride for another time. As always you’ll want to make sure you have a good bike and plenty of water. The best time to make this ride in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest. Things might not be very favorable at certain times of the winter, as the Col de Bleine can often be closed. You’ll want a helmet and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. You should be able to find food and drink in Le Mas and Aiglun. If you are riding alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.
What: Bike Ride from Gréolières to Aiglun and back
Where: Gréolières & Aiglun (Google Maps)
When: All year round (though winter can be touch and go)
Phone: Marie de Aiglun – 04 93 05 85 35