The Rivière la Tinée (the Tinée River) runs for about 70kms (43 miles) from the Col de la Bonette south until it empties into the Var River a few kilometers north of Plan-du-Var. Along the way it flows through the Parc du Mercantour and creates La Vallée de la Tinée (The Tinée Valley), one of the main valleys in the Alpes-Maritimes. In the lower half of the valley you’ll find some of the most famous “perched villages” in the south of France. Built high on the western or eastern side of the valley such villages as Ilonse, Marie, Clans, La Tour and Bairols make this area a true delight for those in search of remote mountain-top villages. They are not easy to get to, most of them require a drive anywhere from six to twelve kilometers from the valley floor up the side of the mountain. Often there is only one road leading in and out and more often than not these roads are not in the best condition.
I’ve been climbing up to these villages on my bike for many years but now I’m beginning to explore them in more depth on foot. Bairols is one of the southern most villages in the valley, perched 830 meters (2,723 feet) above the Tinée River on the western side. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Vence and the route is quite scenic as you travel alongside both the Var River and then the Tinée River. Once you enter the Tinée Valley you’ll have magnificent views of the river, the mountains towering above to the east and west, and, if you look carefully, some of the villages perched high above. These villages are far from the popular tourist routes you’ll find closer to the coast and as such they are much less crowded. Only a few hard-core tourists venture up this far, even in the summer months, and it makes these villages a lot more fun to explore. Carole and I visited Bairols, along with our friend Gloria, in early March and we had the place to ourselves. There were a few locals scattered about here and there but we were the only “visitors” in sight.
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A Little History
The earliest known reference to the village of Bairols comes from around 1040 when it is mentioned as a fortified habitat by the name of “Bairolium” and owned by Aldebert and his wife Emengarde. Over the years the name evolved to “Bairolo,” “Bairoliis,” “Bairol” and “Bairols.” It’s possible that the name comes from the Ligurian words “ber” (meaning a high plateau or dominant place) and “rols” (meaning rocks).
In 1259 there is a mention of the village as a possession of the Lérins Abbey, a monastery located on Île Saint-Honorat off the coast of Cannes. Sometime in the 1300s it became part of the fiefdom of the Grimaldi de Beuil (a powerful feudal family in Provence), along with countless other villages and territories in the area such as Ilonse, Pierlas, Lieuche, Rigaud, Thiéry, Marie and many, many more.
Due to its extreme isolation and poor roads the village never really prospered throughout the centuries and as such there is not a lot to find in the history books about it. The population reached a high of around 250 in the mid 1800s and a low of around 50 in the 1930s before rebounding a bit to the current number of 107. It was only in 1939 that a road passable by automobiles was built to the village.
Over the last few decades the village has been “restored” with a strong determination to retain its authenticity as a medieval village. Today you’ll find it in excellent condition, a mix of new and old that nevertheless remains true to its origins. There is no real commerce in the village, no stores or shops, only one small auberge at the present time. It has been awarded two “flowers” by the Conseil National des Villes et Villages Fleuris, a French organization that endorses and promotes towns and villages based on their landscaping, heritage, history and unique greening strategies.
A Walk Through The Village
There’s a parking lot on the only road leading into town (the M56) just before the village. At the very beginning of the parking lot is a beautiful metal sculpture of the town’s name and next to it a small pillar with the town’s coat of arms. As you walk up from the parking lot you’ll pass the Marie (town hall) and there are nice views of the valley below and of the side of the village perched on the rocky spur. We ran into the mayor of the village, sitting out front of the Marie eating his lunch with his dog. He spoke to us a bit, asking where we were from and explaining that the only restaurant in town was closed. I found out later that he is 90 years old (he looked it!) and has been largely responsible for the renovations and restorations in the village.
Just past the parking lot, just before the entrance to the village itself, you’ll find a large colorful map of the area showing some of the other nearby villages located in the “county” of Villars-sur-Var: Roussillon, La Tour, Massoins, Tournefort, La Courbaisse, Malaussene, Villars-sur-Var, Touët-de-Var, Thiery, Lieuche and Pierlas. The highlights of Bairols (noted as a perched medieval village) are listed on the sign as a Baroque church, an oil and a flour mill, a table of orientation, an auberge and the village’s street lamps. Immediately past this sign, on the left, there is a set of stone stairs with a metal railing that will provide a quick shortcut up to the church, however, we’ll proceed into the village and take a different route.
One of the items of interest in the village is also situated here near the entrance and it is easy to miss. If you look carefully on your left you’ll see a large piece of rock known as “La Stèle au Cercle.” It was first discovered in 2003 near the ruined Saint-Martin Chapel. Made of local yellow sandstone this small monolith probably dates back to Roman times, maybe even Neolithic. A hollow circle about 16cm wide can be found at the top where the original piece is broken. It surely symbolizes something, but no one knows exactly what. Little is know about this stele but it does show that the site of the Saint-Martin Chapel was most likely a place used for ancient religious gatherings and ceremonies.
A small “place” (square) greets you as you first enter the village and the views from the edge are spectacular. At the end there is a fountain which dates back to 1885 and if you take a left turn here, on rue Lou Veill, you will head up towards the church. Like almost all of the perched villages in Alpes-Maritimes the village is dominated by narrow cobblestone streets and stone houses. Very few of the facades here are painted, the walls of all the buildings are natural stone, almost all of which were gathered from the immediate area.
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This small steep street, with its green metal railing, takes you directly to the Church of Saint Margaret. As with many churches in these perched villages, it’s built near the top of the village, situated in a spot that allows the inhabitants to look up to it. Orientated from south to north the church features an unusual structure, probably due to the land on which it was built. You don’t really notice from the front, but when you walk around to the back you will see how the main building has a slight “turn” to it, it’s not completely rectangular. Over the centuries the structure has been modified and enlarged several times. It’s a very interesting building, with the two bells at the top and an asymmetrical shape. On the front, to the right of the main entrance, is the World War I memorial that you will find in every French town and village. A small orientation table can also be found to the right of the church where nearby villages and mountain peaks are listed and pointed out.
Unfortunately, every time I have been here the church has been closed so I have never had the opportunity to see the interior. If you are lucky enough to make it inside there are two frescoes in the choir dedicated to the Baptism of Christ, an 18th century statue of Saint Margaret, a painting of the crucifixion dating from around 1740 and an Altar of the Rosary from 1645.
Just past the church lies the town cemetery. I always like to take a few minutes and roam around a bit in the cemeteries looking for the oldest graves I can find. The cemetery here is small, but well kept and worth a little visit. To the left of the cemetery is a very nicely paved stone path that leads higher up to the Saint Roch Chapel. The path has clearly been restored sometime in the last few years and even has several street lamps along the way. You’ll pass a few small houses and eventually come to the Saint Roch Chapel (it’s not too far).
Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian were the two saints whose protection was most sought after and invoked in this area during the times of the plague. In 1348 the nearby village of Clans lost over a third of its population to the disease. More epidemics in 1550, 1580 and 1631 devastated the area. Saint Roch, born in the 14th century in Montpellier, is said to have escaped death during one outbreak of the plague, when suffering from the disease he was treated by an angel. His dog brought him bread every day allowing him to survive. These days he is typically represented with a stick in his hand, a plague bubo (a painful swelling caused by bubonic plague) on his leg and his faithful dog beside him with a piece of bread in its mouth. There are more than 45 chapels dedicated to Saint Roch in the area around Nice.
The original chapel probably dates back to the 1700s but his has been restored in recent years. It’s a simple, modest little stone structure, very similar to other chapels you’ll find in the area. A door and one small window adorn the front and a cross is placed over the door. I’ve never been able to get inside, but you can see a little bit through the window if you look really hard.
It’s a beautiful walk up the chapel and you’ll get some wonderful views of the village from this higher view point. Additionally, you can look out across the valley and see the village of Clans and the road that winds its way up to it. To the north and the south you can catch glimpses of other villages including Rimplas, Marie, Clans and La Tour.
After making the trip up to the chapel you can return to the church and this time take the small street that runs to the left. The village is laid out along the rocky spur on which it is built so there are only a few small streets running from the north to the south. As you follow this street you come across lots of interesting old doors, engraved lintels, small houses, a few fountains and even a small pétanque court.
Once you reach the southern end of the village you can turn back towards the square at the entrance to the village. You’ll pass by the old lavoir (where women washed clothes for well over a hundred years) and the Auberge du Moulin the only restaurant in town. A modern mill was developed in the 1930s to process flour and oil. Before this the famers had to make the long and difficult journey to nearby Clans or La Tour to grind their grain. In 1985 the old mill was restored and transformed into this small restaurant.
Even More to See and Do
If you’re interested in even more to see in Bairols there are a few other things you can explore. In addition to the Saint Roch Chapel there are three other chapels in the area. The Chapelle Saint Martin is located near a small road that runs between Bairols and nearby Massoins and has been recently restored. The Chapelle de la Madone is now in ruins and can be found below the village parking lot. Finally, the Chapelle Saint Brens, also in ruins, located near a telecommunications tower on the road up to Bairols. There are also supposed to be ruins of an old castle somewhere nearby, but I have not been able to find any documentation on this that shows exactly where they might be. Finally, there are the ruins of another mill that can be seen near the top of the road just before the village.
There are several other villages close to Bairols that are worth your time and travel. Ilonse, Clans and La Tour are my favorites, so if you have time while you’re in this area you might want to pay them a visit.
Bairols is located about 50kms north of Nice. It should take just over an hour to make the drive. From Nice take the M6202 (Route de Grenoble) north alongside the Var River. You’ll pass through Saint-Martin-du-Var and Plan-du-Var before coming to the turn off for the Tinée Valley, the M2205. Follow the road (and the Tinée River) until just before you come to Pont-de-Clans where you’ll see a small bridge on the left and signs pointing towards Bairols. This road, the M26, then turns into the M56 just as soon as you cross the bridge. Follow the M56 all the way up to Bairols (about 7kms). Be warned that it is a narrow, twisty mountain road with lots of hairpin curves and it is not always in the best of conditions. There are guardrails on most turns and where the drop-offs are particularly dangerous. If you are afraid of heights you might want to keep your eyes straight ahead for this part of the trip.
There is only one real parking lot and you’ll find it on the right just as you enter the village. You can not drive through most of the village so you must park here. There is no Office de Tourisme in Bairols, however the Marie (the town hall) is located at the entrance to the village and if it is open you can ask for assistance there. The village does not have its own official website.