Another “perched village” situated at the top of a high rocky outcrop, next to a river, surrounded by mountains. It’s tempting to dismiss Coaraze as just one more pretty little French village. It would be a mistake to do so. It is one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” and for good reason. One of the things that makes Coaraze so special to so many is the light. Known as “Le Village du Soleil” (The Village of the Sun) it claims to enjoy more sunshine than any village in France. Now, I’m not sure that’s really completely accurate, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Over the years the village has built a reputation as a luminous, radiant sanctuary in the mountains north of Nice. Bright stone walls with warm colors sprinkled over the surfaces dominate this little village with a long history and some curious legends. Famous artists such as Jean Cocteau have designed huge sun dials which adorn the town hall and other buildings. I’ve passed through Coaraze several times on my bike and been up by car to get a better look on several occasions as well. It’s one of only three “Most Beautiful Villages of France” in our department, Alpes-Maritimes.
[more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
Some of the locals claim that the village came by its name (which means “shaved or cut tail”) when the townspeople captured the devil and glued his tail to the ground. He was only able to escape by cutting the tail off. Others claim the name relates to the Paillon and Gravière rivers. Either way, the meaning is tied closely to the town and you’ll even find a lizard with its tail cut off on the official village coat of arms.
There is evidence of habitation on the spot where Coaraze now lies as early as the Bronze Age (1800BC). The rocky hill, created by a huge formation of sandstone, likely afforded protection and refuge for many centuries before a village was ever built. A church and later a military fortification were constructed sometime before the 11th century. The village was first reported officially in a document from 1108 under the name of Cauda Rasa.
Over the centuries the village suffered many disruptions, disturbances and disasters. Periods of famine, epidemics and wars all took their toll on the village and its inhabitants. In the 11th century the Saracens (barbarian invaders) were driven from the the north Mediterranean coast and a long period of economic revival began. For over 300 years the area prospered and grew and the population increased. In 1629 the village was declared a barony. From 1744 to 1748 the village was even held under Spanish administration. The Battle of Coaraze took place in 1793 when Claude-Victor Perrin and his battalion of 600 repelled a force of 3,000 Piedmontese.
Water wasn’t brought to the village until 1875. Before that the locals had to walk over 45 minutes to collect water and carry it back to the village, quite an ordeal. The first real road was built to Coaraze in 1876 and it could then be reached by stagecoach from Nice in four hours.
A Walk Through the Village
A good place to begin a walk through the village is the square named Place Alexandre Mari, named for a famous villager who went on to become mayor of Nice in the early 1900s. (*Note: There is an online app which will walk you through the village from one end to the other with commentary. There is a link at the end of this article.) The square sits at the main entrance to the village, very close to several parking areas. Years ago the small Chapel of Sainte-Catherine stood on this site and it is still called Place Sainte-Catherine by many of the locals who remember the old name. From the square head up to the Town Hall (the Marie) where you will find the tourist office. Note the four large sundials on the front of the Marie (one by the famous artist and writer Jean Cocteau) and another on the side.
Like all medieval French villages Coaraze has several large “portals.” These were the original gates which gave access to the village and which could be opened and closed as needed. Once you pass through “Le Portal,” the main access to the village, the streets are pedestrian only. Because Coaraze is built on a rock inhabitants used ingenuity and resourcefulness to make the best use of the limited space available to them. Small narrow streets follow the ancient paths and lanes that originally led to the summit of the hill. The houses are often carved directly from the rock. Throughout the village you will find many cases where the houses have actually been built over the streets, creating what is known as a “pontis,” a small covered passageway. It is these many pontis that give Coaraze some of its most memorable and enduring features.
As you wander through the small streets keep an eye out for the Presbytery garden (the only green space inside the village), the old wash house (dating from the end of the 19th century), Place de Veloplat (the oldest public square in the village), the old communal bread oven (with it’s contemporary wrought-iron grid) and the blacksmith’s house (with its fabulous carved lintel above the door dated 1533). As you approach the top of the hill you’ll come to Place Félix-Giordan, where you’ll find the beautiful l’Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and just above it, Place du Château.
Named after a Coarazian French resistance fighter from World War II, Place Félix-Giordan is a large, spacious, sun drenched square full of sundials and other works of art. Besides a set of four large sundials you’ll see the small figure of a child, created with rocks and seemingly emerging from the wall. This small sculpture was created by a former resident, Alain Derrez, to symbolize the “wild child of the Paillon.”
The Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste was originally built in the early 1300s, but it has undergone many structural changes since it’s initial construction due to damage and destruction over the centuries. The square bell tower has four openings on the top floor with access is via a spiral staircase. The interior is of “baroque splendor,” a style which lies in stark contrast to the extreme simplicity of the exterior which features no decorative styling whatsoever.
Above the church you’ll find La Place du Château where the castle of Coaraze once stood. Built in the 14th century it was in ruins by 1740 and completely razed in the early 1800s. Next to nothing is known about its design and appearance. From this modern square you have an extended view of the Paillon valley to the south. A war memorial stands on the west end of the square dedicated to the men from Coaraze who died in the First World War. To the north is a view towards the Alpes and the ancient village of Rocca Sparvièra, totally abandoned since the early 1600s. It’s possible to hike up to the ruins of this old village if you have a few extra hours to spare.
Sundials have been a central and important part of life in Coaraze since the 1960s when the mayor Paul Mari Antoine asked many of his artist friends to design a set of twelve sundials for the village. Six were designed between 1961 and 1962, all measuring 180cm by 120cm. Four of these original sundials are featured on the facade of the Mairie. Included are “The Lizards” by Jean Cocteau, “The Sunflowers” by Gilbert Valentin, “The Ride of Time” by Mona Christie and “The Fabulous Animals” by Georges Douking. Another six sundials were added beginning in 2007. One of the newest, “The Village of Coaraze” by Fabienne Barre, can be found on the east-southeast façade of the Town Hall. The others can be found at the top of the village on the walls in the square facing the front of the church. “Blue Time” is by Angel Ponce de Leon, “The Python and it’s Green and Gold Crown” is by Georges Gœtz, “Lo Temps Passa, Passa-lo Ben” by Ben and “Vénus” by Sacha Sosno.
Two wonderful little chapels lay on the outskirts of Coaraze. Saint-Sébastien is a few kilometers down the road and La Chapelle Bleue sits right next to the edge of the village. The Chapel of Saint-Sébastien sits on the road that was once a salt route between Nice and Piedmont in Italy. It was along these trails that the black death (the Plague) travelled in the 1500s. The Coarazians built the chapel to protect themselves against the pandemic and the plague never reached Coaraze. Beautiful 16th century frescoes can be found on the walls.
The Blue Chapel (it’s true name is Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs) dates back to the 18th century and sits on the former road that led from Coaraze to Rocca Sparvièra. It has a large porch that is open on three sides with semi-circular arches. The walls are decorated with contemporary frescoes painted by Ponce de Léon, all painted in shades of blue (from which the current nickname comes).
The Legend of Queen Jeanne
Queen Jeanne was the granddaughter of Robert d’Anjou, the most famous king of Italy in the 14th century. She was the Queen of Naples and Sicily and also the Countess of Provence, Nice and Piedmont. An old legend says that in 1348 when she was staying at the castle of Rocca Sparvièra she decided to attend a mass in Coaraze. Taking advantage of her absence her enemies seized her children, killed them, roasted them and cooked them into a meal. Upon returning to Rocca Sparvièra the Queen, hungry, tired and cold, ate the meal prepared for her, and indeed, her own children. When she learned what she had eaten she fled to Coaraze and placed a curse against the village of Rocca Sparvièra, “The day will come when on your peaks, not crow neither cock nor hen will flourish but only hawks and other wild birds.” Well, the village did indeed waste away little by little and in the 1800s it was destroyed almost completely by an earthquake. However, in the interest of “fake news,” it should be noted that Queen Jeanne had no children yet at the time this legend was supposed to have taken place.
Coaraze is about 40 minutes from Nice. Head north on the M2204B. Just after La Trinité it will turn into the D2204B. At La Pointe de Contes you’ll turn onto the D15 which will take you all the way into Coaraze. From anywhere else along the Côte d’Azur just hop on the A8 and get off at exit 55, pick up the M2204B and follow the directions above. There are also a couple of buses that can get you to the village. There is a small tourist office next to the Marie called the “Maison du Patrimoine.” It is open on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8:30AM to 4:30PM. From Wednesday from 9AM to 12PM and on Saturday from 8:30AM to 11:30AM. In addition to information about the cultural heritage of the village, hiking trails, outdoor activities and acommodations you’ll also find local products for sale.