Vence sits on a small plateau only a few kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea to the south and a few kilometers from the beginning of the Alpes mountains to the north. It’s one of the things that I love most about our village, the close proximity to both the ocean and the mountains. If you want to head directly up into the mountains the quickest way is over the Col de Vence, the small mountain pass that overlooks the Parc des Noves and the Baous massif. From Vence it’s about 10 kilometers to the top of the col which is often used in many cycling races, including the famous Paris-Nice race. Once you reach the peak and head down the other side it’s about 7 kilometers until you reach the first village, Coursegoules, which is something of a “gateway” to the Haut Pays (the high back country) and the Southern Préalpes. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Col de Vence, hiking and cycling. One of my favorite rides from Vence is a circuit I call the “The Vence 7 Village Loop,” which begins in Vence, takes you over the Col de Vence and through seven villages, including Coursegoules.
From Coursegoules you have access to wide variety of other nearby villages including Gréolières and Cipières to the west and Bézaudun-les-Alpes and Bouyon to the east. It’s situated in the Préalpes d’Azur Regional Natural Park (a relatively new national park established in 2012) near the foot of the southern slope of the Cheiron mountain range where the Cagnes River cuts a small valley. As the crow flies it is less than 20 kilometers from the ocean, but it seems a world away. Agriculture and tourism are the two main industries in the area. There are a couple of restaurants, a crêperie and two equestrian centers in the village. It’s a focal point for hiking in the area and there are numerous trails and paths that are very popular with both the locals and tourists. Fishing and rock climbing are other favorite activities. In the late 1700s the village had a population of around 620. As with many rural French mountain villages that population gradually decreased until it reached a low of about 200 in the early 1920s. Since then it has rebounded and today you will find around 535 people calling Coursegoules their home.
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A Little History
The name “Coursegoules” has its origins in the Celtic language, most likely deriving from the words “cor seg” which means a sharp or pointed rock. Polished axes and pottery fragments that have been discovered near the village indicate that human occupation of the area dates back to at least the final Bronze Age or the first Iron Age. It was occupied by the Celto-Ligurian tribes before the Romans and an old oppidum (a small fortified town) almost certainly existed here for many years. In the 13th century Coursegoules was the stronghold for the lords of Villeneuve and one of their castles was located here.
Unlike many of the “perched” villages in southwest France, Coursegoules is not built high up on the side of a mountain, cliff or rocky outcrop. Because of this vulnerability it was important to fortify the village and so ramparts, along with three portes (entrances/gates), were added to the village sometime in 17th century and much of them are still visible.
In 1636 the village was declared a “Ville Royale,” meaning that it benefitted from privileges and protections granted by the King of France. However, with these benefits came obligations. Villes Royale were required to contribute men in case of war and money when necessary.
Electricity arrived in the village in 1927 but fresh water did not become available for another 10 years, until 1937.
A Walk Through The Village
Walking through the medieval village of Coursegoules is a real delight as you wander from one part to another. A maze of tangled streets, small squares, stone staircases and covered passageways lead you on what seems like an endless walk of discovery. The village stretches from the west to the east along the slope of the mountain and the many streets that run from the lower portion to the upper are sometimes nothing more than long staircases. Be prepared for a good workout as you traverse the numerous sets of stone stairs throughout the town. The oldest buildings in the village date back to the 13th century and most of the others are from the 17th century. If you love houses and buildings built from old stones Coursegoules is a real treasure. Local stone was used to build most (if not all) of the houses and buildings in the village and it provides a real sense of continuity to the structures. Most of the façades retain the original store surface though a few here and there have been covered with plaster and painted.
Places Neuve and de la Combe
The best place to begin a walk through Coursegoules is at the Place Neuve, the village square closest to the main entrance where several of the small stores in town are located. It connects to the Place de la Combe, a gathering place for locals that features a large fountain dating from 1880 and dedicated to a Monsieur Rhodes. As you walk through the square make sure to look up and to the left, high near the top of one of the buildings on the rue de la Clastre you’ll see a beautiful old painting on the wall. At the west end of the square is the village church.
Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine)
This church was probably built in the 13th century when the village was first being established. Constructed in the Provençal Romanesque style, it originally consisted of a single nave of three bays with a semicircular cul-de-four choir on the end. There is some evidence that it was built on the site of an older church or temple. As the village grew in size the church was expanded and in 1658 two side aisles, or wings, were added. It was fully restored in 2007 and in 2008 two new bells were added to replaced the old cracked one (which is now on display outside the church). The church was listed as a historical monument in 1982.
Inside the church you’ll find a variety of items which have been officially “registered” or “classified” as religious objects. The altarpiece of Saint-Jean-Baptiste is attributed to Louis Bréa, a famous Italian painter from the 1500s. However, note that the original was stolen in 1999 and has now been replaced by a reproduction which hangs on the wall as you enter the church. A ciborium (a small canopy that protects the most sacred space of a church) was a gift from Napoleon III in 1864. A copper and silver processional cross from the 16th century is another one of the church’s most prized possessions. There are seven small stained-glass windows spread over the four walls.
At the eastern end of the church is a small square called la Place du Millénaire. It was once a cemetery but has now been transformed into a small place to sit and relax while looking out over the Cagnes valley. You can find a small little plaque on the wall commemorating the installation of the new bells in 2008. If you walk to the western end of the church and down the steps on the left of the rue de l’Église you’ll find the old bell which was replaced in 2008.
Return back up to the church and climb the stairs a few steps down and on the right to the Chapelle des Pénitents Blanc. It’s quite a large chapel, almost as big as the church. A vestige of the old Villeneuve castle it features a bell tower which dates from the 19th century. This old castle is mentioned in a few places but there doesn’t seem to be much information about it. I’m not sure if the Chapelle des Pénitents Blanc was a part of the old castle or if it was built from the castle ruins. Either way there doesn’t seem to be anything else left of this castle.
Just around the corner is the Place de la Marie where the Marie (Town Hall) is located.
The Stone of Coursegoules
In the Marie de Coursegoules (the town hall) you can see a replica of a very strange stone that was discovered near the Chapelle Saint-Michel in 1980. Carved on what appears to be just a fragment of a larger piece there are seven lines of “text” which incorporate fourteen different, distinct characters. Little about these characters is familiar. There are some similarities with both the Greek alphabet and Carthaginian writing, but overall this “language” is not one that is currently recognized. Some consider this stone to be nothing more than a hoax but epigraphists from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifuqe, the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres at the Institut de France have all studied the rock, looking for some kind of explanation. In the end they were unable to solve the little mystery of where this stone came from and what it signifies.
Head back down to the church and head west along the Rue de la Clastre. Make your way over to 35 rue de l’Escaou where you’ll find a very interesting piece of children’s art affixed to the wall of one of the old buildings.
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De la Bête à l’Homme
In the 1950s and 1960s two very influential French educators, Élise and Célestine Freinet opened a small museum in Coursegoules dedicated to the art of children. A bas-relief about 5 meters by 3 meters was commissioned to adorn the outside wall. Designed by pupils at their school, a ceramist from Vallauris, M. Pérot, did the firing of the piece and it was installed by the mason M. Laurent. Célestin Freinet (October 16, 1896 – October 8, 1966) is a fascinating figure who invented a rigorous pedagogy based on innovative techniques: work plan, production of free texts, printing, individualization of work, surveys and conferences, expression-creation workshops, school correspondence, body education and consultation meetings. He experimented with his concepts of teaching by founding a school in Vence and the Vence library is named after him and his wife.
Close by is the town bibliothèque which was built in an area of old ruined houses, some of the walls of which have since been restored and turned into a little park and garden. A little to the south is an interesting piece of medieval architecture called Le Pountis, a beautiful double archway and covered passageway with a nice sloping cobblestone street and stairs running down the middle. Another large covered archway leads outside the original walls and ramparts via the original south gate. From there you can make your way up to the Place du Plat located in the heart of the village. Here you’ll find the old “lavoir” where women once (and maybe still do?) washed clothes. Keep going a bit further and you’ll come to one of the most impressive sites in the village, the Porte Est des Ramparts, one of the original entrances to the village.
Make your way back up to the town hall and exit the square through the northern archway. The Place du Cheiron is where locals come to play the French game of pétanque and you’ll see several large dirt playing areas here. Head west along the Chemin du Colombier to reach the town cemetery. It’s here that the World War I Memorial (common to all French towns and villages) can be found just inside the entrance on the left. (Note there is also another memorial on one of the walls inside the church.)
From the cemetery it’s easy to make your way back to the starting point at the Place Neuve (or wherever you may have parked your car.)
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More to See and Do in and Around Coursegoules
In addition to the Chapelle des Pénitents Blanc there are at least five other chapels in and around Coursegoules. The Chapelle Saint-Michel is located about one and a half kilometers west of the village, so you’ll need to do a bit of walking to reach it (see more info below). Registered as a historic monument in 1978 this chapel was most likely built on the site of a small Roman temple and contains a Roman funerary slab from the 7th century, possibly earlier. Monks from the Lérins Abbey off the coast of Cannes kept the chapel over the centuries. There is some speculation that parts of the chapel may have been built as early as the 6th or 7th century, but most of what we see now probably originated from the late 11th century. It was restored in 1984. The hike to the chapel is not too difficult and it is well worth the effort. Situated on a small grassy plateau the chapel is quite unique, much different from the normal rectangular chapels that populate the area. A circular section on one ends gives the structure a certain amount of elegance and charm that you don’t often find in these small rural chapels. An orange, blue and red stained glass window on the eastern wall allows the interior to be bathed in colored light when the sun is bright and shining through, especially in the morning. The chapel is usually locked but the main entrance is a simple door of iron rods so it’s easy to see inside.
Other chapels include Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste(located on the right as you first enter the village via the Chemin de Cousegle), Chapelle Saint-Antoine (located on the left and a bit below the road just before you come to the large blue Coursegoules sign on the same road), Chapelle Sainte-Anne and Chapelle Saint-Barnabé. I can’t find any documentation as to where the last two chapels are located so if you are familiar with them please let me know!
The Old Templars Mill
At the western end of the village you can turn from the D8 onto the Route de Moulin to see an old grain mill that was originally built by the Templars in 1246. As soon as you turn onto the street you’ll see the mill straight ahead. It’s a private residence now so you can only look at it from the street. It stopped operating as a mill near the end of the 19th century and was abandoned until 1964 when two architects bought and restored it.
Le Vallon du Brec Garden
Located directly across from the eastern end of the village on the D8 is Le Vallon du Brec, a private garden registered with the French Comité des Parcs et Jardins de France and certified as a “Jardin Remarquable” by the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication. The garden is open to the public, but there are no “regular” hours. To visit you must contact the owners and book a tour. The cost is 10€ per adult and 5€ per child with a minimum of four people. The garden was established in 1992 and contains plants native to China, Japan, North America and the Côte d’Azur. Various walkways and viewpoints are dotted with many painted wooden structures. One of the owners is also an artist and he maintains a studio on the grounds where he sells original art, lamps and tables. If you want a special place to stay in Coursegoules and like the idea of peaceful lodgings in the countryside there are two apartments available via Airbnb on the grounds as well.
I have found reference to old 17th and 18th century bergeries (sheep houses) in the area that are said to be worth visiting, but have been unable to find much information about them. One in particular, Bergerie de Sigariès, is located across from Coursegoules off of the D2 on the way to Gréolières, but it appears to be in private hands and it’s not possible to visit.
A little over 1 kilometer from the east end of the village you’ll find a small oratory dedicated to Saint Marc on the right side of the road. These oratories are found all over France and are usually very simple little stone columns with a small “chapel” at the top and a statue of the saint inside. Saint Marc is missing his head in this one. I don’t know anything about him but I assume this is intended as the little chapel is protected by a metal grate and it doesn’t seem like this is an act of vandalism.
There are numerous other villages located close to Coursegoules including Bézaudun-les-Alpes, Bouyon and le Broc to the east and Grèoliéres, Cipières and Gourdon to the west. All are worth visiting if you have the time.
Hiking around Coursegoules
There are numerous trails and paths in the immediate vicinity of Coursegoules but the three most popular routes are:
The Chapelle Saint-Michel (about 3km round trip, 120m of climbing, fairly easy)
This is a fairly short and fairly easy hike, definitely suitable for families and children. It begins at the eastern end of the Place de Cheiron where you’ll find balise #13. The trail is well maintained and marked with yellow paint. It’s about 1.5km to the chapel and should take you anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours to make the round trip. It’s mostly uphill on the way out and then downhill on the way back, but it’s not very steep and shouldn’t be a problem for most people in relatively good condition. If you have the time I would highly recommend this hike. There are some beautiful views of the village and the surrounding countryside from the chapel.
The Viériou Summit (about 6km round trip, 360m of climbing, more difficult)
This is a longer and more difficult hike that takes you up to the the summit of the Viériou with some spectacular views. It has much more climbing (and some steep sections) and should take about three to four hours round trip.
The Cheiron Loop (about 10km, 400m of climbing, difficult)
A much longer hike that follows the hike to the Chapelle Saint-Michel but then continues farther west before looping back to include the Viériou summit. It basically combines the two hikes above with a bit more as well and should take around four to five hours to complete.
You can find more information about these hikes at various online websites and in lots of books.
Coursegoules can be reached via the D8 from Bézaudun-les-Alpes to the east or the D2 from Grèoliéres to the west. From Vence take the M2 up to the Col de Vence. After you reach the summit the road turns into the D2 and you’ll see the exit for the D8 about seven kilometers down the other side. About one or two kilometers from the D8 turnoff you’ll get a lovely view of Coursegoules in the distance to the right. It’s a great spot to stop and take some photos. Once you arrive at the village you can enter via the Chemin de Cousegle (the D108). There are some places to park just before and inside the Place Neuve, but visitors and hikers are asked to instead follow the Chemin du Brec up to a large modern parking lot that has been built behind and above the village. You’ll see the sign as soon as you turn into the village from the D8.
There is no Office de Toursime in Coursegoules, the nearest one can be found in Grèoliéres, but if the town hall is open you can ask for any information there.