Cycling the Vésubie Valley
Gorges, Forests and Snowy Peaks

April 19, 2022

Distance: 101 kilometers (63 miles)
Time: About 5 or 6 hours depending on your pace
Departure: Saint-Martin-sur-Var
Difficulty: Moderate (a long, steady climb through the valley with a few detours)
Elevation Gain: 1,619 meters (5,312 feet)

One of my favorite things about living in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France is the combination of mountains and beaches. The Alpes extend down from the north right to the coast, in some places almost to the very edge of the water. Wherever there are mountains there are going to be valleys (and gorges) and probably my favorite valley in this area is La Valleé de la Vésubie (The Vésubie Valley). This charming valley is known for its deep gorges, steep mountains, snowy peaks and dense forests.

I began this ride in Saint-Martin-du-Var, a small town that sits next to the Var River about 25 kilometers north of Nice and just south of where the valley begins. From here one can ride the entire length of the valley (and even more). I spent the entire first half of the ride climbing and then I zoomed back down to my starting point during the second half. Along the way I took three small detours to reach some of the villages perched on the sides of the mountains overlooking the valley.

There are several other villages in this valley worth visiting, but on this ride I was concentrating on these four villages: La Bollène-Vésubie, Belvédère, Saint-Martin-Vésubie & Venanson. I made two other rides a few months later, one of which took me to Duranus and Utelle and another to Lantosque and Roquebillière.

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About the Vésubie Valley

The Vésubie River begins in the Mercantour National Park near the border with Italy and runs for 46 kilometers before it empties into the Var River near Levens and Bonson. Along the way it passes through Saint-Martin-Vésubie, Roquebillière, Lantosque and Saint-Jean la Rivière. More villages dot the sides of the valley, perched high above the river, including Duranus, Utelle, La Bollène-Vésubie, Belvédère and Venanson. This ride will take your through a diverse, picturesque landscape as you cycle through deep gorges cut into the rock, vineyards, alpine forests, waterfalls, groves of olive trees and high mountain peaks.

The gorges occur in the southernmost part of the valley, from around Plan-du-Var to Saint-Jean-la-Rivière as the river carves through the stone creating tall vertical walls on each side. The middle section of the valley remains typical of the Mediterranean area with lots of olive trees and terraced crops. The upper portion turns more alpine, alternating between forests of pine and fir trees, waterfalls, sloping green pastures and tall summits.

This is one of the most popular areas in the Alpes-Maritimes for nature lovers, mountaineers, hikers and walkers especially at the north end where the valley borders the Mercantour National Park. The village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie is a virtual mecca for hikers who come from all over the country to explore the hundreds of kilometers of trails that run through the area. On the front of the Office de Tourisme is a large sign which lists close to 100 “Promenades et Excursions à Pied” with approximate times and altitudes.

On October 2, 2020 the valley (along with the neighboring valleys La Vallée de la Tinée and La Vallée de la Roya) was ravaged by Tempête Alex (Storm Alex), an extremely powerful early-season cyclone that caused widespread flooding, damage and overall devastation. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed, roads were washed away and bridges collapsed. In the Vésubie Valley Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Roquebillière suffered the most destruction. Saint-Martin-Vésubie was especially hard hit with over 19 inches of rain falling in less than 24 hours. I love these valleys and it breaks my heart to see the damage they have suffered. It will probably take decades for the land, the river and the villages to fully recover.

Starting the Ride from Saint-Martin-du-Var

I decided the begin this ride from Saint-Martin-du-Var because I wanted to get in 100 kilometers and when I mapped things out this seemed like a good place to start. It’s a small little nondescript town along the Var River and it’s a short ride from there up the M6202 to Le Plan-du-Var where the valley begins. Just past Le Plan-du-Var is a large roundabout. If you take the first road to the right you’ll head up the Vésubie Valley, if you go straight through the roundabout you’ll continue on up towards the Tinée Valley and the Var Valley. Everything is very well marked so you should have no trouble finding your way onto the correct road.

The prettiest part of this ride is arguably that which passes through the Gorges de la Vésubie on the way from Le Plan-du-Var to Lantosque, a distance of about 20kms. The ascent is fairly gradual covering about 343 vertical meters for an overall grade of less than 5%. Very shortly after turning from the roundabout onto the M2565 ( the main road that runs through the valley) you’ll begin to enter into the gorges. The canyon narrows and tall rock cliffs appear on both sides of the river. It’s a really beautiful area and cycling through here is a real delight.

The road is narrow as it hugs the side of the mountain and the views of the river below and cliffs above are outstanding. Depending upon the time of day you are cycling through there may not be much sunlight reaching the ground. There isn’t usually too much traffic along the road though it can get very busy on weekends during the summer months. You’ll need to pass through a couple of tunnels, but they are all well lit and nothing to be concerned about.

Just before you come to the small hamlet of Saint-Jean la Rivière the road crosses over to the right side of the river. Very shortly there is a turnoff to the right for the village of Duranus and smack dab in the middle of Saint-Jean la Rivière is a turnoff to the left for Utelle (both of which we will be skipping today). The road will cross back over the river again after a few more kilometers.

When you reach the village of Lantosque you have two options: if you keep to the right on the main road (the M2565) you’ll bypass the village. If, however, you keep to the left on the M173 you’ll pass right through Lantosque. I highly suggest taking this route. They are both about the same in distance and it’s definitely worth a ride through the village. After Lantosque the M173 will join back up again with the M2565, where after about two more kilometers you’ll come to the M70 on the right. Turn here for the short climb of about three kilometers up La Bollène-Vésubie.

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La Bollène-Vésubie

For hundreds of years the official name of this small mountain village was Italian: Bollena. It’s name was changed when it officially became part of France in 1860 (as did many other towns and villages in the western Alpes-Maritimes, including Nice). A violent earthquake almost completely destroyed the village in 1564.

The entire Vésubie valley is located in an area that has seen many disputes and changes of ownership over the centuries and La Bollène-Vésubie is no exception. In 1705 it was occupied by the French troops of Louis XIV during the War of Spanish Succession. In 1744 and again in 1747 fighting in the area between French and Spanish troops against the Savoyards and Austrians saw more upheaval and destruction for the little village. Even after it became officially part of France in 1860 tensions continued and in the early 1900s numerous forts and barricades were built in the area (part of the Maginot Line) to protect Eastern France from a possible Italian invasion.

Today La Bollène-Vésubie is a delightful village of about 500 residents. With its magnificent view of the valley below it attracts all kinds of cyclists, hikers and outdoor aficionados. If you continue on the M70 past La Bollène-Vésubie you’ll climb one side of the famous Col de Turini, a haven for cyclists and motorcyclists alike. The famous Monte-Carlo Rally car race uses this col on a regular basis and it’s not unusual to see “would be” race car drivers flying through the many switchbacks and turns as they pretend to navigate the course.

The Église Saint-Laurent (St. Lawrence Church) is a beautiful example of 18th century Baroque architecture, completed in 1725. It features a renaissance-style square bell tower and the ceiling inside is highlighted with elegant paintings and decorations. Several local chapels, including Chapelle Saint-Honorat and Chapelle Saint-Sauveur are worth a visit. There’s even a Butterfly Museum in the former, renovated Chapel of the White Penitents which houses an important collection of insects from around the world.

Once you have a nice look around in La Bollène-Vésubie head back down the way you came, reconnect with the M2565 and head north towards Belvédère.

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It’s a short ride, less than three kilometers to the next turn off, the M71 which leads up to Belvédère. The road twists and turns through several switchbacks as it makes it way up the mountainside for about four kilometers. Belvédère is an interesting little village that basically runs along one main street across the side of the mountain. Like La Bollène-Vésubie it was once known by its Italian name (though not much different than the French): Belvedere.

Belvédère sits at a crossroads in the Vésubie Valley where it intersects with the Gordolasque Valley. It has not had an easy life over the centuries. The village was also hard hit by the earthquake of 1564. 80 people were killed and over half the buildings in the village were destroyed. The plague ravaged the village in 1629 and cholera struck in 1764. A fire in 1751 ravaged much of the village. A huge landslide in 1926, following a month and a half of violent rains, killed 15 people and destroyed a large portion of the village Roquebillière below.

Belvédère is one of the main points in the valley (along with Saint-Martin-Vésubie) from which hikers can access the Mercantour National Park. As such it depends on tourism for a large part of its business. The 17th century Baroque church of St. Peter and St. Paul features an altar and altarpiece from the 18th century. Several nearby chapels and the ruins of an old castle are also popular destinations for tourists. The famous French television show from the 1960s, Belle and Sébastien, was filmed in the village.

I rode into the village via the M71, traversed from one side to the other looking at the various sites and then took a different leg of the M71 back down to the M2565. This northern portion rejoins the main road just a little bit farther up the valley then from where I left for the climb up the village.

From this point on the road becomes a bit steeper, though it’s still fairly gradual. It’s just over eight kilometers more to the village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, one of my absolute favorite villages in France. The terrain gradually becomes more Alpine in nature and in the distance you can begin to see the high peaks of the lower Alpes, almost always covered in snow even into early summer.

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Saint-Martin-Vésubie is first mentioned in the history books during the 12th century under the name of Saint-Martin-de-Lantosque. The village we know today was originally built around a monastery associated with the Knights of Templar. An indigenous population certainly inhabited the area as early as the 1st century, and most likely long before that. The remains of a Roman fort (castrum) run along the side of a mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Madonna. The old Salt Road passed through here on the way from Italy to Nice. In 1308 the village was the site of a famous massacre of Templar knights.

During World War II this part of France was occupied by the Italian Fourth Army from November 11, 1942 onwards. The Italians were more sympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees than either the Germans or the French. Thousands of Jews were able to find a safe haven in this area and many of them were relocated to Saint-Martin-Vésubie. However, after the Italian Armistice in September 1943, under great threat from the Germans, over a thousand members of the village’s Jewish population made the long, arduous climb over the Old Salt Road mountain passes in the Gesso Valley, hoping to find safety in Italy. Almost all of the remaining Jews in Saint-Martin-Vésubie were arrested by the Germans and taken to Auschwitz. In September 2016 the village was recognized as one of the “Righteous Cities and Villages of France” for its work to protect Jews during the war.

When you reach the village take a bit of time to explore various streets, chapels, churches and merchants. Unlike a lot of other mountain villages in this area you won’t find a lot of winding, steep, narrow roads. Instead the main streets run from north to south, following the path of the Vésubie River located just to the east. Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Church of our Lady of the Assumption) is a 12th century church built by the Templars and modified in 1694. The Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs (The Chapel of the White Penitents) dates from the end of the 17th century and features a bell tower capped with a bulb. The Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs (The Chapel of the Black Penitents) was built in the 15th century and is the home to several paintings from the 1600s.

I came back to Saint-Martin-Vèsubie a few weeks after this ride to watch the Tour de France cycle through the village. It was a beautiful sunny August day and a large local crowd came out to cheer on the riders. It was a lot of fun. I’ve always said that if I could afford a second home I’d buy a little place in Saint-Martin-Vésubie for a little mountain retreat. As I mentioned above the village was hit very hard by Storm Alex and the land situated around the town today looks more like a desert than a forest. Thankfully there is a lot of work being done to restore it to its former grandeur.

After you’ve spent some time in Saint-Martin-Vèsubie you’ll move on to the last village on this ride, Venanson, which can be seen perched on a rocky ledge high above. Continue on the M2565 for a short distance and then turn left on the M31.

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The road up to Venanson is fairly short (only four kilometers) and not too steep. Be sure to keep an eye on the valley below as you climb, you’ll get some fantastic views, especially of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Before long you’ll spot the village ahead in the distance. It’s situated on a rocky spur (what the French like to call an “eagle’s nest”) overlooking the Vésubie Valley. Once you reach the village your climbing for the day will be finished.

Like the other villages in the region Venanson was previously known by its Italian name: Venanzone. The first recorded mention of the village comes from 1064 when a castle is mentioned in some official documents. There’s no traces of the castle now but it is assumed to have been in the same place that the village stands today, as that would make the most sense from a defensive standpoint. The earthquake of 1564 (which affected all the villages up and down the valley) left 38 people dead and 11 badly hurt.

The Chapel of San Sébastian, also known as the Chapel of St. Claire and dating from the 15th century, is one of the most celebrated examples of fresco artwork from this period. Painted by Giovanni Baleison, the entire chapel is covered with beautiful frescos depicting a variety of biblical scenes, mostly relating to San Sébastian.

The Church of Saint-Michel and the Chapel of the White Penitents which sits right next to it, along with a washhouse and the central square are the main things to see in the village. After your visit you can head back down the way you came, reconnect with the M2565 and take it all the way down the valley and back to Saint-Martin-du-Var. It’s downhill all the way, so enjoy the ride!

Cycling through the Vésubie Valley
Starting in Saint-Martin-du-Var and cycling up the entire Vésubie Valley to Venanson.


You can reach Saint-Martin-du-Var (the starting point for this ride) from Nice by taking M6202 north following the Var River. It’s easy to get to and the signage along the way is excellent. Once you arrive in Saint-Martin-du-Var there are numerous places to park.

Important Notes: There is a lot of climbing on this route (though none of it is particularly steep) so be prepared. The traffic is usually not too bad throughout most the route but during peak tourist seasons it can get busier. All of the roads are in excellent condition. 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 and in the winter early in the afternoon when it’s warmest. You’ll want a helmet and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. You should be able to find water all along the route, but for food your best bet will be Saint-Martin-Vésubie. 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.

Juste les Faits:
What: Cycling the Vésubie Valley
Where: The Vésubie Valley – starting in Saint-Martin-du-Var (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: Any time really, but probably best to avoid the winter months
Phone: Bureau d’Information Touristique de Saint-Martin-Vésubie – 04 93 03 21 28
Facebook: Saint-Martin-Vésubie

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Gorges, Forests and Snowy Peaks

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