I’ve written elsewhere about my fascination with small French villages. I love to explore and photograph them whenever I can. In our department (Alpes-Maritimes) there are three of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” Gourdon is the closest to us, only 26 kilometers (16 miles) from Vence. It’s what is known as a “perched village” (village perché), one that is situated at the very top of a mountain or cliff, making it easier to defend and more difficult to attack. I’ve been enamored with these perched villages since the 90s when Carole and I were on our honeymoon here in the south of France and we set out to find two well-known examples: Peille and Peillon. That trip did not go as expected, but I’ll save that story for another time. If we have visitors who are new to the area and don’t have a lot of time, I always take them to Gourdon. It’s a beautiful little village and since it’s so close to us it’s a pretty quick trip. Gourdon can sometimes be a little bit “touristy,” especially in the summer months at the peak of the season, but it’s still worth the trip. It’s also very easy to access from Grasse, Nice, Antibes or Cannes.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Most, if not all, of the perched villages in France date back to the middle ages. Many of them were built in 16th century when the numerous religious wars forced the inhabitants to hide and protect themselves. They were built on very high cliffs, mountains or rocky outcrops to protect the villagers from invasion. Many of them are fortified and they are often surrounded with ramparts for even further protection. The southeast part of France (where we live) is home to a large amount of these ancient villages and you can find them scattered all across the region. From Eze, situated almost directly on the coast to Saint-Agnes, the highest perched village in Europe, they are also known for a particular type of dwelling: the “high house.” Most of the very old, original houses in these villages had a barn on the ground floor and residential rooms on the upper floors. “Beast below, man above.” Gordes, Bonnieux, Ansouis, Peillon, Le Broc, Lacoste, Ménerbes, La Roquette-sur-Var and Roussilon are just a very few of the many, many perched villages you can visit in our part of France.
If you approach Gourdon via the D2210 (coming from Vence) you will get a magnificent view of the village perched high atop the edge of a huge cliff. You’ll have to look for it though, as it’s easy to miss. From the road it looks downright tiny. In fact, it is a very small village, one of the smallest in the area. From its high vantage point it looks out over the Mediterranean Sea and the Valley and Gorges du Loup. Its towering location earned it the name of “Eagle’s Nest.” The location was used in a military role as far back as Roman times and doubtless even before that.
Gourdon is one of the oldest established villages in the region, dating back to at least the 8th century when it was built to repel Saracen invasions. The gorges and the cliffs protected the front of the village and fortifications were built along the backside to defend the inhabitants from an attack from the mountains. Some historians believe that the current location of the village was once occupied by just the castle and that the village itself was found about two kilometers away.
As late as the early 1900s no road existed to connect Gourdon with Pont-du-Loup, the little village directly below it. There was only one way up and that was via the Chemin du Paradis, a very steep climb up the side of the mountain. Caravans of mules would take goods and people up from the Loup River to Gourdon. I’ve written about this path in the “Hiking” section of the website. It’s a well known, much traveled trail these days that I have enjoyed hiking on many times.
One of the things that I find most impressive about Gourdon is how the entire village has retained its authentic charm, due in no small part to the fact that most of it has been meticulously restored over the years. It is one of the cleanest and most well cared for villages I have ever visited. From the immaculate Provençal houses to the numerous small art galleries, from the perfumeries to the boutiques, from the church to the castle, it is a real treat to explore.
There’s really just one main street that runs through the center of Gourdon, rue Prinicpale, and in total there are only four or five other small, short streets. If you walk quickly you can cover the entire village in just a few minutes. Not that I would ever suggest such a thing! Take your time and explore every little nook and cranny. In addition to the shops and boutiques you’ll find several restaurants, a beautiful fountain, and old lavoir (washhouse), a 12th century church and a 9th century castle. There really is a lot to see here for such a small village.
Over the years Gourdon has remained pretty quiet, not a lot of newsworthy events have occurred there. A visit from Queen Victoria of England in 1891 in noted with a plaque near the entrance of the castle and indeed, the large, panoramic viewpoint situated right on the edge of the cliff is named for her: Place Victoria. From here you have a view of many miles in both directions along the coast. On a clear day you can see for more than 40 kilometers in each direction, from Nice in the east to Théoule-sur-Mer in the west.
During World War II the German troops surrounded the village in August of 1944 but never really occupied the town. They did, however, blow up the old train line that ran from Grasse, through Pont-du-Loup and Vence, to the Var River. This railway was never rebuilt and it’s a damn shame because it would be so nice to be able to hop on a train here in Vence!
The Château de Gourdon is one of the villages most important features. The first fortresses were built on this spot as far back as the 9th century and the basic general appearance of that structure still remains: three round towers and a northern wall. A castle was first erected in the 12th century by the counts of Provence and then rebuilt and modified during the 17th century after it was damaged during the wars of religion. The castle from the 17th century, with its asymmetrical trapezoid architecture is what we actually see today. In 1918 the castle was purchased by a Miss Noris, an American, who turned it into a museum in 1938. In purchasing the castle Noris became Lord of Gourdon until her death.
The castle was first opened to visitors since 1950, and was classified as a historical monument in 1971. Its magnificent gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre. Unfortunately, I have never been able to visit the castle. It is now owned by a Parisian family and has been closed to the public since 2015.
The Église Saint-Vincent, a 12th century Romanesque church, is another historical monument to be found in Gourdon. It has a strange history with lightning. On Sunday, October 9, 1831 the church was struck by lightning during mass, leaving four dead and five wounded. Then on April 30, 1946 lightning again struck the church, this time the bell tower, causing significant damage. The upper part of the tower collapsed and large stone blocks were tossed onto the roof and other nearby buildings.
If you’re making a trip to Gourdon you might also consider some of the other sites and activities in the immediate area. The Gorges de Loup are just 8 kilometers away and well worth a visit. The Loup River cuts a deep gash through the rocky mountains for a few kilometers and there are some breathtaking views from the road. The Saut du Loup waterfalls are located on the road between Pont-du-Loup and Gourdon and for only 1€ you can see some really nice (though small) waterfalls. They are especially impressive after a good rainfall and in the spring. Confiserie Florian, a wonderful candy and chocolate factory, is located in Pont-du-Loup and they offer tours of the factory throughout the week. Grasse, Valbonne, Biot, Cipières, Gréolières and Tourrettes-sur-Loup are just a few of the nearby towns and villages, each with a lot to offer. And, of course, Vence is just down the road.
Gourdon is easy to reach from just about anywhere on the Côte d’Azur. From Cannes head due north on the D6285 and the D3. From Antibes take the D35BIS and the D103 to the D3. From Grasse take the D2085 to the D3. From Nice take the A8 to the D2085 and then the D3. There are two large parking lots for visitors, one at the very base of the village and another just a few meters closer. The Office du Toursime is open in November, December, January and February from 9AM to 5PM. In March, April, May, June and October from 9AM to 6PM. During the high season, July, August and September it’s open from 9:30AM to 7:30PM.