The Romans were the first to build real roads throughout the south of France and one of their main roads was between two of their capitals: Cimiez and Embrun. Cimiez lay just a few kilometers north of Nice and Embrun was over 200 kilometers to the north near Gap. The road passed through the Tinée Valley at Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée and then headed up into the mountains via the village of Ilonse. For most of its history Ilonse has been quite isolated from the rest of the nearby area, located high on the southern side of Mont Coucouluche where it sits. The road from the Tinée Valley did not arrive in the village until 1948. At 1,256 meters above sea level it is second only to Roubion in elevation among the other perched villages in the lower half of the Tinée Valley and the narrow 11 kilometer road you must traverse to reach it from the valley floor makes it one of the most difficult to reach.
With a population of just under 200 people Ilonse is today unable to offer much to its inhabitants. There are no schools, pharmacies or doctors in the village. Villagers must travel to nearby Clans, Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée or Valdeblore for these services. There are no stores or shops in the village and at present just one restaurant, the Auberge La Gruppio. You won’t find many tourists here, even in the busy summer months. It’s simply too far from any large metropolitan area and too difficult and time consuming to reach.
The village describes itself as a “star fallen from the sky,” and once you’ve stood on the edge of mountain where it sits and peered off into the distance you’ll understand why. A perfect example of the “perched” villages that are so common in this part of southern France, Ilonse will charm you with its ancient narrow streets, marvelous stone buildings and houses, lovely shaded squares and splendid covered archways. What it lacks in “modern” conveniences it certainly makes up for in history, culture and heritage. The breathtaking views of the Tinée Valley alone are enough to warrant a trip up to this captivating corner of southern France.
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A Little History
Human presence in and around where the current village of Ilonse now stands dates back thousands and thousands of years. We know for certain that the Ligurian tribe known as the Ectinii inhabited this area as early as 1800 BC. Fierce mountain dwellers adapt at hiding and fighting they eventually succumbed to the Romans though it took over 160 years for the tribe to finally submit. The name “Ilonse” most likely comes from the Ligurian language and the words “ille” or “ili” meaning an inhabited fortress. Over the years it evolved from Illontia, Ylontia, Iloncia, Ilonza and Ylonse.
The village of Ilonse is first documented in the 11th century when it appears in the cartulary of the Abbey of Lerins. The ruins of a priory (today known as the Saint-Joseph Chapel) are located about 1 kilometer below the current village. In the 13th century this priory came under the authority of the Abbey of Saint-Dalmas-de-Pedona. The village is mentioned again in the 12th century in the cartulary of the Nice cathedral. The family of Thorame Feraud was the first to claim ownership of the small settlement and later it passed to the family of Thorame-Glandevès. By the 14th century it was in the hands of the Grimaldi de Bueil family, as were most of the other villages in the area. A castle existed at the time of which there is now only one small piece of a wall remaining. A plague in 1327 killed much of the population and those that survived fled the castle. After the execution of Annibal Grimaldi in 1621 the castle was destroyed and Ilonse became part of the Badat family empire, taking an oath of loyalty in July of that year. It again changed hands in 1729 when it was passed to the Pascalis family.
From the years 1793 to 1814 the village was part of the French Alpes-Maritimes department. In 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon I it once again becomes part of Sardinia. It would not be until 1860 when the village, like most of the area around it, officially became part of France. Like many of the small mountain villages in the area the population of Ilonse reached its peak in the early 1800s when over 800 people lived there and it was one of the most populated villages in the Tinée valley. Sheep breeding and cereal crops grown on terraces were the main resources for the inhabitants and you will find this reflected in the village’s coat of arms which features sheep and wheat. Since that time it has steadily declined to the point that in 1982 there were only 55 inhabitants. Phone service arrive in the village in 1921, electricity followed soon after in 1923 and running water finally came to the inhabitants in 1954. Difficult living conditions prompted a rural exodus from which the village has never recovered. It has since rebounded a bit to its current number of just under 200. The only school in the village was closed in 1968 and students must now attend classes in nearby Clans, Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée or Valdeblore. The last mill was closed in 1967. Today hunting and farming remain the prime sources of income for the village.
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A Walk Through The Village
The best place to begin a tour of the village is at the Place de la Colle, the small square where you’ll find yourself when you first arrive. You’ll see an old fountain and the “lavoir,” the wash house, with its unique arcades which was built in 1855 when the village was still part of the Sardinian empire. In the late 1800s a chapel and oil mill stood next to the wash house, but they are no longer there. Near the wash house is a large engraved stone cross, dated 1876, with an impressive, multi-tiered base. There’s also a beautiful painted tile map of the village close by which lists 17 highlights of the village and a wooden “Welcome to Ilonse” sign with a map, some history and facts about the town. Throughout the village keep a lookout for small painted plaques along the walls with descriptions and scenes of the highlights from years past.
Ilonse is laid out in a long string of buildings along one major street, rue Principale, and several small side streets. The main streets run at a slightly south-east angle along a rocky outcrop that gets slightly higher from one end of the village to the other. There are numerous little squares scattered around here and there and many tiny connecting passageways (called “goulets”), some of which are covered, and sets of stairs. At the edge of the Place de la Colle you’ll see a modern statue of a flower and the beginning of rue Sous les Fenêtres. Head up this little side street and admire the old stone buildings and wooden doorways. I am particularly fascinated by the old wooden doors which can be found in great abundance throughout the villages of France. You’ll see many along the streets of Ilonse, and especially here on rue Sous les Fenêtres.
The street will eventually turn to the left and connect with rue Principale. Turn left here and you’ll shortly arrive at Place du Planet and the only restaurant in town, Auberge La Gruppio. This square, created in 1922, is now the heart of the village and a place where celebrations of and festivals once took place. From here it’s a short stroll to the only chapel located in the village.
Saint Grat Chapel
Also known as the Chapel of the Penitents, this small chapel was originally built in the 17th century and is dedicated to Saint Grat, protector of the harvest, and is located near the original entrance to the village. It’s a small, modest building almost square in design. It features a painting from the 1600s with Saint Pons, Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian as well as a statue from 1867 of Saint Anthony. The old altarpiece from this chapel shows Saint Grat, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, however it is now kept in the Saint-Michel church for preservation. The chapel was restored in 2005 and now features a fresco by Irene Pagès showing Saint Grat blessing the harvests. The chapel has been closed every time I have been in Ilonse so I haven’t been able to personally see the inside of it yet. It’s possible that you may be able to ask the town hall to open it and let you in, but again, the town hall has never been open when I’ve been there so I have not had the chance to try.
At the end of rue Principale lies the Place de Portal where the popular French game of pétanque is played by locals. The main entrance to the village was once located here and this small square was opened in 1920. You can turn right on rue du Vieux Château to head up towards the church where the old castle once stood. Rue du Vieux Château will connect with the tiny Montée de l’Église and you’ll quickly arrive at the cemetery and church.
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Parish Church of Saint Michel
L’Église paroissiale Saint-Michel, the Parish Church of Saint Michel, which dates back to the 14th century, was built on the ruins of the former chapel of the Grimaldi castle and it dominates the village from its high vantage point. It was enlarged in the late 1600s and again in the 1700s when the large square bell tower was added. Restoration work took place in the 1800s and once more in the 1900s. The church is made up of a single section which is divided into four separate spaces: three bays and the choir span. This last portion, vaulted under cross ribs and engraved with IHS, is part of that original chapel.
During one of the restorations in 1973 murals were discovered in the apse which show Saint Michael suited in armor and weighing souls. They have been attributed to Andrea de Cella, a primitive painter from Roquebrune who was active in the early 1500s. Some of his works in nearby places such as Clans, Entraunes and Roure are signed and while these murals in Ilonse do not bear his name scholars feel certain they were created by him. The murals are currently hidden by the altarpiece of the high alter. A carved altarpiece with a painting representing Saint Michael between Saint Peter and Saint Paul is featured in the church, as well as a triptych on canvas depicting Saint Pons, Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian from 1630. The sacristy contains various liturgical ornaments bearing the arms of the Pasquales, the counts of Ilonse in 1729.
The small cemetery near the church is worth a quick visit. Located behind an old door with a bell on the top it is not particularly well cared for which is a shame. You’ll find dozens of old graves with ancient headstones worn by the wind and the rain to the point where many of them are almost unreadable.
Past the church is a wonderful “table d’orientation,” situated close to the edge of the mountain where you can look out over the Tinée Valley, the Mercantour National Park and the highest mountain peaks in the department. Built in 1973, the large round stone table features a complete 360° listing of dozens of mountain peaks, along with their heights, that circle the area. It’s quite impressive in and of itself and you can spend quite a bit of time trying to pick out all the mountains which are referenced.
Ruins of the Ramparts
There’s really nothing left of the old castle which once stood above Ilonse, but a small portion of the original ramparts do remain. You’ll see a sign on the wall below the church directing you towards it and it’s worth having a look before making your way back over to rue Principale and heading back down towards the entrance to the village where we started. At Place de la Mairie is the old communal bread oven which has been in operation since the early 1800s. It was renovated in 1855 and then completely rebuilt in 1925. It’s usually open to the public and you can step inside to see the large stone oven where women in the village once gathered to bake their bread. Once a year, in May, the oven is put back into service and bread is once again baked there.
The town hall (le Mairie) is also located here along with the Monument au Morts, the monument to the French soldiers killed in World War I which you will find in every French village, town and city. Next to the war monument is a beautiful statue titled “Non, Non! plus de combats” (No, No! more fights) by a well-known sculptor in the area, Jean-Pierre Augier. You can find his work throughout the region, in many villages and sometimes on the sides of the roads.
Once you arrive back at Place de la Colle take a short walk up the small road that leads to the Col de la Sinne, just next to the M59, and you’ll have some amazing views of the village where you can clearly see how the houses and buildings wind up the side of the rocky outcrop to culminate in the church perched directly at the top.
The Three Hamlets
The commune of Ilonse is also home to three smaller villages, known as “hamlets.”
Abillièra is located near the village of Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée. It is only accessible via foot via a suspension bridge next to the M2205 about 2 kilometers before Saint-Sauveur. Today it is all but abandoned, just a series of small, dilapidated houses. During its heyday though it was home to a school, a presbytery, a bread oven and more than 100 inhabitants. There’s a fountain which dates from 1882 and the Chapel of Sainte-Marie, now in ruins.
You’ll pass through Irougne on your way up to Ilonse along the M59. With only 10 houses, it’s about 2 kilometers from the M2205. A dolmen and tomb dating from the 5th century signify that this small hamlet was most likely one of the first inhabited places in the area. A millstone, all that’s left of an old mill, now stands at the entrance to the hamlet. The Saint Maur Chapel, completely renovated in 2005, is worth stopping to see, though it will most likely be locked.
Le Pous can be reached from Irougne via an old mule track in about 30 minutes. The Chapel of Saint-Barbe is the main feature of this tiny hamlet though there are also some old houses worth seeing and an old stone bread oven. Today only 10 inhabitants remain in Le Pous.
More to See and Do in and Around Ilonse
Chapel of Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue
This old chapel is located about 5 kilometers southeast of Ilonse on a path that leads from the village down to the Tinée River. It’s a simple and fairly nondescript rectangular structure with a covered entrance and a small bell tower. The interior walls were at one time covered in floral patterns though they have mostly been covered up now by whitewash. The original altar for the chapel, depicting Saint Anthony, Saint Pons and Saint Laurent, is now kept in the Saint-Michel Church.
If you continue west on the M59 past Ilonse for another 9 kilometers you will come to another wonderful little perched medieval village, Pierlas. It’s a tiny community with a current population of around 100 inhabitants. The current village dates back to the 12th century when it belonged to the Grimaldis of Bueil, but over the centuries it changed hands many times. Like most of the villages in this area it features numerous narrow streets winding over the contours of the rocky land. There are old fountains, covered passageways and small peaceful squares. The town church, l’église Saint-Sylvestre, dates back to at least 1338 when it was a possession of the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem. There’s a wood fired community oven still in operation, several chapels and lots of fascinating stone houses and buildings. If you have the time it is well worth the visit.
The Cians Gorges and Valley
Continue on past Pierlas for another 7 or 8 kilometers and you will arrive at the D28, a small valley road that runs north to south through the Cians Valley from Beuil to Touët-sur-Var. If you turn right and head north you will have a chance to pass through what I think is the most beautiful set of gorges in the Alpes-Maritimes, les Gorges du Cians. They are simply spectacular in their scope, a long parade of rough red, wine-colored jagged rocks, narrow crevasses and deep ravines. You’ll find many, many small passages that are worth stopping and admiring. There are a handful of tunnels along this road, but, interestingly enough, the majority seem to be rather recent additions to the highway. At four of them of them there is an old road which winds to the right along the river. These portions are no longer accessible via car, but you can park your car and walk down the path and back. I find the best time to visit these gorges is early in the morning, late in the afternoon or early in the evening. The harsh mid-day sun tends to wash out the colors and vibrancy of the rocks and the cliffs.
Ilonse can be reached via the M6202 and M2205 from Nice to the south. From the north take the M2205 from the Col de la Bonnette and Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. It’s also easy to get to from the Vésubie Valley via Saint-Martin-Vésubie and the M2565. Or, if you are coming from the Cians Valley you can take the D428 through Pierlas.
The M59, the small road from the Tinée Valley that takes you up to Ilonse, is long (11 kilometers) and narrow. After leaving the M2205 you immediately cross over the Tinée River and the road begins to wind its way up the western side of the valley making many turns and switchbacks. It’s in pretty good shape the entire way, but be careful, there are some portions where it is very, very narrow. Only one car can pass through these short sections and if you come across another car coming in the opposite direction one of you will need to back up to allow the other to pass. You might also find a fair amount of gravel and rock on the road in places so take it easy as you drive (or cycle) up (or down) this mountain road. If you don’t mind steep, winding mountain roads it is a very pleasant journey and you’ll get a lot of great views of the valley from the road. It’s easy to spot some of the villages on the other side of the valley, including Marie and Rimplas.
There are two main places to park. Just as you enter the village you’ll see the old washhouse on the left. Pass that and take a right at the large engraved stone cross. There’s a parking lot just beyond the statue. Or, you can turn right at the washhouse and follow the road up to another small parking lot near the center of the village. I prefer the first parking lot as it gives you a nice place to begin your explorations.
There is no Office de Toursime in Ilonse but if the town hall is open you can ask for any information there.