There are dozens of small, medieval perched villages spread throughout the mountains in the Alpes-Maritimes north of the Mediterranean coast. In the Tinée Valley alone there are close to a dozen. It’s easy to become a bit jaded after you’ve been to a few of these villages, and start to think, “Well, they all look alike for the most part.” And while it’s true that there are lots similarities between many of these old villages, if you spend some quality time in each one you’ll soon discover that there’s a lot more to each one of them than a quick drive-by or fifteen minute visit will reveal. La Tour-sur-Tinée is one such village. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot here, but if you know what to look for (and where to look) this village will reveal some amazing hidden treasures.
Often just referred to as “La Tour,” this small commune is the southern most village in the Tinée Valley. Perched on a wooded crest of the Tournairet massif on the eastern side of the valley it was once part of an ancient Roman road that led from Nice to Embrun. Later it sat at a crossroads from which roads led to Utelle, Clans, Villars and the Tinée Valle. This location helped to make La Tour quite prosperous at the time. Several old flour and oil mills attest to the former importance and wealth of the village.
Today La Tour-sur-Tinée remains the main olive growing municipality in the valley with over 30,000 olive trees. Though it sits at a height of 640 meters (2100 feet) above sea level it looks and feels much more like a typical Provençal village than an alpine one. You’ll need to drive (or bike or hike) about seven kilometers up a twisting mountain road from the floor of the valley to arrive in the village. The drive alone is worth the trip as you’ll pass by fir, cypress, hazelnut, chestnut, larch and lime trees and discover amazing views of the Tinée Valley below.
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A Little History
“La Torre” is first mentioned in 12th century as a fortified “agglomeration,” though there are signs of life dating as far back as the 1st and 3rd centuries when it was a Roman territory. A castle once stood on a small summit that overlooks the small plateau where the village sits, very close to where the current cemetery now lies. A second fortified site called Alloche existed about three kilometers from La Tour. Later known as Saint-Jean-d’Alloche it is mentioned in documents from 1251 but it vanished after the plague of 1467 when almost the entire population was wiped out.
In 1388 La Torre came under the jurisdiction of the County of Savoy. The territory then became a part of the fiefdom of the Grimaldi de Beuil, a powerful feudal family in Provence, from around 1400 to 1621 when Annibal Grimaldi was executed. In 1700 it was established as a county by the Della Chiesa family who held onto it until the French Revolution. From 1792 La Tour was caught in the Austro-Sardian wars, but after the fall of Napoleon I in 1814 it became attached to the Kingdom of Sardinia. In 1860 it, like all of the surrounding territory, officially became a part of France.
The first reference to a church in the village comes to us from 1351 when one dedicated to Saint Martin is mentioned in some historical documents. It most likely existed on the site of the current church but was rebuilt in the 16th century as the church that currently stands. Four chapels existed as part of the community and they can still be seen today: Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Péntitents-Blancs (Chapel of the White Penitents), Chapelle Saint-Sébastien (Chapel of San Sebastian), Chapelle Sainte-Élisabeth (Chapel of Saint Elizabeth) and Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Chapel of Saint-Jean-Baptiste).
Water was not available in the village until 1891 when the first fountain was installed in the main town square. In 1927 running water began to be introduced into the houses.
La Tour means “the tower” in French and it’s not completely clear how the village acquired this name. Was it simply a reference to it being perched high above the valley like a tower? Or was there actually a tower here where the village now stands at one time? No one knows for sure.
The coat of arms for the village features an azure background with a medieval tower atop a steep silver mountain summit. Two wavy bands border it on the left and the right and a gold crescent moon sits just the top of the tower. Over the years the population has moved from about 450 in 1793 to high of 989 around 1872, a low of around 170 in 1968 and current number of 561.
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A Walk Through The Village
The best place to begin a tour is at the south end of the village on Rue Principale. There’s a small lot on the left where you can usually find a place to park. As you begin to walk north you’ll have a wonderful view of the Église Saint-Martin, the 16th century church that towers above the village. The cobbled street soon narrows and is lined on both sides with old stone buildings and houses. Shortly it opens up into the Grand Place, a large welcoming square that servers as the heart of the village. Lined with trees and benches it’s a perfect place to sit and enjoy the warm mountain sunshine or eat a picnic lunch. To me, this square is one of the things that makes La Tour-sur-Tinée a bit special. It’s unusual (though not out of the question) to find such a large, accessible square in such a small village. The open space really allows the village to breath and makes it feel bigger than it is.
This central square is surrounded on all sides by some quite remarkable medieval buildings and houses, all decorated with the soft Provençal and Italian colors of yellow, pink, light blue and red. In the center sits and impressive octagonally shaped fountain built in 1897 to supply water to the village. Immediately after entering the square on your right you’ll find the current Hôtel de Ville (town hall). It features some impressive “trompe-l’œil” (a painting technique that creates the optical illusion that objects, such as window frames and shutters, exist in three dimensions ) created in 1975 by Guy Ceppa, a fresco artist from Nice. Ceppa is also responsible for painting and decorating several several other buildings on the square.
Continuing clockwise around the square you’ll find the Blanqui House, known for its graceful arcades. Like the town hall, the Blanqui House has also been painted by Guy Ceppa, this time in 1984. Just on the other side of Rue du Four is the old common house and at the north end of the square is the Lyons House. Originally built as a hospital in 1534 (the Hospital of the Holy Sepulchre) this building later housed a store trading in groceries, clothing and more. Today it too features trompe-l’œil work from Guy Ceppa including a bust of Sadi Carnot, President of the Republic of France from 1887 to 1894. If you walk under the arches and look up you’ll see some impressive artwork dating from the 1700s which portrays the items sold in the store.
Église Saint-Martin (The Church of Saint Martin)
The Church of Saint Martin (classified as an historical monument in 1943) is a real rarity in this part of France, an authentic example of Gothic art and architecture that has never undergone any Baroque alterations. The Nice region, like most of Italy and Provence, remained very faithful to Romanesque architecture over the centuries. Gothic buildings are quite rare. This grand church here in the tiny village of La Tour-sur-Tinée is considered to be the most splendid and important example in the Alpes-Maritimes. Built at the beginning of the 16th century it’s a large building with a Romanesque-Lomard bell tower (very common throughout this valley) on the front.
Inside you’ll find just one large rectangular room with a flat apse and colonnades dividing the space into three naves. Highlighted by a cross-ribbed vault with visible ribs and flat keys the decidedly basilical layout features semicircular transverse arches and columns with capitals that are decorated with water leaves and buttons. There are five bays, the last of which serves as the choir.
Of particular interest are the altarpiece of the high alter and a processional dome, both built from gilded wood and dating from the 16th century. There are several other altarpieces including the altarpiece of the Rosary and the altarpiece of the Souls of the Purgatory of Batolom from 1662. A 1655 painting by Guillaume Planeta entitled “Adoration of the Shepherds” is the most well known piece of art in the church.
The church is usually locked but I discovered some time ago that in many of these small villages you can ask at the Town Hall for the key and they will give it to you for a short visit. They will often require that you leave some type of identification (such as a drivers license) and, of course, you’ll need to be visiting when the Town Hall is open, but keep this in mind, not only in La Tour, but in any small French village. If the church is closed always ask at the Town Hall if you might borrow the key.
Next to the church is an historical building known as the Maison des Templiers that once served as the original presbytery of the church. It features beautiful “twin” windows, but unfortunately you can’t really see much of it in town. If you look back at the church when you are leaving you’ll be easily able to spot the building with its unique windows.
From the Grand Place you can continue north through the town via the Rue du Four which will lead you to the Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Pénitents-Blancs. Pay attention to the wonderful cobbled streets and the marvelous stone buildings along the way. Many of the doorways have historic lintels above them with dates and artwork. The names of the streets are all hand-painted on the walls.
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Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Pénitents-Blancs (Chapel of our Lady of the White Penitents)
I didn’t discover what I consider to be the most impressive site in La Tour until my fifth visit to the village. Like I said earlier, sometimes you have to know where to look (or what to ask for). The Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Pénitents-Blancs sits near the north end of the village and I’d certainly seen and photographed the building several times. It’s beautiful, weathered, pink and yellow facade and semi-circular stone entrance steps make it hard to miss. But, it had always been locked each time I’d been there and I had no idea what lay inside. When I was doing a bit of in-depth research for my last visit I read about the chapel and the amazing frescoe paintings it contains. So, when I was in the village I asked at the Town Hall if I might borrow the key to see the interior and they said, “Bien sûr.” (Of course.)
The chapel was built in the late 1400s and in 1491 two artists from Nice, Curaud Brèves and Guiraud Nadal, painted the inside, from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. It remains the only example of their work that has survived to modern times and what a treasure it is. On the walls are 20 scenes depicting the Passion of Christ, the last events of Jesus’ life. Painted on the vault is the Eternal Father between the Evangelists. The apse features images of Judgement Day with those on the left entering heaven and those on the right condemned to hell. The frescoes were restored in 2003-2004 and the work is simply amazing. There are booklets (in several languages, including English) inside that offer a complete and detailed explanation of all the art. This is one place in La Tour you don’t want to miss.
Heading north from the back of the chapel you’ll pass through a small garden/park/playground and then down some steps. Shortly you’ll arrive back on the main road (M32) where you’ll find a very interesting collection of buildings known as l’Espace Artisanal du Béal.
l’Espace Artisanal du Béal
La Tour-sur-Tinée is home to the oldest oil mill in the Alpes-Maritimes, dating from the 12th century. Part of a larger complex known as l’Espace Artisanal du Béal (Craft Space of Béal – it doesn’t translate very well), this clutch of structures includes the oil mill, a distillery, a superb old washhouse, a drinking trough, a flour mill and a large vertical paddle-wheel used for generating power. Water arrives from a 15 kilometer channel originating in the Bois Noir and following the Brasque Barns road.
The flour mill once ground rye, wheat, corn and chickpeas, but it is no longer operating today. The oil mill however has been restored and remains today in working condition.
If you continue on along the M32 for a short distance towards Utelle you’ll find that the road turns to the right presenting you with some stunning views of the village. It’s worth the short walk to get this perspective on everything. At some point you can turn back and retrace your steps to the small park behind the chapel. From there you can take one of several small streets that head back to the Grand Place square. A small street next to the church will lead down to the east and is worth a short walk. On your way out of town you might want to stop at the cemetery, it warrants a quick visit.
Chapelle Saint-Sébastien is located on the road into La Tour (M32) about 1/2 kilometer before you get to the village. You can stop there either on your way into or out of town. Sitting just next to the road with its pale red and yellow facade it’s hard to miss. Built sometime between 1480 and 1530 this small rectangular building faces north. You can peer in through the glass windows on the front but the building has always been locked up tight when I’ve been there.
Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste is located in the former abandoned village of Alloche. It is only reachable on foot and it takes about an hour to get there from La Tour. It originally served as the church for the village and was enlarged sometime in the 17th century for the construction of a new nave. The apse is decorated with frescoes telling the story of the Precursor, Saint John the Baptist. They were made around 1540 but the name of the artist is now lost.
Chapelle Sainte-Elisabeth lies on the road to Utelle and was restored in 2013. I have yet to visit this chapel, but it’s on my list.
La Tour-sur-Tineé can be reached via the M6202 and M2205 from Nice to the south. From the north take the M2205 from the Col de la Bonette and Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. It’s also easy to get to from the Vésubie Valley via Utelle and the M32.
The M32, the small road from the Tinée Valley that takes you up to La Tour, is not especially long (about 7 kilometers) but it can be a bit winding in several places. Every time I have been there it’s always been in excellent condition. You might sometimes find some 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 Bairols and Clans.
There’s not one main parking lot anywhere in the village, but there are several places where you can easily park your car and they are not hard to find. I prefer to park at a small spot just before you get into town. Don’t try driving into the village itself, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
There is no Office de Toursime in La Tour but if the town hall is open you can ask for information there.
What: The village of La Tour-sur-Tinée
Where: La Tour-sur-Tinée (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Mairie – 04 93 02 05 27