STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

My 10 Favorite Villages in the Alpes-Maritimes Department

October 23, 2022

One of the questions people ask me the most about this part of France is, “What are your favorite villages in the area?” It’s a hard question to answer, not because I can’t think of my favorite villages but because it’s difficult to narrow them down to just a select few. I have a LOT of favorites. Just ask my friend Doug who claims I refer to every village as “one of my favorite,” “one of my very favorite” or “one of my most favorite.” I’m obviously a bit biased but I think that our department is blessed with an unusually high number of beautiful villages.

My wife, Carole, says sometimes that after awhile all of these village start to look the same to her. I guess I’m just a bit more obsessed with them than she is. To me each and every one of them shines with its own uniqueness and singularity. While it’s true that the villages of a certain region almost always share many similarities and features once you really spend some time in these villages you come to appreciate just how special, extraordinary and different each one is.

So, I decided to sit down and really think about this so I could come up with a definitive list of my favorite villages in the Alpes-Maritimes department. I’ve written about the “official” list of The Most Beautiful Villages of France elsewhere on this website. You might be surprised to learn that only 3 of our villages make it into this official list. And of those 3, only 1 is on my list. (The two others are in my runners-up.)

Please keep in mind these are my favorite villages. Doesn’t mean they will be yours. We all have different tastes and what I find most interesting and attractive about these villages may not match with what you do. That said I simply don’t think you can go wrong with any of these. Even if they don’t make your top 10 list I can’t imagine you would be disappointed after having visited any of them.

I’ve visited every village* in the department at least once, some many, many times. I’ve seen them on my bike, in my car and on foot. I’ve spent hours exploring some of them and have written about a good many of them as well on this website. There’s very little that I love more than spending a morning or an afternoon walking around a small French village, looking into every nook and cranny, taking photographs and seeking out every tiny place of interest. So, without further ado, here are my favorite villages in the Alpes-Maritimes department (in alphabetical order):

Èze
Gourdon
Lucéram
Mougins
Peillon
Saint-Ètienne-de-Tinée
Saint-Martin-Vesubie
Saorge
Tourrettes-sur-Loup
Villefranche-sur-Mer

You can click on the name of any village for a small photo gallery and description. If you are in our area and want to visit some authentic French villages these are the ones that I would recommend. Like I said, it was very hard for me to narrow down this list to just 10 villages, so at the end of this article I’ve listed 12 runners-up that I think you might very well enjoy just as much as the official “winners.”

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

What’s a Village?

* Now, before we get to the actual villages please indulge me for a minute or two and let me clarify a few things. The word village is a bit vague. Most of the time I think we can all agree on what constitutes a village in France, but at the same time there are some important issues we should take a quick look at. For example, how exactly should we define the difference between a “city,” a “town,” a “village” and a “hamlet?”

The country of France is currently divided into 18 regions, 13 of which are on mainland France and another 5 of which are overseas. Each of these regions is then divided into departments. There are currently 101 departments, 96 of which are on mainland France and 5 of which are overseas. Departments are then divided into communes, of which there are 163 in the Alpes-Maritimes department. The 163 communes in our department are what we usually think of as the cities, towns and villages.

The French don’t really distinguish much between cities and towns the way we do in the US. A ville is generally used to describe any city which can be small (2,000 to 20,000), medium (20,000 to 50,000) or large (more than 50,000). A village generally refers to a place with less than 2,000 residents. But, the term gets thrown around quite a bit and you’ll sometimes hear people refer to a place with more than 2,000 inhabitants as a village. There are no real “rules” here.

But, wait. So, if a “village” is a place with less than 2,000 residents, what’s a hamlet? Well, it’s a group of houses and associated buildings that’s smaller than a village. Hamlets are usually quite small, often less than 100 inhabitants. Again, there are no real hard and fast rules. Wikipedia defines a French hamlet as “a group of rural dwellings, usually too small to be considered a village.” Pretty vague indeed. In my opinion, a hamlet is a type of village, so all hamlets are villages, but not all villages are hamlets.

Each of the official 163 communes in the Alpes-Maritimes department is centered around a ville or village for which the commune is named. For instance, Nice is a commune which is centered around the city of Nice. Peillon is a commune which is centered around the village of Peillon. Other villages and/or hamlets may lie within each commune. The small commune of Ilonse is home to the tiny village itself (162 inhabitants ) as well as three even smaller hamlets: Abillièra, Irougne and Le Pous. I can’t even find population statistics for these small hamlets but I suspect they are in the single or very low double digits.

OK, OK, I know we’ve gotten a bit into the weeds here. You came here to read about my favorite villages in the Alpes-Maritimes not get a lesson on the differences between villages, cities, towns and hamlets. Sorry, I just find this stuff so fascinating it’s hard for me to resist diving into it a bit.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Èze

One of the first “perched” villages I discovered in France was Èze. Built atop a high, rocky spur (429 meters to be exact) next to the Mediterranean Sea it lies between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monaco. Its location gave it security and protection from the invading hordes in the middle ages. Just over 10 kilometers away from Nice, Èze is a popular tourist destination these days. It’s easy to reach via train, bus and/or car, though parking can sometimes be a bit difficult.

Èze is a beautiful, well preserved village with steep winding streets, narrow passageways, stone staircases and lots and lots of charm. It’s full of artists, arts and crafts, shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and more. It’s pedestrian only, there are no cars allowed inside the actual village. The medieval architecture and enchanting pastel colored façades will make you feel like you’ve travelled back in time to another century. I fell in love with this village the first time I walked through the medieval “gate” that grants you entrance into the old village and I’ve been back too many times to count.

During the “high” season (June, July, August) it can be quite busy here. Normally, I tend to avoid spots in the south of France that are full of tourists, but I will always make an exception for Èze. If you go early in the morning, especially during the “off” season, it’s a quiet, peaceful, magical place. The panorama of the Côte d’Azur from the village is one of the most spectacular you will find anywhere along the coast. There are two very famous (and very expensive) hotels in Èze (La Chèvre d’Or and Chateau Eza). If you have a little extra money and are looking to pamper yourself, you might consider staying for a night or two.

There’s a lot to see and do in Èze. As you meander your way through the labyrinth of tiny streets, staircases, alleys and covered passageways you’re sure to find a variety of shops that are of interest to you. Whether you’re looking for jewelry, clothing, fine art, furniture, perfume or household items, there’s going to be something that catches your eye. Make sure to pay a visit to the Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption), a beautiful old church on the edge of the village. The nearby cemetery is also worth a look.

The remains of an old castle lie at the very top of the village. Today this area is mostly dedicated to the Jardin Exotique d’Eze (the Exotic Garden of Eze), a stunning collection of succulents, cacti and xerophytes that will amaze you with their size and beauty. Agaves, aloes, euphorbia, agapanthes, cereus and grusonii are just some of the varieties you’ll see here. All of these plants, along with the soil they need to grow, had to be carried up from the valley below to create the garden. You’ll also find a variety of statues by Jean-Phillipe Richard, mostly simple female figures made from bronze and/or clay. There’s a small entrance fee for the Garden but it’s well worth it.

If you love a good hike you’ll want to try the Chemin de Nietzsche which begins at the water’s edge in Èze-sur-Mer and continues up the hillside to the village. The trail is actually pretty short (just over 2 kilometers in each direction) and not too difficult (though it is a fairly continual steep climb on your way up).


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Gourdon

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 another “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.

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 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.

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.

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, an old lavoir (washhouse), a 12th century Église Notre-Dame (Church of Our Lady) and a 9th century castle (unfortunately not open to the public). There really is a lot to see here for such a small village.

Read more about Gourdon.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Lucéram

Lucéram is a small village about 27 kilometers northeast of Nice. Unlike so many of the small villages in this area, Lucéram is not “perched” high on the side of a mountain or cliff. Instead it is built on a rocky outcrop nestled at the bottom of a modest valley with a small river, The Paillon, running right through the center of town. For many centuries the village lay at the crossroads of an old Salt Road which ran from Nice across the mountains.

I’ve ridden through Lucéram many, many times on my bike as it lays on one of the three roads that leads up to the Col de Turini. I’ve been there via car several times as well. With a population of only 1,200 it’s usually a peaceful, quiet little village, great for walking around and exploring. It’s far enough away from the coast that it doesn’t get a whole lot of tourists. However, everything changes in December when the entire town participates in what is known as “Le Circuit de Crèches de Lucéram” (The Circuit of Mangers at Lucéram).

During the Christmas season Lucéram is famous for its “crèches,” which technically translates as “cribs” or “nursery” but in this case refers to nativity scenes. There are hundreds and hundreds of crèches set up throughout the little village. Some are big, some are small. Some are elaborate, some are really simple. Some are traditional, some are really out there. Tourists come from all over the area to view the crèches the local residents design and build. If you are ever in this area during December I would highly recommend a visit to Lucéram as this “festival” is truly one of a kind and quite fascinating.

Overall the village is quite picturesque and very photogenic surrounded by hillsides full of pine, oak, fir, spruce and olive trees. The oldest part of the village was built sometime in the 13th century and features a collection of pedestrian only streets that wind up the eastern side of the mountain. These narrow lanes are full of steps and stairways, covered passageways and charming little squares. Lucéram is the perfect example of a southern French medieval stone village.

All of the little streets eventually lead to top of the village where the famous 15th century church, Sainte-Marguerite, looms over the houses and shops below. Known for its collection of relics the church is worth some extra time and you can even purchase an audio guide to explore everything in depth. The ruins of a small castle, the Château de Lucéram, can be found nearby but very little of it is left and it is not open to the public. There’s even a small museum for the crèches, Le Musée de la Crèche. As near as I can tell they don’t keep very regular hours, but if they are open when you are in town be sure to stop in.

If you visit Lucéram it’s worth taking the D2566 up to the Col de Turini. It’s a beautiful drive with lots of twisting roads and switchbacks. When you pass through the small hamlet of Peïra-Cava keep a close eye out for a sign indicating a “Table d’Orientation” to the left. A short walk will take you out onto a little rocky spur that offers magnificent views of the surrounding valleys and mountains.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Mougins

Mougins is known for its large assortment of art galleries, shops and boutiques and there are a variety of excellent restaurants in the village as well. It’s a remarkably well preserved village situated on what might best be described as a large “mound.” Interestingly enough, this location plays an important part in the layout of the village. Unlike many villages in the area where the streets seem to bend and twist and turn haphazardly in every conceivable direction, the streets of Mougins form a well-defined “spiral” that winds its way around and up to the top of the village.

Like Eze, Mougins can sometimes be very crowded during the busy summer months. Due to its proximity to the coast (it is only 6 kilometers north of Cannes) it is quite popular with tourists. And for good reason. Walking through the village is an absolute joy. From the edges of the ramparts you will find magnificent views of the coast to the south and the valleys to the north. The small narrow streets connect to shaded squares via covered passageways and old fortified “gates.” Trees, bushes and flowers are everywhere. The medieval stone buildings are often covered with vines and flowers while the old weathered doorways and brightly colored window shutters make for perfect photo opportunities. Beautiful fountains are sprinkled throughout the village, often peeking out from behind the lush vegetation.

Over the years Mougins has been home to a wide variety of famous artists, politicians, writers, actors, sportsmen and more. Christian Dior lived in the heart of the village. Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Isadora Duncan, Jacques Brel, Yves Saint Laurent, Édith Piaf, Winston Churchill and many more were frequent visitors often staying in one of the local hotels. Picasso died in Mougins. François Holland, a former president of France owns a villa as does Franck Dubosc, a French comedian and actor. The Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein even owned a villa in Mougins.

Mougins features three well known museums: The Municipal Museum, The Museum of Classical Art (MACM) and the André Villars Museum of Photography. All are worth a visit if you have the time, but if you can only visit one I would suggest the Museum of Classical Art. Housed in an old medieval house that has been completely renovated the museum is somewhat unique in that it features ancient, neoclassical, modern and contemporary art all in one place. While the collection is not large enough to rival that in some of the major French cities (though it does have over 700 pieces), it is quite impressive with works from Chagall, Matisse, Rubens and many more.

The Église paroissiale Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur (Church of Saint James the Major), dating from the 11th century, stands near the top of the village and is one of the highlights of a walk through the streets. The bell tower, which rises over 300 meters, is said to be open to all visitors (I haven’t had a chance to find out) who want to enjoy a magnificent view of the village and the surrounding area. La Chapelle Notre Dame de Vie (Chapel of Our Lady of Life) is the former residence of Pablo Picasso and one of the most impressive historical sites in the village. It features a garden with an architectural tomb for the Guinness family.

One of my absolute favorite times to visit Mougins is for the Marché Noël (Christmas Market) that is held for one weekend in December each year. Almost every village, town and city in the Alpes-Maritimes has a Christmas Market each year. They last anywhere from one day to over a month. I love to travel around the department and visit as many of them as I can. Mougins has one of the best. It’s not the biggest and it usually only lasts two days, but it is very well put together and features a lot of wonderful artists and vendors. There are games for the children and lots and lots of delicious local food.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Peillon

Carole and I got married in Geneva in 1994. I had wanted to get married in France but the French law required that for a “legal” marriage to take place we would have to reside here for 90 days before the ceremony could take place. We were not able to do that and eventually found that Switzerland would let us get married there without that requirement. We spent about three weeks driving around Europe before and after our wedding day. I had a guide book for France that mentioned the perched villages of Peillon and Peille, located not too far from Nice. I was really intrigued by the descriptions of these villages and so when we were in this area we headed out in our car to find them.

This was a long time before iPhones, Google Maps and GPS systems in cars. We had only a paper map to rely upon and we got quite lost, ending up in the village of La Turbie as it was getting dark, where we decided to spend the night. The next day we finally succeed in finding Peillon and I was not disappointed. The term “perched village” is used a lot in this area (and rightfully so). Many villages are built on high rocky outcrops, steep mountain slopes and lofty stone escarpments. During the middle ages there was no better protection than this. Peillon illustrates this principle more than any other village in the area. Balanced at the very top of a narrow column of rock it sits like a crown of jewels on the tip of a big rocky spur. It really is an amazing site, this tiny little medieval village perched so high in the sky.

The road up to the village winds back and forth giving you very nice views of the valleys on both sides of the village. Unlike a lot of other similar perched villages in this part of France, Peillon is pretty quiet. Because of its location there is not a lot of tourist activity here, which is a shame, because it has to be one of the most authentic, well-preserved medieval villages in all of France. You won’t find a lot of color, most of the buildings are built with stone and very few of them are painted. 

The steep, narrow, winding streets, the stone staircases and the vaulted passageways will lead you to the top of the village and the Église Paroissiale de la Transfiguration (Parish Church of the Transfiguration). For many centuries a small chapel served as the main place of worship in Peillon, but beginning in the 16th century it was transformed and enlarged to give us this current church. The main facade was built in the 18th century. There’s a wonderful little courtyard in front of the church, perfect for a snack or picnic lunch. Also look for the table d’orientation which just requires a few steps to reach and will give you information about what you are looking at from this high point.

The village was mentioned in the history books for the first time in 1150. From 1814 to 1860 it became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia before returning to France for good. You’ll find a large fountain at the entrance to the village which is now an Historical Monument. There are very few shops, galleries or boutiques in town though there are a couple of restaurants. There are several other chapels and small churches nearby as well.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée

Similar to Saint-Martin-Vésubie, Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is located near the Mercantour National Park. A portion of the commune is integrated into the core area of the park, however the village decided not to apply the charter of the national park to the village itself as they did not want the very strict rules and regulations that govern the park to apply to the village.

Located at the very north end of the Tinée Valley, Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée lies at the beginning of a long climb through the mountains to the Col de la Bonette which claims to have the highest paved road in Europe. About 2kms before you reach Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée there is a turn off to the left, the M39 which will take you to Auron, a small ski village just a short distance away. Located at an altitude of 1,600m, it’s a pretty modern little resort and if you want to take in some winter sports it’s a great place to go.

A charter dated 1066 confirms that a village called “Sancti Stephani Tiniensi” was ceded to the Cathedral of Nice. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the village adopted it current name. A good portion of the village was burned in 1594 when a troop of Huguentots seized the Tinée Valley. In 1860 the lands became part of France. During the early 20th century, with the appearance of the automobile and widening of roads, the village began to develop. Another fire in 1929 again destroyed a sizable portion of the village. Communes from all over France donated money to help rebuild the village and you’ll find one of the main streets is named “Rue des Communes de France” as a tribute and thank you. Today it has one of the largest populations of any village in the valley with over 1,500 inhabitants.

You’ll definitely want to stop at the Église Saint-Étienne (Saint-Étienne Church) which was originally built in the 15th century but was rebuilt in the 1700s. It features an exquisite bell tower built in the Lombard Romanesque style (very popular in the Tinée Valley). The church is classified as a historical monument and features a magnificent high altar made of carved wood and gilded with baroque gold leaf from 1669. There are several chapels in the village as well, though they are usually not open to the public.

One of my favorite things about Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is the Fête de la Transhumance, a wonderful festival that takes place every June to celebrate the moving of sheep from the low pastures to the high pastures. It’s a truly one of a kind of experience, to see thousands of sheep being paraded through the tiny, narrow streets of the village. The town is filled with dozens of booths featuring crafts, food and much more. There are animals for children to pet, a demonstration of sheering sheep and men and women dressed in traditional clothes from centuries past celebrating and honoring their heritage. If you ever have the opportunity to attend this festival I would highly recommend it.

The area is very popular with hikers and features some really beautiful high mountain lakes including Lac de Rabuons, the five Lacs de Vens, the Lacs de Morgon and the Lacs les Laussets.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Saint-Martin-Vésubie

If Carole and I could afford to buy a vacation home I would want it to be in the mountains. And I would definitely want it to be in Saint-Martin-Vésubie. About an hour and a half drive north of Vence (or Nice), Saint-Martin-Vésubie lies near the end of the Vésubie Valley at the base of the Southern Alpes, very close to the Italian border. The main gateway to the wonderful Mercantour National Park, the village sits nestled among tall pine trees, snow capped mountain peaks and numerous lakes and rivers.

Sometimes called the “Switzerland of Nice,” it is a favorite destination of residents all along the Côte d’Azur, especially during the hot and hazy days of summer when the cool, clear mountain air provides some much needed relief from the coast. It’s not one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” but in my opinion it should be. I have no doubt that if you’ve been to Saint-Martin-Vésubie you’ll agree with me.

I first visited the village quite a few years ago when I was completing my first round of the “73 Villages by Bike” challenge. Since then I’ve been back many, many times. Sometimes by bike and sometimes by car. I try to go every year for their annual Marché Noël (Christmas Market). I’ve gone hiking in the mountains just north of the village several times. Carole and I visited the wonderful Parc Alpha Wolf Park which is just a few minutes away. Stage two of the 2020 Tour de France passed through the village and I drove up from Vence very early in the morning (before the roads were closed) so I could watch the cyclists zoom through on their way to the Col de Turini.

The village sits on the lower slopes of a plateau glacier and while it does not feature a lot of winding, steep, narrow roads that are often found in other mountain villages, it does follow the slope from one end of town to the other. The main streets in the village run from north to south, following the path of the Vésubie River to the east. When you arrive in town my suggestion is to head straight to the Office de Toursime which is situated near the center of the town near the main square. The Mairie is also located here along with several restaurants, bakeries and other assorted shops and boutiques.

Saint-Martin-Vésubie was one of the villages hit hardest by the terrible storms and flooding that occurred during Têmpete Alex in October 2020. The village itself wasn’t really damaged but the land all around the town was simply washed away. Where it was once surrounded by dense green foliage and tall alpine trees it now looks like it sits on a Martian landscape of nothing but dirt and rocks surrounding it. It’s really heartbreaking to see but I’m sure as time goes by the land will recover.

Read more about Saint-Martin-Vésubie.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Saorge

Situated high on a mountain-side in the beautiful Roya Valley, Saorge looks for all the world as if it is barely clinging to the precipitous rocks and earth, ready to tumble down into the river at any moment. It’s a really remarkable site when the village first comes into view as you travel north along the D6204 towards Tende. To reach the village by car you must travel a bit past it to another village named Fontan. There you can turn onto the D38 to drive up and across the mountain to Saorge. If you are coming by bike you can turn before Saorge on the D138 and save a bit of time.

This medieval village is an absolute delight to explore. Because of the way the houses were built against the steep slope of the mountain almost all of the streets contain sets of stairs making it easier to walk from one level to another. The maze of narrow, twisting streets feature a large amount of medieval buildings and houses which are remarkably well preserved. Cobblestone paths, covered passageways, impressive views and lots of greenery make this a village worth exploring in-depth.

Saorge is first mentioned in the history books in the 10th century when it is referred to as “Saurcio.” As the crow flies Saorge is only about 7 or 8 kilometers from the Italian border. Over the years it has had a tumultuous history, switching back and forth between French and Italian control. It last changed hands in 1860 when a referendum was held and all 605 voters voted unanimously in favor of the resolution to become part of France.

A fire destroyed much of the village in 1465. An earthquake in 1564 ruined the castle and a bridge. The War of Spanish Succession in 1703 and the War of Austrian Succession in 1744 saw the village caught in skirmishes and attacks that caused further damage. In 1787, the future president of United States, Thomas Jefferson stayed in Saorge on a trip through the region. During World War II almost all of the residents (along with those from nearby Fontan, Breil and Sospel) were evacuated to Antibes.

Today the most popular attraction in the village is the Monastery of Saorge, built in the 1600s. It’s a beautiful, well restored complex of buildings the feature some amazing frescoes. Other landmarks worth seeking out are the Chapelle Sainte-Marie del Poggio (Sainte-Marie del Poggio Chapel), the Église Saint-Sauveur (Saint-Sauveur Church), the Chapelle Saint-Roch (Saint-Roch Chapel), the Chapelle des Pénitents Rouges (Chapel of the Red Penitents) and the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs (Chapel of the White Penitents). There are still some remnants of old fortifications that protected the village at one time, including Fort Saint-Georges. The remains of the Castle of Malmorte are very close by, just a bit southwest of the village.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Tourrettes-sur-Loup

Tourrettes-sur-Loup lies a mere five kilometers west of Vence. If you travel by car (or bike for that matter) the road will take you right pass the edge of the village. You won’t see a lot if you just pass by on the road. The original village is pedestrian only so to really experience it you have to get out of your car (or off your bike) and spend some time walking inside the old walls. Featuring medieval and Romanesque buildings, the village is mentioned as early as 1024 when it was known as Castrum de Torretis. Later, and up until the French Revolution, it was known as Tourrettes-les-Vence. Of particular interest are the Château du Caire, the 15th century Church of St. Gregory, the Saint-Jean Chapel and the Bastide aux Violettes (a small museum dedicated to the violet flower).

The village is known as an artisan’s village and within the picturesque old town, you’ll find a delightful maze of streets with lots of workshops, stores, boutiques and restaurants. Weaving, painting, pottery, jewelry and sculpture are just some of the arts and crafts you’ll find here. Most are created by residents of the village. Today the town is also famous for the cultivation of violet flowers and there is even a Violet Festival every year in March with a parade and market.

The Office de Tourisme can provide you with a map because without one it’s a bit difficult to find your way around. The streets twist and turn, stone stairways lead you up and down from one level to another and small squares seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere. I never get tired of walking around the village and exploring every little alleyway and backstreet. Everything is very well cared for and it’s easy to see that the residents take a lot of pride in their village.

Perched on the edge of a rocky spur on the southern slope of the Puy de Tourrettes the village offers a magnificent view of the Loup Valley below. I would encourage you to follow some of the small streets that lead to the southern edge of the village where the houses end and the drop to the valley below is quite severe. For a beautiful view of the village itself drive just a bit west along the D2210. You’ll make a big turn and then the village will appear on the left. At a certain point you can see all the houses and buildings stacked up along the rocky spur that juts out into the valley and you’ll get some great photographs here.

Today tourism is the main source of income for the village but there is still a decent amount of farming and agriculture as well, including the production of organic goat cheese and beekeeping. The town is also known for its confectionery (crystallized flowers, candied fruits and more), organic cheese and beekeeping.

Tourrettes-sur-Loup is not one of the “official” Most Beautiful Villages of France, but it certainly should be. I have no idea why it isn’t. Maybe it’s a bit too big to qualify (there is a limit of 2,000 residents)? Maybe the town doesn’t want to be included in this list? I don’t know, but I use it as a benchmark when I’m visiting the official villages. What I mean by that is I often compare them to Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Many, many of the official villages are nowhere near as beautiful as Tourrettes-sur-Loup in my humble opinion. I often say to myself, “How is this village in the official list and Tourrettes-sur-Loup is not?”


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Villefranche-sur-Mer

There are, of course, hundreds of thousands of people living along the shores of the Côte d’Azur. It’s the “French Riviera” afterall. Cannes, Antibes and Nice are all beautiful places, but in no way could you consider any of them a “village.” Though, for course, at one time long ago they were all small villages. Seeing as how this is one of the most popular stretches of coastline in the entire world it’s no wonder that most have them have grown into large towns and cities.

There are many other less populated towns such as Théolule-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Cap d’Ail and Menton. I love Menton, the last French town on the coast before you cross over into Italy, but it is also far too big to considered a village. The only one that I think is small enough (and of course, beautiful enough) to be included in this list is Villefranche-sur-Mer. The next town east along the coast from Nice (it’s close enough to walk to), this village sits on one of the most gorgeous bays on the entire Mediterranean Sea. To me it’s the picture perfect example of a “Riviera” port. Some might claim it’s too big to be considered a “village.” And, yes, from a technical standpoint they are correct. The population of Villefranche-sur-Mer is definitely way above 2,000. However, if you consider just the “old town” itself I think you’ll come to see why I’ve included it on this list.

Cradled in a small horseshoe shaped bay with high cliffs and mountains on two sides and a large peninsula on another, Villefranche-sur-Mer feels like it exists completely apart from the rest of the Côte d’Azur. The harbor, la Rade de Villefranche, is one of the deepest natural harbors in the western Mediterranean. Because the bay is so deep and sheltered so well from the winds, it has always been a very popular destination for large ships. Greek and Roman sailors used it for mooring thousands of years ago. Today many cruise companies use this bay for a stopping point as their ships make their way across the Mediterranean.

Like many other town and villages in this southeastern portion of France so close to Italy, the village of Villefranche-sur-Mer and the land around it has changed hands numerous times over the last few centuries. It finally became French once and for all in 1860. It’s been a popular resort since at least the early 1800s, especially with the English and Russians. To me it just feels different than most of the other towns situated on the coast here. It seems smaller than it really is.

There are three main roads leading from Nice to Menton and collectively they are known as the “three corniches.” The Basse Corniche runs the closest to the water while the Grande Corniche runs higher up in the mountains at an altitude of over 400 meters. The Moyene Corniche runs between them. All three of these roads pass through Villefranche-sur-Mer. The Basse Corniche runs directly through the old village while the two upper roads run through the more modern sections of the town. All provide fascinating views of the coast.

There’s a lot to see and do in this village. The Église Saint-Michel (Saint-Michel Church), located in the heart of the old village, along with the Chapelle Saint-Pierre (Saint-Pierre Chapel) located in the port, are two must see historical sites. The Citadel of Saint-Elme is a historical monument that now houses several museums and the town hall. Fort du Mont Alban is a small stronghold located on the hill between Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer. It’s usually closed to the public, but still worth a visit. The views from either side into the two separate bays are breathtaking.

One of my favorite hikes in the Nice area is from Fort du Mont Alban down to the Nice coastline and then east around the Cap de Nice and into Villefranche-sur-Mer. It passes by one of my favorite little swimming spots and in the summer I always stop for a swim.


[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

12 Runners-Up

Here are my 12 runners-up. Each of these villages is very special as well and it was very difficult for me to relegate them to “runners-up” status. If you’re close to any of them and have some extra time be sure to check them out. You won’t be disappointed.

Bairols
Biot
Breil-sur-Roya
Carros
Coaraze
Granile
Ilonse
Roure
Saint-Jeannet
Sainte-Agnès
Tende
La Turbie

Juste les Faits:
What: My Favorite Villages in the Alpes-Maritimes Department
Where: The Alpes-Maritimes (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: 04 97 18 60 00 – Departmental Administrative Center
Website: www.departement06.fr
Facebook: departement06

3 thoughts on “My 10 Favorite Villages in the Alpes-Maritimes Department

Hey, we'd love to hear from you, leave us a comment!