If Carole and I could afford to buy a vacation home here in France I would want it to be in the mountains. And if it was in the mountains, I would definitely want it to be in Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Just under 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 at an altitude of 975 meters (3200 feet) nestled among tall pine, larch, beech and fir 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. As early as 1864 Saint-Martin-Vésubie had established a reputation for the quality of its environment and especially its summer climate.
Perhaps some people are drawn to this village because they simply want to escape the noisy, hectic, congested cities of the famous French Riviera. A leisurely walk along a beautiful mountain trail surrounded by trees, flowers and lazy streams can do wonders for the soul. Or maybe it’s just some quiet down time in a small café along an ancient medieval street with a good friend that brings some peace into an otherwise chaotic modern life. For others its the wide variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, mountaineering, horse back riding, mountain biking, fishing and skiing that prompts them to head north from the coast.
Saint-Martin-Vésubie is 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. Full of wonderful shops, craftsmen, restaurants and high quality local products, the village has something for everyone. It’s also a perfect place for families to spend vacation time as there are plenty of activities for both adults and children.
I first visited the village many 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 several times all around the village. A few years ago 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.
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Saint-Martin-Vésubie sits at the junction of two small rivers which both start high up in these mountains: the Boréon and the Vésubie. The rivers flow past the village, the Boréon to the west in the Boréon Valley and the Vésubie to the east in the Valley of the Madonna of Fenestre. They come together at the southern end of the village and from that point on the river is known as the Vésubie.
In addition to the two rivers, the village is blessed with numerous nearby mountain springs, one of which has been allowed to flow right through the center of the village since the middle ages in a unique little canal called “the Bial.” This abundance of fresh water has helped shape the village over the centuries and played a major role in bringing electricity to the town in 1893 (it was one of the first villages in France to use electricity for public lighting).
Although the municipality has expanded and grown on the nearby terrain over the last fifty years, the heart of the town is still the small, mostly oval shaped medieval village that runs from north to south between the two rivers. Most of the old houses and buildings are clumped around one long street, Rue Docteur Cagnoli. The 17th century Parish of Our Lady of the Assumption church sits near the southern end and the White Penitents Chapel sits near the northern end.
A Little History
Saint-Martin-Vésubie is first mentioned in the history books during the 12th century under the name of Saint-Martin-de-Lantosque. Archaeological remains indicate an indigenous population inhabited the area as early as the 1st century, and most likely, long before that. In Roman times the area was known as Anduébis and the remains of a Roman fort (castrum) run along the side of a mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Madonna of Fenestre. The village we know today was originally built around a monastery associated with the Knights of Templar, the Abbaye de Saint-Dalmas-de-Pedona.
In the 11th century the Lords of Valdeblore built a castle and a church, Saint-Nicolas d’Anduébis, where the tiny hamlet of Saint-Nicolas now sits, just on the outskirts of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Around the same time the Saint-Martin church was built near the point where the Boréon and Vésubie rivers converge. In the 13th century a castle and fortified settlement appeared here as well, in what would become the village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. The old Salt Road passed through here on the way from Nice to Piedmont.
The village experienced significant growth during the second half of the 13th century and almost all of the 14th century and fortifications were increased. In the 16th century ramparts were built to further protect the inhabitants. A gate once existed near the what is now the Place du Marché which would have provided access to the village. In 1308 the village was the site of a famous massacre of Templar knights.
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A fire in 1470 consumed a large part of the village, destroying factories and warehouses along with many homes and other businesses. Between 1792 and 1795 skirmishes between French troops and Sardinian troops saw possession of the village swing back and forth between the two principalities. It became definitively French in 1860, along with Nice and much of south-eastern France. Its development into a “pleasure resort” at this time resulted in the construction of numerous Belle Époque villas and hotels (just outside the old village) where visitors could find lodging and food.
Not long after the start of 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.
Each year in early September a “Memory Walk” is held to honor the Jewish community which suffered under the Nazis during the war. Beginning at the Madone de Fenestre (Madonna of Fenestre) it usually follows a trail to either the Col de Fenestre or the Col de Cerise. Afterwards a commemoration is held in the afternoon at the town war memorial.
During World War II part of the neighboring territory, including the Valley of the Madonna of Fenestre, became Italian. These territories were returned to France after the war as part of the 1947 Treaty of Paris.
A Walk Through the Village
Saint-Martin-Vésubie sits on the lower slopes of a plateau glacier and while it does not feature a lot of winding, twisting, steep, narrow roads that are often found in similar mountain villages, it does follow the slope of the mountain 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 close to the main square. You’ll find lots of information about both the village and the surrounding area there, including a small map of the village. The Mairie (Town Hall) is also located here along with several restaurants, bakeries and other assorted shops and boutiques. Built in 1866, this town hall was the centerpiece of the urban expansion that occurred after 1860 when Saint-Martin-Vésubie became French for the last time. The large square and promenade lined with trees was built around the same time.
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Begin a tour of the village by heading south on Rue Docteur Cagnoli (once known as Straight Street). At one time this was the main thoroughfare through the village and was often full of mules and other animals making their way from the coast into the mountains. It’s impossible to miss the small “canal,” known as “Baél” or “Bial,” that runs straight down the street where water flows at a quite rapid pace. This is not simply a gutter with overflow water as one might first suspect, but rather the product of a small spring. Its origins date back to 1417 when it was created to irrigate gardens in and around the village. It is so unique that today it has become a symbol of Saint-Martin-Vèsubie and recognizable to anyone who has visited the town.
Like many other small villages in the south of France the White Penitents and the Black Penitents played an important part in the history of the community. These groups were widespread in the area from the 13th century to the modern era. The White Penitents, mainly comprised of artisans and peasants, were responsible for helping at the hospitals. The Black Penitents, mostly comprised of the nobility, were dedicated to helping the poor. We find two chapels in Saint-Martin-Vésubie that remain from this history: The White Penitents Chapel and the Black Penitents Chapel.
The White Penitents Chapel, also known as the Chapelle Sainte-Croix (Holy Cross Chapel), is located almost immediately on the right. Built sometime in the early 17th century this chapel has undergone numerous transformations over the years. Its facade was redone in the early 19th century when a cornice, a central oculus and some bas-relief decorations were added. There is a small square bell tower with a silver dome, both of which are part of the original design.
Stepping inside the chapel one would be forgiven for mistaking it for an actual church as the interior decor is quite stunning and far more elegant than most chapels in the area. A painting from the 1690s, “Descent From the Cross,” by Baldoni graces the high altar.
Continuing down Rue Docteur Cagnoli you’ll pass numerous small shops and businesses as well as old medieval houses. Set back on a small side-street to the left, next to the small Place Vieille, is the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-la-Misércorde (Our Lady of Mercy Chapel), the chapel of the Black Penitents. The exact construction date of this chapel is unknown, but it certainly dates back to medieval origins. There is a small bell turret which was added in the 1840s. The facade was completely redone in the 1900s. The interior is much more modest than that of the White Penitents Chapel, but it does feature an altarpiece from the 17th century depicting the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.
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As you continue down the street you’ll reach a small Y intersection. One of the most picturesque and well-known houses in the villages sits on the corner. Known today as the Maison du Coiffeur (the Hairdresser’s House) this structure features the overhanging architecture that was very common in the late Middle Ages. Owners were required to pay tax on the “footprint” of their homes so by building these kinds of upper levels they could add more space without being taxed on it. Take the small street to the left which will lead to the Paroissiale Notre-Dame-de-L’Assomption et Saint-Martin (the Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Martin).
This Parish Church was built in the 12th century by the Knights of Templar. It was originally designed and built in the Gallo-Roman style, but much of this original design was lost when the church underwent significant modifications and renovations at the end of the 17th century. The facade was modified again in the 1800s. Today only the two side naves remain from the original structure. The church contains several items classified as historical monuments including a statue of the Virgin of Fenestre which dates back at least 1,000 years. There are also several triptychs, a trefoil cross and a Genoa velvet cope that are worth your time.
Past the church lies the Festival Square with its large fountain and washhouse. This portion of town is not part of the original medieval village, but rather a later addition created in the 17th century.
As you head back up north through the village pay attention to the various houses that line the streets. Saint-Martin-Vésubie is full of structures form the late Middle Ages that belonged to noble families, well-to-do merchants and other affluent individuals. One of the best known, and best preserved, is the Maison Gubernatis (the Gubernatis House), located near the bottom of Rue Docteur Cagnoli. Notice the stone cornices that mark the separation of one floor from another. A large arch occupies most of the bottom floor with a small door that leads to a staircase and the upper floors.
You’ll find a wide variety of restaurants, cafés, bakeries and more throughout the town. The local cuisine has been heavily influenced by both the proximity to Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. Dishes like pesto soup, salad Niçoise, bagnat pan, fried zucchini flowers, gnocchi, all types of pasta and chard pie are common. There’s a small food market on the main square Saturday and Sunday mornings where you can find a huge assortment of local cheeses, honeys, vegetables, syrups, meats, candies and more.
The village is host to a wide variety of festivals, fairs and other celebrations held throughout the year. Annual fairs are held on May 3, October 3 and November 8. They celebrate the traditional Carnival in February. A fife festival is held in June, a bread festival in August and a witch festival in the autumn. There’s a festival for the patron Saint, Saint Roch, in August and a traditional Christmas market in December.
Vesúbia Mountain Park
Saint-Martin-Vésubie is home to a wonderful indoor mountain park, Vesúbia Mountain Park. The park features indoor mountain activities for all ages and is very popular with families. It is designed to allow you to enjoy mountain activities all year round, regardless of the weather. With lots of varied activities, especially for swimmers and climbers, the park is very popular with both beginners and more experienced athletes.
They offer wall and boulder climbing, tree climbing (accrobranche), zip-lines, monkey bridges, pipes, parrot ladders and more. It features the first indoor canyoning area in Europe. There’s also Fitness & Well-Being area with saunas and massage therapists, a caving area, plenty of food and drink options and much more. If you’re looking for just a one day getaway or something you can do on a regular basis, they have plans and choices for just about every budget.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna of Fenestre
For over one-thousand years residents of San-Martin-Vésubie and other nearby villages have been making an annual procession from the village church to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Fenestre Chapel in early May. A statue of the Madonna is taken from Saint-Martin-Vésubie to the Sanctuary for the summer months and then returned to the village in the fall. Some say that this statue was created by Saint Luke and that it was brought to France from Jerusalem by Mary Magdalene and Lazarous, but in reality it dates from the 14th century.
Considered one of the most beautiful sites in the Mercantour National park, the Sanctuary sits at 1904 meters, surrounded by high mountains on all sides. It lies on one of the old mule tracks that once connected Nice with Piedmont. The highest point in the Alpes-Maritimes department, Mount Gelas, is visible nearby with a summit of 3143 meters (10,312 feet).
The sanctuary itself is somewhat of a mystery. It’s first mentioned in the history books in the 12th century, but legend says the site has been a destination for pilgrims since ancient times and that a pagan altar once existed there and that later this was replaced by a Templar altar or chapel. The Virgin Mary is said to have once appeared on a rock behind what is now the chapel. The chapel was heavily damaged by several fires over the years, as well as harsh winter weather, and the modest structure we see today is the result of restoration done in the 19th century.
Located just 12 kilometers from the village many people use the Sanctuary as a jumping off point for walks and hikes in the Mercantour National Park. From the sanctuary you can follow an ancient path that leads past a lake to the Col de Fenestre and then over to the Italian side of Piedmont. I spent 8 days one summer with my good friend Doug hiking through the eastern portion of the Park and we spent one night at the refuge here at the Sanctuary.
The Mercantour National Park
One of the most beautiful and rugged national parks in all of Europe, the Mercantour National Park is a protected natural area situated on the border of the Italian Alpi Marittime Park. Established in 1979 the park contains over 1,700 kilometers (1,056 miles) of hiking trails and 1,123 named mountains. The park stretches for 90 kilometers along the Italian border from the town of Barcelonnette to the Côte d’Azur, passing through the Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence departments. It extends across six valleys: Haut Verdon, Var-Cians, Ubaye, Tinée, Vésubie and Roya-Bévéra. It features a large variety of lakes and rivers with Lac d’Allos being the largest high mountain lake in all of Europe.
Within its boundaries you’ll find everything from high snow covered mountain peaks to deep forested valleys to raging mountain rivers to green meadows full of tall grass and vibrantly colored flowers. The narrow valleys with steep slopes are comprised of crystalline rock, gneisses, granite and sedimentary rock. Close to thirty small villages ring the park, many of them right on the edges of the protected terrain. Along with Saint-Martin-Vésubie, Colmars-les-Alpes, Entraunes, Guillaumes, Roubion, Roure, Tende, La Brigue, Saorge and Breil-sur-Roya are a few of my other favorites.
The park also features an incredible selection of flora and fauna. You’ll find fat, furry marmottes scurrying across the mountainsides, nimble chamois (an antelope like animal) grazing near rivers and lakes, agile bouqetins (a type of wild goat) climbing up the sides of steep mountain cliffs and much more. These days there are even wolves in the park though it’s still very rare to actually see them in the wild. Bird species include owls, eagles, vultures, woodpeckers, partridges, grouse and many more. In fact there are over 8,744 different animal species within the park. Over 2,700 plant species grow in the area as well including large coniferous forests with larch, silver fir, pine and spruce trees. Flowers are everywhere.
Only 8 kilometers from Saint-Martin-Vésubie is the small hamlet of Boréon. You’ll find a huge variety of outdoor activities waiting for you there including horse back riding, hikes of all kinds, fishing, mountaineering, climbing, etc. During the winter you can benefit from over 20 kilometers of Nordic ski runs, 10 kilometers of secure snowshoeing routes and an ice wall for climbing. During the summer it is also possible to visit several “barns” where cheese is made and sold. There’s a shuttle that runs from Saint-Martin-Vésubie to Boréon during the peak tourist season.
Even More To See And Do
One of the things that makes Saint-Martin-Vésubie so special is its location. There’s a lot to see and do here, enough to keep you busy for a very long time. It’s one of the reasons people keep coming back to this little village over and over again.
The Park Alpha Wolf Park lies very close by and makes for an outstanding day trip, especially for families with children. This is the only wildlife park located inside a national park in France. Located at an altitude of between 1500m and 1800m the park allows visitors to discover and explore the lives of a several wolf packs. Specially designed observation platforms allow visitors to view the wolves up close.
La Colmiane is a small ski resort located just a few minutes from Saint-Martin-Vésubie. They offer skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, tobogganing and much more. During the summer months they also have a variety of outdoor activities including a huge zip line composed of 2 lines, with a total length of 2,663 meters, and a top speed of 130km/h!
Berthemon-les-Bains is a tiny hamlet just a few minutes from Saint-Martin-Vèsubie known for its spa featuring sulphurous waters that are said to treat respiratory diseases, rheumatism and joint disorders. The water runs at a continuous 30° centigrade (86° fahrenheit).
Along the Vésubie Valley you’ll find several other wonderful “perched” villages to visit including Venanson, Belvédère, La Bollène-Vésubie and Utelle. The entire area is a paradise for hiking, climbing, mountaineering and cyclists. For cyclists the Col de Turini and Col Saint-Martin are especially popular.
La Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders) is a valley in the Mercantour National Park where more than 40,500 prehistoric rock engravings are located, most of them grouped around Mont Bégo. These engravings date from the Neolithic and Bronze ages and are quite unique in Europe.
Tempête Alex (Storm Alex)
On October 2, 2020 Saint-Martin-Vésubie, along with many other villages in the Vésubie Valley, was hit by a huge storm known as Tempête Alex (Storm Alex). Over 20 inches of rain fell in the Saint-Martin-Vésubie area in less than 24 hours. The damage there was extensive. Electricity was not restored for almost three weeks in some areas. Several bridges were completely destroyed. Over sixty kilometers of roads were completely washed away. The roads into Saint-Martin-Vésubie were closed for well over a month. Fortunately the village itself was not impacted too severely, even though it sits just a few meters above the rivers that surround it. But the nearby countryside was devastated and many, many houses and buildings were swept away. Where large meadows and groves of pine and larch trees once stood is now nothing more than huge expanses of dirt and rock. It will take quite some time for things to return to normal.
Saint-Martin-Vésubie can be easily reached from anywhere on the Côte d’Azur. It takes around an hour and a half to drive from Nice, Antibes or Cannes. Take the A8 to Nice and then the M6202 up along the Var River valley. Just past the town of Le Plan du Var is a big roundabout and you’ll turn right, taking the M2565 (Route de la Vésubie). The M2565 will take you all the way into Saint-Martin-Vésubie.
The Tourist Office is open every day except Sunday from 9AM to 5PM which a closure for lunch form 12:30 to 1:30. Hours differ throughout the year, so make sure to check before you go. Guided tours of the village are available via the Tourist Office from mid-July to mid-September.