STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

The Tinée Valley – Alpine Forests, Rock Gorges and Medieval Perched Villages

May 17, 2021

The Tinée River flows from north to south for 70 kilometers (around 43 miles) through the Alpes-Maritimes department. It begins high on the east side of the Col de la Bonette, a high mountain pass located in the Parc National du Mercantour, close to the Italian border. Eventually the river empties into the Var River just a little north of Plan-du-Var. Along the way it passes through the villages of Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée, Isola and Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée creating La Vallée de la Tinée (The Tinée Valley). The northern end of the valley features wonderful wide green basins, forested canyons and popular ski-stations. Many smaller “hamlets” are spread over the sunny slopes of the mountains among the numerous larch forests. As you get closer to the southern end you’ll find that the valley narrows, becoming steeper, drier and more rocky. It’s more “provençal” in makeup, compared to the “alpine” nature of the northern end. The southern portion of the valley is full of interesting gorges and high mountain-top perched villages. Olive trees are spread everywhere across the mountainsides.

I’ve been cycling up and down this valley for many years and it is one of my favorite places to explore. On the far northern end I’ve climbed up the Col de la Bonette which features the highest paved road in Europe. Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée hosts a wonderful Fête de la Transhumance every June when sheep are paraded through the village as they are moved from the low winter pastures to the high summer pastures. Isola sits at the bottom of the climb up to the Col de la Lombarde. Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée is the starting point for another fabulous climb, the Col de la Couillole which will take you past two beautiful perched villages, Roure and Roubion. You can ride (or drive) from the Tinée Valley to the neighboring Vésubie Valley via the Col Saint-Martin and stop in villages like Rimplas, La Bolline and Saint Dalmas along the way.

The southern section of the valley is home to some of the most famous perched villages in the south of France, towns like Ilonse, Marie, Bairols, Clans and La Tour. Connected to the main valley road via steep, winding, narrow and sometimes deteriorating mountain roads, reaching these villages can be an adventure in an of itself. While these villages all share some common characteristics and aspects, each of them has its own particular charms, peculiarities and history. It’s hard to pick favorites, but if you have limited time and can only visit a few of these perched villages I would suggest Bairols, Ilonse and Roure. You can make the drive straight through from one end of the valley to the other in about two hours, but you can spend days (if not weeks) exploring everything there is to do here. In addition to visiting villages, cycling (or driving) up to the high mountain cols and skiing in the winter months there are countless trails and paths for hiking that can keep you busy for as long as you like.

Officially there are fourteen “communes” in the valley. In most cases a commune is simply a city, town or village and the land surrounding it, sort of like a “municipality” in the U.S., but not quite. Most communes contain smaller communities known as “hamlets.” However, in one case here, the commune of Valdeblore contains five small villages. Here’s a list of the fourteen communes and their elevation.

La Tour – 640m
Tournefort – 630m
Bairols – 880m
Clans – 700m
Marie – 628m
Ilonse – 1,256m
Rimplas – 1,000m
Valdeblore – 1,050m
Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée – 497m
Roure – 1,132m
Roubion – 1,336m
Isola – 873m
Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée – 1,142m
Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage – 1,480m

In this article I’ve highlighted each of the villages with a short text and some photos. I’ve linked to some more in-depth articles about particular villages. I’ve also included some information about the Mercantour National Park and Col de la Bonette.

Storm Alex

On October 2, 2020 a large storm, known as Tempête Alex, tore through the Tinée, Vésubie and Roya Valleys. The three rivers saw massive flooding and throughout the area mudslides covered many roads. The destruction was devastating and villages like Breil-sur-Roya, Roquebillière and Saint-Martin-Vésubie suffered extensive damage. Roads were washed away in many areas and many villages and hamlets remained inaccessible for weeks. Electricity was not restored to many areas for almost three weeks. The Tinée Valley suffered less damage than the others but it was still hit hard. The main road through the valley was closed for a period of time as large sections had been destroyed. In one place where a significant portion of a rather new section of the road was completely washed away traffic was rerouted onto the old section of road. Some of the roads leading up to the perched villages in the southern portion of the valley were blocked due to mudslides. At the time of this writing (May 2021) all the roads are open throughout the valley but you can still see a lot of the damage.


La Tour

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About five kilometers from where the M2205 branches off of the M6202 (where the valley basically starts) you will come to the M32 on the right. Along the way you’ll pass by La Courbaisse, a modest hamlet too small to be technically considered a commune. At the turnoff for the M32 there’s a small, abandoned pink building with a blue sign that says, “La Tour.” Take the M32 to the right and after another seven kilometers up the twisting mountain road you will arrive in the village.

Sometimes called “La Tour-sur-Tinée,” this small village, perched on the eastern side of the valley, is the southern most village in the valley. It was once part of an ancient Roman road that led from Nice to Embrun and at the time was quite prosperous. Today it still remains the main olive growing municipality in the valley with over 30,000 olive trees.

“La Torre” is first mentioned in 12th century as a fortified “agglomeration.” A castle once stood where the current cemetery now lies. A second fortified site called Alloche existed close by but it vanished in the plague of 1467. The territory was part of the fiefdom of the Grimaldi de Beuil, a powerful feudal family in Provence, from around 1400 to 1621. In 1700 it was established as a county by the Della Chiesa family. The coat of arms for the village features an azure background with a medieval tower atop a steep mountain summit. 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.

La Tour is a fairly small village but there is still plenty to see here. The village square dominates the central portion of the town and beside it is the Blanqui House (with its nice arcades) and the town hall. L’Église Saint-Martin towers over the square with its Gothic style, large stone facade and tall bell tower. Several chapels can be found in and around the village including Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs (15th century), Chapelle Saint-Sébastien, Chapelle Sainte-Élisabeth and Chapelle Saint-Jean d’Alloch (redesigned in the 17th century). There are several houses of interest including Maison Lyons (the old hospital) and Maison Olivari with its carved column and twin windows.

It is possible to continue on the M32 past La Tour up over the mountains and into the neighboring valley of Vésubie and the village of Utelle. The 20 kilometer trek takes you through the Maura Valley and is quite isolated. I’ve ridden this on my bike and there was no traffic whatsoever. The road is in pretty good condition, but when I rode it there were sections that definitely needed some attention. There is another road out of town, the D332 which heads north to the Col d’Andrion, but I have yet to explore this route and see just what it entails.


Tournefort

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Once you return to the valley floor and continue north on the M2205 you’ll pass by Roussillon, another small “hamlet” not considered big enough to qualify as a commune. Shortly after that is Pont-de-Clans, a similar hamlet from which the villages of Tournefort, Bairols and Clans can all be reached. Just before you arrive in Pont-de-Clans you’ll see a small bridge on the left and signs pointing towards Bairols and Tournefort (along with Massoins and Villars-sur-Var). Cross over to the western side of the valley via the bridge and follow the M26 to Tournefort. Be careful, because just after you cross the bridge you can also take the M56 which leads to Bairols.

Tournefort is a somber reminder of the population erosion throughout the mountain villages of southern France that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of these villages saw a sharp decline in residents through the years, though many of them have rebounded somewhat in the last few decades. Tournefort was once a prosperous village, sitting between the Tinée and Var valleys. Today there are only a few ruins left of the original village. The village is first mentioned sometime in the 12th century. It is thought that the Knights of the Order of the Temple (The Templars) occupied a hospice and land here in 1176. The Tornaforte family were the feudal lords of the area, themselves under the rule of Jean and Louis Grimaldi de Beuil, a powerful family at the time in Provence. When Annibal Grimaldi was executed in 1622 the land passed to Caissoti family. In 1723 it went to the Brunos family. An earthquake in 1887 caused significant damage to this little isolated village perched high on a rocky peak. Near the beginning of the 20th century the village was abandoned and it has been in ruins since 1916. The last inhabitants are said to have left the old village at the end of the 1930s. Today a small, new, modern village is located near the base of the rocky outcrop where the original was built. Around 161 inhabitants call the new village home.

You won’t find much in the new village of interest historically. The buildings are all relatively new. The town hall is really the only building of any significance. There’s a nice little fountain in the Place de la Colle and the World War I War Memorial is close by. You’ll need to take the Chemin du Vieux Village to reach the ruins of the old village, the last part of which is only accessible by foot and is a bit steep. Here you’ll find St. Peter’s Church which dates from the 17th century and is today the most significant remanent of the original village. It was restored in 1862 and then again in 1886 after the earthquake. The roof and channels were redone again in 1962. The Chapel of Saint-Antoine-de Padoue, the former chapel of the White Peninents, is also still intact. Another chapel, the Chapel of Saint-Martin is in ruins as are some of the old houses and a castle (supposedly). Tournefort is definitely worth a visit, especially if you like to roam around abandoned and ruined villages. Just don’t expect to find a lot there.


Bairols

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Bairols is reached via the same small bridge that one takes to Tournefort. Just before you arrive in Pont-de-Clans on the M2205 you’ll see a small bridge on the left and signs pointing towards Bairols and Tournefort (along with Massoins and Villars-sur-Var). This road, the M26, will take you to Tournefort. But, just after crossing the bridge you keep to the right and instead take the M56 to Bairols.

The earliest known reference to the village of Bairols comes from around 1040 when it is mentioned as a fortified habitat by the name of Bairolium and owned by Aldebert and his wife Emengarde. In 1259 there is a mention of the village as a possession of the Lérins Abbey, a monastery located on Île Saint-Honorat off the coast of Cannes. Sometime in the 1300s it became part of the fiefdom of the Grimaldi de Beuil (a powerful feudal family in Provence). Due to its extreme isolation and poor roads the village never really prospered throughout the centuries and as such there is not a lot to find in the history books about it. It was only in 1939 that a road passable by automobiles was built to the village. Over the last few decades the village has been “restored” with a strong determination to retain its authenticity as a medieval village.

Bairols is a charming little village perched high on a rocky outcrop above the valley. Today you’ll find it in excellent condition, a mix of new and old that nevertheless remains true to its origins. There’s a parking lot at the entrance to the village, you can’t drive through it. You’ll see a nice metal sculpture of the town’s name and a small pillar with the town’s coat of arms at the end of the parking lot. As you enter the village make sure to notice the Stèle au Cercle, a large piece of rock that dates back to Roman times, maybe even Neolithic. The narrow cobblestone streets and stone houses are all built from rock found or quarried in the immediate area. You can walk through the village and see lots of old doors, engraved lintels, small houses and fountains. The Église Sainte-Marguerite is an interesting church, built at the top of the village, which has been modified and enlarged several times. It features an unusual “turn” in its formation, it’s not really rectangular, probably due to the rock on which it was built. Farther up the same path you’ll find the town cemetery and the Chapelle Saint-Roch. There are several other small chapels, several of them in ruins, located nearby as well as the ruins of an old mill. The Auberge du Moulin is a very popular restaurant that people come from miles away to visit. Be sure to check with them beforehand to make sure they are open if you’d like to eat there.

You can read more about Bairols in this in-depth article on our website.


Clans

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Less than 200 meters past the turn-off for Bairols on the M2205 is the tiny hamlet of Pont-de-Clans. There’s a large roundabout with a dark brown metal “statue” of a bear standing upright (a bear is found on the coat of arms for Clans). Take the M55 to head towards the next village in the valley, Clans, which is back on the eastern side of the valley. It’s just over 6 kilometers to the village from the roundabout and it shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes. This road is much easier to navigate than the road to Bairols with fewer turns and a gentler grade. With a population of around 662 Clans is one of the largest villages in the southern portion of the valley.

Remains from the Bronze Age have been found in and around Clans verifying that humans have been settling in this area for a very long time. An important Roman road from Nice to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée passed close to the village and an old bridge can still be found there (though it is not Roman in origin). The promontory on which Clans is built is easy to defend and the fact that it offers water and cultivable land makes it easy to see why it was settled so many centuries ago. Until the 14th century the village was located a little further down the mountainside near the Chapel of San Sebastian and you can still find the ruins there. The village was probably moved higher up due to the plague epidemic of 1348. Clans became part of France in 1860. During the Second World War many Jewish families and children were hidden and sheltered in the village. However, a raid by the Germans on October 25, 1943 resulted in 27 Jewish refugees being arrested, though around 30 others were saved. A plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of this raid was placed on a wall of the Town Hall in 1993. The economy of Clans has changed considerably over the centuries. Today the main sources of income include agriculture (mostly a large production of olives) and foresting. Tourism is important and during the summer months many families spend time in their “villas” here.

The Collégiate Sainte-Marie church (designated an historical monument in 2000) is most prominent building in the village, located right on the main square. It was first rebuilt in 1572 on the remains of two older churches, St. Peter and St. Mary which existed as far back as the year 1000. Portions of these older church still remain, namely the apse and bell tower. A Grinda organ, dating from 1791, is one of the most impressive features in the church (it was rebuilt in 1982). There are at least eight chapels in and around the village but the most prominent are the Chapelle Saint-Michel, the Chapelle des Pénitents-Noirs and the Chapel Saint-Antoine-Ermite, both of which feature murals from the 15th century. Several houses in the village are worth a look including la Maison du Chanoine Serre (with a lintel from 1515) and la Maison de la Reine-Jeanne (with a 16th century craftsman’s sign and lovely windows).

When you head back down to the valley floor from Clans be sure to stop at le Fournil du Pont de Clans, a wonderful boulangerie (bakery) just north of the roundabout. In addition to many different varieties of bread they have all kinds of sandwiches, pizzas, snacks and pâtisseries. There’s also a Vival grocery store if you need some supplies, though it is not visible from the main road, hidden down a small road behind the bakery. Note that there is also another section of the M55 called the M55A which connects to the M2205 a little north of Pont-de-Clans, allowing you access to the M55 if you are heading south.


Marie

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Continuing up the Tinée Valley via the M2205 for another 7 kilometers past Pont-de-Clans will bring you to the turnoff for the next village, Marie. The M58 is on the right and it’s a much shorter, much easier climb up to Marie than any of the other perched villages in the valley, just 3 kilometers. This road is usually in pretty good shape and it’s not as steep or winding as some of the others (though there is a section of switchbacks near the beginning).

Perched over the Tinée Valley amid a landscape of wooded mountains, Marie was first written about in 1066 when it was a neighboring “castrum” of Clans. Like all the other villages in this section of the valley it was part of the feudal empire of the Grimaldi de Beuil. It changed hands in 1618 when it became a possession of the Baciloto family, again in 1683 when it was owned by the Capris family, again in 1700 when it went to the Orciéro family and then finally in 1722 when Joseph Lovera, from Cuneo, bought the village. The population of Marie reached an all-time low in 1975 when it was reduced to only 44 inhabitants. Today it has more than doubled (105), but it’s still a very small village. Chestnut and olive groves provide some agricultural business and tourism plays a part in the overall economy of the village.

The village church, L’Église Saint-Pons, dates back to the 17th century. A porch was added in the 18th century. One of the centerpieces of the church is a large polychrome statue of the Virgin Mary which weighs over 800 pounds. It was sculpted in Genoa and then transported to Nice before being carried up to Marie by the men of the village. When it was blessed in 1777 more than 5,000 people attended the ceremony. You’ll find other typical highlights of the village such as a communal bread oven, several fountains and wash houses, an oil mill from the 19th century and more. The Chapelle Saint-Roch is located about five minutes outside of town and the remains of the Chapelle Saint-Ferréol are nearby as well. If you’re up for a nice hike the Chapelle Sainte-Anne-d’Ullion is located about hour and a half away.


Ilonse

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Keeping on the M2205 heading north, just past the turnoff for Marie is the small hamlet of La Bollinette. To reach the next stop, Ilonse (which is probably the most isolated village in the valley) you’ll need to turn left on the M59 less than half a kilometer later. A road sign alerts you to the direction of the village and to the fact that this road will also take you up over the mountains and down into the neighboring valley of Cians. At 11 kilometers the road to Ilonse is the longest of any of the medieval perched villages in the valley. Because it wasn’t paved until 1945 Ilonse has remained secluded and remote for most of its existence. After crossing over the Tinée River the road winds its way up the western side of the valley making many turns and switchbacks before arriving in the village. You will be rewarded for your efforts however, as at 1,256 meters Ilonse is one of the highest villages in the valley and the views are spectacular.

The road to Ilonse is one of only two roads which link the Tinée Valley to the Cians Valley (the other being the road M30 which leads from Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée to Beuil). If you’ve a mind to explore a wonderful red-rock canyon and gorge you can continue on the M59 past Ilonse, through the lovely village of Pierlas and down to the D28. The road from here to Beuil is one of the most scenic in all of the Alpes-Maritimes.

An old Roman road once linked Cimiez (near Nice) and Embrun (to the northwest, near Gap), two of the capitals of the Roman Empire in France. Along the way it passed through the Tinée Valley and Ilonse. The village is first mentioned in the 11th century and a castle was built around this time. It originally belonged to the family of Thorame Feraud but eventually became part of the Grimaldi Bueil fiefdom in the 14th century. The plague of 1327 decimated the population and in 1344 Astruge Grimaldi bought the village. When Annibal Grimaldi, the last count of Beuil, was executed in 1621 (and the castle was demolished) Ilonse became the property of the Badat family and then it 1729 it changed hands to the Pascalis family. It wasn’t until 1860 that Ilonse officially became a part of France. Today hunting and farming remain the prime sources of income for the village.

Some of the ruins of the old castle, including vestiges of the original ramparts, can still be seen around the village. The Église Paroissiale Saint-Michel towers over the village and dates back to the 13th century. It was enlarged in the 17th century and then restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. The church features many murals and paintings along with a carved altarpiece. There are eight chapels associated with the village though the Chapelle Saint-Grat is the only one actually in the village. The others, including Chapelle Saint-Aintone, Chapelle Sainte-Barbe and Chapelle Saint-Maur are located in nearby hamlets. If you venture on past the church you’ll come to a wonderful overlook (with a nice table d’orientation) that provides one of the best views in all of the Tinée Valley. There is, of course, a nice washhouse, various fountains, an old mill and a communal oven also to be found in the village.


Rimplas

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It’s back over to the eastern side of the valley for the next village, Rimplas. After rejoining the M2205 at the valley floor travel north for just over two kilometers until you reach the M2565. Along with the M32 out of La Tour, this is the only other road that will take you up over the mountains to the neighboring Vésubie Valley. The M2565 climbs for just under 17 kilometers to the Col Saint-Martin (featured in the 2020 Tour de France) at a height of 1503 meters. Along the way you’ll find the villages of Rimplas, La Bolline, La Roche, Saint-Dalmas and La Colmaine. To reach Rimplas you’ll need to turn left on M66 and travel about 2 kilometers along the mountainside back towards the west.

Perched between two valleys, the Tinée Valley and the Blore Valley, Rimplas sits in a vital strategic position that has been utilized for thousands of years. The village is first mentioned in 1067 in documents from the Nice Cathedral as “Rege Placito.” An important village during the Middle Ages it was most likely a seat of Carolingian jurisdiction for a period of time. The name of the village evolved over the years from “Raiplaz” to “Raimplaz” until it officially became known as “Rimplas” in 1760. Other than being mentioned in 1067 very little is known about Rimplas until the 13th century. Traces of old stone constructions near the current village lead some to theorize that its location was moved over the years. A castle was built on the promontory overlooking the village but it was destroyed long ago and the French army built a a Maginot-type fort on the location in 1928, one of the most powerful forts in Southeast France. From this location the military was able to block the access of advancing troops into the Tinée Valley.

Some remains of the ancient 12th century castle can still be seen high above the village. The fort that now exists there, known as the Ouvrage de Rimplas is a huge installation and can be easily reached via a small road from the village. It could house over 450 men and was armed with numerous mortars and cannons. A cable car (the lines of which still exist) supplied the fort from the valley floor. Another smaller fort, the Ouvrage de Fressinéa is located on the M2205 near the valley floor. There a number of interesting oratories in and around the village, along with three chapels (Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Saint-Roch and Saint-Étienne) and a parish church, Église paroissiale Saint-Honorat. The baroque church features a modern bell tower. Like most villages in the area you’ll also find several fountains and washhouses and a communal oven.


Valdeblore

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The small villages of La Bolline, La Roche, Saint-Dalmas, La Colmaine and Mollières are all part of the commune of Valdeblore. It’s a little unusual to find this type of situation, seeing as there is no actual city, town or village named Valdeblore, but these five villages, all found in the green glacial Blore Valley (Val de Blore), are grouped together under this name instead of the name of one of the individual villages. Technically, each village is a “hameau” (or hamlet) as opposed to a commune. It was actually in 1669 that the then communes of Saint-Dalmas, La Bolline and La Roche decided to unite to form a single commune and then again in 1716 a new agreement was signed updating the previous one. In 1860 Valdeblore became permanently French, however some of its territory was lost to the Italien government. It was finally returned after World War II as part of the Treaty of Paris.

The Blore Valley forms a connection from the Tinée Valley to the Vésubie Valley and you can travel from one to the other via the road that connects them. Once you pass over the Col Saint-Martin and head down the other side of the mountain you’ll arrive at the beautiful little mountain village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie in the Vésubie Valley.

The first village you’ll come to in the commune of Valdeblore is La Bolline, first mentioned in 1320. It’s church, l’Église Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur, was built in the 16th and 18th centuries and features a Romanesque Lombard bell tower. The Chapelle Notre-Dame-Sept-Doueurs, built by the White Penitents, has a baroque onion bell tower with a classical facade.

The second village in this small valley, La Roche, is first mentioned in 1271. Here you’ll find l’Église de l’Annonciation and the Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs. The chapel was most likely built sometime in the 17th century and features a gilded wood altarpiece from 1661, 18th century stalls and paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Saint-Dalmas, the third village along the road, is the oldest in the commune, as it is first mentioned in 1060 in a deed of sale with regards to a garden, a meadow, some sheep and grazing rights. L’Église de l’Invention-de-la-Sainte-Croix de Saint-Dalmas, the village church, dates back to at least the 11th century when it is mentioned in historical documents. It is one of the oldest religious buildings in the Alpes-Maritimes and was a former priory of the Abbey of San Dalmazzo de Pedona, located in Italy. The dating of mural remnants in the nave and chapels show that they come from the 7th century, meaning that the church was most likely originally built by Benedictine monks around that time. It features three bells, all of which have been classified as historical monuments. If you search it out you can find a Roman inscription that was built into the wall of one of the houses in the village. A turret and some remnants remain from ramparts which were built by the Templars to protect the village.

The village of La Colmiane, created in 1931 at the Col San-Martin by the Ski Club of Nice, is one of the most popular winter sports resorts in the area. Located about one hour from Nice it features skiing, snowboarding, snowscooting, snowshoeing and more. Promoted as a family resort, in the summer you can practice mountain biking, tree climbing, sledding and miniature golf. Recently a zip line was installed, the longest in all of France.

The tiny village of Mollières, located about 13 kilometers north of Saint-Dalmas, was completely burned by the Germans in 1944 and is today mostly uninhabited. There are still a few families who maintain second homes there, but they are only allowed access via an isolated road during the summer months.


Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée

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Back down from the M2565 to the M2205 it’s just a few kilometers to Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée which lies in the geographical center of the valley on the Roman road that once connected Cimiez to Embrun. This section of the M2205 passes through the Mescla Gorges and you’ll see some striking red shale all along the side of the road. The village marks a turning point in the nature of the landscape as the steep mountains on both sides of the river begin to subside and the valley begins to open up wider. Trees become more abundant and the terrain becomes less rocky. It’s situated inside of the Mercantour National Park and today has a population of just over 300. Many of the old houses here are built from the dark red shale of the nearby Mescla Gorges. The village is surrounded by beautiful landscapes and alluring forests where you will find a large selection of hiking trails.

The village is thought to have originated in the Benedictine priory of Saint-Sauveur-de-Roure which fell under the jurisdiction of the Abbey of Saint-Eusèbe de Saignon in Apt. The first mention we find of the village is when the Cathedral of Nice indicates that Saint-Sauveur was one of the parishes that paid a royalty to the chapter of Saint Mary in 1067. The fief belonged at the time to the Rostaing family of Thorame, the Thorame-Glandevès. As of 1353 Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée was part of the fiefdom that also included Roure, Rimplas and Marie and was owned by Pierre Balb, but he was overthrown and lost is lands in 1392 when the village became a possession of the Count of Savoy who allowed the inhabitants of the village to administer themselves freely. However in 1700 the village was unable to pay its taxes and it was given over to Jean-François Ghisi with the title of Count of Saint-Sauveur.

The Église Saint-Michel-Archange, with its slender Romanesque bell tower, is a central point in the village dating back to the 11th century. However it was rebuilt in the 1600s, probably due to damage and destruction endured during various wars and skirmishes. There are four chapels in the immediate area: Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, Chapelle Saint-Blaise, Chapelle Saint-Roch and Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Villars. Several fountains and washhouses can be seen in the village and an old flour mill and communal bread oven still remain. Lintels from the 16th century can be seen if you look closely above some of the doors in the narrow medieval streets.


Roure

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Roure is one of the more isolated villages in the valley and one of my favorites. To reach it you take the M30 out of Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée and climb to the west towards Col de la Couillole (a favorite with cyclists from all over France.) After about 4 kilometers you’ll come to the D130 which turns to the right and makes a winding loop from the east to the west for another 4 kilometers or so. The D130 is an extremely narrow road in many places, one of those mountain roads where it is literally impossible for two cars to pass each other. If you find another vehicle coming towards you one of you will simply has to back up until you reach a portion of the road where you can fit side by side.

The first indication of the village can be found in 1067 when it is referred to by the name “Rora,” derived from the Latin word “robur,” meaning oak. A castle was erected around this time and the land around the village was very popular for raising cows and goats. The first recorded owners of the village are the Thorame-Glandèves family, but it was purchased in 1340 by François Caïs. Barnabé Grimaldi de Bueil successfully attacked the castle and it remained in the family’s possession for almost 300 years. When Annibal Grimaldi was executed in 1621 the castle was destroyed and the village was given to the Pidemontese Allbrione family. The current road to the village was not established until after the Second World War which meant that the inhabitants were forced to live quite self-sufficiently. The only way down from the mountain was on foot or by mule. A 1850 meter long cable that was powered by an electric motor and carried wooden wagons from the valley floor to the village as built in 1927 and continued to be operated until 1962. Carrying food, provisions, mail and building supplies it was an enormous help to the villagers. Between 1859 and 1926 many copper mines operated in the area around Roure. In the end it proved too difficult to extract the minerals and the mines were abandoned.

The village is a favorite of local tourists though not many outside of the region are familiar with it. Spread out on the sides of two mountain slopes it features a great many interesting landmarks and monuments. The large Church of Saint-Laurent, built in the Romanesque-Gothic style contains an altarpiece by François Bréa that dates from 1560. The Chapel of Saint-Sébastien was originally built to protect the inhabitants from the plague of 1510. It is decorated with frescoes by the painter Andrea de Cella. Several other chapels are scattered around the commune and its various hamlets. You’ll also find a communal oven, a flour and oil mill which has been restored, a wonderful old washhouse with three arches and many, many interesting walls, doors and lintels. The Marcel Kroenlein Arboretum occupies 14 hectares and features a collection of conifers, houseleeks, maples, junipers and roses.


Roubion

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From Roure you’ll need to retrace your path along the D130 back down to the M30. From there the village of Roubion is just over 7 kilometers further up the mountain. It’s a beautiful drive and road makes some nice twists and turns along the way. You’ll cross the Vionène River about halfway and just after that Roubion will come into view perched high on the mountain slope to your right.

Like many villages in this area Roubion’s name evolved over time. It comes from the root “bup” which signifies a cliff. It is first mentioned as “Robio” in 1067. By 1293 the name as changed to “Rubion” and then “Robionum.” In 1333 it appears as “Robjono” and by 1795 it is known as “Robion. It wasn’t until 1860 that the current name of Roubion was finally adapted. The village, and the land surrounding it, belonged to the Beuil family until 1621 after which it passed to the Badat family and then the Caissotti family. It suffered extensive damage, including the burning of buildings, during the wars of the League of Ausburg in the late 1600s and the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s. The village reached its peak population at the start of the 20th century when it claimed over 500 inhabitants. Today there are just over 100.

Today Roubion’s economy consists mostly of cattle and sheep farming alongside tourism. Roubion-les-Buisses is a year round sports resort with 20 ski slopes for winter months and 13 downhill mountain biking paths for the warmer parts of the year. Climbing, hiking and canyoning also draw a number of visitors and thrill-seekers throughout the year. The remains of a 12th century castle, le Château de Roubion, built on a rock called “the bar of Castel” overlooking the village, can be seen just behind the village. The castle was destroyed, for the most part, in 1691 during the wars of the League of Ausburg. The Église Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel was rebuilt in the 1700s and features a crenellated Romanesque bell tower. There are four chapels in the immediate area, the two closest being the Chapelle Notre-Dame just outside the western ramparts gate and the Chapelle Saint-Sébastien just off the road to Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée. The village is also known for a variety of painted doors which can be seen throughout the streets.


Isola

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From Roubion head back down the M30 until you reconnect with the M2205 just north of Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée. Isola is about 15kms further up the valley. It’s here that the valley really begins to change. The high rocky cliffs and gorges that characterize the southern half of the valley begin to fade away. Everything begins to open up a bit and the terrain becomes more of an Alpine region. The valley becomes much wider and more and more trees and forests appear. As you approach Isola you’ll see the Romanesque bell tower which is all that remains of an old church, Saint-Pierre. The village sits where the Guercha River empties into the Tinée, just on the edge of the Mercantour National Park. Isola decided to withdraw from the park in 2013 because they feared that the very restrictive regulations to protect the park would be extended to the village itself.

The name Isola probably comes from an evolution of the word “ligure” which means “grassy slope.” In 1097 the village is mentioned under the name “Leudola.” It is later referred to as “Lensola,” “Leuzolan” and “Lieusola.” It’s thought that map makers in the 17th century made a mistake when transcribing the name and it’s been known as Isola ever since. Human settlement in Isola dates back to well before the Roman period. At the end of the 11th century is was part of the County of Provence. In 1388 Jean de Grimaldi, also known as Jean de Bueil, negotiated a framework which made Isola part of the House of Savoy. In 1702 the inhabitants of the village (around 1800 at the time) bought back their rights to independence and became a free municipality. After the French Revolution Isola became part of France but in 1814 it, along with most of the Tinée Valley became Piedmontese. In 1860 the County of Nice was ceded back to France, except for the northeastern territories which included Isola. However, the eligible voters of the village voted unanimously to join France. On June 10, 1940, during the Second World War, all 462 inhabitants of the village were evacuated to Annot. After the war ending the Treaty of Paris redefined the French-Italian border and more land east of the village became part of the commune and France.

The ski resort of Isola 2000 is located 17km from the village much further up in the mountains to the east. It gets its name from the fact that it is located at a height of 2000km. It provides a great deal of income to the local economy. In the village you’ll find the Romanesque bell tower mentioned above at the south end, it’s quite impressive and impossible to miss. The new Baroque parish church of Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens can be found in the village. Built in 1682 it features to panels painted by Francesco Brea, sometimes also known as François Bréa. The Sainte-Anne chapel, which dates from 1465, belonged to the White Penitents and the Chapelle Saint-Roch was built in the 16th century in an attempt to ward off the plague. You’ll also find a dovecote tower, an old grain mill, a communal bread oven and washhouses scattered throughout the village.


Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée

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Continue north on the M2205 for another 15kms to what is my favorite village in the valley, Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. At this point we’re coming close to the end of the valley and the mountains begin to close in from all sides. If you continue north on the M2205 you’ll climb up to the Col de la Bonette and the Cime de la Bonette, the highest paved road in Europe. At this point you’re definitely in the high mountains. 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 but 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. The village and its lands were part of the seigneury of Thorame-Glandevès until the 13th century when they were owned by Hawk Glandevès. A good portion of the village was burned in 1594 when a troop of Huguentots seized the Tinée Valley. Like other communities in eastern Provence which were attached to the Savoy in 1388 the village was overseen by the Counts of Savoy and later the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. 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 today one of the main streets is named “Rue des Communes de France.” Today it has one of the largest populations of any village in the valley with over 1,500 inhabitants.

Église Saint-Étienne the parish church in the village was rebuilt in 18th century in a classical style by Antonio Spinelli. Chapelle Saint-Sèbastien features a fresco painted by Giovanni Baleison and Giovanni Canavesio in 1485. Several other chapels are scattered around the area close to the village including Chapelle Saint-Maur, Chapelle Saint-Érige and an old convent, the Couvent des Trinitaires de Saint-Salaire. 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. 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 clothes from centuries past celebrating and honoring their heritage. If you ever have the opportunity to attend this festival I would highly recommend it.

Similar to Isola, 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.


Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage

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The last village in the valley is the tiny Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage. Not surprisingly, since we are moving north up through the valley, it is also the highest (it’s actually the highest village in all of the Alpes-Maritimes). To reach the village from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée just continue up the M2205. After about 5 kilometers you’ll come to a fork in the road. The road to the right will take you to the Col de Bonnette via the D64. The road to the left leads to Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage via the M63. It’s not far, about 3kms, and the road is big, wide and well maintained. Two thirds of the surface of the commune lie in the Mercantour National Park. It’s a beautiful area full of larch forests, spruce trees, flowery meadows, mountain pastures and rocky outcrops.

The village was most likely formed around a priory of the Benedictine Abbey de Pedona sometime in the 11th century. Reference to it can first be found in 1067 in documents from the Bishopric of Nice. The name comes the latin word “silva” meaning forest. Because the town is situated so close to the French-Italian border it has always played a part in the military history of the region. In 1594 it was occupied by the Protestant army and then by French troops. In 1700 the town was declared bankrupt and sold as a fief to a lawyer from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée, Erige Émeric. In 1860 the village became French following the attachment of Nice and the County of Savoy to France. All 213 members of the village voted in favor of the change. In the early 1900s a number of defensive works, small blockhouses and barracks, were built in and around the commune.

The population of the village peaked sometime in the early 1800s when there were almost 800 inhabitants. It has continued a slow decline ever since. Unlike some of the other mountain villages in the area there has not be a rebound in recent years. Today the population stands at just over 100. The school was closed in 1984 and the harshness of life in the mountains has led to many inhabitants seeking a home elsewhere. The economy is dependent on agriculture and tourism, mostly climbing, fishing, hiking and mountain biking.

Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage is known for its seven sundials placed on the facades of the houses throughout the village. Each bears an inscription in either French, Latin or English. It’s actually a bit ironic considering that the position of the village in the mountains means that it actually sees very little sunlight during the winter months. The Parish Church of Saint-Dalmas was once a priory of the Abbey of San Dalmazzo de Pedona. It was rebuilt in the 18th century and its Romanesque Lombard bell tower dates to 1718. The Chapel of Sainte-Marguerite, the chapel of the White Penitents, was constructed sometime in the late 1400s. In 1996 its original murals were found, hidden behind an altarpiece. Representing Saint Peter of Verona, Saint Marguerite and the Virgin and Child, Saint Louis of Anjou and a holy bishop blessing, they have been attributed to Giovanni Baleison.


Le Col de la Bonette

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Today the Col de la Bonette is one of the most famous mountain passes in France, if not all of Europe. At an altitude of 2,715 meters (8,907 feet) it is the highest pass in Provence and it connects the Tinée Valley with the Ubaye Valley. Much of the road on both sides of the pass is located in the protected area of the Mercantour National Park.

At one time it was simply a mule track extending up into the mountains from the Tinée Valley. It was widened in 1832 and on August 18, 1860 Emperor Napoleon III issued a decree for the creation of a road between Nice and Barcelonnette and deemed it should classified it as an “imperial road.” The road would provide a good deal of strategic importance for the newly attached French territory, especially in preventing a possible attack from the Italians. In fact, today there remain ruins of various military buildings and fortifications strewn along both sides of the mountain, including units that were once part of the Maginot line. The Fourches Camp, located on the southern side, was occupied until the Second World War. In 1896 the main portion of the road was completed, reaching from Nice to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. Seventeen years later the next portion of the road, extending to Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage was finished.

The current road was not completed until 1964 and it took over ten years for the final section to be completed, the small loop that continues on from the actual Col and circles around the summit, the Cime de la Bonette at an altitude of 2,802 meters (9,193 feet). This little addition allows the road to claim to be the “highest paved road in Europe,” though there is some debate about that.

The pass is extremely popular with cyclists and has been featured in the Tour de France four times (1962, 1964, 1993 and most recently in 2008). In 1962 and 2008 it was approached from the south, while in 1964 and 1993 from the north.


Le Parc National du Mercantour

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The Mercantour National Park extends from east to west through two French departments: Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Since it was created and classified as a National Park in 1979 it has become one of the most popular parks in France with almost one million visitors each year. With an area of over 679 square kilometers, it contains over 600 kilometers of marked footpaths and trails and contains some of the most beautiful villages in southern France. The park is divided into two sections: a central, uninhabited zone and a peripheral zone which contains 28 villages, many of which are perched and date from medieval times.

It is flanked on the Italian side of the border by the Parco Naturale delle Alpi Marittime and together these two protected parks form a vast territory of multiple climatic and geological influences. Seven valleys are contained within the park: Roya, Bévéra, Vésubie, Tinée, Haut Var, Cians, Verdon and Ubaye as well as dozens of lakes. Near Mont Bégo there are petroglyphs (over 37,000!) carved into the granite rocks which date to the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Weapons, cattle, human figures and other items are all represented in these ancient works of art.

Ibex and chamois live in the high mountains while deer, roe deer and wild boar can be found in the wooded areas. Nutcrackers, black grouse, golden eagles and bearded vultures fill the sky. Marmots, bats and many other small animals share the land. There are over 2,000 plant species, of which 220 are considered very rare and 40 of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Rhododendron, martagon lily and blueberry plants can be found throughout the area. The beautiful larch tree, known as the “tree of light,” is the only deciduous conifer in the alpine environment.

Access

From the Côte d’Azur take the M5202 north along the Var River. Pass through Saint-Martin-du-Var and then about 7 kilometers past Le Plan du Var you’ll come to the M2205 where the valley begins. From the north you’ll need to make your way to Jausiers where you take the C4 up to the Col de la Bonette.

There are tourist offices in most of the villages, though not all of them.

Juste les Faits:
What: The Tinée Valley and it’s fourteen communes
Where: The Tinée Valley (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Saint-Étienne de Tinée Mairie – 04 93 02 41 96
Website: saintetiennedetinee.fr
Facebook: Things-to-do-in-Saint-Etienne-de-Tinee

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