One of the most endearing attractions of Côte d'Azur, also known as the French Riviera, in the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France, are its charming hilltop villages. Perched like hats on top of verdant hills, these villages combine the allure of medieval architecture with birds-eye views of the Riviera coast and mountains.
Most villages emerged during the 12th and 13th centuries when peasants living in the coastal towns fled inland to the hilltops where they could protect themselves from pirates and marauding armies. After a postwar period of neglect, the perched villages gained new life when the residents renovated the crumbling town houses to serve as second residences. Artists and artisans moved in and set up boutiques and galleries to show their wares. Now, most villages have a thriving commercial life catering to tourists, retirees, and part-time residents. Many villages still have buckled medieval walls and their crooked, cobbled streets are pleasant to stroll.
There are more than 120 perched villages scattered over the territory of Côte d'Azur. They each have a singular charm to be discovered in their little streets or in the craftsmen's workshops.
Peillon is a very picturesque, perched fortified village 20 km north of Nice. The village is perched on top of a high narrow rocky peak, with the compact collection of stone houses, narrow streets, vaulted passages, and sometimes steep stairs. The area has been inhabited since the Iron Age age and the first fortified town was built on the site near the end of the 10th Century. Most of the current buildings date from the 19th Century, but a few date from the 17th Century.
Unlike many other medieval towns in the area, Peillon is an authentic town which is not oriented towards tourists. There are not souvenir shops or other tourist-oriented facilities. The only amenities are one restaurant inside the town and two more in the auberges just outside the town.
Saorge is in a very pretty location on the steep wooded side of a mountain. In olden times, the stronghold of Saorge was defended by three castles, and was reputed to be impregnable. The tall solid stone houses date from the 15th-17th centuries and line the narrow steep cobbled street that climbs up through the village. It also has a full range of churches including an 11th century gothic church, and a still operating 17th century monastery.
The village of Eze is located between Nice and Monaco, at an altitude of 427m. The medieval walls that once encircled the village are long gone but the stony streets of the Old Town still wind precipitously uphill affording occasional glimpses of the sea far below. At the top of the walled village is an Exotic Gardin (Jardin Exotique) with drop-dead views of the coast.The curious name, Eze, derives from the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The ancient Phoenicians who once occupied this spot, dedicated a temple to her.
Perched at the end of a ridge overlooking the vallée du Loup, Gourdon has an exceptional view of more than 80 kilometers of coastline between Théoule sur mer and Nice. Built in the 12th century and restored in the 17th, the impressive chateau was constructed to repel the Saracens before becoming a residence for Raymond Berenger, the Count of Provence.
Sainte Agnes is a lovely, but touristy, little village perched on the flank of a mountain, high above the Mediterranean. The one thing that saves Sainte Agnes from being overrun is that it's not easy to get to - only 4 km from the coast as the crow flies, but it's about 12 km of narrow and twisty mountain roads by car. Sainte-Agnès village has narrow stone-paved streets and many arched passages. Many of the village houses are from 15th to 18th century.
Tourrettes sur Loup
Tourrettes sur Loup is a charming medieval village, 14 km from the coast, between Nice and Cannes, and perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by superb landscapes where prickly pears grow naturally. The village is named for the three towers (tours) that punctuate the maze of little stone streets. Although its marvelous defensive position encouraged habitation as far back as the Neanderthal period, most of the buildings date from the 15th century. The village is known as the "Violets Town" because this pretty violet flower has been grown there for a century, and violet-growing is still one of the main activities of the village. From October to March, the violet flowers are cultivated, culminating in a violet festival in the beginning of March.
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