A sunny spring day is the perfect opportunity to hop in the car and take a drive out to some of the picturesque towns and villages that line the mountains above Monaco.
A winding 30-minute drive from the centre of Monaco will take you to Gorbio (pictured above), a place where the homes of its residents look like they’ve been hewn from the rock they stand on. There’s plenty of history within this little village due to the many counts and aristocratic families who built châteaux within its boundaries over time, such at the Château des Lascaris from Ventimiglia in the 12th century and the Malaussène of Aix-en-Provence in the 17th.
A 300-year-old elm tree shades much of the sleepy village square. It isn’t always quiet place though, as, come summer, a lively schedule of traditional festivals takes place.
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There’s lots of hiking and mountain trails to be found nearby, such as the Tour de Mont Gros and the Route de Bausson, which will lead you to our next destination…
Perched at almost 800 metres above sea level and designated one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, Saint-Agnès has an air of the medieval about it thanks to the many crafts workshops that line its streets. The 12th century château and its gardens are worth a visit, if only for the stunning views offered from the vantage point high on the cliffs.
Beneath the village lies the remains of a fort that was the most southerly bastion of the Maginot Line, a network of fortifications dating back to WWII. Today it is a museum.
Further inland and on the road to the saffron-producing town of Sospel is Castillon. You might not realise when first visiting the village, given its charming, traditional-looking houses, but this is actually one of the “youngest” villages in France. It was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century and then again by bombing during WWII, but was rebuilt thanks to American funding some 70 years ago.
Its green shutters are a reflection of the rich greenery that surrounds the village, which is found in a Natura 2000 zone. Hiking is aplenty up here. A two-hour walk along an old mule track will take visitors back to Saint-Agnès while a trek through the Forêt de l’Ubac Foran offers incredible views from the top.
Our final stop is Saorge, just over an hour in the car from the Principality. Found in the Vallée de la Roya, Saorge is known for two things: its beautiful Franciscan monastery and how easily this beautiful village can be missed from the road if you aren’t looking out for it. It can only truly be reached on foot; its old, narrow streets just aren’t suited to cars. But that makes it all the more special.
The Baroque monastery, complete with its 17th century frescos and typical monastic gardens, has been given a protected status under the Monuments Nationaux classification. Today, in the place of monks, it is a haven for writers and artists throughout the spring and summer months. It is open to the general public too with guided tours on offer during high season.
For naturists, this village is a must-see – and must-swim – destination on the French Riviera. The crystal clear waters of the Roya make for ideal wild swimming conditions, particularly at the Bain du Sémite. What are you waiting for?
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Main photo credit: Vincent Jacques