Sunday, 21 August 2016

A town embraced by rock

Cotignac - showing the western end of the cliff face and the first of the two towers.
Not far from Les Arcs-sur-Argens – perhaps a half-hour drive – lies a beautiful little village that is not only stunning to look at, but has a wonderful atmosphere of lively wellbeing.

Houses are built into caves and the rock face.
Cotignac makes a terrific day trip for people wanting to explore the narrow alleyways through the town, the weekly market or just browse the main Cours Gambetta, with its shops and restaurants set beneath shady plane trees.

I have written about Cotignac before (The Quinces of Cotignac), but this time we wanted to explore the town itself, so we drove via Lorgues and Carcès, then turned north to find the town sheltered within an arc of sheer rocky cliffs.

Approaching from this direction, the breath-taking cliff, pock-marked with caves, creates an imposing backdrop  as Cotignac nestles centre stage below.

The 60-metre high escarpment stretches for 400 metres encircling the northern rim of the town, protecting it from the cold mistral wind when it sweeps down from the plain above.

As well as natural caves in the limestone face, people have also built underground – or troglodyte – homes into the cliffs. And the rock also makes up the rear walls of houses built along the base.

From the Mairie you can climb to the cliff top.
Centuries ago, the River Cassoles cascaded straight over these cliffs, crashing down onto the site where the town now stands. No wonder people made their homes deep in the cliff face and out of the way.
But in the 18th century, the river was diverted to the west of the town, rather than dividing it, and the town centre became established around the base of the rocks.

The cliffs are spectacular; they soar above the town and are visible at the end of many of the narrow streets. Being limestone, they have weathered into fascinating shapes, highlighted by the shadows that sweep slowly across during the day.

Stairs and passageways leading to the underground ‘troglodyte’ homes have been cut into the face of the rock.

We didn’t climb up to them – we weren’t sure whether we were allowed to or if the paths were private entrances.

However, we did take the tourist track up past a row of houses built out from the cliff face, many of which were little artisan cottages with views out across the wide valley to the south.

Looking south towards Carces from the top of the escarpment.
And from the square in front of the Mairie, there is another small pathway that winds its way up beneath imposing overhangs right to the top of the cliff and the two towers that stand high above the town.

These towers date back to the 13th century and were part of the original settlement at Cotignac.

Their height gave watchmen a view over the St Martin plain to the north and southwards across the broad valley towards Carcès and Entrecasteaux.

Looking below from the edge of the cliff is a tumble of traditional terracotta tiled roofs sloping down the valley beside the Cassoles River.

You can also see across to the point where the tiny church of Notre Dame des Graces sits. This was the church where Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, prayed for an heir – their wish being granted with the birth of Louis XIV nine months later.

Back in the town centre, you can wander the narrow streets where tiny galleries and artisans’ ateliers are tucked away, or just meander back into the Cours Gambetta to enjoy the ambience of its shops and restaurants and fountains set delightfully under the plane trees.

Tree-lined Cours Gambetta with its shops and restaurants.



  1. Thanks for sharing. I may never get there, but I feel like I 'know' it already through your descriptions and photos.

  2. Thank you, bookowl, I'd love to think you will get there one day.