Sunday, 11 December 2016

Mountain-top delight

Sainte-Agnès nestled below the peak of a mountain topped by a medieval chateau.
This little village in the far south-east corner of France is very dear to my heart.

Sainte-Agnès – the highest village In Europe which is also closest to the sea (‘le village du littoral le plus haut d’Europe’) – is listed as one of the country’s most beautiful.

It is also the ancestral village of my husband’s family on his mother’s side, with the plaque in the Chapelle de Saint-Sebastien carrying her family name, and the current Mayor of Sainte-Agnès also connected through family links.
You can just see the Hotel Righi - that marks Sainte-Agnès - near the cloud.
Just 11kms north of Menton, Sainte-Agnès sits high at the top of one of the mountain peaks that surround the town. Tucked away behind the main rocky outcrop, it is not visible from below.

Looking up, all you can see is the glowing white Hotel Righi , very popular in the 1920s, where you can still enjoy an English afternoon tea – together with a stunning view from Italy to Monaco and across the Mediterranean as far as Corsica.

The village is believed to have been named in honour of Sainte-Agnès who protected a young Roman princess who was forced to shelter there in a grotto during a thunderstorm. Having been saved, she built a chapel, naming it after her patron saint.

One of the ruelles in Sainte-Agnès.
Although I relay this legend, I have no explanation as to why a young Roman princess would be on the top of a mountain in southern France! Or whether it is true, because there is a second legend that a Sarrasin pirate, Haroun, renounced his Muslim religion to marry a local girl called Anna, ergo Sainte-Agnès.

Believe what you wish, but I do love these legendary – and possibly wildly inaccurate – histories.

Not only does Sainte-Agnès have links to medieval times, but it also marks the start of the Maginot Line – mistakenly thought to deter the enemy in wartime – but now a fascinating museum, where you can join nocturnal guided tours in July and August that explain its strategic capability, its armaments and the history of the Occupation of this part of France during World War Two.
One of the streets in the village.
When our children were small, we actually walked up to the town from Menton – each of us pushing a child in a push-chair – much to the amusement of the villagers when we finally arrived!

Although it is just two kilometres inland from the coast, Sainte-Agnès is 750 metres above sea level, which meant the 11km walk was quite a hike.

The village itself has narrow pedestrianised streets, known as ruelles. If you drive up, there is a big communal parking area just outside.

Many of the houses are set into the rocky outcrop at the top of this mountain with vaulted ceilings and rough stones forming their interiors.

Today the village is geared almost exclusively for tourism, but my husband remembers it just after the war, when hessian sacks were used as coverings instead of doors and windows. It was seen as a dilapidated and dying village as most of its occupants abandoned it to move to Menton.
From this already-high village a winding path leads up another 50 metres to the ruins of an old château which is slowly being restored. Inside the ramparts of this château, a beautiful medieval garden had already been replanted with olive trees, hedged flower beds and topiary trees.

Back in the town, there are a number of restaurants that offer both great food and stunning views.

Wandering the streets you experience the heady scents of lavender and lemon – and it is impossible to resist the locally-made perfumes.

The walk up to the chateau currently under restoration.
If you visit the village towards the end of July, you can catch La fete de la lavande (the Lavender festival), which centres on the locally-grown lavender, its distillation, products - including food as well as perfumes, soaps and sachets, plus artisans at work and various performances.

Just a note – you won’t see vast fields of lavender, for which Provence in renowned, around this mountain-top village. The lavender here is on a much smaller scale and not always grown at Sainte-Agnès.

There are lots of walking tracks leading from here – one of which takes you to another small hillside village called Gorbio, just two kilometres away. A good way to walk off that lunch.





  1. Fascinating! Menton I would love to go back to for a longer stay. Then I could see how difficult it was walking 11 kilometres up to Sainte Agnes minus pram of course!! Children do keep you fit, don't they! As always, well researched, interesting and well written. Chapeau!

    1. Thank you. There are regular buses to Sainte-Agnes! We walked for fun. I must say halfway up it didn't feel like fun - but it was worth it when we arrived. We caught the bus back.

  2. It sounds like an absolutely enchanting place Jan. Definitely on the 'must visit' list.

    1. It really is. You feel like flying at the top. My belle-mère used to walk up and back along the donkey tracks when she was a girl.