We Didn’t Know The Valley Of Hell Was So Beautiful, Les Baux

Near the end of our whirlwind trip through the south of France, we went to Les Baux-de-Provence near Aix (where we saw a knife fight) and Arles (where we saw the Roman ruins).  It is another adorable and charming hill town, but the real reason to go to  Les Baux is to enjoy sweeping views of the Provencal countryside from atop the ruins of its medieval citadel.   The first citadel was built in the 10th Century.  Although the lords were deposed a couple of centuries later, it didn’t stop it from becoming a cultural center and renowned for its chivalry.  When the last dynastic ruler (Alice of Baux) died, it became part of the kingdom of France.

 In the 17th century, Protestant Baux led an unsuccessful revolt against the Catholic King.  The all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu retaliated by ordering the destruction of the castle and its walls.Shortly after, the town was granted in 1642 to the Grimaldi family of Monaco.  In fact, it still belongs to them (even though it’s administered by France).  Princess Caroline of Monaco uses the title Marquise des Baux.

Having seen plenty of cute shops and art galleries in the hill towns of Eze, St. Paul-de-Vence, and Vence, we checked out a photography exhibition then headed straight for the castle.  Climbing around the ruins was cool (they even had a catapult demonstration), but the dramatic views are the real star of the show.  The rugged moonscape is the perfect place from which to survey Provence.  We watched the weather traverse the countryside, descending only when we saw rain clouds headed toward us.

The Val d’ Enfer (the Valley of Hell) is also renowned.  It allegedly inspired Dante’s poetry. Bauxite, an aluminum ore, was discovered here in 1821.  French geologist Pierre Berthier discovered it and named after the town (Les Baux).  When it’s that cute, how could you do otherwise?

Being short, I love, love, love my heels, but appropriate footwear is recommended.  She was having a devil of a time getting around the town and down the steep hill to the parking.  At least they are cute.

Advertisements

Everyone Loves St.-Paul-de-Vence

St.-Paul-de-Vence has been discovered.  Around 2.5 million people visit the tiny, 16th century medieval hilltop village each year.  It is filled with art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  The picturesque walk along the Rue Grande (aka Main Street) from Vence Gate to the Nice Gate, is way more beautiful and much more enjoyable than any shopping mall. Tourists love to photograph magnificent old medieval and baroque facades for good reason.  It is beautiful.   Scenic and charming, it is hard to take a bad picture here (unless other tourists photo-bomb you).

We found ourselves ducking into side streets and back alleys to avoid the hoards of tour bus passengers and students on field trips gushing down the streets like a lava stream.  St.-Paul-de-Vence is quaint and its backstreets are enchanting.  These who only shop the main drag are missing out.

I loved the potted plants outside doors, vine-covered stone walls, weathered squares, trickling fountains, narrow alleys, statues tucked into nooks, wrought iron gates, intricate door knockers and delicately worked wrought-iron shop signs .  It seemed as though there were adorable details everywhere I looked.  For example, the sidewalk stones are laid in patterns.  I’m just lucky to keep my floor relatively clean, forget about tiling flowers into it.

St.-Paul-de-Vence is built on a natural defensible spot, a rock outcropping in the Alps Maritimes on the Cote d’Azur.  French king Francis 1st made it a stronghold and ordered the construction of massive defensive walls.  Good call Frankie.  I wouldn’t want to lose this town to the enemy either.  Paul’s medieval fortress walls surround the town and are some of the most intact in the region.  We walked the perimeter taking in the breathtaking views of mountains and sea.

Yep. That’s the Mediterranean in the distance

The cemetery is just outside the city walls on the Mediterranean side.  The painter, Mark Chagall, is buried in the Saint Paul-de-Vence cemetery. His simple white tomb has small stones on top.  They are added by visitors as tributes pursuant to both Russian and Jewish tradition.

In case you were wondering, St.-Paul-de-Vence is also known as St. Paul.  Since there are a lot of other towns named St. Paul in France, it is typically referred to as the one by Vence.

Take It Eze-y, The Cote D’Azur Town Of Eze

Eze is a dramatic village perched 427 Meters (1,400 feet) above the Mediterranean sea.  Like many ancient hill towns, it is car-free.  We love car-free towns because they are more pedestrian and very peaceful.

Eze’s star attraction is the Jardin Exotique, a cactus and succulent filled garden planted around the ruins of a 14th century castle and filled with sculptures.   They had nice plaques explaining the sights and history of the area.  Very educational.  I loved the idea of filling castle ruins in with plants to make a unique garden.  It was really cool, but the real start of the show were the views.  Amazing.

Eze is so beautiful that it has become a tourist town…literally.  There are almost no full-time residents.  Virtually all the buildings are shops, art galleries, hotels or restaurants.  It has become a popular honeymoon destination.

The private terrace of one of the hotels

The Romans inhabited Eze.  Around 900, the Moors conquered the village, attacking from the door below.  They held it William of Provence took it from them in 973.  Like nearby Villefranche, its strategic position and proximity to nearby Nice meant that rulers built heavy fortifications.  Eze functions as sort of “eagle’s nest” overlooking the sea and surrounding mountains.   The Phoenicians, Turks and the Principality of Monaco also occupied the city at different points in time.

They weren’t the only ones who came to Eze.  The philosopher Nietzsche spent time here.  The trail you can hike down to the water (in the town of Eze-Sur-Mer) is called the Nietzsche Path in his honor.  We had on hiking clothes, but it was raining so hard that a hike down a steep (and possibly muddy) path didn’t sound like a ton of fun.  Walt Disney also spent time here.  He doesn’t have a path.

We Took The High Road – La Grande Corniche

Three roads link Nice to Monaco.  They are called “Les Trois Corniches” which translates to the three cliffs or cliff roads.  The word comes from the word “cornice,” the decorative frieze that runs on top of buildings.   They are some of the world’s great drives.  When the rain and cruise ship passengers chased us out of Villefranche, we decided to drive the Grand Corniche.  What better time to take a drive on dangerous, cliff side road than in the rain?

The Low Corniche running out to the peninsula to St. Jean-Cap-Ferat from Villefranche-Sur-Mer

The peninsula with the Low Corniche from above

The Low Corniche (La Base Corniche or Corniche Inferieure) runs along the water, 50 meters above the Mediterranean.  It runs through Villefranche, past the entrance to the Cape Ferrat (known as the peninsula of billionaires), into Beaulieu-sur-Mer (chic Belle Epoque resort town), into Eze-Sur-Mer (from which you can hike up the Nieztsche path to the medieval hill town of Eze) and Cap d’Ail before arriving in the Principality of Monaco.

View from the Moyenne Corniche

The Middle Corniche (La Moyenne Corniche) is higher, culminating at 472 meters above sea level.   It offers impressive views of the sea and the towns above.  We took it out of Eze, going over the viaduct.  The Viaduct of Eze is known as the Bridge of the Devil.

The Viaduct of Eze on the Moyenne Corniche

Built in the early 20th century, the Moyenne Corniche is the newest of the three roads.  Even then tourists were causing congestion on the Low Corniche.

The Moyenne and Low Corniches from the Grande Corniche

We took the Grande Corniche out and drove the Middle Corniche back.   It wasn’t easy to stop for pictures though as we had to cross a lane of traffic to pull off and then get back out.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but luckily it rained (so there wasn’t too much traffic).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop like that on a busy day.

The Tete de Chien outcrop from Eze

From Eze, you can see the Tete de Chien promontory which dominates Monte-Carlo.  Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), was killed when her car went off a cliff on the Moyenne Corniche near there in 1983.

The High Corniche (La Grande Corniche) is the highest of the three with a height of 500 meters above the sea.  It has staggering views and a historical pedigree.  It is the site of the Via Aurelia, the road used by the Romans to conquer the territory to their west (aka France).  La Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon alongside of the old Roman road.

Several movies have been filmed on the Grande Corniche.    Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of “To Catch a Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly here.  In some scenes, you can see Eze in the background.  The James Bond film Goldeneye starts with a car chase on the Grande Corniche.  Pierce Brosnan as James Bond chases Russian female fighter pilot Xenia Onatopp‘s Ferrari, in his Aston Martin DB5.  It is also a popular spot to film car commercials (but so is Detroit).

Yep. That’s it way up there on top.

From the Grand Corniche, you can see some seriously expensive homes.  I’m pretty sure that this is Villa La Leopolda.  Built by King Leopold of Belgium (allegedly for his mistress), owned by the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame and money), Bill Gates and then by the Safra family, it was put up for sale by Edmund Safra’s widow, Lily.  Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, pulled out of a deal to pay $500 million dollars for it after legal troubles with the French government, losing his $36 million deposit.  Oops.

The medieval hill town of Eze and the viaduct on the Moyenne Corniche from the Grande Corniche

The Grande Corniche is so high and steep that it doesn’t go through many towns (only the hilltop village of Roquebrune).  There are hairpin turns and low guard rails (if there are guard rails).   It wasn’t a relaxing road to drive, but it was pretty freaking cool.

Cycling it…even cooler.

Villefranche, Oui, S’Il Vous Plaît

Villefranche-sur-Mer is carved into a hillside on a bay between Nice and Monaco.  We chose to stay in Villefranche because it is smaller and more residential than many of the towns on the water.   That’s not to say that they don’t have the tourism thing down pat.  Cruise ships regularly put down anchor in the harbor and we paid more to park our car overnight here than we did in New York City!  As cheap as I am, I didn’t care.  The views were worth it.

I loved the pastel colored houses and church.  On the left is the Baroque Eglise St-Michel church.  While it seems as though every town here has impressive, serene churches, this one had interesting objects that appeared magical with the light streaming in on them.  The statue of Christ below was carved out of olive wood by a convict.

We fed our coffee addiction and had breakfast at a café on the docks.  People were readying their boats for a sailing competition that weekend and seeing fisherman returning with their catch provided great entertainment.  After gorging on fish the night before, we learned that the Mediterranean is almost fished out and most of the fish served in restaurants is imported from the Atlantic.  Many of the towns on the Côte d’Azur started as fishing villages.  Today, tourism is the number one industry, but Villefranche is still has a few people who still earn a living fishing.

Villefranche has been a port since Roman times and is strategically important because it could be used as a base from which to attack the port of Nice.  After the fall of the Roman empire, residents fled and built the hill towns that dot the mountains behind the water.  In the 13th century, the Duke of Provence wanted to defend the port from Saracen Turks and strengthen their hold on the coastline.  To get them to move, he made living there tax-free.  Gotta love tax-free.  The Duke of Savoy constructed the fort to defend the port and bay in the 16th century.

The vaulted Rue Obscure (dark street) provided shelter from bombardment.  Rue Obscure is a passage way under the harbor front houses dating from 1260.

Narrow, steep lanes climb up from the harbor.  They were blissfully quiet and relatively deserted until the cruise ship started ferrying passengers ashore.

We decided to pull the plug and head out to the Grand Cornishe.  Before we left, we stopped to check out this church.  Villefranche is known for the Chapelle St.-Pierre in which Jean Cocteau (a famous French artist, poet and filmmaker) painted lavish frescos with heavy black lines and pastel colors.

Oops, I almost forgot.  In Villefranche, we found a new use for a bidet.  It came in really handy to clean the mud off of his Dunks.