Thursday, 1 August 2013

Hidden Gems in the South of France: Captivating Medieval Hilltop Towns & Villages

With some of the richest culture and history in Europe, and indeed the world, it isn't surprising that France is absolutely packed with historic sites and medieval towns and villages from top to bottom. So how to choose the best ones? Well you can't, but here are four stunning, perfectly preserved medieval towns and villages perched high on beautiful hilltops in the French Riviera on the Cote d'Azur, which could well be some of the most beautiful in the country...

Hilltop Village: Eze

Eze Village - View from Cactus botanical gardens

Eze Village, Cote d'Azur, quaint French Village

Eze Village, Cote d'Azur, quaint French hilltop village

Right beside Monaco and the Italian border, Eze has a rich Liguarian and Phonecian history. Its medieval walls are intact and there is one entrance into and out of the village itself. Perched high on a hill, with a vast blanket of blue Mediterranean sea stretching out directly below, it offers the most stunning panoramic views, best appreciated from the botanical cactus gardens right at the very top (around 12 Euros per adult).

The trinket shops and galleries in Eze are a delight to wander around as you wind your way up the hill through the narrow stone alleyways, and the absence of cars or motors of any kind just adds to the medieval feel.

Eze can be reached by bus for around 1 Euro from Nice, you can catch a bus straight to the village, or to Eze-sur-Mer which is down below on the beach, and then a bus up to the village from there (stunning views). Trains between Marseille and Nice also stop at Eze-sur-Mer.

Hilltop Village: Vence St Paul

Vence st Paul, Cote d'Azur, quaint French hilltop village - hidden gem
Vence st Paul, Cote d'Azur, quaint French hilltop village - hidden gem

Tucked away at the top of a hill near the Maritime Alps, Vence affords panoramic mountain views and has a potent history in the world of fine and modern art. Artists including Matisse, Dante and Chagall have worked in Vence and since the 12th century Vence has been an artistic hub. Present-day Vence is home to many writers, artists and artisans, and its charming narrow stone streets are jam-packed with colourful galleries and workshops (mostly free entrance) from jewellery, to modern art - so modern it's almost overwhelmingly inspiring. 

For artistic insight and inspiration, and a good wander around outside, consider visiting Fondation Maeght - the fantastic modern art and sculpture gallery which includes exciting outdoors sculptures featuring water and fountains, as well as important works by artists such as Chagall and Leger. 

Vence St Paul is easily reached by bus from Nice - take the number 400 which stops near Place Massena. Vence St Paul is the hilltop village, however it also has a town of the same name (just 'Vence'). 

Hilltop Town: Biot

Biot, Cote d'Azur, quaint French hilltop village - hidden gem

Red-tiled buildings cluster together on the steep hill with the village's surrounding developments down below. The village's main claim to fame is the unique glass-making industry and it is possible to visit the workshops (verreries) and see this in progress, and visit the fantastic glass gallery and museum.

Glass from Biot is unique in that the makers deliberately include bubbles in the glass for a decorative effect. Aswell as the glass-making workshop at Verrerie du Biot, the free-entry glass gallery 'Galerie Internationale du Verre' is well worth a visit for its awe-inspiring and seemingly impossible glass artwork created by artists from around the globe. 

Both the verrerie and the gallery are in the same place, at the foot of the village just around the corner from the bus stop. The shops of the verreries in this area offer myriad possibilities of beautiful souvenir buying, however consider having a look in the shops up in the village itself for lower prices.

Walking up into the village is an attraction of its own - the steep steps, cobbled streets and narrow passageways are something of a sight, as well as some great exercise, and there is a wonderfully friendly and 'local' atmosphere. The village itself is a wonderful place to poke about in the various gift and glassware shops, and there are plenty of little places for eating and drinking opportunities.

Hilltop Town: Grasse

Grasse, Cote d'Azur, quaint French hilltop village - hidden gem

The historic and somewhat shabby centre make Grasse a loveable and quaint little French town. With its fame for pioneering the perfume industry, it celebrates all things flowery and you will find shops literally bursting with all things scented and pretty, and hanging baskets adorning the town around every corner.

The various perfumeries can be visited free of charge, the easiest to access being the wonderful Fragonard. With its great little tour including scent-detecting activities, and its glorious (but pricey) gift shop, it makes a fascinating and interactive activity

Significant historic sights are marked with gold emblems in the town and a free map is available from the tourist office (beside the bus station and car park).

To get to Grasse from Nice take the number 500 bus which stops near Place Massena. Grasse is also linked to Nice, Cannes and many other coastal towns on the Cote d'Azur by train.

Just outside Grasse are the beautiful Jardins du International de la Musee de la Parfumerie. These are found in Mouans-Sartoux and easy to reach by bus (bus stop 'Les Jardins du MiP'). It is very pleasant to spend half a day amongst the fields of fragrant plants organised in groups of fragrace-type. Entrace fee is around 3 Euros.

Like Quaint Towns and Villages? Want to find more in Europe? Visit this page: 12 best quaint towns and villages in Europe

Text and Images Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2013
All Rights Reserved

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