Speeding along the coast of the French Riviera on the train which connects Antibes with Cannes and Monte Carlo, you could be forgiven for thinking the area was one interconnected piece of commercial development. However, divert your eyes for a moment from the blue Mediterranean and look inland towards the densely wooded alpine foothills where a few brief glimpses of an original medieval hilltop village may just have the power to transport you into a more relaxed atmosphere.
The hilltop village is Haut-de-Cagnes, looking out across the more modern complex of Cagnes-sur-Mer. Situated to the north west of Nice it was once the haunt of artists following in the footsteps of the impressionists and chasing the light of Provence in their plein air painting. In the early 20th Century the village became known as ‘The Montmarte of the French Riviera’. Today it provides the calmness of village life just a few kilometres from the busy coast and provides a fascinating view of a most well preserved and picturesque medieval hilltop village.
Cagnes means ‘place inhabited on the round hill’ and at 91 metres high it is quite a predominant feature of the landscape. Very thoughtfully, the authorities supply a Navette Gratuite, a free 12 seat mini bus which takes you to the summit every fifteen minutes, from the gare routière the central bus station in Cagnes-sur-Mer. It can be a hair-raising ride with only inches to spare on each side of the bus.
Once there however, you are free to admire the tiers of narrow, shaded streets embraced with mellow stone walls and the houses, adorned with terracotta pots all individually styled.
Views abound and on clear days the hills of the Var region and the foothills of the Alps contrast with the more built up coastal resort below and the distant Cap d’Antibes.
Perched on the edge of the hill is the Chappelle Notre Dame de Protection which although modest in size offers a wonderful panorama of the Massif du Mercantour and the Mediterranean towards Nice. It once provided a refuge for pilgrims and travellers and today still provides a shady refuge within its porch from which to admire the view.
The intriguing name of ‘Our Lady of Protectorate’ dates back to 1641 when the chapel was enlarged by Jean-Henri Grimaldi to commemorate his democratic win and the Treaty of Péronne which ensured the placement of Monaco under French protection. He therefore wished to thank the Virgin for this successful outcome and the Chapel largely as we see it today was the result. The clock tower was added during the 18th Century. However, one of the porch pillars was removed in 1910 ‘to provide the easier passage of carts’.
Towering above the village is the crenellated château or castle, once the home of the Grimaldis of Monaco. Originally built around 1300 by Rainier Grimaldi, then Admiral of France, it was designed as a watchtower for defence. Some 300 years later it was converted by Baron Jean-Henri Grimaldi into a palatial residence with a monumental staircase, arched galleries and ceremonial rooms styled with a strong baroque influence.
During the French Revolution the castle changed ownership and in the ensuing years was also completely restored. Finally, in 1937 it was bought by the town and in 1946 the Grimaldi Castle became the Municipal Museum and granted historic status in 1948.
Today it houses the Olive Tree Museum, detailing the heritage and importance of olives to the region together with the Modern Art Museum. There is also the Suzy Solidor Donation. The famous cabaret singer whose career spanned from the 1920’s to the 1970’s spent the last 25 years of her life in Cagnes-sur-Mer and was painted some 40 times by many of the artists of the area including Dufy and Cocteau. She was quite a character and socialite and the British music hall song ‘If you knew Suzy like I knew Suzy…’ was named after her. Today in Place du Château, where Solidor performed, the Espace Solidor is a venue for arts and craft exhibitions.
Alongside the Château is the Church of St Pierre, largely 14th and 15th Century. The Seigniorial Chapel known as St Joseph’s was added by the Grimaldis in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Its tower stands sentinel over the attractive Place Grimaldi, an attractive pebbled square with surrounding terraced houses where steps lead to the Château entrance.
The Place du Château just beneath the Château is full of restaurants and bars offering fine dining and views across the surrounding hills. It is also the place to watch boules under the shade of the lime trees. In fact in summer this is the site of the boules world championships. I can think of no better reason to re-visit Haut de Cagnes, if only to delight in the true sport of France accompanied by such a choice of menus, all in one place.
The town was entirely devoid of tourists when I visited and provided a relaxing if somewhat energetic walk through the steep streets with well-worn steps. Indeed, apart from the restaurants and hotels the town is completely free of commercialism and this adds much to its authenticity and character.
The densely packed terrace houses are beautifully preserved by their privileged occupants. The windows and doors provide something of a painterly scene to the observer with occasional glimpses of intimate courtyards and balconies.
Wandering the quiet streets with only the occasional distant echo of conversation or the strains of music being played, one is forced to wonder who lives there today and what do they do? In more distant times the inhabitants cultivated the region with vines, hemp, olives and citrus fruits.
I would like to think that today it is home to creative people, artists, musicians and perhaps professionals from Cagnes-sur-Mer. Travelling on the small free bus it was pleasing to note many down to earth village folk whose families have lived there for generations and continue to do so simply to preserve a way of life and the quality of such an historic and beautiful village.