At the end of May 2016 we followed a seven-day walk from La Brigue in the Alpes Maritimes to Menton on the coast. For the third time, we used a route designed by On Foot Holidays who book the places to stay, provide detailed maps and route directions as well as transporting luggage between the stops. The map below outlines the route which is always close to the border with Italy. The route into Sospel did touch the border and many of the places we visited including La Brigue and Piène-Haute had been in Italy until they was transferred to France in 1947.
To get there we took a Eurostar from St Pancras at 9:17am and transferred to a TGV that left Gare de Lyon at 2:17pm, finally arriving in Nice at 7:55pm. We stayed in Nice for the night (AirBnB), planning to take the 9:30 train to La Brigue the next day. The On Foot team, on the ball as usual, warned that due to a strike that train would not be running.
25th May La Brigue and Notre Dame des Fontaines
As the bed was so uncomfortable, we decided to get up early and take the 7:35 train to la Brigue. This is a wonderful ride, in the Train des Merveilles (named after the valley ) following river valleys, on tall viaducts, through tunnels and on the sides of cliff faces, passing hilltop villages, with stops at Breil, Fontan, Dalmas, La Brigue and then going on to Tende.
La Brigue and Hotel Fleur des Alpes
On leaving the station we walked along a small road above a river and soon after crossing a bridge found the Hotel Fleur des Alpes on our left above a wide stretch of river. Although it was early, we were given a coffee and sat looking across the main square to the two churches and the wooded hillside behind. Soon after we were shown to our room that had a nice view out over the river with vegetable plots in the foreground and big grey rocky cliffs in the background. When we came down, we met Robi, the owner who looked after us magnificently during our stay. He advised us on walks, served us our meals and was willing to drive us almost anywhere. In addition, Robi introduced us to fellow OnFoot walkers Eric and Lesley who were a day ahead on the same walk and to Peter and Kathy who were a day behind us. It was really useful to be able to compare notes at the start and then again when we caught up with one another at Sospel and Menton.
La Brigue is a largish village on a minor road without through traffic with a river running through. It is at about 800m above sea level and is surrounded by green woods and further away by gray rocky mountains. The village itself consists of a row of houses along the riverside and then a maze of little streets above and behind the two churches where there are stone buildings and arcades.
Walk to Notre Dame des Fontaines
We followed the walking route that passes through the cherry orchards and then into the woods where there are regular panels with information about trees and birds that could be seen. We took a small diversion to look at the Pont du Coq a 15th century bridge that has been repaired from time to time over the years. Soon after that we passed a disused lime kiln then went up over a hill and down to a little chapel beside a group of springs.
The church Notre Dame des Fontaines is a very simple externally but the inside walls are covered by a renowned series of astoundingly beautiful frescoes of the life of Christ and the Last Judgement painted by two different 15th century artists. They are very beautiful and reminiscent of Giottto’s Arena Chapel (Cappella degli Scrovegni) frescos at Padua. Here is a virtual reality presentation of the interior chapel.
26th May Fontan to La Brigue
In the plan suggested by On Foot the walk is supposed to be southbound and somewhat downhill in general, from La BrIgue to Fontan. Then return by train from Fontan and spend a second night at La Brigue. But due to some trains being cancelled, our predecessors, Lesley and Eric had done the walk uphill instead and recommended it as being preferable and provided us with some detailed route notes as support. This seemed to make sense as the afternoon train was not going to run and Robi offered to drop us at Fontan in the morning.
We started with a very nice path up from Fontan with good views back, enjoying the spread of little blue flowers and of white cistus plants. Then we saw a colourful waterfall running over red granite. We opted for following the hairpin bends on the road rather than a perilous-looking short cut and then watched a train go over one of its viaducts.
We entered the woods again and soon saw the red Valerian flowers and yellow broom that were both regular features on the paths we followed, all the way to Menton. The trees in these woods were mostly chestnuts and pubescent oaks.
The hilltop villages of Borgue Inférieur, Borgue Supérieur and Granile were all very attractive, But we puzzled as to why we went down a very long hill from Borgue Inférieur to Borgue Supérieur. When we eventually reached Granile, the little tea shop was closed but we sat on their terrace drinking our water, eating Robi’s cake and enjoying the view.
At St Dalmas de Tende we were disappointed to see so much heavy traffic on the road but consoled ourselves with an ice cream, hoping to gain some strength for the final walk into La Brigue. We had envisaged this last stage as a little walk along the riverside but in reality we had to walk up a series of steps and then up a hidden path to eventually reach a good well-marked path that emerges above the village of La Brigue.
In the evening, we sat in the dining room at Hotel Fleurs des Alpes with its lovely view of the bridge over the river and during the meal introduced ourselves to Kathy and Peter who had just arrived.
27th May Saorge to Breil sur Roya
After breakfast, Robi drove us to Saorge, a mediaeval village south of Fontan. Saorge is on a rocky spur high above the river Roya. The interior of the old church is decorated in a highly ornate way. The streets are arranged in rows above one another, all facing towards the valley of the Roya. The stone houses are tall and narrow with red slate roofs. Sets of steps link the main streets at the different levels. As you walk round there are various points with distant views to the mountains across the river.
Our walk started to the south of the village where the river Bendola meets the Roya. At this point, a vital bridge was washed away and On Foot had suggested alternatives. One of these: ‘the harder route’ on GR 52 involved a climb to Mont Agu – we weren’t keen to try this anyway and also we received a text from Eric and Lesley that it required a lot of effort for little reward. The ‘easier’ route would have involved a taxi ride from Saorge to the point where the main road emerges from the tunnel.
On Foot‘s local rep, Richard advised us that he had walked across the river in March and sent us route instructions for the original route that goes over the top of the tunnel. We intended to try crossing in flip flops but in the end, we were able to cross on stepping stones to reach a marked path with a warning not to cross the river when the water is high.
The path goes steeply up the hill and then along the top of the tunnel and eventually drops down to the point where the easy route starts. Although the road tunnel looks short on the map, the ‘walk over the top’ was quite arduous and provides few views.
The rest of the route is mostly in the woods and involves a couple of climbs, the second quite stiff and we also encountered a slippy section over loose stones. But we saw plenty of good flowers (Valerian, Pink Cistus, rosemary and thyme).
We were surprised to meet a horse on the path but soon after came to some old shepherd’s houses (called ‘casouns’) where people were apparently living. After a long walk down into Breil, we found Hotel le Roya and had a rest before taking the easy option of a meal next door – pizza and ice cream. The pizza was so enormous that we were able to use what was left for the next day’s picnic.
Breil-sur-Roya, is situated on the Roya at the southern end of the Haute Vallée de la Roya but has the misfortune to have a busy road passing through. It must have been an interesting old town with the three bridges over the river and the several churches.
Another tiring walk of about 15 km with around 800 m of climbing.
28th May Breil to Sospel
We went to the local baker for a sandwich to add to yesterday’s pizza. Then we started on the route to Sospel on the far side of the third bridge. The path climbs away from Breil with fine views back to the town and of the big lake above the dam in the river.
Soon we were walking on a very attractive path at a higher level above the river valley on our left, passing many trees – scots pines and aleppo pines, holm oaks.
Then at about noon, we caught site of the village of Piène-Haute on the craggy cliffs above us. After another hour we walked into the village street and then turned left and found ourselves in the square by the church. This square is on the edge of the village and has fine views of the countryside that we came through. It is dominated by an Italian War Memorial (the village was in Italy until 1947). We found a street named Place du Rattachement.
A family was having lunch at a table in the square – the usual french affair with granny going back to the house to fetch dish after dish. They were friendly, telling us where to find water and later on lending us the key to the painted church.
The path continues through olive groves for quite a while descending to a road that is practically on the border with Italy. The the path turns away westwards and follows the Gorge de Bevera. This path has many signs informing the walker as to the names of the trees and flowers likely to be seen.
As the path descends, it comes alongside the river which is quite wide with a rocky base and seems popular for taking a dip. We found a quiet spot behind some bushes and changed into our swim suits and followed suit. It wasn’t really possible to swim as the water was shallow and flowing very fast. But we were very pleased to be able to cool off.
After the dip, we found the walk into Sospel rather long, particularly after reaching the road but we did eventually reach our destination the Hotel des Etrangers. he walk was about 14km with 500m dénivelée.
Having rendezvoused by text message, we met Lesley and Eric at a pizza place called ‘2G’ for deux garcons.
29th May Rest day at Sospel
On Foot had suggested a choice of a long and a short circular walk but as it was raining all day, we spent our time exploring Sospel. The river Bévera runs right through this small town with an ancient-looking angled stone bridge outside the Hotel des Etrangers and another smaller bridge downstream. The town consists of tall narrow houses lining narrow streets on the slopes above both banks of the river.
It was a Sunday and when we entered the big cathedral from the big square, a child was being baptised. This is a pure baroque, basilica style building.
As we wandered around town, we came across Kathy and Peter who had opted to use the train from Breil to avoid the promised thunder storms on the hillside.
30th May Sospel to Ste. Agnes
As Jean had a cold, we decided to avoid the ‘up’ part of this day’s walk by taking a lift with the luggage as far as the Col de Costillon. We could see the sea as soon as we set out.
The red valerian the yellow broom and the light-green euphorbia flowers were bigger and brighter but there was a smaller variety of trees. However, there were lots of mediterranean pines and holm oaks.
Soon we could see the village of Ste Agnes at the top of a distant hill. We found a lovely place for a picnic by a bridge over the river Borrigo. The latter descends a deep gorge to the left of the path.
When the path reaches the road into Ste Agnes, we took a long flight of steps, the crossed another loop of the road on to a steep narrow cobbled street that took us eventually to Hotel le Saint-Yves.
We were welcomed in at the bar in the big dining room, finding it hard to keep our eyes off the array of fruit tarts. Our room had a view and was close to a downstairs sitting room with big windows. We went back upstairs for some cold drinks on the terrace but felt rather overwhelmed by the large, noisy group of english-speaking ‘tourists’ at the next table. Fortunately they soon left the village and we were able to explore the narrow streets of Ste Agnes unhindered. There is a ruined castle a good hundred metres above the village which is itself at about 700m although only a few kms from the sea.
31st May Ste. Agnes to Menton
Jean who didn’t feel up to walking travelled with the bags all the way to Menton. Meanwhile George walked OnFoot‘s interesting and varied 15 km route to Menton through Gorbio and Roquebrun. The path started a steep 200m ascent from St. Agnes, over a col and steeply down and through a valley populated by smallholdings and villas to reach Gorbio a hilltop, mediaeval village with narrow passages and a painted chapel.
The route continued on a very minor road to another col and then followed a ridge with views down to Monaco to the west before descending through a wooded hillside into the mediaeval centre of Roquebrun. From there, George then decided not to take OnFoot’s suggested route via Roquebrun Plage but to follow traffic-free paths (signed ‘Chemin de Menton’) and minor roads directly down to the join the promenade at Carnoles and walk about 1.5 km along to our hotel in Menton – the pretentiously-named Princess et Richmond. Total distance from St Agnes 14 km, 360 m ascent, 1000 m descent.
1st June sight-seeing in Menton
We were certainly glad to have the day of rest we had planned in Menton. The town is very much a seaside resort and tourist destination but we managed to find some interesting activities to fill our day. The highlights were the Basilique St Michel, because of its position on a hillside overlooking the bay of Menton and the Musée Jean Cocteau, a fascinating collection paintings, sculptures and films by Jean Cocteau housed in a splendid sea-front pavilion designed for the purpose.
We had met Kathy and Peter arriving at the hotel in the morning and had arranged to meet up with them for dinner. We walked with them along the pedestrianised Rue St. Michel where we had to force our way past a lot of touting waiters in the many tourist-formula places before we managed to find Ripa Délices Italiens , a little outdoor restaurant on a terrace on the hill up to the cathedral that seemed the closest thing to a tourist-free place that Menton has to offer. We had a convivial last evening there with our new-found friends.
The following day we caught a train to Nice from Menton Ville station – passing through Roquebrun and Monaco, though much of the track is in tunnels drilled through the precipitous coastal cliffs.
At Nice station we picked up the hire car as we had planned, to drive to our friends Xavier and Claudine’s house at Pont Manel, near Gap, a long and mountainous drive along the Route Napoléan. We were pleased to revisit Entrevaux and Annot, two villages that we had visited and walked from during our Train des Pignes holiday in 2014.