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Review: Alpes Maritimes by car

Specialist Holiday - Lakes & mountains


Les Alpes Maritimes 'Arrieres Pays' explored by car

  • By SilverTraveller John-Hayden-Halsey

    16 reviews


  • Mar 2014
  • Partner

101 people found this review helpful

Planning the routes. The Alpes Maritimes region of Provence, so called since Roman Times ever since some 200 years BC is amongst the most beautiful, spectacular and rewarding locations to explore by car in the world. The narrow stunningly engineered roads are built upon ancient routes, many of which would have been originally little more than footpaths or mule trails through the mountains behind the coastal littoral of the frenetic, noisey and over developed Cote d' Azur.

We bought and studied a Michelin 'Carte Verte' Zoom Map No.115 entitled 'Cote d'Azur 1/100 000 – I cm = I km Carte Routiere et Touristique upon which we then marked up our chosen routes with a yellow marker pen for the roads we chose along with a pink marker pen to highlight the main towns, villages and hamlets on the chosen routes.

Car Rental at Nice Airport
Having flown down to Nice 'Cote d'Azur' Airport we collected a Peugeot 207 Coupe Convertible at Europcar at the airport. It is essential to rent a small agile French built convertible to best enjoy the remote and little used routes of the 'Arrieres Pays' in the Alpes Maritimes where you can drive for mile upon mile without meeting another vehicle. Hence when engaging in mountain driving always commence the journey with a full fuel tank, plenty of water to drink and something to eat, as services of any kind are rare and therefore not to be relied upon, once your are in the remote mountain passes.

Based at Vence, Alpes Maritimes
We based ourselves at the ancient, fortified, erstwhile walled hill town of Vence. A major Ligurian tribal settlement and habitation since Pre-Christian times, later an important seat of regional governance occupied by the Phoecian Greeks and later by the Romans latterly becoming an important regional commercial and cultural centre of France, that includes the world famous Chapel du Rosaire decorated by Henri Matisse.

Vence has a host of advantages over any other town in Les Alpes Maritimes. As there is no comparable place which is able to offer such advantages to the traveller or indeed resident of this remarkable region. For the traveller, there are a host of hotels to choose from along with numerous excellent restaurants, bistros, creperies, pizzerias and cafes. In addition there is one of the best local markets in the region, complimented by a wonderful range of food shops, bakeries amongst a plethora of venues selling wonderful local pottery, fabrics and cultural artefacts too numerous to list here but well worth taking the time to explore when in Vence. There is also a major Leclerc Supermarche which offers foodstuffs that you might be forgiven for associating with Harrods rather than supermarkets fare in the United Kingdom. A good fuel station on the Avenue Emile Hugues just down the hill from Leclerc is the preferred venue for petrol/diesel for your car, below one of the finest floral displays on a roundabout to be seen anywhere.

Place to Stay
'Excellent food & Stylish rooms L'Auberge de Seigneurs. I Rue du Docteur Binet,06140 Vence. Tel + (33) 4 93 58 04 24 This is the oldest hotel – restaurant in Vence founded in 1916 which has always offered outstanding food and reasonably priced affordable rooms with wonderful breakfasts. All within a 16/17th century annex to the Chateau de Vence, once owned by the Villeneuve family, lords of Villeneuve Loubet and Vence. Stay here. If money no object stay at the legenadary Hotel Chateau Domaine St. Martin on the Route D2 above Vence overlooking the ancient walls of this glorious town.

Buying a Picnic in Vence
When preparing for day long mountain driving explorations in the wilds of the Alpes Maritimes, be sure to do your picnic shopping the previous day, so as not to waste the day shopping when you should be enjoying the glorious mountain scenery 'Far from the maddening crowd'. Except for buying a freshly baked French Stick of bread each day in Vence. Best value for picnics is Reillette de Vaux, pates, cheeses, fresh fruit, Niciose olives, wines from Provence, Biere d' Alsace and plenty of water to drink! All much chaper i general shopping.

One of the Mountain Drives of your life – Never to be forgotten! Allow a full day for the following to enable you to pause at a number of beauty spots along the route, take photographs/video. Whilst allowing time for a walk before lunch and another during the afternoon, to avoid becoming 'car crazy' from endless climbs and descents between progressing the route along demanding narrow roads that cling to the mountainsides.

Climb up into the mountains from Vence on the legendary Route D2 negotiating the seemingly endless lacets (hairpin bends) that quickly lead you up to the Col de Vence 970 metres. Aston Martin Cars Ltd. launched their magnificent DB9 models along this route, whilst basing themselves at Hotel Chateau du Domaine St. Martin. I was amongst those fortunate few to be a guest of the chief test driver for Aston Martin during their international launch of the DB9 here. Who kindly took me for an unusually extended run along the D2.

Just prior to the summit of the Col de Vence there are two vast panoramic views worth pausing to see in clear weather of the Cote d'Azur coastline over Nice to St. Jean Cap Ferrat in the east and Cap d'Antibes, Iles de Lerins, Cannes and L'Esterel Massif to the west. Continuing to the summit of the Col de Vence, the road runs through wooded limestone mountain ranges above the magnificent Gorge de la Cagne. Pause at Somet de Vascagne to view the precipitous gorge in the depths of the valley below.

Follow the D2 until you reach the D8 turning to the medieval hilltop village of Coursegoules below the awesome Somet de Coursegoules. Continue past this remote village on the D2 following the signs to the village of Bouyon and continue onwards to the large hilltop village of Consegudes with continously spellbinding unfolding views over the River Esteron valley far below, across the Valley of the River Var to the French and Italian snow capped alpine peaks beyond in the distance. The D8 continues along woodland shrounded mountainsides towards Roquesteron by way of the Clue de la Bouisse where there is a fantastic example of geology beside the route that portrays how the Tectonic Plates have pushed up the ground to form the Alps which are continually gaining in height like the Himlayas, resulting from quite unimaginable pressures at work within the Earth's crust.

Upon reaching the town of Roquesteron, turn left onto the D17 and continue for some 5 kilometres until you reach the D10 signed to Cigale. Here the route takes on a seriously demanding and remarkable character, as it winds back and forth along the mighty valley of the River Esteron, fed by green coloured 'snow melt water' that runs into amazingly weathered limestone mountainside rivers, then down through magnificent lime stone canyons to join the waters of the River Esteron in the boulder strewn valley below the D10.

The mountain 'Village Perche' of Cigale commands the eastern aspect of the valley high above the D10 and straddling the important D17 mountain pass route to the ancient fortified erstwhile frontier town of Puget Theniers which once guarded the border between the Domaines of the Dukes of Savoy in Italy and of France.

The D10 runs on along the northern aspect of the River Esteron valley until it crosses the beautiful Gorges de Riolan across the Pont de Riolan. Where a snow melt swllen River Riolan runs in a torrent during the early spring over rock pools and sumps between smooth rock ravines sculpted over the millenia. Wild mountain thyme, lavender and rosemary grow sparsely amongst small pockets of earth on the surface of the limestone mountainsides hereabouts. This is a spot to consider for either a picnic lunch or a walk.

A short distance further along the D10 there is a remarkably high waterfall to be seen cascading down the moutainside on the surthern side of the valley. Le cascade de Vegay which tumbles over the rim of a high moutainside ravine and plunges hundreds of feet down into a most spectacular rock basin within the mountainside below, from which the water then cascades down the mountain as if running our of a vast garden ornamental basin, a wonderful natural example of water sculptured mountainside limestone. Sadly, the waterfall is only to be seen in it's full glory during the early spring and dwindlles to a trickle in high summer.

The D10 continues towards the remote Village Perche of Aiglun where there is an excellent leisure facility by way of a canyoning school which requires an exceedingly high level of fitness and is not for the feint hearted. see Ecole de Canyonisme Aiglun Tel 06 62 92 15 34 & Hotel Calendal Tel 04 93 05 82 32 for accommodation @ Aiglun.

Aiglun is an ancient habitation with some fascinating rough stone built houses that are well worth taking time out to explore on foot. Leave the car in the car park on the western approach to the village and wander the few metres back to the village.

Leaving Aiglun on the D10 to the west, the road decends through lacets onto a very narrow road that follows the mountainside towards the world renowned Clue d' Aiglun. The single track road has been blasted out of the mountainside and run underneath overhanging cliffs through blind bends prior to entering a rock tunnel that exits directly onto the approach to the Pont d'Aiglun some 3/400 feet above the spellbindingly beautiful mountain 'snow melt' river River Esteron some 3/400 feet below the bridge. Where the River Esteron debouches into the Esteron Valley in a torrent through a narrow limestone defile. The combination of a series of wonderful rock pools, waterfalls and sumps, are amongst the finest to be seen in the entire French Alps. The road that leads to the Pont de Aiglun from Aiglun is continually featured in magazine and television programms internationally linked to driving in Les Alpes Maritimes. However few other than local residents actually use this road except during August when France is on vacation!

The D10 continues across the Point de Aiglun below the magnificent cliffs of the Clue de Aiglun canyon and immediately runs through a substantial rock tunnel and continues as a single track road along the mountainside for some distance with nowhere to pass another vehicle. Here one says a prayer that nobody is coming towards you until the road widens a kilometre further westward.

Thereafter the D10 climbs through lacets through the habitations of Les Tardons, Le Collet, Les Sausses and through the village of Les Mas towards St. Auban on the D10 above the River Gironde. The D10 climbs up through lacets and over the Col de Pinpinier prior to descending into the valley of the River Gironde where the road runs onto to St. Auban but where the D5 road lead to the south up through seemingly endless lacets to the summit of the magnificent Col de Bleine Pass on the Montagne de Thorenc which is often closed by snow fall during heavy winter snows, as it was in early 2014. It was on this mountain that an American Flying Fortress crashed into the mountains here with the loss of ten crew during 1944 in severe weather.

The D5 descends gently to the cross roads at Le Quatre-Chemins where the D5 crosses the D2 running down to join the legendary Route Napoleon and the centre of the world's perfume industry, Grasse.

Turning left onto the D2 at Le Quatre-Chemins, the road runs through Alpine Pine Forests across a mountain table land sheltered by mountains to the north and south where there is a Bison Reserve leisure complex for tourism. The D2 passes the D208 road that runs up to the Greolieres le Neiges Ski Resort and ski lift, the nearest ski resort to the Mediterranean, only an hour's drive from Cannes or Nice.

The D2 runs through the Clue de Greolieres and emerges on a rock platform above the vast Greolieres Rift Valley before descending the mountainside through a series of amazing rock tunnels blasted through the rock. Once again a location much filmed for car advertisements and feature films including the James Bond epics. Emerging from these tunnels the D2 runs down the mountainside passing the ancient ruined frontier fortress of Haute Greolieres and on down through the amazingly picturesque hill town of Greolieres which also features a ruined fortress which is well worth the time to explore on foot. Be sure to purchase both some local Lavender and Mountain Herbs honey, made at Greolieres, they are honies beyond belief and taste heavenly.

A Fun Place to Stay @ Greolieres. Villa Regain Chambres d Hotes/Table d'Hotes 'Une Gites de France' Tel: + (33) 06 79 72 12 52 Immaculate rooms & Good local food. Ask for 'le chambre de lune de miel' if availablr, the honeymoon suite. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance to avoid any possible disappointment. We have stayed here and enjoyed the experience immensely. Truly amazing value for money and a wonderful centre for exploring the mountains, most particularly for those who enjoy walking amongst the mountain footpaths that abound hereabouts.

Continuing down the D2 there are spellbinding views across the Valley of the River Loup to the Chateau de Cipieres that stands in a dramatic location on a spur of moutainside across the valley. The D2 then runs down the valley and enters the fabulous Gorges du Loup canyon that features huge waterfalls, sumps, road tunnels and awesome cliffs that seem to run up above the road into the clouds. The D2 emerges at Pont du Loup where the road joins the D2210 Grasse to Vence road.

Here you turn left for Vence where the road then winds along the mountainside below the Pic de Courmettes through Pine Parasols and Monterey Pines to Tourettes-sur-Loup. Entering the this ancient town under vast pillow shaped rock formations that partially overhang the road. A remarkable fortified Village Perche, Tourettes is the centre of the Violet Horticulture in France, growing violets for the perfume industry at Grasse, for sweetmeats and sugared flowers, all of which can be bought in the locality. Take time out here for walking the magnificent ramparts that run around the southern aspect of the town. On the small plateau below the town on the mountainside is a gem of a vineyard that is so beautifully maintained, that it resembles a garden. The red, white and rose wines from this pocket handkerchief sized domaine are simply delicious.

The D2210 run on to Vence a matter of only six kilometres further on.

NB. St. Paul de Vence the most sensational and most visited venue after Paris and Mont St. Michel is just 1.5 miles from Vence one of the finest medieval fortified, walled hill towns in France. Be sure to visit.

Researched, driven, written, photographed and complied by John Hayden Halsey @ Phoenix Productions, multi-media enterprises.

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