03 August 2018

In Europe's Highest Coastal Village, Côte d'Azur Views with a Lavender Twist

Countless villages — including Sainte-Agnès in Alpes-Maritimes — lay claim to the title of prettiest village in France. And Sainte-Agnès certainly is very pretty. But it also holds a more unique honour: le village du littoral le plus haut d'Europe. Indeed, on the day we visit Europe's highest coastal village, it is as though we are almost driving into the clouds.

Sainte-Agnès is an easy day trip from Monaco, Nice or Cannes, and from Menton, which is 10 km southeast and almost 800 metres lower, you could do it in an afternoon. Driving from Cannes after a long weekend on the beach, we take the A8 autoroute, which hugs the undulating coastline of the Côté d’Azur, winding up through the hills and then dipping down into the tunnels. It takes about an hour and a quarter, although it’s the final few kilometres, off the autoroute and on a narrow and extremely steep local road replete with hairpin bends and insouciant motorcyclists, that is the slowest. If you don't have your own wheels, there are several buses from Menton every day.

We have come to see the annual lavender festival so we aren't too disappointed by the clouds obscuring Sainte-Agnès's fêted panoramic views on our arrival, giving the village an ethereal beauty. Instead, we park just outside the village walls and then make the short but steep hike to the main square. It's quiet when we arrive — it is lunchtime on a Sunday — so perhaps the lavender scent is adding to the sleepy vibe. 

Our first priority is finding somewhere to eat. With about 1,000 residents, Sainte-Agnès is small, even for a village perché, but my research has highlighted two lunch options. We head to Le Righi, a few minutes' walk from the centre of the village, past the fort (of which more to come). The restaurant has two panoramic terraces, with views over Menton, the Mediterranean and across to the Italian border on a clear day. Despite not booking and arriving near the end of service, we score a table outside and as the meal progresses, the clouds begin to clear, even if the haze never really does. The view is still quite something, as the restaurant's cat, seated in prime position, clearly knows. 

The food — Italian-influenced Mediterranean fare — is good too, with the home-made pasta being a particular speciality. The beef daube ravioli are delicious: rich and filling, especially if you opt for the daube sauce.

After lunch, we cool off inside the Fort de la Ligne Maginot, a stark, concrete structure that formed part of the Maginot Line — France's ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent German invasion during the 1930s. There is little information inside the fort, and if your French is halfway decent, you'll be better off with the French version of the guide as the English translation is courtesy of Google. For history or military buffs, it's a diverting way to spend an hour.

By the time we emerge, the clouds have burned off and we hike up to the ruins of the medieval castle, perched higher still above the modern village. It's free to enter but we donate €5 each for a freshly bound lavender garland, and continue hiking up to the donjon (keep). It's a step climb but the views at the top are worth the effort, as we pick out coastal villages, sailboats and the ubiquitous A8.

Back in the village, the lavender festival is still going strong, with a distillation in progress and a brass band jollying up the ambiance. The festival has a new-age twist and there are various crystal healings and tarot card readings taking place. We can't stay for the lavender-themed Zumba class, but I do buy a handmade lavender soap-on-a-rope. Except when I get it home, I realise that the 'rope' is in fact holding in place a fortune. Tu rends l'impossible possible, it reads. Well, I try...

For more information about the best things to do on the Côte d'Azur, check out my long weekend in Cannes guide or my other Cannes-related posts.

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