Leaving Nice to head around the coast to Èze, in the direction of Italy, my friend Frank and I drove up a steep hill, through the closely packed suburbs, then along a winding and scenic route. We stopped several times at lookout points to gaze over the Mediterranean Sea and lose ourselves in the sensual allure of the Côte d’Azur. The water was crystalline, a deep aquamarine color. Small beaches, able to hold a handful of people, dotted the shoreline. Houses with pink or pale stucco exteriors and red- clay tile roofs rose up the steep hillsides scattered with olive trees and scrub pine. Umbrella pines were silhouetted against the crisp blue sky.
About 7 miles (12 km) east of Nice, Èze rose above us, facing the sea. Against the cerulean sky, it was partially silhouetted. Yet its sense of dominance over the area is a powerful reminder of a harsher, more dangerous time of warfare in the region.
Frank drove upward, through narrow streets. We were forced to wait at one side until a dark Citroen raced down past us. From the bottom of the hill the street looked like a direct, easy route. Yet, its steep angle was a little unnerving as we crawled around blind turns, past side turnoffs. The day was warm, with the sun high in the mid-morning sky. The fortress loomed above us.
A hilltop fortress
Èze is, in many ways, a typical hilltop village of the area. First inhabited in approximately 2000 BC by Greeks, then by Romans and later Moors who were driven out in the 10th century by William of Provence. In the succeeding centuries, there were subsequent occupations by French and Turkish troops. In 1706, Louis XIV destroyed the walls surrounding Èze during the War of the Spanish Succession. Finally, in 1860, the residents of the town unanimously voted to become part of France.
At its most formidable, the town was enclosed with ramparts and high stone walls, intended as a last refuge for the inhabitants. Built on the edge of the cliffs, it was only accessible on three sides, and those were well-fortified. A narrow footpath led upward to the entrance portal, providing more protection against possible invaders.
The dangerous days requiring such fortifications are long gone. Èze has become a tourist center, noted more for its pricey merchandise, expensive cafés and sophisticated restaurants than as a fortress. Just 3 miles west of Monaco and over 1400 feet above sea level, Èze – known as the Eagle’s Nest – offers visitors the most incredible views of the Cote d’Azur.
We entered the walled town through the postern, a 14th century gate. The cool interior is shaded by massive sandstone walls decorated with brilliant Bougainvilleas and entwining vines. Time-worn steps lead upward, past tiny alleyways to small shops and cafés.
Above us rose part of the ochre-colored, neo-classical Eglise Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption. Built between 1764 -1778, it was consecrated in 1772. The elegant interior leads itself to quiet contemplation through several small chapels, each dedicated to a particular saint or purpose. Painted images of saints important to the residents of Èze and surrounding towns are framed in stucco and faux marble. There is also an Egyptian cross set to one side of the modest altar, a reminder of the ancient past when Phoenicians erected a temple in honor of Isis.
The bell tower stands as both a dominant symbol of faith for the local residents and a reference point for the town. For its religious and cultural significance, the Eglise Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption was classified, in 1984, by the French government as a historical monument.
Winding streets and a gorgeous garden
Èze was nearly empty at that time of the morning. Waiters in dark slacks and white shirts, with white aprons around their waists, set out tables and chairs before cafés, and inserted menus in glass frames to the left of doorways, as required in France. Boutique owners and operators unlocked their doors and placed their products in subtle, but strategic locations to draw in the tourist. The galleries showed images of Èze such as the Chapel of the Penitents Blanc built in the early 14th century and serving as the oldest structure in Èze, the scenery of the Riviera, and photographs of visiting celebrities such Walt Disney and Friedrich Nietzsche.
We climbed higher along the winding, cobblestoned walkways until we reached an overlook to the left. To either side of us flowed the spectacular Cote d’Azur. Below lay the Jardin exotique d’Èze, created by hand, under the leadership of the mayor of Èze, in 1949. There is a dramatic display of varied cacti and succulents in a higher section and a riot of colors with the dark, green-blue Mediterranean as the backdrop. Each part of the garden is unique and vibrant, yet also blends and complements each other part. It is an Impressionist palette. “No wonder Van Gogh and Picasso loved this area so much,” Frank said.
Adding to the beauty and serenity of the gardens are bronze, clay and crystal statues of young women created by the noted sculptor, Jean-Phillipe. Perhaps the most inviting element in the Jardin is the lieu de contemplation (place of contemplation) where a person can lie down on a wooden bench, listen to the sound of water flowing from an artificial stream nearby, and float in the wonders of the Riviera around them.
We sat at a small outdoor café, lost in the town that is often considered a village musée (village museum). The café was cool in the shade as a gentle breeze slipped down the steep walkways. We sipped Mandarinette d’Èze, a local liquor made from Mandarin oranges and relished the peaceful ambience of Èze. It really is a most beautiful place.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA