Discovering a picture perfect, storybook town in southern France, high in the mountains on the border with Italy, it’s definitely off the beaten track and worth every minute of the journey to get there…
The Secrets of Saorge: A sensational mountain getaway in the south of France
After travelling to France from the US to spend five weeks in Provence, Susan Payton was disappointed that she simply didn’t fall in love with the town where she was staying with her family. She decided to look further afield and quite by chance, ended up in Saorge, located inland from the French Riviera region around Menton. The village is towards the east of the Mercantour National Parc and overlooks the Roya Valley, in the mountains close to the border with Italy. Once an important defensive town, much of the village dates from the 15th – 17th centuries, with tall, imposing houses on impossibly steep and winding streets. Thanks to its position on the salt route that passed through here, Saorge was a prosperous town and the early residents could afford to embellish their homes with the decorations we can admire today.
This was the storybook France Susan was seeking and she tells us about her discovery…
Off the Beaten Path in Provence
The drive to Saorge — at least the part originating in Ventimiglia, Italy (on the border) — wasn’t for the faint of heart. I was thankful that my husband drove. As we mounted higher and higher in elevation, we careened around craggy cliffs, often with a heart-dropping view to the rushing river below. As we neared the town, the road got narrower. We later found out that it’s protocol to honk the horn as you turn around a corner so you don’t smash headfirst into another car.
The population of Saorge is just 400, a number that has been dropping over recent decades, probably due to the lack of job opportunities way up in the mountains. It’s by far the smallest town we’ve stayed in, and is in stark contrast to the metropolis I live in back home (San Diego).
Straight Out of a Fairytale
Saorge has been called “French Tibet” because of how the village cascades down the mountain. I could envision Little Red Riding Hood traipsing down the single pedestrian-only street, on her way into the woods. And speaking of woods: walk in any direction for five minutes, and you are on a trail. Not some namby-pamby ambling trail, but steep, challenging trails that are actually paths leading to someone’s home. We were quick to find walking sticks, which we used throughout our visit.
We made a friend while there: Gibi, a grown up elf and a local who had a mountain home in addition to his apartment in the village. One day he invited us to his mountain house for lunch. When we asked where he lived, he pointed to a distant mountain and said (en francais, bien sur) “Just around that mountain.”
After an hour of intense hiking (he was kind enough to go slow for the non-mountain-goat people), we arrived at a moss-covered stone and wood house. I looked for Hansel and Gretel, to no avail. There, we explored a nearby abandoned chapel while he grilled vegetables and made pasta with a special local sauce.
Gibi wasn’t the only welcoming person we met in Saorge. One evening, my husband and I went to the only bar in town for a few glasses of rosé. As I said, Saorge is teeny tiny, so it wasn’t long before we’d made friends with all five people in the bar (who, of course, knew who we were and where we were from, thanks to Gibi) and were enjoying learning about the village and its gossip.
Saorge has left a permanent mark on our hearts. We plan to return next summer. Gibi even told us where he hides the spare key to his mountain oasis!
Saorge from the sky, video of the medieval mountain town clinging to the slopes of the gorge overlooking the river Roya…
When Susan Payton isn’t running her marketing company, she’s traveling and writing about it on The Unexplorer. She’s written several books (business, as well as travel) and has been published on Forbes, Mashable and other sites.
Tourist Office Saorge: www.saorge.fr