L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

20 April 2009 Blog Home : April 2009 : Permalink

Nice - Grasse: the Slow Way

I don't normally blog about tourism on the Riviera (or even elsewhere) but I think this one might be worthwhile. Most people who visit the Côte d'Azur stay on that section between the A8 Autoroute and the Mediterranean Sea which is, it has to be said, a blessing for everyone else who doesn't have to visit that bit.

However there is a whole "arrière pays" in land that really ought to be visited so here is a suggestion of (increasingly indirect) ways to do this for those visitors who have a car, motorbike or even (for the really dedicated) a bicycle. All these ways start in Nice airport and end in Grasse. I'm providing Google Maps links so you can make your own variations - click on the picture to go to the maps page for that route.

Route 1 - St Paul de Vence, Roquefort

This is the route to take where you want to get there in reasonable time while avoiding most of the autoroute and so on. You can of course stop here and there to visit places including (of course) the touristy St Paul de Vence - maybe not best done in high summer. Whether you stop or not the drive up the Loup valley from La Colle to Roquefort is very pleasant. In addition to St Paul, it is possible to walk down the lower Loup gorge by La Colle and to hike up the ridge above Le Rouret to see Le Camp Romain which is a Roman/pre-Roman era fort. From the fort you also get a magnificent view of Gourdon, Pont du Loup and the upper Loup Gorge. Finally (and this applies to the other routes) Chateauneuf and Magagnosc are worth stopping at and enjoying the views from.

Route 2 - The Former Tramway Route Gattieres, Vence, Tourrettes, Bar/Loup

This route is pretty much the route that the old railway line from Nice to Grasse took. You will be driving on the (former) line for some of the way and you can add more former rail line if you slightly change the route. Note that you should take care when ascending to Gattieres to not accidentally drive into Carros le Neuf which is one of France's infamous suburbs where they dump the unemployed immigrants. It's almost certainly safe in daytime but it is grim and not something that really belongs on a scenic tourist drive.

The view down the Var valley from the perched village of Gattieres is amazing and a slight detour to adjacent perched village of "Carros village" also allows you to look up the Var valley too towards the Mercontour. It really is very pretty indeed. St Jeannet has the spectacular cliffs above it although you see them better as you look back from nearer Vence. Just as you enter Vence you pass the Matisse Chapel on your left and it is worth stopping to visit - as indeed is old Vence itself. The next town along, Tourrettes, is also photogenic and the provider of excellent views down to the coast. You can think of it as a St Paul de Vence without all the tourists, At Pont du Loup you see the pillars of the former railway viaduct above you and the entrance to the Gorges du Loup. A better view of the gorge comes if you stop in Bar sur Loup and look back. Families may want to let their children stop at the Pont du Loup sweet factory ...

Route 3 Gattieres, Vence, Col de Vence, Bar/Loup

This is the first of the real "back country" routes as it takes you up the Col de Vence and back down the Gorges du Loup.
The drive is the same as Route 3 except for the bit between Vence and Pont du Loup. The drive up the Col de Vence is filled with hairpin bends and a favourite of cyclists so care should be taken but the views you get from the top make it worthwhile. Once up on the plateau there are numerous spots where hikes may be taken and picnics eaten. The drive from there towards Gréolières is wonderful with the view of the upper Loup valley above the Gorge. Continuing into Gréolières is a worthwhile detour but not necessary. Finally you drive down the spectacular Gorges du Loup and emerge at Pont du Loup.

Route 4 Carros, Coursegoules, Cipières, Gourdon

This is more or less the route I drove yesterday which inspired me to write this post. The first part up to Le Broc (or perhaps slightly further on) gives great views of the Var valley and the Mercantour. Stopping and taking photos is highly recommended. The drive from there to Coursegoules is crammed with spectacular mountains and cliffs some of which may be easily hiked on if you want a break from driving - the Bouyon to Bezaudun bit has a number of paths off and lots and lots of spectacular scenery. Somewhere after Bezaudun the road settles down as the major hairpins have been left behind. This, and the first part of the section between Coursegoules and Gréolières, is a road that cries out for a high performance car or motorbike - and passengers who don't suffer from motion sickness. The road is almost always empty so it is relatively safe to push the envelope a bit but that doesn't mean you have freedom to drive like a moron. If you do you'll almost certainly come to grief on an unexpected bend and probably end up in a pile of rocks a few dozen meters below the road level. And of course "almost always empty" does not mean no traffic at all. You'll almost certainly encounter something coming the other way, quite possibly at speed, so don't try and re-enact your favourite rally stage. Finally at Gréolières this route goes to Cipières and Gourdon so you get to look down into the Gorges du Loup instead of driving down it as the previous route suggests. Do definitely consider stopping at suitable points and walking to the cliff edge for better views. I think this route is more satisfactory - especially Gourdon itself - but the road in the gorge is good and you can skip Cipieres if you want and going up at the obvious Y junction where Gourdon is signed,

Route 5 Carros, Coursegoules, Gréolières, Gourdon, St Vallier

The ultimate back country route. Essentially this is the same as the previous one until you get to Gréolières and then it goes a little mad by continuing up the Loup valley. The disadvantage of this route is you skip the Gorges du Loup but this is partly compensated for by the very spectacular upper Loup valley that hardly anyone ever drives along. The climbs to get out of the valley at the far end and then over a couple of Ridges before you drop down to St Vallier are pretty amazing, as are the views - particularly the one where you are above the route Napolean just before you start the descent to St Vallier, but I will admit that I think while the drive is more fun the views are somewhat less spectacular. I should also note that you don't have to descnd from Gréolières, it is also fesible to stay on the D2 and go past the turn off to the ski station of Gréolières les Neiges (and that ski station is one of the hidden gems of the Riviera in a good season such as this one has been).