Trail of the Unexpected

Ninety-something per cent of the millions who struggle through Nice airport head left or right round the coast. The hedonists head for the St Tropez peninsula or perhaps the Iles de Hyeres; the townies go to Nice itself or Cannes; the gamblers (and, ahem, the tax dodgers) to Monaco and Monte Carlo. For most visitors, the French Riviera is one vast playground, feeding the differing appetites of the world's rich.

Ninety-something per cent of the millions who struggle through Nice airport head left or right round the coast. The hedonists head for the St Tropez peninsula or perhaps the Iles de Hyeres; the townies go to Nice itself or Cannes; the gamblers (and, ahem, the tax dodgers) to Monaco and Monte Carlo. For most visitors, the French Riviera is one vast playground, feeding the differing appetites of the world's rich.

You can, however, go up instead of left or right. Drive north for half an hour and you enter an utterly different world from the tourist clamour of the Mediterranean coast. It is a world of mediaeval villages perched at the tops of hills, of Alpine meadows, of mountain chapels and shrines. The climate is different, for you may well find yourself a couple of thousand feet above sea level looking down on the mist in the valleys below.

The pressure of humankind is different, for this is a world without people. And the time is different: instead of being in the 21st century you feel that you are in the 16th.

Our own weekend there was in May - hot sun, spring flowers and just a few scrappy remnants of snow on the summits. Our base was Coaraze, 15 miles, on a straight line, from Nice. It is a village of 500 people, clustering round a 14th-century church on a limestone crag. The fabric of the village is essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. There are no roads - just tiny alleyways with everything brought in to the houses on hand-carts.

Most similar villages in the region are either in a pretty tatty state of repair or, if even closer to the coast, colonised by holiday home-owners. Coaraze is different because at the beginning of the Sixties the mayor at the time discovered that it had the highest hours of sunshine of any place in France. This was a useful fact. To highlight it, he set about commissioning sun-dials from six well-known artists. As a result Coaraze was able to repackage itself as an artists and writers colony and it is now a spruce, functioning village with a lively, communal culture.

On the Saturday evening we were there, we enjoyed a display of medieval dancing and costumes from students taking a course in the village. This was not a tourist occasion at all, though the half dozen or so visitors were warmly welcomed. We sat on hard chairs under fluorescent lights and watched flouncing frills and bouncing cod-pieces strutting away to mandolins. And yes... we were invited to join in the dancing at the end.

Even more memorable was a day spent walking up to a deserted village 3,200 feet up. At one stage Rocca Sparviera must have had several hundred inhabitants but it was abandoned 300 years ago when an earthquake cut off its water supply. Now the only building still in repair is the chapel of St Michel, from the bottom a single white jewel amidst the grey and the green. You could understand people wanting to leave it, given that the only access was only a winding track up the mountain just wide enough for a donkey-cart. It took us (spouse, self and an 80-something-year-old friend from Paris) about four hours to make the climb, but it must have been well over an hour even for the most sprightly of the herders and farmers of hundreds of years ago. I suppose if you are used to living on the top of a mountain and most of your day could be spent working the terraces nearby, maybe the sense of being left alone high above the problems of the rest of the world would more than compensate for the isolation.

Even at a mere 2,000 feet above sea level at Coaraze you could catch one element of the "above it all" sensation: in the morning the mists creep up the valleys, so you look out across a sea of mist, with other crags appearing as islands before you.

Of course, if you are not too keen on medieval dancing, there's not really a lot of entertainment. You have to enjoy walking up mountains during the day and eating memorable dinners in the evening.

As far as the latter is concerned, we simply ate at the inn where we were we staying, the Auberge du Soleil. This was a private house that had been converted from the house of a former mayor some 20 years earlier and offered only seven rooms. But it had a terrace restaurant that served, as it put it, "cuisine saine, simple and mijotée".

That rather sums up the appeal of heading for the hills instead of the beaches of the Med: you have to want things that are wholesome, simple and well-prepared.

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