Gorbio and Sainte-Agnès: the perched villages in the mountains behind Menton


Europe’s highest coastal village, beautiful Sainte-Agnès at an altitude of 800 metres, dominating the Mediterranean Sea

The further east you head along the coast of the Riviera towards Italy, the more spectacular the scenery becomes, especially once you hit the beautiful border town of Menton. The mountains just blend in with the Mediterranean Sea and the hills behind the town contain some spectacular treasures, in particular the gorgeous medieval villages of Gorbia and Sainte Agnes. Both of these are easily accessible from Menton, Monaco or Nice but a car is more than advisable to enjoy the scenery with maximum freedom – and I’d definitely advise you to visit them in this order. Also, both villages are ideal to be visited all year round as they are rarely snowed in during the winter and they offer a cooler alternative to the coastline in the summer, although some restaurants may be shut out of season.

Gorbio

The quaint village of Gorbio, viewed from one of the hiking trails heading west towards Monaco

Gorbio is located on a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 354 metres in the Rail valley, more or less behind the town of Roquebrune Cap Martin, and just east of Monaco, tucked away behind one of the viaducts of the A8 motorway. The road up there from the coast is pretty windy and hard work for somewhere so close to the sea (20 minutes but only about 3 kilometres as the crow flies) but this small village is worth a visit to see how people used to live (and still do live) in some pretty medieval conditions and it’s just a nice place to wander around.

Despite its geographical location, the village of Gorbio is culturally closer to Nice, especially when it comes to the local dialect, than the other nearby settlements like Menton or Sainte-Agnès, which are culturally closer to Monaco and Italy. It remained part of the County of Nice for several centuries, notably as part of the Savoy kingdom, until it was reattached to France in 1860 along with the rest of the area.

Once you’ve finally made your way up there, the entrance to the village is on the main square, the Place de la République, which is a pretty pleasant place for people watching, dominated by a large elm tree which is almost 300 years old, and the location of one decent restaurant and one exceptional one (see restaurant guide below).

Place de la République, the main square in Gorbio

Like all the local medieval villages, the core is full of winding alleyways, dark staircases, quaint little flowerpots and doorways, a baroque church, stone arches, and the intimate town hall dealing with the affairs of this commune of just 1200 people where everybody knows each other.

The picturesque alleyways of the medieval village of Gorbio

So it’s a very pleasant place to wander around for about half an hour: at the tip, the large castle is that of the Counts Alziari de Malaussena (those who will have lived in the region long enough will notice how recurrent some names are) and there is also the Lascaris tower, which has a very nice shaded garden with olive trees at its foot for those who want to have a picnic.

Gorbio is also a very convenient place to start off on hikes around the area as the mountain peaks surrounding the village are at an altitude of over 1000m; plenty of interesting itineraries can be found on the excellent Randoxygène website. I also once used it as the halfway point of a nice 4 hour loop from the beach of Roquebrune via Roquebrune Village, which is worth doing as the climb isn’t very steep.

The peaks behind Gorbio, an ideal place to go hiking

Sainte-Agnès

The perched village of Sainte-Agnès, 800m above sea level

Once you’ve taken a look around Gorbio, get ready to get your mind blown away by Sainte-Agnes, which has a well-deserved reputation of being the highest coastal village in Europe, perched on a cliff overlooking Menton and the Mediterranean Sea at an altitude of 800m.

In addition to the standard medieval history shared with the rest of the surrounding villages, Sainte Agnès is notable for its strategic location, which was highlighted by the building in 1932 of the pretty imposing concrete bunker, the Fort de Sainte Agnès, a military fortification which marked the southernmost point of the Maginot Line used (not to much avail) to defend France during the Second World War against the opposing Italian forces located just a few kilometres away. The village is therefore frequently visited by military history buffs and the fort is worth checking out for anyone with a passion for artillery and gun turrets (I’m afraid it’s not my case so I haven’t visited it).

The concrete bulk of the Fort de Sainte-Agnès, built in 1932 to defend the place against the Axis forces.

I would advise to park at the north car park towards the back of the village. You can work your way through the alleyways and little staircases of the old streets, which are a bit airier than those in Gorbio, given that the buildings aren’t as high (at least that’s the impression that you get wandering through), past all the restaurants and cafés.

The beautiful paved streets of Sainte-Agnès

Then head towards the sea and the Fort de Sainte-Agnes: once you’ve got past the bunker and the south car park, you will be able to take advantage of the absolutely splendid panorama from the viewing terrace just behind, which makes the whole trip to the village worthwhile.

The view stretches from the Italian border to the east to Cap Martin to the west, with the towns of Menton and Roquebrune/Carnolès just by the sea in front. There’s also a great view over the surrounding peaks which reach up to 1200m at the border between Italy and France just above the village of Castellar – to the west, the impressive peaks of Mont Agel and Mont Gros block the view towards Monaco.

The view south from Sainte-Agnès, with Menton on the left and Cap Martin on the right

The view eastwards towards the French Italian border and the village of Castellar just beneath the mountain

This view really explains why the region is called the Maritime Alps, with the mountains dropping straight into the sea. The panorama is only slightly spoiled by the A8 motorway viaducts cutting through the hills underneath but to be honest, where else could they have put the motorway? These considerations shouldn’t get in the way of economic development – after all, it is the main transport route between Italy and Spain so rather essential to keep the region prosperous.

Once you’ve finished enjoying the amazing view, if you stroll back north, there’s a small pathway heading up to the ruins of the castle.

Worth the climb… Sainte-Agnès castle, nice view and gardens

Honestly, it’s worth it as there’s a lovely garden on top with some nice ruins and a great view, despite the best efforts of the very talkative “park ranger” who will encourage you to make a “voluntary donation” for the upkeep of the place.

A rare view of Sainte-Agnès taken from the castle

Given that it’s well-maintained, it’s just about worth donating a couple of pieces of shrapnel. Anyway, after a big lunch, a small uphill walk can’t do any harm!

Where to eat

Both villages, in addition to being extremely picturesque, have some truly memorable places to eat without breaking the bank.

In Gorbio, head straight for Restaurant Beau Séjour, which is the classier of the two restaurants on the main square.

Restaurant Beau Séjour, on the main square of Gorbio

This traditional family-run place, which was opened in 1924, is a favourite for locals and its reputation is well-deserved. The inside is beautiful (it looks like an interior decoration catalogue, rightly so as it’s especially designed and furnished by the owner’s wife) and the food served with wonderfully friendly service from the owners: menus start at 27€ with some excellent regional dishes. The presentation of the dishes shows great creativity with the use of slate plates and local flowers which add a touch of colour. The view from the back looking down the Vallée du Rail is also stunning.

The beautiful interior of the Beau Séjour in Gorbio, with top notch service

Lovely presentation efforts for the dishes at the Beau Séjour, a real bonus!

Just bear in mind that the restaurant is only open from April until late September, so it’s best to book in advance to avoid heading all the way to Gorbio for nothing!

The restaurant bar opposite, Les Terrasses, whilst lacking the charm and refinement of the Beau Séjour, isn’t a bad place either for a quick, filling and slightly more reasonable meal or a quick pastis aperitif on the village square to optimise the Provencal experience.

In Sainte Agnès, there are several interesting places but my personal favourite is the Restaurant Saint-Yves which also provides accommodation for those who wish to stay overnight in the village.

The excellent Saint-Yves restaurant in Sainte-Agnès

Located on the main street heading north to south, it’s a typical family-run place with friendly service and a very reasonable local menu starting at 16€ for 4 courses, including some excellent rabbit or wild boar stew and trout with almonds.

Rabbit stew with herbs at the Saint Yves, one of the specialities along with other game dishes

The homemade tarts for dessert are also to die for. Make sure you book or come early in order to get a place on the wonderful terrace at the back, which has a sweeping view towards the east and the coastline not so far in the distance – in the winter, there’s also a lovely wood-fired chimney to enjoy.

The view south down the valley from the terrace of the Saint-Yves towards the coastline, a great place to have lunch!

Another attractive looking option is the Righi restaurant which is at the southern tip of the village, close to the panoramic view over the coastline and the fort. I haven’t tried it yet but it doesn’t seem too bad, especially judging by the positive Tripadvisor reviews – if anyone has some feedback on this or any other restaurants I mentioned, please feel free to share it.

All these places, like plenty in the hinterland villages, have in common the fact that they are run and managed with dedication by their owners, who are often either in the kitchens or in the dining room in charge of the service. This confirms my number one restaurant rule of thumb for the Riviera (and also elsewhere in the world): head for places which seem as authentic and traditionally-run as possible, you are less likely to end up being ripped-off in a tourist trap and highly likely to enjoy a wonderful culinary experience.

Special treat for hikers

For those wishing to hike between the villages, there’s a great loop that can be done between the two villages, just follow the Circuit de Bausson itinerary on the consistently excellent (even though it’s only in French) Randoxygène website. Park your car in Gorbio, walk up to Sainte-Agnès for lunch (500m climb, it takes about 2 hours) then saunter back down to Gorbio. The scenery is amazing – walking through the scrub and the mountains, you tend to forget how close you are to the sea and the views over Sainte Agnès on the final approach are stunning, so I highly recommend this itinerary. Just make sure you have proper hiking boots, plenty of water, a charged mobile phone and avoid the walk during the summer months (from mid-May to mid-September) as it can get very hot on the side of the mountain.

Getting there

The actual locations of Gorbio and Sainte-Agnès – really close to the sea, despite the feeling of remoteness.

As I mentioned, for all hinterland villages, a car is more or less essential as it provides much more flexibility and saves both time and planning. However, it is also possible, but more tedious, to get to both villages by public transport.

Gorbio

By car: by far the easiest and recommended option. head to the Point de l’Union roundabout at the border between the towns of Menton and Roquebrune Cap-Martin then take the small road winding north in the direction of Gorbio crossing between the motorway viaduct, allow about 20 minutes.

By bus

Menton bus line no. 7 runs a bus service more or less every hour (less frequent on Sundays) from Menton railway station to Gorbio, timetables are available on this link. Allow about 30 minutes to get there.

Sainte Agnès

By car

–          Coming from Nice or Italy on the A8 motorway (it might be an eyesore from the top but it’s convenient to get from A to B quickly!), just get off at the Menton exit then follow straight afterwards the signposts towards Sainte-Agnès, allow about 20 minutes up a bendy but not too difficult road.

–          Coming from Menton, it’s a 20 minute uphill drive from sea level to 800m, heading north up the Borrigo valley. Again, the road has a lot of hairpin bends but not too difficult a drive as long as you’re not excessively scared of heights (then again, it’s not the scariest road on the coastline).

By bus

Menton bus line no. 10 runs only three buses a day between Menton railway station and Sainte Agnès, see the timetables on this link. Allow about 30 minutes to get there.

19 thoughts on “Gorbio and Sainte-Agnès: the perched villages in the mountains behind Menton

  1. We used your blog extensively for a short break in Nice 6-9 Nov. The Circuit de Bausson is fabulous albeit quite steep on the way from Gorbio to Sainte-Agnes! DolceAcqua in Italy very picturesque and well worth a visit, followed by a bit of food shopping in Ventimiglia. My GPS took me on some roads that were narrower than my car so watch out! Perfume making in Grasse (we went to Galimard), very interesting and great fun for our kids. What a great blog, many many thanks!

  2. oh my gosh Kevin, myself Paddy 67 and 3 other gals are coming to Pigna for 2 mths, yes 2 mths, we are soo excited and what you have blogged has honestly made the trip complete, this is really a visit to see, get to know and appreicate Italian culture and the ,people. we are trying desperatly not to rent a car as we do want to try to see nd do it all easily and without one of us driving and the other navigating, guess we’ll see how it works for the fist little while and then decide on the car or not, staying this long wereally aren’t in a rush as other times. thanks again Kevin and any other advice, suggestions would be awesome, where do you live, we are from Vancouver Canada tata Paddy

    • Hi Paddy, thanks for your message, hope you enjoy Pigna – I’m sure you’ll get used very quickly to the pleasant and relaxed pace of life there. I live in Monaco so if ever you are around and require any further advice, just let me know.

      • hi Kevin, we for sure are planning on visiting Monaco more than once, so any advice re sights not well known to visit will be wonderful, I think we are only about 1 1/2 hours by bus to Monaco, so lots of time to do it a few visits what do you think, can’t seem to open your French blog but my computer has been acting up, I’ll keep working on it. cheers Paddy

        _____

        From: The French Riviera Blog by Kevin Hin [mailto:comment-reply@wordpress.com] Sent: February-19-13 11:13 AM To: nicoandpaddy@shaw.ca Subject: [New comment] Gorbio and Sainte-Agns: the perched villages in the mountains behind Menton

        kevinhin commented: “Hi Paddy, thanks for your message, hope you enjoy Pigna – I’m sure you’ll get used very quickly to the pleasant and relaxed pace of life there. I live in Monaco so if ever you are around and require any further advice, just let me know. “

  3. Hi Kevin, I live in Ste Agnes and offer accommodation in my gite, http://www.ste-agnes.com
    60 rue Pellalaira. I have read your Blog and there are a few comments I would like to make.
    Ste Agnes, there are 6 buses (not 3) up and down to the village every day. In Summer 7. The bus routes have been taken over by Zest, here is the link to their timetable
    http ://www.zestbus.fr/Pratique/Lignes-et-horaires.

    I lead and walk all the many paths around this area, and I am trying to promote the GR 52/51 which starts from Menton and comes through Ste Agnes and Gorbio and finally ends just south of Marseilles. I have a website for it and am currently working on the site to include ALL the paths around Ste Agnes. http://www.GR-51

    The Righi Restaurant is very good. The menu in the St Yves has been the same from time immemorial!

    Since you live in Monaco I would be very willing to meet up and discuss many other aspects of the region and make some up to date suggestions for your Blog……..how about it?

  4. Hi
    Very informative.
    I wonder if you may help me .?
    A few years ago I stayed in an apartment next to the D223 route de la maura just off the D23 route de menton, the apts have a swimming pool and tennis court.
    My wife and I would love to know the name and to know if there are any for rental?
    I have seen the apts on maps but cannot find the name etc, it would be great if you can help.
    Thank you
    Stephen H.

    • Hi, I see the spot your are talking about as I drive up that road on the way to Gorbio but don’t know the name of the particular apartment block. I did a quick search on Google and the “Hauts de Menton” came up, perhaps that’s the one. Best wishes, Kevin

  5. Kevin – love your blog and using it a lot to plan an upcoming week in Nice. I am trying to figure out which hill towns we should do via busses like EZE (would it take a whole day?), GORBIO and /or ST AGNES, PEILLON AND OR THE TRAIN TO ENREVEAUX. I have set aside 2 days for such village trips in addition to Nice for 2 1/2 days, Beaulieu and Jean and Menton. Do you see combining some of these towns with Mention etc?

    Many thanks Dale Sevig

    • Hi Dale,

      Glad my blog is helpful! I would combine Menton with a visit to either Roquebrune village (by bus) or Ventimiglia if you want a taste of Italy. Alternatively spend the morning in Menton and afternoon/evening in Monaco (though MC deserves a full day).

      You can see Eze village in 1/2 day, including the Nietzsche trail if you fancy taking that.

      Hope this helps, enjoy your trip, Kevin

      • I have decided to skip EZE and I will get a car for a week in Italy starting off in DOlceaqua. I am having trouble finding a bus from NICE to Peillon however. We will do the train to ENtreveaux also -and Menton and then on to Gorbio thanks

  6. I’m going this summer (using buses). Which would you recommend, bus to St A and walk to Gorbio and bus home or the other way round

    • Hi, bear in mind that Ste Agnes is about 350m higher in altitude than Gorbio is so in the summer I would recommend the downhill walk which is easier in the heat. So bus to Ste Agnes and then back via Gorbio, make sure you check out the times of the return bus from Gorbio though as they are not so frequent. Bring lots of water. Outside the summer, I would recommend climbing from Gorbio to Ste Agnes: tougher work but you’re rewarded by the spectacular view from the top of the village.

  7. Hi Kevin,
    Is it possible to walk to St Agnes from Menton or is it not advisable? I’ve done several 6-8 mile walks/hikes from Menton during our summer stay but I’m not sure if it would be a safe walk along the roads. Looks like it’s just under 4 miles from my location. I’ve done part of the trail hike from Menton to Plan du Lion towards Castellar. Any info re: walking to St Agnes or any other walking trips from Menton are greatly appreciated!

    • Hi yes it is possible and not that far, obviously better in the downhill direction. There are hiking paths from the tip of the castle of Ste Agnes near the Righi restaurant directly signposting Menton, it should take 2-3 hours.

  8. Hi Kevin
    Where can one park in St Agnes and /or Gorbio ?
    Will we have trouble finding parking in second week of Sept 2017 ?

    • Hi Alan, there’s only one car park in Gorbio and 2 in Ste Agnes, generally there shouldn’t be any problem in September but try to go relatively early to avoid any problems if you can. Best wishes, Kevin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s