I’ll be brutally honest… Ever since my first Xmas here in 1985, I’ve always found that the festive end of the year season was best spent away from the glitz and glamour of the Riviera: having grown up in Britain, the blue skies, mild temperatures and ersatz festive atmosphere don’t really work for me. At this time of the year, I much prefer bitingly cold weather, grey skies, mince pies, proper decorations on Oxford Street, Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, Christmas crackers and the Queen’s Speech on TV – it’s lucky I don’t live in Australia!
However, the Riviera does at least make an effort to get into the atmosphere and this year was no exception, despite some particularly mild weather, with an average of 15°C on the coastline this week. Place Massena in Nice hosts a large Christmas market with the now ubiquitous giant ferris wheel as does the harbour of Monaco, and the Casino Square in Monte-Carlo is always decorated in a grandiose fashion.
But if you happen to be in the area over Christmas and to really experience some true atmosphere, I would advise to go slightly off the beaten track and to pay a visit the small village of Lucéram, only 30 minutes drive north of Nice in the Paillon valley. I’d heard about this village since my hotel days but had never had the opportunity to go, which is why I decided to sacrifice the traditional Christmas morning lie-in and to head up there pretty early whilst the streets in Monaco were still deserted.
So what’s so special about Lucéram? Basically, it’s become traditional for the inhabitants of this tiny medieval village to decorate the whole place in December with over 450 crèches (nativity scenes). This isn’t a traditional initiative passed down along the centuries, as it was only launched in 1998, but it seems to have caught on very quickly and the whole place is teaming with visitors during the festive season.
It was really worth the short drive up into the hills – a map is provided at the car park indicating where all the crèches are located, both in the lower village and the upper village, on the other side of the main road, very practical for visitors to find their way around quickly.
The atmosphere, even on a deserted Xmas morning, was pretty magical and what makes the place so special is the creativity of the locals – there are nativity scenes in every nook and crannie of the village, some in the village bread oven, others in the numerous public laundry troughs, in the tunnels, in the medieval towers and even in the letter boxes! Some are animated by the wind, others have music and one of the even has live guinea pigs.
The crèche trail will enable you to see all the major sights of the village, which isn’t an uninteresting place to visit even at other times of the year – as with all the medieval villages in the region, it is built on a strategically located mountain outcrop called the Baus with good visibility of possible invaders from the valley, with watch towers, a now-ruined castle called the Iera and a baroque church with a painting by the famous 15th century Niçois artist Louis Bréa. Half way up the older section of town, climbing up from the only restaurant and bar, you’ll get to the Crèche Museum, which will explain the history of the place. It’s worth getting all the way to the top, as you’ll have a fabulous view both from the Iera over the north of the valley (heading inland) and from the esplanade of the church facing south towards the lower village, the sea and Nice.
You can find plenty more photos of the different crèches and of the village on the Facebook page of the French Riviera Blog.
All the crèches are original and have their charm, but my personal favourites were the huge crèche inside the bread oven in the lower town and the beautiful little niche with the music and live guinea pigs next to it (number 1 on the map above), the floating crèche in the laundry trough (top left corner of the map “Le Terron porte Nord-Ouest” and the beautiful large 15th century style figures draped in white robes in the tunnel beneath “La Faissetta” (number 7 on the map).
Basically, my advice is just to go in there, explore, keep your eyes open for hidden delights and enjoy!
On the way back, you can stop for a few minutes in the larger village of l’Escarène: not much to see there but you can get some beautiful shots of the Paillon and the road viaduct from the old bridge and wander around some picturesque streets of the village just by the river.
How to get to Lucéram: take your own car or rent one, it will save you a lot of grief anywhere in the hinterlands, and besides it’s only a 30 minute hop from central Nice or 45 minutes from Monaco. Just head up the Paillon river valley road (make sure your car doors are properly locked when heading through the somewhat dodgy north-eastern suburbs of Nice, especially Pasteur, l’Ariane and la Trinité), then north past the picturesque village of l’Escarène and in another five minutes you’ll be in Lucéram. The road is pretty wide and not very difficult to navigate except for 4 hairpin bends that you’ll encounter before arriving in l’Escarène.
If you really do need to take public transport, you can take bus lines 340 and 360 from central Nice, the timetables are here but the routes are very infrequent especially on Sundays and public holidays
When to go? The crèche trail is open every year from the start of December until early January. You can find all the practical information on the village website, in French only. There are special events on certain days but make sure you plan ahead as the place tends to be packed. Incidentally, the reason I decided to go there on Christmas morning was precisely to avoid the crowds of visitors and to be able to find a parking space within walking distance, which is what I’d advise you to do if you don’t fancy being trampled on by herds of elderly French tourists arriving in coaches, though the crèches are no doubt magical at night.
Where to eat? There is only one restaurant/bar in the village on the main road at the bottom of the village, called la Boccafina. It didn’t seem bad at all by the looks of the menu or the website but I didn’t have the inclination to have any lunch there after a large Christmas dinner the night before. If you do have any feedback about it, please let me know. I also checked out l’Escarène which only had one restaurant/bar which was shut and didn’t seem anything to write home about.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the readers of the French Riviera Blog from all over the world a very merry Xmas and a Happy New Year, thanks to you all for your encouragement and support!