France: Dizzying heights of an alpine village

By Alison McCulloch

It's quite a trek up to the village of Saorge, but it's worth it for the views, if you don't have vertigo, writes Alison McCulloch.

The playground at the primary school in Saorge is protected by netting to stop children from tumbling down the cliffs the village is built on. Photo / Alison McCulloch
The playground at the primary school in Saorge is protected by netting to stop children from tumbling down the cliffs the village is built on. Photo / Alison McCulloch

The things that make the French Alpine village of Saorge such a remarkable place are also its biggest problems. From the rocks that threaten to bombard the village to the unforgiving terrain, Saorge leads a precarious existence, clinging to a dizzyingly steep hillside in the mountains that sweep down to the French Riviera.

I visited Saorge in September with my family for a two-week stay in a gite rural, one of more than 40,000 such rental cottages listed by Gites de France, a national organisation that rates the gites and runs the booking and payment system.

We'd spent quite a few hours on the internet back home poring over photos, floor plans, costs and surroundings of about two dozen alpine cottages, before settling on two. Our first choice, in a town a few valleys over, was already taken, so we crossed our fingers and signed up for Saorge.

It's a day's train journey to the village from Paris. First, an early morning high-speed TGV to Nice, then a shorter hop on the regional service up the Roya Valley towards the Italian border to the small, unmanned railway station that services Saorge.

It was there that the village's inaccessibility became painfully clear. We'd tried to arrange transport for three people and their luggage from the station up the steep hill to the village, but the best advice anyone could offer was that we should walk. Only 20 minutes up the road, they'd said. No one explained that the road to Saorge is no ordinary road: it's narrow and winding, runs through a lengthy tunnel and, if you were to topple over the stone barrier fence and off the edge of that hairpin bend halfway up, neither you nor your suitcases would be heard from again.

Before panic set in, we were rescued by a local schoolteacher, Katie, who somehow squeezed two of us and all that luggage into her tiny hatchback, leaving my husband to walk unencumbered. Katie dropped us off in the town square where we met Madame Aiperto, the gite's owner, who guided us the rest of the way. (For future reference, get off the train one stop sooner, at Breil, and roust a taxi driver from the station cafe for a €17 (NZ$27) taxi ride.)

The village itself is a pedestrian-only maze of passageways, tunnels, arches, steps and narrow, cobbled streets. It is utterly breathtaking. As well as taking morning hikes in the surrounding hills and forests, we spent hours exploring Saorge itself, feeling almost dizzy each time we emerged from some dim, mysterious passage into the bright light of yet more sweeping views across the valley to mountains, and more mountains beyond.

But it was the primary school that really took my breath away. Built on a promontory near the site of an old fort, its playground is enclosed in netting to protect children from tumbling down the cliff that drops away from the edge of the schoolyard. Growing up in Saorge surely requires a good head for heights.

It's described as a medieval village, though the mayor, Paul Silici, told me no one's quite sure how old Saorge really is.

The earliest reliable date is attached to the old Madonna del Poggio chapel, built around 1092.

"That means," Silici says, "the village existed before the year 1000."

From a mayoral perspective, the town's heritage is also one of its constraints. As Silici explains, the geological risks coupled with the protected status of so many of Saorge's buildings mean it's almost impossible to get a building permit.

There's no hotel, so tourists can't stay overnight and, even if they could, there's hardly any parking. The population of the town, about 2000 at its height, is now just over 400. "The main resource of the village," Silici says, "is the state."

Of course, if you want to spend time away from the tourist traps (as well as TV, email and, in our case, the Rugby World Cup), Saorge's problems make it the perfect location.

Not having a car was no handicap, either. That hair-raising walk to the station is fine if you're free of luggage, so we made it frequently, taking day trips by rail in all directions: down to Ventimiglia (lunch and a dip in the Italian Mediterranean) and Monaco (a mistake: the Monaco Yacht Show was smothering the city), and over the mountains to the ski resort of Limone in Italy's Piedmont.

But it was our sweet little two-level, three-bedroom gite in Saorge that we fell most in love with - that and the three cats who adopted us while we were there. Saorge appears to have as many cats as people, each with its own spot in which to snooze: the two little greys lurking along the Carera de Megge; the fluffy black that sleeps among the display boxes at La Petite Epicerie, the young tabbies rolling around in the sun near the Ciassa Soutana.

I asked Silici why Saorge was so full of cats. Perhaps, I wondered, it was something to do with the former Franciscan monastery up the hill from our gite?

"Why?" he repeated, suggesting the answer was obvious. "Because we have no cars."

FURTHER INFORMATION

Gites de France's gites cost on average €408 (NZ$700) a week in peak season and €267 (NZ$460) in low season.

Saorge is online at saorge.fr.

Alison McCulloch paid her own way to Saorge.

- NZ Herald

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