The Hilltop Fortress of Saorge

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Walking Holidays in France

On our return trip on the Train des Merveilles from Tende to Nice, we made use of the opportunity to stagger our return and to visit one of the picturesque hilltop villages along the way. The train schedule allows you to put in one or two stopovers and still arrive in Nice in time for dinner. 

The Hilltop Fortress in the South of France

Between June to September, the 9h24 Train des Merveilles service from Nice to Tende is accompanied by an English-speaking guide who provides a commentary during the journey and also gives you some tips – for example, what village to explore during an afternoon stopover.

"France's hilltop fortress of Saorge seen from path leading to the town "

From what our guide had said in the morning, the hilltop fortress village of Saorge appeared to be particularly enticing. Thomas Jefferson has apparently been impressed after a visit in 1787.

So we left the train at the station Fontan-Saorge and turned right on the main road. The guide had said that we would have to walk just over a kilometre to the village proper, and this turned out to be highly precise.

What she had omitted to point out, however, was that we would have to squeeze ourselves into the hard and narrow shoulder of a mountain road with very little room to the side in the event that a big vehicle came along. If you see this mark on the road …

"The number 1000 painted on the road towards hilltop fortress of Saorge"

… you are sure of three things: first, you are on the right way. Second, there are exactly 1000 metres left. And third – look into the distance – there is a tunnel ahead.

"Walking through a tunnel leading to the hilltop fortress of Saorge"

Yes, a tunnel.

The tiny hard shoulder shrinks even further, and initially at least, it will feel less like adventure and more like suicide for beginners.

But not only is there light at the end of the tunnel (indicating that the tunnel is straight and mercifully short), there is even light inside the tunnel (though the lamps are a little dim), and it must be said there is generally very little traffic. (On either of our passages through the tunnel, there was only one vehicle.)

So, do not lose heart, even though some of the writings on the wall appear to forebode ill.

"A cross painted on the wall of the tunnel leading to Saorge"

After the tunnel, you are nearly there, and the protector of Saorge greets you by the wayside. He is perhaps not the most powerful saint in heaven, but he may well be the one with the prettiest legs.

"A small statue of a saint by the road leading to Saorge, pulling up his robes to display his left leg
Turn up left on the stairway to enter the Old Town – and remember well from where you came because once you are inside the maze of narrow lanes, it is easy to lose your orientation.

It is quite amazing to see how many buildings can be crammed into such little space. Until the 17th century, the formidable hilltop fortress of Saorge was virtually impregnable, and even the mighty army of Louis XIV earned itself a bloody nose trying to conquer it.

"A bike leaning on the wall of an old building in the town of Saorge"

We left Saorge – having already visited Tende on the same day – with a feeling of astonishment of how different this part of the Provence is to the French Riviera. It is only a short train ride away, but you might as well have landed on a different planet.

"One of the many very narrow alley in the town of Saorge"

It was great having done this, and I would recommend the Train des Merveilles to anybody who spends more than a few days in the region, but, frankly, it was even greater to be back on the coast.

La France profonde – the “deep”, rural and traditionalist countryside – does not get much more profonde than it does in Tende and Saorge whose dark, narrow and mouldy lanes can feel a little depressing after the wide open spaces, the blue skies and the blue sea of the Cote d’Azur.

We were certainly glad to be back “home”.

Our home away from home in the French Riviera was a holiday rental we found via HomeAwayUK 


11 comments to The Hilltop Fortress of Saorge

  • It’s quite a place, isn’t it Dan? It’s like you’re in another time and place, not in the South of France at all. Hope you’re enjoying the honeymoon.

  • dan goddard

    We are in saorge at the moment on honeymoon. It is the most amazing place we have ever been. The people are so friendly. Take a load off and have a bite to eat at le bronze, marc and mimi are wonderfully friendly. X

    I meant le heinz, damn predictive text!

  • Joe

    Never been to Saorge before, maybe next time I go to France I could pay a visit there, love the alleyways, paths and the fort.

  • Oh, most definitely, Debbie. Visiting these hillside towns will give you an over-all feel for that part of France.

  • Well I have to say Saorge looks like it was well worth the adventure even if the tunnel was a bit unsettling! What a beautiful scene it makes nestle up against the hill. I would love to spend time exploring the wonderful hillside villages in the south of France.

  • Hahaha, the ‘protector’ needs protecting — by lock and key!!!

    Glad you’re home too and glad there wasn’t a lot of traffic on that road.
    I just love those little towns — so much history and character.
    Thanks, Michael.

  • Namtip

    Thanks much for this. I have been coming and going to and from Provence for decades and never even heard of Saorge. It sounds like it is worth a visit.

  • Valid question. We also asked the same.

  • Hahahahaha! The protector of Saorge – what’s up with that unseemly showing of flesh? HAHAHA!

  • “Untouched” is one word to describe Saorge. I suppose one goes there to escape the noise of the city because it’s really a quiet place. Thanks for dropping by, Phoebe.

  • What a lovely piece of writing. I discovered Saorge about 5 years ago and love it. It’s so untouched compared to many of the other hill villages in the area and remains fairly unknown. Infact you’re the only other person I’ve come across who’s been there, and I live on the Côte d’Azur! I came across you on Twitter (@FibiTee) and have liked your FB page too. Will be reading more of your hikes for sure!

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