When dreaming up images of the French Riviera, the perched mountain village of Sainte Agnès usually doesn't come to mind. But sitting on the terrace of the St Yves hotel, with a coffee and croissant, the Mediterranean sparkles a mere stone's throw away: only 4km to be exact. With its highest point at 700m in altitude, the medieval village of Sainte Agnès is noted as the "highest coastline village in Europe", and also classed among the most beautiful villages in France.
Sainte Agnès clings to the west face of a granite pinnacle, its castle ruins set at the very top. And the whole lot seems to defy gravity. Living self-sufficiently until the dawn of the 20th century, electricity didn't arrive until 1921; the village broke from total isolation in 1935, when the narrow road was built, linking Sainte Agnès to the Rivera below: the same white-knuckle-sweat-inducing-treacherously-winding road that exists today (hats off to the local bus drivers).
The tiny village of Sainte Agnès counts 150 souls year-round, one of them Georges Tibert, the owner and manager of the Saint Yves hotel. While the hotel has been in the village for over a hundred years, Georges' family has been here longer: he's the 9th generation Tibert (at least!) of Sainte Agnès, his hotel-restaurant a morning hub for locals to chat and have their morning coffee, and mingle with walkers from every corner of the planet (before setting off on my walks I chatted with a few locals, and families from Germany and Norway).
For a stunning village set so close to the bustling Côte d'Azur, Sainte Agnès is quiet, and without a touristy feel. It's said that in the Alpes Maritimes region, the back-country makes up 90% of the land, and welcomes only 10% of the region's visitors (the Côte d'Azur makes up the remaining 10% of the land, and hosts 90% of tourists). Once evening comes in Sainte Agnès, and the last of the visitors have left, the cobbled streets are empty, timeless; they pass under vaulted passageways, revealing hidden lanes, all lined with massive stone homes. Cobbled steps lead up to the castle ruins that crown the village, with panoramic views of the Mediterranean, the Italian border, and the Maritime Alps that soar above the waters. I particularly enjoyed meandering through the tiny streets at dusk, camera in hand, working up an appetite for Saint Yves' notoriously generous dinner portions.
Georges can remember a time fifteen years ago when there were a dozen tourist shops in the village. Today there are no shops that sell soap-on-a-rope: all that remains are two restaurants, a crêperie, an artist's glassworks shop, and a tiny grocery store. While the road leading up to the village may be daunting, Sainte Agnès is the perfect base from which to set off for walks. Local survey maps reveal a spider-web of trails leading into hidden valleys, towards nearby villages, and up to local summits, where the 360-degree views include the snow-capped Mercantour Alps to the north, their peaks nearing 3,000 metres. To the south the sea views are far-reaching, from the towers of Monaco to the west, and to the first of the Italian coastal villages to the east. In the dozen or so times I've visited the region, I've yet to cover even half of the walking possibilities. And I'm eager to do more.
Returning to the Saint Yves hotel after a gratifying walk full of eye-candy, I have a nice chat with Georges Tibert and his son. I have a little rest on my bed, and enjoy the silence and mountain views from my window. And then my pre-dinner stroll through the quiet village at dusk.
Being a big boy with a big appetite, I generally don't leave plates unfinished, especially after a day's walk. But I always seem to make the exception at the Saint Yves: homemade pâté for a mise-en-bouche, a warm courgette tart for a starter, and then here comes the wild boar stew, complete with homemade cappelletti in a homemade tomato sauce. It's probably enough for three people. It's nothing fancy, but really delicious, evocative of nearby Italy, and it warms you like a hug. I manage to leave some room for the tarte au citron, a dessert (my favourite) by which I measure all pastry shops in France. And this one is among the best I've had.