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Destination: France | On the road from Nice to villages
rich in art, history and good living

Day Breaks

June 09, 1996|STANLEY RADHUBER | Radhuber is poet and freelance writer who lives in New Jersey and France

NICE, France — The plane from Paris to Nice sweeps low over the Rho^ne River, twists left over northern Provence, descends over the maze of massifs and canyons, then banks left again over the Mediterranean. Finally, it drops lower as it soars past the rocky coast, by Cannes, by Saint-Tropez, past the wing-like buildings at Cap d'Antibes.

The plane continues to descend and the space between it and the water diminishes. The passengers begin to wonder: Are we in some Edgar Allan Poeish shrinking space? And then, miraculously, sand appears and the plane touches down at the Nice-Co^te d'Azur airport on the beach. Passengers leave the plane while it is still on the runway and are instantly engulfed in the brilliant Mediterranean sun.

The effect is exhilarating. There are palm trees bouncing sun off their leathery leaves, tanned ladies with little dogs, tanned men in loafers and no socks--in all, an aura of well-being and happiness.

Welcome to Nice.

Certainly there is much for the tourist to see and do in Nice itself. But most travelers neglect what is around Nice--some of the most dramatic country in all of Europe: sudden massifs, straight drops into narrow valleys so far down that you think you are looking through the wrong end of a telescope, roads that double back on themselves like drapery folding down a mountain slope, viewpoints that simultaneously offer staggering vistas of both the dry hills of eastern Provence and the turquoise Mediterranean, villages so remote and perched so precariously on the tops of rock that one wonders how they were built--and why.

For the traveler who is able to rent a car, here are three day trips out of Nice: La Croix-sur-Roudoule, Sospel and St. Paul/Grasse. Each outing will take up the hours between breakfast and dinner back in Nice, though the temptation to linger will be strong.

La Croix-sur-Roudoule is truly a village that time has forgotten. Established as a base camp by the Crusaders, it is perched on top of a peak in the remote Gorge de la Roudoule and offers an eagle's eye view of the gorge and connecting valleys and surrounding peaks. A stone structure built on top of a stone mountain, stone on stone, would be the simplest way to describe it.

To get to La Croix-sur-Roudoule take N 202 west, then north along the Var, a splendid river that has its source near Gap, high in the Alps.

Turn north at Puget-Theniers, 58 kilometers (36 miles) from Nice, and follow D 16 through the Roudoule River gorge to La Croix--about five slow and winding kilometers (3 miles). The road narrows so dramatically that it barely accommodated my tiny Renault. Overhanging rock covers the entire road like a canopy, and the curves are breathtaking, as is the view to the left, straight down into the dramatic Gorge de la Roudoule. At the narrow gorge bridge, which seems to be suspended, unattached, like a bird hovering over the valley, there is a parking area and viewpoint.

We followed the sign directing us to a road looping around to the right for the last twisting 600 feet or so, and found a stone village that gave no hint of its existence until we maneuvered that last curve in the road.

A lovely stone portal welcomed us to the village. After the portal, more stone--bright, clean, old--there was a maze of narrow streets connected by stairways, a church and a telephone booth. The village was full of dogs and cats, and most of the villagers (the village population is about 75) like to spend a good deal of their time sitting on wood benches along the narrow alleys and in the square in front of the church.

The village itself has an enigmatic history, having been first established by the Knights Templiers on their way to Jerusalem. But why did these Crusaders, coming down from Troyes in Champagne, take this treacherous route through the mountains instead of the more logical water route, the Rho^ne, or the traditional avenue through Germany and Hungary? Perhaps there are some answers in this mysterious stone village perched on an outcropping above a remote gorge in La Croix-sur-Roudoule--country as inaccessible as any in Europe.

Not a trip for the timid, but well worth it for the view, the adventure and a sense of historical mystery, the drive to La Croix-sur-Roudoule will, at the least, fill up a carousel of slides.


The trip to Sospel is equally dramatic but in a dramatically different way. En route to Sospel the road does not follow rocky cliffs and gorges or wind under canopies of stone. Rather, it follows a traditional mountain pass route. But it is not a traditional route--not, that is, quite like the passes in the Cascades and Rockies.

Clinging to the walls of the two passes--the Braus and St. Jean--the road to Sospel is stitched with 180-degree cutbacks, one literally on top of another. So while the distance from Nice is only 25 miles, the trip takes about an hour and a half.

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