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Destination: France

A Trail Through Perched Villages

Trekking with the silence of the ages on the Alpine Salt Route to Italy

March 30, 1997|YVONNE MICHIE HORN | Horn is a Santa Rosa, Calif., freelance writer

NICE, France — "Ptui!" Like naughty children we are trying to outdo each other in long-distance olive-pit spitting. "Ptui!" Clearing the ancient stone wall that defines the circumference of the tiny perched village of Piene-Haute, sailing down over rocky outcroppings we hope, if the aim is exquisite, to hit the meandering ribbon of the Roya River far, far below. "Ptui!"

The three of us--myself, my grown daughter, Jennifer, and Katie, Jennifer's friend since childhood--are of an age to have long ago abandoned such sport. We are on a weeklong trek through a small corner of southeastern France, walking the 16th century Salt Route along pathways trod by mule caravans transporting salt from the Mediterranean into northwestern Italy's Piedmont region. It is an area of breathtaking beauty, culturally rich, riddled with villages perches (perched villages).

We'd planned our trek months in advance. We would start at Tende in early June, before the summer heat of the French south hits the mountains too. Tende is the highest town on the Roya in the Maritime Alps, last stop of the mule caravans before crossing into the Piedmont. From there we would make our way south through brushwoods fragrant with thyme, climb to rocky summits, descend into limestone valleys and traverse mountainsides over abandoned agricultural terraces. Tende, La Brigue, St.-Dalmas-de-Tende, Granile, Berghe Superieur and Inferieur, Fontan, Saorge, Breil-sur-Roya, Piene-Haute, Sospel, Gorbio, Ste.-Agnes--a network of about 300 miles of trails ties these perched villages and medieval towns of the Salt Route together, with a final descent into the citrus-scented gardens of Menton on the Co^te d'Azur.

The Maritime Alps are one of the great crossroads of Southern Europe. Neolithic tribes wandered what is known as the Vallee des Merveilles, a place now protected by the French government for its wealth of Bronze Age rock engravings. Germanic tribes and Muslim pirates attacked, invaded and left their marks through the proliferation of villages disguised to look like their rocky surroundings--protected enclaves situated for an eagle's view of the danger sure to come.

For centuries, a succession of rampaging marauders continued--Ligurians, Celts, Romans, Gauls and mercenaries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance--until a series of tug of wars between the duchy of Savoy and the French crown.

In a moment of largess in 1860, Napoleon III gave this area of the Upper Roya Valley to King Victor Emmanuel II, first sovereign of the new kingdom of unified Italy. World War I and World War II were the last to ravage the countryside. Not until 1947 were those areas reunified with France.

Coveted through the ages, this small corner above the Co^te d'Azur remains little touched by tourism. After buying French government topographical guides, we translated trail descriptions, learning that we could count on the Grande Randonnee, France's nationwide network of well-marked paths, to take us through.

These topo-guides--which we purchased at a map store in Paris--also told us that a smattering of inexpensive, charming and clean, small hotels were located along our route. With that, we arranged to walk free of gear, our belongings transported ahead by employees of the hotels, whom we paid small amounts (less than $10 each) to carry our equipment by automobile.

For those who want to drive, a tortuous, narrow road marked by frequent signs warning drivers that there are hairpin turns ahead, links Menton and Tende. Trains also tie the Co^te d'Azur to Tende along a spectacular rail route of two hours. We took the train to Tende, where we found the countryside in full bloom with temperatures ideal for hiking compared with the already sweltering coast.

*

Strategically positioned at the foot of the pass connecting France's Provence region and Italy's Piedmont, Tende clings to the mountainside in a gloomy cascade of tall facades and slate roofs. At the top of the town are the remains of a castle. It was our first perched village of the trek, and it deserved exploration. The sun, however, was dipping toward midafternoon, and we had walking to do. Finding the trail head, we climbed the mountainside opposite Tende, through woods and grassy meadows to descend in a series of uncounted turns into La Brigue--a two-hour hike--where we would spend the night.

La Brigue presented, in a medieval nutshell, what was ahead of us: villages so very French, yet decidedly influenced by Italy. Dating from the 15th century, ancient stone houses with sculpted doors and lintels carved with symbols of old trades stood next to 18th century stucco buildings painted in ice cream shades enlivened with trompe l'oeil details and frescoes faded through the years.

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