The voices now are either French or Italian, with a smattering of English, and eventually, as Winter closes in, we will get back to the “permanent” population of around 100. This is mostly French, with a few diehard “internationals” like us who have decided to make our home here, and there couldn’t be a more pleasant place to do just that.
This is the old village (Vieux Village) of Roquebrune, which sits atop a 300 metre hill sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the Alps, with views from the 10th century ruined chateau (castle) extending west across Monaco, east across Menton to the Italian city of Ventimilia, and out to sea as far as Corsica (on a good day).
In it’s time the chateau (and village) was home to troops from the Count of Ventimilia and for 600 years, the Grimaldis. During the period following the Napoleonic wars the village freed itself from rule by the Grimaldis, who retreated to their mini state of Monaco. After some years as a “free town”, Roquebrune aligned itself with France.
The chateau was owned in the early part of the 20th century by an English romanticist, William Ingram, who made attempts to turn his castle into a Victorian style folly, hence the colourful ruined battlements, and other small “improvements” . He gave it back to the village in the 1920s.
In July and August the chateau hosts a series of evening concerts, on a stage with a living backdrop to die for, as the lights of Monaco take over from the deep blue of sky and sea.
Once a fortified village perché, Roquebrune has now become the historical part of the much larger commune of Roquebrune Cap Martin, which extends from the Monaco border to its sister town Menton on the Italian border. Despite now being almost a suburb of Monaco, the village has retained all of its medieval charm, with untrafficed narrow lanes and alleys, many of them little more than tunnels through the rock. Renovations in the village have been sympathetic, and it is still possible to trace the history through its walls.
The Village sits on the Grande Corniche (D2564), between La Turbie and Cap Martin, and can be a pleasant stop-off on a trip along the Corniche from Nice to the Italian border. Although the old streets of the village are not trafficable, there are several car parks at the entrance, and they’re free.
There is also a bus service to the village from either Beausoleil-Monaco (La Crémaillière) or Menton (Gare Routier). The 113 runs 5 times a day except Sunday.
Whether you arrive by car or bus, you will find yourself in the main car park, and it’s from there we begin our Autumn walk, which first winds its way up along avenue Poincaré past the old village lavoir, and at the top of this short lane (ignore the steps to the left) you come to a small café, the Fraise et Chocolat (coffee and cake and a lovely terrace), then into Place des Deux Freres (two brothers), named after the two small hills at the edge of the square.
One side of the square rises up to the castle, the other side plunges precipitously towards the Mediterranean. Les Deux Freres is also the name of the hotel in the square, boasting eight uniquely and individually styled rooms (average 100€ per night). It also features a gourmet restaurant. Favoured by residents of Monaco, its prices match the clientele, but the view from the restaurant terrace is worth the price, although the same stunning view of the sea, the Cap and Monaco can be yours for free by standing at the rail that forms the seaward side of the square. Opposite Les Deux Freres is La Grotte, a café of more modest aspirations, where you can sit and watch the passing parade, or ensconce yourself on a seat around the olive tree in the middle of the square, where the waiter in gold shoes will still serve you drinks.
A short walk along the rue Grimaldi beside La Grotte, brings you to the superb church of Sainte-Marguerite. Originally a 13th century chapel it was extended in the 15th century and finally took on its baroque character in the 18th century. Sainte-Marguerite is open every day from 3pm to 5pm, and it’s worth spending a little time inside gazing at the frescos, especially as the sun strikes through the windows. As you leave the church, take time to look at the small statue above the door, then check the angle of the sun! If you are there when the hour changes, don’t worry if you miss the first chime, wait 2 minutes and it will chime again. Apparently the first chime warned villagers in the now long gone olive groves to listen (for the second chime). The church was once attached to a monastery, now a private home, across the alley.
From the tiny ornate square outside the church the steps take you up along rue du Chateau, but before you get to the top, take a right at the Old Forge and walk along rue de la Fontaine until you reach Place Capitaine Vincent, named after a former Mayor. The view is again one to die for, and at the end of the Place is one of the old town gates, with the “former” town jail above. Below is a public loo! Beyond the gate the Chemin de Menton leads you through slightly more modern homes until after a short walk, you reach the thousand year old olive. This is reputed to be the oldest olive tree in the world!
Further along and you come to the other 2 small chapels of Roquebrune. Although they are rarely open you can see the beautiful decoration through the iron grills. The first is La Roche, and the furthest is called La Pausa. This was built in the 15th century to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting the village from the plague which was devastating the region, and so named because Mary is said to have paused at Roquebrune on a trip to this end of the Mediterranean. Behind the chapel there is a superb view of Menton, across to Ventimilia in Italy.
The village survived the plague, and on the 5th of August each year, to honour a promise made by the villagers, there is a very colourful parade carrying a statue of the Virgin from the church of Sainte-Marguerite and ending at La Pausa. The parade has been an annual event since the 15th century.
It is a gentle 20 minute walk from the car park to La Pausa.
La Pausa is also the name of the nearby villa once owned by Coco Chanel who named a perfume (28 La Pausa) after it.
Returning to the village gate, the steps to the right just before the gate (Chemin de Saint Pancrace) will take you to the cemetery, where the architect/designer Corbusier is buried, in a grave very reminiscent of his buildings. He lived on Cap Martin in a small Cabanon, which is open for tours on specific days, and drowned in the bay just offshore from his home. (To find the grave, go to level J)
Now retrace your steps to the Old Forge, and turn to the right. This takes you uphill towards the castle. On the right just past the Forge is the small Atelier of a Dutch artist, if he’s open it’s worth a visit. He is a mine of information about the village, and also runs the village’s cyber “place”.
You will pass another restaurant, Au Grand Inquisiteur. In fact you pass through it. The dining rooms are on the right and the kitchen on the left of the street.
The dining rooms are small, atmospheric and below ground, with rock walls and ceilings, and Jean-Christophe, and his wife Stephanie (the chef), will treat you like old friends. Despite the transit across the street, the food is delicious and well priced. (The restaurant is also patronised by Prince Albert of Monaco).
Turning to the left at the top of the street takes you into the Place Ingram, and the castle. Opposite the castle gate there is a small gallery with hand made jewellery and bijouterie.
The castle is open every day from 10am, but lunch hours and closing times vary with the season. Entrance is 3,50€, and this includes an audio guide in French/English/Italian or German. The audio tour will take you an hour to complete.
When you leave the Place Ingram, retrace your steps again, and we will go through two of the original underground streets.
Just before you pass the artist’s atelier, turn to the right, though an arch, into rue Moncollet. On the left you will see Impasse Four, the site of the old castle oven, Buildings in Moncollet were originally for the members of the garrison. The steps on the right at the end of this narrow lane once led up to the castle, and one of the houses next to the steps still has a tunnel leading to the main castle gate which can be seen hiding in a corner of Place Les Deux Freres next to the café La Grotte.
Follow rue Moncollet down through the hill until you reach rue Grimaldi, turn right and just before the Casarella restaurant turn left and head down rue Pié which goes below Casarella. This is the oldest street in the village. Many of the houses in Pié and Moncollet have been partly excavated from the living rock.
At the end of rue Pié you will pass under one of the original village gates.
Through the gate, and up the steps to the right along Chemin St Lucié will take you to the Restaurant Dame Jeanne, which has a “traditional” menu, and a stunning view. There’s a small bar to while away the time if you arrive early. They also offer valet parking. It’s now a short walk back to the car park.
Roquebrune is not as heavily “touristed” as the other villages on the Côte d’Azur, there is a distinct lack of so called “tourist traps”, so even during the season it can be a pleasant diversion.
Restaurants within the village are generally not open on Monday (except La Grotte). Booking (even on the day) is recommended.
- Les Deux Freres (gourmet): 04.93.28.99.00
- Fraise au Chocolat (café – closes 6pm): 06.67.08.32.20
- La Grotte (café style) : 04.93.35.00.04
- Au Grand Inquisiteur (traditional): 04.93.35.05.37
- La Dame Jeanne (traditional): 0)4 93 35 10 20
- La Casarella (Sicilian and Corsican): 04.93.35.03.57
- Chateau (castle) 04.93.35.07.22
Avenue Aristide Briand,
?06190 Roquebrune Cap Martin ?