La Turbie ticks all the right boxes: the Romans really knew what they were doing. And where to do it. In the Alpes-Maritimes, not far from the Italian border and (literally) overlooking Monaco, is the delightful village of La Turbie. Set into the hills and with wonderful views of the sea, the village grew up around ‘Le Trophée des Alpes’, a spectacular and beautiful monument, built by the Romans in 7 BC.
Erected high on the very point where the Alps meet the Mediterranean and using limestone quarried in the surrounding hills, this edifice was intended to be seen from both land and sea. And it still is – although it very nearly wasn’t.
During the Middle Ages – not an era best known for make-overs – Le Trophée was somehow redesigned into a fortress. Then, in 1705, Louis XIV (for reasons best known to himself) blew the whole thing up – and very successfully. By the beginning of the twentieth century, what was left of Le Trophée had crumbled and worn away to a smooth, featureless stump, surrounded by untidy piles of fallen limestone blocks. And even they were depleted as some of the best stones had already been taken for use in the village, including the construction of the eighteenth century church of St Michel.
Dedicated to Emperor Augustus and themed on ‘Hercules’ (the Hercules Road led to what is now Monaco), Le Trophée was originally of circular pantheon design with pillar-supported dome and set on a gargantuan slab-base. Any restoration project, especially minus a few choice stones, would be (forgive the pun) a Herculean task. But by 1931 and having taken over thirty years, the restorers had done a superb job in recreating at least a part of what this magnificent monument must have looked like in its hey-day. Today, Le Trophée is visible again from just about everywhere in the village and surrounding area (and is even [tastefully] illuminated at night). It is set in a wooded park, offers panoramic views and has an excellent museum.
And that’s not all the Romans did here. Oh no. Aqueducts and fountains aplenty were built to serve the construction workers of Le Trophée. (Part of an aquaduct can still be seen if you know where to look). And the main road through the village is none other than the very Roman Road known as Via Julia Augusta – a route of strategic importance linking all the major Italian towns from Voghera to Nice (which, of course, was then part of Italy). In 1806, the La Turbie part of this old road was re-built by Napoleon (who, naturally, ‘slept here’).
Long after the Romans and just a few hundred years ago, the medieval village of La Turbie was built in typical Provençal style. In other words, it’s charming, atmospheric and gorgeous. Huge stone portals lead into narrow cobbled streets where upstairs neighbours on opposite sides could almost shake hands. Tiny squares, a well, flowers on stone steps to ancient doorways. No souvenir shops, no bars – just a quiet, residential quarter. As well as the typical ‘lavoir’, or communal washing-place, there was also a public oven – the Four Banal; thirteenth century villagers had to pay a levee of one loaf in eighty to use it. Not a bad deal, really. And speaking of matters ‘pain’ – there is the most wonderful bakery, Chez Thérèsa, just outside the old village. The breads – fougasse with walnuts, forgeron and other speciality breads are all baked in a wood-burning stove and they, along with assorted cakes, pastries and quiches, are to die for.
Within a few paces of the old village is the equally attractive and more ‘modern’ part of La Turbie, dating from about the mid-nineteenth century when this region was re-attached to France and when the La Turbie quarries were bustling with the business of supplying stone for the construction of Monaco.
The main road with off-shoot square ‘Place Detras’ is the ‘hub’ and has everything a village needs and more besides. Here is the Fontaine Carolo Felicerege complete with horse-troughs and mandatory mini-lavoir and still providing drinking water for cyclists who regularly stop to replenish their bottles. There is a cute little Tourism Office and there are numerous shops, restaurants, cafes and bars as well as Le Napoleon Hotel. This is under new ownership, has been completely renovated and offers restaurant and terrace dining. A double room is €70 (low season), €80 (mid) and €90 (high).
The Napoleon is not the only hotel in La Turbie. For a really special occasion, try Chez Jerome in the old village. Primarily a first-class (Michelin-starred) restaurant, Chez Jerome also offers accommodation with a double-room (out of season) from about €120. Just to peek at the vaulted ceiling of this gourmet-paradise is mouth-watering enough – heaven knows what it must be like to actually eat there. Fixed-price menus are €65 and €120. The a la carte menu offers an elaborate choice, including an appetiser of lobster salad with artichokes and summer truffles – a snip at €65. (And now for a handy-dandy traveller’s hint. The proprietor of Chez Jerome (not actually Jerome) owns another restaurant in La Turbie. It’s called the Café de la Fontaine, is very popular and serves very good food at modest prices. About €25 will buy you three courses – perhaps stuffed sardines to start, rabbit with ravioli to follow and a chocolate-lover’s gateau to finish. A pichet of very good rose wine is about €15. But you must book if it’s a busy weekend night and you must get there on time or else your table will go!).
You certainly won’t starve in La Turbie. There are several good restaurants ranging from Chez Jerome (above) to the more modest Pizza da Gino (€8 – €12 to eat in or take-away). Then there’s the Napoleon, Chez Barbara and La Terrasse – this latter offers a three course menu with glass of wine for €19.50. Just out of town, on the Tête de Chien is Les Santons – a pizzeria with garden terrace dining and paella for €23. Then there’s Le Provencal – a typical café / bar / tabac in the square – popular with locals and cyclists. Or try La Cave Turbiasque – a brasserie with menus at €15 and €19.
There used to be yet another hotel – actually two – in La Turbie. The Righi Hiver and the slightly less sumptuous Righi Ete were ‘Belle Epoque’ purpose-built seasonal hotels, aimed at holiday-makers from the coast – from La Turbie sur Mer (now known as Cap d’Ail), from Monaco and from Nice. They would come to La Turbie to enjoy the fresher, cooler temperatures some 500 metres above sea-level. And how would they come? By funicular railway, of course! Sadly no longer in existence, the ‘Chemin de Fer a Cremaillère’ was inaugurated on 10 February 1894 and covered the two and a half (uphill) kilometres from Monaco to La Turbie in just 20 minutes. Of Swiss design, the railway was single-track with a half-way passing place for the two trains. Each train consisted of an engine, one first-class and one second-class carriage, each with luggage compartments. The cost of a second-class ticket was three (old) francs. The service was very popular – not only with tourists but also with pilgrims journeying to Laghet, with cyclists who loaded their bicycles into the luggage racks and with Turbiasque and Monagasque locals going to and from work. On arrival in La Turbie, the passengers would disembark at what is now the area just below Le Trophée and walk to the nearby Righi Hiver hotel – a rather exotic establishment which occupied a ‘prime real-estate’ position on the wooded hillside overlooking the sea.
Attractions at the hotel included day-trippers’ luncheons and tea-dances as well as short breaks and longer stays – to ‘take the air and to improve the physique’. But the hotel was hardly ‘Provençal’. Moorish in design, it was furnished almost entirely with artifacts from Istanbul. This didn’t quite fit and, once the railway service ended, the hotel became unpopular and was finally demolished in 1950. No traces remain and the site has become part of the area surrounding Le Trophée.
The funicular itself came to a tragic and abrupt end. On 8 March 1932, there was a mechanical failure, resulting in an accident which killed two passengers. This brilliant and popular form of transport between Monaco and La Turbie would end for ever. The route of the tracks and the remains of one of the halts are still there but too many new buildings make re-opening the line unlikely.
Nowadays, the most frequent form of transport seems to be the luxury cars on their way from Monaco to the Monte Carlo golf-course, situated high above La Turbie. Porsche, Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, Bentley – perhaps ten of them in as many minutes. And speaking of cars – a small part of the exciting car-chase movie ‘Ronin’ (Robert de Niro) was filmed on the winding roads leading in and out of La Turbie. And the roads do bend. It was here that Princess Grace of Monaco was tragically killed in a car accident between La Turbie and her nearby country-house ‘Rocagel’.
Smart cars, smart houses. It’s certainly a glamorous part of the world but La Turbie doesn’t need a reality-check. It also has a bus-service and satisfies all the basic requirements – chemist, supermarket, bank, primary school, doctor, hairdressers, three patisseries (and why not), a couple of butchers, florists and, of course, several estate agents. Property doesn’t come cheap here but nor would you expect it to.
There is a sports complex complete with tennis courts, boules area and open-air swimming pool. Some of these sporting facilities (including the football pitch) are part-financed by Monaco, whose teams use them for training. There are little garden and park areas – one dedicated to the nineteenth century poet Theodore de Banville, whose most famous poem was ‘Le Laurier de La Turbie’. There is a ‘Maison de Retraite’ (I’ve got my name down) and there’s even a shop selling an interesting combination of fine wines and furniture. It’s all here.
And definitely not to be missed is the most fabulous restoration of the (main) ‘lavoir’ (situated under the Gendarmerie). It was here that the Turbiasque women would scrub sheets with heavy brushes, leaving their more delicate frillies to be washed with the gentle Savon de Marseille at home. The restoration was finished only recently at a cost of some €43,000 and incorporates some of the most superb ‘trompe l’oeil’ paintings I have ever seen. I thought the laundry hanging up to dry was real. Full marks to Iva Laude, the artist. She can come and do my bathroom any day.
La Turbie isn’t really a holiday-home sort of spot (although there are some). It’s more your residential, commute-into-Monaco kind of place. A sort of maritime version of the Home Counties with a multi-national population of all age-groups and categories. It’s got great access from the A8 motorway or any of the three Corniches, is just a stone’s throw from Menton and the Italian border and about 40 minutes from Nice airport. The surrounding countryside has wonderful walking trails and you can be at a ski-resort in about an hour. Or setting sail from Beaulieu in less. Oh yes – and automatic ringside seats if Monaco is having a firework display below. In a nutshell, it’s a friendly, living, breathing, working kind of place that ticks all the right boxes.
The Romans got it right and, if ever I were to move (and funds were no object), it might well be to La Turbie.
With grateful thanks to the La Turbie Tourist Office and to my superb guides, Sue and Alexander Fry.
Le Trophée des Alpes:
Open every day (mornings & afternoons) bar Mondays and Holidays
€5 adults; free for children
Le Napoleon Hotel & Restaurant
Tel: 04 93 51 62 66
Tel: 04 92 41 51 51