A Sight for Sore Eyes: Phare de la Garoupe on Cap d'Antibes offers one of the most spectacular views of the French Riviera.
Apart from being the location of some of the most expensive villas on the French Riviera, Cap d’Antibes is also home to one of France’s most powerful lighthouse, Phare de La Garoupe. And it’s here you’ll also find one of the most spectacular views of the French Riviera literally at your feet.
And what a view it is: to the west are the bays of Juan-les-Pins, Iles de Lérins, and Cannes with, inland, the Estérel Mountains. Ahead of you lies the whole of Antibes, its beaches and ports; to the east are sweeping views of Villeneuve-Loubet, Nice airport, parts of Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, a glimpse of Italy and the majestic snow-capped Alps. An orientation table marks out the various landmarks and there’s a telescope to further enhance your view.
Phare de La Garoupe
The lighthouse was originally built in 1837. Blown up by the Germans in 1944 during the Second World War, it was rebuilt by the Americans in 1948. Its range is outstanding: 70 kms for boats and 200 kms for planes. Prior to becoming fully automated in 1997 it was possible to visit and climb the 103 marble steps to have a fantastic 360º panorama of the entire region.
Located next to the lighthouse is Notre-Dame-de-la-Garoupe which is actually made up of two tiny chapels: Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (Protectress of Antibes) and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Port (Patroness of the sailors of Antibes). Slighted tucked away to the side is a very small oratory dedicated to St. Helena.
The foreground of the church is flat, sandy and slightly stony and surrounded by large Plane trees. It is inevitable that your eye will be drawn towards the compelling view that greets you as you walk towards the church. In summer a small café, located next to the church, sets out a few tables where you can partake of some light refreshments. There are also a couple of benches placed for the enjoyment of sight-seers and the perfect spot for a picnic. You’ll also find extremely good public toilets by the parking area if mother-nature suddenly calls or you simply want to freshen up.
You can reach Phare de La Garoupe either on foot, by car or by bus. If you are feeling particularly energetic you may like to begin your walk by starting at the bottom and taking chemin du Calvaire; its entrance is located just opposite Port de la Salis and popular Salis Beach.
As you walk up the stony pathway you’ll pass eleven of the fourteen Stations of the Cross that were originally erected during the 18th century. The first Station of the Cross is positioned at the entrance of the chemin, with the last three next to the church and outside the marine military signal station that shares the top of Garoupe Hill; thus completing the 14 Stations of the Cross.
In situ since the year 900, the current state of the footpath hasn’t changed much since the 16th century. This pleasantly wide, albeit stony, path is just under 1 km long. There are a number of metal benches to help the weary walker if the uphill climb is a bit of a struggle or to sit and meditate when passing a particular Station of the Cross.
The public woodland, extending across 9 hectares that borders the chemin on the right, further adds to the tranquillity and charm of the walk.
If you are coming by car the drive is easy and well sign-posted. Head towards Cap d’Antibes, past the pretty Square Albert 1er, turning naturally into Boulevard M Leclerc, Boulevard James Wyllie and Boulevard de Bacon where you’ll see signs for Phare de la Garoupe on your right. The road winds past some gorgeous villas, shaded by enormous Umbrella Pine trees. Keep following the signs up until you reach the top of the hill where there is a tarmac parking area for about 50 cars.
You can also reach Phare de La Garoupe with Envibus #2 bus line. Catch the bus either at Port Vauban (Pole d’Echanges Antibes) or at Plage du Ponteil before it makes its journey up and through Cap d’Antibes (Timetable here). It stops in the car park for a short while (5 mins) before continuing its journey to Eden Roc.
The story of this church is steeped in legend and somewhat fragmented. It is said that it was first built on the site of a pagan sanctuary dedicated to the moon-goddesses Selena or Phoebe or possibly Artemis-Diane, protector of the city of Antipolis.
When Helena (later St. Helena), mother of Constantine the Great, stopped off at Antipolis around 300 AD it is said that she had the sanctuary Christianized. To the left of the church you’ll find a very modest oratory dedicated to St. Helena. This site has been venerated since the 5th century when the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Port was founded by the Iles de Lèrins monks and Saint Armentaire, then Bishop of Antibes. To guard against vandalism the statue of St. Helena is located inside the church and positioned between the two chapels.
Around 1100 a simple wooden tower was erected and served as a place of worship. By the 1400s a permanent structure was built comprising of a little nave and watchtower. In 1520, René de Savoie, Count of Tende and co-Lord of Antibes consented to the extension of the first chapel and the construction of a bigger nave.
Entrance into the chapel is through Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the larger of the two chapels which has a metal ramp for easy wheelchair access. As you enter your eye is immediately drawn towards two adjoining naves, one built in the 13th century and the other in the 14th century. A small font, placed in 1570, is on your right.
The “main” altarpiece is flanked by two beautiful masterpieces: a 14th century Russo-Byzantine icon and, on the other side, a superb piece of painted silk dating from the Middle Ages (both from Sebastopol).
There is also a cross brought back from the Siege of Sebastopol and two gilded statues portraying “Our Lady who Guards” and “Our Lady of Safe Return”.
In 1952-1953, attempting to offset the eastern influences of these works, a local artist by the name of Jacques H. Clergues painted a large historic-religious fresco on the right hand side of the chapel wall. On one side he depicted the visit of Pope Gregory 11th to Antibes in 1376; on the other the Count of Savoy offering a gift to the Cordellers monks in 1520. The rear and side walls of the chapels are covered with a collection of personal messages to the Virgin, some are of Thanks, others of entreaty. It is difficult not to be moved by these message of hope and prayer.
There are over 250 pieces, 25 of which are models of various boats and other objects, while many others are paintings or simple marble plaques. Delightfully, the boats hang from the ceiling lending a touch of clutter and “lived-in” atmosphere which adds to the welcoming aspect of both chapels.
Outside a large black iron cross dating back to 1808 is located near the orientation table. Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is honoured every August 15th by all the parishes of Antibes. On June 25th, 1939, she was crowned Queen of Peace. Her statue was last brought out of the chapel on October 22, 1989, for the 50th anniversary of her coronation.
The first pilgrimage to Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Port began in 981. When bubonic plague infested Antibes and killed hundreds of people local residents walked up to the chapel to pray for its end. A few days after the procession the plague ended.
Ever since, and on the Thursday preceding the first Sunday in July, the painted wooden figure of the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Port) is brought down the stony footpath, past Port de la Salis, through the streets of Antibes and down to the Cathedral by 10 sailors dressed in traditional costume.
They retrace their steps back to the chapel on the Sunday. Having myself walked first down and then up this footpath, I can only admire and congratulate these sailors on their remarkable endeavour – for it is said that they make their journey barefoot. A plaque commemorating the 1000th procession (981-1981) can be found on the outside wall of the church.
Located just behind the lighthouse you’ll find the Chapelle du Calvaire built in 1652 by the Bernardine Nuns.
Close by are the remains of an ancient priory once belonging to the Cordeliers monks (a Franciscan order so named due to their rope belts).
This beautiful site is well-loved for weddings and it’s easy to see why as the chapel and the site itself makes a stunning and very romantic setting.