If you enjoy visiting medieval villages, then you'll love the undeniable charm of Tourrettes-sur-Loup, a truly hidden treasure of the Riviera.
With its gentle pace and friendly community Tourrettes-sur-Loup is a hidden gem of the French Riviera. The peace and quiet of the countryside and surrounding woodlands belies the fact that Tourrettes-sur-Loup is within quick and easy reach of the hustle and bustle of Nice, Cannes or Antibes and even Monaco or Italy if the fancy takes you.
Up until the French Revolution Tourrettes-sur-Loup was known as “Tourrettes-lès-Vence and had a population of about 1,800 inhabitants. After the French Revolution the village was named Tourrettes-de-Vence and only acquired its current name in 1894 in honour of the Loup river flowing along the border of the commune to the south – and to differentiate it from Tourrettes-Levens situated in the hinterland of Nice.
Located 20 kms from Nice at an altitude of 1,300 ft, Tourrettes-sur-Loup sits on a rocky plateau with vertical sides that plunge into the valley below. Backed by a range of hills from the Puy de Tourrette to the hills around the Col de Vence, the west of the village has great expanses of sheer rock with incredible views stretching across to the Mediterranean Sea.
The surrounding hills are terraced and were once used to cultivate vines, wheat and beans. Nowadays it is the turn of Bigaradier orange trees (a small bitter orange used in the making of Curaçao liqueur, jams and Orange Flower Water), fragrant Rose de Mai and violets that are sent to Grasse and used in the making of perfumes. Once a major weaving centre Tourrettes-sur-Loup is now known, throughout the world, as “La Cité des Violettes” for its cultivation of violets and yearly “Fête des Violettes”.
Place de la Libération
If you’re coming by car you have the choice of two parking areas: Place de la Libération located on the village square and Parking de La Madeleine on Route de Vence – just a short walk away.
Place de la Libération has a very pretty Church called Saint Grégoire. Originally built in the 12th century on the site of a previous Romanesque church (using its design and building materials) it had further reconstruction work done during the 15th century. The entrance porch is a mixture of Romanesque and Renaissance style,fitted in 1552.
On the southern façade there are some recycled stones bearing ancient symbols of Christianity, such as the fish and the double dove. The upper part of the church, once serving as a watchtower, was renovated in 1861.
Inside the church, the Triptyque has a wooden oil painting depicting Saint Antony flanked by Saint Gregory and Saint Claude. It is painted in the tradition of the 15th century Brea School.
The Village’s Heart
The heart of Tourrettes-sur-Loup is its pedestrianized medieval “vieux village” which is lovely. Take the time to look around, not just at eye level but upwards too. Don’t forget to turn round from time to time to glimpse different aspects of the village otherwise you will miss some extraordinary views.
The medieval part of Tourrettes-sur-Loup can be reached by one of two ways; the right (west) through an archway above which sits a 12th century clock-bell tower or by taking the second archway located on the left (east).
The Clock Portal (west) was, for a very long time, the only way into the fortified village leading as it does into a sharp turn and a double locking system to the Grand’rue. The Eastern Entrance Gate has the remains of what is possibly a portcullis which would have controlled access to both the Château and Grand’rue.
Between both gates is the “Barbacane”, once a fortified stronghold but now houses shops and a restaurant. This knowledge goes a long way in explaining why the Grand’rue is the shape it is. During the Middle Ages a Barbican denoted a circular or semi-circular defence work protecting a gate or passageway.
I use the Eastern Entrance Gate passing two irresistible little Provençal shops and a lovely ceramic map of Tourrettes-sur-Loup.
Rue du Château will take you to Grand’rue which loops round the old village, but equally to Place Maximin Escalier where you’ll find the Town Hall.
After entering rue du Château stop to look at Impasse de l’Hôpital situated on your left as it has a lovely low beamed passageway and a wonderful curvy cobbled path. As the name suggests, this was once the site of an ancient hospital dating back to the 17th century. It remained open until 1936.
Arriving Place Maximin Escalier you’ll find the magnificent Town Hall. Formerly the site of a Castelleras (a fortified rampart which protected dwellings), the construction of the Château commenced on the same spot in 1437 by Antoine de Villeneuve, the descendent of Guichard de Villeneuve.
During the construction of his Château, de Villeneuve had the old belfry, dating back to the 11th century, encompassed into the building too. We can only presume that the de Villeneuve’s were unhappy with their first creation as the Château was knocked down and then rebuilt. It is possible that this is when the monumental 17th century staircase was installed – a defiantly proud show-piece to show off to their cousins in Vence and Grasse.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799) the Château was turned into a hospital, first to care for volunteers from the Var, then for the Italian army. Sold off as a State Property it was rapidly abandoned thereafter.
By 1919 its beautiful belfry was defaced, the Château plundered and left partly in ruins and used as stables for horses and goats.
Today it stands a proud and beautiful stone building, covering 400m² at ground level and includes three floors.
Do take a moment to visit the small square (Cour du Château) located just next to it. Entering through a pretty archway you’ll discover a little oasis of peace with a charming two-tier water fountain.
Grand’rue is a narrow semi-circular cobbled street and forms the second line of defence for the village. The first one is Chemin de la Ronde located around its perimeter.
Over the years Grand’rue has been beautifully renovated. Its stone façades, once shabby and dirty, have been cleaned and restored, missing cobbled stones replaced and attention has been given to its attractive limestone steps and arched passages.
Midway along Grand’rue is a short cobbled passage way called “Portail Neuf” meaning New Gate in English, which brings you out onto a wonderful panorama that’s well worth the detour. Along with the “table d’orientation” (semi-circular table-like concrete structure with a ceramic map indicating different viewpoints) there’s also a bench to sit and rest your weary feet.
From there you can see Tourrettes-sur-Loup’s southernmost gateway which leads to a path that crosses over a Roman bridge, passes under the viaduct which was partially destroyed by the Germans in 1944, and finishes at a former Nice-Draguignan Provence Railways station.
Grand’rue is a delightful mixture of over 30 artists’ workshops, galleries and craft workshops, a couple of snack bars and a couple of excellent gourmet restaurants. There is also a small ice-cream parlour, called Tom’s, that sells a good selection of natural ice-creams – I can recommend the one made with Violets – not too sweet, creamy and really tastes of violets.
Unlike St Paul de Vence, this village has not become over commercialized or a major tourist attraction. Rather it has kept its natural simplicity and old world charm and in doing so, has turned into quite a remarkable village.
This simplicity has attracted a number of artists and craftsmens throughout the years to settle in the “vieux village”. Here you will find potters, weavers, engravers, sculptors and painters all happy to invite you in to discover their creations of original and unique work.
Surprisingly, Tourrettes-sur-Loup’s history is one of turbulence, invasion, war and plague. Yet, despite everything, it has survived it all and is now a peaceful haven of creativity and restful walks.
As one would expect, its rocky plateau was a superb vantage point and a relatively strong defensive position. Quick to take advantage of this were the Nérusiens, a Celto-Ligurian tribe who established an “Oppidum” (enclosed settlement surrounded by an encircling bank or ditch).
However, its exceptional position was not lost on the Romans who arrived in full force in 262 BC and promptly turned the site into a Roman camp and added a defensive system of no less than 12 Oppida during which time the area was called “Turres Altae” (Observation Point) – later to be called Tourrettes.
Though solid strongholds, they were no match against the onslaught of Visigoths, Huns, Francs and Lombards which continued, unrelentlessly, until the 5th century. Finally, it was the turn of the Saracens to invade and occupy the site.
Until their departure in 972 the Saracens set about fortifying the village which they did by building houses right up to the vertical sides of the plateau to act as ramparts. Though a warmongering people they also planted fig trees and aloes in such abundance that the countryside looked more like North Africa – causing Tourrettes to be called “Constantine Provençal”.
Curiously, the first written trace of the village only appeared in 1024 under the name of “Castrum de Torretis”.
In 1363, the Count of Provence, then King of Naples, entered into negotiations with Rainier Grimaldi, then Lord of Menton. After successful talks he sold Tourrettes to Grimaldi. However, Grimaldi’s ownership of Tourrettes was short-lived due to his allegiance to the House of Savoy (then rulers of Switzerland and Italy).
In 1388 this loyalty cost him dearly when the county of Nice, then part of Provence, was fought and won by the Count of Savoy and his army. Grimaldi’s allegiance stopped him from intervening and thus allowed the county of Nice to fall into the hands of the Count of Savoy and so become part of Italy – to remain so until 1860.
Furious, the Count of Provence confiscated Tourrettes and all Grimaldi’s possessions right up to the Var River (which was once the old border between Italy and France) and handed everything, lock, stock and barrel, to Guichard de Villeneuve. As one can imagine, such a windfall is best protected and Guichard did his best to defend Tourrettes against attacks from Nice and thus, indirectly, the Count of Savoy.
Looking Eastwards towards Tourrettes-sur-Loup
If insurgents and war-faring wasn’t enough to torment the local inhabitants, the black plague seemed to nearly finish them off. From 1463 and for over 70 years, the plague wreaked havoc in Tourrettes and the surrounding region.
After the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) followed by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) then the War between Austria and England (1744-1748) one would have hoped for a little peace and serenity to come to Tourrettes – but it was still not to be.
The de Villeneuves held onto their private kingdom until 1789 when the French Revolution suddenly erupted. The last Marquis, Joseph César de Villeneuve, fled for his life as the villagers stormed his Château. De Villeneuve just barely escaped via a secret passageway that took him under the village and into the countryside. He managed to get to Vintimille (Italy) where, unfortunately, he was recognised and put to death.
During the 19th century the village was used as a place of exile for galley slaves and, neglected, slowly declined into obscurity to be forgotten by history and its people.
Such was its deplorable state that even Stephen Liégeard (long-forgotten author whose book “La Côte d’Azur”, published in 1887, lived on to spawn a thousand glossy magazines – and a few websites) described Tourrettes-sur-Loup as a “leftover wreck of the Middle Ages”.
In 1940 a breath of life was given to Tourrettes-sur-Loup when a Swiss weaver by the name of Brauen came to live in the village and taught the art of hand weaving. By doing so he reawakened Tourrettes’ position as an important weaving centre – just as it was during the Middle Ages, when it specialized in making and selling yarn. Today it continues this tradition with beautiful hand-woven garments made from natural fibres.
While Tourrettes-sur-Loup may have captured the hearts of artists and craftsmen alike, its old-world charm has been an inspiration to film directors and for a few films.
It was Tourrettes who inspired Jacques Prévert to conceive all the characters of “Les Enfants du Paradis” during his stay just outside the village during the Second World War. Amazingly, the film was produced over a two-year period in virtual secrecy, without the knowledge of the Nazis then occupying France, who would have surely arrested several of the cast and production staff members (including Prévert) for their activities in the Resistance.
Other great films have been produced here too: “Ernest le Rebelle” made in 1938, directed by Christian Jaque and starring Fernandel; “Les Visiteurs du Soir” made in 1942, directed by Marcel Carné and starring Arletty and Alain Cuny; “Juliette ou La Cléf des Songes” made in 1951, directed by Marcel Carné and starring Gérard Philipe and – our all time favourite – “To Catch a Thief” made in 1955, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.
More recently, other artists and film professionals have chosen Tourrettes as their home. Amongst these are Claude Lelouche, Marthe Keller and Guy Bedos.