My sister and I visited Nice, France one weekend in June and explored the surrounding area. Payton and I wanted to see more than just a beach. We wanted mountains, and cliffs, and little villages. That’s exactly what we got. Payton and I went on a few day tours, which allowed us to view the wonderful Provence countryside.
War savaged entire groups of people during the medieval period. To get away from constant attacks, people moved their villages to high peaks in the mountains. Some of the best examples of this can be found in the South of France surrounding areas like Nice. In the foothills of the French Alps on high cliffs and hilltops sits Gourdon, St. Paul de Vence, and Èze. Each village appeared similar to the others with their stone buildings and wooden doors, but each village had differences that made them unique.
Gourdon sits at an elevation of 4,380 feet looking up at the French Alps and below in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea. The little town boasts flowers, jewelry shops, and medieval buildings. My sister and I found a table outside a quaint cafe and ordered lunch. Neither of us knew a word of French, but managed to order food and ice cream. Listening to the sounds of the village, Payton and I relaxed. We wandered through the side streets wondering what treasure will be found around the next corner. I took a footpath along the back of the village coming upon a steep winding staircase. Our tour guide told us, when the villagers moved to the precipice, they had to build a staircase down the side of the mountain to get food and water. For hundreds of years, this staircase was Gourdon’s only source of survival. I saw where the staircase bent and changed, as the earth grew less and less steep.
St. Paul de Vence
St. Paul de Vence gained fame when artists from all over Europe moved to the village and began to sell their art. Winding streets and steep staircases gave way to countless art galleries each one beckoning us to enter to view the beautiful pieces. The galleries were the same medieval rooms they had always been. Arched ceilings, low doorframes, and small windows gave the city an eerie feeling of a 12th century world colliding with the 21st century. Somehow, it was working. As Payton and I wandered the streets of St. Paul de Vence, we came upon several wedding parties taking use of the medieval scenery. French families oohed and awed over the couples placing them in front of this door or that flower arrangement. Some things are universal and you don’t need a guidebook to understand.
Èze was the smallest of the three villages but had the best view of the Mediterranean Sea. On the top, ruins of an ancient castle stand proud against the blazing sun. Below were the red Mediterranean style tile rooftops hinting at life. The sea was a royal blue, and the yellowish/tan buildings along the coast were a perfect contrast to its dark hue. Like Gourdon and St. Paul de Vence, the buildings of Èze were built of rock and had green vines running along them. The village was quiet aside from the sound of bustling feet on the footpaths. Stone paths led the way from the various cafes and shops to yet another winding footpath leaving you to wonder what life would have been like five hundred years ago.
The villages on a hilltop greatly moved me. Having studied history in college, I’ve always dreamed of going back in time to see what life would have been like in another time and place. While wandering through the hilltop villages in the South of France, I received a small glimpse of what life could have been in the medieval period.