Pierrefeu is about half way between the Var river valley to the east and Roquesteron to the west. This D17 road is worth the trip, a winding, lush-green drive, even in mid August, from Gilette, past Pierrefeu to Roquesteron, Sigale, and the Clue du Riolan. The official village of Pierrefeu is beside the main D17 road. There's not much to see here, but the town hall (Mairie) and school are here, and there's a modern charcuterie (delicatessen), and the bus stop.
The "real" village is Vieux Pierrefeu, the old village up the narrow, 4.3 km road into the hills. The road up to the old village goes through thick olive groves and a small pine forest.
The old village is perched in a saddle of a rocky ridge, and some of it clinging to the steep sides of the ridge, climbing up to a high notch at the west end where the church is located [photo 2]. There are a couple of narrow streets running along the flank of the hill between the houses, and a walking path along the back (north) side of the ridge between the church and the main village square.
The old village is almost entirely renovated, but very authentically, without any of the gaudiness you sometimes get with overly-renovated places. There's a pleasant little square in the main part of the village [photo 8]. Village streets take you out to the church high at the far western end, where you can clamber up to the high rock above for a fine view. A path circles around the far side of the church and brings you back along the north side of the ridge.
The church is the 16th-century église St-Sébastien-et-St-Martin. nicely restored and with a tall square clock-tower.
Museum - Art
There's a small art museum in the church up at the far, top end of the village. Entry is 2 euros. You need to phone for visits, since the museum is otherwise not open, and there is no information posted at the door:
- Tue-Fri, 9h-12h; 0493 08 58 18 or 0493 08 50 58
- Sat-Sun, 14h-17h; 0493 08 50 58
Museum - Olden Days
The small regional museum Pierrefeu d'Autrefois is located on the road about half-way up to the old village. It's open from Thur to Sun, 14h-18h.
Roman Signal Fires
The signal fires were said to have stretched from Hadrian's wall to Rome, and could pass a message the full length in 48 hours.
A few of the other Roman signal-fire sites that we know of are at
- Filey, North Yorkshire
- Gask, west of Perth, Scotland
- North Eildon Hill, Scotland (near Dryburgh, south of Edinburgh )
A Ghost Village
This article is from the Riviera Reporter, by permission of Mike Meade of the Riviera Reporter.
As so often a local history is full of curiosities. Pierrefeu was, you could say, part of the ancient Romans' equivalent of CNN. The original village lies some 650 metres up in the mountains, commanding breathtaking views of the Esteron valley. Even today it is not the easiest place to reach by road and in the old days it must have been a real sweat to get there. So why – two thousand years ago and more – did the Romans put a garrison in such a spot? Simple: this was one of a chain of communication centres, stretching from Scotland to central Italy, along which coded messages were sent by fire-signals. In summer conditions a message could travel from Hadrian's Wall to Rome in 48 hours. When the Empire of the Caesars fell, the fires went out and in the ensuring Dark Ages it could take weeks for news to travel across Europe by mounted courrier.
I learned this fragment of media pre-history from Count Jean de Ramel, a remarkable man. In 1960 he came to the area as a hunter; he remained as a builder: "It was a tragic sight, Pierrefeu at that time. Since the mid-nineteenth century when there were 250 people living here it had slowly turned into a ghost village. When I came for the first time there was a single permanent resident – M. Basset, an undertaker – and most of the houses were in ruins". With no running water and no electricity it was unlikely to attract settlers. "All it had was this spectacularly beautiful situation and, ruins or not, these marvellous old houses".
De Ramel became Pierrefeu's saviour. He bought up 15 properties, renovated them and found purchasers – first getting water laid on. "I didn't want the village to grow beyond its traditional size but just to come alive again". Slowly more people moved in and some traditional activities, like making olive-oil, were revived. But what was needed was some focus to attract visitors. De Ramel had a daring idea: he raised money and official support for the rebuilding of the church (constructed in the early middle ages, partly from the remains of the Roman signal-tower) and turned it into a remarkable museum, le musée hors du temps, a collection of paintings illustrating the Book of Genesis and donated by well-known artists. It has brought many visitors to the village.
Says de Ramel, "for me just being here is enough – the silence, the quality of the air, the views – but I do realise a lot of people want more so we offer other things – from tennis to trout-fishing – and, very occasionally sacrificing our silence, we have the odd weekend of go-kart racing. And I'm working on another museum project, this time something that relates closely to daily life. A 'coffee museum' didn't get off the ground so we're now looking at a 'museum of the history of writing'". But, as de Ramel insists, for some visitors just to walk around is enough. "Georges Marchais, the former Communist party leader, used to come here. He told us it was the calmest time in his year". Back in Time
"Calm" was a word that recurred in the conversation of several adoptive pierrefeutins I met. Henry Kingham, one of a number of British residents I spoke to, looked across the valley with a smile: "it's a privilege to live in such a place – 30 minutes from Nice airport but a world of peace and beauty all of its own". During our short day we came to understand what he meant. We arrived from Nice at about half-past ten, visited the museum and then went for lunch at the Baous-Redous. This is a small and unpretentious restaurant where Marie-Chantal Castel produces a varied and original menu, using local ingredients. After delicious pissaladière, I had paquetons de lapin au basilic with mini-gnocchi and – a discovery this – Marie-Chantal's locally famous ravioles au chocolat.
After lunch we took a digestive stroll around the narrow streets of old Pierrefeu where you could imagine you were several centuries back in time – the special mountain silence does much to help the illusion. The humid raucousness of Nice on a summer Sunday seemed very far away.
Pierrefeu is 50 kilometres from Nice. Take RN 202, turning left at the Charles-Albert bridge; go through Gilette and continue for 11 kilometres on CD 17 towards Roquesteron. The road to Pierrefeu is clearly signposted.
To reserve at the Baous-Redous call 04 93 08 54 41; for information on the museum call 04 92 08 93 63.
Copyright: Riviera Reporter 1997
[ nb: we don't believe the restaurant is there anymore, and we haven't verified these old phone numbers – beyond]
First record, 11th century Petrofocus,
Gallo-Roman: "Petra Ignaria" was the Roman site for their chain of signal posts between Rome and Hadrian's Wall in Scotland, probably located here because its isolation was a good defense – the road to the old village doesn't go anywhere else.
Medieval: In 1722 Pierrefeu was established as a fief on the domain of the Lord of Roquesteron. It was later passed to Frichignono until the Revolution.
The TAM (Transports Alpes-Maritimes) bus number 720, between Gilette and Sigale, stops at the "new" village on the D17 road. But that leaves you over 4 km downhill from the old village.
IGN (1/25,000) #3642 ET "Vallée de l'Estéron"
Didier Richard (1/50,000) #26 "Pay d'Azur"
There are a number of well-marked petite randonnée (PR) trails at Pierrefeu, but no short loop-hikes.
East out of the village, the trail goes north to the Pas d'Estève. From there a trail goes southeast past Vescous and Clavarlina (partly using the road) and on to Gilette. From Pas d'Estève another trail continues north, to Toudon or over the mountains to the Var at Villars-sur-Var.
Northwest out of the village the trail splits into different possibilities, north towards Mont Brune or westerly to Cuébris and down to Roquesteron.
South out of the village, the trail curves west for the most direct way to Roquesteron. Or, you can take a branching trail across the hills to the south, to Le Villars and on to Les Ferres.