Alpes-Maritimes (06540) Population: 362 Altitude: 500 m
Saorge is a very beautiful medieval village perched along a narrow rock spur that juts out into the Vallée de la Roya, high above the river. Saorge is classed as one of the "40 most beautiful villages of France".
Saorge is stretched out in an arc around the concave side of the mountains. The village is full of very picturesque streets, ancient churches and chapels, old houses, doorways, sundials and other discoveries. Don't plan anything less than a full day to visit Saorge, and bring good walking shoes.
The N204 road from the south follows the very beautiful Roya river valley up through the Gorges de Saorge until the village appears, a horizontal line of buildings high on the mountainside, its back protected by the even higher mountains behind. Part of the village sits in a saddle of the spur, with a view to the north as well as south.
The high, narrow houses, from the 15th-17th century, are ocre with some blue stone, and covered by dark-red slate roofs, the slate shaped as naturally as when they were chipped out of the mountains.
The main village streets traverse narrowly between the buildings at very different levels, with smaller streets and steps leading up and down between them. The view from anywhere in the village is spectacular, looking outward to snow-capped mountains in the middle distance (into May and June) and the deep gorge and rushing white-water river below.
From the top of the village at the northern end, the view is down across the roofs of the village itself. At least five lovely old bell towers extend up from the sea of red-tile roofs, with that of the Madone-del-Poggio out on a spur past the southeastern edge of the village. A colorful 17th-century monastery (called the Couvent des Franciscans) sits up high at the eastern end of the village.
The Notre-Dame-des-Miracles monastery was built in the 17th century by the Franciscan monks who settle in Saorge in 1633. The monastery was completed in 1660 and the baroque church, behind the monastery, was finished in 1681.
La Madone del Poggio
La Madone del Poggio church, built in 1092, is out a small road at the southern end of Saorge village, down the hill past the Monastery. The building is now private, and not open for visits, but its highlight is outside: the 15th-century, 7-story tall Lombardy-style bell tower. La Madone del Poggio was built by the Cistercian monks from the Lerin Islands, who were in Saorge for 700 years.
History of Saorge
First record, 10th century de Saurgio
Gallo-Roman: There are Roman inscriptions on the St-Michel church.
Medieval: Saorge was in the Compté de Vintimille until 1258, when it was ceded to Provence. Later, under the Maison de Savoie, Tende was a fortified town guarding the Vallée de la Roya, and was considered impregnable. Tende remained under the control of the Austro-Piémontaise until 1794, when Massena destroyed the defenses and brought it into the Compté de Nice.
• GPS: 43.987876, 7.550956
IGN (1/25,000) #3841 OT "Vallée de la Roya"
Didier Richard (1/50,000) #9 "Mercantour"
The GR52A (Grande Randonnée) climbs up through the village to the monastery at the top, passing it to the left to go by the gîte and out into the mountains to the northeast. The GR52A curves around to the north, passing through the mountains at up to 1300 m before dropping down to la Brigue (760 m).
• The GR52A also goes south from the village, following the road out past the Madone-del-Poggio. The trail follows the mountains south, along (above) the east side of the Roya, to Breil-sur-Roya, then crosses over to the east and climbs up to the Col de Brouis.
• There are plenty of (rugged) loop hikes in the mountains to the northeast and the southeast of Saorge, many branching off from the GR52A.
• Behind the railway station below the village, local hiking trails are marked for Baisse de Cachin and for Saorge.
Train des Merveilles
The Train des Merveilles (previously called the Nice - Stops along the way include Peille, L'Escarène, Sospel, Breil-sur-Roya, Fontan Saorge, St Dalomas-de-Tende, La Brigue, Tende, and into Italy.
The railway station for the Nice-Cuneo train sits by itself, below the village, on the road up from Fontan. The dark ocre building and green shutters and doors fit perfectly on the green forested mountainside. Trains come and go by a tunnel into the rock at the south end of the station, and wind on up the valley to the north.
The train is handy, but it's not as picturesque as one would like; much of the line is in deep, shadowy gorges or inside tunnels. It's a bit over a km (1000 meters) from the Fontan-Saorge railway station to the village.
Via L'Escarène and Sospel.
Nice to Saorge: 68 km, 1hr15. The D2202 north from Nice, past Drap, is clearly marked for Sospel (40 km), passing l'Escarène, and the Col de Braus (1002 m) to Sospel. From Sospel the D2202 passes the Col de Brouis (879 m) and joins the D6240-E74 near Breil-sur-Roya. Turn left, direction Tende, and it's 5 km to Saorge. The road is very scenic, and is our preferred route, but with the Col de Braus, can be difficult in bad weather, possibly closed in the winter.
Via A8 autoroute, Castellar, Castillon.
Nice to Saorge: 67 km, 1hr10. An alternate route with slightly better roads is to take the A8 autoroute from Nice, direction Italy. Take exit 59 (Menton) and follow the D2566 north, direction Sospel, past the Viaduct Caramel and the village of Castillon. From Sospel the D2202 passes the Col de Brouis (879 m) and joins the D6240-E74 near Breil-sur-Roya. Turn left, direction Tende, and it's 5 km to Saorge.
Via A8 autoroute, Ventimiglia (Italy).
Nice to Saorge: 66 km, 1hr10. This route uses the A8 autoroute to Ventimiglia in Italy (about 30 km east along the coast). Approaching Ventimiglia, the E74 exits and goes north, joingin the SS20 road. Follow the E74-SS20, passing the village of Airole and Fanghetto before crossing back into France, becoming the D6240-E74, and arrives at Breil-sur-Roya. Continue north 7 km to Saorge.
When you arrive just below the village there's a small turning to the right, marked as parking for Saorge. Follow that road to the parking area up at the east end of the village.
For the northern entrance to the village (past the train station) you need to drive on another 2 km to Fontan. Turn off to the right, across a lovely bridge over the Roya, and follow the road back south again as it climbs the side of the mountain and comes into the village from the north.
The "parking area" is up a steep road above the village. It's only a short walk, with a fantastic view, down to the village. A little wooden box at the end of the parking lot has free maps of the village.