The village of Sainte Agnès is perched on the flank of a mountain, 750m above the Mediterranean. Although only 3 km from the coast as the crow flies, by car it is reached via a mountain road with spectacular panoramic views that winds its way up the 9km from Menton at the eastern end of the French Riviera. Due to its unique position, Sainte Agnès enjoys the title of ‘Highest Coastal Village in Europe’, in 1997 becoming a member of the association ‘Les plus beaux villages de France’ which includes 142 villages all chosen for the exceptional nature of their location, their cultural, historical, architectural or natural treasures exposed to the public in an attempt to highlight their importance and thus preserve them for future generations.
The first record of the village was in 1185 as Sancta Agneta, and until 1258 was ruled by the Counts of Ventimille, when it fell under the power of the Counts of Provence. The most breathtaking views of the hills down to the Mediterranean and the surrounding coastline along to Italy are to be found upon climbing to the 9th-century chateau, and its charming ‘Jardin Médiéval’ high above the village which by all accounts was built by the Saracen Prince Haroun, upon falling madly in love with a young Provençal girl. Although fully restored in 1502, the chateau is today in ruins. Some of the ancient walls remain, however, and their arrow slits evoke a strong feeling of what the extremely well placed defensive position may have been like in medieval times. Archaeological digs carried out on the site have unearthed at least 23 skeletons along with other artefacts, pointing to the area having be inhabited as far back at the Bronze Age and possibly even the Neolithic. The wonderful 360˚ vista was again brought into prominence in 1932 when the Fort Maginot de Sainte Agnès, was constructed as part of the Maginot Line. This contained an important concentration of artillery of which much is still in working order. The fort was never put to the test as the invaders decided to just go round it, although I have been told that a gun may once have been fired at the Italians.
Although the ‘commune’ of Sainte Agnès descends right into the Menton valley, the permanent population of the village itself is only about 90 people. Many of the village houses are 15th to 18th century, and have been divided and re-divided by family inheritance over many generations, making their layout rather hard to divine from the outside. The village offers three restaurants (two of which also double as bars) all with wonderful views over the hills and down to the coast. It also boasts three gift shops, and a very well stocked village ‘épicerie’.
As well as the obvious charms offered by the close proximity of the coast, Monaco, Nice, Italy and the beautiful peaks of the Mercantour National Park are all within easy reach. The hiking route GR51, also known as the Balcony of the Cote D’Azur passes the village and can lead to you North East to the hamlet of Monti, East to the Italian border, South West to the village of Gorbio and West towards Nice. There are also a few quite hilly loop hikes from Sainte Agnes, including the glorious Mont Baudon, some using part of the GR51. Whilst walking these routes, you will no doubt notice the abundance of lavender, an integral part of one of the many village fêtes held during the summer months.
Written by Kirsty Lowe - Owner of Property 98220 in Sainte-Agnes, France