I’ve slowly been introducing you to a multitude of pretty French hill villages, called “villages perchés“ in my home department of the Alpes-Maritimes, and the neighbouring Var. These were built largely during the Middle Ages (if not before) in strategic spots on mountain tops and hill sides, all with their own particular charms.
I frequently pass by today’s on a number of my regular rides but because it’s hidden away, many people visiting the area wouldn’t even realise it exists. We first visited the village of Châteauneuf de Grasse on the outskirts of its famous neighbour on one of the many Sunday cycling club pointages and its been a regular stopping off point ever since.
Viewing it from the south it looks obvious but it’s easy to miss the old centre as you drive through the modern row of shops and cafés along the main road from Nice to Grasse. It just seems like a nothing kind of place, but tucked away on a hill side facing the coast and completely hidden from the road is one of the loveliest hill villages around. It’s only tiny, but it has a real charm; it’s like stepping back in time to a simpler era.It’s well worth a small detour en route to Grasse.
It has no real shops, a couple of municipal buildings and rows of tall and well kept houses lining a number of narrow streets, perfect for wandering and exploring, most paved with a decorative strip of flagstones up the centre. The house facades are a mixture of the older-style stone-and-mortar and those surfaced in the brighter provençal colours.The town hall (mairie) is a peachy-orange with blue-grey shutters. Beside the mairie is another colourful building with trompe-l’oeil windows on the one end that perfectly match the real windows on the front.
The village’s true charms lie in its views over the plain to the bay of Cannes and the Estérel mountains which are just gorgeous, at any time of the year. You can wander/cycle around the village and not see anyone except a cat sunning itself, though you might just hear the children from the local school at playtime.
A potted history
The name Châteauneuf means “new castle” and is a popular name for a town. There are over 30 in France, spread all over the country. Dating back a thousand years, all these “new” castles are built in strategic sites noted for their defensive features: by the sea, high in the mountains, next to rivers, on promontories etc. They were nearly always the seat of a noble family bringing great wealth and leaving an interesting historical legacy.
The inhabitants of nearby Opio then came to settle in this particular Châteauneuf and the site became Châteauneuf d’Opio. A troubled period marked the takeover of eastern Provence by the counts of Barcelona, who became the counts of Provence. The army of the count of Provence commanded by Romée de Villeneuve took Opio in 1178 and Châteauneuf d’Opio in 1229, which was detached from Opio in 1257.
In 1306, the seigneury belonged to the Grasse-Cabris family, then, following a marriage, to the Lascaris-Vintimille family in 1400, and in the 17th century to the Puget de Saint-Marc. The village experienced a period of prosperity in 16th century though the top of the village was destroyed by fire. Conflicts erupted between the inhabitants of Châteauneuf and those of the neighboring villages about the pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Notre-Dame du Brusc, in particular in August 1763. Things then rather settled down and nowadays the castle (really a large house but called a castle owing to the fact that it was built on the site of an iron age fort) belongs to the Marquis du Rouret.
Notre-Dame du Brusc is an 11th century church which was classified as a historic monument in 1986, following its restoration. It is built on the remains of a basilica, itself built on the foundations of a 5th century church. It has become a place for concerts and theatrical performances.
Church of Saint-Martin which dominates the village, was built in 17th century. It has a single nave with side chapels, a transept and a choir with a flat apse. It is barrel-vaulted with stucco decoration and Baroque altars. The church tower was rebuilt in 1826.
Then there’s the Romanesque Saint-Sébastien chapel of which there remains a cul-de-four apse included in a residential building and the medieval Chapel of the Trinity built on an old fanum, to the south-west of the village.