28 September 2023

‘Make sure you get up to Sainte-Agnès’, Owen Marshall told me. He lived in Menton as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in 1996, writing the manuscript of his novel Harlequin Rex. Today we took his advice, and it was very good advice indeed. We caught a bus to this hilltop medieval village, one of several so-called perched villages in the area behind Menton.  At 800 metres above sea level, Sainte-Agnès is the highest coastal village in France.

As the crow flies it’s less than five kilometres from the centre of Menton, but it’s a different matter if you lack wings. The access road is steep with many hairpin bends and near vertical drop-offs. Up and up, the bus zigging and zagging its way through a series of terraced villages. Very soon the town of Menton was hundreds of metres below, and the terrain was green with tall forest growth and olive plantations. We were looking down on the viaduct motorway on which tiny-looking cars were driving to or from Italy. The blue Mediterranean sparkled. The view (and the road) was starting to make our heads spin. 

These commanding views mean that from at least Roman times the occupants of Sainte-Agnès have built defensive forts and lookouts here. Above the village, we picked our way around the remains of a castle originally constructed in the tenth century.  A tended garden on a terrace below the castle ruins is fragrant with lavender, rosemary, sage and other herbs. Crickets and butterflies kept us company as we explored. 

By then we had worked up a hunger and so we took the narrow path back to the village, where we were delighted to find that our visit to Sainte-Agnès could be celebrated with lunch in a restaurant bearing Doug’s surname. 

Refueled and rehydrated we took in the charms of the village, its cobbled winding lanes, stone archways and houses with window shutters and clay-tiled roofs. There were terracotta pots at doorways and on window sills, planted out with marigolds, geraniums, aloes, cacti and spider plants. On steps and ledges the village cats dozed through the middle-of-day heat. 

We decided to walk back to Menton, descending from the village to the road via an old donkey track that led us from the sunscorched stony heights into the welcome shade of trees. We brushed past wild lavender and rosemary, and the butterflies accompanied us down.

Walking through the rues of Sainte-Agnès

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