From Grasse we drove slowly up the mountain roads of the hinterland towards Gourdon. This medieval village is built on a rocky promontory overlooking the Loup Valley with views all the way to the coast. It is one of those rare destinations that you keep catching glimpses of from the winding approach road and eventually you turn a corner and there it is before you in the early afternoon sunlight. Given that most of its income these days is from visitors like us, coming to admire its lonely isolation on top of a mountain, they have built a large car park for us at the bottom of the last slope. It is then an easy walk up to the village past the gate of the closed castle. This ancient fortress looked as if it was only for paying conference attendees on the day we arrived.
There are suggestions that a fortified village was present on this spot as far back as the 9th century. Too far from the coast to be an overly significant strategic site, but the fact of its view over the valley and down to the coast meant that it was a great watching point for the movement of hostile troops moving between the Italian border and the Mediterranean coastline of France. There has been some sort of castle on this spot for a thousand years or more and the image at the start of this article shows the arched foundations of the pad for both the current castle and its predecessors over the centuries. The 16th century image on the right (www.provenceweb.fr) however shows the castle further back on the promontory so records of the castle are scarce and perhaps inaccurate. The castle was purchased by an American, Miss Norris after World War 1 and she restored it to its current state.
Gourdon is a mountain village that is very beautiful but not very big. As soon as you walk through the entrance to the village after passing the castle entrance, there is a large map displaying the sites of this small town. The copy of this map below shows our strolling trail marked by the arrows. The village houses and public buildings are built from stone quarried from the surrounding mountain and they are lovely, as is the tourist paraphernalia that they is displayed outside every door of the main street.
The first turn left off the main street takes you down to the first of the views over the valley. Returning to main shopping street, you then proceed down towards the end of the town for the next expansive view over the landscape created by the Loup River over the eons. To the left, as captured on the village map above, is a lovely chateau whose views of mountain scenery down the valley must be breathtaking. It is this view down the valley that meant the German army in 1940-45 took over Gourdon and used it as a viewing platform to keep a close eye on what was happening along the coast.
There is a viewing platform at this edge of town that looks in one direction down to the coast and the other direction back towards Place Victoria. This piazza was named after the Queen of England who apparently visited Gourdon and stayed in the castle on the 19th April 1891. She also spent some time in the Grand Hotel in Grasse. Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) spent considerable time holidaying on the coast of the Riviera in the last 20 years of her life and the resorts of this coast put a lot of effort into attracting visits from the British royal family.
As you move away from Place Victoria into Rue de L’Ecole, you pass a curious sculpture that sits menacingly on the stonework of the corner of the Church of St Vincent. It appears to be a 9 headed hydra but, rather than looking like a water monster, the nine heads sit atop some shapely human legs. In the original Greek story, the Hydra loomed at the door of the Underworld. Hercules himself was sent to destroy it and he achieved this as his second victory in his famous twelve labours set by the KIng of Mycenae; a difficult task as when you cut one head off, it grows two more. No doubt there is a powerful religious and/or political message captured in this sculpture.
The dour stone church of St Vincent was built late in the 12th century as the chapel of the Gourdon castle but the gate that led from the castle through to the church has been walled up. Perhaps the intent of the Hydra sculpture on the church’s corner is to provide extra assistance in warding off evil, given the church’s dangerous past. In 1831 lightning struck the church during mass and falling masonry killed four parishioners and injured five. We are often assured that lightning never strikes the same place twice but in the case of this unlucky church, it did so again in 1946 when the bell tower took a direct hit and stone blocks smashed down onto the church roof and neighbouring houses.
Luckily all was peaceful as we continued our stroll around the village, up Rue d’Ecole (School Street) and into Place de La Citerne There was no cistern or well that we could see but no doubt there was one there in the past. However the climbing roses were outstanding in this piazza.
Speaking of water related matters, on our way out of the village, we noticed a Place de la Fontaine beside the main gate. The map of the town indicated that there was both a fountain and a Lavoir (wash-house) in this area. The current fountain was built in 1852 by Jean-Louis Cavalier but the link between this ‘Place’ and the Place de la Citerne is unknown. The image on the right below illustrates that the fountain has had some upkeep in modern times.
After a quick coffee and cake it was time to press on down the valley of the Loup River back to our campervan home in Le Colle Sur Loup. But before getting home, we had one more stop to make on the road down the valley…Cascades Sur Loup
PACA (Provence, Alpes, Cote-d’Azur)
APPENDIX 1…A ceramic map of Gourdon!
APPENDIX 2…The map of our day touring in the hinterland of Nice.