Hovering like giant eagles against vertical rock as though by magic, the perched villages of Provence have a peculiar identity of their own. These proud communities were born in adversity, a desperate measure to protect themselves against Saracen pirates, who marauded inland from their ships until the thirteenth century. Now the inhabitants welcome visitors with a rare warmth and generous spirit, just as long as you do not pry too much into their domestic affairs.
The castle of Seillans was probably the last to repel the invaders: its very name is a provençal word for a pot of boiling oil. You can step right back into the Middle-Ages by clambering upwards among the village’s little cobbled streets, with a surprise around every corner. Everywhere are small, shaded enclaves with gurgling fountains and breathtaking views across the valley to luxuriant green hills. Gigantic plane trees, almost as old as time itself, shade the restaurant customers at the open air tables in the main squares.
Try the speciality of Seillans, the tourte de blettes or white beet tart. It looks like a quiche and is baked in a huge dish, then cut into small slices that taste quite delicious. Queen Victoria tried a piece during her visit back in 1888. Northeast of Seillans is Mons, not the Belgian town that was the scene of the Grenadier Guards’ famous WW1 fighting retreat, but another Provence village perched on a rocky spur. It is just sufficiently off the beaten track to tempt only the most determined visitors, despite its classical medieval appearance and multiple levels of tiny squares. Look out for the model of Mons made entirely out millions of matchsticks by a local bus driver, Robert Audibert.
Due south from Mons at the Roche Taillée are the remains of a small Roman aqueduct, carved by hand, probably by slave labour, through solid rock. The road continues on to Fayence, once devastated by the Saracens and left deserted. It is hard today to imagine a depopulated Fayence, as it is a thriving tourist centre, with excellent restaurants and shops, the ideal place to leave the car and take walking trips into the hills.
Fayence is not the only place with a bloody past. At Callas to the west, where the quaint houses crowd so close they seem to be whispering to each other, the foolhardy inhabitants of this perched village won a lawsuit in 1578 against their tyrannical 80-year-old seigneur, Jean-Baptiste de Pontèves. Enraged, he summoned his nephew, the Comte de Vins, who put the entire population to the sword.
The road back towards Seillans crosses the Col-du-Bel-Homme, a magnificent panorama of valleys and mountains to the south. Most visitors however miss the small lane to the west that leads to the even more breathtaking views from the orientation table at the Blaque Meyanne peak.
Continue eastwards to Bargemon, another ancient fortified village with its twelth century church forming part of the old defensive wall. Bargemon is noted for its crystal clear water, descending from fierce mountain streams, and for its succulent honey. Olive oil mills still grind out their product on the gentler slopes below.
East of Fayence lie more perched villages. At Tourrettes, life revolves around the Place d’Horloge, a lovely elevated square. The imposing Chateau de Puy stands at the highest point in the village but cannot be visited. Much to the indignation of local historians, when the chateau was restored in 1970, a developer sold it piecemeal as a series of apartments.
Callian and Montauroux come next, close neighbours with much in common, exquisite tree-lined squares, charming cafes, restaurants where the smell of cooking wafts outside and draws custom in, and fascinating art and antique shops. Montauroux is the more upmarket of the two, not surprising perhaps, in view of its strong historical connections with the Dior family.
Amidst the beautiful scenery to the south, it is easy to pick out Lac St-Cassien, an aquatic treasure that escapes many visitors to the south of France. The lake is filled with clean water from a fresh water reservoir and provides a host of water-based activities including canoeing and surfing. Restaurants and cafes by the lake provide all the ingredients of the French Riviera at a fraction of the price.