The Authentic Villages of the La Roya Valley

La Roya Valley is a spectacular valley that runs from the town of Tende on the French-Italian border right down to the coast before winding back into the Italian countryside. Vallee de la Roya covers over 40 kilometers of ground and winds its way through beautiful countryside, remote farmland, and the mighty Southern Alps. The valley isn’t just a place of outstanding beauty, home to traditional French settlements and small authentic villages, it’s also a region of France that’s bursting with history and was once occupied by Italy during WWI. Fun fact - the valley only became a part of France in 1947 and today a segment of it still belongs to the Italians.  ​

The Authentic Villages of the La Roya Valley

The Roya Valley also forms part of the Mercantour National Park and is a popular destination with hikers, mountain bikers, and nature enthusiasts alike. Roya is also great for aquatic excursions including fishing, canyoning, kayaking, canoeing, and river rapid tours. However, the best way to appreciate the Roya Valley in all its glory is to hop from one village to the next, exploring the depth of the valley as you go and enjoying a taste of life as a local. 

The commune of Breil-sur-Roya sits at the southern end of the Vallee de la Royal and is perched 300 meters above sea level. From Nice, this pretty little mountain town is just an hour’s drive away and can also be accessed by train. The Breil-Sur-Roya train has an average journey time of around 1 hour and 13 minutes from Nice and roughly eight trains depart a day. 

Tucked neatly between the sea and the mountains, this charming town is the perfect place for a spot of hiking and many tourists descend on the village only briefly before taking to the terraced olive groves that surround the town and off into the wilderness. When it comes to accommodation, there are a handful of luxury and boutique Breil-Sur-Roya hotels in and around the area including Auberge du Col de Brouis; an eco-friendly guesthouse that sits just 6-miles outside of the town center. 

The next stop on your La Roya Valley village-hopping road trip is Saorge, a small commune located just a 15-minute drive north of Breil-sur-Roya. The commune is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France and its backdrop of green olive trees and stone medieval buildings make it truly picture perfect. 

The town's most visited attraction is the Manaster de Saorge, a former French monastery that showcases impressive Baroque architecture and provides a glimpse into 19th-century France. The monastery was once used as a stronghold to defend the road between Nice and Turin and is today open to visitors for both guided and self-guided tours. Another Saorge attraction is the Château fort de Malmort, a fortified castle sitting high on the hillside overlooking the Roya gorges. Though it looks impossible to reach the cliffside castle by car, you can actually access it on foot from the hamlet of Cayrosina. 

Just a short five-minute drive north of Saorge and you’ll find yourself in Fontan, another small commune located in the heart of the Roya valley. This charming settlement sits along the river (La Roya) and boasts colorful houses and a baroque style church. The village is best known for its water quality and you’ll notice the river here is clear blue. 

La Brigue and La Morignole
Other villages in the Upper Roya Valley of interest include La Brigue and La Morignole. Located in the Alpes Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur these two small communes are largely used as bases for hikers exploring the area but are well worth a visit to admire the medieval charm of the region. La Brigue, also known as the ‘Land of Borders’ is home to a handful of monuments that shouldn't be missed including the Sanctuary of Notre Dame des Fontaines, the Chapel of San Michele, and Il Pont du Coq (a 15th-century bridge built at a peculiar angle). 

The final stop on your Roya Valley road trip should be Tende. While still small, the village of Tende gives the sense of returning to civilization after previously exploring tiny communes and hillside towns, and you’ll find a long list of things to do, places to eat, and attractions to visit in and around the town. 

Start your exploration of the village in Tende town square, an old central gathering place lined with medieval houses and zig-zagging side streets. Make sure you take a closer look at the local architecture including the hand-carved frescoes found on the rooftops of most buildings here. 

To learn more about the Roya Valley and its rich history make sure the Musée Départemental des Merveilles is on your to-visit list. The museum documents the region's development from the stone age through interactive exhibits and historic artifacts from the Mercantour National Park. The museum's collection of petroglyphs (rock carvings) from the nearby Bego Mountains are one of its most talked-about collections. 

Before you leave Tende and head back south to Nice or Menton, consider driving north first along the Col de Tende, a high mountain pass through the Alps that offers spectacular valley views from hair-raising switchback roads. To really enjoy the views, pre-book a car tour with FranceRent or hire a private chauffeur to navigate the route for you seamlessly. 

Not only is the Roya Valley one of France’s most beautiful medieval regions, but it’s also home to some of the best roads in the country and a road trip north offers the chance to indulge in authentic French living. Consider taking a day trip from Menton or Nice to the valley and spend the day following the course of the river north. With FranceRent you can arrive in Nice by private jet and be whisked off to the Roya Valley by car (the drive is just under two hours) or cut the journey time and charter a helicopter.

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