Saorge: A Little Mountain Town with a Big Heart
After spending four weeks in a tiny town in Provence near Aix, my husband, son, and I decided for a change of scenery. We packed up our many, many suitcases into a clown car-sized Peugeot, and drove two hours northeast to the picturesque mountain town of Saorge.
I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of Saorge. We hadn’t either. It was more chance that we found the town by browsing AirBnB listings.The town, population 400, is nestled in the Piedmont mountains, just a stone’s throw from the Italian border. In fact, driving through the mountains from Ventimiglia, Italy, our GPS notified us several times that we had, in fact, crossed the border back and forth from France to Italy.
Saorge has a long and interesting history for being such a small town. I only wish there were more resources online to dig in. Hélas. I’ll have to visit again and go to the library that’s only open 2 days a week.
Mountains, Mountains, Everywhere
Step out of your accommodations in Saorge (and there are several apartments and a small hotel there), and walk in any direction, and you’ll find a mountain path. But these trails aren’t for the casual ambler; the Piedmonts are no joke. After just 10 minutes of huffing and puffing up a trail, we had to find walking sticks to help us climb up the steep incline.
We were lucky enough to make a friend on our visit. Gibi, or “mountain man,” as we began calling him, gave us the quintessential Saorge experience. In addition to the apartment in town he rented out to the occasional tourist, he also owned a home on the mountain. But get this: he had to hike to get there.
So one sunny morning, he collected us and we hiked to his house for lunch. It took an hour of pretty intense climbing. In some places, the trail had been covered by a small rock slide, or was otherwise precarious enough that we needed to pay attention where we walked, otherwise, we’d end up at the bottom. We even saw the carcass of a dead mountain goat. Disneyland it was not.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
We hadn’t been warmly embraced in Pignans, where we’d spent several weeks, so we had no expectations for it in Saorge. But we were pleasantly surprised. The proprietors of La Petite Epicerie, gave us a robust Bonjour! as we passed by each morning or stopped in for a baguette. Others nodded in recognition or greeted us with a smile.
Then one night, my husband and I headed to Bar Heinz for a carafe of rosé. We noticed a pair of women glancing our way. I smiled, and one asked, “Vous êtes de Californie?”
I wondered how in the heck she knew where we were from. Then I remembered what a small town we were in. Of course she knew Gibi and he’d told her all about us. We were the only non-locals, so of course we stood out.
Over the course of the evening, we had wonderful conversations with her, as well as the bar owner, Marc, who loved American blues and named his dog Eric Clapton.
Up High, Down Low
Another natural attraction for us was the rushing river in the valley below Saorge. This river, La Roya, runs down parallel to the winding road you take to get to Saorge. In nearby towns, you can rent rafts and canoes and enjoy it firsthand, but we loved Saorge so much, we never left.
We did find a trail from the town down into the valley. It was old; probably used by Romans long ago. After some searching, we found a path behind an abandoned building down to large flat rocks where we could sit and watch the powerful water rush by.
A Declining Population
We found it interesting that the population in 1861 was 3,356. Now it’s dwindled to 434, plus ou moins a few people. When we asked Gibi why that was, his theory was that it’s a difficult town to get to, and with so little job opportunity, people began to leave for larger cities like Nice in search of work.
If you’re used to safe state parks in the US, with trail markers, toilets, and safety-approved paths, Saorge isn’t for you. But if you want something genuinely wild, as well as the warmest people you could ask for, check it out. Tell them I sent you.