Overdeveloped though the Cote d’Azur may be, it can still offer almost hidden pockets of charm and history, like Eze, a tiny walled village perched on the top of a 1400-foot peak overlooking the Mediterranean.
An easy day trip from Nice or Monaco, Eze claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in France, possibly dating from the 9th century B.C. Tradition has it that early Phoenician sailors chose the spot to build a temple to Isis, goddess of the sun, and that the town’s unusual name is derived from hers. The site’s obvious advantages of defensibility, nearby water and arable land, and a commanding view of the sea explain why a town was established and remained there, despite repeated attempts of invaders to conquer and destroy it.
Today, Eze retains an aura of a town eternally under siege. There is still only a single entrance to the walled portion of the village. Visitors who approach the now doorless postern gate come eye to eye with a gun port. Once through the gate, they enter a small clearing ringed by high walls, from which it is easy to imagine spears, rocks and boiling oil being flung. Another arched opening, almost a tunnel, must be broached before entering La Placette, a small square that is the town’s largest open space save for the clearing in front of the church. The streets are narrow and sinuous, often stepped, and negotiable only by foot or mule.
It is this inability to accommodate motor traffic that keeps Eze relatively isolated even today. Everything used by the town’s residents or visitors must be carried in. For this reason, a restaurant lunch in the old town, often called Eze-village or Haut Eze, is more expensive than in the modern section just outside the walls. But to sit on one of the several restaurant terraces with an unhindered view of the sea, or in a cozy courtyard under a mulberry tree, with the internal combustion engine nowhere in evidence – it’s worth it, even if the only affordable thing on the menu is the Badoit.
Eze is satisfyingly small and the whole town can be explored in just a few hours. Today somewhat of an artist’s colony, there are ateliers for painters and sculptors, and boutiques selling their work, as well as shops selling jewelry, Provençal pottery, porcelain, toys and perfume. Both Fragonard and Galimard offer free tours through their parfumeries outside the town walls in modern Eze.
At the very top of the town is a cactus garden, a jardin exotique, featuring a magnificent view of the sea and surrounding countryside and a collection of succulent plants brought from South America. The garden was planted in the 1950s among the ruins of the town’s ancient chateau, which had been destroyed by order of Louis XIV 250 years earlier. This is a reminder that Eze was not French until 1860, when Ezasques and most of their countrymen, then nominally part of Italy, voted oui to the proposal of annexation with France.
Little Italian influence remains except for the Baroque-style church, the third on that site, built in 1772 and strongly contrasting with the medieval look of the rest of Eze. A smaller, hard-to-find chapel built in the 14th century, La Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, is more in keeping with the mood of the town.
In addition to the ancient Eze-village and the newer town built outside its walls, there is a third Eze, this one far below and slightly to the west. Known as Eze bord de mer, it consists mainly of a small port and a cluster of private villas. Before the construction of the moyenne corniche, the middle road following the Mediterranean coast, the two levels of Eze were connected only by a steep path now called “Le Chemin Nietzche.” It was named in honor of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote the key portion of his work “Thus Spake Zarathrustra” during what he called an ascension fort rude from the train station in Eze bord de mer. Le Chemin Nietzche can still be walked today, though visitors arriving by train might prefer to take advantage of the shuttle bus service just started this year.
A visit to Eze makes a pleasant day for travelers staying in Nice or Monaco. For longer stays, Eze has hotels ranging from Le Golf, offering rooms starting at 130F, to Chateau Eza, once the home of Prince William of Sweden, with rooms averaging 2000F. It’s nicest to stay inside the walled section of the town, though the only two hotels there, the Chateau Eza and Le Chateau de la Chevre d’Or, are both four-star and rather expensive.
Located midway between Nice and Monaco in the heart of touristic Cote d’Azur, Eze has nevertheless kept more of a village flavor than its neighbors. The multi-story apartment buildings and hotels dominating Nice and much of the coast exist only on a modest scale here. Instead, Eze offers up the remnants of a former time, when barbarians sailed the coast looking for plunder and villagers eked out a living beside the walls of their remarkable fortresses.
Eze, called Eze-sur-Mer on most maps, is easily accessible by train, bus, boat or car. For those staying in Nice, there are buses from Nice Gare Routiere to Eze-village approximately every two hours. One can also join a bus excursion starting in Nice or Cannes, or a mini cruise starting in Nice. By car from Nice, take the La Turbie exit off the A8 onto D45; from Italy, take the Monaco exit onto the moyenne corniche.