The medieval village of Gourdon is a magical place. Perched on a rocky outcrop some 760 metres above sea level, it commands a dominating position and has served as a near impenetrable fortress throughout the last millennium.
As we approach the village from the south, it appears out of a cloudy haze that has followed us from the coast. The 17th century fort, which was built by Louis de Lombard on foundations laid down 800 years earlier, and the church steeple mark Gourdon’s highest points. They give this feudal village a sense of majesty and dominance over the rocky prospect.
We decide to continue on a northly trajectory on the D12 until we reach a small carpark at the foot of the Plateau de Cavillore that sits above Gourdon at an altitude of more than 1,000 metres. The sky is clearing up here and by the time we have finished the short walk down to Gourdon – which translates as mountain – is basking in sunlight. A flock of paragliders fly overhead, making their calm descent over the village and down towards the coast.
We pass by the Chapelle Saint Vincent en route. It has been vandalised and abandoned in the passing years, but still features the bold and almost comic-style frescos by Grasse artist André Torre (1929-1999). Cherubs and the Virgin Mother look down on us from the domed ceiling, flaking away in places and marked by teenage lovers’ initials. The building was once part of the ancient priory of the Lérins Islands and its monastic community, but it is now crumbling away with only the innermost part of the chapel still standing.
As we near the village, we meet a local woman picking fresh figs from a tree with her granddaughter. A few shouts from the forested area to the southwest interrupt our conversation and she tuts, “I don’t know why they are still hunting here. Il n’y a plus de gibier (all of the game is gone). I’d keep your dogs on the lead.” We hastily take her advice and pick our way along the path, scanning the road and listening intently for other sounds, but the only wildlife we encounter is a glorious praying mantis with red eyes and some dangerous looking pincers.
There are around 400 Gourdonnais living within the confines of the old town and the hamlets that dot the landscape. The first mention of the village was in 1035 and the foundations of its fort date from the 9th century. Agriculture and the distillation of flowers for the nearby perfume industry have long been its main sources of revenue, but today the streets are full of artisans and craftspeople: glassblowing, soap production, jewellery and ceramics.
For lunch we settle on a restaurant just above the Place Victoria, which was named so in honour of the British Queen Victoria who vacationed here in 1891. The speciality of La Taverne Provençale is a goat cheese salad with the chévre served as a warm fondue. The ingredients are resolutely Mediterranean, but the alpine twist on a coastal classic suits Gourdon’s eagle nest geography. Our main course is a traditional coq au vin, which may be a well-known French dish, but it isn’t one you often encounter in the south of France. The indulgently thick jus and slow cooked chicken is perfect for a crisp, autumn day.
On our stroll around the village streets, we discover many quaint alleys and secret pathways, such as Passage des Scornaches. Most people will have to duck down to make it through, but this is the best angle from which to appreciate its weathered wooden rafters. It leads to a small courtyard where someone is drying their clothes beneath a big tree. There isn’t much to explore, but the square does offer another vista to the 360° panorama of Place Victoria, which stretches 80 kilometres along the coastline from Nice to Théoule-sur-Mer. The courtyard itself looks out towards the Loup river and the Cascades du Saut du Loup to the east. In the olden days, the only way to reach Gourdon from the hamlet of Pont du Loup was on the back of a mule or donkey along the Chemin du Paradis (the Road to Heaven). It is an intense 500-metre climb – or scramble up to Gourdon and we decide to leave it for another day!