Kindly contributed by Jonathan Arlan, author of the new book Mountain Lines, in which he narrates an inspirational trek through the French Alps that he undertook in 2015. Arlan overcomes apprehension, nerves, poor physical condition and days of bad weather as he slowly conquers the Grand Traverse route from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. Along the way, the author meets friendly, decent people and experiences both true exhaustion and true exhilaration.
At this point, nearly a century after the Fitzgeralds hipped the wealthy, beautiful people of the world to the somehow then-unknown pleasures of laying in the sun all day and getting sozzled jazz-age-style in the south of France, it’s hard to imagine there’s a ten-foot stretch anywhere along the Riviera that hasn’t been discovered, written about, overwritten about, etched into the guidebooks and summarily picked over by tourists. But for the three weeks I spent on France’s Côte d’Azur, the tiny hilltop village of La Turbie—perched halfway between Nice and the Italian border and overlooking the entirety of Monaco—felt not only a like a real-deal Hidden Gem, but like a full-on hideaway, a place up in the clouds, lifted ever so slightly out of the real world, and cut off from whatever reality happened to be unfolding below.
Part of this, of course, was a byproduct of my headspace at the time: I’d just walked hundreds of miles through the mountains from Geneva to Nice; I was tired—exhausted, really—but still burning off an accumulation of adrenaline to the point where it was physically hard to stop moving, let alone relax. After I reached the sea, I spent a week in Nice wandering around the city very quickly like I was late for a meeting, soaking my angry feet in the water, and trying to push the Alps out of my head for just a few days before decamping, at the invitation of unbelievably generous cousins, for La Turbie, a nearby village that I’d never heard of and knew nothing about. I was warned by my cousins, who own a house there, that the village was not very exciting and not very well connected via public transport to more exciting places nearby. But it was a house, in a French village, with a room I could stay in for a little while and I wasn’t about to turn that down. Plus, I figured I could start writing that book about the Alps that I’d told everyone I was going to write.
My cousins were not lying; La Turbie is not an exciting place—it’s almost aggressively dull for how magnificent its surroundings are—and, before my cousin arrived with a car, getting to any of the more exciting nearby towns by bus required more planning than I seemed capable of doing. Still, it is without question one of my favorite places in the world. It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for, actually, the kind of quiet, slightly remote, ludicrously charming spot I needed, even if I didn’t know it until I got there. The town sits high up in the hills, about five hundred meters above the water. On a clear day—and nearly every day I spent there was clear—there are views of the sea that cause your brain to flood with that warm liquid that relaxes the muscles in your jaw so your mouth hangs open just a little. There is, all within a five-minute walk: a boulangerie, an épicerie, a fromagerie, a few (very good) restaurants, a café, a newsstand, a weekly market, an old church, an old fountain and a tiny old (and I mean very old) town nestled in the center of the only-slightly-less-old new town.
And towering above all of this is the Trophée des Alpes, an ancient 115-foot-tall monument of jagged, broken white stone and partially restored columns that sparkles when the sun hits it. From the sea, I imagine it looks like a lighthouse. It was built around the year 6 BC to commemorate the Roman Emperor Augustus’s victory over the alpine tribes in the region and it’s still standing, albeit somewhat weathered and partially rebuilt, some twenty centuries later. In most other places, this would be a show-stopper—people would come from far and wide to look at it—but as far as I could tell, no one seemed to notice it anymore.
Simply put, the village is one of the most low-key remarkable places I’ve ever been. There is a feeling in the air of perfect contentment: the buildings are content to shelter, the ancient ruins are content to slowly erode, the town is content to exist up in the hills, and the people are content to exist up in the town. And even though I hadn’t earned any of these feelings, I was more than happy, while my luck held, to share in all of them, to look down on the world below, and to consider the emperor’s victory over the Alps a tiny bit my own.