Sometimes, road works are a blessing in disguise. We were heading to Mons, a little
commune high in the hills about 60kms from Nice, in the southeast of France. Normally there’s a direct route from Seillans (a similar, ultra pretty village) but it had been closed all week. Instead we went via Callian on the narrow, tortuously twisty D37 and D56 roads. The journey was not for the faint-hearted with more than a few nerve-jangling moments but the spectacular views along the way more than made up for it. And it was a precursor of things to come. Anyone a little nervous wasn’t helped by the fact that locals take even the most acute-angled corners at breakneck speed presumably banking on the fact that anyone coming in the opposite direction can, and will, get out of the way.
When we finally arrived the first thing we noticed was how quiet it was. No huge tourist buses. In fact, only a few cars parked on the spacious Place Saint-Sebastien, each driver having sought out their own piece of shade under the symmetrical rows of trees, leaves just beginning to show signs of Autumn’s imminent arrival. Perhaps it is not surprising Mons is so quiet. If the approach is tricky for cars it must be nigh impossible for anything bigger. Not that we were complaining.
We get out; laughing over the hair-raising drive up and the promise of the journey back down. It’s warm but there is a breeze swirling around, ruffling leaves and cooling the air. We have been instantly drawn to the abyss beyond the neat, stonewall that encircles the Place. Mons itself sprawls horizontally along a rock spur on the mountainside. Below, in the near foreground you can see the elegant tiled roofs of the pretty market town of Fayence, then mostly forested landscape right to the coast. It is said that on a fine day you can even see Corsica, 200kms away. Perhaps. Another day.
We can hear children’s screams and laughter, clearly lunchtime break at the school close to what proved to be an excellent tourist office in the far corner of the Place, packed with colourful maps and brochures detailing its proud past and quietly modest present. There are some traces that the area was inhabited in Neolithic times, and not far from away is part of a Roman aqueduct carved through the rock. But it was in the 11th century that Mons, then part of the Principality of Callian, was officially noted. By the 13th century it had passed into the control first of Esclapon then Tourette, finally belonging to Villeneuve until the Revolution. There’s a particularly colourful anecdote about how the local Monsois, desperately resisting an eventually victorious assault by the Duke of Savoire, adopted the unconventional tactics of hurling beehives from the ramparts. The Duke later retaliated by hanging 20 villagers. It was just one of the Monsois’s tribulations. Famine ravaged the area and twice it was hit by the plague. Each time Mons somehow survived, and went on.
There is little choice of where to eat but that did not detract from the quality. Lunch was on the narrow balcony wrapped around the sensationally located L’Auberge Provencal. Great local cuisine, friendly and welcoming service. Rarely, anywhere in the world, have we eaten looking out on such an awesome, uninterrupted vista. Afterwards, we proceed on a slow mooch around the village. It is pleasant just to enjoy the peace and quiet. The war memorial, in pride of place as so many are in France is Meticulously maintained. And sobering. Such a small community. Such huge losses. Such pride.
There is no long itinerary of places to go. This is a village of modest but still worthy attractions: the saracen gate; Notre-Dame church, originally 13th century but with additions through to the 17th century; the 17th Century Chapel of Saint-Sébastien des Pénitents Blancs, part of which doubles as the mayor’s office. What appears to be the lone shop is closed. So too seem to the two café bars. A few more cars have arrived in the Place Saint Sebastien and the newcomers are already at the parapet, enjoying the view. The sound of children has disappeared. School has resumed. It is easy to see why the tourist hoards don’t descend on Mons even at the height of summer. But it is also easy to see why they are missing out on an absolute gem.