When the coast gets too crowded, do as the natives do: head for the hills, or, more properly, the mountains. The landscape rises steeply from the coastal resorts like a series of waves, creating hills, valleys and rugged peaks. Here is where you'll find medieval villages perched on mountain tops, hiking trails, canyons, trout-filled rivers and most of the region's ski slopes. The air is fresh and the temperature is always a few degrees cooler. Having a car gives you more flexibility but you can see quite a lot by train.
The region carved out by the Var river is easily accessible from Nice with or without a car but it's best to see by train. This stunning landscape of gorges, rivers and mountain towns is largely covered by the famous Train des Pignes which makes a three-hour run from Nice to Dignes-les-Bains four times daily from Monday to Saturday. One of the world's most scenic train rides, the circuit covers around a dozen medieval villages including Villars-sur-Var, Entrevaux, Touet-sur-Var, Puget-Théniers, Annot and St-André-les-Alpes. See more about the Train des Pignes.
Gorges du Verdon
It's Europe's "Grand Canyon". Slicing through a limestone plateau for 25km, its the largest canyon in Europe and a hiker's paradise. Carved by the Verdon River, the cliffs rise up to 700m and are laced by two dizzying roads that connect the gorges' two major towns: Moustiers Sainte Marie and Castellane. In addition to hiking down to the bottom of the gorges, you can also enjoy the Verdon lakes: Lac de Sainte Croix, Lac de Quinson, Lacs de Chaudanne & Castillon. The gorges fall within the Verdon Regional Park (Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon) which manages museums to showcase the region's unique culture and ecology.
From the Italian border, the Mercantour National Park stretches for 100km to cover a total of 685sq km. Its highest peaks reach 3000m and there are 28 villages tucked into the mountains and valleys. In the Alpes-Maritimes the Park comprises the Roya-Bevera Valleys (Vallées de la Roya et Bévera), the Tinée Valley (Vallée de la Tinée) and the Vésubie Valley (Vallée de la Vésubie). The archaeological highlight of the park is the Vallée des Merveilles which is known for its prehistoric engravings, dating from the Bronze Age.
The Roya-Bevera Valleys include the villages of Breil-sur-Roya, Tende, Saorge and La Brigue, all part of the TER train network. And on summer weekends you can take a 9am train from Nice, the Train des Merveilles, up to Tende with a guide providing commentary along the way. In Tende the Musée des Merveilles provides a fascinating account of the archaeology and ecology of the region.
The Tinée Valley contains the Isola 2000 ski resort (see more on ski slopes) and a handful of "little Switzerland" villages such as Saint Etienne-de-Tinée and Saint Sauveur-sur-Tinée which are perfect launching pads for hikes throughout the region. One major hiking destination is the Gorges du Cians marked by spectacular burnt umber rock formations. There are no train lines up here so you'll need wheels.
The Vésubie Valley is a classy place for coastal residents to set up a weekend getaway. It's marked by the Gorges de la Vésubie and the main base is Saint Martin-Vésubie, a picture-postcard village in Alpine style. In the village's old mill is the Musée des Traditions Vésubiennes, a display that evokes traditional life in the mountains.
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