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Introducing Vallée de la Roya

Occupied by Italy during WWII, the Roya only became part of France in 1947. Breil-sur-Roya is the valley’s water-sports base. Roya Évasion organises kayaking, canyoning and rafting on the River Roya, plus hiking and mountain biking.

The dramatic Gorges de Saorge, 9km north of Breil-sur-Roya, lead to fortified Saorge (elevation 520m). Perched on sheer cliffs, the village is a maze of tangled streets, with 15th- to 17th-century houses. Franciscan Monastère de Saorge has a baroque church with frescoes of St Francis.

Immediately north, the Gorges de Bergue lead to St-Dalmas-de-Tende, main gateway into Vallée des Merveilles. From St-Dalmas-de-Tende, the D91 winds 10km west to Lac des Mesches (1390m), where trails lead into the valley (plan eight hours hiking, round-trip), and 5km farther lies Castérino, with park information and more northerly trails.

Equally scenic, the eastbound D143 (from St-Dalmas-de-Tende) winds to La Brigue (elevation 770m), then, 4km farther, to Notre Dame des Fontaines – dubbed Sistine Chapel of the Southern Alps – with brilliantly preserved wall-to-wall 15th-century frescoes, done by Piedmontese painters Jean Canavesio and Jean Baleison.

In Tende (population 1890, elevation 830m), which is an easy one-hour train ride from Nice, the free Musée des Merveilles explains (in French) the valley's archaeological and historical significance. It also conducts English-language rock-art tours to the Merveilles. Small, sweet Maison du Miel explores regional honey. Find bread and artisanal products along rue de France and av du 16 Septembre 1947; Fiori delle Alpi has good sausage and cheese. Tende’s tourist office provides details on guided archaeological walks and 4WD trips to Mont Bégo, plus outdoor-sports outfitters.

Five kilometres north of Tende, the 1882 Tunnel de Tende provides a link to Italy.