As the Corniche roads from Nice descend towards Menton, it approaches the Mediterranean resort of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The perched village of Roquebrune overlooks the luxuriant vegetation of the Cap Martin peninsula. From the medieval castle, breathtaking views command the coastline of the French Riviera, from the mountains above Menton and Italy to the dazzling Principality of Monaco.
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Situation of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (often abbreviated as RCM) is made up of two main districts:
- the historic perched village and
- the more modern town (including the Cap Martin peninsula).
Between the hilltop village and the town lie the numerous residences along the departmental roads 6007 and the Nice-Menton railway line.
Roquebrune is crossed by the three corniche roads of the Riviera and the A8 motorway.
The population of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is about 12,450 (Roquebrunois and Roquebrunoises).
Famous people of Roquebrune
There are a number of personalities linked to Roquebrune:
- Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), aka Sissi, stayed in Cap Martin from 1896 to 1897.
- Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia lived in Roquebrune and died in his villa in 1933.
- Singer Jacques Brel owned a little house in Cabbé from 1960 to 1970.
- Famous architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) died in Roquebrune and is buried in the village’s cemetery.
Winston Churchill spent roughly a third of each year in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin at La Pausa from 1956 to 1958. There the former British Prime Minister wrote and edited part of his History of the English Speaking Peoples.
Roquebrune means “Roche Brune” or “Brown Rock“, in reference to the brown colour of the rocks that can be seen in the old perched village.
Formerly called “Roquebrune”, the town changed its name to “Roquebrune-Cap-Martin” in order to avoid confusion with Roquebrune-sur-Argens in the Var département.
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin: a bit of History
The Roman times
During the Roman times, the site of Roquebrune was crossed by the Via Julia Augusta which run from Pisa, Italy to Arelates (Arles, France) through Ventimiglia and La Turbie where a monument (Trophy of Augustus) was built to celebrate emperor Augustus’ victory over the Ligurian tribes.
The positions of Roquebrune and Menton between the Republic of Genoa and the County of Provence were highly coveted during the Middle Ages. The lords of Ventimiglia ruled Roquebrune in the 13th century.
The Grimaldi era and the French annexation
Charles Grimaldi of Monaco acquired the town in 1346 which remained under the possession of the Grimaldis for the next five centuries until 1848. That year, Roquebrune and the neighbouring town of Menton seceded from Monaco in response to litigation involving taxes on lemon exports.
The two towns self-proclaimed a ‘Free City’ and placed themselves under the protection of the King of Sardinia.
Consequently, the House of Savoy ruled Roquebrune until 1861 when the town voted massively for its annexation to France by referendum. Nice and its county had taken a similar decision a year before and Roquebrune was added to the département of Alpes-Maritimes.
Then, in February 1861, Napoleon III paid to the prince of Monaco 4 million francs to compensate for the renouncement of the lord’s rights in perpetuity.
Interestingly, Roquebrune had become French for a limited time during the French Revolution and the First Empire and was included in the newly created Alpes Maritimes département. During a few years, the town was part of the Sanremo arrondissement, in present-day Italy.
A trendy resort on the French Riviera
In the second half of the 19th century, Roquebrune went through a deep change following the publication of a treatise by James Henry Bennett: Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean (1861).
His writings praised the mild climate of Menton to tuberculosis sufferers. In fact, the doctor contributed to popularising Menton and neighbouring Roquebrune as upper-class winter holiday destinations. Aristocrats from European countries built many opulent villas on the Cap Martin peninsula.
The perched village of Roquebrune
The hilltop village and Cap Martin are the two main attractions of Roquebrune.
The picturesque hilltop village
Perched above the peninsula of Cap Martin at an altitude of 300 metres above sea level, the old village overlooks the French Riviera’s coastline. Roquebrune is a typical Provençal hilltop village with narrow streets, arched passages, intimate shady little squares and ancient fountains.
The narrow streets of the village
The Place des Deux Frères marks the entrance to the medieval village with a great view of the castle.
Take the streets of Rue Grimaldi, Rue Moncollet, Rue de la Fontaine and Rue du Château to get an idea of the picturesque site.
These narrow streets, full of character, have the typical aspects of a medieval village. They are often covered, steeply sloping or stepped. Some are lined with local shops, especially art galleries, craft workshops and souvenir shops.
For example, the Rue Moncollet is very curious and picturesque with its long, narrow, vaulted passages cut by stairs. The street is cut into the rock and the medieval houses along it have barred windows. They were the residences of the guests of the lordly court.
The Grimaldi castle
The first mention of the Grimaldi castle dates from 1157.
However, Conrad I, Count of Ventimiglia, is said to have built the medieval fortress at the end of the 10th century to prevent the Saracens from re-establishing themselves in the region.
Thus, the keep is believed to be the oldest in France… or at least one of the oldest!
The current castle only retains a few elements from the 13th century when it was only a tower.
The Grimaldis, masters of the castle
It passed into the hands of the Counts of Provence and then the Republic of Genoa. From 1395, it belonged to the Grimaldis for several centuries.
The Grimaldis made important additions, including the construction of a loggia around 1490… and introduced artillery into the defence.
Then, under Augustin Grimaldi, the castle of Roquebrune became a comfortable residence (circa 1528).
In the 18th century, Honoré III increased the number of fire hydrants and raised the building by one floor.
From 1732 to 1787, further detailed improvements were made.
Then, William Ingram bought the fortress in 1911 and disfigured it to such an extent that the population demanded that he leave it!
On 1 December 1921, the Englishman donated it to the commune of Roquebrune.
The view from the castle
The castle dominates the Cap Martin and the coast from Monaco to Menton from the top of its rock. It offers a splendid view of the old perched village and its terracotta tiled roofs.
With its colourful bell tower, the church of Sainte Marguerite is located in the heart of the medieval village of Roquebrune.
It is a former 13th-century chapel, enlarged in the 15th century and redesigned in the baroque style in the 17th century.
Inside there are several interesting decorative elements, including polychrome stucco. Two paintings by local artist Marc-Antoine Otto date from the 17th century: the Crucifixion and the Deploration of Christ. On the left-wing, there is a copy of Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’, 54 times smaller than the original in the Sistine Chapel.
The thousand-year-old olive tree in the village.
Roquebrune is known for its thousand-year-old olive tree: l’Olivier millénaire.
The inhabitants consider it the oldest tree in France and even in Europe.
The specialists of the remarkable trees of France estimate that it is more than 2000 years old. Perhaps 2500 to 2800 years old. The tree would thus be contemporary with the birth of Jesus Christ!
It would also be much older than the venerable oak of Allouville in Normandy (800-1200 years old).
The tree appears as a group of large shoots whose roots gradually absorb the stones of the wall on which it grows. It reaches a circumference of 23.5 m and a height of 15 m.
It still produces small black olives of the “pichoulina” variety.
At the beginning of the 20th century, its owners wanted to cut it down. The historian and minister Gabriel Hanotaux saved the olive tree by buying the land.
Then, on 4 October 2016, the olive tree was awarded the label “Remarkable Tree of France”.
The thousand-year-old olive tree is located to the east of the hilltop village, on the road to Menton that leads to the Saint-Roch chapel.
Cap Martin peninsula
The luxurious villas of Cap Martin
To the southeast of the perched village is the wooded peninsula of Cap Martin, covered with opulent Belle Époque villas.
You will see some of these villas as you walk along the coastal path:
- E-1027 by the Irish architect Eilleen Gray (1924)
- Villa Torre Clementina (1904)
- Villa Cyrnos, built for the former Empress Eugenie (1892)
- Cypris Villa (1904)
- and Villa Aréthuse-Trianon (1893) which evokes the Petit Trianon of Versailles
The coastal path of Le Corbusier
The azure waters of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin are the backdrop for beautiful walks along the coastal path.
The Promenade Le Corbusier follows the contours of Cap Martin, from the buildings of Monaco to the Grand Hotel du Cap. The path is 7 km long and runs through secluded beaches, banks of mimosa and wind-bent pines.
Le Chemin des Douaniers
During the French Revolution, the customs administration decided to lay out a path along the Mediterranean coastline.
In 1791, the “chemin des douaniers” became operational between Les Saintes Maries de la Mer and Menton.
Since then, the path has become a pedestrian area along the Cap Martin coastline. Many personalities have walked along with it: emperors, empresses, but also smugglers and nowadays families and other sportsmen.
A walk along the coastal path
The Chemin des Douaniers allows you to follow the coast from Monaco to the tip of Cap Martin between the rocks eroded by the waves and the beautiful and luxurious properties.
One can admire splendid marine landscapes and particular vegetation. Indeed, there is a mixture of endemic species and exotic plants imported at the end of the 19th century for the gardens of the Cap Martin villas.
From Cabanons to villas and impressive footbridges
Along the path, you will discover the bust of the architect Le Corbusier and his famous cabanon, the villas of Cap Martin including the curious villa E1027, the Grand Hôtel du Cap, the Buse beach and the Golfe Bleu beach where paragliders land.
And then, there is this impressive footbridge hung on the retaining wall of the railway.
Sometimes you come across small stairs to go down directly to the water’s edge.
How to access the coastal path
There are several ways to access the customs path:
- the Pointe du Cap Martin (Avenue Winston Churchill),
- the Avenue Virginie Hériot (sentier de la Dragonnière),
- the Sentier Massolin,
- the Avenue de la Gare (Cabbé district),
- and the Avenue Princesse Grace at the border with the Principality of Monaco.
From Monaco to the Carnolès train station, you should allow half a day’s walk… or even longer to enjoy the beautiful scenery that awaits you!
The Villa Lumone Mausoleum
Today, the monument is strangely located in the middle of a dense residential area in the north of Cape Martin.
The Lumone Mausoleum is a Roman funerary monument that was probably built in the 1st century AD. on the ancient Via Julia Augusta.
This prestigious funerary monument illustrates the relationship between the city of the dead and the roads.
The monument was intended for a person of some importance. Its façade with three niches and the two floors belong to a funerary enclosure, two sides of which remain visible.
The enclosure was the boundary of a plot which was probably accessed from the rear.
The central frame of the upper level was decorated with an object applied to the masonry, probably an inscription commemorating the name and titles of the deceased.
The decoration and form are of a rare type known only in Ostia (Italy) in the first century.
The Olive tree park
At the heart of the Cap Martin plateau is a magnificent public park. It includes on the east side, the park of Cap Martin, symmetrical and tamed, like a French garden.
The western part, more natural, contains olive trees several hundred years old. This is the magnificent Parc des oliviers (Olive tree Park) which the former owners donated to the municipality.
The garden is also home to a number of contemporary sculptures and the celebrity alley. There are busts of personalities who have stayed in Roquebrune Cap Martin.
Finally, there is an area with games for children and a refreshment bar.
- Main entrance: Avenue Paul-Doumer
- Secondary entrance: Avenue Virginie-Hériot
- Open every day from 9 am to 5 pm (from June to October, closing at 7 pm)
Find out more!
- Our discovery guide of the French Riviera
- Discover Menton, the Pearl of France
- Have a stroll in the Parks and Gardens of Menton
- All there is to know about the Principality of Monaco
- Follow the Corniche Roads of the Riviera from Nice to Menton
- The Wikipedia article on Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
- The Tourist Office Board of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
- Visit the official website of Menton’s Tourist Board
Have you been to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin? If so, what is your favourite place? Leave me a comment just below!
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(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs
- beach = plage (f)
- border = frontière (f)
- cape = cap (m)
- castle = château (m)
- French Riviera = Côte d’Azur (f)
- Genoa = Gênes
- House of Savoy = Maison de Savoie (f)
- Italy = Italie (f)
- keep = donjon (m)
- Mediterranean Sea = Mer Méditerranée (f)
- olive tree = olivier (m)
- peninsula = péninsule (f)
- perched village = village perché (m)
- railway = chemin de fer (m)
- seafront = bord de mer (m)
- sun = soleil (m)
- Ventimiglia = Vintimille
Featured image: Roquebrune by Xilow (Public Domain)