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Sospel, Alpes-Maritimes

Outdoor sports mecca with plenty of medieval charm

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Sospel is a more of a mountain town than a quaint little village; as well as having its fair share of crooked back streets and ancient buildings, it also has quite a large population of residents and attracts lots of hikers and bikers, so it doesn't rely entirely on coachloads of sightseers to get by.

On leaving the train station it's a short walk cut through a charming little park to get to the Place des Platanes; a large square with benches, shaded promenades, flowerbeds and a boules club. There is a large market here every Thursday morning and you can still see some 15th century columns dotted about – they are all that remains of the old church of Saint Pierre.

Once you arrive at the River Bévéra look left for a wonderful view of the colourful houses with their trompe l'œil façades on the opposite bank and the old bridge with its fortified gate house. Le Pont Vieux was built as a toll bridge for travellers in the 12th century and was damaged in the Second World War, then rebuilt using the original stones.

Sospel has lots of faded charm in its chipped stones and peeling paintwork; the dark alleyways and hidden courtyards are cool even in the height of summer and far less frenetic than some of the more touristy villages. Some areas are currently undergoing renovation, which is much needed, but it'll be interesting to see how it looks in a year or so. The project plans look sympathetic to the original architecture, so hopefully the town won't lose any of its character.

History & Culture in Sospel

If you're a fan of military history then it may be worth making a short journey to the outskirts of Sospel to visit the three forts – Saint-Roch, Barbonnet and Agaisen – all of which are open to the public (although check opening times before you visit as they can be limited). The famous Maginot Line runs past Sospel, just 3km from the town.

To get a sense of the full history of Sospel (and to have a peek at the locals' gardens), follow the signposts up to the “Ruines du Donjon Romaine et Remparts”, where you'll find the ruins of the Château de Sospel, home to the Counts of Provence. Not much more remains than a few crumbling walls but it's evocative nonetheless and gives you an insight into a different aspect of the town.

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Sights & Attractions in Sospel

The magnificent Catédral de Saint Michel dominates the centre of “old” Sospel; its vivid colours glowing against the dark wood and sombre grey stonework of the neighbouring streets. The cathedral soars higher than all the surrounding buildings and the square in front has been recobbled with white and grey stones that contrast beautifully with the warm yellow and red tones of the façade. The 13th century Romanesque bell tower is the only original part of the building, the rest having been rebuilt in the Baroque style during the 17th century.

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Things to Do in Sospel

Sospel is a nature junkie's paradise with no less than five GR trails heading out from the town as well as various other hiking and mountain biking routes – you'll often see people checking tyres and brakes in Place des Platanes prior to a day out riding the cross-country trails. It is also a popular destination for road bikers, with plenty of cols and long challenging itineraries within reach. Rock climbers can find limestone crags with bolted routes up to grade 7 – check at the tourist office for information on where to find them.

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Dining in Sospel

The old bridge leads to Place Saint Nicolas, a small but very charming square with an 18th century fountain, colourful buildings and Italian-style loggias. Here you'll find a typically French café with a pretty terrace and daily specials. Alternatively, there is a small cluster of café-bars and brasseries beside the river at Place de Cabraïa, which is local dialect for “goat” and refers to the days when farmers would gather their herds here before leading them to the pastures. The fountain is split in two levels, the lower one for animals and the upper one for people.

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Getting Here

Directions

Getting to Sospel is relatively easy on public transport; you can either take the Train des Merveilles from Nice or there is a bus that runs from Menton. If you're driving you can take the A8 and the D2204 from Nice (40km), or the A8 then D2566 from Menton (15km).