The Three Corniches of the French Riviera

The Corniches are a three-tiered system of scenic highways between Nice and the Italian border town of Menton.

The highest of these highways is the Grande Corniche, which replaced an ancient Roman road. This road overlooks Monaco from over 1400 feet up.

The middle road was created specifically for the tourist industry and passes by Eze, a village perched in the hills.

And the lowest is Corniche, built by a prince of Monaco, connecting the many coastal resorts of the Cote d’Azur.

These roads are among the most breathtaking in Europe, and split apart from N7 just east of Nice into several branches. A8 runs north along them, if you want to get to where you’re going quickly. Not until Roquebrune, about fifteen miles east of Nice, do the roads come back together.

The Grande Corniche

The Grande Corniche is the only one of the corniches that does not run down into Monaco at some point. It was built by Napoleon to replace the old Roman road, Via Aurelia, that used to wind through these hills on its way from Rome to the Rhone Valley. Its highest point is 1500 feet, at La Turbie on the top of the Tete de Chien.

The coastal highway Grance Corniche in France running alongside a mountain.
Grande Corniche

At the village La Turbie, you’ll find a remarkable monument erected by Emperor Augustus called the Trophy of the Alps, commemorating the final defeat of Ligurian mountaineers. Forty-four conquered tribes of Ligurians were listed, at one point, at the monument’s base, which measured 120 feet square by 150 feet high, topped with a 20-foot tall statue of Augustus himself.

When St. Honorat found people worshiping this monument, however, he did what he could to destroy it, and barbarians later damaged it further. It was used as a quarry when the village was built, then turned into a fort, and at last blown up in 1705 like the other Savoyard castles.

Today, it stands in some sort of order at the height of about 100 feet, and is accompanied by a nice little museum with Roman remains and models of the Trophy as it was believed to look.

The Middle Corniche

This corniche was built later than the others, in 1928, to relieve the traffic congestion that already existed on the Lower Corniche by 1910. It has marvelous views of the coast and of the mountains, and is close enough to get a panoramic view while not being so far away that you lose details.

Panoramic view of the Corniche Moyenne (Middle Corniche) and the Mediterranean in France.
The Corniche Moyenne (Middle Corniche)

This is the corniche that goes through Eze, the most dramatic of medieval villages along the coast. Because it’s made of the same stone that surrounds it, you may not see the town until you’re right next to it. Fewer than a hundred people actually live here today. Most of the houses are art, souvenir, postcard, and antique shops.

Wheeled traffic can’t get through its ancient fortified gate, so if you want to visit you’ll have to park and walk up. Its narrow alleys curve upward to the ruins of the castle at the apex, which sits in a cactus garden. You will probably, unfortunately, find a lot of tackiness and tourists in its shops and rudeness in its waiters, but you will also find marvelous views up and down the coast.

Best views and atmosphere are at dawn and dusk. You can visit the tourist offices for information on the footpaths that wind throughout the area.

The Lower Corniche

This road was completed in 1878, and runs along the bottoms of the cliffs, hugging the sea as closely as possible. It provides excellent access to the resorts and casinos along the coast, and is not as picturesque as the others though it’s quite lovely.

The French Riviera and the Lower Corniche road in France.
The Lower Corniche

Beaulieu, situated right against the sea, claims to have hardly any frost, and is also called, in the eastern section, Little Africa. Nearby, you’ll find Cap Ferrat to the south, where beautiful villas and fine gardens everywhere, boasting such plants as the oldest olive tree in the south of France. This makes for scenic walking and boating, though most of this area is privately held.

Interesting places to visit in Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera)