Eze: medieval alpine citadel in quiet, serene Riviera

High above the energized beaches and boulevards of the Cote d'Azur lie the hidden medieval citadels of a quieter, more serene Riviera. Cut out of the rocky ledges of the Alpine slopes, the villages of Eze, St. Paul-de-Vence, La Turbie, Roquebrune, to name only a few, offer a mellow alternative to the coastline's pulse. By temporarily forgoing the fabled beaches and night life synonymous with Cannes, Nice, and Monte Carlo, one finds a totally different range of sensations and experiences.

Landscapes of cedar and pine, scents of fines herbes de Provence, hillside auberges, vistas of the sea below, mazes of streets and houses chiseled out of jagged peaks, all can be found within an hour of the beach. An excursion to these hamlets can easily fit into a sightseeing day, or can become a welcome overnight haven for the motorist.

Halfway between Nice and Monte Carlo on the Moyenne-Corniche rise the stone walls of Eze-Village. It was here in this fortresslike town overlooking the Mediterranean from a height of 427 meters (1,300 feet) that Nietzsche claimed to have found inspiration for the third part of ''Thus Spake Zarathustra.''

Undoubtedly, the view of the Mediterranean is one of the finest. George Sand, referring to Eze in 1868, then in a state of ruin, as un pittoresque village en pain de sucre (a picturesque village built out of nothing less than a lump of sugar), admitted that the village afforded the best view of the entire coast.

But Eze was founded high overlooking the sea not so much as a matter of aesthetics as of necessity. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages its elevated position secured its role as a haven from the ever-present, marauding corsairs. As the feared raiders would approach, the inhabitants of the nearby coast would take flight and find refuge atop the imposing cliffs. Then, as now, Eze meant peace, a refuge for the weary.

The Moyenne-Corniche leads directly through a small square in the lower part of Eze which serves as an excellent spot to leave the car. The narrow stone streets that meander throughout the village cannot handle any size of car, and indeed the absence of automobiles, along with the stone houses and tiled roofs, gives the traveler an impression of a walk back in time to the Middle Ages. Buildings seem to rise out of the rock, and many boast doors and iron fixtures dating from the Middle Ages.

The Rue de Barri, the main ''street,'' measuring at most 12 feet in width, meanders through the village and leads to one of the most unexpected anomalies of the Riviera: one of the finest cactus gardens to be seen anywhere.

In 1949 the town council of Eze decided to establish a jardin exotique on the ruins of a castle built in the 14th century and torn down by command of Louis XIV in 1706. The result was a well-manicured cactus garden with representative succulents of every type imaginable, surrounded by medieval buildings and ruins with a breathtaking view of the blue Mediterranean.

Corsairs not being the problem in the 19th century that they had been in the 9th, the village of Eze underwent much neglect. Many of the ancient buildings, including the fortress and numerous churches, crumbled through the ages or were destroyed.

Interestingly, it was a Yugoslav-born American couple and their friends who did much to make Eze the jewel it is today.

In 1920 a couple named Balakovitch were searching here with two other couples for a spot to settle in. According to Bruno Ingold, owner of the Chevre d'Or Restaurant and Hotel in Eze, ''Madame Balakovitch fell in love with Eze and decided to make her castle here. She bought the old castle and her two friends bought nearby buildings.''

Mr. Ingold is particularly knowledgeable about the Balakovitches. He now owns their castle, which he purchased in 1962 and converted into the world-famous Chevre d'Or, a pinnacle of haute cuisine and deluxe hotelery.

The Chevre d'Or's Chef Elie Mazot prepares some of the finest rack of lamb to be had anywhere. It is lightly breaded with a special seasoning made of the fabled herbes de Provence. The lobster mousse is a locally famous specialty, as is the raspberry souffle. Reservations are an absolute must, for dinner in the restaurant is both a visual and culinary feast. And if you have the time, and know of your visit a few months in advance, try to stay in one of the nine guest rooms.

As you travel west from Nice, a short distance away, lies St. Paul-de-Vence. Perhaps more than any other of the hillside villages of the Riviera, this remains the best known and most frequented.

As with many of these ancient villages, it was founded by the Ligurians and later invaded by the Phoenicians and Romans. The present-day setting and landscaping of the town took shape in the Middle Ages. Houses and fortifications were built into the mountain slopes as protection against the raiding Saracens.

It was here that artists like Leger, Calder, and Chagall came in the 1920s. Many stayed and worked in the picturesque houses that line the labyrinth of cobblestoned streets.

In a square at the entrance of the town, where men of all ages play a daily game of petanque, a Mediterranean forerunner of bowling played with metal balls, you will find two inns, ''La Colombe d'Or'' and ''Le Cafe de la Place.''

''La Colombe,'' in its 50-year evolution from small cafe to legendary live-in museum, has been the gathering place of countless artists. In many cases they paid their bills here with paintings. Now you can dine in the midst of the art they left behind - works by Picasso, Matisse, Dufy, Rouault, Modigliani, etc., and beside a magnificent 16th-century stucco mantelpiece with paintings by Fernand Leger and Adami.

The dining terrace with its lush greenery and flowering vines is dominated by a boldly colored ceramic mural by Leger completed in 1952. A splash in the swimming pool is done in style with a sea-gull mosaic by Braque set in the wall and in one corner a Calder mobile.

Once inside the impressive ramparts built by Francis I, you'll discover a 13 th-century Gothic church, a municipal museum, a fountain carved in the shape of an urn, and a maze of streets lined with galleries and craft shops.

On a hill above St. Paul-de-Vence is one of the most outstandiing modern art museums in Europe, the Maeght Foundation. Architecture by Jose Luis Sert and artworks by Calder, Chagall, Braque, Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse, Leger, etc., create a futuristic vision of white concrete arches and multileveled terraces and gardens.

Near St. Paul-de-Vence and well worth a visit is Vence an ancient bishopric and the home of Marc Chagall. Here is found the Chapel of the Rosary decorated by Matisse and a 10th-century cathedral with splendid 15th-century Gothic choir stalls.

Cagnes-sur-Mer, also near St. Paul-de-Vence, boasts the medieval Castle Museum, with a Louis XIII door, a Renaissance patio, paintings by Chagall, Carzou, Dufy, Cocteau, etc., and even a museum exhibit on that hallmark of the Mediterranean, the olive tree.

Cagnes-sur-Mer was the home of Renoir from 1908 until his passing in 1919. His home of ''Les Collettes'' offers a touching picture of the artist's last days.

Perhaps the best part of visiting the ''other'' Riviera, high atop the busy beaches, is that you can see so much within a limited amount of time. These towns are so close to each other and to the larger cities that a vacation to the Cote d'Azur can mean both the energy of the coastal resorts and the quiet peace of the smaller hideaways.

I found Nice to be the natural home base for these excursions into the hilltop villages. In Nice you can choose the traditional elegance of a grande-dame hotel like the Negresco or the ultramodern convenience and luxury of the three-year-old Hyatt Regency Nice, with its rooftop pool. Both are situated on the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais.

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