In another in this occasional series Patrick Middleton visits Sospel in the Alpes-Maritimes
Sospel, a village of some 4000 people, 350 metres above sea level, close to the Italian frontier and on the edge of Parc du Mercantour, is one of the region’s surprises. When you’re tired of the hustle and hassle of the bigger towns this is the place to come, just 15 kilometres inland. It’s got a complex history and in some respects can be compared to a once successful and prosperous person who’s fallen on harder times. Its era of glory began in the later middle ages and continued into the eighteenth century when it became one of the jewels of the Kingdom of Savoy. It had benefited from its strategic site on the so-called “salt road” – the route between Nice and Turin. Its most picturesque feature, one of many, is the towered toll bridge over the river Bevera that for centuries controlled a regular flow of traffic. Old Sospel was an administrative and ecclesiastical centre with its own bishop and cathedral of St Michael. This vast building, the largest church in the Alpes-Maritimes, is now somewhat decrepit and is reduced to the status of a humble parish church. It’s expensive to keep up and frankly is rather a white elephant. An appeal has recently been launched to raise funds for its restoration.
Sospel’s past ... written in stone
You don’t have to go to books to appreciate Sospel’s past splendour. It’s written in stone in the old town, an area with all the charm and interest of le vieux Nice but without the filth and human squalor. Every first time visitor, equipped with resident Mark Moxom’s handy little guide Secret Sospel, should spend an hour wandering through its cobbled streets and looking at its marvelously preserved architectural heritage with its ancient houses, narrow alleys, archways and squares. The old town is separate from more recent developments and offers the chance of a sudden step back in time. But there’s more to Sospel than its past. Given its location the surrounding countryside offers great opportunities for walking, riding, fishing and the study of an exceptionally rich natural environment.
During my two days in Sospel I missed mayor Jean-Mario Lorenzi who was away at a meeting of local mayors to discuss the government’s proposed reforms of local administration. I was welcomed to lunch by his deputy Martine Ferrero (pictured), a notably articulate woman, who was quick to point out that her commune’s future had to be found in other directions than simply trading on tourist nostalgia. “We’re lucky to be close to the Coast without having its disadvantages. There are plans in hand to create housing here for an overflow population from Menton and also to develop tourism in a wider way. We’re looking to a doubling of the population within ten years.” And how do older sospellois react to this? “Well, some of them grumble about the coming changes but I point out to them two things. Firstly, our splendid old town is totally protected so no worries there. Secondly, many of the grumblers are the same people who sold their land for the new building projects!” One plan is for a 9-hole golf course and I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of local hairdresser and golfer Jacques Pradier. “We should be teeing off within five years,” he told me, between snips, “and with very reasonable fees we should attract a lot of players, both locals and visitors.” In general Martine agreed that the mairie faced the same basic difficulties as other communes: “We lack the resources to tackle all our problems as quickly as we’d like and some people get rather impatient about that.”
You soon feel part of the place
Sospel is a great place to visit; there are also quite a few foreigners who’ve decided to settle there. Some I didn’t meet, like a Russian said to have once been V.V. Putin’s number two with the KGB in East Germany and glimpsed only rarely through the tinted windows of his limo and then there’s another ex-Soviet with the intriguing name of Dimitri Shostakovitch whose telephone never answered. Most residents I approached, though, were happy to talk. I originally visited Sospel about a year ago to meet Tim and Pam Copeman who run a pet supplies shop on Place Saint-Nicolas, just over the old bridge (see Reporter n° 132 and our website). They were very helpful again this time round. Most of the expat residents I met were Brits who seem to be very attracted by the village. Chris Betts’ association with Sospel goes back over 30 years. “I spent two decades in my family’s precious metal recovery business and that involved a lot of flying so I came to live here in easy reach of Nice airport. Eventually life took a new direction when I turned my spare time interest in natural history into a profession. I took a PhD in environmental studies and set up as a consultant. This was an ideal place to be – Mercantour is an ecological wonderland, truly. Now I divide my time between here and Worcester.” Although Chris can get excited over a rare bat found in Mercantour he’s also been doing business here, working with the Monaco authorities on the now suspended Larvotto land extension scheme.
David and Helen Tugman (pictured) have been adoptive sospellois for almost as long as Chris Betts. Explained David, “We came here when I got a job in Monaco I decided I wanted to stick with. We looked for a place that would be a real home not just a weekend retreat even though we’ve always kept on our apartment in the Principality. It was an ideal area for bringing up children and we appreciate the climate, especially in summer when it’s cooler than lower down. We felt accepted quite quickly by the community. I’ve lived their joys and also their dramas like the scandal of the parish priest – actually a very likeable guy, we found – who stole money from the church and then some time back there was a very bloody crime passionnel. We’d recommend this village to anyone who’s prepared to make an effort to integrate.” Stuart and Judy Holtby from Yorkshire have lived in Sospel for twelve years, Stuart commuting daily to his office in Monaco. As he put it, “You very soon feel part of the place. Two things we appreciate in particular – this is a dogs’ town and our two border collies are obviously very happy here and then there’s an old world feeling about the place that we very much like.”
Just across the tiny square from the Copeman’s shop is the Artelier Habana run by Jenny Alonso Relova (pictured). She’s got an interesting tale to tell (related in perfect English): a Cuban, she had a rather special childhood travelling with her diplomat father, including to London where she was enrolled in the Soviet embassy school. When dad fell out with Fidel things changed and her later teen years back in Cuba weren’t much fun and included a spell in jail. Finally in 1995 she was allowed to leave the island. Refused asylum in the UK (“they weren’t nice, not at all”), she moved first to Spain (“after Russians, Spaniards are my least favourite people”) and finally to France where she got married and came to live in Sospel where she runs her gallery, painting, making ceramics and jewellery and giving art lessons. She’s well worth looking in on. “You gradually ease yourself into the community,” she says, “and you come to realise they’re very convivial people. I’m very happy here.”
They had a great time
As the Copemans had already told me, “They’ll accept you but you have to make an effort, of course, and not be too pushy. And they make an effort, too. Our local butcher’s wife was brought up in England and she’s taught him to do cuts the English way and to leave fat on pork so we can make crackling.” Visitors, too, seem to fall for Sospel. I went through the comments book at the tourist office and found it full of favourable remarks. Take Peter and Hanna from Darmstadt: “We’ve been coming here for sixteen years ... we always feel at home in Sospel.” And I was intrigued to find a line of Afrikaans from Stellenbosch students Tokkie and Hannelie: “baie dankie vir uitstekende besoek”. In other words, they had a great time. As most people do.
How to get there: By road from Nice take the A8 to exit 59 and then the road to Sospel; bus n° 15 runs from Menton. There’s an excellent train service several times a day from Nice to Sospel (travelling time: 55 minutes).
Where to stay: Simple – try and book a room at Villa Amiel, just a couple of minutes from the train station. This comfortable B&B occupies a large house that dates in part from the 16th century. All mod coms, of course, but no ghosts ... although a whiff of cigar smoke and some irascible grunts could indicate that Churchill’s returned – he used to stay at Villa Amiel when he played golf at the old course, now long disappeared.
A big plus at Villa Amiel is owner Patrick Le Coustumer who spent 25 years in Leeds and can share his vast knowledge of the area in faultless English. He can also tell you where to eat (some restaurants are closed off season). See also http://villaamiel.com
What to read: As already mentioned, Mark Moxom’s Secret Sospel (download at www.villaamiel.com/images/SecretSospel.pdf) is an invaluable brief guide to the old town; Chris Betts has written in English and French a fascinating pocket-sized guide to the botanical route from Sospel to Olivetta, just across the Italian frontier.
Both publications are available at the tourist office (www.sospel-tourisme.com).