When autumn comes here in Ventimiglia we barely even notice it: palms, prickly pears, agave and olives trees are hardly known for their autumn colours! But higher up the Roya Valley, October sees the deciduous vegetation turn stunning shades of gold, amber and red. Wherever you look patches of colour light up the mountain sides, scattered among the rocks and scree slopes. In October 1977, on my first trip to northern Italy, I drove through France to Nice, over the border to Ventimiglia and then up the Roya Valley, en route to Turin. I was enchanted then by those vibrant autumn colours – a sight I have never forgotten, and I always enjoy returning to the upper reaches of the valley at the same time of year.
The road and railway line out of Ventimiglia follow the river north into the Alps, past the villages of Airole and Olivetta-San Michele and then cross the border into France. The first French village is Breil sur Roya, followed by Fontan, Saorge, and St Dalmas de Tende: each with its own particular charm, architectural gems and variegated history such as can only be found along an international border which has been redrawn and redrawn again several times over the last thousand years. Finally, before tunnelling under the Tenda Pass back into Italy, road and rail reach the small mountain town of Tende (its French name) or Tenda in Italian.
Although nearly 50 kilometres apart, the history of Ventimiglia and Tenda are closely linked. Until the mid-13th century the Counts of Ventimiglia ruled a vast territory which extended in a wide swathe all the way from the coast to Tenda and beyond to the northern slopes of the Alps. However in 1249 the Republic of Genoa took over the Counts’ southern strongholds, including Ventimiglia, and Tenda become their central settlement. In 1261 Count William Peter I of Ventimiglia married Eudoxia Lascaris, the 13-year-old daughter of Theodore II, the Emperor of Byzantium. With a view to their offspring one day being able to claim their right to the Byzantium throne, Count William Peter and Eudoxia founded a new branch of his family: the Lascaris of Ventimiglia and Tenda.
Their castle in Tenda must have been massive, judging by the single watchtower (now a clock tower!) which remains along with a lone, precariously tall and narrow slither of stonework, pointing skywards above the town.
The images above show a doorway adorned with a giant thistle flower (left) and on the right, one of the town gates with the Annonciade Chapel of the White Penitents. The chapel, in a former guard house, was decorated in the 15th century with a number of beautiful frescoes.
Beatrice Lascaris of Tenda was born in Tenda in 1372. She was put to death by her second husband on a false charge of adultery in 1418, and is remembered here in the name of this alley.
Saint Michel Church features paintings with views of Tenda as their background. On the left Jacob dreans of angels going up and down a ladder – a typical stepped alleyway – and on the right Saint Christopher carries Christ across the Roya River.
Tenda’s museum highlights the Bronze Age rock engravings in the Mercantour National Park