BY CHERYL ANDERSON
From a distance, it’s hard to miss the massive creamy-white limestone Trophée des Alpes (Tropaeum Alpium) rising up from La Turbie. What you may not know is that it’s the ruins of an ancient Roman monument, the main attraction in the village. Its image on small signs along the A8 highway signals it must be a significant historical site, one you may want to see.
La Turbie is a village high above the glistening Mediterranean in the Commune of the Alpes-Maritimes department. Currently, only the vieille ville around the Roman monument is what is considered within the Commune. Beausoleil and Cap d’Ail used to be included, but in the beginning of the 20th century, they were disestablished.
Emperor Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Cesar, had the Trophée built between 7-6 BC to honor his decisive victory over the 45 Alpine tribes that occupied the area—tribe names are carved into the base of the Trophée. Just imagine, the foundation was laid in 7 BC and was completed in less than one year. Augustus’s military campaign that captured the area was fought between 16 and 7 BC—the location of the monument marked the frontier between Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis) and Italy.
At the time the trophy was built there were no houses or walls around the Trophée to impede the difficult task of transporting the limestone to the site from the Roman quarry just 800 meters away, but it still makes one wonder how they managed to accomplish such a task.
In 1705, after the War of the Succession broke out, Louis XIV had the monument destroyed, ordering all fortresses in the area to be demolished. The Trophée was never intended to be a fortress but because it became one between the 12th and 15th centuries, it was razed. Material for the expansion came from the Trophée site.
Roderick Cameron, in his book, The Golden Riviera, puts it this way: “Thus encased in a shell of bastions, with small houses sheltering beneath the stout walls, it weathered the years until the wars of the Spanish Succession, when it was blown up by one of Louis XIV’s generals.”
Cameron explains that later, “towards the end of the eighteenth century a new church (Saint-Michel) was built at La Turbie. Again the trophy was used as a quarry and from then on the bare skeletal remains, half hidden in the clouds, were almost totally ignored by future travelers.” However, as it happens, Napoleon III did visit and ordered that any fragments bearing inscriptions be removed and displayed in the Museum of St Germain-en-Laye. Cameron implies he was not only among the few that visited but also made the mighty climb up the Trophée.
The American philanthropist, Edward Tuck, donated money towards the partial reconstruction of the Trophée that began in 1929 until 1933. The Edward Tuck Museum, on the Trophée site, was built in 1929 and renovated in 2011. In the museum is a 1:20 scale model of the Trophée as it originally appeared, with fragments, plaster molds, and photographs documenting the monument and its reconstruction. When one sees the scale model and how beautiful it was, you can’t help but feel how regrettable it is that it was blown up.
In brighter news, you’ll be delighted to know La Turbie has a two-star Michelin restaurant located in the L’Hostellerie Jérôme, opened by chef Bruno Cirino in1999. It’s described in the guide as a “noble inn mixing the character of old stones (from a 13C Cistercian refectory), spruce Italian-style decor in the restaurant area (fine vault painted in the Pompeii style), and revisited Southern French cuisine based on remarkable produce (local fish, vegetables from local growers). Without forgetting the cellar and its 30,000 bottles! Upstairs, three fine guest rooms with upcycled furniture and Italian showers. Excellent breakfast.”
Take a stroll along the cobbled pathways that cut through centuries old buildings—the vieille ville of La Turbie is partially built from the ruins of the monument. As with all the villages I have written about, it too has its own unique ancient charm. Though it’s quite a climb to the top of the monument, your reward after such an effort will be unforgettable views of the Mediterranean with Monaco, Cap Martin, and Italy to the east. “On a fine day even Corsica is visible as a dark haze on the taut line of the sea,” describes Cameron.
A memorable day on the Côte d’Azur could be to visit ancient Roman ruins and dine on fine French cuisine. If that sounds at all appealing, you’ll find both in La Turbie. A saying I learned early on is “La Turbie is always under a cloud.” I say even on a day when it’s shrouded in clouds, it’s worth a visit. But not to worry—there are many sunny days!
Photos courtesy of M-Interiors.