Growing up in the 1960’s, my brother and I were a huge fans of British adventure series. Television shows like “Secret Agent,” “The Avengers” and “The Saint.” The summer after graduating college, I rewarded myself with a European holiday. Number one on my list of must-see destinations was England, so I could witness firsthand all the various landmarks depicted in these shows. In fact, I was so enamored with one of these television series, that I insisted that my high school buddy Ray, who was accompanying me on my “grand tour” of Europe, and I take a six-hour train ride across England, traveling from London to the tiny Welsh village of Penrhyndeudraeth. This was the nearest train station to Portmerion, the location for “The Prisoner,” a limited-run series created by my boyhood idol Patrick McGhoohan about a British secret agent who after he resigns from his job is kidnapped and shipped off to this mysterious “Village.” A place where numbers are used to identify the people living there instead of names; a place where there is no escape. The “Village” where Number Six was being held prisoner is in reality a holiday resort, which was reconstructed from bits and pieces of buildings salvaged from various towns in Italy and was created by eccentric Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis. I was so enthralled with the exotic look and feel of the Village, that I wanted to experience it in person.
Ever since then, whenever I travel, I scour the web to see what movies and TV shows were filmed in the area that I am going to visit. When I stayed in Umbria, I made sure I watched (and read the Frances Mayes book) “Under the Tuscan Sun” before visiting Cortona, Italy. When I decided to rent a house in Tetbury, England, I had to watch “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” an Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot mystery staring David Suchet, which was filmed at Chavenage House, on the outskirts of Tetbury. Chavenage House was also used as Charles Poldark’s ancestral home in the reboot of the “Poldark” series starring Aidan Turner. And for a trip to Lake Como, a visit to Villa del Balbianello in Lenno was on my itinerary. Not only was it used as the backdrop for the wedding scene from “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,” but it was also where James Bond was recuperating towards the end of “Casino Royale”, the Bond film starring Daniel Craig.
And speaking of James Bond films, not only are they topnotch thrillers and the epitome of escapist entertainment, but for me watching these movies is like browsing a travel brochure to get ideas for my next trip. Seeing Chateau d’Anet in the opening sequence of “Thunderball”, made this a must stop during a day excursion from Paris to visit the nearby Claude Monet Gardens at Giverny. After seeing Drax’s villa in “Moonraker,” I was driven to the internet to research Vaux Le Vicomte, an amazing palace built by Nicolas Fouquet, the finance minister of Louis XIV. The château, which is just outside of Paris, rivals Versailles in both grandeur and opulence. And then there is Villa Ephrussi de Rothschilde located on Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. It was used for the interior of Largo’s North African home in “Never Say Never Again” and is now a favorite destination of mine whenever I’m in the South of France.
But my story has nothing to do with James Bond. Nor is it about a destination that was used in a movie or a television series. But rather about Gorbio, a tiny hilltop village on the French Riviera, just north of Menton, which to the best of my knowledge, has never been used as a location site for either a movie or TV series. But considering its charm, the unspoiled nature of the village and the limited references to the 21st Century, it really should be.
Whenever I was relaxing in the sun at one of the many cafes along the Promenade du Soleil in Menton, I would wonder about the hilltop villages in the nearby mountains which always seem to be shrouded in clouds. “Are they also shrouded in mystery?” I wondered. Menton proudly claims that they have 320 days of sunshine each year. What was it like living in a town where it appeared that the sun hardly ever shone? Or was this merely an illusion? After weeks of wondering about these hilltop villages, I finally decided one morning that the time had come for a reconnaissance mission. So, I hopped into my not-so-flashy Fiat 500L and drove up to Gorbio, the closest of these “mysterious” villages.
The historic medieval village of Gorbio dates back to the 12th century and sits on the side of a hill in the shadow of Mount Agel. Like many of the perched villages in the area Gorbio has a stunning view, not just of the Mediterranean and the surrounding valley, but also of the architectural marvel known as the A8 motorway. Not surprising, the road up to Gorbio from the coast is a small winding road. Gorbio is less than five miles from Menton, but because of the narrow road, it takes about 20-30 minutes to reach the village, depending on how often you need to pull over to let oncoming traffic pass. Once you’ve managed to make it up the steep hill, you enter the village at the main square, the Place de la Republicique. The square is dominated by a 300-year-old elm tree, which according to legend, was planted to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht, which returned the province of Nice to the Duke of Savoy.
As is the case with most of the medieval villages on the Cote d’Azur, the town is full of winding streets and colorful houses. The homes in Gorbio are garnished with plants and flowers, giving it a Mediterranean feel, though it is miles from the water. As for sightseeing, there are the 17th century Church of Saint-Barthélemy and the 15th century Chapel of the Penitents-Blancs, which never seems to be open. On the edge of town there is the Chateau of the Comtes de Malaussene, an imposing 17th century castle that is still owned by the Malaussene family, but unfortunately it is closed to the public.
Even though there are only a few real tourist attractions, Gorbio is still worthy of a visit, if for nothing else then to wander the streets of an unspoiled medieval town. My first stop was Restaurant Les Terraces in the main square for a cup of coffee, which I enjoyed sitting at a table in the sun, which contrary to my expectations, was shining brightly. Besides two men, who each had a couple of hunting dogs, the café was empty of customers. A short distance away is Saint-Barthélemy, with its baroque style painted facade and a picturesque clock tower. After a quick tour of the church, I continued to walk around the streets of the village, admiring the magnificent residences, some dating back over 500 years.
While the village of Gorbio has less than 500 full-time residents, there are quite a few religious festivals and celebrations held in the town each year. The most famous being the Procession aux Limaces (Procession of Slugs), where snail shells are filled with olive oil and lit to illuminate the streets of the entire village in celebration of the olive harvest. A procession is then led by the local priest, which winds its way through the narrow streets of the village. I thought about the procession of the snails as I wandered the streets and pictured the now empty streets of Gorbio lined with revelers. “Where are they all now?” I wondered. As I continued snapping pictures of the town, I felt like I had wandered onto an empty movie set. Or a location for a fashion shoot. The only thing missing was a cameraman and a bevy of beautiful models. Being off the beaten path, I had assumed that Gorbio was going to be a quiet town but was surprised to find it totally deserted. In fact, besides the gentlemen with the dogs and the taciturn waitress at the café, the only other people I saw were some hikers in the parking lot, probably preparing for a trek up to nearby Sainte-Agnès, a five-mile hike to the north.
As I walked back to my car, parked in the large lot just north of the square, I thought that there was something very peculiar about Gorbio. The village was too quaint, too perfect and far too quiet. Something suspicious had to be going on here. Was Gorbio where they shipped retired French spies who knew too much? Were the hikers I had seen earlier in on the plot? Were those gentlemen with the dogs I had seen in the café really going game hunting? Or were they hunting for human quarry as they patrolled the perimeter of the village? My mind began to race uncontrollably, and I started to imagine that the head of SPECTRE was hiding out in one of the large townhouses in the village. Or was it SMERSH? And perhaps there was a secret laboratory in the castle outside of town. Or housed in the remains of the Maginot Line fortress at Sainte-Agnès. In any case, I decided that it would be best for me to make a quick exit while I had the chance.
Soon I was back in Menton, sitting on the Promenade du Soleil at the exact same café as the morning, my coffee and croissant now replaced by a glass of wine and some nuts. As I sipped my wine, I slowly came to the realization that all my ramblings about Gorbio being a hideout for SPECTRE were utter nonsense. But I still believed that it would make a great location for a movie shoot. Perhaps I should contact EON Productions and tell them that I had found the perfect location for the next James Bond thriller. On second thought, I think it would be best for all concerned if I kept my excursion to Gorbio a secret. There was a certain quantum of solace about the village which should probably remain undisturbed.