The Alps are never far away, wherever you are on the Riviera. The highest peaks are in the north-east, towards the borders with Switzerland and Italy, flattening out in south-westerly direction. The mountains stretch right onto the sea border in Monaco, and going west the landscape is slightly less mountainous, but only close to the sea.
Driving north for only 30mins will have you enter the pre-Alpine region of Nice and Grasse. Altitudes are quickly increasing, with Grasse being at around 300m above sea level, and Gourdon, just 15mins from Grasse, already at 1200 above sea level. The highest peaks in the Mercantour National park reach 2900 meters.
Needless to say, spectacular views abound.
The department called "Alpes de Haute Provence" lies to the northwest of the Alpes Maritimes department (of which the Cote d'Azur is the southern part).
This is where the real mountain landscapes begin. Several peaks easily exceed 3000 and 4000 meters, and there several well-known ski resorts.
It's quite a drive from the coast, past the villages Saint-Etienne-de-Tinee and St. Dalmas-Le-Selvage, all the way up the Bonette mountain pas (Col de la Bonette), but definitely worth it.
The road leading up to the Col de la Bonette is known as the highest mountain road in Europe, culminating in the Cime (Peak) de la Bonette, at 2810 meters above sea level.
The scenery throughout the 22km up to the pass, and during the subsequent 22km down, towards the village of Jaussiers, is breathtaking at every single turn of the road .
During the winter months this road is closed, but last time I was there was in early August , with simmering heat down in the valleys, fresh air (20 degrees cooler than lower down!), little or no wind, and brilliant blue skies.
The road makes for a perfect day trip, ideally starting of course from somehwere nearby, not from the coast.
The Mercantour National Park was created 1979 and is one of 7 national parks in France. It covers 685 square kilometres (268 sq miles) of mountainous landscape in the south-east of the country, bordering right on the French Riviera towards the south.
Its impressive snow covered peaks clearly visible from the coast, one can be fully immersed in the utter silence and solitude of the mountains after less than 2 hours drive from Nice - less than 20km distance, as the crow flies, from the southernmost tip of the Park to the Mediterranean Sea. A landscape which will impress by the sheer beauty of its mountain peaks, deep valleys and gorges, but which will also amaze you at a much smaller scale when discovering the many rare and native plants and animals living here.
In addition to all these natural wonders, you will also be able to find signs of early human presence, in the form of some 40,000 rock engravings, dating back to the Bronze Age period (from 3300 to 1200 BC), in the Vallée des Merveilles.