Not to be confused with the Col de la Madone, La Madone d’Utelle is a “there and back” climb, but none the worse for it…in fact, it is regularly voted the favourite climb of my guests.
Looking back down on the village of Utelle – still a ways to go to the sanctuary!
Starting from Saint-Jean-La-Riviere, the gradient is remarkably consistent so you can really get into a rhythm, and you get a nice mixture of terrain including some tree cover higher up. You pass the village of Utelle thinking you must be near the top, but in reality you are 2/3rds of the way up, no more. Eventually you reach the “Madone” – a sanctuary perched on top of the mountain, which offers probably the best 360-degree views of anywhere: to the south, the Med; to the north, snow-capped mountains; to the east, the foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes; and to the west, the very different terrain of the Verdun. A lovely descent back down the way you came.
You also have the bonus of one of the nicest descents in the region in order to reach the start point of the climb. Having reached the town of Levens, you descend a gorge with a sheer drop over to your left in places, down to a rushing torrent below (and a view of the lone sanctuary atop the mountain opposite).
At the village of Duranus, you pass “Le Saut des Français” meaning the Leap of the French – legend has it that at the end of the 18th Century, this area had been one of the hotbeds of resistance to the French Revolution, and that French soldiers were thrown off the cliff to their death 300m below, in retribution for the atrocities they were themselves supposed to have committed on the local population.