Getting to know - The South of France
From the Art Deco bar I can see a man waterskiing past the gleaming yachts in the bay, while on the blue-and-white striped sun loungers around the pool, long-limbed women in designer swimsuits top up their year-round tans. The sun is sparkling on the dancing waves and I think I can hear the distant sound of tinny trumpets tooting The Charleston.
I’m in Juan-les-Pins, the resort which, along with its Greek-founded neighbour Antibes, became the French Riviera’s first summertime playground in 1923. Andwhere better to stay than the historic Belles Rives hotel (www.bellesrives.com), teeming with original features built around the villa where F Scott Fitzgerald once lived?
The rich and famous might have been gracing the French Riviera (or Côte d’Azur as it’s also known) for decades but we Brits have been flocking there for centuries – originally to try and cure tuberculosis in the mild climate. Walk around the hillside cemetery in Menton, next to the Italian border, to see the graves of the many young foreigners who died there in the 1800s; although most people head to this pastel-coloured town
to visit some of Europe’s finest gardens like Serre de la Madone (www.serredelamadone.com).
These days the Riviera has much to offer visitors, from the chic private beaches of Nice and Cannes (although there are public ones too) to the charming medieval hilltop villages of Grasse, famous for its flower-growing and perfume industry, Mougins, with its great restaurants, and St-Paul-de-Vence with its superb collection of 20th-century sculptures at Fondation Maeght (www.fondation-maeght.com).
Kids love watching the killer whales at Marineland (www.marineland.fr), Europe’s largest marine park, near Antibes or learning about wolves at Scénoparc (www.alpha-loup.com) in the Mercantour National Park. North of here, the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Haute-Alpes offer a plethora of summer and winter outdoor activities.
It’s generally quite easy to explore the main sites of the south of France by public transport, so I take the train west into the Var department.
Saint-Raphael is a good base for families due to its 30 little beaches and proximity to the Estérel mountains – ideal for hiking and mountain biking – while next-door Fréjus is noted for its Roman remains and artefacts, which can be seen at the Musée Archéologique (www.frejus.fr).
To avoid the traffic jams on the narrow coast road, the best way to arrive in Saint-Tropez is by boat from Saint-Raphael or Sainte-Maxime. Although busy, Saturday is the ideal time to explore this glitzy former fishing village as it’s market day – luscious fruit and vegetables vie for attention with colourful fabrics and antiques. Most people head to the public and private beaches on the Ramatuelle peninsula in the afternoon.
Hyères-les-Palmiers, with its quaint old town and palm-filled hillside gardens, was the original resort in the south of France in the 18th century (again, thanks tous Brits) but these days most visitors stop there on their way to the Giens Peninsula – a magnet for water sports enthusiasts due to its world-renowned wind conditions.
I sail a friend’s catamaran across to the island of Porquerolles, one of the three small Iles d’Or, for a picnic on the fine, white sand of Plage d’Argent and a spot of swimming in the Caribbean-clear water. Nonmariners can get there via a 20-minute ferry ride.
The Var’s main city, Toulon, is an unremarkable place and probably best avoided unless you’re a fan of military history – it’s the main base of the French Navy and home to the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is quite a sight when it’s in port. If so, take the cable car up to Mont Faron for the Musée du Débarquement en Provence (www.telepherique-faron.com) to learn about the Allied landings in WW2 – and also for the wonderful views across the coast.
Flamingos and horses
Next along is the Bouches-du-Rhône department, where the Rhône enters the sea near the village of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – the “capital” of the Camargue. This wild area, with its miles of salt marshes and rice fields, is paradise for horse lovers and birdwatchers and where I go riding at Les Écuries de l’Auberge Cavalière (www.ecurie-camargue.fr) and check out the flamingos in the Parc Ornithologique (www.parcornithologique.com).
Another place to get away from it all is the calanques, fjord-like rocky inlets east of Marseille, which becomes France’s latest National Park in June. The area is a mecca for walking and climbing – it’s a good idea to hire a guide – but less active sorts can explore them from the sea on a boat trip.
In contrast, the busy port of Marseille, France’s oldest and second largest city, is an edgy, multi-cultural metropolis that will be European Capital of Culture in 2013. There are plenty of opportunities for high-street or designer shopping and for eating out but football fans might like to take the opportunity to watch an Olympique de Marseille (www.om.net) match at the Stade Vélodrome. Near the stadium is the Cité Radieuse, a modernist block of flats designed by Le Corbusier in the 1940s which incorporates a hotel (www.hotellecorbusier.com) whose rooms contain their original angular, austere interiors.
Inland, Aix-en-Provence is a genteel university town known for its fountains, 17th century mansions, cafes, spa centre (www.thermes-sextius.com) and large Saturday morning market. It was here that the artist Paul Cézanne, regarded as the father of modern art, was born in 1839; his house/studio (www.atelier-cezanne.com), in an idyllic, bucolic location, contains some of the original objects in his paintings.
Directly above the Bouches-du-Rhône is the Vaucluse department, of which the walled capital, Avignon, was home to the popes in the 14th century. Their grand palace, the Palais des Papes (www.palais-des-papes.com), with its high ceilings and vibrant murals, gives a feel for what life was like back then. Avignon is also famous for its part-collapsed bridge across the Rhône, sung about in playgrounds around the world
From the top of the adjacent rocky outcrop, the Rocher des Doms, there are panoramic views over the surrounding area including Mont Ventoux, the highest mountain in Provence – the area which covers south east France. The city is particularly animated in July during the world-renowned theatre festival.
East of here is the Lubéron. Its sleepy villages and rural life were immortalised in Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence. The small town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is best known for its Sunday morning market and large antiques centre while the rose-coloured village of Roussillon, perched on a hilltop, once had the world’s largest ochre quarry – now visitors can follow a trail through its reddish, moon-like landscape.
The most photographed place in this area is goldtinged Gordes, officially one of the most beautiful villages in France, where the nearby 12th century Abbaye de Sénanque (www.senanque.fr) is a colourful, scented sight from mid-June to mid-August thanks to its lavender field.
Stretching from the Cévennes National Park in the north, famously crossed by Robert Louis Stevenson accompanied by a donkey in 1878, to the Pyrenees in the south on the border with Spain, Languedoc-Roussillon – aka south west France – has quite a different feel to Provence.
Nîmes, once the French equivalent of Rome, is more like Seville during its annual Whitsun Feria, when bullfighters from France and Spain entertain the crowds in the original Roman arena (www.arenes-nimes.com).
Women in Flamenco dresses rub shoulders with men in traditional gardian (Camargue cowboy) outfits – part of the Camargue lies in this area and its influences are evident in the south of the Gard department.
With one of the world’s oldest universities, Montpellier has a young vibe and is France’s fastest growing city; it also has a thriving cultural scene with many events taking place in the regional capital’s atmospheric old courtyards.
In the far south, Perpignan was the home of the kings of Majorca in the 13th-14th centuries and their presence can still be felt in their former palace, in the solemn Sanch procession at Easter and in the bilingual French-Catalan street signs on almost every corner.
Fans of the great outdoors will love Languedoc-Roussillon. From kayaking in the Gorges du Tarn to meeting wisent, or European bison, in the Lozère (www.bisoneurope.com), and from learning to sail in Port Camargue, Europe’s largest marina, to taking a scenic journey on the Yellow Train from Villefranchede-Conflent, famous for its 17th century military fortifications, up to Bolquère-Eyne – the highest railway station in France.
As well as offering a wide variety of winter and summer activities, the Pyrenees are also the place to go for “water cures” and spa treatments – Cerdagne (www.pyrenees-cerdagne.com) has outdoor hot springs overlooking snow-capped Carlit mountain.
Almost forgotten about since their savage demise in the 13th century, the Cathars (a Christian sect) came to the world’s attention in 2003 when Dan Brown published his book, The Da Vinci Code, which was compounded by the publication of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth in 2005.
As a result, their associated sites such as Rennes-le- Château and Carcassonne have had a boom in visitors – the latter is Europe’s largest medieval citadel, with 52 towers which can be seen from miles around. You can follow the Cathar trail on foot or by bike, alone or with a guide (www.audetourisme.com).
Tourism in south west France is inextricably linked to water. The Canal du Midi (www.canalmidi.com) is one of three canals which link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Built in the 17th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it offers a fun way to explore the region’s villages and vineyards on a self-drive boat or a crewed hotel-barge. One of the most spectacular sights is the Fonserannes lock near Béziers – a “staircase” of nine gates which allows boats to climb 21.5 metres (70.5 feet). Chef Rick Stein travelled along this route in his 2007 TV series Rick Stein’s French Odyssey.
The region boasts 200 miles of beaches, from the wild, grassy expanses of Le Grau du Roi in the Camargue to Cap d’Agde, Europe’s premier naturist resort, in the Golfe du Lion and from the stilt houses of Gruissan, which starred in the 1986 film Betty Blue, to the pictureperfect village of Collioure, a meeting place and inspiration for artists in the early 20th century. Follow in the footsteps of the Fauvists Derain and Matisse on a selfguided
walking tour to see what and where they painted.
And where better to stay in creative Collioure than Hotel Les Templiers (www.hotel-templiers.com)? The walls of this harbourside hotel-restaurant are hung with many original artworks by its illustrious past guests, who included Picasso. Wherever you go in the south of France you always feel like you’re stepping back in time.
South of France facts
When to go
To make the most of the Mediterranean climate, May to October is the best time to visit – August is very busy. The Alpesde- Haute-Provence and Pyrenees offer skiing in winter.
British Airways (www.ba.com) flies to Marseille and Nice, easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Marseille, Montpellier and Nice and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Béziers, Carcassonne, Marseille, Montpellier, Nice, Nîmes, Perpignan and Toulon. Rail Europe(www.raileurope.co.uk) sells train tickets from London St Pancras International to main stations in France via Eurostar (www.eurostar.com). You can take onward high-speed TGV trains to destinations including Avignon, Marseille, Nîmes and Nice.
Hire a car for more freedom but it’s fairly cheap and easy to explore the main sites by bus or train.
The French Goverment Tourist Office: www.franceguide.com
Tourisme Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur: www.tourismepaca.fr
Côte d’Azur Tourisme: www.cotedazur-tourisme.com
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to the South of France.