The heart of this Provençal market town has a charming yesteryear feel with some typical features such as fountains, old wash houses and dappled squares, and historic buildings including a 12th century clocktower topped with a campanile. Restaurants and amenities are on hand, and an array of fresh produce is available at the traditional market held every Tuesday. Surrounded by vines, Lorgues has always been well known for its wine (as well as olive oil) production, and there is ample opportunity to taste the local wines at nearby vineyards. The town feels delightfully set back from the well beaten tourist trail and yet is only a 40 minute drive from the Côte d’Azur resort of Sainte Maxime if you are drawn to its bustling harbourfront and beautiful sandy beaches.
La Garde-Freinet is a delightful village with many old stone houses and original features such as the old wash house and the fountain dating from 1812. There is a creative spirit in the village, with local artists’ work often on show, and the central squares are alive with pavement cafés and restaurants. If you’re feeling energetic, climb up to the archaeological site of the ‘Fort Freinet’, the original part of the settlement, from where there is a spectacular view to both mountains and ocean. The village lies in a densely forested region, mainly comprising cork oaks and chestnut trees, and the chestnut in different forms is found in many dishes and sweets around here. A little further afield, the coast is only about 15km away, and the gateway to the St Tropez peninsula.
Vence is a medieval hilltop town with largely intact city walls, but also famous for its spring water, which can be collected from the numerous fountains. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés to choose from, either in the pedestrianised maze of streets within the walls or surrounding the main square. There is a strong emphasis on art in the town; the Fondation Emile Hugues has a major collection of modern and contemporary works, and there are also many small independent galleries and arty boutiques to browse.
The medieval hilltop village of Seillans is officially designated as ‘one of the most beautiful in France’, and is a delight to explore. The narrow streets at its heart are only accessible on foot, winding and twisting up the hillside, leading to a number of small squares and the expansive Place de la République at the very top, from which far-reaching views can be admired. There is a small but excellent selection of restaurants and local shops in Seillans, and a vineyard just outside the village where visitors can buy local specialities as well as taste their wines. The surrounding area is predominantly woodland, criss-crossed with footpaths and tracks which are ideal for long walks or off-road cycling, and activities such as horse riding and canoeing are also available nearby.
St Paul de Vence
Approaching St-Paul-de-Vence, you are struck by the sight of the superbly preserved walls encircling the village before entering through a stone archway into a network of narrow cobbled streets lined with art galleries and boutiques, restaurants and cafés. St Paul is deservedly popular and bustling by day and particularly atmospheric in the evening. Enjoy panoramic views from the south side of the village, and watch the locals play pétanque in the square on the north side. Beyond the immediate area St-Paul is well placed, both for visiting the Riviera coast, with all its cultural and leisure attractions, or for heading into the mountainous hinterland to enjoy walking, adventure activities and scenic drives.
Biot is an attractive hilltop village with real character and an interesting history. It was first colonised by the Romans 2000 years ago and later there were Templars in the 13th century, followed by Malta knights. As you wander around the village, look out for the Sainte Marie Madeleine church, the medieval gateways (‘portes), coloured mosaics, Maltese crosses and engraved stones. Biot was known for its pottery and ceramics from the 18th to 20th centuries, a legacy which can be discovered in the ceramics museum in the village. There is also a museum dedicated to the ceramicist and painter Fernard Léger. Biot is now also famous for its glass production thanks to the working glassworks and their distinctive ‘bubble glass’, and other crafts practised here include leather-making, jewellery-making and ironworking. The nearby Riviera town of Antibes will also be a big draw whilst staying here, with its atmospheric old town and lovely beaches.
Often referred to as ‘the perfume capital’, Grasse has been at the forefront of the perfume industry since the 18th century, and is still responsible for producing the majority of France’s natural aromas and also flavourings. The perfumeries offer free guided tours to see how the locally grown flowers were traditionally processed to make scents. Grasse’s other most notable landmark is its 11th century cathedral, which contains three works by Rubens and one by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a world famous painter who was born here. Keen golfers will revel in the choice of world class courses in this area, and there are good road and rail links down to the Riviera coast, where myriad attractions await.
A quintessential Provençal hilltop village, Fayence has a picturesque outlook and a lovely atmosphere, particularly on market days when the square is filled with stalls offering fresh produce and home-cooked specialities, colourful fabrics and crafts. Dominating one side of the square, the Eglise Saint Jean-Baptiste is the third largest church in the Var department, and its baroque altar is a listed monument. On another side is an open plaza with panoramic views over the valley, whilst in the opposite direction tiny little streets lead away into the oldest part of the village. Those who walk up to the very top are rewarded with a fantastic 360 degree view of the plain and the wooded hills all around, and after wandering back down there are plenty of cafés and restaurants for well-deserved refreshments.
St Cézaire sur Siagne
St Cézaire sur Siagne is a quintessential Provençal village with some nice cafés, restaurants and a good range of shops. You can buy fresh produce at the market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and if you take an evening stroll you will be sure to find the locals playing pétanque in the square. When looking for a way to cool down on a hot day, take a tour of the stunning local caves or drive to nearby Lake St Cassien. Cultural visits in the area include the famous perfumeries in Grasse, and numerous galleries and museums in Grasse, Vence, Mougins... All in all, this is a super place to experience a real Provençal village, yet within easy reach of the numerous attractions, beaches and glamour of the Côte d’Azur.
As the winding roads climb up to the village of Callas, sitting atop its sharp ridge, the ruins of the old 13th century château loom high above. Once in the heart of the village it is a delight to stroll along the cobbled streets lined with colourfully painted houses, and up and down ancient stone steps to find shade-dappled squares. There are a few cafés and restaurants and a couple of shops for essentials.
In the 19th century, the industry of the village revolved around pressing olives for oil, especially the local ‘ribier’ variety. From around 20 mills in those days, nowadays only one working mill remains and sells various Provençal products, and there is a mill-museum that has been preserved as it would have been in 1950. Nearby, the spectacular scenery of the Pennafort Gorge can be enjoyed on foot or on horseback. Little paths lead through wooded valleys and past rocky spurs, to a stunning waterfall and to the domed Notre-Dame de Pennafort chapel.
Mandelieu-La Napoule is a seaside town which has grown over the years to provide a superb choice of modern amenities for the surrounding residential areas. La Napoule is the seafront area, where you will find the town’s main landmark, the Château de Napoule, a fort and gardens which were restored in the early 20th century by an American artist and his wife. As well as a string of beaches, there are two ports to explore. Boat trips go out to the Lérins Islands, a protected natural park, and the largest island, Île Sainte-Marguerite, was where the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ was imprisoned. An extinct volcano called San Peyre looms up next to the town; scale its summit and you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the Riviera. Breathtaking views also abound as you drive along the ‘Corniche d’Or’, the coastal road heading west from Mandelieu to Saint-Raphaël, snaking dramatically along the base of the red Estérel cliffs. The Estérel hills are great for walking and mountain biking too.