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. Enjoy panoramic views from the south side of the village, and watch the locals play pétanque in the square on the north side. Then, in the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, marvel at the unique stained glass windows and mosaics designed by artist Jean-Michel Folon, or visit the Fondation Maeght museum to see works of modern art by Kandinsky, Chagall and many others. 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.
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 mainly woodland, criss-crossed with footpaths and tracks which are ideal for long walks or off-road cycling, and horse riding is available nearby. There is also plenty of opportunity for scenic drives: perhaps a circuit of other local ‘perched’ villages, a day trip down to the stunning Estérel coastline, or an outing to Lac St Cassien to hire kayaks or pedalos, followed by lunch at a lakeside restaurant.
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.
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, and there are many boutiques around town selling all manner of fragrant products. 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.
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, and it has been famous for its glass production since 1956 with the opening of the glassworks, la Verrerie de Biot. Their addition of carbonate of soda to the glass-making process created ‘bubble glass’ which is now recognised around the world. At the Verrerie you can watch glass-blowers at work, learn about the history of glass, and peruse the work of contemporary glass artists. Other arts and crafts represented in the village include leather-making, jewellery-making, ironworking and painting.
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.
Mougins is a small hilltop village with a collection of art galleries and some excellent restaurants. There is a Museum of Classical Art in the historic centre, as well as a Photography museum which contains work by Pablo Picasso, who lived in the village from 1961 to 1973. More of this artist’s work can be viewed at the National Picasso Museum in nearby Vallauris. There are two world class golf courses here, including the Royal Mougins which also has a spa on site for those who prefer pampering to teeing off! And from Mougins, it is only a short drive down to the beaches and boutiques of Cannes.
Surrounded by tranquil forest, Bagnols-en-Forêt is an attractive village with some local shops and restaurants/cafés. Sights include the church of St Antonin, four chapels, a fountain and an old ‘lavoir’ (public wash house). Just outside the village, you can follow waymarked footpaths to a waterfall along the Valoube valley, or to the ‘Oppidum de la Forteresse’, a site where rock was quarried for millstones and abandoned stones can still be seen along the route. The village sits midway between the picturesque perched villages of the Pays de Fayence to the north, and the historic centre of Fréjus and sandy beaches of St Raphaël to the south.
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.
Carcès is a pretty Provençal village with an attractive medieval centre of narrow streets and vaulted passageways, and a very old quarter which is a veritable maze of ancient stone walls and arches. The village has a good provision of amenities and several restaurants, and there is a weekly produce market every Saturday, as well as an evening market on Thursdays in July and August. The surrounding countryside is dotted with woodland and vines, providing plenty of opportunity for walks and cycle rides, and wine tasting at local vineyards. Carcès is also a great place for fresh water fishing, either in the nearby lake, or in the rivers Argens and Caramy which converge just outside of the village. A site of interest nearby is the superb Cistercian abbey at Le Thoronet.
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. Energetic souls can practise tennis and horse riding at St Cézaire, and there are several world class golf courses in the area. The local caves offer a way to cool down on a hot day – the guided tour reveals many draperies, stalactites and stalagmites, and an underground river at the bottom. Just to the east is the town of Grasse, famous for its perfumeries, and to the south, Lake St Cassien offers pedalo and kayak hire. All in all, 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.
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, and there is a strong emphasis on art in the town, with modern and contemporary works on display in the Fondation Emile Hugues. Worthwhile visits include the cathedral, built in the 4th century and with a mosaic by Marc Chagall added in 1911, and the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs with its unique stained glass windows and mosaics designed by the artist Jean-Michel Folon. Just outside the town, the Chapelle du Rosaire, another chapel designed by another artist, Henri Matisse; the white walls of the chapel allow the green, blue and yellow forms of the stained glass windows to take centre stage.
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.