To most visitors, the Cote d’Azur is the coastal portion of Southern France stretching from Monaco westward along the Mediterranean to St.-Tropez. For short-time visitors that is where the actions is, but to those who live there – and particularly in the St.-Tropez area (and to the French themselves) – this leaves out a lot of what “locals” would consider to be the Cote d’Azur. For those who want good beaches and/or have a strong interest in history, there is a lot to be seen in part of of the department Var that is tucked between the traditional Cote d’Azur and Provence.
For starters, those most interested in the sun, some of the best French Mediterranean beaches are in Cavalaire and Le Levandou, which are immediately west of St.-Tropez. There are plentiful accommodations, and the scenic beauty alone is justification enough for spending time there. The beach visitors are primarily French, which has led to many calling it the French Riviera.
Western Var, though, is far more than just a beach destination as it also has three of the region’s most historic towns – Hyeres, St.-Maximin and Brignoles. They are worth a visit, and an added plus are the many charming villages along the way – and the coastal French village of Cassis.
Hyeres, which dates back to 350 BC when it was a Greek port, is the next stop along the coast and is an almost forgotten city in today’s Cote d’Azur being far to the west of more recent centers of tourism, but it was a major destination for 18th and 19th century visitors. In the 1840s and 1850s, it was the easiest option for those looking for a place in the sun when trains reached Marseille in 1848 and Toulon in 1854.
Like Nice and Cannes, Hyeres owed much of its early prominence as a winter resort for English visitors. The Prince of Wales made visits in the winters of 1788 and 1789 that had the usual impact of others wanting to follow where royalty went: and the visitors were not all English. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson stopped there on a tour that included Frejus, Antibes and Monaco as well. The Russian writers, Tolstoy and Turgenev, were also among its early 19th century visitors. In the second half of the 19th century, the ever-present Queen Victoria spent a winter at the Grand Hotel in Costebelle, two miles south of the center of Hyeres.
Hyeres, however, does never had the excitement of Nice, Cannes and St,-Tropez, and there is not a lot to see. Lunch on the Place Massillon under the towers next to the Eglise-de- St.-Paul and a visit to the Grand Hotel pretty much does it.
A few miles north of Hyeres is like entering another world, which is very evident when reaching the old town of Brignoles. In the 12th and 13th century it was the region’s second largest city and once was an integral part of Provence. So much so that beginning in the late 12th century and in much of the 13th century it served as the summer residence of the counts of Provence. The Palace of the Counts dates to those days still stands near the Eglise St.-Sauver, a church that also was built in the Middle Ages.
Three miles southwest of Brignoles is the Abbaye-de-la-Celle, a Benedictine monastery and convent. It was built in the 11th century by monks from the St.-Victoire monastery in Marseille and reached its peak of prosperity in the early 13th century, when the Countess of Provence, Garsende de Sabran, retired to the convent and a number of young women from noble families followed her. Much of the abbey still stands today, and parts of it are used as a luxury hotel. At $600 plus for a room, I have to admit I have not been among its patrons.
A few miles west of Brignoles on Peage 8 in St.-Maximin is the region’s largest and most spectacular medieval church, the Basilica of Mary Magdelene. It was started in 1295 and was generally in its present form by the end of the 14th century. It is of interest beyond its gothic style and size because of it supposed connection with Mary Magdelene.
What is likely more legend than fact is the arrival and burial of Mary Magdelene. The legend is that she and her brother, Lazarus, along with St.-Maximin, a third century martyr, fled the holy land on a boat without rudder or sail and landed on the French coast near Arles. She then went to Marseille and converted residents to Christianity before retiring to a cave in the Ste.-Baum mountain ridge near St.-Maximin. She was supposedly buried there, and her remains are said to be in a crypt under the Basilica.
It is hard for me to talk about this region between traditional Cote d’Azur and Provence without mention of the pretty fishing village of Cassis and its calanques, which have been described as mini-fjords. Located between Marseilles and Toulon, it has lots of day-tripper visitors, but it is a nice place to spend a night.
The village itself is similar to many other seaside villages in southern France in being picturesque and filled with seaside restaurants, but the calanques gives it something special. For the energetic, they provide great hiking destinations with near private beaches along the way. For most, though, they are seen by boat with departures from the harbor every half hour.
There many hotels in Cassis. We like the Best Western Hotel La Rade that is a block from the harbor, but we also enjoyed the less expensive Hotel le Golfe that is right on the harbor.
This blog ncludes excerpts from my book, A Travelers Guide to Cote d’Azur.