Entrevaux and the Little Train that Could

Every area has its hidden gems, and in Cote d’Azur, two of the best are the village of Entrevaux and Le Train des Pignes that conveniently share a common ground.   The Train des Pignes is a one meter gauge railroad that manages to wind its way through the Southern Alps along the Var River for a 95 mile, almost four hour run from Nice to Digne.  The scenery is spectacular as the train follows the riverbed between the mountains, but going the full route makes for a long and somewhat tiring day with the scenery eventually getting repetitive.  Fortunately, a little more than half the way is the fortress village of Entrevaux that allows one to enjoy the train and scenery and spend a few hours seeing one of Cote d’Azur’s most historic villages and citadel.

The train has its own station about two blocks north of the Nice’s main train station and serves a working purpose as a commuter train for residents of several small towns north of Nice, and only four trains a day make the full trip to Digne.  It takes about 45 minutes to get beyond the Nice suburbs and then it is through the mountains with stops at Plan-du-Var, Touet-sur-Var, Puget-Theniers among others small villages and then Entrevaux.  There are 19 stops before Entrevaux, but the trains only stops at seven of them unless someone wants to get on or off.

The village of Entrevaux was founded in the 11th century when the Catholic bishopric that had been established in the nearby village of Glandives in Roman times was moved to the more defensible site of Entrevaux.  This site was on a hill surrounded on three sides by the Var River, and ramparts were built around the newly established village.

The entrance to Entrevaux

My grandson and I on the bridge at the entrance to Entervaux

When the County of Nice shifted allegiance from Provence to Savoy in 1388, Entrevaux found itself in the uncomfortable position of being only a couple of miles inside the border on the French side.  This meant that it was no longer just a mountain village with an antiquated castle and ramparts to protect its citizens from the occasional pillaging of brigands, but rather a line of first defense between two countries.

The danger of this situation became a reality in 1536 when Entrevaux was betrayed by its lord Jacques Glandives; was taken by the troops Charles V of Spain who controlled Savoy; and about half its population was massacred.  Those remaining, though, took revenge by rebelling and killing Charles V’s governor.  They then offered the village to the king of France, Francis I, who in appreciation made it a royal town of and exempted it from taxation.

This strategic location between Savoy and France kept Entrevaux in French military plans.  In 1658, a bridge guarded by towers was built over the Var River and in 1690 the castle sitting high above the town was rebuilt as a more modern citadel by Vauban, France’s famed military engineer.  The new fortifications were tested in 1707 by troops from Savoy, but local resistance was adequate to hold them off until relieved by French troops.

The walled village of Entrevaux is unique in that it has to be entered through a gate house; then across a long what was once a drawbridge; and finally through a vaulted gate between two towers.  Once inside, it is much like all medieval villages with its stone buildings, narrow streets and medieval gothic church, but then there is the citadel.  It is perched far above the village and appears to be impenetrable from all sides.  The walk is quite doable after paying the 3 euros and takes about 15 minutes.  The view at the top is spectacular, and the citadel is open for visitors to see its rooms, courtyards and dungeons.

The walled village is thankfully free of gift shops and restaurants, but right across from the village is a small area with restaurants and other retail outlets.  This includes one restaurant that provides sandwiches and snacks after the normal “12 to 2” lunch time.

View of Entrevaux from the train station

View of Entrevaux from the train station

If one takes the Train-des-Pignes beyond Entrevaux to Digne, the scenery continues to be spectacular, and there is an excellent restaurant near the Digne station.  The train station is not within easy walking distance of the city itself, but that should not be a concern.  Digne is an attractive, modern industrial community, but not a tourist site.

There are other ways of seeing Entrevaux.  My first visit was by car and included staying overnight in Castellane, a town more frequently considered a gateway to the spectacular grand canyon of France, the Gorges du Verdun, which will be a subject of a later blog.  Castellane is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the coast and 30 miles from Entrevaux.  It also has an interesting tourist site of its own, the Notre Dame du Rock.  This church is built on a rock about 500 feet above the city on a site that was once a Roman fort.  An added plus in Castellane is the Nouvel Hotel du Commerce with an excellent restaurant.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Alpes-Maritime, France | Tagged , , , , ,

Saorge, Peillon and Other Perched Villages in the South of France

One of the historic delights of Cote d’Azur is its many mountain-top towns, or as they are often called – perched villages.  They are primarily in the southern Alpes that stretch down to the sea east of Nice and cover much of eastern Alpes-Maritimes, and most of them are relatively short drives from Cannes, Nice or Menton.  The ruggedness of the mountainous terrain makes for some very winding roads with sharp drop-offs to the side, but as is typical throughout France, the roads are well-kept and more spectacular than scary.

Saorge, France

The mountain-top town of Saorge, France

The origins of these perched villages go back to the Dark Ages when the relative serenity of Roman rule disappeared and coastal areas of what is today Cote d’Azur were left to the mercy of Saracen raiders from Africa and Spain.  This caused people in coastal towns like Cannes, Antibes and Nice to flee inland, and once there, they joined existing residents in moving to the highest accessible spots they could find to protect themselves.  When the Dark Ages ended, there was some movement back to the coastal towns, but those that remained inland stayed on the mountain tops as the dangers presented by Saracens in an earlier day were replaced by the threat of marauding highwaymen and sporadic wars between local lords.  Most of what exists today in these perched villages was built or rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries, but there is the occasional church or castle ruins that date back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

Some of these perched villages like Eze, Gourdon, Ste.-Agnes, Haute-de-Cagnes and St.-Jeannet are either on or close to the coast and have lost some of their historic appeal as they became either part of the suburban life of Cote d’Azur’s larger cities or so exploited for tourisms that they do not seem quite real.  Others like Mougins and St.-Paul-de-Vence are fortified villages on hills, not mountains, and although well worth a visits for other reasons – and they will be discussed in a future blog post – they are not true perched villages.  The best of the region’s perched villages are further north and east and more off the heavily-visited tourism paths with Saorge and Peillon being two of the most interesting.

This is not to suggest those that are easy to get to should be ignored, and some like Ste.-Agnes, Eze and Gourdon are well worth the time spent.  They, however, do not truly deliver the feel of yesteryear the way Saorge, Peillon and some others do.

Ste.-Agnes, for one is well worth the visit even as its population gains in recent years show its suburban inclination as it is only a couple of miles from the center of Menton.  Its 12th century castle ruins are noteworthy for its location on a 2,625-foot peak that overlooks the Mediterranean and provides spectacular views of Menton and Monaco down below.  It was supposedly built by a Saracen prince that had married a local girl; was rebuilt in the 15th century; and then destroyed by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the 17th century.  The accompanying village is the highest in France close to the sea.  Ste.-Agnes’ strategic location is further attested to by the fortifcations that were dug into the rocks near the old castle in 1932 as part of the Maginot Line that was to protect France from invasion from the east.  There are also delightful hilltop restaurants that can add to a visitor’s pleasure.

It also hard to ignore Eze as it right on the Moyenne Corniche that runs from Nice to Monaco and is the most visited of Cote d’Azur’s perched villages.  It has the remains of a 12th century castle and good views of the coast below, and it has the added pluses of an exotic garden (lots of cacti) and a five star hotel.  Of course, with all this comes endless gift shops and cafeteria at the entrance that make it little hard to feel one is visiting the past.

Gourdon is a little further from the population centers, but still only 10 miles from Grasse, and it is extremely picturesque when viewed from below.  The defensive value of its location is easy to see and there are remains that suggest its being fortified by the Romans, and its medieval castle has been fully restored and is open to visitors.  It is now a national historic site.

For those who are willing to drive a little further and see perched villages that really bring back the past, a relatively easy day trip from Nice or Cannes can include Peillon and Saorge.  Head north out of Nice on Route 2204 and about 10 miles from the Nice city limits there will be a sign saying Peillon.  After visiting Peillon keep going north toward the town of L’Escarene – and on the way it is not bad idea to stop off for a quick look at Peille, a medieval village that is not a perched village, but still interesting.  From L’Escarene, it is over the mountains – still on Route 2204 – to Sospel and then up to Saorge.  Saorge is about 60 miles from Nice, but if one comes back on route 6204 though Ventigmilia in Italy, the larger highway keeps the return to Nice to about 90 minutes.

What makes Peillon so interesting is that it is the first perched village going north that one can see from the road – and truly wonder how one gets up there.  It has a good road going up, though, and at the top there is nice hotel and restaurant.  The medieval village itself is totally free of restaurants and gift shops, and it is an easy fortified perched village to see in less that an hour with a feeling of truly walking through the past.

Peillon, France

The mountain-top town of Peillon up in the clouds.

About 30 minutes north of Peillon is Sospel, which is not a mountain village, but a crossroads town that is a good place to stop for lunch and is not without historic significance of its own.  In the center of town is a toll-bridge with origins that go back to the 11th century and that took advantage of its strategic location along the Bevara River to collect money from those passing through the area.  On a hill above the city is Fort St.-Roch, also built in the early 1930s with cannons imbedded as part of the protecting Maginot Line.

Sospel Toll Bridge

Sospel Toll Bridge

Saorge with its size, location and history may be the most interesting of Cote d’Azur’s perched villages.  It is high up in the Southern Alps, but easier to reach than it looks from the valley below – and large enough to have had a population of over 3,000 when it became part of France in 1860.  Its fortress, which is just ruins today, was able to hold off the Revolutionary army for more than a year in the late 18th century.  It also has a full range of churches marking the passage of time.  There is an 11th century gothic church with a 15th century Italian style tower and a still operating 17th century monastery with a baroque style church.  Its population is down to a little over 400, but this is enough to provide eating options within the village without negatively impacting the medieval appeal.

Saorge, France

Saorge, France

Visiting Eze, Haut-de-Cagnes and/or Ste.-Agnes provides a peek into what Cote d’Azur was like after the Romans left and before the tourists arrived, but it is places like Peillon and Saorge that really takes one into yesteryear..  For the truly adventurous, there are many more perched villages as one goes north and east toward the Italian border.

Note:  This includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Alpes-Maritime, France | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Nice – Heart and Soul of Cote d’Azur (Part 2)

This is a continuation of an earlier post about Nice.

With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Nice was handed back to Savoy until 1860 and 100 years of tourism began that by the end of 19th century had made the city a prime wintering spot for British and Russian royalty as well as many others.  In the 1890s, Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor, and Russian royal family members were in regular attendance from the late 1850s until the First World War.

The queen’s visits did a lot for the Cimiez neighborhood overlooking coastal Nice that not too much earlier had been little more than a Franciscan monastery and some Roman ruins.  This may be a bit of an overstatement since the present Musee de Matisse, adjacent to the monastery and Roman ruins, is in a 17th century Italian style villa.  It was not until 1881, though, when the old road up the hill was joined by the Boulevard de Cimiez that the area was available for extensive development.  With this road improvement, the newly opened Grand Hotel would soon be joined by the Excelsior Hotel Regina, a Moorish style Alhambra Hotel, as well as the Hermitage, Majestic, Riviera and Winter Palace.  Today, all of these hotels have been turned into residences.

This was the Belle Epoque era in Nice, and for a close-up view of the most elaborate buildings of the period, it is not too long a walk down the Boulevard de Cimiez from the Regina and Matisse Museum to the museum of another painter closely related to Nice, Marc Chagall.  Along the way, one passes the hotels noted above, and from the Chagall Museum, almost all of the buses with their one euro fare head to the center city.

The most spectacular, if not largest, of Nice’s Belle Epoque hotels, is the Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais.  It was a late arrival, opening its doors in 1913 and would be the last to do so before the First World War.  Staying or eating there is quite expensive, but it is worth a walk through the lobby and adjoining rooms to the see the artwork and opulence.  The Palais de Justice and Opera House in Old Town were also built during this era.

Hotel Negresco in Nice France

Hotel Negresco in Nice, France

The Russian contribution to this period is the beautiful Russian Orthodox Cathedral opened in 1912 and funded by Tsar Nicholas II to serve the many Russians living in Nice.  It is the largest Russian church outside of Russia, and its minarets and Russian architecture are a sharp contrast to other buildings in the city.  It is located just west of main train station.

The reorientation of Nice’s top line hotels from the hills to near the sea that began with the opening of the Negresco at the end of the Belle Epoque era, reached its peak between the wars.  The Palais-de-Mediterranee casino that opened on the Promenade des Anglais in 1929 was the architectural crown jewel of this period.  It was built by an American millionaire, Frank Jay Gould, and designed by an American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.  It became a successful competitor to Monaco’s casino and helped maintain Nice’s role as a destination of royalty; albeit a very different royalty that included the likes of Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, the American dancer Isadora Duncan and other celebrities of the Jazz Age.

Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice

Palais de la Mediterranee

There are many delightful walks in Nice.  The most obvious of these is the Promenade des Anglais that goes along the Bay of Angels from Castle Hill to the airport – a stretch of about three miles – that is not only scenic, but great for people watching and wide enough for bikes to have their own lanes.  One can spend hours walking around Old Town without getting bored, and the stroll along Boulevard de Cemiez starting at Roman ruins and Matisse Museum heading down to the Chagall Museum takes one past the most spectacular of the Belle Epoque hotels that have been converted into apartments.

A little less historic is walking around Le Port, but charming in its own way.  It does not have the history of other walks as the port was not finished until 1840, but its yachts, restaurants and wide walkway give it an appeal all its own.  The port is between Castle Hill and Mont Boron.  There are walks beginning at the port that go along the rocky shores, and for the more ambitious, through the woods that go to the top of Mont Boron and over to Fort Mont Alban or along the rocky shores to VilleFranche.

Eating out in Nice is generally done in three areas.  These are Old Town; the center city along the traffic free Rue Messina and its extension, Rue de France; and around the port.

Old Town is a fun place to eat, but has a touristy flavor that may be a bit much for most, particularly along the Cours Saleya and its extension beyond the Opera House.  Its better restaurants are near, and generally west of, Cathedral St.-Reparate and near St. Francois Place in the north end of the area.  If it is pizza, frites and people watching you want, then Cours Saleya is the place, and one of the best of its spots is La Voglia near the opera house.  For a little more upscale dining, one might try the Chez Palmyre near St. Francois Place or La Tire Bouchin (out back is better than inside) on Rue de Prefecture.

Rue Messena is not all that different in that like Old Town its restaurants are big on pizza, but it is a little quieter and closer to the hotels.  The best in this area – all big on pizza – are Taverne Messena, Le Quebec and La Pizza. The Rue de France extension has a higher quality of restaurant that reflects its location right behind some of the better hotels.  My favorites there are 11eme Art and a Japanese restaurant, Ma Yucca.  Parking for both Rue Messena and Rue de France extension is best done at underground Palais de Mediterranee parking lot that always has room and is right in the midst of this area.

View of Nice Port from Mont Boron

View of Nice Port from our balcony in Mont Boron

The port, which is home for me, is ringed by restaurants ranging from pizza joints to Michelin-rated fine dining, and it is a very pleasant place to sit outside and eat on nice days.  Its best restaurants include Le Marlin for seafood; In Vino Port; and Gousto.  If you want good food at a low cost, L’Escale is a good bet. .

Note: This includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Alpes-Maritime, France, Nice | Tagged , , , , ,

Nice – Heart and Soul of Cote d’Azur (Part 1)

For most non-French visitors to Cote d’Azur, their trip begins in Nice as their plane sets down in what is France’s busiest non-Paris airport, but more often than not that is the last they see of the city until they return to catch their outbound flight.  This is unfortunate because Nice is the heart and soul of Cote d’Azur, and it has been so for a long, long time and has aged magnificently.

In fact, it has aged so well that as one who has spent a dozen years living on Cote d’Azur, I feel that if you only had only had time to see one place in the region, it should be Nice.  This reflects an historical bias, but it also considers the wonderful scenery; abundance of lovely walks; good restaurants; and a liveliness that can provide a good time for all.

To fully appreciate Nice, though, it is helpful to recognize its historical importance and how much of its “history” is still there to be seen.  At times, I feel that because it has weathered its history so well and is so modern in appearance, its historical importance is easily overlooked.  When taking a leisurely stroll along the beautiful Promenade des Anglais along the Bay of Angels, it is hard to imagine just how much Nice is a part of an ancient world that included Greek traders, Roman soldiers, Saracen raiders, ambitious Anjevin rulers, a 17th century Italian building renaissance and that for almost 500 years – 1388 to 1860 – was part of a Turin-based Savoy.  Not so hard to imagine is that from that latter date, 1860, until the start of the Second World War, Nice was one of the primary northern Mediterranean destinations for English-speaking visitors.

One does not have to go far from the Promenade des Anglais that follows the sea from the airport in the west to Castle Hill in the east to view Nice’s history.  The Greeks left behind, only a name – their settlement in 350 BC was called Nikaia – but Roman Nice, then called Cemenelum, was the capital of its Alpes-Maritimae province, and was primarily in the hills above the city in the Cimiez neighborhood where there is still an amphitheater built at the end of the 2nd century AD and the remains of the largest Roman bath complex in France.

If you are looking to see Nice in historically chronological order, then the park that includes this Roman complex is a great place to start.  It is only about 15 minutes by car from center city, but parking is difficult so a taxi is not a bad idea.  If driving, it is suggested you take a right off the Boulevard de Cimiez before getting to the top of the hill and then go two blocks and turn left on Avenue Bellanda that usually has plentiful parking just south of the park.  This visit is a must as the park includes not only the Roman amphitheater and baths, but also the Matisse Museum, a historic Franciscan Monastery and a beautiful garden that overlooks the city.  Across the street to the north is what was once the Hotel Excelsior Regina, the most impressive of the city’s Belle Epoque hotels that today is an apartment simply called the Regina, but no less impressive now when viewed for a distance.

Abbaye de St. Pons in Nice, France

Abbaye-de-St. Pons in Nice, France

Not far from these ruins in the midst of a hospital complex and overlooking the east side of the city is the resilient Abbaye-de-St.-Pons that dates back to the late 8th century.  It was destroyed by Saracens in 899; rebuilt and then destroyed again by the Turks in 1543; and is best known as the place where a pact was signed in 1388 between John Grimaldi of Nice and Duke Amadeus VII of Savoy that began Nice’s 500 years as part of Savoy.  The Abbaye is not open to visitors and hard to approach, but if you are driving north on Route 19 from center city to Peage 8, it is quite impressive looking down at you from a hilltop on the left.  It can also be seen looking north from the garden by the Franciscan monastery.

Nice was a relatively quiet place between 1388 and the 17th century building renaissance except for the late summer of 1543 when in one of the continuing wars between the long serving King of France, Francis 1st, and Spain’s Charles V, who also controlled Savoy, resulted in a combined French and Turkish invasion of the city.  Much of city was destroyed and many residents killed or taken captive, but its fortifications on Castle Hill were never taken.

For visitors, there are two reminders of this calamity that is known as the Siege of Nice – the monument to Catherine Segurane on Rue de Segurane just north of Castle Hill and Fort Mont Alban.  Catherine is a Nice heroine who was given credit for driving the Turks out of Nice either by grabbing the standard out of the hands of the Turkish standard bearer and rallying the local citizens or, in another version, by lowering her bloomers and showing her ample bottom to the Turks, which so offended their Muslim standards that they turned and fled.  Fort Mont Alban was constructed by the Savoyards in response to this attack on a hill overlooking Nice and the nearby Villefranche and is still there for all to see.

Nice’s sojourn into Savoy and its Italian influence made the city more Italian than French and gave it a large, historic and lively Old Town that is the first stop for most visitors as it is near the center city and the Promenade des Anglais.  Much of what is in Old Town dates back to the 17th century and its many churches feature an Italian baroque style of architecture.  The most prominent of these are:

  • Cathedral Ste.-Reparate, the largest and most important, is on the site of a 13th century church that was too small when the decision was made to move the seat of the bishops of Nice from the hills above the city to a spot closer to Castle Hill, the sea and most of the population.  It was started in 1649 and was not finished until the end of the century.  It has an attractive interior, ten chapels and is open to the public.
Cathedral Ste-Raparate in Nice, France

Cathedral Ste-Raparate in Nice, France

  • Eglise St.-Jacques-du-Gesu, a relatively small church on the east end of Old Town that was remodeled between 1612 and 1642 that has an attractive interior and is also open to the public.
  • Chapelle-de-la-Misericorde was built a little later than the other Old Town churches, but its sits majestically with its layered dome and cupulas on the Cours Saleya with it busy markets and many restaurants.

Also in Old Town, the Palais Lascaris was constructed in Genoese style in 1648 by Italian nobleman and general from nearby Ventimiglia.  It was restored in 1946 and is open to the public.

There is no set pattern as to how to tour Old Town as it nice to just wander and see it many charms, but there are three main arteries.  The north-south Rue de Marche for shopping; the east-west Rue de Prefecture that takes one within a block of almost all key sights – and from there just look for church steeples; and the can’t be missed Cours Saleya with it morning flower and food markets and endless restaurants with seating in the middle of the road when the markets close.

The 18th and early 19th centuries were busy times for Nice, but not so good for building.  During these years Nice was caught in the middle of the many wars of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, and his successors as well as the French Revolution.  In one of the Sun King’s occupations of the city, he destroyed the fortifications on Castle Hill above Old Town.  On a more positive note, it was during these years the charming port on the far side of Castle Hill was created to provide better sea access to the city.

Note: This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Alpes-Maritime, France | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Welcome to my blog!

Since I finished my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur, my daughter insists I have to blog, too. And, since I have a lot of material I didn’t use for the book, plus I need an excuse  to keep traveling and researching history along the way. Stay tuned for excerpts, outtakes and new travel posts.

Arnold G. Danielson

Posted in Corsica

Ste.-Maxime, Grimaud and Draguignan: Something for Everyone

Across the gulf from St.-Tropez are two communities – Ste.-Maxime and Grimaud – that are not only worth a visit on their own merits, but good places to stay while spending time on the western end of Cote d’Azur.   After spending three days there a dozen years ago my wife and I found Ste.-Maxime such a delight that we bought a waterside condo there.  Not only was it a great place to live, but it also provided all the pluses of St.-Tropez without the traffic jams.  There is a year round water shuttle that makes the 15 minute trip between Ste.-Maxime and St.-Tropez, and in high season the boat runs every 20 minutes, and the local beaches are excellent.


View from our terrace in Ste.-Maxime, France

Ste.-Maxime and Grimaud, though, get little attention from Americans, most of whom just drive by on their way to St.-Tropez.  In my eight years living there, I only met a handful of fellow Americans who were not visiting us, but the area is popular with northern Europeans, particularly from England and the Scandinavian countries.  In fact, the king of Sweden has a villa about 300 yards from our condo.  Thus, stores and restaurants speak English if they want to do much business.

Mention in Nice that you have a home in Ste.-Maxime, the response will often be how expensive it is to live there, presumably because of the demand from northern Europeans, but that applies to buying not renting or staying at one of the many excellent hotels.  In Ste.-Maxime, if one is looking for a view and is not concerned about cost, La Belle Aurore with its picturesque location on the water is a great choice and was our introduction to the area.  Having spent six months a year there for eight years, though, I would strongly advise staying a block or two from the shore where the prices are much more reasonable with Le Petite Prince, Hotellerie de la Poste and Best Western Hotel Montfleurie being good choices.

Another option, and one with a feel of the past located just west of Ste.-Maxime near Grimaud is the Hotel Le Beauvallon, which dates back to the Belle Epoque era.  It comes with a golf course, and it is said that Scott Fitzgerald wrote portions of his novel, The Great Gatsby, while staying there in the 1920s, albeit that can be said about many places on the coast.  A more certain local literary star was Jean de Brunhoff, who wrote his Babar the Elephant stories in Ste.-Maxime, which gave its name to Elephant Beach on the town’s east side.

While Ste.-Maxime’s beaches and the shuttle to St.-Tropez are major attractions, the area has a long and interesting history that can be seen best in the restored, charming medieval village of Grimaud.  It is a popular place for second homes for those who like the convenience of living in a village center that has the charms of olden days and is a wonderful place to just stroll around.

Grimaud Castle

Castle ruins in Grimaud

One of Grimaud’s charms are the castle ruins on a hill behind the village that still have a castle-like appearance and is available for climbing up and looking down on the the Golfe de Ste.-Tropez.  The Grimaud castle was built by an early member of Genoa’s Grimaldi family that still rule in the principality of Monaco.  It was not much more than a fortification on a hilltop in the relatively peaceful 12th and 13th centuries, but when times became less secure toward the end of the 13th century, the fortifications were upgraded.  Much of what can be seen today came from improvements made in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A bit more modern is the fascinating Port Grimaud that was built in 1990s as a Venice-like boat city.  It is a collection of inter-connecting lagoons with every condo having a dock for a boat.  It is a boat-owner’s dream place to live, but also a popular tourist spot.

Ste.-Maxime is a rapidly growing town, but it has its bits of history kept in good repair.  The Tour Carre that houses the tourist office was built across the gulf from the St.-Tropez citadel in the 16th century to help protect in the area from seafaring invaders and the church next door was built in 1755.  On a hill behind the town, it has its own imitation castle now a hotel, Les Tourelles, that was built in the 1890s by an early motion picture inventor.  It also has a modest version of a Grand Hotel built in the 1890s and a waterfront casino.

Not all Cote d’Azur history, though, is about olden times, and Ste.-Maxime is proof of that.  The World War II Allied invasion of Europe included troops also landing in the south of France to provide a second front to complicate the German defense in what was called Operation Dragoon.  These landings in August 1944 were on the beaches near St.-Tropez; Ste.-Maxime; and in the vicinity of Frejus and St.-Raphael.  Paratroopers were dropped near the inland towns of Le Muy, Le Motte and Draguignan with Resistance forces helping them get to their assigned destinations.  Ste.-Maxime was the mid-point of the landings and the logical place to move inland across the Massif-des-Maures hills to meet up with the paratroopers and move on to take the naval base at Toulon and then Marseille.

Operation Dragoon was a success, but it had its hard moments, particularly for the paratroopers.  The beautiful summer days that are the Cote d’Azur norm in August did not apply to the early morning of August 15, 1944.  Cloudy conditions and darkness complicated targeting the paratroop drops, and 600 paratroopers with their equipment were dropped outside of St.-Tropez on the opposite side of the Gulf of St.-Tropez and 15 to 20 miles from the intended landing area.  Sixteen of these paratroopers disappeared into the water.   Those dropped on the far side of the Massif-des-Maures were spread over a much broader area than intended.

The beach landings went better than the paratroop drop, and within two days, the coast was secure and troops moved through Ste.-Maxime to positions north of the Massif-des-Maures.  From there they moved west to take the naval base at Toulon and Marseille.

Military Cemetary

Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial

There are monuments commemorating the landings in Ste.-Maxime and elsewhere and a well-maintained Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial in Draguignan about 20 miles inland from Ste.-Maxime.  The latter is well maintained and well worth a visit.  Draguignan, itself, is a good-sized town and home to one of France’s largest military bases, which is not necessarily a tourist plus.

About 20 miles north as well is L’Abbaye-le-Thoronet that moved to its present site near Draguignan in 1157.  The church was constructed in the late 12th century and the monastery in the early 13th century.  It was at one time a prosperous monastery and a major area landowner.  Today, the abbey is a well-preserved museum and easily accessible historic landmark.

The Chartreuse-de-la-Verne is not nearly as accessible, but a majestic hillside location in a remote wooded part of the Massif-des-Maures adds to its aura.  It can be seen in the distance from the narrow and winding road between Grimaud and Collobrieres, and a similar road a few miles to the east of the latter winds its way up the hill to the site.  It has been abandoned and reoccupied many times since its 12th century opening, but since 1983, it has been occupied by a Carthusian congregation called the Order of Bethlehem.

When you get back from swimming or touring, Ste.-Maxime has lots of good places to eat.  Its old town is almost wall-to-wall restaurants most of which are only open in the high season, but the best ones are on the fringes of the old town and open year-round.  My personal favorites are Le Gruppi and La Badiane at the high-end and among the more reasonably priced, Le Reserve and a place simply called Fred’s.  TripAdvisor does not totally agree with me, but as some of the reviews suggest, places open year-round tend to favor the regulars, which my wife and I certainly were when living there.

Note:  This includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.





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