The following is a post, kindly submitted by Eve Walsh, a freelance writer with a keen interest in travel writing, as well as a dear love of France and French culture. It is her dream to retire to Brittany and immerse herself in French life fully.
The Riviera has long been the go-to holiday destination for the rich and famous as well as people from all other walks of life – old, young, families and couples alike are drawn to the glamour of the big resorts such as Cannes, St Tropez and Nice. Whilst these destinations are great fun to visit, for many people the big names on the Cote D’Azur hold less allure and it’s the smaller, arguably, more authentic towns and villages set back from the coast that attract them back year after year. Pretty stone-built villages set in the cooler hills of the Massif de Maures, behind St Tropez, make for a perfect base from which to explore the rest of this truly stunning region of France.
The best ways to explore
Depending on where your base is and how long your holiday is planned for, there are a few options for exploring this area of France. If you have driven then you can obviously use your car to get around, or, if you are feeling particularly fit, then hire or bring a bike with you as the area has a wealth of bike routes mapped out. Some of the terrain may be hilly but you will be richly rewarded with some delightful scenery and the opportunity to slow down (metaphorically as well as in reality!) and really drink in your surroundings. Other options for travel to the area include flying to Nice and then picking up a car from the airport. Or, you could take one of the many cruises whose itinerary includes a stopover at Nice; the cruise industry has been witnessing a real renaissance and this looks set to continue into 2014 and beyond. Many of these cruises also offer the opportunity to cruise and stay; stopping over can give you the flexibility to take in some of the gems that the Mediterranean region has to offer. As travel specialists Planet Cruise say, the only difficulty is deciding whether to tour the east or west Med!
Once on the Riviera head inland and you will find a variety of picturesque villages that beat to a quieter drum than those on the coast. Grimaud, La Garde Freinet and La Môle, all offer a more laid back version of Rivera life and are well worth visiting.
La Garde Freinet
This pretty town is accessed via winding roads that takes you up and out of the built-up St Tropez peninsula into the hills behind, passing by vineyards and forests as you go. As one of the villages that is set in the heart of the Massif de Maures the town has a number of places to stop awhile and have a drink or a bite to eat. The main street is pedestrian only so you can take a leisurely walk along and look at the interesting independent shops on offer. There is a twice weekly market that offers locally produced food as well as crafts and really brings the town to life. Surrounded by chestnut, oak, cork oak and pine forests there are also a number of walks that start from the centre of town and lead up into the countryside – many of them offer stunning vantage points across to St Tropez and the sea.
With its 11th century chateau at its peak Grimaud has a commanding position over the Golfe de St Tropez below. The village itself has been sympathetically restored and whilst it is close to St Tropez it manages to retain an authentic French feel against St Tropez glitzier image. Stop off at the tourist office and pick up a map showing a walk around the town – it will take you along some of the narrow medieval streets, old fountains and past some of the 15th and 16th century village houses. Interestingly, cactus is popular here along with the ubiquitous but glorious bougainvillea. Numerous cafes and restaurants can offer respite to this quirky and engaging town.
This smaller village offers a breath of fresh air and can act as a great base for exploring the wider region. It has a selection of year-round markets within easy reach so is not solely a summer destination – and it will be far quieter if you visit out of the peak summer season. There is plenty to do here to keep you busy with chateaus to visit, scented pine forests to explore and a number of local family owned wineries where you can taste the local grape.
With so many villages in this area of France to explore these really are just three to get started with. Notably, Cogolin and Le Plan de la Tour are two of the other must sees if you are in the region – if you can’t fit them in this trip perhaps a return visit will need to be planned!