North of Fréjus and Saint Raphaël lies the Pays de Fayence, a mountainous area with a group of perched villages around Fayence. These villages with their natural defenses provided safety and refuge from Saracens, pirates and other invaders which raided the Provence during the more than 500 centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Later theses villages did not participate in the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries because their geographic situation made economic development unprofitable. As a result many inhabitants migrated to the cities of the coast, primarily Marseille, Nice, Cannes and Toulon. For nearly a century the "Villages Perchés" of the Provence were slowly decaying museum pieces of times long past.
In the 1960's the French government realized the historic significance and tourism potential and started funding the restoration of these villages. Today the "Villages Perchés" of the Pays de Fayence similar to those of the Luberon and Haut Vaucluse further west are major tourist attractions. Many out-of-towners have bought and restored village houses for summer residence or moved here permanently.
The Pays de Fayence is a great location to explore the Côte d'Azure around Nice, Cannes and Saint Raphaël. From your vantage point at one of the historic villages you have panoramic views of the distant coast, which can be reached by car in 30 minutes. You can relax here and listen to the sound of the cicadas knowing that if you feel like it you can always go down to Saint Raphaël, Cannes, Antibes or Nice and get some action. In gastronomic terms you don't need to. The Pays de Fayence is a heaven for foodies with a wide range of restaurants, from Michelin star studded gastronomic temples to more modest country style restaurants and bistros.
It is also a hikers, bikers (if you like mountains) and above all a golfer's paradise. The area has a number of magnificent golf courses. The best times to visit the Pays de Fayence are March to the end of June and mid-September to late November. Avoid the summer months - the area increasingly suffers from heavy traffic as tourist from the coast visit these historic gems.
Here is a short description of the villages and sights we recommend in the area, Fayence first and then the other villages in alphabetical order:
Approaching from the south you see Fayence (pop. 4.300) perched on a hill top, surrounded by forested mountains with the azure sky above, a pretty sight. In spite of its size, Fayence has preserved most its historic charm. The Roman settlers must have liked the location, they named it "Faventia Loca" which means favorable location. It later became Faventia, then Faiença and finally Fayence. In other words the town's name has nothing to do with the faïence, the fine pottery. The population of Fayence converted to Christianism around 250. During the Saracene invasions the village was totally destroyed. From 794 until 1782 it belonged to the bishopric of Fréjus.
The 18th century Église Saint Jean Baptiste is the parish church, a sizeable church with a beautiful interior, especially the 18th century marble altar piece by Christophe Fossati, a sculptor from Marseille. Also noteworthy are the 11th century Chapelle Notre Dame des Cyprès in Romanesque style, originally the chapel of a monastery, the 13th century Porte Sarrasine and the Tour de l'Horloge (clock tower). You might want to visit the Musée du Pain, a small museum dedicated to the art of bread baking in medieval times. The Four du Mitan, the middle oven, right next to the museum was the largest of four bread ovens which were built in Fayence in the 16th century. This oven and the Four Plus Bas (lowest oven) were in use until 1947. If you want to delve deeper into local customs you might want to visit the Ecomusée Agricole du Pays de Fayence, a small museum focusing on the area's agricultural traditions, something for a rainy day.
Fayence is the commercial and administrative center for the Pays de Fayence, so it gets fairly busy during market days and the summer school vacations. It has a fair number of restaurants, cafés, shops and a good selection of hotels and B&Bs as well as two large tourist developments, the Domaine de Terre Blanche, a Four Seasons golf resort (one of Europe's largest) and the Domaine de Fayence, a holiday village. The Salon des Antiquaires de Fayence is one of the best known antiquarian and second hand (brocante) fairs in the region. It takes place 5 times a year: Christmas, February, May, July, August and the end of October (inquire with the Fayence tourist office).
The Aerodrome de Fayence Tourrettes is one of Europe's largest gliding aerodromes. It is a base for launching high altitude and long distance flights over the Southern Alps. You can rent gliders, provided you have a valid licensed, a flightbook and a membership in the French Aeroclub (a 10 day temporary membership and insurance card can be bought here). Non-French licences must first be validated by the DGAC-Direction Générale de l'Aviation Civile, the French Civil Aviation Authority, which has an office at the Nice airport. If you can't do that or you don't have a license you might be able to arrange for a short glider flight with a resident instructor pilot.
An ancient village (pop. 1.250) on the edge of the Canjuers plateau about 17km (11miles) west of Fayence. Tall, narrow stone houses seem to lean towards the cobbled streets. Bargemon was protected by a 12m (39ft) high rampart with a series of watch towers in between. A few remnants of the ramparts can be seen on - you guessed it - Rue des ramparts. There are four well preserved medieval gates, the Porte du Château (Castle Gate), the Porte de la Tour de l'Horloge (Clock Tower Gate), the Porte de la Prison (Prison Gate) and the Porte du Clos (named after the adjacent Tour du Clos). The Mairie (town hall) is located in a building which used to be the hospital in medieval times as evidenced by an inscription "Maison Commune" on the façade. On Place Philippe Chauvier is another nice fountain dating from 1805. Église Saint Etienne is the village church. It uses a wall of the ramparts on one side, you can still see the arrow slits. Two marble angel heads of the main altar are attributed to Pierre Puget (1620 - 1694), the sculptor, architect and painter from Marseille. The church's clock tower dates from 1662. The 17th century Chapelle Saint Etienne houses the Musée Galerie Honoré Camos named after the well known painter and potter from Vallauris (1906-1991). The Chapelle Notre Dame de Montaigu (1609) was built by the Fraternity of the White Penitents and contains a statuette of the Virgin, brought here from Montaigu in Belgium, which dispenses miracles. A nice chapel to visit if it happens to be open.
The village has one small hotel, a couple of B&Bs, small shops and a couple of restaurants and cafés. Bargemon is known for its pure water and its healthy climate. No wonder it has attracted the British, including a certain football star and his ex-singer wife who bought a large property nearby.
A few kilometers to the east of Fayence you come upon Callian (pop. 2.450), a bit off the beaten track but very pretty and even during summer vacations an oasis of calm. Callian's nicely restored houses cluster below an impressive 15/17th century château which is privately owned. The village's winding streets with its old buildings are a very pretty sight. The 17th century Église de l'Assomption, the village church. The Chapelle des Pénitents is used for art exhibitions and classical concerts. The oldest building in the village, the former parish church, Chapelle Notre Dame des Roses, dates back to the 10th century and is an archaeological site with excavations from the Gallo-Roman period. At Place de la Bourguignon, in front of the church, is a nice water cascade. You have a great view of Lac de Saint Cassien, which lies southeast of Callian and its close neighbour Montauroux. Christian Dior's grave can be seen in the town's churchyard. He lived in the Domaine de la Colle in Montauroux.
The pretty village (pop.1.400) sits on top of a ridge with the white tower of Église Notre Dame as the highest point. There are remnants of a 13th century château. The 17th century donjon (clock tower) with a wrought-iron belfry, the beautiful old Mairie and the many nicely preserved village houses make Callas a very pleasant place to spend a vacation. It is large enough to afford some infrastructure, a couple of shops and restaurants and small enough to still retain a certain Provençal charm. One curiosity is the large lavoir (wash house) in the lower village, a two storey building with a pillared façade. On the right side of the second storey is an inscription reading "DOUCHES" - the public showers for the inhabitants of Callas (no longer in use).
Driving north from Callas on Route D25 make a right turn into Route D425 after the Col de Boussague to reach Claviers (pop. 557), a picturesque perched village surrounded by forests and with outstanding views of Bargemon to the north and the Mediterranean sea to the south. Stone village houses, narrow alleys, ancient chapels, a lavoir, many steps and archways - you are back in medieval times. The 19th century Église Saint Sylvestre is the parish church. There isn't much infrastructure here, most houses are owned by out-of-towners. But its only about 5km to Callas to the south and the same distance to Bargemon in the north.
A beautiful reservoir about 7km long (north/south) with an east-west section of 3km, open to the public. It is bordered by forested hills and most of its shoreline is undeveloped. You can access the lake by car only at a few points from Route D37, which runs from the Autoroute A55 (exit Les Adrets) north to Montauroux, crossing the lake at its middle section. The Pré Claou bridge is a favorite place for bathers jumping from it into the crystal clear water, an activity strongly discouraged by the authorities. There are a few points near the bridge ample parking and easy access to the shore, beaches for swimming and picnic tables. No motorboats are permitted on the lake but you can rent small row or electric boats, canoes and windsurf boards. Fortunately most of the shoreline is accessible only by small trails or by boat, which keeps the lake a bit less congested than would otherwise be the case.
The lake is famous for its excellent fishing, especially the giant carp which can be caught here. But please be aware that you do need a fishing license and that there are numerous different regulations as to what type of fish you can catch, when you are allowed to catch certain species and what equipment you are allowed to use.
Driving 14km north from Fayence leads you to Mons (pop.680) a village sitting on a small plateau 811m above sea level, 450m higher than Fayence. It is one the most visited of the Pays de Fayence perched villages, but as most houses are owned by out of towners it seems to go dormant once the tourist season is over. No doubt it is very pretty and offers magnificent views down to the coast. Most tourist guides and websites will tell you that you can see Corsica from here but we have been told by locals that this is not the case. The most you might be able to see are clouds over Corsica's Mont Cinto or mirages after too many glasses of wine. But on a clear day you can see the Mediterranean coastline from Menton in the east to Toulon in the west. The best place is from Place Saint Sébastien at the southern tip of the plateau. Similar to Saint Paul de Vence there is only one entrance to the village and that is from the north. The 13/16th century Église Notre-Dame is the village church. There are a number of smaller chapels, a couple of fountains and many pretty village houses. Due to the seasonality there is little infrastructure here. But you come here to experience calm and the pure air, enjoy the views and walk the narrow village streets.
About 2km further to the east of Caillan lies Montauroux (pop.4.100), perched on the edge of a plateau and pretty much hidden in the forested mountains. The Roman Montis Auroris, the golden hill, later became Mons Auros and todays Montauroux. The village is built around a fort which was badly damaged during the religious wars. There are ruins of a Roman aqueduct, a medieval church, a couple of chapels, fountains and many houses from the 17th and 18th century. Christian Dior (1905-1957) had his summer residence in the nearby Domaine de La Colle Noire. He is buried in neighbouring Callian's cementary.
Driving 6km west on Route D19 from Fayence you will reach Seillans (pop. 2.133), one of the prettiest of the eight perched villages of the Pays de Fayence. Park your car in the lower part of the village and do the rest on foot. Ascending to the upper village you will reach a small square, shaded by huge plane trees. Enjoy the great panoramic views. Enter the oldest part oldest part of the village near the 16th century Porte Sarrasine (Saracene Gate), where the two large rocks are standing opposite the lovely Hotel des Deux Rocs. You find cobblestone alleys, ancient village houses dating from the 16/17th century, some lovely squares and fountains and the remnants of an 11th century fortification. You eventually reach the 12th century Romanesque style Église Saint Léger, named after the village patron saint who was martyred in 671. Noteworthy inside are the 15th century bénitier (holy-water stoup), paintings from the 16-19th century and a 16th century triptych. At the top of the village is what looks like a château, actually a picturesque gathering of buildings from the period between 1000 and 1600; it's privately owned. About 2km east of Seillans is 11/13th century Chapelle Notre Dame de l'Ormeau, a Romanesque chapel, which contains a 16th century altarpiece with sculptured portraits of the wise men and shepherds adoring the Christ child.
Seillans was probably fist settled by the Salyens, a Celto-Ligurian tribe who invaded the Lower Provence around 400 BC. First mentioned in 814 as Agro Ciliano, it became Sillonem (1013) and finally Seillans. After the fall of Roman Empire and subsequent Normanic and Saracene invasions it was ruled by the Monastery of Saint Victoire in Marseille (884). In the 14th century is became co-property of the Knights Hospitalers (today's Maltese Order) and the Counts of Provence, the latter being succeeded by the French King in 1480.
Over the years the village has attracted many craftsmen and artists. Which brings us to La Maison Waldberg, a 17th century townhouse, which was donated by Line Adriani-Guès and her husband, the American writer and art critic Patrick Waldberg (1913-1985) to the village in 1988. It had been in the possession of the Guès family for more than 230 years. The couple became close friends with the German painter, sculptor and poet Max Ernst (1891-1976), who lived the last 12 years of his life in Seillans with his wife, the American painter Dorothea Tanning. Another friend was the painter Stan Appenzeller (1901-1980), some of whose paintings were bequeathed to the municipality by his wife Anna. After extensive renovations, the Maison Waldberg accommodates today on the ground floor the Tourist Office, on the first floor a vast collection of lithographs, collages and etchings by Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning and on the second floor the paintings of Stan Appenzeller. The top floor is used for temporary exhibitions.
You find some excellent B&Bs and self-catering holiday homes in and around Seillans, as well as the romantic Hotel des Deux Rocs. The restaurant scene here is one the best. Like a few other towns in the region, Seillans has retained its artesanal perfume production. The factories, outside the village up on the hill, have been operating since the late 19th century.