The Mediterranean coast from the Italian border to La Ciotat just before Marseille is referred to as the French Riviera. It's a 220 km drive on the direct route, but the coast line stretches for more than 400 km with dozens of beaches and many rocky stretches. The term Côte d'Azur refers to the coast around Menton, Nice and Cannes, albeit is it frequently used for the entire coast between Menton and Toulon. We stick with the correct name: Côte Varoise, the coast of the Var - the Western part of the French Riviera.
The French Riviera has a reputation which ranges from glamor and glitz to the rather ordinary. During the summer holidays millions of French migrate to the coast and traffic jams are notorious. If you own or rent a vacation house and you know your way around, this does not present a problem, you know how to arrange yourself. But for first time visitors to the Provence the summer holiday season can be challenging and careful planning is required to make your trip a success.
The Côte Varoise was developed for tourism much later than the Côte d'Azur proper. It profited from a stricter enforcement of French zoning laws, which are pretty stringent and leave no room for the type of unfettered high-rise developments you find further east (Cagnes sur Mer being the most obvious). There is zero chance that you will encounter the mass tourism slums you find in many parts of Spain, Crete or Mexico.
In this section we highlight the sights of the coastal area between St.Tropez in the east to Bandol in the west. Information about the countryside and villages in the hinterland, like Collobrières, La Garde Freinet, Grimaud and Plan de la Tour is available in our Massif des Maures section. You will find that the Massif des Maures has its own personality and surprises, perhaps the best location if you want to have a restful vacation but still enjoy life on the beach.
A popular coastal resort (pop.8.000) with many cafés, bars, discos, restaurants and a large yacht harbour. The old town has some picturesque streets around the 18th century Église Saint Françoise de Sales. You can take a take a boat to the Ile de Bendor, just a couple of 100m offshore. Paul Ricard (1909 - 1997), the inventor of the Pastis, recreated a Provençal village with art galleries, craft shops and an exhibition of wines and spirits with over 7,000 bottles from around 50 countries. Between Sanary sur Mer and Saint Cyr sur Mer (pop. 11.500) is the Golf de Dolce Frégate complex with two golf courses (18 and 9 holes), hotel and restaurant. On Saint Cyr's main square stands one of the four replicas of the Statue of Liberty in France, smaller (2.50m) than the original. It was donated by a local businessman, who acquired it from the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
The hinterland of Bandol has some attractive villages surrounded by vineyards. This area is the oldest wine growing region in France going back to Roman times. The wines of Bandol are mostly robust reds with the distinctive aroma and flavor of the Mourvèdre grape used here. It is worth visiting the picturesque villages of La Cadière d'Azur and Le Castellet, a good place to find your hideways type vacation home in the middle of the Bandol vineyards. The Romanesque chapel to Notre Dame du Bausset Vieux in Le Beausset (pop. 7.800) contains some fine paintings. Between Le Castellet and Signes is the Circuit Paul Ricard, a raceway used primarily for test driving cars. Paul Ricard had a huge property in Signes. He sold the race circuit to Bernie Ecclestone in 1999.
Situated on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean coast from some distance is Bormes les Mimosas (pop. 6.400), a picturesque clutter of colored houses with flower pots on window sills, covered passageways and vaulted interiors. The village houses have been carefully restored by artists and out-of-towners, who found their coup d'coeur holiday home here. There are plenty of mimosas here as well as oleander, bougainvillea and eucalyptus trees, a pretty sight in spring. The village changed its name from Bormes to the more romantic Bormes les Mimosas in 1968. The main square, Place Saint François has a statue of Saint Francis de Paul, who saved the village from the plague in 1481 as well as a chapel dedicated to the saint. The 18th century Église Saint Trophyme has a series of interesting paintings illustrating the path to the Cross. You can walk another Rue Rompi-Cuou here, like in Ramatuelle (there it is called Rue Rompe Cu). Its a steep street and the name suggests that lots of people fell on their behind walking it - the name means "bottom breaker". The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire on Rue Carnot, explores the evolution of Bormes and the Chartreuse de la Verne, to the north and the art collection includes works of Rodin and local artists. The village consistently rates top scores in the annual "Ville Fleuri" contest.
Southwest of Bormes-les-Mimosas near the little village of Cabasson lies the Le Fort de Brégançon, the official summer residence of the French Presidents. It sits on top of a small cliff connected with the mainland by a dam. Reportedly the interior is pretty austere and many President chose other vacation destinations. Definitely not Chirac's choice, he preferred the Eden Rock in Cap d'Antibes. Reportedly Nicolas Sarkozy has been seen swimming here in the summer of 2007. You can see the 12th century fort from the Plage de Cabasson, one of the four beaches at the end of the Route de Cabasson. The beaches all charge parking fees, but they are worthwhile if you want to enjoy the tranquility of this stretch of the coast. Avoid weekends, when les Marseillais descend in troves with their picnic baskets.
A popular family beach resort (pop.5.300) with a big marina for over 1000 pleasure boats. The layout is modern with a beautiful promenade, lots of shops, cafés, discos, bistros and many restaurants. The western part of the town is situated on a rocky promontory, the Cap Cavalaire. It is more upscale with nice villas, some rental apartments and a hotel. The eastern section has 3 km of fine sandy beaches framed, a long promenade and lots of modern buildings behind it. What used to be a small fishing village of the Gassin community is now a beach town packed with vacationers during summer holidays. On the beach's eastern end a coastal footpath can be followed to the nature reserves of Le Rayol Canadel, Cap Camarat and Cap Lardier. For more information about this interesting walk click here.
East of Toulon, about 20km (12.5 miles) by way of the coastal road, lies Hyères (pop.54.000), the oldest resort town on the Riviera. Subtropical in appearance, it has many stately villas from the times when English aristocracy built their winter residences here. The Prince of Wales, who stayed here during the winters of 1788 and 1789, put Hyères on the map for the British. The popular 1791 novel "Celestina" by Charlotte Turner Smith is set in Hyères. Interrupted by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the British returned in 1815. Joseph Conrad lived for a while in Hyères and in 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson stayed at the Grand Hotel on Avenue des Iles d'Or for two years and later rented a villa, la Solitude, on Rue Victor-Basch. In 1884, Elisabeth Douglas, the daughter of Alfred Lord Douglas, had a a villa built on the Costebelle hill. In the winter of 1892 Queen Victoria stayed for three weeks at the Albion Hotel. At that time shop signs were in both French and English and there was an English butcher, a chemist, two banks and two golf courses as well as two English churches, the All Saint's Church at Costebelle and Saint Paul's English Church on Avenue Beauregard. With the increasing popularity of Nice, Cannes and Menton the British presence in Hyères declined. Some signs of the English presence have survived, like the fountain near the new public library in a square shaded by plane tree. The inscription reads: "In loving memory of Marianne Stewart who died on 18 August 1900. She laboured many years in the cause of mercy to animals. Her last wish was that a drinking fountain should be set up for them in Hyères". The American novelist Edith Wharton stayed in Hyères every winter from 1919 until her death in 1937. The garden of her residence, Le Castel Sainte-Claire can be visited. After her death the house was purchased by Olivier Voutier, a French naval officer, whose grave is in the garden. He discovered the Venus de Milo in 1820 on the Aegean island of Milos.
Today Hyères is a busy town with lots of light industry and commerce on its outskirts. But it is worth strolling through the Vieille Ville, the old town below the hilltop castle ruins. There are some picturesque streets and squares, such as Rue Paradis and Place Massillon where markets are held on weekdays. In Place Massillon, named for one of France's greatest preachers who was born in Hyeres in 1663, is the Tour Saint Blaise, the last vestige of a Knights Templar fortress. South of the Old Town, broad avenues lined with palms give the new town a sub-tropical look. The Musée Municipal in the Chôteau Denis on place Lefèvre exhibits items from the original Greek settlement of Olbia as well as Saracen pottery. The lighthouse that stands there today is called l'Almanarre, which is derived from the Arab Al Manar (a lighthouse). Hyères has many beautiful gardens, especially Saint Bernard Park, above the Old Town, which has many tropical plants and fine panoramic views, and the Olbius-Riquier Gardens, in the lower town, also with a large collection of tropical plants and cacti.
The beaches are further south on the eastern shore of the 7 km (4.5 miles) long peninsula, the Presqu'ile de Giens and southeast in front of the Toulon-Hyères airport. They, are lined with camping sites and vacation rental apartments. On the western side of the Presqu'ile de Giens are saltmarshes and a lagoon where flamingos are frequently seen. The Presqu'ile (in French: the "nearly island", a very good description) is pretty busy and at its tip is the fortress of La Tour Fondue with a small port where the boats to Porquerolles depart.
An largely under-rated beach resort (pop. 5.500) with a fine sandy beach, a large pleasure boat port, a pleasant central square laid out as a garden and fine views to Port Cros Island. It is situated right below Bormes les Mimosas. A modern town with many restaurants, cafés, bars, discos and shops. Population increases tenfold during the summer when the town is packed with vacationers. Southwest of Le Lavandou is the beach resort of La Favière, a similar setup as in Le Lavandou. Further south and west are a couple of good beaches and the summer residence of the French Presidents, the Fort de Brégançon.
A popular beach resort (pop. 8.840) close to Hyères with a large marina complex, called Port Miramar. The modern town is teaming with tourists during the summer school holidays - there are eight camping places here. The main attraction after the beaches and marina is the Jardin d'Oiseaux Tropicaux, a tropical bird park.
The planned seaside community on the Golfe du Saint Tropez can be visited only on foot or by boat, you must leave the car at the entrance. An elegant, modern holiday village designed by Francois Spoerry and built on the shores of the Golfe de St Tropez. It's a place for boating, each front door has its own mooring. It is a bit like the Disney version of a Provençal fishing village, well designed and harmonious with townhouses in pastel colors, colonnades and bridges over the canals. There are shops, banks, cafés and a post-office at the main square near the entrance. You can either rent small self-drive boats to tour the canals or book a sightseeing cruise. Grimaud is a perched village in the Massif des Maures about 15km northwest of Port Grimaud, for further information click here.
The Ile de Porquerolles is the largest of the group of islands known as the Iles d'Hyères a 15 minute boat ride from the tip of Presqu'ile de Giens, the peninsula near Hyères. During the holiday season the three islands are visited by more than 3.000 people daily. During the rest of the year, they are peaceful and thoroughly enjoyable. There are no cars allowed, but you can rent a bike and tour the island. After coming back from your island tour ....... read more about it here.
The small beach resort (pop.700) between Saint Tropez and Le Lavandou is famous for its botanic garden on one the prettiest stretches of the Mediterranean Sea, the Domaine du Rayol. The garden is on a promontory overlooking the sea and the bay of Figuier. The village proper consists of two parts, Le Rayol and Canadel. It has a wonderful beach, sheltered by pine woods, with Provençal style village houses, a hotel and a marina.
The gardens of Le Rayol date from 1910, a period when many rich families built residences on this unspoilt coastal stretch. Alfred Théodore Courmes, a banker from Paris in his late 50s bought 20 ha of coastal land and had an art nouveau mansion built here to retire with his wife. The very elaborate garden design included a summer house (the Trianon of Madame Courmes), a classical pergola and a grand alley flanked by cypress trees leading to a bamboo garden. In 1925 they sold the main property. It was subsequently converted to a luxury hotel and spa, the Hôtel de la Mer. The couple moved to another villa, "Le Rayollet", at other end of the property. Courmes committed suicide in Monaco in 1934 after loosing his fortune to gambling. The property was sold in 1940 to the industrialist Henry Potez (1891-1981), the owner of Aéroplanes Potez - the company produced over 7000 planes in the 1920's and 30'. Potez undertook an extensive renovation of the mansion and expanded the garden planting more than 400 different species. After World War II the property fell into disrepair.
In 1989 it was rescued from real estate developers by the Conservatoire du Littoral, the state run coastal nature conservation trust. The garden was totally redesigned by the well known garden architect Gilles Clémenty. He created individual gardens that reflect the five continents - Europe, Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. You can make a tour around the globe in a couple of hours: from the Canary Islands to Australia and New Zealand, from South Africa to Chile, Mexico, California and on to China. The outstanding architectural feature of the Domaine du Rayol is the monumental Pateck staircase that crosses the garden on its way to the sea. When it was built between 1925 and 1927 it led up to the Rocher du Drapeau (Flag Rock). The stairs allowed the residents of the property easier access to the beaches. Today, only the center section of the stairs remains leading to a large pergola at the top. But they are impressive nevertheless, an outstanding example Art Nouveau architecture. The Patek pergola and stairs were added to the list of Historic Monuments in 1989. You should plan for at least 1/2 day to visit the Domaine du Rayol.
No surprise that St.Tropez (pop. 5.600) is such a tourist magnet, its location and Mediterranean flair make it irresistible. But the heydays when artists and intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir congregated here are over. Nowadays Saint Tropez attracts the rich, the socialites and paparazzi, the like of Naomi Campbell, Bruce Willis, Ivana Trump and Paris Hilton. And of course all of those who try to catch a glimpse of them. It's a yearly ritual as ....... to read more about Saint Tropez and the villages of Cogolin, La Croix Valmer, Gassin and Ramatuelle click here.
A fashionable and lively resort (pop. 12.000) with 5 km (3.1 miles) of fine sandy beaches, an elegant promenade with casino and a large yacht port. It is mostly modern in appearance but everything is in relatively good taste. The new village of Le Couloubrier north of the old town and the town's administrative centre were designed by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill in 1972, who was also invloved in the renovation of the port area. The old town has some pretty streets lined with boutiques and galleries. Near the port is the Tour Carrée, a defensive tower from the 16th century. It houses the local archeological and folk museum. In the Saint Donat park between Sainte Maxime and Le Muy is an extraordinary little museum, the Musée du Phonographe et de la Musique Mécanique, a museum of mechanical music with a collection of old gramophones, musical boxes and barrel organs. There is a wide choice of hotels, restaurants, bars and nightly entertainment spots as well as plenty of vacation rentals in town and up on the hills. AquaCity on the road to Le Muy north of Sainte Maxime is an aquatic fun park with water slides, speed rivers, freefalls, paddling and wave pool, shops, restaurants and picnic areas. Drive the coastal road east to Cap des Sardinaux with great views over the Golfee de Saint Tropez. Further east is La Nartelle beach, the best one in the area.
About 6 km west of Toulon is the beautiful seaside resort of Sanary sur Mer (pop. 17.200). It lies between two picturesque bays with sandy beaches, the Baie du Bandol to the northwest and the Baie du Sanary to the east. South of the town's center is the Cap Nègres headland with beautiful villas, some from the early 19th century, nice gardens and plenty of pine trees. The town's origins go back to a small cloister, the "Cellam Sancti Nazarii", founded by monks from Sainte Victoire. Later it was named Saint Nazaire, which in 1890 became the Provençal "San Nari" and in 1928 today's Sanary sur Mer. In the town center with some picturesque streets is Église Saint Pierre, constructed in 1892 on the ruins of the Saint Nazaire cloister and a later 16th century church. The remainder of the town consists of more modern buildings, many containing vacation apartments, a couple of hotels, restaurants, cafès and a promenade leading from the pleasure boat port east to Six Fours les Plages.
Sanary sur Mer became a temporary refuge for German intellectuals who fled the Hitler Regime after 1933. Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Ludwig Marcuse, Joseph Roth, Franz Werfel, Arnold Zweig and many other stayed in what was at that time a small fishing village. The presence of "les Allemands" was totally forgotten until the 1990s when the village placed a commemorative plaque near the tourism office at the port.
A popular seaside resort and exurb of Toulon, Six Four les Plages (pop. 33.200) is named after six fortifications " Sex Furnos" which stood here in the 11th century. Main attractions are the sandy beach on Baie de Sanary and further south the Presqu'ile de Sicié, a headland with a rocky coast and extensive forests. Offshore of the headland's western point, the Petit Gaou, lies the Ile des Embiez. The island, reached from the Port du Brusc, close to the Petit Gaou, has become well-known through the Institut Océanographique Paul Ricard, a marine research laboratory headed by the biologist Alain Bombard. The island was purchased in 1958 by Paul Ricard (see Bandol) to develop it for tourism. There is an an aquarium and museum, a marina, shipyards and a hotel . Patrick Ricard, the son of Paul and current chairman of the French beverage group Pernot-Ricard is funding the institute. Driving further east on the peninsula along the wild coast you reach the 1000 ha Grande Forêt Communale du Cap Sicié et de Janas with many Aleppo pines, garrigue type brushes, mimosas - very pretty in spring time.
Toulon's story is a bit like Marseille's, only on a smaller scale: industrious, noisy, busy, a melting pot - a wonderful place if you like to live in a vibrant city, not so great if you are looking for peace and charm. In other words it does not have to be on your list of sights you absolutely need to visit in the Provence. But there are some interesting places in town and the villages of Mourillon to the east and Saint Mandrier southwest are quite beautiful vacation locations well ...... read more about it here.