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Hidden gem villages of the French Riviera

The South of France. La Côte d’Azur. The French Riviera. For many people these names are indelibly linked to the bright, glittering, bustling cities that have made the region so famous and popular with tourists from all over the world. Cities like Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Antibes and Nice are well-known as havens and playgrounds. But they are not just for the rich and famous. Anyone with a desire to relax, unwind and bask in the warmth of the sublime Mediterranean sunshine will love this sunny part of France too.

If you have a limited amount of time to spend in this area these cities have a lot to offer. There are world-class museums and extraordinary gardens. Glorious beaches and much, much more. But, once you’ve watched the yachts coming and going from Saint-Tropez or wandered aimlessly down the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, you may be looking for more to do and see in this part of France.

I’ve been visiting this corner of the country for almost fifty years now. And I’ve had the great fortune to live here (in the town of Vence) since 2019. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling through and exploring the region. Still, I’m constantly amazed at the diversity and depth of this part of France. One of my favourite activities is to visit small towns and villages. They are strung out like jewels along the seaside or dot the mountains that spring up just behind the coastline.

Sanary-sur-Mer

Situated on the Mediterranean coast just west of Toulon (on the far western edge of what we usually consider the Côte d’Azur) lies Sanary-sur-Mer. With a population of around 16,000, the village has managed to maintain its small town authenticity, character and charm. This despite being a favourite resort destination for travellers and tourists from all over France and, indeed, the rest of the world. The port is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in France.

The small fishing village that we know today took shape early in the 16th century. Then the port was a major trading centre with the Dutch. In the 1930s Sanary-sur-Mer became a place of exile and sanctuary for many German and Austrian intellectuals and artists after they fled the Nazi takeover of their homelands. Thomas Mann, Aldus Huxley, Bertolt Brecht and Jacque Cousteau are just a few of those who lived here during those troubled times.

Alongside the port you’ll find a selection of “Heritage Vessels” or “Pointus.” These small Mediterranean fishing boats are over 100 years old. Three of them have even been classified as Historical Monuments. The Tower of Sanary sits at the west end of the port and a climb up to the top provides a lovely panoramic view of the village, the port and the coastline. A small museum is also housed inside the tower and entrance is free.

Best market in France…

The Saint Nazaire Church features a tall steeple. It’s one of the trademark features of the village. Completed in 1892 it features a huge collection of liturgical frescoes of Orthodox Christian inspiration which cover almost every available wall and ceiling. From here you can follow a Stations of the Cross trail up to the Chapelle de la Miséricorde. A large array of shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars and cafes line the streets. The Wednesday market is huge. Several years ago it was voted the “Best Market in France” via a very popular television competition. Best markets in France

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

One of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” Moustiers-Sainte-Marie lies about two hours north of Saint-Tropez on the edge of the Gorges du Verdon. Nestled at the foot of huge rocky cliffs the village is surrounded by stunning lavender fields. It’s blessed with over 300 days of sunshine each year.

The main streets of the village run parallel to the small river that runs straight through the middle of the town. Most of the village is pedestrian access. Well preserved, immaculately restored and meticulously maintained, it is a real delight to wander through. Unlike many mountain villages where space is scarce and the streets are dark and narrow, here the streets are wide and full of light, sunshine and greenery. Several squares connect the various portions of the town and there are flowers, plants and trees everywhere.

The Parish Church was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and is a mix of both Romanesque and Gothic styles. By far the most popular landmark in the village is Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir Chapel. It’s located high up on one of the cliffs that tower above the houses and shops. It takes about twenty minutes to make the walk up the 262 steps of the stone path from the village. But it is absolutely worth it. You’ll get some great views of the town and the valley from the path and from the chapel.

Biot

Known today as “The City of Crafts,” the charming little village of Biot has a long history of craftsmanship and artistry. The village is full of master glassmakers, jewellers, leatherworkers, painters, ironworkers, artists and much more. Centuries ago it was known around the world for its pottery, specifically the “Biot Jars.” Only three kilometres from the sea, Biot is just a few minutes’ drive from Cannes, Antibes or Cagnes-sur-Mer. It’s perched high on a hill behind the coast, fortified with a series of ramparts. In 1209, Biot was donated by the Count of Provence to the Knights Templar. When the Templars were abolished in 1307 the territory fell under the rule of the Knights of Malta.

Since 1956, Biot has been known for its blown glass. The speciality of the village glassblowers is bubble glass. It was first brought to prominence by Éloi Monod, who then went on to train an entire generation of craftsmen. You can visit many authentic glassworks in Biot as well as galleries which display the work and shops which offer a wide selection of pieces to purchase.

The main street leads into the old part of the village is now the commercial centre. It’s populated with many restaurants, galleries, art workshops and boutiques. At the end of this commercial street you enter the “old village.” Arm yourself with the map from the Office de Tourisme to explore the many fascinating aspects of the village. You’ll find houses that date from 1561. There are two original “doors” to the village, an old washhouse, beautiful doorways and even an old sundial.

Saint-Paul-de-Vence

Less than five kilometres from my home in Vence lies the famous village of Saint-Paul-de Vence. I’ll admit that for many years I was unfair to this small historic village. I wanted nothing to do with it. Why? The first time I visited the village in the summer of 2012 I was overwhelmed with the crush of tourists. It was insanely crowded and all I wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as I could. Because Saint-Paul is so close to Nice, Antibes and even Cannes, tourists are bused in by the hundreds, if not thousands, each day during the high season. The trick is to visit the village when it is not crowded and then it can be a wonderful experience. Winter mornings are now my favourite time to go there.

With its immaculate narrow streets, beautiful houses, buildings and impressive ramparts Saint-Paul has an almost fairy-tale like quality. Early in the 20th century the village began to attract a wide range of famous artists and painters. They were drawn to the town by the location, the beauty of the well-preserved medieval village and especially the remarkable light of the region. Artists like Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Modigliani became frequent visitors and residents. But it wasn’t just the painters. Writers, filmmakers and movie stars vacationed or lived in Saint-Paul. Bill Wyman, the bassist for the Rolling Stones, has lived in Saint-Paul since 1971. James Baldwin, the famous American writer, lived here for the last 17 years of his life.

St-Paul-de-Vence – a journey through time

Today, a walk through Saint-Paul is a journey through time. The main street through town, rue Grande, runs from the south end of the village to the north. It links the town’s two gates which at one time provided the only entrances into the village. As you begin to stroll down the narrow walkway of cobblestones you’ll find the art galleries, boutiques and shops that Saint-Paul is so famous for today. You’ll also see the beautiful and very well preserved facades, doorways and windows of numerous ancient buildings and houses, many of which date back to at least the 16th century. Bougainvillea plants and other vines grow wild all over the village. They creep along the stone surfaces of buildings and cover them with colour and vibrancy.

Steve Wilkison lives in Vence with his wife Carole whom he persuaded to leave America for a French adventure. They write about their life at steveandcaroleinvence.com

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