This region is the heart of the Provence Vert, the green Provence. Most of the population is concentrated in and around the towns of Draguignan, Brignoles and Saint Maximin le Sainte Baume. The remainder offers a different pace of life with forested mountains, endless vineyards and in between beautiful ancient villages - a country setting tailor made for a restful vacation. The Var produces most of the rose wine in France, most of the flowers and is home for a steadily increasing population of les Anglais, who retire here. You have a wide selection of hideaway type vacation rentals, B&Bs and country inns. The Haut Var is excellent for biking as there are many quiet country roads. To the north is the Verdon Gorge (Le Grand Canyon du Verdon), Europe's version of the Grand Canyon, a mecca for hiking and crystal clear Lac St.Croix with its many beaches.
You don't have as many important historic sites here as further west. But you are closer to the Mediterranean coast and an opportunity to enjoy a day at the beach. While there are "vast forests" here, we don't think you can "discover truffles or mushrooms and sometimes even wild boars" as a government run website claims. Truffles are harvested only during December and January, it's pretty cool and windy here then. Also you need to hire a truffle dog or pig, know where to find the truffles and possibly brave someone guarding the oak trees from amateur truffle hunters like you. Unless you are an expert you should not "discover" wild mushrooms. Wild boars are pretty reclusive during the day and we don't think it is a good idea to walk the woods at night trying to "discover" them, least of all during the hunting season in autumn.
Here is a short description of the towns, villages and sights we recommend in the area (in alphabetical order):
This picturesque village (pop. 1.950), the name means hill pasture (alp) in Celto-Ligurian, lies in a wide valley backed by sheltering hills. Many stone houses, fountains, a medieval gate and clock tower, the 15th century Collégiale Saint Pancrace in Gothic style with a Renaissance portal and numerous small chapels. You find many small shops, cafés, restaurant and a very friendly, relaxed atmosphere here. Noteworthy are six pretty sun dials in the village, the best one is on Rue Voltaire. The Musée Simon-Segal et École de Paris is a small but interesting privately owned museum of modern art in an old Ursuline convent dedicated to the Belorussian born painter Simon Segal (1998-1969). Other lovely villages in the vicinity are Moissac-Bellevue and Montmeyan, all of them, including Aups, a good base for exploring the Verdon Gorges and Lac Ste.Croix.
This is a very original village (pop. 2.450), which appears to be untouched by tourism, but of course it isn't. On the Place de la Mairie stands the largest plane tree in the Provence, it is 12.5m (41ft) round at its base! There are 28 fountains, including the huge moss covered Fontaine du Champignon as well as 12 ancient lavoirs (public wash houses). Noteworthy are the 11th century l'Église Collegiale Notre Dame de I'Assomption and the Hôtel de Pontevès with its fine Renaissance doorway. During the 19th and early 20th century there were 19 tanneries in Barjols. The last one was closed in 1969; some of the buildings now serve as artist studios (pottery, sculptures). The village is celebrating its patron saint, St. Marcel, on the Sunday closest to January 17. It is called La Fête des Tripettes. A procession through the streets with the bust of St.Marcel, musicians and notables, is followed by an ox that is later roasted and eaten. A long religious-culinary tradition going back to the celebration of the end of a long siege sometime in the Middle Ages. There are a few pretty villages in the vicinity, like Pontevès, Varages and Tavernes. Another good base for exploring the Verdon Gorges and Lac Ste.Croix.
A quaint village (pop.2.000) in the green hills of Central Var about 50km east of Aix en Provence. It developed in the 13th century out of a Knights Templar Commanderie, a fortified farm which supplied the ships heading for Palestine from the port of Marseille. Except for the Chapelle des Templiers, only a few remnants from these early times are left. The village retains its original Provençal character, undisturbed from modern tourism.
The largest town (pop. 13.400) between Aix en Provence and Draguignan, pretty busy and a good place to do your shopping, but not without its touristic merits. The town's old quarter is delightful - covered streets, ancient town houses, numerous fountains and lavoirs (public wash houses). Noteworthy amongst the buildings are the Hospice Saint-Jean (1542), the 16th century Hôtel d'Epernon, the 17th century Hôtel Clavier and the 15/16th century Église Saint Sauveur and the 13th century Chapelle Royale Sainte Catherine. The 15/16th century Palais des Comtes de Provence houses the Musée du Pays Brignolais with one of the oldest Christian sarcophagi in France, dating from the 2nd or 3rd centuries with well preserved carved messages. It was retrieved from the tiny chapel of La Gayole 10 km (6 miles) west of the town.
To the east of the town is the Mini Parc Nicopolis, a miniature park where some of France's heritage sights - the Loire Châateaux, cathedrals and villages - have been recreated in miniature. In the south-western part of town is l'Abbaye de la Celle, a 13th Cistercian abbey which later became a convent for the daughters of noblemen. The story that the convent had to be closed down in the Middle Ages when the nuns' habits became a bit to frivolous has to be taken with a grain of salt - it is probably more folkore than fact. Part of the old convent is now an Alain Ducasse owned luxury hotel and restaurant. But the abbey, the cloisters, the chapter house and some other parts can be visited.
A fairly large village (pop. 2.470) north of Brignoles on the Argens river laid out in a concentric circle. There are many 17/18th century town houses, some with colorful fish-scale wall tiles, the 17th century Fontaine des Quatre Saisons, the old beffroi (bell tower) with an arched passage, the parish church Église Sainte Marguerite (1520) and the 11th century Chapelle Notre Dame de Carami. A lively Provençal market is held each Saturday morning. East of the village is the Lac de Carcès, created in 1936 as a water reservoir for the city of Toulon, no beaches and watersports allowed here. Further east is a large bauxite mining area, but it is tucked away, surrounded by woods and greenery and doesn't bother until you are practically at the front gate. Montfort sur Argens, dominated by the vestiges of a 13th century Knights Templar castle, is a picturesque village 3km east of Carcès.
This ancient village (pop. 2.040) with lots of character and charm is dominated by the Falaise de Cotignac, a 80m (262 ft) cliff of tufa rock riddled with troglodyte rock shelters. Standing guard over the cliff are two square 12th century towers, "les Sentinelles", vestiges of a medieval castle. It had once a vibrant Jewish population as evidenced by the Rue de Jérusalem and the Quartier de la Synagogue. Today Cotignac is a favorite of les Anglais, who make up more than 1/3 of its population. The village architecture is very homogeneous with nicely restored 17th and 18th century stone houses and some pretty fountains, especially the 17th century Fontaine des Quatre Saisons, the 11th century Tour de la Puade and the Hôpital Xavier-Martin. The well proportioned parish church Église Notre Dame Saint Pierre et Saint Martin is from the 13th century but was enlarged and renovated in the 17th century. Overall a pretty and peaceful village in an idyllic setting in the midst of vineyards and forests.
A bustling town (pop. 40.000) with modern suburbs connected with the Fréjus-St.Raphaël urban agglomeration by a 4-lane highway. Commerce, industry and a strong military presence characterize the town. It is often referred to as "La Capitale de l'Artillerie". A place to do your shopping but definitely not a tourist centre, albeit there are a number of historic buildings in its old town, which is a pedestrian zone. The ancient Dragonianum derives its name from a dragon who terrorized the area in the 5th century but was killed by a certain Hermentaire, a christian missionary, whereupon everybody here converted to Christianism. But rather than naming the town after the dragon slayer, the ungrateful Dracénois chose to name it after the dragon. Noteworthy are the 17th century Tour d'Horloge, the Place du Marché with a pretty fountain, the Rue des Marchands, the Place aux Herbes with a medieval gateway, the Rue des Tanneurs, the old Porte Aiguiere and the Rue de la Juiverie, with the façade of the 13th century synagogue. The 17th century Ursuline convent on 9 Rue de la République houses the town's museum with Gallo-Roman finds, coins, paintings, busts, natural history specimens and a large library with ancient manuscripts, including the 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Romance of the Rose, a sensual allegoric story about the art of love. On Route D59 east of Draguignan is the Allied Military Cemetery, where 2000 soldiers who were parachuted in the area on 15 August 1944, are buried. The nearby military school has a weapons museum, le Musée du du Canon et des Artilleurs.
A visit to the Chapel of Ste. Roseline in the pretty village of Les Arcs sur Argens a stone's throw south of Draguignan is worthwhile. It is part of the 11th century Abbaye de la Celle-Roubaud which is owned by the Château Sainte Roseline wine estate, but open to the public. It contains the body of the saint in a remarkable state of preservation after 680 years. The chapel is noteworthy for its Renaissance rood screen, a very good Baroque altarpiece and a wall mosaic by Marc Chagall.
Driving north on Route D955 you reach the Pierre de la Fée, the fairy's stone. This is a superb Neolithic dolmen with a huge table stone supported on three stone fingers, each about 2m (6 1/2 ft). Continue on D955 which goes through the Gorges de Châteaudouble, a deep, verdant gorge with the village of Châteaudouble perched on a cliff, a tiny village with some pleasant stone houses and the remnants of a castle. The name means double castle - there is the one on top of the village and the other one on the banks of the river Nartuby below. By the way, this is an excellent hiking area.
A picturesque village (pop.868) to the south of Salernes with a large château and beautifully manicured gardens, the fortified Gothic Église Saint Saveur, a humpback bridge, fountains, lavoirs and medieval streets. The village name comes from Intercastra or in between castras, the fortified farms of Riforan, Salgues, and Pardigon in its vicinity. It appears that time is standing still here. The privately owned château, a long, rather plain looking 17th century building houses a museum with a collection of furniture, porcelain and knick-knacks from 17/18th centuries. The garden at the base of the château is in formal French style with a small pool and an ancient astrolabe sitting on a rock in the center. Australians have heard about Admiral Antoine Bruny d'Entrecasteaux (1739-1793), the French navigator, who lends his name to various geographic sites down under. He was a member of this well known Provençal noble family, who owned the castle during from the 18th to the mid 19th century, when it was acquired by the Lubac family. The village had to take it over in 1949 but sold it in 1974 to a Scotsman named Mac Garvie-Munn, former ambassador to Guatemala and amateur painter, who sank a fortune into its restoration. Pressed for money he sold off most of the interior furnishings. In 1996 his son sold the château to a Mr. Girard, who sold it four years later to Alain Gayral, the current owner. He had a 7m high statue of Amiral d'Entrecasteaux installed outside the castle and has started furnishing the interior.
A small town (pop. 8.534) in the middle of vineyards and olive groves. It was first mentioned in 986 as Lonicus and developed into an important market town during the Middle Ages. Many old stone houses, cobbled streets, fountains, lavoirs, the 18th century courts (Palace de Justice), the 19th century town hall and the plane filled main square. Noteworthy are the two 14th century fortified gateways, the Tour Sarrasine and the Tour Trebari. The 18th century Église Saint Martin with its classical façade surprises with its ample interior. About 2km (1.25 miles) west of Lorgues is Chapelle Notre Dame de Belvala, a 16th century chapel partly built into the rock with remarkable mural paintings outside and inside (it is closed however). Lorgues gets very busy Tuesday mornings when the weekly market is held in its streets, one of the best in the region.
The town (pop. 14.000), not to be confused with Ste.Maxime further East on the Côte d'Azur, is located at the foot of the St. Baume mountains 40 km East of Aix en Provence. St.Maximin la Ste.Baume, the Roman Villa Lata, is a busy market town but has retained its historic sights and traditions. Center piece is the massive Basilique Ste. Marie-Madeleine, the best example of Gothic architecture in the Provence. Built on a 6th century church, the basilica was started in 1295 as a resting place for the remains of St.Mary Magdalene and later St.Maximin. From the 5th century onwards pilgrims streamed to Ste.Maximin until the Saracen invasions interrupted them. In the 11th century St Mary Magdalene's remains were "rediscovered", construction of the basilica commenced, the pilgrims returned and St.Maximin was in business again. The basilica was worked on intermittently from 1295 until the 16th century. No belfry was ever built and the west front remains incomplete. It was destined to be demolished during the French Revolution but Napoleon's youngest brother Lucien turned the church into a storage depot and had the Marseillaise played regularly on the organ still in use today. Noteworthy are the famous organ, built in 1773, and 22 wooden panels painted by the Venetian Francois Ronzen in the 16th century. One of them includes the earliest known view of the Palace of the Popes at Avignon. Inside the basilica are beautifully carved choirstalls, screens, gilded statues and pulpit. There are organ concerts every summer in the basilica and evening music during July in the elegant Royal Monastery, which is now used as the town's cultural centre and also contains a hotel and restaurant.
You can visit Mary Magdalene's cave in the Ste.Baume mountains near Plan d'Aups. It is a pleasant hike up the mountain either from the one-time hotel (now a café) or the Carrefour des Trois Chênes. The trail to the cave is well marked and on broad paths through the idyllic Ste.Baume forest and a stairway hewn into the rocks. The cave houses an altar, a shrine holding relics of St. Mary Magdalene and a statue of the saint. From the cave you can hike up to the summit of Mont St.Pilon where you find a small chapel and have wonderful panoramic views as far as Mont Ventoux, the Luberon and the Mediterranean coast. It is said that Mary Magdalene was lifted to this spot by the angels seven times a day to listen to the music of Paradise.
A busy village (pop.3.400) and center of pottery and tile manufacturing, thanks to the red clay rich in iron oxide found here. It has a pretty old town with fountains, lavoirs, 13/17th century Église Saint Pierre and 13th century castle ruins. Sillans la Cascade, lies 4 km west of Salernes, a small village with old stone houses and two restaurants. The waterfall is reached by a 30 min. short walk signposted from the south side of the village. A fine waterfall, with the water cascading nearly 46m in late spring or autumn, but little to show during the rest of the year. You might also want to take a look at Fox Amphus, another pretty village. The whole area is heavily forested with many quite country roads, ideal for biking.
Probably the finest Cistercian monastery of the "Three Sisters of Provence" (Senanque, Silvacane, Thoronet), it is set, like all Cistercian houses, in a remote area and surrounded by a forest. Founded in 1136, most of the buildings date from the 30 year period ending in 1190. After a short period of prosperity its fortunes declined and it was abandoned during the French Revolution. In 1840 the ruined buildings were declared a historical monument and restoration of the church and bell tower began. In 1854 the state bought the cloister, chapter house, courtyard and dormitory, and in 1938 the remaining parts of the monastery still in private ownership. It has now been restored and is a magnificent sight, the dry stone church, the cloister with double-bayed arches each with a central column and the chapter house with its capitals decorated with simple carvings of local plants. It's clear Romanesque architecture has inspired many architects, including le Corbussier. Should you happen to be there on a late afternoon when most visitors have left, you could just sit there, let it all sink in and never leave.
Le village dans le ciel, the village in the sky, Tourtour (pop. 481) sits on top of a 633m (2.080ft) ridge with magnificent views over the hills and valleys of the Var. Beautiful honey-looking stone houses, cobbled streets, the 16th century château* with its four towers, the 12th century Tour de Grimaud (Grimaldi Tower), smart hotels, restaurants and cafés as well as two elm trees planted in 1638 to mark the birth of the future Sun King, Louis XIV. Everything is so immaculate and there are so many tourists - are we still in the Provence? No, wait, the Grimaldi connection of Tourtour probably explains it. It's a bit like Monaco and Le Baux, a bit too perfect. The gated residential community of Saint Pierre de Tourtour just east of the village fits to this setting perfectly.
After Tourtour it is a relief to find the right balance between tourism and local village life again. Villecroze (pop. 1.100) on a hill northeast of Salernes, is a pretty medieval village. Many old stone houses, especially on Rue des Arceaux near the old clock tower. There is a park with a lovely waterfall, 40m (130ft) and a once-fortified cave whose petrified columns and 15th century windows can still be seen.