Between Saint Raphaël and Cannes lies the Massif de I'Estérel, an ancient mountain range with Mont Vinaigre as its highest peak at 614m (2,050ft). Driving the coastal road is a dramatic sight, the rugged, reddish rocks contrasting with the azur blue sea. The red color of the rocks comes from the porphyry, a type of reddish solidified magma. The Estérel's vegetation consists mostly of garrigue, the hardy shrubs of juniper, lavender, rosemary, wild thyme, heather and cistus as well as stunted holm oaks. A great area for hiking, there are few roads crossing it. A wild country and spectacular panoramic views yet close to Cannes, Saint Raphaël and the historic town of Fréjus.
The coastal road is extremely busy during the summer school holidays as are Saint Raphaël and all the other coastal resorts. The best times to visit are March to end of June and mid September to November.
In this section we highlight the sights of Fréjus, Saint Raphaël and Agay before we explore some of the other sights along the coast and in the Estérel ranges.
A fairly busy and modern town (pop.52.000) with plenty of commerce and housing estates. Towards the coast at the mouth of the Argens river lies Fréjus Plage with a 1.5km (1mile) sandy beach and a modern marina development with a yacht harbour . Fréjus is not a destination which must be on your list. Its rather something for the history buff because of the town's 29 protected historic monuments from Roman and medieval times.
The origins of Fréjus go back to the 1st century AD when Julius Cesar created a trading post, the Forum Julii on the Via Aurelia, the paved road connecting Rome with Arles. Later, Octavius, the future Emperor Augustus, developed the place into a major naval base and commercial port. For 200 years it was regularly dredged but when the Roman Empire declined the River Argens silted it up and Fréjus became surrounded by marshes. The raids and devastations by Saracenes and other marauders precipitated the town's decline. The rise as an important ecclesiastical center was gradual and non-linear. In the 4th century Fréjus became a bishopric, the second oldest in France after Lyon. In the 14th and 15th century it reached its zenith. Forum Julii changed to Frejurio (1035) and finally to Fréjus (1416). From the 18th century onwards the town's importance dwindled and it was an economic backwater until its more recent resurgance. On December 2, 1959 the Malpasset Dam 7 km north of Fréjus, ruptured. A 3m high water wall with a speed of 70km/h reached Fréjus' western section and killed over 400 people. Insufficient geological and hydrologic studies and human error were the cause of this flood. The dam had been named after the nearby village of Malpassat, which is pronounced like mal passer (=go badly), nomen est omen.
The Roman heritage, the vestiges of the Forum Julii are scattered about the modern town, it is hard to somehow piece together the original layout of the forum. Except for the arena, the other remnants are pretty disappointing. Fragments of a Roman wall support the terrace of Place Agricola. On Rue Général de Gaulle one of the towers of the Porte des Gaules and a small paved section of the Via Aurelia survive. The eliptical les Arènes is 300m (970ft) west on Rue Henri Vadon. It measures 114m (374ft) by 82m (269ft), holds 12.000 spectators and is the oldest one in the Provincia Narbonensis, that's how the Provence was called in Roman times. Through the centuries decay and pillage have reduced it to today's state - less impressive than the arenas in Arles and Nimes or the Roman Theatre in Orange. The seating has been restored, concerts and some bull fights are held here during the summer months.
If you want to expand your discovery tour of Roman Fréjus you might want to retrace the only surviving example in France of a Roman naval and civil port. It includes a small theatre, aqueduct, the citadel, the Porte d'Italie, the Porte Dorée, laundry and the Lanterne d'Auguste, a medieval quayside landmark erected on the foundations of a Roman lighthouse. Unfortunately what was once a 134 ha (54 acres) quay is now used by the railway line.
Medieval Fréjus is found around Place Formige in the town's centre. The area is often referred to as the Cité Épiscopale. It comprises the Cathédrale Notre Dame, cloisters, baptistry and the bishop's palace, the whole being fortified. The austere 13th century Gothic cathedral was built in a powerful rather than graceful way, none of the refinements of later Gothic art can be found here. Noteworthy are the retable on wood by the Nice painter Jacques Durandi (1450) and the 15th century choirstalls. The 5th century Baptistère (baptistry), octagonal inside, is one of the oldest in France. The restored 12th century cloisters with its lovely garden and ancient well are surrounded by twin-columned marble pillars. The beams of the arcades were painted in the 14th and 15th centuries with grotesques figures and themes illustrating the Apocalypse. Next to the cloisters is the Musée Archéologique with artifacts from Roman Fréjus.
Other points of interest are:
- Musée d'Histoire Locale located at 153 Rue Jean Jaurès in an elegant 19th century townhouse, the Maison Maria, the local history and folk art museum
- Villa Aurélienne, a Palladian house amidst a 22ha garden with typical mediterranean flora. Built in 1880 by J. H. Crawford, it is now owned the town and used for exhibitions, especially photography. It is located 1 km northeast from the town center.
- Centre d'Art Contemporain Le Capitou in a renoivated warehouse in the Le Capitou industrial estate displays contemporary works
- Musée des Troupes des Marines shows the history of the French Marines from their inception in 1622 to the present day
- Hong Hien Pagoda on 13 Rue Henri Giraud was built in 1917 in traditional Vietnamese style, then renovated and enlarged in 1972 and 1978. The first builders were Vietnamese soldiers who fought on the French side in World War I.
- Mosquée Missiri de Djenné is on the left off the D4 to Bagnols, a guava coloured, fort like building, a replica of a mosque in Mali, decorated inside with murals of desert journeys on the dark-pink walls
- On the grounds of the La Tour de Mare estate is the octagonal Chapelle Notre Dame de Jérusalem (1963), a tiny chapel, the last building to be designed by artist Jean Cocteau, with an atrium, stained glass and frescoes.
- On Route de Bourin is Safari de l'Estérel which contains a zoo as well as an area where has free roving animals that can be viewed from the car.
Southeast of Fréjus lies Saint Raphaël, once a resort town for the rich Romans who appreciated the fresh sea air at what was then called Epulias. But next to nothing is left of these times. In 1799 Bonaparte landed here on his return from Egypt; 15 years later he departed from here on his way to exile on Elba. A pyramid on Rue du Commandant Guilbaud, near the port, commemorates the earlier event. Nothing recalls the later. Saint Raphaël is a modern town devoted entirely to the good life. During the late 19th century it became a fashionable resort for well to do bourgoise who built lavish villas here. The 19th-century Palladian, Moorish and Anglo-Norman styles mix with the modern architecture. Some of these villas have been converted into hotels and B&Bs. Saint Raphaël evolves around watersports, it is one of 14 locations on the French Mediterranean coast certified as a "France Station Nautique" by the French Sailing Federation, which means that it offers the highest quality and widest range of watersports options. It has five separate ports, strung out along the 42 km (26 miles) of coastline providing berths for close to 4.000 boats. The ports range in size from the bustling Santa Lucia Port (1,800 yachts) to the tiny Port Toukan (60 berths). Many divable wrecks (Allied Landing crafts) and underwater archaeology make Saint Raphaël a major diving center.
The area next to the Vieux Port with its multi-story buildings and hotels is the heart and pulse of Saint Raphaël. It all centers around the Promenade des Bains, a pleasant, wide esplanade with the Plage du Veillat on one side and shops, cafes and restaurants on the other side. Walk along the promenade and enjoy the bay and the blue sea with two offshore volcanic rocks. This area is the center of Saint Raphaël's night life with a casino and a lively club scene. A moonlight promenade along the seafront near the Vieux Port should definitely be on your schedule, should you happen to stay in town.
Walking through the old town center you will appreciate its more Provence like appearance, houses with pastel colored walls and tiled roofs at Place Coullet, Place Victor Hugo and Place de la République. In the middle of it all is Cathédrale Saint Raphaël, a 12th century fortified church, also known as Église des Templiers. The 13th century watchtower was manned with lookouts to warn the population of Saracene raids. In the Museum of Archaeology in Place de la Vieille Église, amphorae and other finds are being shown together with a display on the techniques of underwater archaeology.
Driving a few kilometres east along the coast from Saint Raphaël you will reach the Cap du Dramont, which shelters the bay of Agay. It is a premier outdoor area, especially in spring and autumn, when the summer vacation crowds diminish and make it somewhat liveable again. You find some fine beaches, a traditional fishing port, Port du Poussai, and good hiking paths in the Estérel National Forest. On August 15, 1944 the 36th Texan Division came ashore on the shingle beach on the east side of Cap du Dramont with about 20.000 men. It is now referred to as the Plage du Debarquement. The shingle beach is the result of mining activities in medieval times. The ancient pits now form a pair of large lakes, the Lacs du Dramont, above the beach and the main road. Paths from the beaches lead up to a signal tower, La Semaphore, with panoramic views of the coast. The two sandy beaches of Cap du Drumont, Plage du Camp Long and Plage du Pourousset, are on the west side.
Offshore is l'Ile d'Or (gold island) with a 4 storey high castle tower, not to be confused with les Iles d'Or (plural), which is another name for the Iles d'Hyères. Many French are familiar with this tiny island as it has been depicted in an episode of the famous comic book "Tintin". The island was sold in 1897 by the French government for 280 Francs to a certain Monsieur Sergent. He lost it after eating a succulent bouillabaisse followed by a card game to Auguste Lutaud, a doctor. Lutaud constructed a replica of a Saracene tower on it using the stones from the Esterel ranges. We are now in the year 1912. Satisfied with the result he proclaimed himself August I, Roi (King) de l'Ile d'Or. He coined money, emitted stamps and organized a sumptuous coronation reception on September 25, 1913. After his death in 1925, the remains of August I were buried on the Ile d'Or with great ceremony. The children of the eccentric doctor did not use the island and a fire destroyed most of the interior. Finally, in 1961, François Bureau, a retired navy officer, bought the island and renovated the tower. Bureau died on August 16, 1994 at the age of 76 while rowing to the island. His 5 children and six grandchildren continue to use the island for vacations.
The town, actually a part of Saint Raphaël, sits on a sheltered horseshoe bay fringed with sandy beaches between the Cap Dramont to the west and Pointe de la Baumette to the east with the reddish Rastel d'Agay mountain (287m/940ft) as a backdrop. Its natural harbour has been used for thousands of years. The menhirs in Veyssières (2.5km east of Agay near the golf course) attest to neolithic habitation in the area. Later the Celto-Ligurians settled here, then the Greek came and later the Romans. The Greek navigators named the port Agathon, which means good and favorable. It became Portus Agathonis in Roman times, an important harbor on the Via Aurelia. From the bay the port extends along the Agay River, there are still some vestiges of it on the left bank of the river. The Bay of Agay provides some of the best areas on the Mediterranean coast for swimming, sailing, canoing and diving. Plage du Lido and Plage d'Agay east of the port are long sandy beaches - very popular during the summer holidays. Agay is also a good base to explore the Estérel mountains by foot or mountain bike. The infrastructure is excellent with many restaurants, cafés and shops. This is one of the few areas on the Côte d'Azur where camping places are prevalent.
Aficionados of the French avaitor and writer Antoine de Saint Exupery will want to know that Agay was the last land he saw before his final flight. The author of "Night Flight", "Wind, Sand and Stars" and "The Little Prince" spent many summers during his childhood here. His family is closely associated with the Château d'Agay. After many legends surrounding his disappearance on July 31, 1944, they found the remnants of his airplane in 2000 before the coast of Marseille.
Driving east from Agay, the coast becomes even more rugged and reddish in color. You have to be here on a sunny day (roughly 300 a days) during spring or autumn, when there no summer haze. Best are the late afternoons when the sun shines from southeast and illuminates the red rocks. Between the two tiny communities, Antheor & Le Trayas, the Massif de I'Estérel plunges into the azur Mediterranean Sea. Cap Roux (452 m/1,500 feet) towers over Antheor, while the Pic de l'Ours (496 m/1.630 feet) rises behind Le Trayas. The Estérel ranges are not very high, but the sudden descend into the sea, the reddish color contrasting with the blue sea makes this an awesome sight. There are small beaches in between which can be reached from the corniche. Les Trayas is divided into two parts. The one below the corniche has the calanques and beaches. The other one with the residential areas and a few shops stretches up the hill above the corniche and the railroad tracks. It is a peaceful place especially outside the summer holidays. The path to the top of the Pic du Cap Roux is well marked and takes about 2 hours. At the top you have the most magnificent views over this stretch of the coast.
One of the few villages (pop. 2.100) in the interior of the Massif de l'Estérel. It is located on the ancient Roman road, the Via Aurelia and was most likely a stopover to change horses on the road from Cannes to Fréjus. Until the early 1960s the village used to be called l'Auberge des Adrets. It's an excellent base for hikes to the top of Mont Vinaigre (618 m/2,000 feet), the highest point in the Estérel. In case you miss the water, you have two options: the coast and Lac de Saint Cassien. The coast is only 14km in each direction (east/west). Lac de Saint Cassien lies a few kilometres to the north and offers excellent fishing, rowing, windsurfing and swimming.
There is an interesting history behind the Auberge des Adrets in the village. In the late 18th century, the Estérel was a refuge for bandits and brigands who regularly robbed travelers on the diligences (the mail stagecoaches). The most notorious was a certain Gaspard de Besse (1757-1781), a sort of French Robin Hood. He has been immortalized in Jean Aicard's novel "Maurin des Maures" and that's why most school children in France know about the Massif de l'Estérel. Gaspard was not only a cheerful fellow and ladies' man , but similar to Robin Hood he robbed the rich and gave to the poor. He regularly came down from the hills to the Auberge des Adrets, the post house, to hold court and entertain his mistress. Alas, at the age of 24, he was captured and executed. The Auberge des Adrets still stands today and is probably the same building where Gaspar ate, drank and loved many a night. A great place to spend a weekend with your loved one.
Several marked footpaths lead from Les Adrets to the top of Mont Vinaigre. While the walks are steep they are not too difficult and the roundtrip takes about 2 - 3 hours. First make sure that the trails are open and get a map at the local tourist office. Fire hazard is a constant danger in the area and hiking or biking might either be prohibited or not advisable. Early spring and late autumn are the best times for hiking, most of the trails should be open then.