The Massif des Maures is a succession of forested ridges and hills stretching from Hyères to Frèjus, bounded by the valleys of the Gapeau and Argens rivers to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It is a part of the Provence coastal ranges, which start in the east with the Massif du Tanneron near Cannes, continue west with the Massif de I'Esterel, Massif des Maures, Massif le Sainte Baume and end in a spectacular fashion with the Massif des Calanques at Marseille. Though reaching only about 800m (2,600 ft) at its highest point, the Massif des Maures is definitely a very mountainous setting with its sudden drops, steep valleys and winding roads. It is densely forested and is ravaged from time to time by devastating forest fires during summer and autumn. Its vegetation is Mediterranean in character, cork oak, pine trees, mimosas and the typical Garrigue.
You can tour the Massif des Maures by car any time of the year. It is ideal for biking, if you are up to the challenges of a very mountainous terrain. Please be aware that during summer school holidays traffic is heavy on the main roads connecting the Côte d'Azur with the A8 and A57 Autoroutes. The best times for biking and hiking are beginning of March to the end of June and from mid September to the end of November. In terms of accommodation there are numerous possibilities in and around the villages we list below, from country hotels to B&Bs and self-catering holiday homes.
Here is a short description of the villages and sights we recommend in the area (in alphabetical order):
From Collobrières take Route D14 east, after roughly 2.5 km turn right into a narrow road which leads towards the Chartreuse de la Verne, a Carthusian monastery, beautifully situated in the middle of the Massif des Maures surrounded by forests. The monastery or chartreuse, in English charterhouse, was built in 1170 but has been abandoned, re-occupied and reconstructed several times. Since 1983 it has been occupied by a Carthusian congregation called the Order of Bethlehem. The chartreuse is open for visits daily from 11AM - 5PM. Visiting it, you can internalize the peace and solitude while admiring the beautiful view across the chestnut and holm oak forests of the Maures. Please remember that this is a religious house and that you should be dressed accordingly.
The monastery extends on a sloping rectangular rocky outcrop 155m long and 85m wide. Noteworthy are the Grand Portail (gate) on the 3rd level, the Chapelle Saint Bruno, the prison from the times that the monastery had judicial powers and on the western side the cellars, bakery, oil mill and other utility rooms. In the center you find the Hôtel des Étrangers (visitor accommodations), the kitchen, the refectory (dining room), the Salle Capitulaire (meeting hall), the church and a small cloister. The Carthusian monks while living in a community, pass most of their time alone in a cell praying, working and sleeping. They leave their cells three times a day for offices and communal mass: in the middle of the night, the Night Office, the morning Eucharist and Vespers towards the night.
The small town (pop. 1.700) lies about 30km inland from Le Lavandou and 24km from Bormes les Mimosas. A pretty town on the Réal Collobrier river surrounded by pine and chestnut forests in the middle of the Massif des Maures: the elegant Hotel de Ville (town hall), the Neo-Gothic Église Notre Dame des Victoires (1878) with its colorfully tiled steeple, the old fountains and many 19th and early 20th century houses in a variety of pastel colors and some elaborate wrought-iron balconies. Boulevard Lazare Carnol is the plane shaded main street. There are a couple of hotels, restaurants, cafés and shops sufficient for the day-to-day needs. The local specialty are candied chestnuts (marrons glacé) available at Confiserie Azuréenne on Boulevard Koenig, which also has a small museum dedicated to the chestnut. The town is a good choice if you want to stay close to the coast but escape the crowds there during the summer holidays. There is some excellent hiking around Collobrières; the GR 90 runs through town. The small country roads in this part of the Massif des Maures make for some interesting albeit strenuous biking excursions. Driving South from Collobrières on Route D41 to Bormes de Mimosas you find some panoramic viewpoints with sweeping views over the Côte d'Azur when you descend from the Col de Babaou (414m).
One of the Var's best preserved medieval villages (pop. 1.700) about 20km north of Saint Tropez has attracted many refugees such as writers and artists looking to escape the tourist hordes on the coast. Its architecture is as well preserved as many of the villages in the Haut Var and Vaucluse. The old part of the village clusters around the 16th century Saint Clément church with its 18th century bell tower. Here most of the houses are built with flat field stones without the use of mortar - some of them have weathered the times for more than 700 years. The ruins of Fort Freinet tower above the village. This was where the original medieval village was situated - it was safer up there. As the security situation improved villagers moved down the hill to what is today the oldest part of La Garde Freinet. By the late 15th century Fort Freinet was completely in ruins. If you walk up there you realize who impregnable it was, only one path leads to the top of the hill and the entry on the cliffs could easily be defended. The village has a few good restaurants, cafés, art galleries and shops for the day-to-day needs. Route D558, which runs La Garde Freinet, is extremely busy during the summer holiday season. It is the shortest connection between the Autoroute A51 and the beach towns around the Golfe de Saint Tropez.
This perched village (pop. 3.850) on the western edge of the Massif des Maures overlooks the blue Golf of Saint Tropez and brings you back to medieval times. It is dominated by the 11th century chateau at the top. Cobble stoned streets and alleys, most of them pedestrian only, vaulted passages, carefully restored 16th - 19th century houses, flower pots on window sills, a few shops, cafés and restaurants - the setting is perfect. The 12th century Romanesque Église Saint Michel with a square clock tower is the village church. The pretty Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs dates back to 1482. Many houses have medieval style stone walls while others have the bright pastel colors so typical of the Provence. Take a look at the 15th century Maison des Templiers on Rue des Arcades with its ancient façade and basement. This is one of the richest villages in the Provence, most village houses are owned by out-of-towners. They can even afford a stylish elevator, which lifts people from the main street at the lower end of the village to the main square above. That's the good knews for the frail and old. The bad news is that from that point near the Mairie there are many more steep passages until you reach the upper level of the village.
Grimaud was first mentioned in 1119 as "Grimal", a small village with a château belonging first to the Viscount of Marseille and then to Pontevès. Jean Cossa, Sénéchal (justice minister) of René d'Anjou, Count of the Provence (the "Good King René"), expanded the castle adding four round towers at the corners, firing slits, serpentine windows and doorways. The walls were raised and underground passages and two large cisterns built. The château was torn down by orders of Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII's chief minister, during the 17th century. As in most parts of France he wanted to deprive the always restless local nobility of any means of resistance. It is worthwhile to walk up to the castle ruins. The massive ramparts are used as the backdrop for the outdoor theater's stage with performances during July and August. The terraces of the castle ruins serve as seats.
Just north of the village is the 17th century Saint Roch windmill. It was renovated in 1990 by the "Compagnons du Tour de France". Grimaud water supply has an interesting history. Until the 16th century all of Grimaud's water was supplied by three wells in the village. As population grew and aqueduct was built to bring water in from the Pont des Fées 3 km north of the village. There is a beautiful 15th century bridge there, the Pont des Fées as well as some vestiges of the aqueduct. As more water was needed a steam-powered pump was installed in 1886, which brought water up to the village from a spring below.
Port Grimaud is a planned seaside community about 15km southeast of Grimaud on the Golfe de Saint Tropez, for further information click here.
A pretty village (pop. 800)in the heart of the Massif des Maures mountains, surrounded by the Forêt du Dom, a vast forest. The Route du Dom runs parallel to the coast and connects La Môle with Saint Tropez in the east and Bormes les Mimosas in the west - the distance is 19km in each direction. The narrow D27 with lots of curves leads to Rayol Canadel sur Mer (11km) in the south (11km). The ruins of the old village can be found on top of a mountain to the north. The splendid 11th century châateau is privately owned and not open to the public. French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944) lived in La Môle for some time with his grandparents and its no coincidence that there is an aerodrome here. Many a celebrity arrives here by private plane. Driving south to Le Rayol Canadel on Route D27 there are sumptuous panoramas from the Col du Canadel (269m) over the Mediterranean sea.
A small but spread out village (pop.2.500) in the Massif des Maures hills but only about 10 km northwest of Sainte Maxime. It has the advantage of being right in between Routes D25 and D558 connecting the coast with Autoroute A51. While both are extremely busy during the summer holiday season, Plan de la Tour is unaffected by it as it can only be reached by side roads. It is a pretty village in its own sort of way village, nothing extraordinary, a bit sleepy, the right anti-dote to the busy coast. The houses are well kept and painted in Provençal pastels and ocres. The village is spread out, the result of many small hamlets growing together to form what is today known as Plan de la Tour. What can be regarded as a village center of sorts is the Saint Martin section, where the 19th century Église Saint Martin, the Mairie (town hall) and some of the shops are located. There are many holiday rentals in the area - the closeness to the coast combined with the tranquil life you can still find here make this a pretty desirable location. At least Johnny Depp and his wife, Vanessa Paradis, think so - they have a house in Plan de la Tour.
More than 15 villages on the Western Côte d'Azur and the Massif des Maures (including Cavalaire, Collobrières, La Garde Freinet, Ramatuelle and Sainte Maxime) have set up a program offering ecology walks in cooperation with the Office National des Forêts (National Forest Service) and Var Tourist Board. There is a year-round schedule of guided walks with local naturalists. Basic knowledge of French is helpful in order to select and book the tours. The rest is relatively easy as in most instances there are participants on these tours who speak some English as do a few of the guides. It is a great way to get to know the area more closely and some of your fellow French hikers. The walks range in length from short local outings to walks of a few hours. The guide will talk about the flora, fauna and some of the local history of each villages. Here are some typical walks from their program:
- La Garde Freinet: "Le levage du liège dans l'ancienne capitale du bouchon" - a 2 1/2 hour nature walk explaining the traditions of the cork industry
- La Garde Freinet: "Le monde fascinant des petites bêtes" - a 2 hour walk through the forest exploring the small beetles and insects
- Ramatuelle: "Des Rochers a l'Isthme" - a 3 1/2 hours walk from the parking at the Plage d'Escalet to Cap Taillat
The accompanied walks cost around €8, children pay half price or are free. For more information click here.
Long Distance Paths
The most spectacular one is the east-west stretch of the GR51, the "Balcons de la Méditerranée", the Balcony of the Côte d'Azur between Cogolin and Bormes les Mimosas. It runs inland along the ridges of the Massif des Maures parallel to the coast. The north-south GR90 starts near Bormes les Mimosas on the coast and runs north through Collobrières until it reaches the east-west GR9 (Saint-Amour(Jura) to Saint Tropez) near Gonfaron. Both paths have lots of uphills and downhills but you are rewarded with many scenic views and nice walks through the oak forests. They are not difficult, sometimes a bit strenuous, but suitable for hikers of average ability. IGN Top25 maps 3545OT, 3446ET, 3445OT provide good coverage of this area.