SO VAR SO GOOD

With its breath­tak­ing scenery, mag­nif­i­cent coast­line, rich history and mouth-wa­ter­ing gas­tron­omy, the depart­ment of Var will cap­ture your heart, says Solange Hando

Living France - - Contents -

Cover story With a beau­ti­ful coast­line backed by a lush hin­ter­land, me­dieval vil­lages and pretty har­bour towns, Var has much to of­fer

From vine­yards and olive groves, to beaches and moun­tains dot­ted with me­dieval vil­lages, the depart­ment of Var is so di­verse it makes fun of borders. The river whose name it bears is nowhere to be seen – since the bound­ary was moved in 1860 – and the depart­ment be­gins in Provence and ends up on the cel­e­brated Côte d’Azur, with­out the price tag for the most part. Backed by a lush hin­ter­land, blessed by year-round fes­ti­vals and a beau­ti­ful stretch of the Riviera mir­rored in the crys­tal clear wa­ters of the Mediter­ranean, it’s the best of both worlds. No won­der it’s a favourite hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for the French and, for Bri­tish ex­pats, a place in the sun where dreams come true.

“I was study­ing lan­guages at Bath Univer­sity,” says Laura Valen­tine ( left), “when I met a French­man and moved straight to Toulon af­ter I grad­u­ated in 1988. There’s ev­ery­thing here in Var for the fam­ily, from sandy beaches and azure wa­ters to stun­ning coun­try­side and lakes. And the south­ern Alps are only a cou­ple of hours away. I run a trans­lat­ing busi­ness from home, so I can choose my own hours and sneak off to the beach if I get a minute! I hon­estly don’t think I could go back to life in a big city. As cities go, Toulon is quite small.”

Lively, colour­ful and def­i­nitely on a hu­man scale, Toulon is the cap­i­tal of Var, and is a mix of stylish squares and boule­vards, al­ley­ways un­touched by time, and pedes­trian lanes with sights that say it all: here a shop promis­ing a ‘ cure gourmande’ (gourmet treats), there a pâtis­serie with tempt­ing cre­ations. On the nearby Cours Lafayette, the daily mar­ket is in full swing: toma­toes, peaches, apri­cots, knob­bly pep­pers you have to hold in both hands, olives, mel­ons and more. It’s a se­ri­ous busi­ness for the shop­pers brows­ing the juici­est pick­ings in this gen­er­ous kaleidoscope of colours and smells. Mean­while on the shaded square, visi­tors and lo­cals alike en­joy a pause on a café ter­race, un­per­turbed by the gen­tle gur­gling of a foun­tain or the chim­ing of cathe­dral bells.

As ev­ery lo­cal will tell you, all roads in Toulon lead to ‘the most beau­ti­ful har­bour in Europe’. Known since an­cient times and home to the French Navy, the vast bay of Toulon basks mag­nif­i­cently in the south­ern light, al­most en­closed by penin­su­las and shel­tered by hills to the north. Yachts glis­ten in the ma­rina, fer­ries leave for Cor­sica, and cruise ship pas­sen­gers step ashore full of an­tic­i­pa­tion. Some join a guided tour of the city, while lo­cals head for the sandy beaches of Le Mouril­lon or sim­ply re­lax along the quay where restau­rants serve scrump­tious seafood sal­ads, moules

marinière and the ubiq­ui­tous Rosé de Provence. For a close look at the naval base, a ‘ tour de la rade’ can be booked at the tourist of­fice. Or, for just €2, wa­ter buses will whizz you across the bay to the Saint-Man­drier penin­sula and Les Sablettes where the scent of laven­der drifts down to the beach. The cross­ing takes about 15 min­utes and passes old for­ti­fi­ca­tions, mus­sel beds and the Belle Époque vil­las tucked among the pines in Les Ta­maris.

Out in the bay, the im­pres­sive bar­rier of the Monts Toulon­nais frames the city, their white lime­stone sum­mits high­light­ing the blue sea and the green um­brella pines on the lower slopes. The high­est point is Mont Caume at 804 me­tres, and the most pop­u­lar is Mont Faron, easily ac­cessed from the city by road or ca­ble car. At the top, at al­most 600 me­tres, Toulon is at your feet. The bay spreads like a gi­ant can­vas and the penin­su­las and is­lands rise sil­hou­et­ted against the blue sky. There are a cou­ple of tra­di­tional restau­rants, a mu­seum ded­i­cated to the al­lied land­ing in Provence and for those who love to ram­ble, a beau­ti­ful for­est criss-crossed by sign-posted foot­paths. Vi­brant golden blooms line the trails, ci­cadas in­sects sing in­ces­santly in the trees and there are fab­u­lous views of the hin­ter­land: all wooded hills and scat­tered vil­lages and the emer­ald Lac du Revest, with its spark­ing blue wa­ter, nestling among the trees.

Be­yond the sprin­kling of re­sorts west of Toulon, Ban­dol beck­ons, with vine­yards near the coast on south-fac­ing slopes, shel­tered from the mis­tral and gen­tly cooled by the sea breeze. The first vines were planted in 600 BC and to­day AOC Ban­dol de­lights con­nois­seurs far be­yond the de­part­men­tal borders. At the foot of the hills, once haunted by the jet set, Ban­dol is now a ‘ ville tran­quille’ where French fam­i­lies spend quiet hol­i­days in se­cluded vil­las. There are sandy beaches and rocky coves and the Île de Ben­dor, lit­tle more than a rock, which was bought by pastis mag­nate, Paul Ri­card, and is de­voted to art ex­hi­bi­tions.

Two years ago, Claire Croft, a re­tired lec­turer from Kent, found her dream hol­i­day home near Ban­dol. “I love the Riviera,” she says. “The blue sea, the light, the breeze which cools you down; I spent many hol­i­days on the Côte d’Azur then fi­nally I chose to buy in this area be­cause it is

From vine­yards and olive groves to beaches and moun­tains, Var is so di­verse it makes fun of borders

“There’s ev­ery­thing I want

here: fine beaches and se­cluded coves, hills, forests,

pic­turesque coastal roads”

less crowded, wilder and more af­ford­able. There’s ev­ery­thing I want here: fine beaches and se­cluded coves, hills, forests, pic­turesque coastal roads and lots of pines for shade. Another at­trac­tion for me are the restau­rants, which are au­then­tic and tra­di­tional, rather than just geared to tourists. Best of all, I can in­vite my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to stay, and with so much to dis­cover in the Var, we do have some won­der­ful hol­i­days to­gether. That’s what we call qual­ity time.”

Fur­ther east along the coast from Ban­dol – around 30 min­utes east of the cap­i­tal – lies Hyères-les-Palmiers, a ‘green city’ full of colour and fra­grance, and the top pro­ducer of cut flow­ers in France. Boast­ing some 8,000 trop­i­cal trees, or­ange groves and panoramic gar­dens, it is a beau­ti­ful and stun­ning sight. Up on the hill, the old vil­lage and castle look down on an amaz­ing rib­bon of fam­i­lyfriendly beaches and the thin strips of land around the Giens penin­sula, oth­er­wise cov­ered in salt marshes and la­goons, which are home to mi­grat­ing birds and flamin­gos.

From Hyères, fer­ries sail to Les Îles d’Or, a group of is­lands com­pris­ing Port-Cros, with its moun­tain­ous na­tional park; the is­land of Le Le­vant favoured by nud­ists; and Por­querolles, the most vis­ited, with its cheer­ful lit­tle vil­lage draped in flow­ers and eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, as well as idyl­lic beaches and un­spoilt coun­try­side, which can only be

ex­plored along cy­cling or walk­ing trails. In peak sea­son, the is­lands can also be reached from other coastal re­sorts, such as Le La­van­dou.

Be­yond Hyères, the best way to travel is to hop on a Var­lib bus, just €3 a trip, any­where in Var, or less if you buy a pass for 10 jour­neys. So there’s no ex­cuse to lounge on a beach ev­ery day, although in Le La­van­dou one may well be tempted. This pretty, pas­tel-hued re­sort counts no less than 12 beaches, each one claim­ing a dif­fer­ent type of sand lapped by blue shim­mer­ing wa­ter and fringed by a coastal path with new vis­tas on ev­ery cor­ner. Rig­gings tin­kle in the har­bour and ev­ery af­ter­noon, a gath­er­ing of pé­tanque play­ers meet un­der the plane trees. Le La­van­dou is a re­laxed sort of place for eat­ing al fresco, swimming, sail­ing, spot­ting dol­phins and whales, and mar­vel­ling at the nearby me­dieval vil­lage of Bormes-les-Mi­mosas. High on the slopes, it’s a maze of stepped al­ley­ways, arches and vaults drip­ping with bougainvil­lea, ole­an­der, jas­mine, pale-blue plumbago, and 700 other species of plants; fully de­serv­ing its ti­tle of ‘most beau­ti­ful vil­lage in bloom’ and its Euro­pean Gold Medal. The views from the town hall es­planade are su­perb, from the hills to the sea, and there are scenic walks through the fra­grant Mediter­ranean gar­rigue and pine trees.

Be­yond Le La­van­dou, the ‘Cor­niche des Mau­res’ fol­lows the coast past the ‘Jardin des Méditer­ranées’ at Do­maine du Rayol, then on to the bustling re­sort of Cavalaire-sur-Mer and the Saint-Tropez penin­sula with its ‘ vil­lages per­chés’ above the vine­yards, such as Ra­mat­uelle or Gassin, look­ing out to Port-Gri­maud’s Vene­tian style ma­rina and the Bay of Saint-Tropez. Saint-Tropez is fash­ion­able and ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially dur­ing the an­nual re­gatta, but oth­er­wise, sleek yachts aside, its lux­ury is dis­creet and day visi­tors hap­pily wan­der along the quay, gaz­ing at the tra­di­tional fish­ing boats, the colour­ful re­flec­tions of water­side build­ings, and the iconic church tower be­fore un­wind­ing on the fa­mous white sands of Pam­pelonne, or climb­ing through the old town to the ci­tadel for more breath-tak­ing views. Across the bay, just like ‘Saint-Trop’, Sainte-Maxime is a haven for artists who love the light and scenery here. The coast then winds its way to the last out­posts of Var: Fréjus and its Ro­man re­mains and sunny Saint-Raphaël, framed by the red cliffs of Estérel.

But there is more to Var than coastal de­lights. With more than 60% of the ter­ri­tory cov­ered in for­est and a greater va­ri­ety of plants than any other depart­ment, the hin­ter­land is a roller­coaster of moun­tains and hills ris­ing to­wards the Alps in ever-chang­ing land­scapes. To the west, the Mas­sif de la Sainte-Baume tops 1,100 me­tres, a sheer lime­stone bar­rier where ac­cord­ing to leg­end, Mary Mag­da­lene found refuge in a grotto, which shares the lime­light with the epony­mous basil­ica in Saint-Max­imin. To the east, the fiery rocks of Estérel plunge into the sea, and in be­tween, the Mas­sif des Mau­res, one of the wildest ar­eas in Provence where red-roofed vil­lages doze among cork oak and ch­est­nut trees. Var claims four of the Plus Beaux Vil­lages de France, in­clud­ing Tour­tour, ‘the vil­lage in the sky’, and Bargèmes, at 1,097 me­tres, the high­est in the depart­ment; and other hill-top vil­lages as pretty as post­cards, es­pe­cially in the Pays de Fayence.

Space, scenery, fresh air, the ‘ ar­rière-pays’ is truly Provençal: fra­grant with rose­mary, ju­niper and thyme. It’s the per­fect place to ram­ble along spec­tac­u­lar trails, cy­cle through the for­est or en­joy the panorama on horse­back. Vil­lages of­fer lo­cal pro­duce: truf­fles in Aups, chest­nuts in Col­lo­brières, honey and cheese around Draguig­nan, figs in the Ga­peau val­ley, and af­ter feast­ing in one of the lo­cal bistros, there may be time to chat to a pipe-maker, a pot­ter, a wood-turner, or seek out an old oil press or a wine cel­lar for a bot­tle or two of Côtes de Provence. It’s all part of the lo­cal her­itage, just like lonely cas­tles and chapels, the troglodyte dwellings in Cotignac or the in­spir­ing Ab­baye du Thoronet hid­den at the heart of the for­est.

Mean­while, the River Ar­gens me­an­ders for 114km across the depart­ment; from its source in the west, to the sea near Fréjus, past vil­lages and vine­yards and the dra­matic out­crop of Ro­que­brune; de­light­ing ev­ery ca­noeist along the way

The hin­ter­land is a roller­coaster of moun­tains and hills ris­ing to­wards the Alps

with its rush­ing wa­ters and quiet stretches. On a hot sum­mer day, the lakes also make a pleas­ant change from the coast: Car­cès for a spot of fish­ing, or Saint-Cassien for swimming and boating; or the lovely lake of Sainte-Croix, one of the largest in France, which marks the north­ern bor­der of Var and is the en­trance to Les Gorges du Verdon.

With­out a doubt, Var has it all for those search­ing for a slower pace of life and spec­tac­u­lar scenery.

Open­ing pages: tak­ing in Bormesles-Mi­mosas These pages, clock­wise from top left: Toulon; the beach at Le Mouril­lon; the Place de la Lib­erté; seafood dishes are a spe­cial­ity; fresh mar­ket pro­duce

This page, from top: Bormes-lesMi­mosas; fish­ing boats in Saint-Tropez

This page, clock­wise from above: vine­yards near Gassin; a street scene in the vil­lage; cy­cling in Les Îles d’Or; Port Gri­maud

These pages, clock­wise from top left: Fayence; look­ing down into the Gorges du Verdon; Le Thoronet; on the wa­ter at Ro­que­brunesur-Ar­gens

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