As the 2013 European City of Culture, Marseille has revitalised its image in recent years and proudly taken its place as France’s second city. This sunny Provençal hotspot is linked with the Count of Monte Cristo, bouillabaisse, pétanque, Zinedine Zidane and the Olympique de Marseille football team… but tourists come principally to visit its new museums, stay in chic hotels and shop in luxury boutiques. It boasts France’s largest Mediterranean cruise port and is extremely easy to reach from the UK, now served by direct Eurostar from London as well as an international airport.
The fishing village of Saint-Tropez in Var, 100km west of Nice, has an ultra-sexy and glamorous image thanks to its 1950s association with actress and model Brigitte Bardot. For the last half a century it’s remained a jet-set favourite, with rows of gleaming yachts moored in the harbour and a plethora of expensive boutiques. In high season you’ll jostle for space alongside up to 100,000 tourists per day, but for the rest of the year Saint-Tropez remains an oasis of peaceful, rustic French charm where you can wander cobbled lanes and watch games of pétanque in the shady main square (Place des Lices) while sipping a pastis. Don’t miss the Musée de l’Annonciade, the butterfly collection at the Maison des Papillons, the fine white sand of the Plage de Pampelonne in nearby Ramatuelle, and the views from the 17th-century citadel.
With the 542-metre-high Mont Faron as a backdrop, Toulon is a city of contrasts. Its old picturesque town centre contains ancient fountains and a colourful daily market where you can experience the typical Provençal smells and sounds. Toulon’s large military port – the French Navy’s war port for the whole of the Mediterranean – is also a marina for private boats as well as the onward link to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Well-equipped beaches and a multitude of watersports are available at neighbouring Morillon – but there are also music festivals, a contemporary art museum and a naval museum, the Palais des Congrès and the Zenith concert hall seating 8,500.
Hyères and the islands
Hyères is a unique hideaway if you’re looking to escape the crowds on the coast in Provence. Don’t miss the 4th-century Greek commercial outpost of Olbia; the ruins of the medieval castle dominating the colourful labyrinth of streets of the old town; the rich facades and gardens of the grand hotels that used to welcome kings, queens, artists and writers; and the Villa Noailles, which attracted the artistic avant-garde in the 20th century. Wander along the Giens peninsula and visit the salt marshes, now home to an ornithological reserve with over 260 bird species.
And what of the islands? Just opposite Hyères, Porquerolles (alongside its smaller sister isles, Port Cros and Levant) is a nugget of rocks and forest seemingly chipped from the mainland and hurled 20 minutes out to sea. The concentration of wild creeks, beaches, woodland and herbs here recalls the untouched French Riviera before the modern crowds arrived – it’s a dreamy escape where you can slow down and truly get away from it all. The ferry to Porquerolles leaves roughly every hour from Hyères, and many passengers take their bicycles for touring the island.
Cassis is a charming fishing port on Provence’s Bouches-du-Rhône coast, sheltering at the foot of a dramatic rocky outcrop (Cap Canaille) crowned by a 14th-century château, and protected by the white limestone Calanques. It attracts visitors in their droves to its Vieux Port with bustling restaurants, to the shingle beaches, and to row upon row of pristine vineyards which produce the famous eponymous wine. The Calanques are home to diverse flora and fauna, with 900 identified plant species and numerous reptiles, insects and birds – but many would say the magic really happens underwater, where astonishing marine life lives in the crystal clear waters and can be experienced from a boat, or on a dive along the Cassis underwater trail. Cassis has its fair share of culture to offer visitors too – don’t miss a visit to the municipal museum and the Four Banal, the 17th-century communal oven in the historic fishermen’s quarter.
La Ciotat clings to France’s Mediterranean coast and boasts plenty to feast the eyes on. At its southern tip, the Parc du Mugel botanical garden is home to tropical plants, pebble beaches and play areas – while the grand Musée Ciotaden, amid the cafés and bars of the regenerated old port, features exhibitions on the town’s shipbuilding history and the invention of the game of pétanque. Just north of here is the Eden theatre, the world’s oldest functioning cinema.
The Côte Bleue
The Côte Bleue clambers from Marseille’s western edge as far as Cap Couronne. Waters rich in marine life are protected by the Parc Régional Marin de la Côte Bleue and there’s a precious trove of limestone calanques here, which compete with the famous ones at Cassis. Don’t miss the sea views from the perilously-perched village of Niolon – and in Grand Méjean you can pick up a stunning 2.1km-long coastal trail to Calanque de l’Érevine. Another trail in L’Estaque follows in the footsteps of Renoir, Cézanne, Dufy and Braque around the port and old town.
Behind the Côte Bleue on the shore of an inland lake (the Étang de Berre) sit Istres and Martigues – and these are also well worth seeing. Istres is a dynamic tourist town with a historic heart and heritage gems such as the Porte d’Arles. It’s a beautifully flowery place too, with well-kept parks and gardens aplenty. Martigues is also famous for flowers – with particular charm added by its network of canals, islands and bridges, giving it the nickname of ‘la Venise Provençale’. Take the time to wander along the quays and around the picturesque Quartier des Pêcheurs (Fishermen’s Quarter).