Escape to Provence: Hidden Treasures of the Backcountry
Provence is so well known that you might think it has no surprises.
The beaches of St Tropez, the red carpet of Cannes, the superyachts lining the old port of Antibes, the old town of Nice – not to mention the Michelin starred restaurants, the lavender fields and olive groves. None of which is to turn your nose up at, but you’d be wrong to think that Provence holds no surprises.
All it takes is to head into the depths of the backcountry. North and West. The Provencal region called the Var is the shy cousin of the glitzy Riveria. The Var yields up the other face of Provence – the less glitzy, perhaps more authentic face. Where villages were laid to siege by marauders in days of yore, and troubadours penned their poems of unrequited love to the damsels of the court. Provence covers a large area with very different landscapes and discoveries, but they all share the same culture and history. Exploring here guarantees the discovery of memorable treasures that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find.
An hour and a half’s drive from Draguignan, and a couple of hours from Nice, is the stunning Verdon Gorge. People have called it the French Colorado Grand Canyon, but as the saying goes, ‘comparisons are odious’.
The Gorges du Verdon are truly stunning. 25 metres long and up to 700 metres deep in places, the most impressive part of the gorge lies between the villages of Castellane in the East and Moustiers Sainte Marie in the West. The narrow limestone cliffs cradling the waters of the gorge open out at the end into the deep artificial turquoise-blue lake of Sainte Croix du Verdon.
As you’d imagine, it’s a true outdoor playground. Hiking, rowing, rafting, canyoning, and rock climbing are among the many activities the area is fantastic for. A stop in the spectacular village of Moustiers Sainte Marie has to be made too, even if it’s just to wander up to the 12th Century Chapel to get closer to the star strung between the cliff walls by a returning knight of the Crusades.
Sillans la Cascade
Fifty minutes’ drive south of Moustiers is the tiny medieval village of Sillans la Cascade. Cascade in French means waterfall, and that’s exactly why the village has the name. It’s due to the presence of a lovely 42 metre high waterfall only a short walk through the ancient plane tree forest from the village itself. A rare thing in a region which is relatively dry, but here the river of the Bresque combines with the spring water of the castle of Bresc and the valley of Ourc giving rise to a beautiful lake with its waterfall. Important to note, though, you can’t swim or frolic under the falls, due to the danger of rocks above which the town council deem unstable. Though the village is small it’s also charming to visit with its chateau, ancient church and the ruins of an old watermill, but it’s the setting and the waterfall that mark it out as special.
Staying within the same general area, and plunging even deeper into history, the pretty village of Cotignac is the setting for troglodyte caves which have existed since before recorded history. They are set in the cliffs topped by two sentinel towers looming over the village. They were used as dwellings and refuge during invasions and epidemics long before the village, which was built in Roman times, existed. Go on a Tuesday when you can visit the weekly market too, and have a spot of lunch with a glass of rosé at the lovely Café du Cours.
Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume
A hop further west gets you to the town of Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume. This is a regular busy market town of medieval origin, which is home to a spectacular 13th century basilica named after Mary Magdalene, the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. Here Mary’s supposed skull is on display in a reliquary. Whatever you do or don’t believe, it is definitely intriguing to visit this amazing basilica. The area is rich in tales and legends of Mary Magdalene. She is said to have left the Holy Land in a rowing boat which beached on the shores of Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue. She then travelled through Provence converting the people, finally living out the last thirty years of her life hermit-style in a grotto high on the cliffs of Sainte Baume, the mountain which, along with Saint Victoire, dominates the plains of this part of Provence.
The treasures described could be done in a day, a very full day granted, but definitely possible. Or you could go for a more slow living approach and savour each of them over a few days. In any case, Provence is living proof of the truth of why we should live by the motto of getting off the beaten path.
Written by Beauchamp Estates France. Discover: Luxury Properties for Sale in France
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