Hills of the Central Var surround it, lush with forests of oaks and pines. The Caramy river swooshes by. The A8 highway zooms above it on its way from Fréjus to Aix. Yet at first glance, the town of Brignoles appears sleepy, tucked in a cradle-like dip between hills and mountains of La Loube.
It takes time to discover Brignoles. After all, it took over 4,000 years to knead it into its present-day form.
Poke around north of Brignoles and you'll uncover prehistoric burial sites; the dolmens des Adrets, with their intriguing stone slabs, attest to human settlements dating back 4,000 years.
In Roman times, the strategic Via Aurelia road ran close by. The area was known as Brinonia, Latin word for plum. Small blueish plums flourished in the hills. But more on plums later.
In the 11 and 12C, the Counts of Provence built a tower, castle and their summer palace against a defensive rampart.
The citadel walls shielded inhabitants against the plague that struck so violently in the Middle Ages. Upon news of Black Death epidemics, city doors were shut to the outside world.
Time passed and ramparts turned into walls for new homes. The fortified town became a tightening maze of narrow streets, ancient stone doorways and a myriad of delightful plazas and fountains (24 in total!).
If you sit at one of the cafés on place Caramy, by the 17C town hall, you notice the softness of the light that trickles through three plane trees to the surrounding pastel-painted shutters.
You might miss the Vieille Ville, hidden behind old walls. Look by the fountain. A little sign points up and says "Musée, Eglise St Sauveur."
Climb up the steps on Rue du Grand-Escalier and you're in the Vieille Ville. Can you spot a plum tree in the presbytery garden?
In the 16C, French royalty loved to nibble on Brignoles-grown dried plums. Legend tells us that in 1579, locals discovered that lord and plum producer Hubert de Vins had ignored a less savory fruit: local taxes. In protest, they uprooted 18,000 plum trees, putting a squeeze on local production. A plum tree was secretly saved and planted in the Presbytery garden.
Continue up. Overhead, a buttress connects the Saint-Sauveur Church with its 12C Romanesque doorway to the "street of many stairs". Head south and you enter the Place des Comtes de Provence with its Saint-Louis Chapel, Palace and olive trees. It homes the Musée du pays Brignolais.
With such rich history to relate, the museum packs a variety of gems: the 3C sarcophagus of la Gayole believed to be the oldest in France, Christian altars of the 4C and 6C, a cement boat built by Joseph Lambot (inventor of ferro-cement), rooms dedicated to famous Brignolais from painters to Academie Française writers.
It also reenacts a vital page of local history. After the discovery of bauxite in 1873, the region mined the ore used to make aluminum. In 1914, the Var department ranked world leader in bauxite production. Cheaper imports soon appeared. From 1973, Brignoles' bauxite industry declined. Its last mine shut-down in 1990.
Walk under the 14C western rampart door to quaint Place Raynaud. Silence and history reign inside the Vieille Ville.
Back at the old town's perimeter at Place Caramy, the town buzzes around current happenings. On July 5 2009, the Tour de France pedals from Monaco to its second stop: Brignoles.
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