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July 2009

The Tour de Brignoles

Brignoles, Place Caramy
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.

RT_PlaceRaynaud Brignoles grew over the years. Ramparts were raised to protect it. They encircled the village, expanding outward in layers like the rings of a tree trunk.

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?

RueDuGrandEscalier

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.

Sarcophage De La Gayole

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.

Interested in half-day hikes on the French Riviera? Check out our highly-acclaimed English-language hiking guide below on Amazon.com (and Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr and Amazon.de too!)


Tour de France on the Riviera

BrignolesMapGIF

With the Tour de France 2009 beginning in just over a week, many of you have been asking for a map of the Tour de France's stops on the South-Eastern side of Provence, Côte d'Azur. Until recently, details were a bit sketchy. Thanks to GeoAtlas.com, we now have a map.

After starting in Monaco, the TdF 2009 rushes to its second stop: Brignoles in the Var department.

Stay tuned on AzurAlive.com where we'll soon deliver the secrets of the long-time snubbed town of Brignoles in the Var...


Best Beach: Sainte-Maxime

PlageSteMax

The stretch of French Riviera coast between Les Issambres and Sainte-Maxime counts a fair number of sandy beaches, each with a name and personality. While one of the better loved ones is Plage de La Nartelle for its fine sand and clear waters, I'm voting Sainte-Maxime's Plage du Centre Ville as a "Best French Riviera Beach".

Why?

It's practical for families.
  • Practical for its location: downtown, right in front of the Casino. No need to haul beach stuff too far away if you're in Ste Maxime.
  • Practical for its public and private sides: there's a free public section and a string of 3 on-the-beach restaurants that section off their square of beach and rent parasols, cushiony lounge chairs. The Casino Beach Restaurant, the Havana Plage, and the mis-nommed Paris Plage.
    Yes, a "plat du jour" at the Casino Beach restaurant is still reasonable. Last weekend, prices were just under 12€ for a bavette of beef steak on their daily special board.
  • Practical for its very clean public toilets in the building that hosts the Tourism Office. Free, but tip is welcomed and encourages spotless maintenance throughout the day.
  • And practical for kids given the number of yum ice cream shops right on the promenade sea-facing Simon Lorière and its merry-go-round and nearby playground.

Any hiccup?

It's practically full in mid-summer. Come early enough, spread your beach blankets and reserve your spot for a lazy lizzard day. There's also no shade so consider bringing a parasol.

Where?

Find it with your eyes closed in Sainte-Maxime, by the Casino Barrière, along the "Allée des Champions" promenade that sports the handprints of sports champs.

View AzurAlive.com: Plage du Centre Ville, Ste Maxime in a larger map

Fréjus: Big Base Nature

Base Nature Beach

When in 1995, the aeronautical military site by the beach in Fréjus closes its doors permanently after a slow retreat, a huge site opens up for public use.

Base Nature Biking

In 2007, this beach-side site by Fréjus becomes the Base Nature François Léotard. It's 135 hectares of public land used both for public recreation and some sections for nature protection.

Among visitors, not too may folks know about it. It was set-up with local residents in mind, but of course, it's open to all and especially appreciated by visitors with children.

What can you do at Base Nature, Fréjus?       

On any sunny day, you'll find kids biking around its huge tracks, skating with roller-skates, flying kites, playing soccer, volleyball, rugby or just hanging around with family and friends.

You can jump around hills set-up in the BMX park, try out skate boarding in the mini skate park, play volleyball in the Beach Volley field, kick a ball on one of the 8 soccer fields, fly a kite or have a ball on one of the 3 playgrounds.

Base Nature Pool Raining or too winding for the beach? Go swim in the Base Nature Fréjus 25 meter Maurice Giuge covered pool pictured above (in the summer, pool opens 11AM to 7PM and in 2009 full-price entrance runs 3€ or 22€ for 10 entries).

The Fréjus Base Nature also hosts a number of festivals and competitions:

Where can you eat in Base Nature?          

A cute and very friendly wooden snack bar, the Snack de la Base, opens up for ice creams, simple sandwiches, sodas and coffee smack in the middle of the park. Parasols open up and lots of parents gather around its few tables to cool off and catch their breath before they try to keep up with kids again.

BN_Restaurant From April to October, the Restaurant de la Piscine at Base Nature offers a more classy setting with Plats du Jour running between 12 and 20 euros and the cool drinks being welcomed on a hot summer day.

Interested in half-day hikes close to Fréjus? Check out our highly-acclaimed hiking guide below on Amazon.co.uk (and Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.jp and Amazon.com too!)


Best Beach: More than Passable

PassablePlage

On the northwestern side of the Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat peninsula, this little beach doesn't have sand like others in our "Best Beaches of the French Riviera" category. It's a pebbled beach, with pebbles tiny like rounded gravel. And its small. Not the kind of beach where you stroll for a long walk with your feet lapped by the sea. On Plage de Passable, many folks sit on a lounge chair with a book in hand and a refreshment on the side.

But the water by Plage de Passable is clear, warm and calm, sheltered by the cape ahead of it and the cove that surrounds it. The great deep Rade de Villefranche-sur-Mer is just ahead.

And not far behind the beach, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with its extraordinary decors and its nine themed gardens, and the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat Zoo.



View AzurAlive.com: Passable Beach, Cap Ferrat in a larger map


A World Oceans Day on the French Riviera

A Med Day

Worldoceansday_2009

As of 2009, "World Oceans Day" or "Journée Mondiale de l'Ocean" has been officially declared by the United Nations: it will be on June 8th each year.

According to its organizers, the Ocean Project, World Ocean Day is a chance to celebrate our personal connection to the sea.

That, my friends, is a life-long process. But if a single day can raise awareness about the lives that hide in our seas and what threatens them, we're all for it.

A single day is just a beginning.

 What's happening on the French Riviera on World Oceans Day?

JMO

Most of the activities planned around la Journée Mondiale des Océans won't take place on June 8 this year. Why? Well, it falls on a Monday... Best to organize it around the weekend, when more folks are free to participate.

  • At Monaco's wonderful Oceanographic Museum, the whole day is dedicated to the Mediterranean and Climate. Program here (in French): http://www.oceano.mc/nouveau/progJMO09.pdf
  • At Marineland of Antibes (and elsewhere in France) Tetra organizes fun workshops for 8-12 year-olds to teach them about aquatic fauna: June 10 and 13, 2009.  More on Marineland here.
  • In Saint-Raphael, on June 7, 2009 at the Port of Santa Lucia, kids & parents can board a sailboat to learn about the fauna and flora of the Mediterranean: June 7, 2009. This outing is organized by the "Bienvenue à Santa Lucia" organization, to help families affected by muscular dystrophy - helping hands welcomed at 9:30AM and outing at 10AM.
  • In Hyères, the diving center of la Tour Fondue (on the Giens Peninsula) organizes a clean-up dive at the tip of the Giens Peninsula: June 7, 2009 from 9AM. Phone: 04 94 57 90 80
  • Further west, at the Islands des Embiez, the Institut océanographique Paul RICARD will present some of its scientific initiatives to the public from June 8 to 13. On June 13 &14 sailboats WWF Columbus (from WWF France) and Garlaban (from the Institut océanographique Paul RICARD) will represent the Armada Bleue: June 8 to 13, 2009.

Wearblu The Ocean Project group tells us to Wear Blue and to Tell Two folks about the event.

Possibly more important than wearing blue:
If you're by the beach, pick up a piece of trash (or one more than usual). Forgo plastic or paper throw-away coffee cups. Be done with disposable plastic bags for shopping, and adopt one of these wide wicker baskets so popular in French open markets. 

Just a blue thought for Mare Nostrum on her special day. And why not, think blue thoughts all year long.



Beaulieu-sur-Mer: The Beach

Beaulieu Plage at the Fourmi Bay

Looking for the best beaches on the French Riviera?

As you know if you drop by AzurAlive regularly, for beaches, I'm partial to the Western Côte d'Azur.
Sorry Nice, but the best French Riviera beaches sit to the west of Cannes. Beaches by St Tropez, Le Lavandou, Cavalaire, in islands of Hyères, are wider, sandier, wilder than their their cousins to the east of Cannes and Antibes.That said, you can still find nice sandy beaches on the eastern French Riviera.

The eastern French Riviera counts plenty of fine beaches.

Here's a sandy beach that's small, but pleasant. It's tucked right under the Fernand Dunan promenade, in front of the white Belle Epoque Casino in Beaulieu-sur-mer. Not huge, but not a handkerchief either so there's room for everyone. From the beach, you can ponder over the size of the yachts in the nearby port or admire the Mediterranean style of the Villa Kerylos to the east. The transats and beach umbrellas for rent add a splash of color, but you can have fun at the beach without renting anything.


View Beaulieu-sur-Mer Beach in a larger map


La Motte: La Nuit des Vignerons

Provence loves its wines                                                       .

Saint_roseline_demoisellesA wine soaks in the know-how of its makers but also whiffs from its terroir of origin, from the soil, the orientation of the plot of land relative to sun, wind and sea. In essence, a wine reflects a region.

So who wants to wait for harvest season to celebrate the Côte de Provence wines.

Eleven wine makers are expected this Saturday evening, June 6, 2009 in La Motte, Var to show-case the Côtes de Provence appelation.

Who will be there?

Some of La Motte's best, including a number of organic wine producers such as Domaine de L'Eouve, Domaine du Jas d'Esclans (my personal favorite), but also Domaine de La Maurette, Domaine Sensation, Valbourgès, Domaine des Grands Esclans, Château des Demoiselles, Château d'Esclans with its high-sensation top end Rosé wine the Garrus, Domaine de Canta Rainette and the association of the Vignerons de Saint-Romain.

Garrus_EsclansTo taste, you will need to purchase your "La Nuit des Vignerons" wine glass at the village entrance. Then carry it around to sip to your heart's content. The group La Pena Pescalunaire will provide music and entertainment. For kids, donkey will ride around the Place de Tresavaou.

 Saturday, June 6, 2009 in La Motte beginning at 7PM.