Sur la Mer

Saint-Émilion – the little town with a big reputation

Saint-Émilion – the little town with a big reputation

The French Riviera is renowned for its glitz and glamour. Tourists expect to see glitterati sipping champagne on their luxury yachts and crowds of sun worshippers cramming the beaches. But, outside peak season, the reality can be quite different. When Keith Hall visited Saint-Raphaël last October, he discovered the Riviera in a quiet, more relaxed mood.Saint-Émilion. She found its cobbled streets and shady squares are brimming with history, and its centuries-old vineyards are also brimming with a certain delectable liquid…

Seasoned travellers know that you can’t always plan your journey based on what you read in the guidebooks. That is especially true for iconic places like the Riviera or Côte d’Azur (Blue Coast) as it is known in French. Most guidebooks and websites wax lyrical about the celebs, yachts, beaches and parties. But it is easy to avoid the crowds and simply enjoy the inherent beauty of the Mediterranean coast. Just go out of season and stay in a relatively small, obscure town.

When I wanted a relaxing holiday on the Riviera, I went in autumn and stayed in the small town of Saint-Raphaël. Located about midway between Cannes and Saint-Tropez, with a population of approximately 36,000, Saint-Raphaël is quieter than its trendy neighbouring towns. Guidebooks and websites describe it as “charming” and “delightful”, which sounds as if they are damning it with faint praise. But, as a seasoned traveller, I could tell this was the real “place to be” on the Riviera, especially as Saint Raphael is the patron saint of travellers.

Saint-Raphaël’s two biggest attractions are its setting on the famous Mediterranean coastline and its Vieille Ville (Old Town). The site has a long history, extending all the way back to Cro-Magnon man and, later, to Roman settlement. The town we see today had its beginnings in the 12th century, when the Templars built a church here dedicated to the archangel Saint Raphael.

The town grew slowly over the following centuries. Napoleon put it firmly on the map when he landed at Saint-Raphaël on his return to France after conquering Egypt in 1799. Unfortunately for him, he also visited the town in 1814 on his way to exile on the island of Elba. At that time, the town was still just a small fishing village, but it grew into a fashionable seaside resort later in the 19th century.

Today, you can see evocative reminders of Saint-Raphaël’s past. The best place to start is the Old Town, where you can visit the Templar Church, known as San Rafèu. You enter the Church through the adjoining Archaeological Museum, which has interesting displays of the town’s ancient history. The Templar Church is a sturdy Norman/Romanesque building, with excavations in the crypt.

The Old Town area surrounding the church has narrow winding alleys and a rather cosy, cloistered atmosphere. The rest of the town dates largely from the 19th century, though much was rebuilt after World War II. The largest 19th century building is the impressive Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Victoire. This beautiful pink sandstone building dates from 1887. The interior is decorated with colourful stained glass windows, statues and memorials.

Although Saint-Raphaël’s history and architecture are fascinating, the town’s biggest drawcard is still its location beside the sea. There are many ways to enjoy this famously beautiful part of the Mediterranean. Even in the autumn, when swimming and sun bathing are less popular, the coast is still the place to be.

Take a walk along the seafront promenade, passing marinas full of sailboats and looking back at the buildings of the town centre. Walking west towards Port Fréjus, there is a long line of restaurants, bars, and cafes where you can just sit enjoying a coffee or aperitif while gazing out over the water. Alternatively, you can head east towards Port de Santa Lucia, which has fewer cafes but plenty of ocean views.

Those are both easy strolls, but if you are feeling energetic there is also a more demanding walk along the coastal track known as the Sentier du Littoral. I chose to walk the 8km section from Port de Santa Lucia to Cape Dramont and found it to be fairly tough going. The coastline is quite rugged, with many calanques – those steep, walled, rocky inlets that you find along the Mediterranean coast.

The coastal rock is ancient volcanic lava and is strikingly red in colour, contrasting boldly with the sea, which really is surprisingly blue. On a sunny day it fully justifies the name “Cote d’Azur”. Along the coastal walk, there is a World War II landing craft, marking the place where the Allies stormed ashore in 1944 on their campaign to free France.

The odd thing about the walk is that you are rarely more than a few hundred metres from houses, but you hardly notice them because the landscape captures all your attention. The red rocks and blue sea along this walk have become one of my enduring memories of Saint-Raphaël. Although the weather is a little more unpredictable in October (it even rained one day while I was there), the town, with its lovely coastal walk, certainly lived up to its tourism slogan: “un Jardin d’Eden sur la mer” – a Garden of Eden by the sea.

For more information, visit the Saint-Raphaël tourism website at www.saint-raphael.com.

Pull-out quotes

…as a seasoned traveller, I could tell this was the real “place to be” on the Riviera, especially as Saint Raphael is the patron saint of travellers.

The Old Town area surrounding the church has narrow winding alleys and a rather cosy, cloistered atmosphere.

The coastal rock is ancient volcanic lava and is strikingly red in colour, contrasting boldly with the sea…

…the town…certainly lived up to its tourism slogan: “un Jardin d’Eden sur la mer” – a Garden of Eden by the sea.

Credits

Photographs by Keith Hall

 

 

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