Sunday, 27 November 2016

Tu es belle, Saint-Raphaël !

Looking across the new marina at Saint Raphael.
That is not an original headline, but as a former sub-editor, I wish it were. It appeared in our daily newspaper – the Var-Matin.

I am probably digressing here, but the Var-Matin brings news of not only the Var department, France, and the world; it also has very local news, depending on where you live.
Var is not a large department by any means, but the Var-Matin prints seven editions – each one based on a different town within the department. Ours is the Draguignan edition.
The sandy beach at St Raphael.
The summer lift-out, ‘Le Jounal de l’été’ contains lists of festivals, music concerts, art exhibitions, theatrical performances and leisure activities  in the Var for its holidaymakers.
And the headline above announced a feature on Saint Raphaël.

Saint Raphael is a 20-minute train journey from Les Arcs. It is the best place to go to swim, browse the shops and boutiques, eat, soak up the sun and just enjoy – and it’s so easy to get to, particularly if you don’t have your own transport.
The main beach is sandy – and while it can get pretty crowded at the height of the summer season, there is always the possibility of walking further around the coast – east towards the Estérel and its tiny, rocky bays – or west towards Fréjus plage (beach at Fréjus).

One of the small coves along the Estérel coast.
The convenience of the beachfront at Saint Raphaël comes when you decide it’s time for something to eat or drink.

Just across the road above the beach is a strip of restaurants – or you can take a leisurely stroll a little further around past the newly-rebuilt marina to an amazing strip of shops and even more restaurants where you really are spoilt for choice.

I love the partly faded elegance of Saint Raphaël. It was once the sojourn of choice for writers and artists of the immediate post-World War One period of the 1920s – think Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You can see the grand old decorative seafront hotels still holding their own among the newer holiday apartments.

If you ask at the tourist office, you can take a tour to see the various individual mansions of this period.

Saint Raphaël is also a centre for deep sea diving and there are many boat trips you can take around the coast or day trips to other places such as St Tropez.

Aerial photograph of the town showing beachfront and marina. From Var-Matin.
Just off the coast – you can see them from the beach – are the ‘monster’ rocks. Their shapes resemble a monster with the head of a lion and the body of a crocodile, known as ‘lion de terre et lion de mer’ (the lion of the earth and the lion of the sea).  Legend has it that they were once living monsters guarding a sleeping princess, who were turned to stone (rocks) by the prince charming who came to wake her!

A sort-of Sleeping Beauty – French style.
Not being one for diving myself, I prefer to visit the ‘l’histoire sous-marin’ (underwater history) museum – called the Musée archéologique (Archeology Museum) – where some amazing antiquities have been brought to the surface from the many ancient shipwrecks that occurred on the rocks just offshore.

An ancient anchor from one of the shipwrecks.
There you can see ancient anchors, rows of amphoras, used to transport oil from the eastern Mediterranean, plates, bowls and goblets that have been salvaged from the seabed.
Another part of the museum is dedicated to the pioneers of deep sea diving, and includes the first heavy independent diving suit that was constructed at Saint Raphaël in 1928.

It is also at this museum where you can climb the 129 steps to the top of a fortified tower and look out over not only Saint Raphaël itself, but the panoramic view back east to the red rocks of the Estérel mountains, and west towards Fréjus and the coastline that takes you past the coastal towns of St Aygulf and Les Issambres to Sainte Maxime and the Maures mountains below Les Arcs.

A row of the salvaged amphoras on display at the Archeological Museum.
And the wonderful thing is that the railway station is right in the centre of town, which means you only need to stroll two blocks to the beach or, alternatively, cross under the railway line in the other direction to climb to the old town where the museum is located.

  • Enjoy a visit to Saint Raphaël – and many other interesting places in the Var and further afield  – by basing yourself in the heart of Provence, at Maison Les Arcs.






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