SAY what you will about the Brits’ relationship with the French, there’s not much more life affirming than a seat at an outside table offering a splendid view of rural France, from which to enjoy a glass of rose, for which grapes were grown a mere stone’s throw from your line of vision, where a stunning display of bougainvillia adorns the honey coloured stonework of your hotel.
It’s amazing how quickly you can get there, too, but when you live on the Fylde coast and think of the Cote D’Azur, your first thought of how to do so easily would probably be by flying from Liverpool to Nice...
Heading to London to get on the Eurostar would take you to Paris, but the long drive or the train ride heading south might notch up the best part of two days of your precious holiday time.
Think of Toulon, though, and it’s likely best known thus far as the main port of the French Navy. In reality, it’s the largest city in the Var, a region that includes St Tropez, a Mediterranean playground probably more associated with the glitz and glamour of the South of France than it is with the rest of the Var region, with its rolling hills, fine wines and captivating scenery.
It certainly took me by surprise that, from Liverpool, I could be in Toulon in two hours, a few hours’ drive westwards along the coast from Cannes – and yet a whole world away from the summer crowds that flock there in the summer. Toulon airport has been designed to cater for three times the numbers that head there now, so no queues here, no jockeying for space in the lounge, no battling for luggage on the carousel – and no wait for car hire.
It’s how you’d imagine Nice was once, before everyone else discovered it and rendered it, for me, out of bounds in August.
I confess, I do love it, but then that’s what got me to take a closer look at the Var – where time has stood fairly still and things seem, somehow, more French, more authentic – more unspoilt by the hype that keeps the coastline so busy while at the same time diluting the real ooh la la factor of real life en Francais.
From Toulon-Hyeres Airport, we headed east towards Hyeres, our destination the Domaine du Rayol, a truly spectacular gardens landscape inspired by Mediterranean climates throughout the world. A wander round its massive acreage brought a more colourful and stunning spectacle around every corner.
Lunch at the gardens’ Cafe des Jardiniers in the summer sunshine was a highlight of our trip, trumping even the people-watching wander round St Tropez that I had been looking forward to more.
I guess that’s the epitome of a visit to this area; the places that are more familiar before you go are overtaken by those that you come across along the way – and wonder at how they have remained so undiscovered when they are so much to offer.
River kayaking is a case in point; for the price of a restaurant dinner you can spend an afternoon meandering through the rural splendour and the rowing is definitely not as hard work as I’d anticipated. Well worth the price of a sat nav, too, to easily find the outpost where competent instructors set you on your way and help you out after a truly exhilarating experience.
The aforementioned glass of perfect rose was served at the Grand Hotel in Bormes, with its stunning views from both the outdoor terrace where we had breakfast and the front facing bedrooms, too. From, there, a short walk to the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas took us to one of the most authentic and welcoming restaurants of our trip but so undiscovered are these, they have neither menus-to-go or a website presence, so suffice to say the wine flowed, the food was first class and the temptation to revisit this corner of France just to enjoy it all over again is as much of a description as I have.
Next day, we set off to the old city centre of Hyeres to wander its traditional Provencal Saturday market, peruse the little shops up and down the narrow streets and enjoy a cold beer at one of its outdoor cafes. I bought oil and balsamic vinegar to bring home, anxious to replicate one or two of those continental touches in favour of the usual Lurpak on supermarket bread... speaking of which, there was hardly a day we weren’t delivered the Var area’s favourite pre-dinner appetiser, tapenade. Every eaterie has its own blend, every one capturing the taste of France, along with home-made touches that set the region apart for culinary excellence. Food here is the talking point as Brits have weather; they take it very seriously and that emphasis manifests itself everywhere.
We didn’t get far enough northwards to reach the mountains that offer the skiing that helps bring about Var’s ‘something for everyone’ tag..
The next day took us, though, in that direction – to a wildly different style of hostelry with a more corporate flavour, Dolce Hotels & Resorts. Service, still, was second to none, rooms and suites spacious, food and wines fabulous and not even the temperamental Mistral could whip us away from our outdoor terrace dinner under the stars, with a view of the sumptuous wedding taking place right below us.
Before dinner, we took to a golf buggy to take in the beachfront views that help make the 18-hole golf course here among the most sought-after in France; thanks to great weather forecasts, it was fully booked for the weekend.
Our journey past medieval monasteries and spectacular vineyards, through sleepy villages where tourists, many on expensive bicycles taking in the region mile by mile, took us for our third night stop in Collobrieres. If ever a village epitomised rural French life, it is here; boules in the local square, effusive hospitality that brings me back to that Anglo-French thing. Our Var welcome extended to tapenade recipes, tourism tips and schoolgirl French met with warmth and humour. Go on Trip Advisor to learn more of the Hotel Notre Dame, the wealth of reasons to stay there is far too huge to go into here.