Everyone has undoubtedly heard of the likes of Nice, Cannes, Marseille and St. Tropez, but with this article, we’re hoping to offer an insight into some of the lesser-known spots that can be found along the French Mediterranean coast of France. The South of France, including the infamous French Riviera, is renowned for its sunshine, azure waters and rosé wine, and with these five places, you can enjoy these delights away from hordes of tourists.
By taking a twenty-minute train ride from Montpellier to Sète, you will be following in the footsteps of some of the original visitors to the port city, whose canals have earnt it the nickname of ‘Venice of Languedoc’. The Gare de Sète was opened in 1839, with the connection with Toulouse established in 1853. This was also the year that the Fêtes de la Saint-Louis were rekindled after the French Revolution – a water-jousting festival that is still held every August, and is one of the main attractions of the city.
Alongside the entertainment provided by the water jousting, Sète lays claim to no less than seven different beaches, with Lazaret and Corniche beaches only a short walk from the city centre. Having said this, there is a bike trail to follow that takes you to each one, and so hiring some bikes whilst in the area is a no-brainer! Don’t let the reputation of the sun in the South of France put you off of hiring bikes, as the average temperature in the summer months is a comfortable 26.7 degrees. Bikes would also allow you to easily explore the full length of the saltwater lagoon Étang de Thau, which, despite is considered the second largest lake in France and is rich in aquatic biodiversity, such as oysters, mussels and flamingos.
Calanques National Park
The 20km stretch of coastline between Marseille and Cassis is home to the Calanques National Park, the only European National Park that includes land, sea and urban areas, and so there is plenty of exploration to be done. With 26 different Calanques (narrow, rocky limestone coves with steep sides), you are spoilt for choice as to which location to visit to swim in the famous blue waters. Calanque de Port-Miou lies round the corner from Cassis, and is therefore one of the most accessible, however if you fancy a bit of a hike, don’t forget to explore some of the quieter coves, such as Calanque de Sugiton and Calanque de Morgiou. There are plenty of other activities on offer, including boat tours, rock climbing, and diving trips, but if you fancy some water sports and snorkelling, head down to Calanque de Sormiou, where you might catch a glimpse of an octopus in amongst the indigo Posidonia seagrass. If you venture a little further east to La Ciotat as well, check out Calanque de Figuerolles, which has been and still is visited by many filmmakers and artists, for example Georges Braque.
Just half an hour by train from Marseille sitting in between La Ciotat, Bandol, and La Cadière-d’Azur, is Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, a small commune that consists of the urban centre of Saint-Cyr, the port and beach resort of Les Lecques and the port of La Madrague as well. Activities range from surfing and stand-up paddle boarding, to visiting the Musée du Tauroentum, where you can discover the remains of a Roman villa, to marvelling at one of the oddities of the town: the replica of the Statue of Liberty that is in the town square, which was in fact created by the sculptor of the original, Frédéric Bartholdl, himself. The Centre d’Art Sébastien is also a wonderful temporary exhibition space and the area is also rich in agricultural produce, such as olives, fruit and vegetables, and good local wines, so fuelling your interrailing adventures shouldn’t be too much of a problem!
La Seyne-sur-Mer and Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer
Photo by Sophia Choudhury
Across the bay from Toulon sits the little town of La Seyne-sur-Mer, and at the end of the peninsular is Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer. La Seyne grew as a result of the shipyards that used to stand where the Parc de la Navale is, due to the proximity of the Toulon French Naval Base. However, even though this history still shapes the city, the conversion of the old industrial spaces into tourist attractions makes this area of the French coastline a true hidden gem. To get the best view, climb the Pont Levant and watch the boats sailing around down below, or even head up Impasse Chartier at sunset to experience the colours of the setting sun on the mountains behind Toulon, that rise up ominously right next door to the sea. For the freshest produce and the chance to see a quintessentially French market, wander along Cours Louis Blanc in the dappled sunlight, even following the historical walking tour as you go.
Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer is even quieter still, but the beach of Les Sablettes is certainly not one to miss. Even though the wind can pick up a little towards the end of the day, the sandy beach is the perfect place to soak up some of the area’s 2900 hours of sunlight a year! There are also some fantastic hilly walks around the southern side of the peninsular, with views of the whole bay from the Cimitière des Pins, which also offers the chance to reflect on the military history of France and the surrounding area.
If you fancy venturing into Toulon for a day, some of the city’s highlights are the little red cable car, aka the Téléphérique, up to the top of Mont Faron where the Mémorial du débarquement et de la liberation de Provence can be found (this is a museum dedicated to the Allied landing in the area on 15 August 1944 that can be described as Provence’s D-Day). Toulon is also home to the second largest opera house in France, and the nation’s largest naval base, whose history is commemorated in the city’s highly informative Maritime Museum. Toulon is also a major transport hub, and so if you are looking to explore the surrounding areas, caching the train Toulon is a great idea!
Hyères and Île de Porquerolles
Photo by Sophia Choudhury
Despite the majority of Hyères’ tourist industry being made up of French nationals, the area in the past has welcomed the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Leo Tolstoy and even Queen Victoria! This is hardly surprising, given the beauty of the area, with popular sites to visit including an old medieval castle, the saltmarshes of Giens, and the winding streets of the hillside Old Town. We’d highly recommend checking out the architecturally interesting Villa Noailles, complete with a vast array of works from some big names in the world of art. Having said this, if something more low-key is what you’re after, follow the Parcours de Arts route through town that takes you to some of the main sites in the town, such as the turrets of the Saint-Paul gatehouse, as well as some of the studios and workshops of local artists. Some of the local work and gastronomy are also available at the market in La Capte, which offers the chance to experience a classic weekly French market.
If you go to Hyères, it would be crazy to miss out on going to Île de Porquerolles with its crystal blue waters that look like they’ve come straight out of a travel brochure. Plage de Notre Dame and Plage d’Argent are high on our list of the best beaches to go to on the island, which is one of the four Îles d’Or (or Golden Islands). Rent a bike to make the most of your time on the island and get the most exploring possible done, especially to visit some of the vineyards that produced some of the first Côtes de Provence wines. Other activities on the island include scuba diving in shipwrecks and the annual Jazz à Porquerolles festival in July.