Exploring the French Med

By Mick Webb

The village of St-Paul-de-Vence in Provence is home to the Fondation Maeght museum which houses a private collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture from artists such as Miro. Photo / Thinkstock
The village of St-Paul-de-Vence in Provence is home to the Fondation Maeght museum which houses a private collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture from artists such as Miro. Photo / Thinkstock

Summer is coming to France's Mediterranean coastline. It's time to flaunt yourself on the Côte d'Azur, or visit some of Europe's most vibrant cities and enjoy the seasonal warmth, those colours that have captivated so many great painters, and the scent of herbs.

This is a coast of two very different halves, whose 600 kilometres is divided by the river Rhône. To the east is the atmospheric port of Marseille, followed by a sequence of spectacular, rocky inlets called the Calanques (declared a national park earlier this year), and the pretty seaside towns of Cassis, Bandol and La Ciotat.

Then comes the celebrity coastline of the Côte d'Azur, with star names such as Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monaco bracketed by the unexciting naval port of Toulon and charming, low-key Menton at the Italian frontier.

Inland, behind Nice and Marseille, lies the evocative landscape of Provence: orange-roofed villages clinging to rugged crags of white limestone under impossibly blue skies.

The romance of Provençal life might have been exaggerated but it still provides an attractive holiday menu of market towns with excellent restaurants; historical if over-visited gems such as Les Baux de Provence; and, as an alternative to fun and games on a nearby beach, the Gorges du Verdon, which is Europe's deepest canyon and a centre for outdoor sports.

The company Montagne et Rivière (website in French), in Castellane, specialises in kayaking, white-water rafting and canyoning. For hikers, a quite stunning stretch of the long-distance walk, the GR4, starting at Castellane, follows the canyon. A colony of reintroduced griffon vultures provides impressive company.

Go west from the Rhône towards Spain and you'll find the immense, sandy beaches of Languedoc-Roussillon. The major coastal towns and cities (Montpellier, Béziers, Narbonne and Perpignan) lie slightly inland, while the holidaying crowds are attracted to the purpose-built resorts of La Grande Motte and Cap d'Agde. The interior is flat rather than hilly, with a series of vast saltwater lagoons.

As you near Spain, the Côte Vermeille, where the Pyrenees meet the sea, mirrors the opposite end of the coast with a series of small bays and shingle beaches backed by cliffs. Collioure is its prettiest and best-known port.

One of the delights of this area is the climate: hot summers, warmish winters. But there are local variations. Sheltered Menton, for instance, has its own semi-tropical microclimate. Beware, however, the mistral, the cold wind that howls down the Rhône valley and is reputed to turn people mad during its concentrated bursts of activity, mainly in winter.

Seasonal highlights which warrant a visit include the blooming of the lavender fields (late June to mid-July) and the 66th Avignon Festival when the 'City of the Popes' dons its make-up for three weeks with performances in theatres, streets and squares.

THE RIVIERA

Nice is the portal to the glittering excess of the Côte d'Azur. A stroll along the 7km Promenade des Anglais - named after the 19th-century holidaying English aristocrats who proposed the idea - is an essential city activity.

Another must-do is the hair-raising drive along one of the Corniche roads towards Italy, passing the extravagant pink villas of the super rich and calling in at Eze, among the most precarious of the region's villages perchés, and tiny but densely populated Monaco.

In between chic Cannes and the heaving resorts (in summer) of Saint-RaphaëIl, Fréjus and Saint-Tropez, is the Massif d'Esterel. Its red cliffs interrupt the coastal development and shelter the pleasant bay and quiet village of Agay. Stay at the Relais d'Agay which has doubles in high season from €86. (Breakfast is extra at €6pp.)

Nice is also the gateway to the natural splendours of the Gorges du Verdon and the Parc du Mercantour. A lovely, scenic excursion is on the narrow-gauge Chemins de Fer de Provence railway that links the city with the spa town of Digne; single tickets cost €20.

MARSEILLE AND THE BOUCHES DU RHÔNE

Marseille provides the entrée for Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon and the villages of the Luberon. France's second city is undergoing a serious makeover in preparation for its reign as European Capital of Culture 2013. Even so, the multicultural feel of the old port and the alleyways of Le Panier district are still decidedly atmospheric. Stay at the cool Music Hotel (website in French) at 12 Boulevard Louis Salvator; doubles from €100 including breakfast.

Fifty kilometres west of Marseille are the atmospheric flatlands of the Camargue, whose mix of fields, marshland and saltwater lagoons is renowned for a multitude of birds, including pink flamingos; there are also many kilometres of fine sandy beach.

The main town is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is accessible from Arles by bus every couple of hours, taking 50 minutes. Once there, you can explore the Camargue by bike, in a canoe or on horseback. They can all be rented in Saintes-Maries from Le Vélociste (website in French) at 8 Place Mireille. One day's bike hire is €15.

LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON

The two very different cities of Montpellier and Perpignan (the former youthful, progressive and dynamic, the latter historic and sun-drenched) bracket a coastline fringed with long sandy strips. Many are built up, backed by ugly developments or close to main roads but there are some lovely ones, too.

The picks are L'Espiguette, east of La Grande Motte with its vast extent of dunes and sandy beach (one of France's longest) and La Tamarissière, bordered by pine forest on the west bank of the Hérault river. South of Narbonne, Leucate, on the lagoon of the same name, boasts cliffs and a pretty village.

The coastal lagoons are places to escape the summer hordes. Try charming Bages or Peyriac-de-Mer, both on the Etang de Bages-Sigean. There's a decidedly Spanish look and feel to the area (particularly in bullfighting-mad Béziers) which deepens as you approach Spain. In Banyuls-sur-Mer, near the frontier, you'll hear Catalan spoken and see la sardane being danced. Stay (and eat well) at Hôtel des Elmes on the beach of the same name. Doubles from €79.

GREAT FOOD AND DRINK

The fish and seafood are legendary here: Collioure's fresh anchovies are as far as you can get from the salty, preserved strips we prise from cans. Another delicacy, oursin or sea urchin, is best appreciated at the festival in Carry-le-Rouet, just east of Marseille, which runs every February. Then there's the fish dish that is synonymous with Marseille: bouillabaisse. There's no single agreed recipe but a key ingredient is the hideous-looking scorpion fish, rascasse. You should expect to pay at least €40 for an authentic bouillabaisse; a good place to eat one is at Marseille's Chez Fonfon at 140 Rue Vallon des Auffes.

The best markets are an art form in their own right, changing seasonally. They are particularly attractive in July, when the sun has ripened the apricots, figs and tomatoes. The huge Friday market at Carpentras is worth a detour. In winter, it is renowned for its truffles. Eat them in the egg-based dish brouillade de truffes.

Amid the sea of wines produced in these two regions, there are some with a truly local character such as Bandol's highly prized red wines; the whites of Cassis, to accompany a bouillabaisse; or the fortified wines of Banyuls-sur-Mer, drunk as an aperitif or digestif.

FINE ART

The father of the Post-Impressionists, Paul Cézanne, lived a semi-hermetic existence in Aix-en-Provence. Follow the Cézanne trail through present-day Aix and visit his atmospheric studio (July and August opening times 10am-6pm, admission €5.50, tickets from the tourist office at 2 Place du Général de Gaulle). Also admire nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted obsessively.

Enjoy scenes that inspired Van Gogh on a walking trail of Arles, while Nice has an excellent museum of Matisse's works in the Cimiez neighbourhood at 164 Avenue des Arènes (free; 10am-6pm; closed Tuesdays).

Picasso's post-war stay in Antibes is recalled in its Musée Picasso (website in French), in the Château Grimaldi at Place Mariejol. You can admire the maestro's ceramics and the excellent view from the castle (10am-6 pm; €6).

However, if you visit only one museum, it should be the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence, which houses a private collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture from artists such as Braque, Miró and Giacometti (10am-7pm; €14).

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