The vineyards of southern Provence sweep along the southeastern coastline of France from Cassis in the west, towards Toulon to the east. Near Cassis, the vines clamber up steep hillsides that rise sharply from the water. In the morning they are often bathed in ocean mists that burn off as the heat of the Mediterranean sun builds during the day. To the east, the steep hills give way to gently rolling slopes, punctuated with picturesque hilltop villages surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. The vineyards of the Bandol region spread out from the seaside village, surrounding it on three sides with a gently undulating bowl dotted with small villages. Between Cassis and Bandol, as well as to the east of Bandol, the vineyards produce red, white, and rosé wines that are labeled Côtes de Provence.
Of the wines of this region, the rich, spicy reds of Bandol are by far the best known and deserving of the most attention. The hardy Mourvèdre grape provides the backbone of this robust wine. While generally difficult to grow and ripen, the terrain and roasting heat of the sun coax it to near greatness here, producing wines which range in nature from silky and smooth delights to rough powerhouses full of spice and bite. While Bandol also produces rosé and white wines, it is the reds that are most notable.
Although Bandol produces the most enchanting wines of the region, the tiny vineyards of Cassis yield up delightfully fresh whites and rosés, perfect for sipping on a warm afternoon sitting by the dock watching the fishing boats or whatever else occupies your fancy. The slopes around St. Cyr-sur-Mer, La Cadière-d’Azur, Le Castellet, and Sanary-sur-Mer likewise produce not only Bandol wines, but enchanting Vin de Pays perfect with the local food, or drinking while reflecting on another idyllic day just past, or to come, in this enchanting part of Provence.
Visitors traveling to southern Provence from outside France have three primary gateways: Paris, Nice, and Marseille. Paris and Nice are hubs for international flights, while Marseille’s modern airport is served by connecting flights from most major cities in Europe.
From Nice, it is an hour’s drive to the villages of the area, a bit longer if you choose to wind along the scenic coastal route rather than taking the A8 Autoroute towards Aix-en-Provence before turning south to Aubagne and then Cassis.
From Paris, the simplest route is by train, either the ultra high-speed TGV to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence where you can pick up a car, or via connections directly to many of the small villages. Or, you can hop a short flight to Marseille.
From Marseille it is just a short drive eastward to Cassis and the villages beyond.
When To Visit
Generally, April, May, and June, and September and October are the best times to visit. While July and August boast some of the best weather, it unfortunately draws hordes of people – from France and beyond – to crowd the beaches, hotels, and restaurants. For wine travel, September can be problematic, as the harvest takes place that month and most vineyards are closed to the public.
Residents say that there is no really bad time to visit southern Provence, it’s just that some months are better than others. Local pride has to be forgiven. While the region gets about 300 sunny days during the year, December through February are normally cold and blustery, and many businesses close down during this period. In addition, the Mistral can sweep down from the mountains with icy winds howling from 30 to 60 miles per hour for days on end. November and March are “shoulder” months with “iffy” weather but no crowds to battle. According to our resident expert, the best times to visit are the beginning of June and the end of September.
A delightful little seaport nestled below the towering heights of Cap Canille to the southeast and the Massif du Puget mountains. It has a picturesque harbor and three beaches, two of them sand that offer excellent swimming. A maze of small streets extends back from and around the waterfront, filled with shops and restaurants. The scenic Calanques, narrow, fiord-like inlets filled with translucent blue water are just to the west, and can be explored on foot or via a stream of tour boats that leave the harbor regularly. Cassis has become increasingly popular as an alternative to the tonier villages of the Côte d’Azur, which has lead to parking problems. One solution – head for the Casino, where parking is easier. Next to Marseille, locals say that Cassis offers some of the best bouillabaisse to be found, together with the local specialty: fresh sea urchins. Make this a “must visit,” if only for the urchins and bouillabaisse.
This popular seacoast village has a totally different feel from Cassis. Instead of a quaint seacoast village this former quiet little town is now an amalgam of old and new. An excellent beach and water sports have attracted many seasonal and full-time residents who have built a fringe of upscale homes and condominiums surrounding the tiny old village. In the center of the village is a small square, with a gilded replica of the Statue of Liberty, and a handful of cafés serving up everything from fresh seafood to pizza – a great place to stop for a glass of wine, a baguette, and the outstanding local tapenade. The streets immediately around the square are lined with shops selling fresh seafood and produce, meats, and breads and baked goods. On the outskirts of the town you’ll find a modern shopping plaza with a large supermarket, convenience stores and a strip mall with everything from pharmacies to beauty supplies.
A short distance from St. Cyr-sur-Mer is the old hill town of La Cadière-d’Azur. Some of the old defense works of the town dating to the 13th century are still standing, and – coupled with its maze of narrow winding streets – the effect is to transport you back to an earlier era. With the few narrow streets, parking in the town is almost non-existent. Your best bet is to head for the public parking lot on the northern slope of the town and hike up the slope. Cadière’s streets contain numerous antique stores, a few cafés, and shops selling foods from fresh produce to baked goods to farci (stuffed vegetables.) Though small, the town boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant at the quaint Hotel Bérard. The menu is laden with local Provençal specialties such as an excellent Pistou, plus unique creations such as Cappuccino Risotto. The slopes around the village produce Bandol wines along with fresh and enjoyable Vin de Pays. Well worth a visit.
Set atop a wooded hill dotted with vineyards, Le Castellet has dominated the surrounding countryside for almost a thousand years. This hilltop fortress was once owned by the Lords of Les Baux, and after that, by King René. The ramparts are intact, and offer stunning views in all directions. The interior of the village contains a lattice work of streets, with restaurants, cafés, and shops selling everything from art and painting, to souvenirs and silver. A 12th century church has been carefully restored and caps a small square at the village’s highest point. A definite “must see.”
Most of this village is fairly modern and mundane. A wide boulevard leads into the center of the old town from one direction. During market day it is crammed with booths selling everything from food to clothes. At the end of the boulevard, there is a tree-lined square with several cafés and shops, a pleasant spot to take a break from the market for a glass of wine or a snack.
This seaside resort is surrounded by high, wooded hills which shelter it from the wind and create an ideal port. It offers a variety of attractions: a broad seaside promenade bordering a harbor filled with private yachts and charter fishing boats; a myriad of bistros and cafés serving fresh seafood; a casino; shopping; and nearby exotic gardens. Come in the evening and watch the intense competition of the petanques matches. Along the waterfront you will find wine shops and bars where you can find the best wines that Bandol has to offer. Much to see and do here.
Along with Cassis, this is the prettiest of the coastal villages in this region. Charming houses painted in pastels line the waterfront, which lies close by across a tree-lined boulevard. Ample parking makes visiting a breeze, but the attractions are many, including the many excellent cafés lining the waterfront, and fishing and scuba diving (Costeau’s early experiments took place here). There is a lovely park where children can play until tired, then enjoy some of the best ice cream to be had. St. Nazaire, a 19th century church, lies just off the waterfront, fronted by a small square, and a 14th century medieval tower rises above the other buildings, now part of a hotel. This is another “don’t miss” destination, worth a visit and a lunch.
Our local expert
In addition to multiple visits of our own to this area, much of our input comes from a local expert who spends a good part of the year in this area and is a font of knowledge about food, wines, cheese, and things to see and do.