Why we love the south of france for a long weekend
Winter in England always seems so long. After the full on hectic Summer of holidays and festivals Mr J and I like to get away for at least one long weekend in Europe to catch the last of the Summer sunshine and wind down before the Christmas festive season.
Last October we went back to the South of France for a long weekend and stayed in one of our favourite place, the little seaside town of Sanary-sur-Mer. We were only away for 4 nights so we didn’t want to have to drive too far from the airport, so we flew into Marseilles.
I love the slightly edgy, grittiness of Marseilles and did you know it’s France’s oldest city. Greek traders founded it 2,600 years ago. We didn’t spend any time there on this trip but if you do visit be sure not miss out on a good bouillabaisse in the Old Port.
We hired a car at the airport and drove to Sanary-sur-Mer which is just under an hour away on the coast close to Toulon. We were staying at La Farandole, a stone’s throw from the beach, in the Bay of Bandol on the outskirts on Sanary-sur-Mer.
Parking is very easy at the hotel as they have an underground car park and valet parking so you only have to leave your car outside the entrance and hand your keys to reception. They take the cars down in a big lift!
The hotel is a small boutique hotel with 27 rooms with an outdoor pool and a rooftop hot tub overlooking the sea which you can reserve for sole use, so it’s nice and private. La Farandole also has a small spa which features a water course, steam room and a wide range of treatments and massages.
We’ve been coming to this part of the South of France on and off for the past 20 years, always being drawn back by the laid back atmosphere, the wonderful seafood and of course the gorgeous Provencal Rose. Mr J can wax lyrical about Provencal Rosé, he’s a huge fan.
Sanary-sur-Mer has a pretty harbour, lined with palm trees and pastel coloured houses. The harbour is the centre of activity in the town and a lovely place for your evening promenade and ice-cream, I’m a big fan of ice-cream.
As you stroll around the pretty harbour you will notice the numerous colourful small boats. There are 100 traditional fishing boats kept here, some more than 100 years old and some listed as historic monuments and are typical fishing boats of Provence called “pointus”. There is still an active fishing fleet and you can buy fresh fish on the quay here each morning.
Market day is on a Wednesday and it’s a riot of colour and smells that assault your senses. I love the market because it’s not a tourist attraction it’s where the locals come to buy their groceries and catch up with friends.
quiet Local Beaches for reading and Relaxing
Although it was mid October the weather was lovely and we enjoyed lots of warm sunshine, although it could be a bit breezy in the mornings. This meant we were able to spend the afternoons lazing on the beach reading and enjoying the sunshine.
There are five main beaches in the provence of Sanary, the Plages Levant, Portissol, Cousse, Gorguette and Dorée. The beaches aren’t the most picturesque along this stretch of coastline and are a mixture of sand, rock and pebbles. However, out of season it’s easy to find a pretty quiet spot to read and if you’re brave enough, have a dip in the water. I’m happy to say Mr J and I both ventured in and it was surprisingly warm once you became acclimatised.
Most afternoons we didn’t venture much further than the small sandy beach behind the hotel which had a lovely sheltered cove.
Exploring Castellet And The Paul Richard Circuit
The mornings were spent mostly mooching around Sanary, Bandol and Castellet which is a few miles away.
Castellet is a medieval hilltop village and it’s one of my favourite places in the area. It is a maze of small interlinking narrow streets and small squares, lined with beautiful old houses. You can enter Castellet through one of two fortified gateways and then just let yourself wander along the small streets, past the potter’s and the leather craftsman’s workshops, the perfumed candles, ceramics, and jewellery alongside the art galleries and ice-cream parlours. They have very good ice-cream.
There are plenty of restaurants and cafes where you can stop for coffee and cake or a long leisurely lunch with a glass or two of Rosé.
In the commune of Castellet is the Paul Ricard motor racing circuit which was built in 1969. Paul Ricard hosted the French Grand Prix on 14 occasions between 1971 and 1990 and it has been announced that the French Grand Prix will again be held there this year (2018).
The weekend we were staying they were hosting the Dix Mille Tour with over 300 classic cars racing. I’m not really a fan of motor racing as I tend to find it a bit boring. However, as entry was free, and Mr J enjoys the sport we decided to go along.
Well to my surprise I loved it, the classic cars reminded me of those old motor racing movies with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and the setting is stunning and we had a great afternoon.
Eating and Drinking Locally
One of the main reasons we love this part of France is for its food and wine. The seafood is excellent and plentiful and there are so many restaurants in the area to choose from that you are spoilt for choice.
Wine has been made in this region for over 2600 years, making Provence the oldest wine producing region of France. It is also the only place to focus on Rosé. The main grape variety for Reds and Rosé in Provence is Mourvèdre, also known as Monastrell. Mourvèdre is typically high in alcohol, high in tannins and has typical aromas of dark berries. Mourvèdre is often blended with Grenache and Cinsault and this is exactly the type of blend that Mr J enjoys.
The Rosé here is fresh and vibrant and pairs very well with the local seafood; and there is an abundance of both.
We ate breakfast in the hotel which had a good selection of fresh fruit, bread, ham cheese, yoghurt etc, everything you’d expect with a good continental breakfast, with the option of a cooked breakfast. As we were out and about most mornings during the weekend we tended to just stop for a quick sandwich or crepe during the day before heading back to the hotel and the beach.
On the first evening we ate dinner in the hotel restaurant which was very nice, I had the fish soup, lamb and a Mille feuille dessert and Mr J had the Foie Gras and Beef. We had a bottle of local Bandol Red wine with our main course (unfortunately the name escapes me).
As I mentioned before you are spoilt for choice for restaurants in the area and they cater for all budgets. On our 2nd evening we ate in a local seafood restaurant overlooking the harbour at Bandol. The fish is caught fresh daily and landed at the small harbour. The fish is so fresh and it’s simply grilled and accompanied with vegetables which is perfect. We had a carafe of local wine with the meal, it’s usually hard to go wrong with the local house wine here.
Raymond Blanc had reviewed a restaurant called the La p’tite Cour, so we reserved a table there for dinner on our 3rd evening. They do marvellous things like locally caught red mullet and baby cuttlefish with saffron risotto or catch of the day with a flan of seasonal vegetables. The October evenings are cool, so the outside terrace was covered, and heaters provided which made it small and cosy, but the service and food were impeccable. We had the Menu Gourmand with quail stuffed with foie gras, fish of the day, a sharing plate of desserts and cheese and a bottle or two of local wine.
On our last evening we ate at one of the small seafood restaurants overlooking the harbour in Sanary sur Mer. We shared plates of freshly cooked prawns, squid cooked a la plancha with fresh bread and salad accompanied by a carafe of local Rose wine; and it was one of the best meals of the weekend and probably the cheapest.
time to go home
After a wonderfully relaxing few days we checked out of the hotel late morning. As our flight wasn’t until later that evening we spent our final few hours relaxing in the hotel spa before heading into Sanary for a quick lunch before driving back to Marseilles airport to catch our flight home to Heathrow.
Although we were only away for 4 nights it was a wonderful weekend away. We had lovely weather, good food and wine, plenty of time to chill and relax and we certainly came back feeling refreshed and ready for the long winter.