cassis-france

Lavender fields, a glittering coastline and blush-pink rosé are just some of the things that spring to mind at the mention of the south of France. The likes of Nice and St Tropez have held a glamorous appeal since the French Riviera was made popular by writers, artists and belle-époque socialites; now celebrities flock to the shores of the Côte d’Azur followed by swarms of sunburnt holidaymakers, who withstand gross overpricing for a dose of sunshine. Yet there are countless jewels the south has to offer. Panoramic views, fabulous wines and chances to savour traditional French culture – without the tourist traps.

Menton

With Italy on one side and Nice on the other, it’s easy to see why Menton, the colourful yet sleepy town with a medieval heart, is often overlooked. Considerably cheaper than its coastal counterparts, it has an 18th-century old town to the east and exotic gardens to the west; hike up the hill for awe-inspiring views over the beaches, harbour and pretty houses. As you would expect, there are Italian influences throughout the town – Menton didn’t become part of France until 1860 – although particularly evident in the food. Be sure to sample local lemons –Menton is very proud of its citrus fruit.

Cassis and the Calanques

Just south of Marseille lie some of France’s highest sea cliffs as well as a series of fjord-like inlets called Calanques. Stunning examples of nature’s beauty, the Calanques rise from sparkling, turquoise seawater and stretch for ten miles, from France’s second biggest city to little Cassis, a gorgeous port town overlooked by a thirteenth-century château and home to pastel-coloured houses, cute cafés and local white wine. There are numerous ways to experience the breath-taking edifices that are the Calanques, whether it be taking a boat, going on a heart-pumping hike or simply relaxing at one of the many coves and intimate beaches dotted along the coast.

Porquerolles

Just a ten-minute boat ride from Hyères lies the crescent-shaped island of Porquerolles, boasting everything from secluded cliffs and creeks to sandy beaches and azure waters. Explore the most popular of the Golden Isles by foot, bike, or even by boat; the island boasts a few of its own Calanques as well as botanical gardens, medieval ruins and opportunities to dive into water sports, snorkelling and whale watching. Porquerolles is tiny, measuring only seven kilometres long and holds a population of less than five hundred, so if you end up with itchy feet then get the full Golden Isles experience by sailing to nearby national park Port-Cros or Île du Levant, where you can dreamily gaze out into the Mediterranean.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and the Camargue Regional Park

The Regional Park of Camargue, west of historic Aix-en-Provence, is as distinctive as it is beautiful. Here, not only will you find lush wetlands and superb beaches but wild horses, pink flamingos and thousands of migrating birds, too, particularly in spring and autumn. Scour the acres of green and blue on foot or by bike – although we recommend taking a tour on horseback – and wind up at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Previously a Roman fishing village and now a gorgeous seaside resort, you can wander through the streets captured by Vincent van Gogh on canvas. Saintes-Maries offers fresh seafood, medieval churches and bullfight arenas, as well as direct access to golden sand dunes.

Gorges du Verdon

If you’re after spectacular views and sunbathing opportunities away from the coast, head to the Regional Park of Verdon, where the 25km-long river canyon is one of Europe’s most beautiful. There are a variety of lakes situated in the park, the biggest being Sainte-Croix, which offers tranquil greenery and charming little beaches. Take a kayak out to the lake or follow the river as it snakes through dizzying gorges, which offer hiking trails and are super spots for camping. You won’t be too far from civilisation either – there are plenty of medieval villages dotted around the park complete with ruins and picturesque cobblestoned streets.

Montpellier

Sun-drenched Montpellier is the Languedoc Roussillon’s sparkling city, a lovely laid-back affair of Haussmannian architecture, wide squares dotted with cafés and a thriving student population. There are parks aplenty for a Sunday stroll and you can drift away for days under palm fronds in the botanical gardens. Amid the antiques markets and art galleries along bourgainvillea-strewn boulevards, the pace of life is unhurried and distinctly Mediterranean. Exploring the immense medieval cathedral, listening to latest sounds emerging from this musical city and sampling Languedoc wines are quintessential Montpellierain activities. Expansive surfing beaches are a cycle ride away and when you’re in the mood for exploring, jump on a bus towards St Guilhem-le-Desert, a minuscule village of old-world charm. When the sun blazes (frequently, Montpellier enjoys 300 days of sun per year) the waters beneath the lofty Pont du Diable are ideal for a spot of sunbathing. Une bière s’il vous plait?

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