History of monuments
The nature of parish churches
Under the old regime and even today the parish church is a symbol of life in our villages, as the places where we were born and live and to which we are deeply attached. The patron saint is honoured in Bravades, part religious, part pseudo-military festivals characteristic of eastern Provence. These colourful celebrations, when streets echo to the sound of music and musket fire, take place in May in Cogolin, La Garde-Freinet, Sainte-Maxime and Saint-Tropez.
But honour where honour is due, you must first visit Saint-Michel in Grimaud, the oldest parish church in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez. This little masterpiece from the second Provencal Roman era dates back to the late 12th and early 13th century. It was built of granite from local quarries, giving it a beautiful colour which changes with the light. Very few alterations have been made to the church: they added a majestic clock tower in the 16th century and the north side chapel was altered to accommodate the vestry. In Cogolin, the nave in the church of Saint-Etienne and Saint-Sauveur dates back to the 15th century. The north side aisle was built one section at a time, depending on the financial resources of the community during the 16th century.
Saint-Laurent church in Gassin and its bell tower were built in the 16th century and have an air of conquest about them as they dominate the landscape and take in the whole of the Golf of Saint-Tropez and Massif des Maures. The one in Ramatuelle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was built at the same time as the town’s ramparts to save on a wall; in fact its clock tower was a watchtower in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages it was called Notre-Dame du Pin and was located roughly where the town hall is today. During the Wars of Religion at the end of the 16th century, the villagers were afraid it would be destroyed by enemy artillery overlooking the village and dismantled it to move it to where it is now.
By the late 18th century, an expanding population led to new parish churches being built in La Garde-Freinet, Plan-de-la-Tour, Sainte-Maxime and Saint-Tropez. The latter had a church from the early 16th century that had become too cramped and unhealthy, and was in such poor condition it risked collapsing onto the faithful. Aware of the danger, the town councillors called in the experts and obtained the bishop’s permission to build a new, bigger and safer building. But the parish priest, being obliged to pay a third of the expenses as was the custom showed tremendous ingenuity trying to prevent the work going ahead using counter-experts and even resorting to legal arguments. Eventually, the church was completed and remains a marvellous example of the Provencal Baroque style.
The 19th century saw development and expansion of a new village, La Mole on the plain on the royal route. The church dates from the Second Empire and its facade has been restored in the colours of Italy.
The birth of tourism and urban development by the sea in the 20th century led to several new villages receiving official recognition: Cavalaire in 1929, La Croix-Valmer in 1934 and Rayol-Canadel in 1949. Of course all these communities built a place of worship, none of which lack charm.
The last ecumenical church to be built was the one at Port Grimaud, Saint-François, created by talented architect François Spoerry who in effect has built a bridge between the past and future that spans centuries. The architecture is sombre and meditative, illuminated by the radiant windows designed by Victor Vasarely.
The churches in our villages, from the oldest to the most recent, are the most visited edifices in our region. They are living testimonies to the faith of our ancestors and worthy of all the visitors who come to admire the ancient stone and magnificent interiors; a liturgical, cultural and artistic heritage of great quality.
Chartreuse de la Verne
One cannot go to the Gulf of Saint-Tropez without visiting Chartreuse de la Verne, as one might make a pilgrimage. Already at the end of the 19th century Guy de Maupassant in his journal Sur l'eau was writing about the Chartreuse de la Verne and its mysteries. Founded in 1170, this Carthusian monastery was built far from any settlements on the borders of the Toulon and Fréjus dioceses, in the heart of the Massif des Maures. Carthusian monks preferred “deserts”, far from the madding crowd in places conducive to meditation. On foot by what they call the “monks’ path” from La Mole, the ascent is tough but beautiful amidst chestnut trees and dense scrubland, the only sounds being that of the birds. By road from Cogolin to Collobrières, the journey is almost like a rite of passage. At a bend in the road, you see the monastery in the distance shrouded in autumn mist, as if poised on an ocean of green. The road is long and winding, zigzagging up and down until suddenly you are confronted with a large gate decorated in the blue-green veined serpentine taken from the quarries at La Mole. Going to Chartreuse de la Verne is to discover the authenticity of an uncompromising landscape: a first step in meditation, no doubt.
Mills of Provence
Windmills of the mind
Mills are one of Man’s great inventions to tame a driving force: be it the muscular strength of human hands or a donkey to power a small hand mill, or water to drive a wheel or turbine, or air to turn the vanes of a windmill. All these inventions are the fruit of centuries of ingenuity developed in order to survive.
In Provence, the windmill is popular because it reminds us of childhood, school and reading Alphonse Daudet’s novella Le secret de maître Cornille. We have no idea how the windmill arrived here in the West but it is first mentioned in laws for the town of Arles in the middle of the 12th century. After that it spread throughout a large area of the Mediterranean basin. The windmills in Provence comprise a solidly built tower with one-metre thick walls, about five to six metres high and topped by a wooden chapel like a Chinese style roof, which houses part of the mechanism inside and the vanes outside.
Their popularity is due to the fact that rivers and coastal streams around the villages in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez do not flow very fast. The environment and climate is also more suited to windmills. In days gone by, every municipality had several to replace watermills that became redundant in the hot summer months due to lack of water.
When out walking, we can still see many windmill towers. Some have been left alone as reminders of the past when the vanes still turned, like the one in Gassin on the Coste-Brigade descent, or on the Moulin de Verdagne campsite in La Croix-Valmer, or the car park in the health centre. Some have been developed or integrated into houses: in Saint-Tropez, La Pinède Hotel converted a windmill tower on the shore into a bedroom which seems to be very popular with newlyweds! In La Garde-Freinet, Saint-Tropez, Ramatuelle etc., they many have been transformed into homes.
Some districts have embarked on a major venture to revive their windmills. For example, in 1990 in Grimaud, architect Hubert Lemonier restored the Saint-Roch windmill which probably dates back to medieval times. Today the mill stands proudly watching over the Pont-des-Fées valley, a stunning protected landscape which hides a treasure trove of flowers, shrubs and insects for the unsuspecting walker.
In Ramatuelle, one of the Paillas windmills was restored in 2002 and can now function. Every year on European Heritage Day in September, the vanes turn if the wind is blowing. From the site of the Paillas windmills there is a splendid view of the plain and Pampelonne beaches on one side and Cavalaire bay and the Iles d'Or on the other.
These mills play a role in the various spring festivals and can be visited all year round simply by contacting the relevant Tourist Offices.
Lastly, this was an olive oil producing region which meant every village had several mills to crush the olives. In French they were called moulins à sang meaning they were driven by animal power normally an ass, a name derived from the Latin name for donkey Equus asinus. The olives were put into a stone tub and a donkey turned the circular stone that crushed the olives. The resulting paste was spread onto disc-shaped hemp or coconut fibre baskets then stacked under a press to obtain the oil. Grimaud’s Musée des Arts et Tradition Populaire has an old olive mill where you can see the three “chapels” that contained the olive presses.
The windmills of St-Roch in Grimaud, Paillas in Ramatuelle and the ATP Museum in Grimaud can be visited at any time of the year – just contact the local Tourism Office.
From the top of my fort
Sheltered by castles and fortifications
For centuries, men have formed communities and sought to protect themselves from dangers arriving by land or sea. Thus it was in the Iron Age, several centuries BC that the Celto-Ligurian people built broad ramparts of dry stone, earth and wood for shelter.
The Romans called them oppida (oppidum in the singular) and there are many of them in our hills. Difficult to access, today most of them are on private properties. In the Middle Ages villages were mainly built on hilltops, one only has to look at the plain to the perched, protected villages of Grimaud, Cogolin, Ramatuelle, Gassin and La Garde-Freinet.
The most spectacular fortified village is undoubtedly Fort-Freinet overlooking La Garde. Houses and a wide ditch were carved into the rock at the end of the 12th century. For centuries it was mistakenly believed to have been a hideout for Saracens who came from Spain to stay in Provence in the 10th century. A visit is a must as the place is unforgiving yet also magical and evocative, with a sublime 360 degree view.
Castles like the one in Grimaud had a duty to defend the village but also to impress potential attackers and the local population. They were a symbol of the power of the seigneur (lord of the land). The latter signed all tenancy farming contracts and received the community’s consuls there. In general, they did not live in their castles, preferring the comfort of a house in the village.
In Sainte-Maxime, a broad tower built in the 16th century by the monks from Thoronet Abbey, which owned the land, surveys the coast and harbour. It houses the Tour Carrée museum dedicated to folklore and local traditions.
In Saint-Tropez, the 15th century Suffren tower is part of the feudal castle. Within the urban environment, you can also see the four towers that made up the town’s defences - Saint-Elme, Portalet, Vieille and Jarlier - built in the 16th and 17th century. Dominating the town is the Citadelle dating back to the early 17th century. The view of the sea and Gulf of Saint-Tropez is superb from the top of the keep.
Chapels & oratories
The soul of chapels and shrines
The chapels in our villages reflect the strength and fervour of our ancestors’ faith. Outside the parish church, villagers were proud of their chapels and built a lot of them. Saint-Tropez being wealthy, due to the maritime trade with Ottoman ports of the East, had up to 15 chapels at one time. First we should mention the buildings that served as a church but being too cramped were replaced by a larger place of worship and became chapels. That was the case with Notre-Dame de la Consolation in Gassin and the Miremer and Saint-Clément chapels in La Garde-Freinet, all medieval places of worship that were converted into chapels. Sometimes, the seigneur (lord) of the land initiated the foundation of a chapel: in Saint-Tropez, the Sainte-Anne chapel was probably built at the request of the Laurens and Grasse families; in Cavalaire the Castellane family, seigneur of Gassin from the 15th century were behind the Annonciade chapel (mid-17th century) that was destroyed in the Second World War; in Grimaud in the 17th century a priest from La Garde-Freinet brought in enough capital to fund reconstruction of the medieval Queste chapel.
Brotherhoods, communities of pious laymen the goal being to help one another, played a key role, particularly the brotherhoods of Penitents who were behind the foundation of numerous chapels in nearly all our villages: in Saint-Tropez, the Miséricorde chapel, the Black Penitents headquarters, remained a place of worship but the Annonciade chapel, the White Penitents’ brotherhood, has become an important museum for works by early 20th century painters; in La Garde-Freinet, the Saint-Jean chapel is now the Tourist Office and Conservatoire du Patrimoine (heritage museum); in Grimaud, the White Penitents chapel contains liturgical furnishings of great quality; and in Cogolin there are the two adjoining Saint-Roch chapels, the oldest (17th century) has become a superb venue for modern exhibitions.
Brotherhoods linked to a trade also built chapels: in Saint-Tropez, the Saint-Eloi chapel (17th century), intended for the brotherhood of farriers, wheelwrights, goldsmiths, and other metal works is now a Protestant church. As for the Saint-Joseph chapel, seat of the brotherhood of building trades in the 17th century, it opens its doors for the Bravades and religious festivals that punctuate the life of the village.
All these chapels are simple yet beautiful gems that reflect the piety of the population in past centuries. They contain all manner of marvels: quality furniture and interiors for those that are still places of worship, and beautiful paintings, sculptures and objects in those that are now museums.
Shrines are a more populist manifestation of religion. We see these small columns by the side of the road or path to protect travellers: in Saint-Tropez on the road to the Sainte-Anne chapel, in Grimaud in the Saint-Joseph district, on the old road to La Garde-Freinet, in the hamlet of Mourre etc. You must also not forget to lift your head to see all the small urban shrines, lodged in niches above entrances or on a wall. They have a more propitiatory role to protect the inhabitants of the house from any dangers: in Saint-Tropez there are at least 40, but you also see them in Cogolin, La Garde-Freinet, Grimaud, Sainte-Maxime, La Mole…
The Provencal coast before it was called the Côte d'Azur attracted the aristocracy and wealthy middle classes from the end of the 18th century onwards, who came to enjoy the mild climate and sunshine. One tends to forget that holidays by the Mediterranean Sea were initially taken in winter in Nice, Hyères and Saint-Raphaël. It was not until after the First World War that summer tourism developed as people discovered the benefits of sea bathing, watersports and bronzed, muscular bodies.
Between the wars, this enthusiasm for the sea encouraged wealthy French and foreign middle classes to build beautiful villas here. Our region therefore became a veritable laboratory that allowed early 20th century innovators to express themselves and develop a quality modern architecture.
In Saint-Tropez, from afar we see what looks like a large white ship set in a pine forest: this is Latitude 43 by the architect Georges-Henri Pingusson. Built in 1932, this avant-garde building was acclaimed worldwide as a work of pure beauty and functionality. Originally designed to be a luxury hotel, it had 110 rooms on a yachting theme with passages and porthole-shaped windows, an Olympic-size seawater pool, casino and tennis courts. It was converted into apartments in 1945 and is now a listed building (Monument historique). On the other side of the Gulf in Sainte-Maxime, we have the Arbois Hotel by René Darde opposite. Built two years later, the building is simple with pure lines overlooking the sea. It was awarded the Patrimoine XXe Siècle label as being an important legacy of the 20th century, as was the magnificent Palais des Sirènes by François Bret. The Tourist Office provides an itinerary to discover the architecture of this seaside resort. You also find many houses from this period in La Croix-Valmer along Boulevard des Villas or in Grimaud on the RD 559 in the Beauvallon district. Last but not least and more recent is the Port Grimaud marina development, internationally renowned for its refined yet easy-on-the-eye architecture and well worth a visit.
Dolmens & menhirs
Rocks for building
Massif des Maures is composed of ancient crystalline and metamorphic rocks (600 to 400 million years old), testimony to its extraordinary geological and mineral wealth. The rocks are not easy to cut and not suitable for building. Indeed only two types of rock have been tamed by Man: serpentinite, a blue-green veined rock more commonly referred to as serpentine, and basalt, a grey-black honeycomb lava rock.
Both these subtly coloured materials have provided beautiful decorative and architectural elements that are very characteristic of the 12 villages in the cantons of Grimaud and Saint-Tropez: doors, windows, steps and other decorative features.
Megaliths of Provence
Megaliths, mythical monuments, are characteristic of the Neolithic period between 4000 and 2000 BC. Dolmens or tables of Breton stone are megalithic burial sites, although we do not know the exact meaning behind the standing stones called menhirs. These impressive and mysterious monuments immediately make one think of Brittany, but you may not know that archaeologists have uncovered around 50 dolmens and the same number of menhirs in the Var.
At Ramatuelle, on Cap Taillat, a delightful coastal path they call “chemin des douaniers” or customs way, leads across Conservatoire du Littoral property to the dolmen in Briande bay. Excavated in 1935 and now restored it is presented in an educational way. At Plan-de-la-Tour, there are two menhirs on the Gorgues path.
The quest for water
We all know how important water is throughout the Mediterranean. Fresh water is scarce and everyone needs to economise. It was not so long ago that they had to fetch water from the fountain, as running water was only for the privileged few. All our villages have fountains. The water is usually fresh and of good quality. They were sociable places, where women came to fill their pitchers and gossip, sometimes insults were thrown but they rarely came to blows. Livestock also came to quench their thirst. The fountain in Place des Lices in Saint-Tropez is the most famous, and has been flowing since the 18th century. In Ramatuelle, Joseph Bernard, a dynamic mayor had one built in the square in 1905. In La Garde-Freinet, there is the old fountain (literally fontaine vieille) and a large circular fountain on Place Neuve. In Gassin, it was a well that supplied the village with water, while in Grimaud, the monumental fountain on Place Neuve is a symbol of progress and prosperity. You can also still find the old hand-pump fountains on street corners in Cogolin and Grimaud, or the more modest drinking fountains from the 19th century, a sign of progress and hygiene. Then of course there are the anonymous drinking fountains you come across when hiking, at a bend in the road in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes there is even a glass or receptacle with a cork in it so the walker can quench their thirst on hot summer days.
The old stone wash-houses (lavoirs) were another very sociable spot for the women of the village to gather and gossip. They even washed clothes here in winter when the water was freezing. Twice a year they did the bugade, a big wash, using ash collected from the fireplace. With the advent of the washing machine, wash-houses were abandoned. In Saint-Tropez, the Vasserot wash-house built in the 19th century is now a remarkable space for exhibitions.
We still like meeting near fountains or lavoirs, to wash our hands or have a drink, or just to listen to the soothing sound of water flowing as it did in days gone by.
Museums & traditions
Museums and testimonies of the past
Nearly every municipality has its own museum or space dedicated to the traces, remains and events that left its mark on the history of their area. Some present their rural origins, others their religious heritage, others are based on milestones, iconic characters and even France’s most famous domestic bird !
Archaeology and customs
Cavalaire (Heraclea Caccabaria) has created an archaeological space showcasing objects from the often overlooked history of this ancient settlement, items from the Montjean sites (Iron Age), Pardigon (Roman era) and wrecks salvaged from the sea. In Grimaud, as in La Garde-Freinet, museums retrace the life and customs of these Provencal villages: cultivation of vines, forests and cork, silkworm breeding, household chores, clothing and Provencal customs of the early Massif des Maures inhabitants (Grimaud), and cork oak and chestnut tree cultivation (La Garde-Freinet).
Folklore and traditions
In Sainte-Maxime, the Tour Carrée museum focuses on folklore and local traditions in the form of temporary or permanent exhibitions (costumes and objects relating to Provencal history, crafts and fishing). Halfway between Sainte-Maxime and Le Muy, the Musée du Phonographe et de la Musique Mécanique showcases a unique collection of 350 instruments retracing the history of the phonograph and European inventions between 1830 and 1930. Equally original, is the Raimu museum in Cogolin which exhibits a rich collection of personal items belonging to this famous Provencal actor (note: it is about to move).
Avant-garde paintings, poultry and maritime legends
In Saint-Tropez the Annonciade museum is a reminder that the peninsula was one of the most vibrant centres of avant-garde painting in the early 20th century, thanks mainly to Paul Signac who discovered this delightful little harbour in 1892. In addition to its permanent collections, the museum regular puts on magnificent exhibitions that attract thousands of visitors. Having fun with the legend associated with its birth, Cogolin has created a museum in a former stately home (17th century) dedicated to the cockerel emblem. On the menu: hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and ceramic, glass or bronze objects depicting the cockerel through the ages! In Saint-Tropez, the Maison des Papillons (butterfly museum) showcases an extraordinary selection (more than 35,000 specimens) of diurnal species in France, collected and mounted by the artist Dany Lartigue. Again in Saint-Tropez, a new maritime history museum is due to open in June 2013 in the Citadelle.
Midnight, August 14th 1944
Some 350,000 men, 2,120 vessels and 1,900 aircraft were engaged in this massive operation to liberate Provence, then the whole of France’s South East in less than 15 days, that took place on the night of the 14th and 15th of August 1944. The Provence Landings mobilised the entire coast, and you will find memorials (Le Rayol, Cavalaire) and monuments (La Croix-Valmer, Cogolin, Ramatuelle, Saint-Tropez) where this historic event is commemorated on a regular basis. Impressive wrecks of warships sunk and aircraft brought down during these military operations are to be found just off our shores which today have become popular dive sites. Sometimes turrets from tanks wash up on our beaches after a winter storm, witnesses to these allied landings.
Made in Provence
Crafts and antiques
Pipes, reeds, wrought ironwork, glasswork, leather sandals, rugs, ceramics and more – you will be won over by the skills of our craftsmen and talented artists whose wares are exported all over the world.
What would Provence be without potteries? There are a lot in our region and all original: in Ramatuelle or Gassin (Poterie Provençale Augier), in Grimaud (Poterie des 3 Terres and Poterie du Porche), in Cogolin (La Poterie de Cogolin) and in La Croix-Valmer (Suzanne Scheerer): garden pots, terracotta, glazed or decorated, handmade or not, and customized earthenware - feel free to indulge yourself! For ceramics, we recommend you call into one of the most famous (from Salernes), Alain Vagh whose showroom (Ramatuelle) is a “house” entirely made of ceramics, never less than one centimetre thick.
Reeds, pipes and sandals
The Mole valley’s micro climate is ideally suited to growing the cane from which they make reeds for saxophones, oboes and other wind instruments (Rigotti and Alain Ruiz in Cogolin); indeed these wafer-thin slivers of wood are exported to the world’s most famous jazz clubs! Another product of nature, this one carved out of the roots of white heath (briar wood) that flourishes in the Maures, are the pipes made in Cogolin (Charles Courrieu). Tanned leather used to produce leather goods has made the reputation of artisanal sandal makers (K. Jacques and Rondini in Saint-Tropez and a leather workshop in Grimaud).
Lacey bell towers and wool carpets
Not quite the same as a campanile, but the lace-like bell towers that crown most of our churches are wrought-iron, a highly developed skill in Provence. Several master craftsmen are at work in the Gulf producing authentic wrought-iron work, tailor-made, classic designs or purely creative (Ferronnerie d'art Hoogewys et Fils in Cogolin, Calvani in Saint-Tropez, Création Béatrice H in La Croix-Valmer). Softer but equally delicate handiwork in the form of wool rugs, carpets and floorcoverings emerge from the Manufacture des Tapis in Cogolin, founded in 1924. The method used dating back to 1880 is known as the basse lisse à bras with a Jacquard mechanism, named after the man who invented it in 1801 and which caused a revolution in weaving (not open to visitors).
Unusual objects and valuable collections
Other craftsmen merit being included on this tour. In La Croix-Valmer, " Atelier de Janny" specialises in decorative porcelain, tableware, decorations and Provencal traditions. Just like Entre lin et coton (Cogolin) for hand-painted porcelain and Atmos'Verre (Cogolin), the art of mirrors which creates bowls, glass furniture and other original objects. On the road between Cogolin and Grimaud (direction Collobrières), the antiques district groups a good number of professionals who offer a wide selection of eclectic and often unusual objects. Finally we come to Saint-Tropez for the most spectacular and valuable collections.
Heritage and religious festivals
- Village Festival: La petite Maïo in Sainte-Maxime
- Antiques: Printemps des Antiquaires, Place des Lices, in Saint-Tropez
- Village Festival: Bravades de la Saint Maur in Cogolin
- Spring Festival in La Garde-Freinet
- Festival: Fête votive in Sainte-Maxime
- Village Festival: Fête de la Saint-Pons in Plan de la Tour
- Village Festival: Bravades - traditional festival in Saint-Tropez
- Wool Fair in Grimaud
- Village Festival: Bravade de Saint-Clément in La Garde-Freinet
- Village Festival: Fête du Moulin in Grimaud
- Village Festival: Bravade des Espagnols in Saint-Tropez
- Feast of St John with bonfire in Grimaud
- Feast of St John with procession, singing and bonfire in Cavalaire
- Feast of St Peter, dance with orchestra in Sainte-Maxime
- Feast of St Peter, dancing with orchestra in Sainte-Maxime
- Feast of St Peter in Cavalaire
- Feast of Saint Magdeleine in La Mole
- Feast of St Peter, with fairground rides, carousels, dawn serenades and dances in Plan de la Tour
- Village Festival: Feast of Saint Lawrence with procession, outdoor mass and anchoïade in Gassin
- Village Festival: La Garde-Freinet
- Festival in the hamlet of Mourre in La Garde-Freinet
- Ceremony commemorating the Provence Landings in La Croix-Valmer
- Summer Ball on 15 August in Ramatuelle
- Commemorative festivities on 15 August in Sainte-Maxime
- Commemorative festivities on 15 August in Cavalaire
- Village Festival: Grimaud
- Feast of Saint Andrew in Ramatuelle
- Village Festival: Fête du Coq in Cogolin
- Pilgrimage to Notre-Dame de Miremer in La Garde-Freinet
- Village Festival: Fête du Moulin de Paillas in Ramatuelle
- Feast of Saint Hubert in Grimaud
- A host of activities in all the Gulf of Saint-Tropez villages:
- Provence Santons in Cavalaire and La Garde-Freinet
- Commemoration Ceremony, AFN memorial in La Croix-Valmer
- Christmas festivities in Cogolin
- Celebrating the arrival of winter in the Domaine du Rayol
- White Christmas in Cavalaire
- Provence Christmas in Ramatuelle
- Christmas in the Middle Ages and Santon Fair in La Garde-Freinet
- Children’s Christmas in Gassin
- Christmas in Saint-Tropez
- Christmas in Plan de la Tour
- Christmas in Sainte-Maxime