There are three reasons why Provence, in the south of France, has always had a reputation for being so special …
1) The climate – the sun shines for more than 300 days a year.
2) The intensity of the light – which makes colours especially bright and shadows particularly deep and sharp. Many famous painters have lived and worked here because of it.
3) The lifestyle – al fresco and unhurried; where it’s the norm to eat, drink, socialize … to live the whole of life outdoors.
And there is now a fourth quality which is becoming ever more precious … space.
In this north east corner of the Var (France’s largest county), space is in abundance! Drive on near-empty roads, park your vehicle virtually wherever it suits, walk the dog and let him run as free as he wants, cycle, jog, hike for hours in limitless forests. The sense of having the space to live with minimal constraints is remarkable.
And all this is just a short flight or a beautiful train ride from the capital cities of northern Europe.
In 2015 Lizzie Porter, a travel writer with The Telegraph (a UK newspaper) composed ‘The short-Haul bucket list: 30 places in Europe you must see before you die’. Top of her list (beating Barcelona, and the Sistine Chapel in Italy) was this area of Provence. She wrote “the Var is the most beautiful part of Provence – and there’s some serious competition for that title. Clusters of stone houses form tiny villages hidden between the weft and warp of winding roads… where you can expect good food, better scenery, fewer crowds and a taste of the real Provençal life”
The village of Varages is in what people refer to as ‘The golden triangle’.
Directly north is the Gorges du Verdon – 25 kilometers of aquamarine rivers and lakes meandering around at the foothills of the Alps. Seven hundred meters deep in parts it is often referred to as ‘The Grand Canyon of Europe’. It’s where everyone in the area heads to for beaches, water sports and hiking and spectacular views but is also home to some of Europe’s rarest animals – Eagles, Vultures and white faced Chamois antelope.
South of the village, in complete contrast to the wild wilderness of the Gorges, is all the sophistication of the Cote d’Azur. As you approach the Mediterranean, everything changes. There’s an almost abrupt switch from oak forests to elegant palm trees, and from terracotta-tiled dwellings standing in solitude in the middle of vast fields, to hill-sides full of modern white villas all vying for their view of the coast. Sea-side villages like Cassis still depend on their rows of bobbing fishing boats tied up in the harbor for their peaceful charm, but no longer their income. It’s now the much bigger motor boats that attract droves of tourists for trips around the bay.
West of Varages is the city of Aix-en-Provence. One-time capital of the south and home to the ruling classes of government and church, it is still known for the superior attitude of its residents. On one side of its central tree lined boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau, the streets are dominated by rows of vast terraced mansions. Their front doors intentionally boast of the opulence that lies within and are such an art form in themselves that the souvenir shops sell posters of ‘the doors of Aix-en-Provence’.
Cross to the other side of the boulevard and this is where the city does its business. The architecture is still majestic, the narrow old-city streets enticing and the squares palatial, but the ground floor frontage of almost every building is now at the service of those who want to shop, eat and drink with friends, or sit alone and watch the people as they promenade by. It’s this mini-Paris feel that has allowed the city to become the cultural center of the area in art, music and theatre.
To get to these places from Varages you travel through the most glorious countryside spotted with medieval villages – clusters of stone houses with old style wooden shutters and solid, centuries-old oak arched-topped doors. Many of the villages, like Saint-Julien-le-Montagnier are perched high on a hill and arrived at only after negotiating numerous hair-pin bends. Those who live there can see for miles around, if they cared to look, though they seem to have no interest in the fast moving world in the valleys below.
The village of Varages is itself perched on a cliff edge. It is surrounded by olive groves and vineyards which are often planted on a series of narrow restanque (stone-supported terraces) – a system introduced by the Romans to make best use of the steep slopes. The trees and vines seem to produce relatively little for all the work that goes into them by the villagers but it’s more than just getting olive oil on the table. It’s tradition, a link with their past, their fathers and grandfathers tended the very same trees before them.
Otherwise, the hills are covered by dense oak forest. As you pass through the woods, from one village to the next, on the narrow ‘Departmental’ roads it’s intriguing to see the occasional dirt tracks which twist their way into the distance. More often than not they lead nowhere in particular but serve only to give the Pompier (fire brigade) access in case of fire.
Spring time heralds a blazon of brilliant colour. First there are fields of scarlet red covered with wild poppies, then a little later on there are fields full of smiley-headed sunflowers that turn in unison towards the sun as the day progresses. Later still it’s time for the “soul-stirring” sight of the lavender fields. This of course is one of the well known crops of the area and tourists come from far to see the rows of deep purple and sniff the heady scent whilst listening to the monotone buzz of the busy bees.
The area is very popular with individuals known to the general public. Among those who own properties within half an hour of Varages are the actors Brat Pitt and Angelina Jolle, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucus, member of the comedy group Monty Pithon, Eric Idle, and the rock guitarist Eric Clapton.
Distances from Varages (by car)
- Saint-Julien-le-Montagnier, 15 minutes
- Gorges du Verdon, 25 minutes
- Aix-en-Provence, 45 minutes
- Cassis, 60 minutes
- Horse riding
- Mountain biking
- Quad biking
- Road cycling
- White-water rafting
- Cooking courses
- Flora and fauna
- Pottery production
- Wine tasting
The local tourist office boasts of there being 300 days of sunshine in the area each year. This is a conservative estimate – it’s more than that.
The four seasons are usually well pronounced and spring arrives about one month earlier than, for example, a 1000 kilometres further north in London, UK.
The summer season is normally about three and a half months long with very dependable temperatures and very little rain from mid-June onwards. When it does rain, however, it is invariably torrential.
In July and August the daily temperature is often above 30 degrees celsius and on occasions rises to 40. The high temperatures often continue into late evening and can be at 25 degrees at mid-night when driving home from some open-air event.
Humidity and water
The level of humidity is exceptionally low and despite high temperatures there is still, mid-summer, plenty of water in the region. Hose pipe bans are rare.
Fire is an ever present risk in this part France, especially during the hot, dry summer season. But the property is right in the centre of the village and there is therefore minimal risk of it being affected by a forest fire.