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Var, France: Provence Without The Crowds

21st September 2015

In Provence, they like to keep secrets. Some things you only tell your family, handing down through the generations. Like where your private beach is, where to gather mushrooms or find a haul of sea urchins for "le jour des orsillades".

It all goes back to the days of Marcel Pagnol's Jean de Florette and the hidden sources of spring water during the long, dry summers.

You might think that the south of France would be among the most well-known holiday destinations in Europe. But heading west from St-Tropez, the long swathe of coastline and its Var hinterland are full of delightful surprises and hidden gems.

 A taste of the stunning coastline on the south of France (Image: Getty)

Charming Rayol

We stayed in the village of Rayol, about 40 minutes from St-Tropez along the meandering coast road. The houses cling to the hillside as it plunges down to the sea, and at the bottom lies a cove split into two small but charming beaches.

The 4-star Hotel Bailli de Suffren has a superb restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean where you can indulge in exquisite provencal lamb.

If you climb back up 100 or so steps you reach the village's only other hotel, Terrasses du Bailli, run by the charming Dutch owner Caroline Thetiot.

The new rooms have large balconies overlooking the bay and the three Golden Islands – Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Levant. Next to the hotel runs a disused railway line that proves popular with joggers and cyclists and affords a view of the precipitous cliffs and hidden bays.

The centre of the village is Maurin des Maures, a restaurant that doubles as the village bar. It's always lively, a great place from which to watch the world go by.

 Admiring the views from the Domaine du Rayol (Image: Wikipedia)

Presiding over his fiefdom is chef Dede, a local character with flowing white hair and bushy moustache renowned for his fresh fish dishes – try the squid stuffed with pork and the sea bass, as well as the apple tart with cinnamon ice cream.

Dede, aka Andre del Monte, is also president of the gardens at the Domaine du Rayol, where the 2013 film Renoir was shot. The climate here has long proved ideal for plantsmen to introduce all manner of flora to Europe, and the Mediterranean gardens were used to develop stock before the plants were taken up to Paris.

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World Of Contrasts

Tucked in the Maures mountains lies another horticultural hotspot, the hilltop village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, which, as the name suggests, is festooned with flowers.

And not just mimosas – there are more than 700 different varieties bedecking the charming alleyways, full of galleries and craft shops that abruptly give way to dramatic views of forests and the bay of Lavandou.

The garden theme continues on the broad, tranquil boulevards of Hyeres, lined with palms and lemon and orange trees. The city vies with Amsterdam as the Continent's biggest supplier of cut flowers, and there's actually a law forbidding the public from throwing oranges at each other.

This 19th-century obsession reflects the kind climate which brings 300 days of sunshine a year and led to Hyeres becoming the first proper resort in the south of France.

Monaco was still a fishing village when the term Cote d'Azur was coined in Hyeres. The wide streets are adorned with mansions designed by Pierre Chapoulart – his own hotel particulier, the North African-influenced Palais Lutetia, is a beautiful example.

 Local gems pop up almost anywhere in Hyeres (Image: Wikipedia)

But this is also a city of contrasts; the grandiose style is threaded with narrow medieval passageways leading up to the hilltop citadel and medieval fortifications, while where Hyeres meets the sea there's a fishing port, salt marshes with flamingos, a world championship kite-surfing beach and the three islands, all within the city limits.

It's an intoxicating blend which can be enjoyed in a relaxed, small-town atmosphere that you wouldn't find in Cannes or Marseille.

In the upper reaches you turn a corner and come across another twist, Villa Noailles, which was a haven for artists such as Dali, Giacometti, Bunuel and Brecht in the inter-war years.

It still looks a very modern construction, a working art installation that bizarrely featured a compulsory sports program, a painstaking attempt to unleash creativity in the most sympathetic environment.

No visit to the region should be attempted without sampling the local rosé, the tipple of choice even for the locals. The time-honoured traditions of Var viticulture have been given a fresh, organic impetus at Chateau Leoube, a state-of-the-art facility built around an ancient castle.

It's much more of an experience than your average vineyard, featuring an alfresco cafe located next to its own excellent private beach.

 Sunset over Fort de Bregancon (Image: Getty)

There's also a hidden gem of a beach alongside Fort de Bregancon. This 16th-century castle is perched on a rock in the sea and can only be accessed by a guarded causeway because it has been the official holiday residence of French presidents since the 1960s.

It was closed to the public until last year and you must make an appointment to visit. Don't try to sneak in by swimming to it from the beach, though – there's a ridiculously expensive fine if you breach the 200-metre exclusion zone in the water.

Bregancon is just one of the places that are revealing their long-held secrets in the Var. If we thought they knew all about Provence, it's time to think again.

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This article was written by Andrew Tong from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.