St-Raphaël is sliced into two halves by its railway line. The historical Vieille Ville (Old Town) lies inland from the tracks. Here you’ll find St-Raphaël’s only intact ancient structure, the Église San Rafèu (also known as Eglise des Templiers), rue des Templiers (tel. 04-94-19-25-75). The 12th-century church is the third to stand on this site; two Carolingian churches underneath the current structure have been revealed during digs. A watchtower sits atop one of the chapels, and at one time, watchers were posted to look out over the sea for ships that might pose a threat. The church would then serve as a fortress and refuge in case of pirate attack. Climb up the 129 steps yourself for a 360-degree panoramic view over town. In the courtyard are fragments of a Roman aqueduct that once brought water from Fréjus. You can visit the church from Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to noon and 2 to 6:30pm; entrance costs 2€ for adults, and is free for children under 18 years. Ironically, no Masses are conducted in this church on Sunday—it’s a consecrated church, but one that’s been relegated to something akin to an archaeological rather than religious monument.
The Vieux Port area has changed beyond recognition in recent years. Pleasure boats, diving schools, and island excursion vessels line the quays. The new 20,000 square meter Jardin Bonaparte gardens tumble out to sea under a high-tech arbor. As well as a hosting a children’s playground, the gardens serve a venue for outdoor summer concerts and shows.
Near the Église des Templiers, the Musée d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (Museum of Underwater Archaeology), rue des Templiers (www.musee-saintraphael.com; tel. 04-94-19-25-75), displays amphorae, ships’ anchors, ancient diving equipment, and other interesting items recovered from the ocean’s depths. At one time, rumors circulated about a “lost city” off the coast of St-Raphaël. Jacques Cousteau came to investigate; instead of a sunken city, he discovered a Roman ship that had sunk while carrying a full load of building supplies. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to noon and 2 to 6pm. Admission is free.
You’ll find flower and fruit markets in the Old Town. Every morning, there’s a fish market that takes place in the Vieux Port. Foodies are also advised to check out the Marché Alimentaire de St-Raphaël, where carloads of produce, fish, meat, wines, and cheeses are sold Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 1pm in place Victor-Hugo and place de la République. (Note that the two squares are a 5-minute walk apart). On Tuesdays from 9am to 6pm in place Coullet, there’s also a marché de brocante(flea market).
Every Thursday at 10am, a culinary walking tour of St-Raphaël’s markets and shops starts from the tourist office. Tours last 2 hours and cost 3€ per person. Explanations are nominally in French, although guides do their best to accommodate English-speaking guests. Tastings of delicious tapenades, jams, and chutneys defy language barriers anyway. The tourist office also encourages visitors to download the Cultural Treasure Hunts app for iPhone and Android. Users can pick up historical clues around town. The trail then leads along the coast to the beaches of Dramont and Agay.
A Day Trip to Fréjus
3km (2 miles) S of St-Raphaël
Gaul’s oldest roman city, Fréjus is chock-full of impressive ancient remains. It was founded by Julius Caesar in 49 b.c. as Forum Julii; later, under Augustus’s rule, it became a key naval base. The warships with which Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle at Actium were built here in 31 b.c. Remnants from Roman times still stand in the Vieille Ville, including Roman gateways and ramparts, as well as parts of an aqueduct, an amphitheater, and a theatre. You can spot a double-headed Hermes (now the emblem of Fréjus) at the Musée Archéologique and visit some of France’s oldest ecclesiastical buildings in the spellbinding Cité Episcopale.
The picturesque old town is also home to various well-priced art galleries, following a successful local government makeover that replaced dodgy bars with subsidized artists’ studios. Today it’s a thriving art community.
AggloBus (www.agglo-var-esterel-mediterranee.fr; tel. 04-94-53-78-46), runs a bus service into Fréjus from St-Raphaël every 30 minutes or so. One-way tickets cost 1.10€. If you’re driving from St-Raphaël, take the D1098 west to Fréjus. The Office de Tourisme is at Le Florus II, 249 rue Jean-Jaurès (www.frejus.fr; tel. 04-94-51-83-83).
If you plan to visit several sites in the area, you can purchase a Fréjus Pass for 4.60€ for adults or 3.10€ for children ages 12 to 18. The pass is free for children 11 and under.
The best preserved of the Roman ruins is the Amphithéâtre (Les Arènes) , rue Henri-Vadon (tel. 04-94-51-34-31). In Roman times, it could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators. The upper levels of the galleries have been reconstructed with the same greenish stone that was used to create the original building. Bullfights were held here until recently, although today it’s a venue for outdoor concerts.
A half kilometer ( 1/3 mile) north of town on avenue du Théâtre-Romain, the Théâtre Romain Philippe Léotard (tel. 04-94-53-58-75)—not to be confused with the amphitheater—is largely in ruins. However, one wall and a few of the lower sections remain and are used as a backdrop for a summertime theater festival. The theater is open Tuesday to Sunday 9:30am to 12:30pm and 2 to 6pm (until 4:30pm October through March). Northwest of the theater, you can see a few soaring arches as they follow the coastal road leading to Cannes. These pieces are the remains of the 40km (25-mile) aqueduct that once brought fresh water to Fréjus’ water tower.
The grand neoclassical Villa Aurélienne, avenue du Général-d’Armée Calliès (tel. 04-94-52-90-49), was originally a holiday home for an English industrialist in the 1880s. Updates a century ago lend a Great Gatsby feel. It’s a popular venue for photographic exhibitions and classical concerts. Admission prices and opening hours vary according to the event, so call for information. The park surrounding is bucolic and a great place for kids to run around.
Spread over 260 hectares (642 acres), Etangs de Villepey (www.frejus.fr), off the D1098 west of Fréjus, is a nature reserve that is often known as the “Petite Camargue” of the Var, due to the marshlands here. You’ll also find dry zones and sand dunes, as well as walking and cycling paths. The reserve is particularly busy during migration season in spring and autumn, when you can spot over 250 species of birds. There are no specific opening hours and entry is free.
Aqualand, Quartier Le Capou along D1098 (www.aqualand.fr; tel. 04-94-51-82-51), is a theme park with 19 water-based rides for kids of all ages, as well as snack bars and a shop. It’s open every day from mid-June to mid-September from 10am to 6pm (until 7pm from early July to late Aug). Entry costs 26€ for adults and kids 13 years and over, 18.50€ for kids from 3 to 12 years, and 10€ for kids under 1.10m tall (3 ft.).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.