Gillie Hutchinson explores this medieval village dominated by a majestic rock, tasting chocolates and honey in this picturesque Provence setting…
The first thing you notice when arriving in the small, medieval town of Roquebrune-sur-Argens is the massive rock that towers above it. Nestled at its feet, like a stone tapestry fallen from its imposing summit, the town is made up of three parts – the village strewn with 16th Century porticos, chapels and Castrum, the seaside area of Les Issambres, and the forest of ‘Palayson’ in the district of ‘La Bouverie’, set between umbrella pines and eucalyptus. It is a canvas of landscapes with red rocks and green hillsides and a panorama of lush Provencal vineyards.
A short drive inland from the Cote d’Azur takes you away from the tourists and into the Provence countryside along the banks of the River Argens. The narrow, climbing streets of Roquebrune lead you up to the heart of the old town, past the stone fountain inscribed with national motto – ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’ – to the market square of “Place Alfred Perrin”. At the end of the square sits the Chapel of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul, a Gothic style chapel dating from 1535. I pause for a coffee outside the cafe ‘Les Templiers’ as the Friday market is in full swing. Locals meet and greet as they peruse the stalls full of cured meats, cheeses, honeys, dried herbs and nougats, olive oils and, of course, wines. A little further along, ‘La Chocolaterie du Rocher’ (+33.(0)18.104.22.168.26) displays delectable treats as I meet owner, Anthony Vaniglio who tells me he has been making his speciality chocolates here since 1984. He offers group chocolate-tasting tours of his shop, with free entrance to the ‘Maison du Chocolat et Cacao’ museum in a 17th century chapel just around the corner (+33.(0)22.214.171.124.65).
For lunch, I descend the steps to the left of the Chapel Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul to ‘Boulevard Jean Jaures’ below, where on its corner sits the charming courtyard restaurant ‘Les Jardins de l’Orangeraie’ (+33.(0)126.96.36.199.16 – ask for Emilie!). The place is open for lunch and dinner and offers a decent-priced menu with local wines..
After lunch, I decide to take a scenic drive up the narrow, winding road to the plateau above the rolling hills of l’Esterel to admire the stunning views. From here you can look across the vineyards to the sea beyond and literally smell the pines and vines in a single breath. On the road back, tucked down a farmer’s track is the honey farm of ‘Le Rucher de la Bouverie’ (+33.(0)4.94.40.01.69) run by apiculturist, Francois Laponche. Monsieur Laponche tells me the farm has been in his family for four generations since his great-grandfather Eugene first arrived in 1925, married a bee-keeper’s daughter and fell in love with the profession. Back then, he started with only 50 hives, creating a small hive that was easily transportable to enable him to diversify his honey production. By the 1950’s, Eugene’s two sons, Emile and Andre, took over the business and increased the number of hives to 1400. In 1968, they were the official suppliers of lavender honey for the Olympic Games held in Grenoble that year. Francois still transports his bees to their traditional harvest locations in the bushes of the Provencal coast, the Valensole Plateau and the Alpine valleys, which are spread out over hundreds of kilometres. This is how he is able to harvest such varied, natural and high quality honeys that offer the unique flavour of Provence.
I am invited to a free ‘honey tasting’ at his shop next to the farm house where ten small pots of different honeys are laid out on the table outside: ‘Miel de Lavande’ is their best-seller, ‘Miel de Pin’, ‘Miel de Chataignier’, ‘Miel des Alpes’, ‘Miel de Sarriette’, ‘Miel d’Arbousier’, ‘Miel Bruyere Blanche’, ‘Miel de Maquis’, ‘Miel Tilleul’ and ‘Miel de Provence’.
I taste each honey in earnest and discover each has its own colour and flavour, some much darker and stronger than others. I plump for a jar of ‘Miel de Pin’ with its rich amber colour and sweet aroma of pine nuts (5 Euros a jar). There are other honey-flavoured products in the delightful little shop such as soaps, hand creams, mustards and jams. I heartily recommend a visit to Monsieur Laponche and his bees. ([email protected]).
Where to Visit:
Le Plan de la Tour (13.6km) – small village with surrounding vineyards, nice lunch spot; excellent small market store with local cheeses & deli meats!
Bagnols-en-Foret (12km) – hilltop town popular with climbers & hikers; good-value lunch spots on the high street.
Frejus (8km) – excellent market town (Weds); impressive cathedral & cloisters; plenty of restaurants; good butcher along the main street leading to the square.
Saint Raphael (11km) – train station connects to Nice; kids’ theme park & ferris wheel in the Port.
Chateau de Berne, Flayosc (23km) (+33.(0)188.8.131.52.81) – Relais et Chateau (5 Star) Hotel Spa, Restaurant ‘Gastronomique’, Bistro with indoor or terrace seating, ‘Cave’ wines – Cotes de Provence from the Chateau de Berne, Cooking classes (Thursdays)**
** Highly recommended @ 150 Euros inc. lunch & wine!
Where to Stay:
‘Villa Sunbeach’, 17 Corniche des Issambres (Recommended) – on the beach, free parking, WIFI, A/C
‘Chez Catherine’, Roquebrune-sur-Argens (Superb) – garden, terrace, bar, central location, WIFI, A/C
‘La Bastide du Rocher’ Boutique Hotel & Spa (new), 776 Chemin des Fourques (Exceptional) – Free airport shuttle from Nice (68km), pool, hot tub, spa bath
‘Chambres d’Hôtes au Bois Fleuri’, 1241 Route de Marchandise (Countryside & vineyard setting) – breakfast inc., heated pool, garden, summer kitchen, WIFI, free parking
‘Hotel La Casa Mia’, Les Issambres (+33.(0)184.108.40.206.47) – 100m from beach, sea view terrace, restaurant/bar. Great value!
Tourist Office of Roquebrune-sur-Argens – +33.(0)220.127.116.11.89
Guided nature walks; Golf; Tennis; Water sports (diving, sailing, wind surfing); Kayaking on Lake ‘Perrin’ in Roquebrune-sur-Argens; Wine-tasting tours.
By Car – From Nice airport take A8 Autoroute (tolls) (56 minutes).
Exit 37. Follow DN7 and D7 to Rue de l’Hotel de Ville in Roquebrune town centre.
By Train – From Nice Centre to Roquebrune Village OR/. to Saint Raphael, then bus.
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