At the end of The Little Paris Bookshop (one of my very favorite books set in France) the main character, Jean, settles down in the fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer for a period of time after boating across France on various rivers. When I read the book I was delighted to discover this because I had been to Sanary-sur-Mer myself not long before. Situated on the Mediterranean coast just west of Toulon, the village is one of my favorites in France. With a population of around 16,000, Sanary-sur-Mer has managed to maintain its small town authenticity, character and charm despite being a favorite resort destination for travelers and tourists from all over France and, indeed, the rest of the world. The port is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in France. Carole and I spent three days there recently and I came away even more enchanted than ever with this wonderful little seaside sanctuary.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
As with most towns and villages in Provence, traces of Greek and Roman occupation have been found in and around Sanary-sur-Mer. Originally known as Gobran, a monastery dedicated to Saint Nazaire (a 1st century Roman martyr) was established in the small fishing port around the 12th century. Gradually the name of the village evolved into San Nari, Sant Nazari, Sanct Nazari, Sanàri, Sanary and finally, in 1923, Sanary-sur-Mer. Near the end of the 13th century, when the area was under attack from the Saracens, a large watchtower was built which still exists today, the Tour of Sanary.
The village as we know it now began to take shape in the early 16th century, when as an annex of the neighboring town of Ollioules, families were allowed to settle near the medieval tower. During this time the port was built to facilitate trading with the Dutch. To accommodate the anchoring of large ships the small harbor was dug out and enlarged. In 1688 the village was granted independence.
The town is perhaps best known as a place of exile and sanctuary for many German and Austrian intellectuals and artists during the 1930s when they fled the Nazi takeover of their homelands. Thomas Mann, Aldus Huxley, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Hessel, René Schickele and Jacques Cousteau are just a few of those who lived there during those difficult times. On November 13, 1942 the town was occupied by German soldiers. Over the next several years it was heavily damaged by both the German and Allied forces. In 1948, due to the “heavy toll of blood and destruction,” the town was awarded the Croix de Guerre 1939-1945, a French military decoration given to not only soldiers and civilians, but towns, cities and other institutions as well.
During the 1980s and 1990s the village saw a strong and rapid increase in tourism as visitors from around the world discovered its unique appeal and attraction.
A Walk Through the Village
Sanary-sur-Mer has a wonderful Office de Tourisme with lots of information for visitors. It’s easy to find on the east side of the port near the large municipal parking lot. You can pick up a small brochure there titled “Flâner au cœur du village” (A stroll through the village center). It offers a delightful walk through the town touching on over a dozen of the most significant landmarks and sites. I’ve placed a link to an online version which you can download below (in French). An English version is available at the Office de Tourisme.
I began my walk on west side of the port where a long, wide, stone staircase follows the edge of a small bluff to create an “oratories walk” to the Notre Dame de Pitié Chapel. Oratories are the small monuments you find all over France, usually on the side of the road, wherein a statue of a Saint or a Virgin resides in a small niche at the top. The path up to the chapel features four such oratories. The chapel itself dates back to 1560 and features ex-votos, a 17th century polychrome wooden pietà, a 19th century oil painting and a very nice little garden. The chapel was completely restored in 2008 and today masses are held there every Saturday morning. There are some marvelous views of the village and port on the way up the stairs and lots of beautiful mediterranean plants lining the walk.
From the chapel I headed back down into the village and over to the west side of the port. Here you’ll find a selection of small Mediterranean fishing boats, three of which are classified as “Historic Monuments” and thirty-five others which have received the “Boats of Heritage Interest” from the Maritime and River Heritage Foundation. Known as the “Heritage Vessels” or “Pointus,” some of these small boats are over a hundred years old. You’ll see small signs on the masts of the boats with the name of each one and more information. During certain holidays and festivals visitors can climb aboard the boats and enjoy a short trip into the bay.
Across from the Heritage Vessels you’ll see a tall tower situated behind a hotel. Known as the Fortified Tower, the Saracen Tower, the Roman Tower or just the Tower of Sanary, it was erected around 1300. 21 meters high and 8 meters wide it has walls that average a thickness of 2 meters. Abandoned for many years it was restored by the city and opened to the public in 1990. The lower level also houses a marine and diving museum. A climb to the top of the tower provides lovely panoramic views of the village, the port and the coastline.
You’ll notice a large statue near the western edge of the port which sits atop a round marble fountain. The “Fontaine de la Marine” or “Fountain of the Navy” has a matching statue and fountain on the other end of the port, the “Fontaine de l’Agriculture” or “Fountain of Agriculture.” If you continue east along the port you can’t miss the Saint Nazaire Church, with its tall steeple providing one of the trademark features of the village. Completed in 1892 and built upon the site of a previous church, it features a huge collection of liturgical frescoes of Orthodox Christian inspiration which cover almost every available wall and the ceiling as well. A huge new organ was installed in 2009 built by the famous Quoirin.
From the church you can walk up into back streets of the village which feature a large array of shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars, cafes and more. The Chapelle de la Misericorde or Holy Charity Chapel is located just a few blocks north of the Saint Nazaire Church. Built by the White Penitents in the 17th century it houses the bust of Saint-Pierre and Saint-Nazaire, the town’s patrons, a 19th century processional cross and various 17th century paintings.
If you’re up for even more sites you can head north to the Galli Theatre and the old town cemetery (neither is very far). I found the the cemetery to be quite beautiful with many large tombs and crypts. Opened in 1810 it features lots of elaborate ornamental tombstones, statues and epitaphs.
There’s really much, much more to see in Sanary-sur-Mer. The tourist office can provide you with all the information you need to find something that interests you.
Street markets are a way of life in France. Almost every city, town and village in France has a market at least one day a week where you can find everything from fresh vegetables and fruit to cheese to meat to herbs to olives and much, much more. Many larger towns have multiple markets on different days. Food markets, clothes markets, antique markets, etc. Large towns and cities have permanent markets, sometimes outside, sometimes inside sheltered under roofs and structures which operate every day of the week. Sanary-sur-Mer is no exception.
In 2018 the French TV channel TF1 had the idea to run a contest with goal of declaring the best market(s) in France. Called “Votre Plus Beau Marché” (Your Most Beautiful Market), the contest proved to be quite popular with French television viewers. Twenty-five markets were entered into the competition and viewers voted in quite high numbers. When it was all said and done Sanary-sur-Mer stood victorious.
The market happens every Wednesday morning and Carole and I planned our trip so we would be there to experience it first-hand. They say there are over 300 booths (I didn’t bother to count them) and they run from one end of town to the next, along the port and then the Allée d’Estienne d’Orves. In many places the market is several rows wide. It takes well over an hour to walk through the entire market at a semi-leisurely pace. Everything you could hope to find is here (and maybe more!). The quality of the goods being sold is exceptional as well.
Technically the market begins at 8:00AM but I found that many merchants were still setting up their tables at this time. By 9:00AM things were definitely in full swing. It runs year round and if you have any plans to visit Sanary-sur-Mer you should really make sure you are there on a Wednesday morning. It’s not something to be missed. In fact, I was so impressed with the market that I am currently writing an entire article (with lots of photos) dedicated to it. Look for it shortly.
The Sentier du Littoral
West of the port you will find a marvelous path along the coast perfect for hiking and exploring. I walked the short distance between the port and Plage de Portissol. This is, however, not a trail for anyone other than very experienced hikers. About half the trail runs right on the shoreline over large, rough and, sometimes, dangerous rocks. There is no clear path, just a succession of yellow markers to let you know you are going the right way. Basically you’re climbing and scrambling over the rocks the entire time. There was one point where the sea was crashing over part of the trail and I had to spend about ten minutes trying to figure out the pattern of the waves. If I got it wrong I would have been soaked well above my knees trying to cross over.
The second portion of the trail winds up on a steep bluff overlooking the water. It’s quite high and there are very few safety rails along the way. The trail often comes perilously close to the edge of the cliff and it is definitely not for anyone afraid of heights.
That said, it is a beautiful trail and if you are comfortable with this kind of hike I would highly recommend it.
More to See and Do
There is plenty to do and see along this part of the Mediterranean coast. You could easily spend a week or even two in Sanary-sur-Mer and not get close to exploring everything. In face, I told Carole, the next time we come I want to spend at least a week there. The medieval villages of Le Castellet and La Cadière-d’Azur are just a few minutes away. We spent some time one evening in Le Castellet and it was absolutely beautiful. If you’re looking for larger, more populated towns in the area, with more shops and stores, more restaurants and more nightlife activities, Bandol and La Ciotat fit the bill. We spent an afternoon in Bandol, but to be honest, it was too commercial to interest me much. Cassis is about 30 minutes from Sanary-sur-Mer and it is definitely another one of the highlights of this part of France. Another fishing village it is definitely worth a visit. But beware, it is exceptionally crowded, especially in the summer months. Further west are the Calanques and to the east are the Embiez Islands. There’s even more, but I’ll leave a further exploration of the area for future articles.
Sanary-sur-Mer is located on the D559 on the south-western edge of the Var department. You can get there easily from Cannes, Antibes or Nice by taking the A8 and then the A57 and A50. From the north you’ll take the A7 and then the A50 and from the west the A9, the A54, the A7 and the A50. The main parking lot (which is paid) is located just to the east of the port.
The Office de Tourisme (located at the eastern edge of the port) is open from 9AM to 7PM in July & August, 9AM to 6PM in April, May, June, September & October and 9AM to 12:30PM/2PM to 5:30PM from November through March. Saturday and Sunday hours will vary throughout the year. You can find lots of information about the village in the Office de Toursime and on their website listed below.