It’s a bit difficult, one must say, to avoid the temptation of referring to this little port, “portette” perhaps, as a jewel in the French crown. Sanary-Sur-Mer is a brilliant emerald of a town in the Côte d’Azur’s shining necklace of polished gemstones. World travelers certainly cluck about and have probably already graced the true headliners … Cannes, St. Tropez, Monte Carlo … with their presence. However, few outsiders will ever stumble upon Sanary-Sur-Mer for it’s a mere speck of real estate clinging to this nation’s celebrated Mediterranean shoreline. Count yourself among the lucky ones who’ll stroll along the tree-lined waterfront past the brightly-painted pointus fishing boats, bobbing on the sea in cadence with the slap of the waves, rhythmically heralding your arrival. You mustn’t forget to don your crisp summer linens, grab your expensive handbags, and tuck behind your oversized designer sunglasses. This is, after all, a “see-and-be-seen” destination.
What’s To See?
Your options really are either to stroll about this tiny town or to journey beyond for an exploration of some of the more-famous destinations. Should you choose to remain in Sanary-Sur-Mer, begin your day with a poke about the morning market sampling local cheeses and aioli, admiring the rainbow of fresh flowers, and enjoying playful banter with a local fisherman who’s hoping to sell all of today’s catch. Be sure to enjoy a flakey, fresh-from-the-oven croissant with creamy butter and a brush of locally-made framboise jam. You’ll have time to walk it all off before sampling a Provençal rosé and bowl of traditional bouillabaisse, complete with a steaming hot baguette.
The local people might suggest you step into the Chappelle Notre-Dame-de-Pitié, which dates back to 1560. As the name suggests, even to non-French-speaking visitors, this is a tiny little chapel with a modest interior. Perhaps it is this intimacy that makes one appreciate how it has served this fishing community for more than 450 years. The chapel seems to stand a silent vigil, one that was used to observe anyone approaching from the sea, then announcing their arrival with the church bells. Also, lighting a fire, the faithful from even further afield could respond to the alarm. From this vantage point, you can see the offshore islands of Point Negre, Embiez, Rouveau, as well as the jagged shores of La Cride identified by its red rocks.
On a larger scale, there is the Église Saint Nazaire, known for the works of master Jean-Baptiste Garrigou, the powerful frescoes, and an organ with 24 stops and a trio of keyboards. (It is also claimed that this extraordinary pictorial work was designed by Ferdinand Bernhard.) The highly-acclaimed Garrigou was selected by Father Adrien Arnaud to incorporate Orthodox iconography with the neo-Byzantine structure, creating an elegant marriage of the two components that illustrates the intended spirituality. Also in the church’s spotlight is the church organ, as mentioned, built by Pascal Quorin in the year 2000. The worshippers claim its extraordinary sound that fills the naves and domes is ideal for religious inspiration as well as classical concerts.
As the waters around Sanary-Sur-Mer are rich with the submerged remains of Roman and Greek vessels, archeological artifacts and valuable treasures are occasionally found by divers. It’s claimed by some that this little port was the birthplace of modern scuba diving. In fact, Jacques Cousteau once owned a home here that he called “Villa Baobab” and a handful of underwater movies were filmed in this very bay. There’s even a Frédéric Dumas Historical Diving Museum housed in a 13th-century medieval watchtower. Visitors should confirm opening hours before visiting the museum. You’ll discover that Dumas, Philippe Tailliez and Jacques-Yves Cousteau were the three accomplished divers who were lovingly referred to by locals as Les Mousquemers, The Musketeers.
This little town also grew in importance when it was granted a “Station de Tourisme” to attract visitors from the US and Europe whose itineraries included the French Riviera. In turn, the literati and glitterati began arriving in the 1920s, many of them ultimately taking political refuge here. The 1931 novel Brave New World was penned by Aldous Huxley while staying near La Gorguette. (Note some experts believed he wrote the book in England.)
It’s no surprise the beaches are glorious, but glorious with a twist. While it’s claimed that Sanary-Sur-Mer enjoys 280 days of sunshine per year making it one of France’s sunniest destinations, the sunshine is often ushered in by the winds, the big winds. The Mistral, in fact. These are the chilly winds that rip down from the Alps through the Rhone River Valley to the Mediterranean into the Golfe du Lion reaching speeds of 55 miles per hour and more. There goes the hair. These winds are taken into consideration while designing buildings, open-air bell and clock towers, and more. Plus the Mistral is depicted in traditional images with men clutching their beret-style caps and leaning decidedly into the wind. For many it’s a drama, for others it’s a bother. For windsurfers who gather here from around the world to literally fly across the waves on these strong winds, it is a dream come true.
With more time and adventure in your soul, you can zip over to Toulon a mere eight miles away. Marseille … 30. Aix … a bit beyond. Remember, always, that if you do head out that you’re back aboard before the ship sails. You wouldn’t want to miss out on what’s next on the agenda.
Karyn L. Planett