Between Hyères and Fréjus the coast’s bewitching hinterland is the wooded, hilly Massif des Maures. The highest point of these hills stops short of 800m, but the quick succession of ridges, the sudden drops and views, and the curling, looping roads, are pervasively mountainous. In spring, the sombre forest is enlivened by millions of wild flowers and the roads are busy with cyclists; in winter, this is the haunt of hunters. Amid the brush crawl the last of the Hermann’s tortoises, once found along the entire northern Mediterranean coast.
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Grimaud, 25km east of Collobrières along the twisting D14 and more easily reached from St-Tropez or La Croix Valmer, is a film set of a village perché. The cone of houses enclosing the eleventh-century church and culminating in the ruins of a medieval castle appears as a single, perfectly unified entity, though the effect of timelessness is undermined by the (handy) glass lift that whisks visitors up into the village from the main road. The most vaunted street is the arcaded rue des Templiers, which leads up to the Romanesque Église de St-Michel and a house of the Knights Templar, while the view from the castle ruins (free) is superb.
The peaceful village of La Garde-Freinet, set in forested hills 10km northwest of Grimaud, was founded in the late twelfth century by people from the nearby villages of Saint Clément and Miremer. The original fortified settlement sat further up the hillside, and the foundations of the fortress are still visible above the village beside the ruins of a fifteenth-century castle (take the path from La Planette car park at the northwestern end of the village). The medieval charm, easy walks to stunning panoramas and twice weekly market (Wed and Sun) make it an alluring spot, and many ex-pats have bought property here. Happily, though, attempts to “do a St-Tropez” by making it trendy and expensive seem – thus far – doomed to failure.