We used the occasion of last week’s Ascension Day holiday to visit the seaside town of Saint-Raphaël. Yesterday I wrote about the town’s rich history, today we’re going to take a closer look at the town, its ports and major attractions, aside from its glorious beaches.
Saint-Raphaël centre and the old town
The narrow shaded streets of the old town once housed Saint-Raphaël’s farmers. Nowadays, this neighbourhood hosts a daily covered outdoor market with flower, vegetable and fruit stands plus local delicacies. I couldn’t resist buying some plump local red cherries.
A little further on is the Romanesque San Rafeu church, a protected 7th century monument whose presbytery houses the Archeological Museum. Officially recognised as a historic monument in 1907, the museum houses a permanent collection of objects excavated from the sea along the coast of Agay and Anthéors.
Its 13th San Rafeu century watchtower was built using components from previous eras. Its construction was initiated by the Bishop of Fréjus who occasionally lived in town when he wasn’t at his main residence in Fréjus. Mistakenly attributed to the Templars, whose style it resembled, it was built to represent a symbol of power rather than an actual defensive structure. It wasn’t until 1881 that the tower actually accommodated a bell which rings every hour. Up the 129 steps there’s a 360 degree panoramic view that includes the summits of the Estérel mountain range, down the coast from Saint-Tropez to the red rocks and a view of the basilica and its Byzantine domes.
The main town overlooks the sea and is set around Quartier de la Marine, a former fishermen’s enclave which now has a spanking brand new port. there are some beautiful old Belle Epoque buildings attesting to the town’s heritage.
The town’s original layout changed during the administration of Mayor Felix Martin (1878-1894) who facilitated an explosion of new buildings which included the Casino, the Notre-Dame de la Victoire cathedral, the hospital and the Lambert Baths.
During this time the city experienced a property boom propelled by investors from Paris, Lyon (Felix Martin’s hometown) and England, all of whom had come to enjoy the mild winters along the Cote d’Azur. Each one of these groups contributed to the architecture of the town with a particular style, namely Palladian, Anglo-Norman and Moorish.
This type of architecture is defined by its simple yet sumptuous style. It refers to the Italian Renaissance Architect, Andrea Palladio, who venerated the symmetry and even proportions of Greek and Roman temples. Architects in Saint Raphael, Pierre Aublé in particular, developed their own interpretations of the Palladian style with an abundance of pillars, decorative colonnades, loggias and elegant staircases. These buildings feature examples of Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Tuscan styles. Some of the more ornate villas were decorated with friezes and cornices set in bas-relief or painted with a geometric or plant motif.
This style can be found throughout southern France, as well as in the UK and Belgium.
Enriched by the Industrial Revolution, affluent English newcomers began to settle along the Côte d’Azur in the early part of 19th century. In Saint-Raphaël they established themselves mostly in the Valescure quarter. Their contributions included the Golf de Valescure (the oldest golf course in the Var), a number of tennis clubs, stud farms, and even an English church.
The Anglo-Norman style is characterised by a steeply pitched roof whose great weight requires a series of wooden trusses for support. The use of wood in this construction was not as a means of cutting costs but rather as a way of conveying a pastoral atmosphere. In the picturesque villas of the era, wood was used in much the same way to signify a rustic return to nature. These structures stood in stark contrast to Baron Haussmann’s monolithic stone buildings of the time.
The oriental style was very much in vogue during the Belle-Époque. In France this style was frequently incorporated into buildings that exhibited Byzantine features: the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde and the Cathedral de la Major in Marseille.
The best example of this style in Saint-Raphaël can be seen in the domes of Basilica Notre-Dame de la Victoire.
The building also includes a great many Moorish accents as seen in the elongated columns, the illustrated capitals, the Turkish crosses set in the roof supports and especially in the extended arcs of the windows.
It’s definitely worth just having a wander around to see the Notre Dame de la Victoire basilica, built between 1882 and 1889 when the mayor of Saint-Raphaël transformed the town. Its growth was so dramatic that the small San Rafeu church could not accommodate everyone. Father Bernard, the head priest from 1882 to 1890, commissioned the architect Pierre Aubé to build a new church. Originally from Lyon, Aubé took inspiration from Byzantine and Moorish architecture, and the dome of the church was inspired by Saint-Sophia in Istanbul. The church was built using the reddish-pink sandstone indigenous to the area. Inaugurated in 1887, the church was named in honour of the famous maritime battle in which a Christian fleet routed the Ottoman navy in October 1571. In 2004, the church became a basilica, the second one in the Fréjus Toulon diocese.
Don’t forget to stroll around the town’s many ports. It has remodelled the old port and its boardwalk which now features a new fisherman’s market, a panoramic restaurant, shops and an underground car park. A stone’s throw from the centre of town, the port of Santa Lucia, the third-largest marina on the Riviera, features a promenade which lets you stroll along the quay. It’s a great place to relax and enjoy the wondeful scenery and is also the start of the coastal path, Le Sentier du Littoral.
There’s also the splendid Promenade des Bains built between 1880 and 1882 which marked the start of tourism in Saint-Raphaël. Plus, the Jardin Bonaparte which overlooks the port and features a wonderful playground for children and an open area for outdoor concerts and shows.
Now perhaps you can understand why I suggest you give it a visit.