I love going to the south of France. I have been going there every year for the last 6 years and never get bored. This year, I decided to spend more time in Fréjus and other beautiful villages in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
I and my wife walked around the historic parts of Fréjus to discover a Roman town which was founded by Julius Cesar in 49 BC. We arrived in the main square where the town hall and Saint-Pol-de-Léon Cathedral is located. The square was not crowded, people were scattered around, sitting in cafes and restaurants listening to live music played by a band in the corner of the square.
The Cathedral was an amazing place of worship. A man followed us inside the church. The strong smell of alcohol came from him and I could hardly understand what he was talking about. He called a church worker who greeted us with a smile. I spoke to him with my poor French, but we continued our conversation in English about Christian beliefs, the universe and our destiny.
Not aware of what was happening outside the Cathedral, we were engaged in deep philosophical conversation when another senior priest, the 55 year old Father Benoit arrived, and spoke to us in broken English. The man who had followed us inside the church interrupted our conversation and called us to go with him outside. We found a large crowd, dressed in a variety of different costumes, with some in uniforms resembling soldiers from Napoleon’s time. They had guns with them which they shot into the air. It was an extraordinary scene with the sounds of army drums, flutes and traditional dancing in medieval Provencal costume. Soon we realised what exactly was going on, and that was when the procession departed in a very orderly manner.
The drunken man asked us to go with him in another direction, through dark and quiet streets. My wife was not very keen. I had the feeling that he wanted to take us to the front of the procession through a shortcut. Soon, we found ourselves in front of Saint Francois church and the procession was arriving in groups. After a short prayer in the church they continued their ceremony; shooting guns, followed by chanting around a tree which they put on fire in the middle of the square. The long night passed, but I was still not sure what was the history and background to the ceremony.
My wife was sitting on a bench talking to a 70-year old woman called Monique Bletterer. It was a relief to find someone who could explain things without language barriers. The people were dispersing and nobody was left by the church, but Monique patiently carried on telling us about the story of Saint Francis of Paola and how he cured the plague and other lethal infectious diseases which had killed many people.
This historical visit by the saint became a significant date in the calendar of this town. The people have celebrated the “Bravade” (meaning boldness) three weeks after Easter in his honour every year since.
Her fascinating story engaged our minds and changed our plan completely. Monique said the procession which is a religious and traditional ceremony would carry on for another two days. We spent the whole day on Sunday and most part of Monday with Monique and other locals, going through small and narrow alleys of the old town from one church to another, gathering in several squares.
It was a colourful display of Provencal costumes, full of energy and joy. Lovera Alain, The General who led the procession is a postman in real life. He said: “I have attended Bravade since my childhood and Saint Francis is in my heart. It is the third year that I have had the honour to be the General in leading the procession.”
The pictures of Saint Francis, red and white flowers and flags decorated the buildings and houses to celebrate the tradition. The whole town was immersed in the memory and glorification of Saint Francis. On Monday, “Bravade” ended with prayers in Saint Francis Church and the people returned to the main square to finish their festivity in the town hall.
This was the first time that I witnessed such an extraordinary celebration in South of France. We were so much engaged in Bravade that we did not get a chance to visit the nearby attractions including an extraordinary Sudanese Mosque built in red stone by sailors from Mali based at Fréjus, in the 1920s. There is also the L’Esterel Safari Park, a zoo which can be visited by car, and Aquatica, a huge water park in the west of the town.
Fréjus, which merges with nearby St Raphael has a small marina port and a fine narrow sandy beachside strip. We drove around to see the town’s preserved architectural heritage, famous for its amphitheatres, pillars and arches.
I look forward to going to Fréjus again to meet its friendly people and visit the attractions I have missed.
GET ME THERE
Frejus is a little town situated between the hills of the Masif des Maures and Esterel founded by Julius Caesar 49 BC. It functioned as an important port in the beginning of the Christian era but today, Frejus merges with nearby St Raphael and is a small marina port with a fine narrow sandy beachside strip. It has preserved its architectural heritage and is famous for its amphitheatres, pillars and arches.
The old town and its surroundings offer plenty of interests to visitors with its mild weather all year round.
HOW TO GET THERE
The most convenient way to get to Frejus is to fly to Nice and then hire a car. British Airways flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow and Gatwick; easyJet departs from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted and Air France has an indirect flight from Heathrow and London City Airport.
There are a variety of markets in Frejus. The Provencal markets are a bit of a tourist trap. However on Saturday morning there is an Arab Market held for locals by the Roman Theatre in Frejus old town.
If you’re staying for several days or weeks, a trip to do your grocery shopping in the Geant Casino superstore is a must. It’s also good to look in souvenir shops for affordable gifts for friends and family back home.
The best nearby attractions include an extraordinary Sudanese Mosque in red stone built by sailors from Mali based at Frejus in the 1920s. There is also the L’Esterel Safari Park, a zoo which can be visited by car and Aquatica, a huge water park in the west of town.
Beravade Saint-Francois is a traditional religious procession that takes place on the third Sunday after Easter through the historic town centre. It is a very colourful ceremony where locals dress in the medieval Provencal costume and men dress in soldier’s uniforms from Napoleon’s time.
Fete du Raisin is the celebration of the first wine grapes, harvested during the first week in August. Local producers offer wine tasting.
If you travel in the Riviera region in May, you also have an opportunity to visit the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Formula 1 race.