On a sublime section of the Mediterranean coast, Sanary-sur-Mer is the birthplace of modern diving and where Aldous Huxley wrote his famous dystopian novel, Brave New World (1932). Whether you plan to eat salt-baked fish at harbourside restaurants or hire a boat for the day, Culture Trip has picked the best things to do in Sanary-sur-Mer.
Just four hours from Paris by TGV, Sanary-sur-Mer is a sleepy seaside town that boasts a thriving fishing-centred tourist industry as well as authentic French restaurants, markets and even literary credentials. First settled in the 16th century, the village has a naturally deep harbour, which has since been deepened farther to expand its activities, making an ideal port. And today, many artisanal fishers still use the region’s traditional wooden fishing boats, pointus, returning with fresh catch, which they sell at the side of the quay in the early-morning hours.
When it was founded, Sanary-sur-Mer (originally called Sant Nazari in the Occitan dialect) was under the protection of the monks at Lérins Abbey on the Île Saint-Honorat, off the coast of nearby Cannes (monks once controlled a large part of this coastline). The village later became known as Sanary – a diminutive of Sant Nazari – and was granted independence by King Louis XIV in 1688. ‘Sur-Mer’ was added to the village’s title in the 1920s to bring it in line with other seaside towns around the coast of France. Today, there are plenty of things to do, places to eat and activities to enjoy in Sanary-sur-Mer.
There are three markets in Sanary-sur-Mer, each of which is full of wonderful Provençal delights. The first is the daily flower market outside the town hall, where you can wander through sunflowers, lavender plants and more. The second is the daily fish market on the quay – arrive as early as possible, ideally at sunrise, for the pick of the fresh catch. And finally, the Grand Marché, which is on the town’s main boulevard, Allée d’Estienne d’Orves. Here, visitors will find a larger weekly market on Wednesday mornings, with plentiful food stands as well as stalls peddling clothes and household goods. On the other days of the week, there’s a smaller but charming market, providing the ideal atmosphere to peruse the regional delicacies, such as fresh olives and stuffed Mediterranean vegetables. Taste locally produced olive oil, discover your favourite type of saucisson and savour the 20 different types of goat’s cheese on offer at the dairy stall. Meat lovers should try the local speciality, rillettes d’oie, goose meat cooked in lard and then shredded and pounded into a smooth pâté.
Sanary-sur-Mer was founded under the gaze of a watchtower, the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Pitié – built in 1561. Today, it can be a little challenging to find, but this somewhat adds to its charm. From the old harbour, take the steep coastal path west up the hill and follow signs depicting a cross, which will lead you to the top. The chapel is neither ornate nor extravagant, but its simplicity makes it divinely peaceful. This is a great place to picnic, particularly when the vegetation is in full bloom in summer – it has some of the best views of the entire village and the surrounding coastline.
Today’s much-loved Pernod Ricard alcohol brand was the brainchild of Paul Ricard, a man from Marseille who, despite a passion for the arts, was persuaded by his father to join the family wine business. The rest, as they say, is history, as he created the company’s now famous pastis drink, made from star anise, liquorice, fennel and Provençal herbs. Ricard was also an environmentalist and bought two islands off the coast of Sanary-sur-Mer with his earnings, Île des Embiez and Île de Bendor, which provide the perfect habitat for ecologists. The Institut Océanographique Paul Ricard on Île des Embiez has an aquarium with local species on display and a museum that gives insight into the marine environment. A couple of hotels and restaurants are also on these peaceful islands, which offer an even greater escape.
British writer Aldous Huxley penned his dystopian classic, Brave New World, in four short months in 1931 when he was living in Sanary-sur-Mer. And, from 1933 onwards, Huxley was joined in the town by many persecuted writers fleeing Nazi Germany. Numerous German novelists headed to Sanary-sur-Mer partly because the celebrated brother and sister authors Erika and Klaus Mann were fans of the region (their father, Thomas Mann, often visited). After settling here, German novelists and playwrights René Schickele and Lion Feuchtwanger – whose work was among the books burnt nationwide by the Nazis on 10 May 1933 after Adolf Hitler had declared the writer a personal enemy – reportedly encouraged other German writers to come. Jewish philosopher Ludwig Marcuse wrote of Sanary-sur-Mer: “Wir wohnten im Paradies – notgedrungen” (“We lived in paradise, against our will”). When France surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, many of the German authors who had made the country their home had to flee again, this time to the United States or Great Britain, to avoid being sent to the local internment camp at Les Milles in Aix-en-Provence. Sadly, some even ended up in Auschwitz. A plaque outside the Tourist Office at the port in Sanary-sur-Mer documents the German authors who lived in the town during World War II. Incidentally, Lion Feuchtwanger managed to escape the Germans disguised as a woman and took refuge for several months in Marseille before a safe passage was found for him on a ship to the USA.
Jacques Cousteau invented, developed and tested the aqualung in the waters near his home in Sanary-sur-Mer with his friend Frédéric Dumas. Cousteau is now considered the father of modern diving, and a visit to the charming Musée Frédéric-Dumas, which lies at the old port, offers a fascinating perspective into the evolution of what was once a dangerous sport, before the arrival of modern-day scuba apparatus.
The Hôtel de la Tour is an unfussy but classy place to stay, and the Mercier family has been offering great value rooms and good food at the water’s edge in Sanary-sur-Mer since 1936. Husband-and-wife team Géraldine and Franck look after your creature comforts upstairs, while Christian and Bruno take care of the restaurant and its star dish, salt-baked fish. Sold in 100-gram increments (be careful, as the price can quickly add up), choose a locally caught fish, and take in the picture-postcard view of the port while the chefs cook it. When the fish is ready, the server will bring it to your table, ceremoniously break the salt crust and fillet it in front of you.
For over 60 years, this family-run restaurant on the old port in Sanary-sur-Mer has been popular with local residents, and it’s always full, even in low tourist season. Restaurant Le Provençal is a traditional and friendly spot, serving a small menu of Provençal dishes such as fish soup and prawns, and always includes fresh ingredients from the daily fish market outside on the docks. Specials often feature pig’s trotters and home-made couscous (the latter is only available on Sundays in winter).