If you want the real Provence in a town that isn’t overrun with tourists, Draguignan could be just the place for you.
All of the trademarks of the region are here: Rocky hills, vineyards and olive groves and perched villages.
But the town’s isolation from the big sights keeps it off the itineraries of most tourists.
And yet the old centre is very pretty, with a few old lavoirs and a cluster of interesting museums.
Draguignan is also labelled as the Gateway to Verdon, and the life-changing scenery of the Gorges du Verdon is tantalisingly close to the north.
Lets explore the best things to do in Draguignan:
1. Tour de l’Horloge
Draguignan’s square-shaped clock tower dominates the town atop a hillock.
From the start of June to the end of September you can go to the top to contemplate the Provençal countryside, and off in the distance to the south you’ll be able to see the Massif de Maures.
The tower’s roof has bartizans on all four corners, constructed when it was rebuilt in the 1660s.
The Tour de l’Horloge is in fact the fourth tower to have stood on this mound: This was originally where Draguignan’s castle used to be but the fortress was destroyed three times in conflicts between the 11th and 17th centuries.
2. Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires
Essential for anyone in love with the Provence countryside and its way of life, this museum will introduce you to the humble craftspeople who shaped the culture and landscape over hundreds of years.
On the ground floor you’ll get a window on traditional crafts like cork production, olive cultivation and wine-growing, and see the antique tools of the trade neatly laid out.
Go upstairs to get the low-down on local culinary savoir-faire and see traditional furniture, costume, ceramics and glassware, as well as finding out about the region’s popular festivals.
3. Musée de l’Artillerie
The French Army’s artillery school has been based in Draguignan since the 70s, and in 1982 opened this museum revealing 600 years of French artillery history.
The museum was recently given a facelift, and if you’re into the tactics and technology of warfare you’ll be riveted: There are vintage weapons, medals, uniforms, shells and large models representing battles that were key to the evolution of artillery.
Among the high points are a cannon from 1739 and the gun carriage from the 1770s, by Lieutenant General Gribeauval who revolutionised artillery design at the time.
4. Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial
Operation Dragoon was the codename for the invasion of the South of France, which began a couple of months after the Normandy landings.
The worst of the U.S. losses occurred in August 1944 during fighting for the Rhone, and in 1956 on Dragiugnan’s eastern edge this cemetery and monument were completed.
There are 860 headstones in more than five hectares, and a guide will fill you in on the stories of some of the soldiers buried here.
Pay a visit to the memorial and chapel, which have murals and stonework by Austin M. Purves Jr.
5. Pierre de la Fée
A couple of minutes outside the town is this dolmen that would have been put together in the Copper Age some 5,000 years ago.
The monument is made entirely from local limestone, and has an impossibly large slab for a roof, supported by three tall rocks.
Something that sets the Pierre de la Fée apart from most dolmens is the height of the supporting walls, which are all well above two metres so you can go under without stooping.
Long ago, women having trouble getting pregnant would call on the Pierre de Fée for its supposed fertility powers.
6. Parc Chabran
Draguignan’s Chabran area has hosted the French military for more than 100 years.
But recently, as the older barracks became outdated for army use they have been converted into plush accommodation and the land around them has been landscaped and opened up to the public.
Parc Chabran here is three hectares of sophisticated gardens with lawns, flowerbeds, boardwalks and pollarded trees, made all the more elegant by the grand old barrack houses that overlook the park.
Make time for easy strolls and family picnics.
7. Musée Municipal d’Art et Histoire
With six rooms of painting and artefacts, Draguignan’s museum of art and history is compact but certainly merits a look.
Entry is free, and there are pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens and Paul Delaroche.
You can also cast your eye over Art Nouveau vases, fine porcelain from Moustiers and Sèvres, Louis XIV furniture and the gilded wooden lectern that would have been used at the coronation of Charles VII in 1429 at Reims.
A high point is the 16th-century armour of François de Montmorency, a Grand Officer of the Crown of France.
The museum’s venue is also worth mentioning because it is the former summer residence of Bishop of Fréjus.
8. Place du Marché
Something you simply have to do in Provence is visit a local market, and at Draguignan there are two a week on Place du Marché in the centre of the old town.
The number of traders varies according to the season, but normally you expect to find 100 stalls packing this square, selling all the produce that the region is famous for, like honey, olive oil and herbs.
But naturally you can buy everyday ingredients such as bread, cheese, charcuterie, meat, vegetables and fruit, along with artisan arts and crafts, clothes and kitchen utensils.
9. Chapelle Saint-Hermentaire
A couple of kilometres south of the centre is a location that has a lot to do with Draguignan’s origin story.
According to legend, this is where St Hermentaire killed the dragon that had been terrorising the Carolingian community in the dark ages.
The small church that stands here now has existed in one form or another since the 6th century, while the present architecture is from around the 1000s.
It was all built on top of a Gallo-Roman villa and bath that would have stood here from the 1st century BC to the 200s.
10. Malmont Table d’Orientation
Malmont is a limestone peak cresting at 551 metres, eight kilometres north of Draguignan.
It’s in the Pyrénéo-Provençale chain, and is a natural balcony with stupendous views that stretch to all corners of the region.
There’s so much to see from the top that you have an orientation table marking all of the landmarks, both natural and man-made, that are visible on a clear day.
The list is too long to write here, but includes Mont Coudon, the peak that looms behind the harbour at Toulon, and Mont Vinaigre, in the Esterel range just west of Cannes.
On the way to the Gorges du Verdon, Tourtour is one of France’s “most beautiful villages” and has been dubbed “Village dans le Ciel” (Village in the Sky). It is set on the top of the aptly-named Beau Soleil hill, and you’ll step into Tourtour through a gateway that was originally in the village’s defensive walls.
From there you have a small knot of old streets to amble, passing under vaulted passageways and guiding you to rustic old buildings like the clock-tower, olive press and circular towers of fortresses.
But the best bit has to be the esplanade leading up to the Church of Saint-Denis, where the panoramas are sensational and you’ll understand how Tourtour got its nickname.
A picturesque half-hour road trip to the northeast will bring you to the large village of Seillans, also counted among the prettiest in France.
The centre is implausibly beautiful, and is crammed onto a steep hilltop, so compact and vertiginous that you can only see it on foot.
Meanwhile the surrounding landscape is classic Provence, with cypress trees, craggy outcrops and hills decked with vineyards and pine forest.
You can visit the home of the artist Max Ernst, who retired here in the 1960s and there’s a 13th-century castle and church at the top of the village.
13. Abbaye du Thoronet
This wonderful former Cistercian monastery was constructed on the cusp of the 13th century and with so many of its buildings still standing gives an unrivalled look into the life of a medieval monk.
This was an existence of sparseness and discipline, which is epitomised by the perfect acoustics that required monks to chant in supreme synchronicity.
Be sure to arrive at a quiet time of the day to be able to experience those stunning acoustics in the church.
Or even better, try and get seats for a monastic choral performance in the summer.
14. Gorges du Verdon
Allow around 45 minutes to reach this mind-blowing river canyon, which is the deepest in France and worth every minute of the winding drive on a road etched into the side of cliffs hundreds of metres high.
The scenery that will greet you on the Verdon River is almost overwhelming, and there are several ways of getting the best out of this gorge: You can stay in the car on the D71 or the D952, hike along trails where every few steps there’s a view that you’ll have to photograph, or navigate the dreamlike turquoise waters of the river on a raft, kayak or canoe.
15. Provence Specialities
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in the Provence lifestyle than by tracking down the places that produce the region’s wine, cheese, honey and olive oil.
You have a mountain of wine domains in a radius of a few kilometres on La Route des Vins de Provence.
If you’re curious about the sublime honey, there’s the Miellerie Mandard, which has 600 hives and will introduce you to the bee-keeper in on a farm swaddled in lavender fields.
Le Moulin de Callas on the other hand has been making Provence’s AOC olive oil for four generations, growing nine varieties of olive for its blended oil.