le castellet rempartsSet in lovely countryside near Toulon, Le Castellet is a well-preserved mediaeval village with modern sophistication (the Paul Ricard motor racing track, an airport, a five-star hotel).

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Le Castellet is very well set up for coach excursions with plenty of parking and gets taken by storm in summer by cruise visitors and day trippers from the coast.

Its destination status was confirmed in 2015, when it was awarded its first star in the green Michelin tourist guide. But it's also a favourite lunch or weekend outing for locals throughout the year.

The commune of Le Castellet actually consists of a cluster of four villages. Boasting confusingly similar names such as Le Plan du Castellet and Sainte Anne du Castellet, they're scattered over quite a wide area.

The three satellite villages are on the plain, but the one you want to head for is Le Castellet-Village itself up on the hill.

It overlooks the craggy Sainte Baume mountain ridge to the north and the almost as popular nearby village of La Cadière d'Azur perched on another hill to the south-east. Vineyards producing fine Bandol AOC wines are all around.

le castellet châteauAs its name suggests, Le Castellet started out as a stronghold, which you enter through one of two fortified gates. Sections of the old ramparts, pictured top left, jostle for position with more recent houses and shops.

The village's commanding position made it a magnet for settlers since the Romans, who lost no time in planting olive trees and vines. But Le Castellet rose to real power in the Middle Ages.

The Église de la Transfiguration du Sauveur, its mighty church, is a virtual fortress in its own right, with its exposed stones and almost window-less interior. It was built at the end of the eleventh century (and enlarged in the mid 18th century).

In the 14th-15th centuries the church was joined by Le Castellet's other main historic building, an equally hulking Château, pictured, with two wings which dominates the top of the village and the place du Champ de Bataille (Battlefield Square). It now houses the Mairie (Town Hall) and can't be visited.

But you can see, just to the left of the Château, the racily named Trou de Madame (Madam's Hole), pictured. It was probably converted from a postern (a concealed entrance to the fortified village) and was used by ladies to look out for their returning husbands.

Le Castellet isn't really about its historic sights, though. After a quick look inside the church, most visitors will just want to soak up the atmosphere, inspect the galleries and craft shops and stroll round the cobbled streets, squares and fountains (watch out for the 17th century communal oven, still on show in the shop at 3 rue du Jeu de Paume).

le castellet trou de madameThen, sooner or later it will be time to find a nice shady terrace for a drink or lunch.

There are several powerful attractions outside the village walls too. Oenophiles (that's you, wine-lovers!) can visit one of the numerous Bandol vineyards in the surrounding foothills.

If you don't have a car or time is limited, check out the Maison des Vins de Bandol (Bandol Wine House) a short walk from the centre of Le Castellet at 238 chemin de la Ferrage.

In summer it has tastings and sells wine too. Tel : +33 (0)4 94 90 29 59. Click here to read our full guide to the wines of Bandol, plus visits to two of its vineyards.

Cyclists can tour the lush rolling countryside: a map available at the Tourist Office proposes three circuits of varying length and difficulty.

Built by the eccentric pastis magnate Paul Ricard in the early 1960s, Le Castellet's own small private airport lies five km / three miles north of the village. From it various companies offer flying lessons or tourist flights in helicopters and fighter planes.

In 1969 Ricard gave Le Castellet another lavish asset: a world-class car and motorbike racetrack next to the airport. The Circuit Paul Ricard was quickly hailed as a state-of-the-art, outstandingly safe facility and invited to host the French Grand Prix.

The racetrack fell into decline after the Grand Prix moved in 1990 to Magny Cours in Central France. But its fortunes revived when both it and the airport were bought by the Formula One promoter Bernie Ecclestone in 1999.

A massive, 80 million €uro investment programme renovated the distinctive brightly-coloured racetrack, pictured. It has given the historic Circuit a new lease of life.

le castellet circuit paul ricardSince 2015 the legendary Bol d'Or 24 hour motorcycle race has returned to the Circuit Paul Ricard after a 15 year absence. Over 75,000 people attend what is also a fun family event.

And it gets even better: from 2018 the Formula One race itself returns to Le Castellet for an initial period of five years. The likely date is towards the end of August or beginning of September and a weekend ticket should cost in the region of 150 €uros.

This will be the first time France has hosted the competition in a decade (the last one was held in Magny Cours in central France in 2008) and it's expected that the F1 wil be a major tourist draw in the region.

Apart from these the Circuit Paul Ricard stages a year-round programme. And,if there's nothing on when you visit, you can still take a guided tour in a minibus around the racetrack, paddocks, pits and media centre.

In 2015 Xtrem Park, a centre dedicated to extreme sports, opened at the Circuit. It enables you to soar above the racetrack on a tyrolienne (zip line), drive round it in a minibus, chug around it on a Segway or zoom around on a motorbike or in a go-kart, Ferrari or even an F1 single-seater.

Alternatively you can go bungee or free jumping (the latter is without a cord, on to a giant mattress), scale a climbing wall or explore the countryside on a quad bike. Back at the racetrack, two adventure trails are designed for smaller and older kids.

It's necessary to book a visit ahead and you're advised to budget carefully as the costs can quickly mount up. At the same time you should check on the Xtrem Park website for the current opening times as it's not open every day.

The Circuit Paul Ricard and Xtrem Park are about 12 km / 7.5 miles north of the village at 2760 route des Hauts du Camp, 83330 Le Castellet. The complex has a free car park and a panoramic restaurant overlooking the track, as well as snack bars and picnic areas.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Le Castellet Tourist Office (really just a tiny manned information point) is at the bottom of the village at 2 rue du Portail, 83330 Le Castellet. Tel. (+33) 4 94 32 79 13.

Like most provençal hill villages, the streets in Le Castellet are steep and cobbled, so come ready to climb a bit, and wear flat, comfortable shoes.

How to get to and from Le Castellet

By road: Le Castellet is close to exit 11 on the A50 motorway (though not as close as La Cadière d'Azur, where traffic noise is a bit of a nuisance on one side of the village). So it's very quick and easy to reach: 22 km / 13.5 miles from Toulon, 11 km / 7 miles from Bandol and 13 km / 8 miles from Sanary sur Mer.

Many cruise ships that stop in Toulon offer day trips by coach.

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By bus: Bus no.8001 runs between Le Beausset, Le Castellet, La Cadière d'Azur, Bandol, Saint Cyr sur Mer and La Ciotat. Bus no.8808 runs between Toulon, La Cadière d'Azur, Le Castellet and Signes.

These services are operated by a company called Varlib. Type in the number of your chosen route in the box marked "numéro ou nom de ligne" to view the current bus timetables.

By air: Le Castellet's own grandly named International Airport started life as a tiny air club and today is a private airfield for high-end tourism and business travel. Other than that the nearest airports are Toulon-Hyères (51 km / 31 miles) and Marseille-Provence (75 km / 46 miles).

On foot: The Grande Randonnée long-distance hiking path GR51 (known as Balcons de la Méditerranée) from Menton to Marseille goes near to (though not through) Le Castellet. The IGN 3245 is the best map. Click here to buy it.

Where to eat and drink: Le Castellet teems with good bars and restaurants.

Outside the village centre, near the airport and the Circuit Paul Ricard at the five-star Hotel du Castellet, Christophe Bacquié's MonteCristo restaurant has two Michelin stars. You can also sign up for a half-day cooking course with Chef Bacquié, followed by a meal or for a half-day wine-tasting course with his sommelier.

Photo credits (from top): © Remi Mathis for Wikimedia Commons (two images), Lilie&Mick for Wikimedia Commons, Circuit Paul Ricard.

 

 

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