The Lou Messugo Blog - life in the south of France from a British/Australian TCK's perspective, bringing you French culture, travel on the Côte d'Azur and beyond, expat issues and a little bit of je ne sais quoi all mixed up with a hefty dose of photography.
Until recently I had only been to Fréjus to go to the beach (long, sandy and often windy – good for kite flying). Once we briefly stopped off on the way home to have a quick look at some of the Roman ruins but only very briefly and about 7 years ago. So when my parents, visiting from England, suggested a daytrip with the cathedral in mind I thought why not? It was about time I had a better look at this nearby, relatively unknown, ancient town.
Fréjus has a long history, going back to Roman times when Julius Caesar established a naval base there. Such was its importance that the population of the town was greater in the 1st century BC than it is now. However the original port has long since silted up and the Roman remains have fallen into a fairly poor state of disrepair (and insensitive renovation, more on this later). Nowadays, I discovered, it’s the lovely medieval centre of Fréjus which is the main drawcard over the classical remnants.
We headed straight to the very pretty Place Camille Formigé, a couple of kilometres inland from the modern marina. Pastel coloured, shuttered townhouses line two sides of the market square while the elegant orange facade of the Hôtel de Ville and striking Cité Episcopale, or cathedral close, line the others. Perfectly round little olive trees in containers, large plane trees just breaking into bud and several charming-looking cafés complete the idyllic Provençal scene. First on our itinerary, and the main aim of our visit, was to visit the beautiful cathedral close which consists of the cathedral St Leonce, the baptistry, chapter house, cloisters, former bishop’s palace (now the Hôtel de Ville) and an archeological museum.
The baptistry dates from the 5th century, built just as Roman power was declining. It is one of the oldest and best preserved examples of early Christian architecture in France. It features an unusual domed octagonal structure and octagonal baptismal basin which was only rediscovered in the 1920s having been built over in the 13th century. Unfortunately we could only take a little peak as visits are by guided tour only and the timings didn’t suit us.
We did however get to see inside and explore the 13th century cloisters which feature a unique painted wooden ceiling. The carved stone cloisters surround a small garden with a rain water well and have two arched entrances into what were once two different churches. Unusually there is an upper floor above the galleries which was added in the 14th century and it was because of this that a wooden ceiling was installed and decorated with a series of individual pictures.
Of the 1200 original pictures 400 remain depicting an amazing bestiary of fantastical creatures, religious images and scenes of medieval daily life. Crazy beasts with multiple heads, satyrs, monsters, mermaids, dragons and other mythical creatures are all intricately painted on a block each. The imagination of the medieval artists and the insight these images offer into 14th century life is absolutely delightful and totally engaging.
(above 2 images taken from postcards)
After visiting the main part of the cathedral itself we decided to take a quick look at the Roman amphitheatre, despite some truly terrible TripAdvisor reviews. I had been there before and remembered it as run down and shabby but authentic in a certain way. It was built in the 1st century and seats about 10,000 spectators. Nowadays it is used for the occasional bull fight and rock concert.
The shocking thing is its recent renovation. I don't think I've ever seen a less sympathetic restoration of a historical sight. It looks like it's still under construction with corrugated iron roofs and blocks of concrete dumped in an appallingly brutal fashion. I don't know how it passed the strict criteria normally enforced by the Architectes des bâtiments de France and the historic monuments standards. This is a very recent renovation so many guide books and reviews on line are out of date and unaware of the changes. You have been warned!
We were too late to go inside but could see enough from the fence to know we weren't missing much. What we did like though was the park area surrounding the arena. As part of the regeneration of Fréjus a few years ago the town invested in a memorial to the most terrible tragedy to befall the town.
In 1959 the Malpasset dam, 7 kms north of Fréjus, collapsed flooding the town within minutes, killing 423 people. The memorial consists of a series of plinths movingly inscribed with the names of all the victims along with several blocks of the original dam and a striking scupture, all shaded by majestic umbrella pines. The backdrop of the Roman amphitheatre adds drama, it's just such a pity the metal roof and concrete walls can be seen.
Fréjus is located in the Var department on the coast between St Raphaël and St Tropez. It is about a 45 minute drive from Lou Messugo (on the motorway). We drove back via the gorgeous red rocks of the Estérel, double the time but stunningly beautiful, making a perfect day trip combining historical culture and spectacular coastal scenery.
Have you been to Fréjus? Do you like visiting historical sites?
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It is always great to visit beautiful places with such rich history. Really too bad about the amphitheater though. #citytripping
I have been to Fréjus, but a very long time ago so I loved reading about your trip here. You've made me want to visit the town for the paintings in the cloisters and that lovely-looking Provencal square. #citytripping
a great place! I've slept in Frejus but was too tired to explore the city. I went down to beach and St.Rapahel. #city tripping
The coastal drive looks gorgeous. I'm off to check out Trip Advisor reviews of the amphitheatre now :-) #citytripping
Thanks for taking us on a tour of Frejus Phoebe - looks like a really interesting historical place...just a shame about the amphitheatre 'restoration' not sure what they were thinking there! Thanks for linking to #citytripping
What a lovely town to wander around - I really enjoy places where you can see all the different layers of history. But oh that renovation is hideous! I am astonished anyone gave that the OK. Definitely better to stick to the rest of Frejus, I think... #citytripping
Wow the amphitheatre "restoration" is shocking. What a shame as the town itself looks lovely and well worth a visit #citytripping
stunning photos would make me want to visit if i wasn't so far away
One day you must come over this way, take a break for Dubai.
Fréjus looks lovely and a great way to spend the day. Love towns like these with historical sites and of course, beautiful cathedrals. Thank you for a lovely virtual tour. Those ocean views and red rocks are stunning!
The red rocks are even better in reality, my photos don't do them justice Mary
Lovely to see your comment on my pizza post! Thank you.
Have enjoyed having a little look around your blog. Frejus looks beautiful....but that amphitheatre renovation!?!
I know! What the....?
The coastal scenery is truly beautiful!
The art work is rather bizarre but it certainly gives you something to think about x
The coast is spectacular and my photos only hint at it. You need to be there to truly appreciate it.
such a shame it has not be sympathetically restored. The coastline looks stunning though
Yes indeed it is a terrible shame.
What a lovely place this looks! Your photos are stunning x
Thanks Ickle Pickle
What a beautiful town! I love the look of the baptistry and the painted ceiling in the cloisters. Thanks for sharing!
It's a very ususual baptistry, and really worth a visit.
The place looks beautiful, I love all your photos.
What a beautiful place, i love the images just so stunning to think they have been around that long x
It's amazing really isn't it?
what a lovely looking place to visit i cant wait to travel
You must put it on your list Lisa.
Fréjus looks absolutely fantastic, I love exploring towns like this. Stunning photographs too, just beautiful. Sounds like the most wonderful place to visit.
Thanks Charly, it certainly is a lovely place to visit.
Like wow oh wow how stunning this place is!
I like your enthusiasm Hannah!
It looks lovely there. What a shame about the Roman amphitheatre restoration , it looks dreadful.
incredible really, you do wonder who authorised such a monstrosity.
Wow, it looks really interesting. Beautiful pictures, really stunning x
I love exploring the history of places we visit and this town looks like it has bucket-loads!
The medieval pictures are stunning.
I'm glad you enjoyed them Liz. Fréjus certainly has its fair share of history for such a relatively small place.
Aww looks lovely that sea beautiful
It certainly is beautiful, the coast near Fréjus is quite stunning.
It looks like such a beautiful place! Just makes me want to book a holiday more !
We still have some dates available at Lou Messugo....get booking Laura!
Wow, wow and wow. I love the medieval imagery, just amazing. It looks like a real gem of a place
Love your enthusiasm Jen!
Phoebe, Frejus looks like a wonderful little French town. I'd never heard of it before, but it just goes to show you how much there always is to do in France! Love it. Thanks for linking up with #wkendtravelinspiration!
You're right Corinne, there's sooooo much to do and see here. When are you coming back? You need to base yourself at Lou Messugo and go exploring!
I am rather speechless over the "improvements" made to the amphitheatre. I wonder if the townspeople approve of it or not. The painted ceiling of the cloisters is fascinating. I think I could stare at it for hours.
It's amazing how little I could find out about the renovations. I don't know what the locals think, but visitors on TripAdvisor are vociferous in their disgust!
Frejus was lovely. Not only were the people very friendly in the cloisters but the shop was pure temptation. A must visit from lou messugo
You managed to do some retail therapy Catherine! It was a lovely shop, full of good taste not tat.
I've never been to Fréjus, so I enjoyed the visit. I like visiting historical sites, but am more of a museum person if I have to make a choice.
That renovation is truly dreadful. I also wonder how it passed the stringent French standards for that sort of thing!
It's a real shocker isn't it Betty? I have no idea how it got passed.
It was certainly a great and very pleasurable surprise - a proper Provencal town, with a wonderful (very small, by English or northern French standards) cathedral, and hardly any seaside bling or tat.
You're right, we only saw one souvenir shop. Perhaps there are more on the marina? Certainly not around the cathedral close.