When you organize a house-sitting assignment in France, you are excited.
But when the housesit is in the spectacular region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, you know there will be days out exploring.
Provence, in southeastern France, encompasses an area of mountains, gorges, vineyards and olive groves down to the Mediterranean Sea.
People will associate the region with the lavender fields of Aix en Provence and the Côte d’Azur of Nice, and the popular Saint-Tropez.
The capital of the region Provence is Marseille, a city often overlooked by travellers; it is a city of diverse culture and history.
So, with a 3-week housesitting assignment for Christmas and New Year, these are the wonderful villages we explored.
But first, we had to get to France.
Milan to Nice by Oui Bus is easy.
We left the cold city of Milan in fog on the 8 am Oui Bus to Nice, a six-hour journey for only €14 each. The road trip would take us via Genoa, through innumerable tunnels and over high bridges in the mountainous countryside of Italy.
Crossing the border into France, the fog started to lift with views of the beautiful coastline and snow-capped mountains.
The picturesque seaside towns bathed in sunlight make it easy to see why so many people choose to live here.
Arriving in Nice, we took a local bus along the seaside promenade to the train station. With the temperature now 14 degrees Celcius, we could discard some layers.
Grabbing a coffee and croissant, we found the TGV platform and sat back for the hour train journey to Les Arcs.
The beautiful views of the sun setting on the Mediterranean Sea were spectacular.
At the medieval village of Les Arcs, we met Yvonne, our homeowner of Bryn (border collie) and Maggie (tiny “princess” cat).
Squeezing into the two-door sporty Peugeot for the 30-minute car ride to Callas.
Christmas House Sitting in Callas: a village of Provence
Callas is a medieval village of about 1,600 people built on the side of a hill in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France.
With a local bakery, small supermarket, cafe, three restaurants, and a garage, the village is self-contained for locals and its popular summer influx.
The village is surrounded by vineyards (rosé wine), olive groves and the nearby Gorges de Pennafort.
So our early morning walks with Bryn gave us views over the valley shrouded in the morning mist. Our afternoon walk went through the olive groves still being harvested and pruned, giving a real feel of local French life.
In the village is a communal village press for the local olives crops. But the pruning and burning of olive branches caused a lot of smoke around the village.
Even though it’s winter, the milder temperature makes it feel more like autumn. Even the trees are glowing with colour.
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Dinner in a Cave
In the evening, dinner was at one of the local French restaurants resembling a cave. The back wall of the restaurant was solid rock.
A great evening for us all.
The following morning we drove our lovely homeowner to Nice airport. We now had the car to explore the villages and cities of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
Villages of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Before cars, it took hours to walk to nearby villages in the old days. But villages can be a 10-minute drive or an hour by car.
If your housesit doesn’t have a car available, you can look for deals with Europcar.
Around Callas, we could explore the villages of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
Near Callas is another medieval town nestled in the hills with views of the surrounding area. And the beautiful mulberry trees lining the street.
The village still has sections of the old stone village wall with gates and towers. But the streets are very narrow for navigating a car, so it is better explored on foot.
Known as the “village in the sky”, Tourtour has spectacular views of Provence, from the town of Fréjus to Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
The large square has restaurants, cafes, and narrow streets with artisan galleries.
Along the Chateaudouble Gorge in the village of the same name, accessible via a tunnel through the rock.
A very quiet place with the winter sun streaming into the village with views across the gorge.
Draguignan is a large market town with Celtic and Roman origins. The name Draguignan is derived from the stories of dragon slaying.
Driving to Hillside Villages of Provence
Grasse is a place of history for perfumes in the world.
It’s an hour’s drive from Callas, winding up and around “hairpin” bends where French drivers appear on your side of the road. Yikes! It felt like we were driving tight, narrow corners in a Bond movie.
The road trip to Grasse takes you past some amazing perched villages capturing the all-day sun:
We also learned the road passing through Grasse forms part of the route Napolean chose on his retreat from the Elba.
The perched village of Speracedes
Wanting a panorama view of the French Riveria, we turn off and head up to Cabris via Speracedes.
Unfortunately, MapsMe decides to guide us up the one-lane residential roads.
Going up, up, up with Maura praying no car or truck will be coming the other way, we finally make it to the top of Speracedes.
Terry is rewarded with the view for photos while Maura recovers.
Views of the French Riveria from Cabris
Again we are driving up the narrow residential roads.
This time we meet an SUV, so it’s us reversing back down the road to find a small patch of grass to let the SUV pass.
Finally, at the top, we walk to the remains of the old castle with a great vantage point to see Grasse below and the sea in the distance.
An amazing panorama, even with the burning fires of autumn leaves and olive pruning.
The village of Cabris is very quaint, with the streets easily navigable, with us finding small chapels in amongst the houses.
Enjoying the Aromas of Grasse
The drive down into Grasse’s old town centre took 10mins.
The old town square overlooking the Riveria was busy with the Christmas market. There was a carousel and ice rink for the children and Santa Claus with a large basket of gifts for the children.
We stopped at the Parfumerie Fragonard Museum (free entry) to learn the history of fragrances. It is fascinating to see all the ingredients used to create fragrances.
A walk down through the narrow streets of the old medieval town led us to Guy Bouchara – Artisans Parfumeurs, creators of perfume. The boutique shop was warm, and the fragrances inviting.
Guy spent time with us explaining the different scents, asking for our preferences and offering samples for us to smell and try. With Christmas two days away, we chose a scent for our presents.
Two for One Village of Tourrettes
On another day, we explore the hillside villages only a half-hour drive from Callas, Tourrettes and Fayence.
The village of Tourrettes (no, not the disability that’s Dr Tourette) was unique with the artwork of paintings and sculptures throughout the maze of alleyways and streets in this ancient village.
The wall paintings were often done on a variety of surfaces, at times giving a 3-D effect with the texture.
And for views of the valley, we walked to the Chateau du Puy (built in the 1830s). This is the former residence of Napolean’s General Fabre, who also served under Russia’s Alexander I.
Find 18th Century Views of Fayence
Only a 600-meter walk from Tourrettes is the village of Fayence, with views across the valley to Esterel and Les Maures.
We climbed the hill of the old Chateau (destroyed in the 18th century) up at the Clock Tower viewpoint. Using the “tablet of orientation” made of tiles made it easy to pick out points of interest. One is the airstrip, now used for gliding but was an airbase in WWII.
We found the old medieval gate, a few local shops, and restaurants on the other side of the village.
Crossing over the Viaduct du Rayol
When researching the local area, we found an article about the Viaduct du Rayol. An old railway line and viaduct across the valley of St Pierre is now a road for vehicles.
When enquiring at the Fayence tourist office, the lady was surprised to learn of it. She pointed us in the general direction, so finding the French translation, we located the bridge.
Getting from Fayence to Viaduct du Rayol
Leaving Fayence heading toward Seillans, turning off just before the village onto the D53. Travel a few kilometres before exiting the road.
We knew we were on the right road as we were now travelling the old railway track – very narrow with high banks on either side.
Praying once again for no oncoming traffic, a kilometre or two down the road, we found the viaduct intact and our bridge to the other side.
Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas
Experiencing Christmas in another country, another continent, another season and a new culture has been magical.
The Christmas markets of Bavaria set the “tone” for the festive season this year and arriving in a small French village for Christmas and New Year has given us a new and wonderful experience.
French villages have their own mayor responsible for the upkeep of the village. The streets in Callas were decorated with festive lights, a Christmas tree in the small market square and local residents decorating their houses with tinsel and wreaths.
The Saturday Market on our first weekend in the village was transformed into a small Christmas market with stalls of wonderful homemade nougat, the cooking of crepes, Christmas chocolates, decorations, and gift ideas.
Christmas music is playing, and locals enjoying a drink or coffee at the local cafe/bar. We even saw “two turtle doves” in the tree above, keeping clear of the many cats in the village. And the local church had a Christmas concert of music and carols.
Christmas Eve in Callas village
Luckily for us, in the week leading up to Christmas, the temperature climbed back up from single digits to 14 degrees, with one day to 20 degrees.
The bells in the village ring each hour from 8 am each day, but on Christmas Eve, there is a buzz in the village as people gather in the local cafe/restaurant for morning coffee and shop at the small market.
At the bakery, we purchased some croissants for breakfast and a loaf of Christmas fig bread and olive bread. And a flower centrepiece for the Christmas tables, a popular item at the morning market.
Christmas Eve is the main event in the village, with an early midnight mass at 8.30 pm, the evening meal, and gift-giving.
We made the most of our roast duck with trimmings, a lovely locally inspired nut tart with local white wine. And as it was already Christmas Day back home in New Zealand, we Skyped our sons and family.
Christmas Day in Callas village
On Christmas Day, the village was very quiet as we walked Bryn. With turkey on the menu tonight, we made another local dessert, a variety of bread and butter pudding.
Fig bread is soaked with rum, local red wine, slices of apple and a few dobs of butter added, homemade custard and spices and then baked and served with cream. Delicious.
The season of Sanglier
Boxing Day (St Stephen’s Day) was a normal day in the village, so croissants from the bakery – yay.
On our morning walk with Bryn, the wild pigs had dug up the earth along the path near the old olive press. We heard gunshots from the tree line on the hill to our right as the local men in orange vests hunted wild boar with their dogs.
The season is known as Sanglier. And maybe, pig on a spit tonight for these hunters.
Bonne Annee – Happy New Year
New Year’s Day and the village are very quiet after an explosion of fireworks last night. With the local bar/cafe and all restaurants closed for New Year’s Eve, the villagers made their own fun.
We decided to explore more of the French Riveria and went to Frejus and St Raphael, 45mins from Callas, for New Year’s Day lunch.
Out for Lunch on the French Riveria
The towns of Frejus and St Raphael are only 4kms apart.
Frejus was a strategic inland port for the Romans dating back to 22 BC and was used as a naval base for the Gaul army. The old town was a market town for agriculture and fishing contained within the old town wall.
Near the old town, we found a Roman amphitheatre currently being refurbished for entertainment events.
But sadly, it is here we found the 1959 Malpasset Dam Memorial. When the dam broke, causing a flash flood, 426 lives were leaving 89 orphans.
At St Raphael, we spent our time walking the popular beach promenade with a small pop-up Christmas market. The sandy white beaches and Marina looked spectacular in the midday sun.
St Raphael dates back to the 11th Century with a history of the Knights Templars protecting pilgrims travelling during the Holy Crusades to Jerusalem. It was also here Napoleon landed on his return from Egypt.
The Basilica of Notre Dame dome stood out on our walk. Inside, we found an animated nativity scene, including locally dressed figurines called Santons.
Christmas Housesitting: Villages of Provence
We really enjoyed our housesit in Callas, especially the morning and afternoon walk with Bryn exploring the countryside and villages.
The mild winter temperatures here in Provence made it an ideal place to stay for a house-sitting assignment.
Our favourite house-sitting website is Trusted Housesitters, which has English-speaking homeowners predominately.
When you desire to live like a local, even for three weeks, taking housesitting assignments in small villages of Provence is ideal.
You are challenged with the language, you can delight in village life, and you have the opportunity to explore.
House sitting is the perfect solution to a travel lifestyle, and for us, it has become our best slow travel option.
When you want to experience the best of France, house sitting is a travel lifestyle to explore.