At the foot of the Massif de l'Estérel, Fréjus is a pretty little medieval city and a popular seaside resort even though it is set back a bit from the Mediterranean. A close neighbour of Saint-Raphaël, the two towns form practically one and share their beaches. To relax, the old centre has its share of cafés, restaurants and pretty little shops with pastel-coloured façades.
The origins of Fréjus date back already to the pre-Roman era. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar founded here a city that became an important trade and military port. But over the course of the centuries, the unfortunate market town experienced many ordeals. Attacked and pillaged by the Saracens, swallowed up by the sands of the lagoon, set on fire by the Barbary pirates, pillaged again by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, today it is drowning in urbanization and overrun by summer vacationers.
But in spite of all that, the city has managed to preserve its colourful old houses and a prestigious heritage tucked away in the jumble of modernity.
This heritage includes some of the oldest Roman and medieval sights in all of France. Forget about the beaches for a moment, Fréjus is worth a quick tour.
The city of Fréjus and the Esterel Massif
The Cathedral of Fréjus
The Cloisters in the Cathedral of Fréjus
The bishops' palace of Fréjus
The Mons Aqueduct
The Orée Gate in Fréjus
The arenas of Frejus
Villa Aurélienne in Fréjus
Frescoes by Cocteau - Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem Chapel
Hermes Fountain in Fréjus
Malpasset and its breached dam
We can find many ruins from the time of Augustus and Caesar: an arena, aqueduct, citadel, defensive walls, gates, ramparts and towers. Amongst the most notable is the Roman aqueduct that runs along Avenue du Quinzième Corps (in the Aurélien Park) and the N7 between Ave des Aqueducs and the D437. It supplied the town with water from Mons and Montaroux. Although far from being the Pont du Gard aqueduct, its high pillars are still quite impressive.
The amphitheatre or arena of Fréjus was built in the 1st century. It measures 113 metres by 85 metres and can hold from 10 to 12,000 spectators. Gladiator fights have today given way to bullfights and rock concerts.
The Lantern of Augustus is on the port which, due to the advancing shoreline, is now more than a kilometre from the coast. A 10-meter high tower topped by a pyramid, it was less a lighthouse, despite its name, than a daymark.
But the highlight of a tour of Fréjus is the baptistry. Dating from the 5th century, it is probably the oldest in France. A beautiful example of Merovingian architecture, it is composed of an octagonal hall with eight columns topped by white marble Roman capitals that support the cupola. Excavations uncovered a lower floor of white marble slabs, the mosaics in the niches, the baptismal pool and the octagonal upper floor with eight windows.
The cathedral in which you find the baptistry is just as interesting. It is actually a religious complex that includes the Saint-Léonce church, the canonical buildings, the bishops' palace and the pretty cloisters with a 14th century painted ceiling composed of three hundred panels depicting scenes from daily life and an amazing fantastical bestiary.
But other religions have not been ignored. A bit to the north of Fréjus, the Missiri mosque has brought Africa into the midst of the holm oaks and parasol pines. It is the exact reproduction of the famous Great Mosque of Djenné. Just as unexpected, to the northeast of the town you will find a Buddhist pagoda built during WWI. Watch out for the dragons in flaming colours!
In the area around Frejus, the Massif d'Estérel and its magnificent coast road lead you into landscapes that are as sublime as they are stunning.