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Visiting the scenic Var river at Nice and Saint-Laurent-du-Var, France: for which the Var department is oddly named

Updated on January 2, 2014
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Var Valley at Nice
Var Valley at Nice | Source
Napoleon III of France
Napoleon III of France | Source
Georges Clemenceau
Georges Clemenceau | Source
Map location of Nice, France
Map location of Nice, France | Source

Recalling an unusual administrative change

The name of Var department of southern France evokes many historical and geographical images. Named for the Var river, it seemingly exemplifies the wish of administrators and cartographers, at the time of the French Revolution, for the new deparmental boundaries to reflect natural phenomena and boundaries. Thus, the Var river, which reaches the Mediterranean (French: Méditerranée ) near the city of Nice, offered a highly visible, natural boundary with which to name the new Var department. The very name of the department, as also reflecting a parliamentary constituency, has long entered French consciousness as a place with which prominent historical figures have been associated. Indeed, the great French statesman, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1928), one of these larger-than-life historical personalities, represented the Var department in the French National Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale ).

However, the odd fact remains that the Var river, for which the Var department is named, is situated today nowhere near the borders of 'its' department.

For this geographical and historical quirk, cartographers have the Empire of Napoleon III to thank. In 1860, Nice became a French possession (1). At about the same time, the territory of the Principality of Monaco shrank to one twentieth of its former size. This left Emperor Napoleon III's government with a dilemma: what to call this newly acquired French territory? It was felt that this territory, though substantial, was not quite big 'enough' to justify making a new department from it alone. It was therefore decided to take from the neighbouring Var department a portion of its territory and join it to the newly acquired lands around Nice and Monaco: this new department was named Alpes-Maritimes. (Evidently, the Alps, as they sweep down to the Mediterranean, were regarded as a more 'obvious' geographical feature for which to name the new department than was the Var river, which in any case already had 'its' own department, thenceforth to be at a distance from 'its' toponymic 'home'.)

Bridges at the Var river link the neighbouring cities of Nice and Saint-Laurent-sur-Var: the latter locality being another toponymic anomaly, given its proximity to the river to which its name refers and its distance from the Var department.

At Nice and Saint-Laurent-du-Var, shortly before it reaches the Mediterranean, the Var river is relatively shallow in comparison with its wide river bed, and is sometimes subject to silting. Thus, its potential navigability is greatly diminished. Given the evident size of the river bed — not always matched by a proportionate volume of water — it is in any case easy to see how the Var river appealed to Republican cartographers at the time of the French Revolution as an apparently natural boundary for which to name one of France's newly created departments.

February 1, 2013


(1) Interestingly, Nice was the birthplace of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi (before the city was incorporated into France). When Nice was ceded to France, the territory basically included the old County of Nice as well as the city itself.

Also worth seeing

In Nice itself, among the many visitor attractions are the well-known Promenade anglaise on NIce Bay (French: Baie de Nice); the old city (French: Vieux-Nice) has many fine buildings, including Sainte-Réparate Cathedral; the 11th - 18th century château de Nice , overlooks the city, recalling the ancient County of Nice (French: Comté de Nice); and many others.

In Saint-Laurent-du-Var itself, the City Hall (French: Hôtel de Ville) is a large, impressive, neo-Classical structure; there is some noted ecclesiastical architecture and a well-appointed marina.


How to get there: Delta Airlines flies direct from New York to Nice, France (Aéroport Nice Côte d'Azur ), where car rental is available. There are regular bus links from Nice airport to Downtown Nice and Nice-Ville railroad station and to Saint-Laurent-du-Var . Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. For border crossing arrangements which may apply to travellers of certain nationalities, please consult the appropriate consular sources.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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