Porquerolles – the largest of the three Iles d’Hyères just off the coast in southern France – is what the Mediterranean would look like if it had never been touched by modern civilization.
It says a lot, I think, that this highlights not so much what Porquerolles has been missing out on but much rather the blight that affects the rest of the Mediterranean.
Now don’t get me wrong: I do believe that country towns and villages not only complement views but also enrich our overall experience of nature, around the Mediterranean and elsewhere.
Suburban sprawl, however, is a different matter altogether. The problem, in other words, is not civilization as such but civilization in the wrong place. France provides many of the worst examples for that, due to her government’s system of paying country town mayors according to the size of their community’s population which creates all the wrong incentives.
Certain places in southern France offer splendid views of lush green hills and distant, forbidding mountains, while the sprawling pockets of human habitation all over them look suspiciously like an infestation.
I have bad news for you, Maritime Alps of the Mediterranean, you are suffering from a severe case of Human Spillover. Bacterias R Us.
That Porquerolles was spared all this largely comes down to the efforts of one guy: Francois Joseph Fournier, who had left his native Belgium as a young man to find adventure, gold and silver in Mexico. When he came back to Europe in his fifties, he had become rich beyond his wildest dreams.
In 1912 he visited Porquerolles with his young fiancée, and when she marveled at the natural beauty on display, he bought the entire place – all 12 sq. km of it – and presented it to her as a wedding gift. (In 1971, most of the island – around 80 % of it – was bought by the French government and turned into a National Park.)
Fortunately, the Fourniers were not interested in attracting tourists or light industry. They were, however, great lovers of wine and established Porquerolles as one of the area’s major producers of quality rosés, …
… also discovering that vineyards contributed to solving one of the island’s major problems, the preponderance of seasonal forest fires: vines, they found, can double up as highly effective fire barriers.
You would want to go hiking or biking in Porquerolles
Porquerolles is a place without real roads or car traffic. The bicycle is the main means of transport, at least for the visitors (there are many cycle hires in the island’s harbour village).
But Porquerolles is equally perfect for hiking. The dense network of intersecting paths makes it easy to devise your own hiking route. You must know when to stop, however, and when to turn around: there is no bus to take you back from your destination. And remember that, wherever you go, you must always return to the village where the boat landed you from the mainland and from where you shall have to return.
The main paths on Porquerolles are dirt tracks, often a little off the coast and big enough for the cycling groups as well as the few cars which are allowed on the island.
Often, however, it is more scenic and more exciting to walk by the beach.
Just follow one of the regularly spaced “acces plage” signs that veer away from the main path, and, when the going on the beach is getting a bit too tough for your taste, return to the main path by following one of the signs towards the “conteneurs de dechets”. This may not sound like a promising destination, but these large “trash bins” (mainly there to serve the summer guests at the beach) all stand near the main path because they need to provide easy access for the bin collectors.
The main orientation points of the island are the old fortresses that were built by the Knights Templar to defend the sea route to Hyeres, their regional stronghold throughout the Middle Ages. The forts were extended over the centuries, but eventually fell into neglect and today consist largely of ruins.
You should see at least one of them, but, better still, string several of them together for a hike, starting – for example – by walking off to your left at the harbour towards the Fort de l’Alycastre …
… and continuing in the direction of the Fort de la Repentance, which was used for military purposes as recently as WWII. This fort is mainly worth visiting for the great views it offers towards the Cap des Mèdes, the northernmost point of the island.
Then turn back towards Fort Agathe ..
… which perches on a steep hill on top of the central village. If you leave that one for last, be prepared for a bit of a physical challenge: it’s all the way up, but well worth it, and you will not be sorry that you went.
The only way to get to Porquerolles is by boat. Ferries from Toulon – the nearest “big” town – circulate only during the high season, but boats from Hyères leave several times a day all through the year.
Take bus no. 67 from Hyères town centre to La Fondue, the very foot of the Giens peninsula from where the ferries leave. Schedules of buses and ferries are normally synchronized, so you can expect to jump off straight from one into the other. The boat transfer costs just under € 20 p.p. roundtrip. Tickets can be bought at a counter in the ferryport.