Themed Walk: Historic Hyères
Minds much greater than my own have wrestled with this question without ever finding a conclusive answer:
Where does the Riviera start?
It does not take a great mind to see where it ends. Even I can see that it comes to a grinding halt at Cinque Terre, southeast of Genoa. As to its start on the French side, however, there are many different theories. Culturally, the Riviera’s heartpiece – Picasso, racing cars and Aristoteles Onassis – stretches between Cannes and Menton: sleepy Mandelieu, a mere 10 km to the west of Cannes, already lies in a different world.
Geographically, however, your first guess for a starting point would have to be Toulon – no matter how much you like to exclude Toulon on the basis of its obvious unsuitability (go there for a visit if you don’t want to take my word for it), it is difficult to exclude it if all you look at is the map.
But you can also make a case that the Riviera is, above all, a historical concept – and historically, it started at Hyères.
The history of the Riviera may have started at Hyères, but Hyères has surely not started with the invention of tourism. In this respect, Hyères is refeshingly different from most other towns along the coast where there is not much (save the odd church) left from the period between Roman ruins and Belle Epoque hotels.
Hyères has accommodated thriving communities for well over a thousand years – and the buildings to show for it.
The history of Hyères is literally one of downward descent. In fairness, there was no other way to go for the town since it was established on top of the hill that still overlooks it. Nothing but the castle is left of this “old old town” which was abandoned in the 13th or 14th century, when a “new old town” was built, largely from the left over rubble.
When the tourists came in the early 19th century, hotels, casinos and all the rest were constructed one floor further down but still well inland. Hyères was a winter resort and the early Victorians coming here were obviously no beach bunnies.
It was only after WWII that the town spread all the way to the seaside, but this is where much of its economy nowadays resides: few hotels as such, but much typical beach holiday infrastructure, surfboard rentals and restaurants, and above all a large number of hospitals, old folks homes and rehab centers that line the coast.
If you take your urban archaeology seriously, you should conduct your layer-by-layer exploration of this upside-down city (whose top floor was built first) by starting your history walk at the beach.
This is quite a long way from the most interesting parts of Hyères, however, which is why it is much more practical to begin at the Tourism Office in the Belle Epoque “New Town” (where they will also provide you with a very useful orientation map. Ask for the Plan Decouverte).
Walk towards the 13th century Eglise St Louis and through the ancient city gate to the Tours de Templiers …
… which was originally built by warrior monks in the 12th century.
A little further up, behind the 16th century Peñiscola …
… the late medieval Old Town ends, and you are entering the area where its predecessor once stood. The road may look as though it had not received a new surface in the centuries since …
… but most of the buildings that you will encounter are new, even if they may not look it.
The Porte des Princes, for example, …
… may seem medieval but is in fact what the English would call a folly (and dates from the 20th century).
Keep on climbing from here, past the last outskirts of town …
… until you reach the castle ruins.
It’s well worth going all the way up the tower, for the experience of exploring a slightly spooky place …
… but also for the splendid views, of course.
On your descent back to town, take the detour through St Bernard Park, a rare example for “Cubist landscaping” …
… and past the Villa Noailles, one of the modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens’s main works and in the 1920s a famous meeting point for artists and Europe’s bohemian bourgeoisie
Dali, Picasso, Bunuel, Giacometti – many famous folks came here to visit the wealthy owners (a pair of eccentric French aristocrats), and the surrealist Man Ray even made a short film about the building (called The Mysteries of the Cheateau of Dice).
After your return to town, you will still have plenty of time for a leisurely trip to the seaside.
Take bus no. 67 or 39 to Almanarre beach. This is where Hyères ended its long journey from the back country to the Mediterranean. In a way, this is is also where Hyères started more than 2000 years ago, in fact, when Greek migrants established a settlement called Olbia (which is reasonably well preserved and open for visits).
Since antiquity, the stretch of land left and right of the Giens peninsula ahead of you was used for salt production – right until 1995. So when Hyères finally stretched to the seaside after WWII, it also returned to its ancient roots, closing the circle of its history.
For a historically themed walk, this is the perfect way to end.