Posted on October 8, 2015
Porquerolles, part of the Iles d’Hyere in Provence is about the same size as Nantucket, but that’s where the similarity ends. In fact, while we were mountain biking all around the trails and roads here, there were a lot of things that I wish someone could do to make our New England island a little more like this one here in the south of France.
There is the same familiar ferry boat ride—it takes about 20 minutes to get from Hyeres to Porquerolles, and there are 22 ferry boats during the season who ply this route. This island gets a staggering 1.2 million visitors a year, with half of them coming over by private boat, tying up at buoys 300 meters off shore. During the beach season, beaches like Silver and Notre Dame beach end up with people side by side, crammed into the small slivers of sand.
Like Nantucket, it’s a seasonal destination, only about 250 people remain here after the season ends in mid October.
They come here to enjoy an island that’s nearly totally preserved, and is in fact, itself a National Park, the smallest in France. With neighboring Port-Cros island, and the surrounding seacoast, everything here except for the main village is within the park. What that means is that there are very, very few cars. The small number of families who live here are allowed one car each—but there is no gas station. And you can’t build anything nor pick many of the plants.
So as a result, the main street of the village is filled with bicycle rentals, and quiet little electric vehicles zip up and down the streets making that whirring noise familiar to anyone who plays golf. You can rent kayaks, or jetskis, and instead of being jammed with Nantucket’s SUVs and cars, it’s a pleasant mix of bikes, people and the silent carts.
Our trip here was a familiarization for developing low-impact tourism to places in National Parks like Porquerolle being developed by MEET. From the fort built here in 1531, we could see the sweep of undeveloped and pristine land all around. In the middle of Porquerolles is an agricultural area where dozens of varieties of figs, almonds, olives and blackberries are grown, developing the best strains and saving seeds. Only one elderly woman is allowed to pick the fruits and make jam on the island.
In the village, the Auberge des Glycines stays open all year ‘round and the friendly director Florence Sanchez welcomes guests with authentic Provencal cuisine and comfortable old fashioned rooms. This is a fantastic destination that is managing to balance a huge number of yearly visitors and retain its pristine beauty.
Posted on October 6, 2015
The morning began with a ride in a public bus full of children on their way to school and a great way to mix with the locals. We were headed for Olbia, a Greek and then a Roman settlement ruins, built next to the sea where thermal baths once cooled off the well-heeled upper classes in the fourth century BC.
I was left with a decision after my host gave us five hours of free time in the village of Geins. First, a well-deserved nap on the second floor of the hotel overlooking the most dramatic seascape I’ve ever set eyes on. I couldn’t think of any reason to be anywhere else except up on the first floor lying on the bed catching up with zzz’s.
An hour later I woke up refreshed and headed downstairs to a narrow path that led to the sea. First the path turned, then I came upon the Hotel Le Provencal’s seaside saltwater swimming pool, where a bather casually swam laps as her partner lounged in the evening sun.
If anybody ever said that it’s not the destination but the journey they must’ve hiked this rugged path. As narrow as a few feet in places and nearly every foot crashed by the seawater, I made my way over the waves and held on to the rugged craggy coastline as I made my way to to Port Du Niel.
Posted on October 5, 2015
I arrived in Le Pradet, about 20 minutes past Toulon, in Provence France a day ago, and spent today walking up a mountain and learning much about this fantastically beautiful place with guides who are working with the MEET Program. Meet stands for Mediterranean Eco-tourism Experience of Travel, and aims to knit together a group of national parks from countries all around their common sea to offer people environmentally friendly trips that bring people into nature and away from cities.
Our guide in Provence is a wonderfully outgoing and intelligent man Jerome Vian, who has spent decades as a local tour operator specializing in trips to the Port Cros National Park comprised of the islands of Porquerolles and Port Cros. The aim of this trip is to take us from the most densely populated tourist area of France, Marseille and Toulon, and transit by foot, bike, boat and public transport to the pristine beauty and uncrowded space of the islands. It is hoped that this tour will appeal to people looking for a true eco-adventure, with a little French decadence in food and wines thrown in.
Today we hiked up through the Colle Noir Mountain at Cape Garonne where until 1917, there was an active copper mine operation. Today visitors can tour the old mine, donning hard hats and see how the mine worked and see an splendid array of crystals and gems down inside the subterranean chambers. After we emerged from our hour-long history lesson, we enjoyed a spendid picnic with china plates, real glasses and actual silverware…and food prepared by the chefs at La Chanterelle, the gourmet restaurant at L’Escapade hotel where we are staying.
Later we met Janick Utard, who brings a new meaning to the concept of biodynamic wine growing at La Navicelle Vineyard. It’s not just that he shuns the use of pesticides…it’s an entire philosophy that includes filling cow horns with manure and burying it for six months, and a lot of faith that the Cosmos is connected to said horns and that cows have a sacred place in the world thus, they connect the wine to the universe and…well, maybe some of this got lost in the translation. Anyway his vines look great with their herbal treatments, and they taste superb too. Maybe he’s on to something.
A nature guide, Vincent Blondel, joined us for our tour and gave us fascinating descriptions of the flora and fauna and some of the history he knows well about this pretty location. The tour will include bicycling, kayaking, exploring and no driving. I’ll be happy to share more as it unfolds, right here.
Posted on October 3, 2015
Saying goodbye to Sardinia tonight, as I anxiously await a 5 am wake-up and a day of travel to my next trip in France, I’m thinking about what it’s like here, and what memories I”ll take back with me. I’m always fascinated by the elevator speech–what will you tell people when you only have about as long as the average elevator ride, about what the place was like?
Sardinia is big–really big. Looking at a satellite photo the island is huge, just a little smaller than Sicily, and so what I saw here on this second visit since 2008 were miles and miles of open country. In the Sinis Peninsula, where we spent our time, it’s wide open vistas, some farmland, some unused scrub land (near the ocean) and in the distance, mountains frame the edges. There were very few seagulls or birds that I saw, and not that many cars. In fact we never got into a traffic jam nor waited at a light the whole six days! Compare this with any where else in Italy, it’s quite a contrast.
We learned from our guide, Davide Beccu, tonight that Sardinians still aren’t used to dealing with tourists. As we approached one of the stops on our tour, we tried to enter a gate. A man began yelling at our driver, challenging him, pushing the limit with rudeness.
Many people here don’t care about tourists, and especially, are not willing to treat them as important people to respect. It’s the exception, certainly not everyone, but there has never been the volume of visitors that other parts of Italy see, so the development of tourism is still relatively new except in the far north’s Costa Esmerelda. That makes it feel authentic, and to me, more special than destinations that are always making it special for visitors. Here, you get what you get.
If you visit a seaside town, every meal will include the following: The famous wafer-thin bread called carasau, and bottarga, the salty and delicious spread made from grey mullet fish roe. Some sort of clams, mussels or shrimp with their heads on will be brought out, as well as vegetables like eggplant, whole round cherry tomatoes, or salad. Pasta, sprinkled with bottarga. (they love this stuff!) will usually come second. Most of what you eat will be local.
They truly have the locavore thing down, in fact in many markets, everything for sale is made nearby. I wanted to move to something different after the sixth day, but our last meal, of course for the third course was a giant platter with three kinds of grilled whole fish. There’s just no getting chicken or a burger here, as far I can could tell.
People here are proud of being Sardinian–they have their own language, they boast about how beautiful their country is, and they rarely if ever call themselves Italian. No, they’re Sardinian, and they don’t give a hoot about what’s going on over in Rome or Florence. Actually nobody here cares much about what’s happening in Cagliari, the island’s biggest city, either. People are intent on living their lives in their own village, or town, or wherever in Sardinia they call home.
Sardinia is a fantastic destination that never disappointed me. If you want something that has the charm and beauty of Italy, with far less people and cars, this is where you should visit.
Posted on October 2, 2015
I’ve spent this week in the town of Cabras, Sardinia, moving between our city center hotel and various attractions relating to the Marine Protected Area that encompasses the sea all around the island’s west coast. We’ve gotten a rare opportunity for a trip like this…to spend time in one town and get to see everything that’s available for those interested in eco-touring, history and gastronomy.
The usual long bus trips have been replaced by short walks in town to dinner, and short drives beside the lagoon toward the beautiful Cape of San Marco that stretches out capped by a lighthouse atop 60 foot cliffs over the ocean. One one side there are perfect surfing breakers, and blue water, and on the other, small ripples and turbidity that turns the water dark green.
Today we got our history lesson at the Archaeological Museum of Cabras with Renzo Carrus serving as our guide. And when he says ‘We’ referring to the ongoing excavations of the famous Giants of Mont’e Prama, he’s not kidding. He was there back in the early days in the 1970s when the first found fragments. Today he leads tours with the zeal of a student, sharing many details about the finds that have barely scratched the surface of the large Phoenician and Roman settlement discovered at Thassos.
Forty years later, in Cabras’ museum, you can see these re-assembled life-size giants who once lined the road at the settlement of Thassos on Cape San Marco. The museum houses archeological finds from Cuccuru Is Arrius from the Nuragic era, from Tharros dating back to Phoenician-Punic and Roman times, and from the shipwreck near the island of Mal di Ventre. This contained lead bars which were scattered in the seabed with huge anchors and other debris.
We sampled some Vernaccha wine that’s been named in honor of the town’s famous Giants at Attilio Contini, a mid-sized winemaker that specializes in this unusual variety. It’s a white wine that’s aged–we drank some from 2001, and it has a slightly red color and a strong taste. As our guide Davide Beccu described it, a ‘meditation wine,’ one that often spurs conversation and contemplation because of its unusual taste and color.
A stop at the Centro di Recupero di Sinis was another way to connect to eco-tourism in Sinis. Here, marine biologists have loggerhead turtles in tanks in various stages of recuperation, they feed them daily rations of sardines and help them get better with a goal of sending them back to the ocean some day. The injuries are often from fishing lines, but one turtle was there because he was living in an aquarium and mistreated.
The center studies many other endangered mammals and does research into how plastics and other waste threatens the Mediterranean and the rest of the world’s oceans. Did you know that a disposable diaper takes 450 years to decompose in the ocean? And an aluminum can, 200 years?
Posted on October 1, 2015
In our earthy crunchy Pioneer Valley, we like to talk about eating local. We talk about 12-mile meals, and eating farm-to-table, but tonight, I have them all beat. Once again, on a visit to Italy’s magic island, Sardinia, I’ve eaten a 100 foot meal, and boy was it good!
We drove out toward the coast, to the Sinis Peninsula, to Agritourismo Il Sinis. Here, brother and sister Salvatore and Magdelena Porcu brought out dish after dish of simple food that all came from their farm. They offer 20 rooms for guests and a large dining room where the star is the food that they raise themselves. The only item that they didn’t grow or make themselves was the bread. “We only make that during the winter,” they told us.
Set before us as we entered were a panoply of plates. Grilled eggplants and peppers. Fried eggplant balls, stewed beef, fried squash blossoms, olives and artichokes…and these were only the starters. Then Magdalena brought out her homemade ravioli, filled with ricotta, and after sweeping away our second plates, the piece de resistance, suckling pig, two months old, from the barnyard. They told us that the sows had plenty more piglets for their table, and don’t worry–if the nine of us didn’t finish the groaning board, “roast pig is better the next day anyway.”
We were dining with five Marine biologists, Georgio, 39, Stefanie, 34 two Andreas, 40 and 34 and Sabine, who had done a demonstration hours before about their work trying to save loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean. The wine in little carafes flowed, and then Salvatore broke out his own liqueurs–one bright green made from wild fennel, and another from pears. We asked them how the got those big pears into that those small bottles. And they said that many of the trees branches grow right into the empty bottles, affixed with rope the a branch!
It was another night of fun conversation and discovery. Magdalena showed us photos on her phone, stabbing at the screen, of the marvel and seemingly unusual yellow tomatoes. Then she brought out an egg from one of their ostriches–which when cracked can make an omelette that serves 12 people.
Times like these are when I revel in my life as a travel writer, I enjoy meeting people like this, hearing their stories and eating such delicious food that came from right here.