Provence & Côte d'Azur: From the Calanques to Port Cros to the Mercantour
Wild and natural beauty in France's national parks
Major step taken for the Calanques
This stunning site will remain a holiday area for all despite becoming a national park
A nature reserve on the edge of a city? The new Calanques national park between Marseille and La Ciotat represents France's unique attempt within Europe to reconcile the protection of nature with the needs of a modern leisure society.
Those who want to enjoy the park first have to earn the privilege: the only way to reach the Calanques by land is on your own two feet. But the one hour walk is well worth it: lagoon-like bays with enticing beaches and turquoise waters await those who make the effort.
Meanwhile, the chalk-white stone of the sheer cliffs combined with the light green pine trees and the deep-blue sky of the Côte d'Azur create a stunning and colourful view. Only a few of the two million who visit the Calanques every year will also know that this stretch of coast is not only a walking and climbing paradise but an ecological jewel.
Dolphins and turtles as well as other protected fish and coral species swim in the waters, while rare types of sea birds populate the islands off the Calanques. One of the last 30 pairs of Bonelli's eagles lives in the cliffs, along with the European bulldog bat and the largest European species of lizard, the ocellated lizard.
The flora also offers something that is unique to the area: the Marseille Tragacanth and Sabline de Marseille members of the papilionaceae family can only be found in the hills of Marseille.
The objective of the Parc National des Calanques, which was officially created in April 2012, is to protect these natural treasures without shutting them off to the general public.
The park stretches from the southern city district of Marseille to just outside La Ciotat. It is the first national park in Europe to be located right next to a large city. It is also the first national park in France that will be managed on the basis of a charte, or charter. This will enable people and communities to be more closely involved in the running of the national park, according to a law introduced in 2006.
However, the drafting of the charter was anything but simple, as Benjamin Durand stressed. He is the interim president of Groupement d'Intérêt Public (GIP) des Calanques, a public law association that has been fighting for the Calanques to be turned into a national park for 10 years.
"We had numerous meetings with more than 250 different participants who all helped with the drafting of the charter," said Durand. Divers, hikers, climbers, hunters, fishermen and the communities to which the area of the Calanques largely belongs had some reservations about the national park because they feared it would restrict their rights. Almost every square metre had been haggled over by the end. On the other hand, nature conservationists and scientists have demanded stricter regulations in order to protect the fragile habitat. "There was some resistance," said Durand. But the job is now done.
Work continues for the GIP as it tries to "convince the people of the advantages of the national park and carry out publicity work," explained Durand. Indeed, one of the rumours circulating is that access to the park will be completely forbidden. The charter does plan to limit many leisure activities in the Calanques depending on the needs of nature.
The rocky coast is however expected to remain an open national park, and fishing and hunting will still be permitted under certain conditions. Motorists will still have to park their cars at some distance from the coast and those who want to enjoy the Calanques will first have to earn the right to do so - this will not change with the reclassification of the area as a national park.
Port Cros in the Var
France’s second oldest national park shines over and underwater
At four kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, Port Cros is the smallest of the three Iles d'Or (golden islands) in the bay of Hyères. On the other hand, it is also more mountainous and wild than the other two islands of Porquerolles and Ile du Levant.
In the 1920s, the island was under threat of being acquired by US investors who wanted to turn this tiny nature’s paradise into a hotel complex.
To avoid this, the owner at the time signed the island over to the state with the proviso that it should remain a protected area. On 14th December 1963, this goal was achieved: President Pompidou inaugurated Port Cros as one of France's first nature parks.
It is still the only one in Europe to unify land and water zones, and encompasses the islands of Port Cros, Bagaud, Gabiniére, Racas and Porquerolles.
The park includes a 600-metre protection belt around the coastlines, 700 hectares of land and 1,288 hectares of underwater landscape.
To ensure protection of the ecosystem, the 30 residents and 200,000 annual visitors have to adhere to strict rules: limited bathing; and fishing, hunting, smoking, dogs, tents and picking flowers are all strictly forbidden under threat of severe fines. Nature's reward is an incredible range of different plants and animals.
Around 114 types of birds are native to the island, such as falcons, the alpine swift, Provencal warblers and huge cormorants. Mammals are rare, largely consisting of hares and other rodents. Instead there are numerous butterflies, geckos and the Tyrrhenian Painted Frog, which has died out on the mainland. The 530 different plant species, including exotics such as orchids, myrtle and butterfly lavender, spread an intoxicating scent. Some of these only exist here today.
The island is reserved for hikers and there are no cars.
Instead, there are lots of walking trails - the botanic nature trail is particularly recommended - through heather, plants as tall as trees and eucalyptus trees, arbutus and maquis. There are two old fortresses and cliffs with wonderful views over the glittering sea, with no boats to be seen as it is forbidden to drop anchor. A hike to 'Tuff', an almost 40,000-year-old petrified dune, is a must for hobby geologists.
Even more fascinating is the underwater world of Port Cros with its colourful steep slopes, sea grass meadows and coral reefs. It's the dream of every diver! No other part of the Mediterranean has such a rich variety of rare fish species that swim by in shimmering shoals of every size and colour. Varieties include barracudas, sometimes 100 at once, tiger sharks, moonfish, dolphins, starfish, lobsters, squid, and even the extremely rare Mediterranean eared seal that has resettled here.
Particularly popular destinations deep in the water are the wrecks of Le Donateur and Le Crec, two legendary ships that sank a long time ago.
Non-divers are also able to get a glimpse of this wonderland with an underwater walking trail that starts at La Palus beach. Don't forget your snorkel, fins, diving goggles and swimming costume!
There is only one hotel on the island, the Manoir d'Helene, along with several restaurants on the palm tree-lined harbour. There are regular ferry crossings to Port Cros from Le Lavandou and Hyéres.
Where nature and history come together
The wild world of the Mercantour begins around an hour's drive from the beaches, boutiques and luxury hotels of the coast. Craggy mountains, green meadows, crystal-clear lakes and rare plants await visitors in the north of the Alpes Maritimes department. Long walks through nothing but nature are the best way of discovering all aspects of this wonderful mountain world.
Don't be surprised to come across marmots, partridges, chamois, mouflon and even ordinary cows. In the sky above you'll also be able to see golden eagles, eagle owls, buzzards and kites. Even wolves returned to this area in 1992. Three packs of this beautiful animal currently live in the Alpha Park wolf centre in Saint Martin Vésubie on the edge of the national park.
Another plus is that many more plants have survived from the Ice Age on the Mercantour Massif than anywhere else. Here, there are 21 species that can only be found in the Mercantour.
The alpine landscape is not only a habitat for numerous protected plants and animals. The centre of the park is formed by Mont Bégo (2,872 metres), which was worshipped by local herdsmen as a holy mountain.
The surrounding valleys are the Vallée des Merveilles (valley of wonders) and the Vallée de Fontanalbe. Both are globally famous because of their rock paintings from the Bronze Age. The green, blue and grey pelite oxidises under the influence of iron ore and takes on a reddish colour - ranging from pink to orange through to salmon pink. The rock paintings are particularly visible against this background.
The Mercantour National Park has 600 kilometres of sign-posted footpaths and provides six mountain huts for accommodation. Camping in the wild, cars, dogs, weapons and fires are all strictly forbidden, however.