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Port Cros, France

Slow it down on the French Riviera
Who has not heard about the French Riviera? Beautiful scenery, deep blue sea, lovely beaches and good food... But more often than not the bliss is not so blissful, tarnished by the consequences of the popularity of the region. Traffic jams, crowds, packed beaches, stressed locals...
To tackle this issue, Port-Cros National Park, one of the gems of the area, has been working to develop alternative ways to let tourists discover the beauty of the region. The Park is working on this with MedPAN, the network of Marine Protected Areas managers in the Mediterranean, and the MEET project, an European endeavor to develop eco-tourism in Protected Areas.
The idea is to encourage tourists to come to the Park outside the peak summer season and to discover roads less traveled using alternative means of transportation.
The first test of this new eco-tourism package took place in October 2014. A small group of "volunteers", coming from various countries around the Mediterranean including, Albania, France, Spain and Lebanon, gathered for 5 days of slow and peaceful discovery of this very rich area. Traveling only by train, bus, foot, bicycle or boat, the group did not cover a lot of ground, but explored the many less known facets of the Park.
I was lucky enough to be part of this group. We met at the train station of Toulon, the bigger city of the area. We were greeted by our guide, a pleasant and experienced nature guide with a great command of the English language. From there, everybody hopped on a bus to a nearby coastal village and continued on foot along the sea. The peaceful stroll, punctuated by stops to watch interesting natural features (such as this "flying" spider which came in from the island of Corsica using just the wind currents...), ended in "Les Oursinières", a now sleepy hamlet, but that, we were told, turns into a busy resort in the summer. Greeted by our host for the night, we discovered a beautiful hotel tucked into a luxurious garden. Dinner was equally beautiful with local and seasonal products.
The next day was devoted to hiking in the natural parks along the coast. We were told that Port-Cros National Park is currently going through a massive extension phase. In fact by law, all French national Parks must now include a surrounding area ("laire dadhésion") in which sustainable development strategies are to be developed, and Port-Cros national Park is deep in the middle of this project, working with the cities that have agreed to be part of this new area. Our beautiful and relatively easy walk took us through beautiful views of the sea, unique outlooks on the famous Bay of Toulon, and close up looks at the endemic flora thanks to the magnifying glasses that our guide had brought for us. The other highlights of the day were the visit of an old copper mine, a lavish picnic overlooking the sea and the interesting visit of a very special winery: indeed this winery is not only organic but is using biodynamic methods, a concept developed by Rudolph Steiner in 1924. The idea is simple: the soil and the plants should be autonomous and nothing foreign should be added. The wine maker was fascinating and even if the technique can be a bit esoteric at times, the wine we "profusely" tasted at the end of our visit were excellent
Day 3 was equally packed and yet completely different. Together with a dynamic local guide, we discovered the archeological site of Olbia, a Greek city founded along the sea in the 4th century BC, before hopping on to our bicycles to bird watch the many aviary species that can be found in the Giens Peninsula. We were told that we were riding a very unique geological formation: a double tombolo that consists in two 5 km sandy strips and a salt marsh in the middle. Impressive indeed! After another copious meal of local fish we boarded sea kayaks for a nice paddle along the rocky coast. Even though the wind prevented us from going too far, we managed to enter (and exit!) a beautiful cave with bats and scary stories... The day ended at a beautiful hotel with stunning sea views in Giens, a delightful Provençal village. A memorable dinner with local and organic products was served to us.
Day 4 brought us to the island of Porquerolles, after a near tropical storm in the early hours of the morning. Porquerolles is one of the major features of Port-Cros National Park that attracts close to a million visitors every year, mostly in the summer, with crystal-clear blue waters and a no-car policy. This time a year the place was very pleasant, and we met a local artisanal fisherman that talked with us about his trade. We actually ate some of his morning catch later on that day... After a visit of a local 16th century fort, we were happy to taste the famous "aïoli", a potent northern Mediterranean specialty with lots of garlic, vegetables, fish, sea snails... The bicycle ride that took us around part of the island later on was welcome to help recover from that experience; the more courageous even went for a dip in the balmy sea. A traditional but heated game of "pétanque" ended the day on the village square, along with a tasting of the 3 rosé wines that are produced on the island.
Our last day was spent back on the mainland with a long walk along the beach, since bad weather conditions prevented us from sailing, as it was originally planned. After a locally-sourced picnic that our host in Porquerolles had prepared for us we visited the old salt production facility that is now turned into a reserve managed by the French Conservatoire du Littoral.
The main interest of the package we tested lied in the time we took to go from one place to the other. It was great to be able to slow down, to really look around and enjoy time passing by: its such a luxury in our hectic lives. Being able to not step in a car for 5 days straight was a welcome detox. Good food, good wines, beautiful nature and getting to know people who truly love their land made for a pleasant and relaxing getaway. One of the next steps of the project is to present the package to overseas tour operators before it can be sold on the market and included in a "MEET catalogue" gathering the best packages developed by the Protected Areas involved in the MEET project.
Meet project website: http://www.medecotourism.org/
Magali Mabari - MedPAN