Monday 28 July 2014

The island by bicycle

“No cars were permitted on the island and most people who passed were on bicycles: dented, clicking, cumbersome machines of uncertain vintage, used by countless people on countless holidays.”                                            The Sea Garden

Hiring a bicycle on Porquerolles is a must. It allows you to cover so much more ground than if you walk everywhere, and adds to the sense of childhood adventure that includes rocky coves, forts on tiny bay islands and shaded paths that always lead to another vista of the sea. You could take a boat, of course, but then you'd miss out on one of the most sensuous aspects of this lovely place: the fragrance.

“Scrubby evergreen bushes released a strong scent of resin and honey; forests of pine gave way to gentle south-facing vineyards. The path was quiet, disturbed only by the ululation of early summer cicadas.”

 “The bicycle tyres crunched on small sandy stones as she followed the trail between green oak and pines: the Aleppo and the parasol pine. She spotted an arquebusier, a strawberry tree, and pulled off the path to have a closer look.”

As Laurent de Fayols writes to Ellie in the novel, the island has a wild and romantic quality. It was bought at the beginning of the twentieth centuty as a wedding gift to his wife by a man who had made his fortune in the silver mines of Mexico. It was one of three small specks in the Mediterranean known as the Golden Isles, after the oranges, lemons and grapefruit that glowed like lamps in their citrus groves.

There are few reference works in English that offer information beyond superficial facts about the island, and those I did manage to find were old. The best was published in 1880, by a journalist called Adolphe Smith. Here is his ‘description of the most Southern Point of the French Riviera’:

“The island is divided into seven ranges of small hills, and in the numerous valleys thus created are walks sheltered from every wind, where the umbrella pines throw their deep shade over the path and mingle their balsamic odour with the scent of the thyme, myrtle and the tamarisk.”

It's not all easy going along the cycle paths. They start easily enough, then you find yourself pushing through carpets of pine needles, then sand and rock. There are some vicious inclines, and exhilarating descents, with the wheels sticking in ruts and slithering on smooth stone. But it's worth it to emerge in quiet, lonely places like the Calanque Oustaou de Diou on the south side, below.

No one was there, and we decided against a swim because when we looked carefully, the shallows were full of small mauve jellyfish - meduses, as the French call them: Medusas, after the Greek Gorgon monster with the face of a woman and hideous hair of snakes.

We hopped back on our bikes and pushed on, until we found a lovely beach for swimming and snorkelling within sight of the Fort du Petit Langoustier.

Though this is the place where I'd really love to swim - how you get down to it safely is another matter. It's a sharp drop off the cycle path, and probably really is one for reaching by boat. Next time!


Marcheline said...

Great pics! Good job avoiding that particular swimming hole... now that would have made a wild blog story.

The color and clarity of the water there is just amazing, isn't it? Hard to believe that water is connected to all the other oceans on the planet - some you can't see through.

I think I'd enjoy bicycling more if the seats were butt-shaped. Last time I rode a bicycle I hobbled around for an hour afterwards with sore seat bones. Bermuda has the right idea - you rent bicycle-sized mopeds to get around.

Amanda said...

When I saw the photo on Facebook earlier, I knew the fragrance must really be magical. Having a picnic under pine trees and wild herbs really brings eating chicken, potato salad… to a new level.

In the US, particularly close to big cities, bicycling can be dangerous but I have really fond memories of long, gorgeous rides in the french countryside. Thank you for the beautiful photos Deborah.

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