We pulled out to sea from behind an angular fortress. Minutes later, white water frothed up the sides of the boat and sharp morning rays glared down on my back. We arrived quickly into a sheltered harbour where boulders protected myriad bobbing vessels and greenery overhung a huddle of terracotta buildings on the shore. Welcome to France’s answer to the Caribbean, Porquerolles Island.
A tiny map dot off the end of Presqu’ile de Giens peninsula, the island is one of France’s deepest dips into the Med. Only twenty minutes from the mainland you’re transported to the past. Old men play Petanque in the village square, locals grow grapes and olives on fertile hilltops and cars are not allowed. However with undulating paths ringing the island and its beaches, it’s perfectly given to exploring by bike.
As we picked up our rentals and pedaled furiously up the steepest incline we would encounter all day, I felt a sense of longing for my childhood. When I was young here, the hill seemed harder, the trees taller and mum would have been waving us off from the brief stretch of tarmac that marked the start of our adventure. What the island hadn’t lost though, was its post-card views, and as I approached a sharp bend, the harbour was laid out in front of me through the pine trees; a perfectly framed painting.
The sandy track led us gently from fortress to beach and we chose to stop at an old favourite. I’ve travelled to many tropical beaches but none shimmer quite like Notre Dame. After a hot, dusty cycle, there’s no better moment than that first glimpse.
Perched on an abandoned trunk, I took it all in; The lake-like Med lapped almost silently against colourful shingle and bounced reflections into the shadows of the trees behind. I couldn’t resist a dip and as I walked to waist depth, I made out the creamy folds of the seafloor as if peering through a magnifying glass. A tentative plunge forwards completely submerged my shoulders in cool. To the left of my breast stroke arms, petite yachts swayed and played host to snorkelers; to my right a few bronzed bodies unfurled on the warm sand, breathing ever so slightly slower than normal. This was the Porquerolles I remembered.
Feeling refreshed we jumped back on the bikes and headed through vineyards and olives groves towards the highest point of the isle. The temperature rose inland as we locked the bikes and trudged the final meters on foot. The trail narrowed and my skin itched with a mixture of suntan lotion, sweat and sprigs of the shrubbery lining my way. Once at the peak, steep hillsides dropped through hot, silent air into farmland before finally reaching the distant harbour. We share our view with a huge cricket we passed on our steep descent (called ‘Le Cigale’ in French) He produces a noise with his back legs that’s synonymous with summer evenings in this part of the world. I zoomed in with my camera lens, focusing on his graceful spindles.
Free-wheeling back towards the sea, warm wind in my face and wild flowers in my wake, my hollers reverberated around the low-slung hillsides and tumbled down the ploughed ruts of grape crops towards the distant mainland. Only the odd wobble broke my smile as I attempted to take shots as I rode.
After all that cycling there was time for a much needed refuel (read: cold beer) in the main square, a picturesque center point surrounded on three sides by quaint seafood restaurants, ice-creameries and pizzerias. On the fourth and final side, a proud old church soaked up the Mediterranean afternoon sun, overlooking the eucalyptus trees lining dusty Petanque strips.
I love the bustle of this wonderful pint-sized port, and walked three laps of the square, each time noticing something new: from paper boats hanging within tree branches to a brief shot of colour from the stained glass window through the church’s half open door. The clunk of steel on steel caught my attention and I pirouetted quickly enough to see the celebrations of a winning Petanque shot. Middle-aged local men slapped each other carelessly on the back and smiled ruefully at the remnants of their game. There would always be another.
Returning to the mainland was just as regrettable as it always had been. Playtime was over and even the sun recognised my reluctance by dropping lower in the sky. The fortress that signaled our return glowed brightly on one side, the other now drenched in the shadows of a rich sunset. I strained my eyes towards the island’s distant moored yachts.
Porquerolles Island was a small dot once more.