Ever booked yourself on a budget airline flight only to discover the airport was technically in another town?
Well, in the case of Toulon-Hyères airport, that’s not such a bad thing. In fact, it’s kind of a bonus. The airport is around 25km from Toulon, but just a couple of kilometres from Hyères, and with good transport links between the two, you can easily fit a visit to both into a long weekend.
France’s second largest port may not be winning prizes for being the most glamorous resort on the Riviera, but gentrification is slowly changing this hub of Mediterranean life into something far more tourist friendly. And if you’re keen to explore the more down-to-earth side of southern France (read: sailors, not celebrities), Toulon is the place to go. This is where Napoleon first made a name for himself in 1793, by getting rid of the English who had taken over Toulon at the time, and the area has a rich maritime and naval history worth exploring.
If you’d been around to visit Hyères in the 18th century, you might be now wondering why it never achieved the same level of popularity as other French Riviera resorts, like St Tropez and Nice. According to popular legend, Queen Victoria became a big fan when she visited and literary greats like Robert Louis Stevenson and Victor Hugo are known to have spent some time perfecting their craft in the city. Sadly, by the end of the 19th century, Hyères’ celebrity days were pretty much over, but it’s still got a charming medieval village, complete with Saturday market and a whopping 18,000 palm trees for decoration. With a thriving industry in exotic plants and flowers, they’re generally less dependent on tourism, so it feels friendly rather than pushy.
The ille de Hyères
From Hyères, it’s relatively simple to take a tour of the islands of Levant, Port-Cros and Porquerolles. Boats leave the harbour daily, though times vary depending on the time of year. From Hyères, travel time is short, so day trips are an option. This archipelago, also known as the Islands of Gold, offers some excellent hiking opportunities and with Porquerolles, the largest of the islands, just 7km long by 3km wide, touring on foot is the best way to go. Must-sees include France’s smallest national park in Port-Cros, the nudist colony of Heliopolis on Levant and the unique flora and fauna indigenous to Porquerolles. There are a number of excellent beaches for sunbathing, with Porquerolles is home to both white and black sand beaches.
WORTH A LOOK
The maritime museums
Once a prison, the Musée Naval is not only a good place to learn about Toulon’s naval history, but it’s also ideal for views of the city and Mount Faron. Next door, La Dives, a former landing craft, houses a museum of its own. And, if you have enough time, visit the Musee de la Marine where you’ll be greeted with a demonstration of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Mount Faron summit
Take the cable car up to Mount Faron and you’ll get a fantastic view of the entire city. There’s also a zoo and, if you’re keen to check out the wildlife, buy a combined ticket for the zoo and cable car and you’ll save a bit of dosh. There’s also an interesting memorial to the Allied landings.
The food market
The daily flower and vegetable market in Cours Lafayette is legendary, providing a range of yummy Provençal treats every day except Sundays.
Bonus points for: Affordable accommodation
Loses marks for: Being less glam than its neighbours
Check out: The maritime museums/monuments
Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The Provence and the Côte d’Azur edition of Lonely Planet is out now.
– JOANNE CHRISTIE