France: MEET Brings Ecotourism to Provence

A picnic with a dramatic view on Cap Garonne, hiking the Colle Noir.
A picnic with a dramatic view on Cap Garonne, hiking the Colle Noir.

MEETing A Different Provence–In the busy South of France, we travel lightly

By Max Hartshorne,
GoNOMAD Editor

This story is about MEET…or Mediterranean Experience of EcoTourism and one of their soul-enriching trips to destinations all over Europe and next to the Mediterranean sea.

Luca Santarossa, the organization’s founder, met me in the Cafe Gigante in Cabras, Sardinia and as we enjoyed local fish, grey mullet, he shared their idea. “This kind of tourism can contribute to a more peaceful world.” he said.

Vincent Blondel, a nature guide hikes in the Colle Noir, in the Cap Garonne forest.
Vincent Blondel, a nature guide hikes in the Colle Noir, in the Cap Garonne forest.

“This is a product for local communities, since tourism is hard to get going without help. It’s a nice tour to offer, and it’s hard to gain a foothold in a small village. We are creating new eco-tours that will be just a bit different…but fun. Soon there will be a major announcement where a European company will sell all of the MEET tours to the public.”

Our trip to Provence, France began with a bus to a train from the airport. Then we took a ride in an electric car, owned by the Park, Port-Cros, France’s smallest national park. Our flora and fauna guide, Vincent Blondel, showed us the park and we joined him on a hike in the Cap Garonne forest, part of a natonal park which is a beautiful preserved area with views all around of the sea. It’s called the Colle Noir, or black hills.

Easy trails in the Cap Garonne can be navigated by young and old hikers. Far down below us a kayaker paddled silently by in the calm sea and a French warship steamed toward France’s largest naval base in Toulon in the far distance.

Unusual Marine Birds

Vincent told us about some of the unusual marine birds found here. “The Martinet Pale sleeps in the air– they only land to nest, and they eat insects and flying spiders. They go way way up then twirl down, sleeping every few seconds.” We walked on, on the trail, until we came to a road that led to an opening in the rock. A woman was making espresso just inside, and we stopped for a cup.

Exploring a former Copper Mine

Inside the inactive Musee de la Mine de Cap Garonne.
Inside the inactive Musee de la Mine de Cap Garonne.

The Musee de la Mine de Cap Garonne is a former copper mine that operated in the 18 and 19th centuries, and today it’s an underground museum. We donned our hardhats and went down the shaft to a re-creation of the lives of the miners and the world of Provence at that time. Minerals in cases from all over the world are fascinating to examine.

The Mine de Cap Garonne was once used to grow mushrooms in the ’50s. They also developed the Bordeaux mixture of sulfite and copper used to kill bugs on wine grapes.Some of the elements found inside the mine include Azurite barytine and other exotic minerals named for the discovers plus minerals and crystals from all over the world in cases that seem to glow in the dark.

The hike up the Cap de Garonne has strikingly pretty views of the sea all around –it’s not too steep and filled with interesting endemic trees and flowers. Down inside the mine is a gallery of all sorts of crystals and other exotic minerals found in the in the mine as well as ones from around the world.

In 1994 the mine opened for tourists and about 30,000 visitors come down below every year. It’s all only in French — but English and other visitors just want to do the beach sun and flowers, not culture or history. Nobody wants to visit this area for anything except the beach but MEET is trying to change that as well as encouraging hotels and restaurants to stay open all year long like L’Escapade does.

Jerome Vian, a guide at the Port-Cros National Park in Provence, France.
Jerome Vian, a guide at the Port-Cros National Park in Provence, France.

Dividing Lower Provence
Local park guide Jerome Vian talked animatedly about the conflict his group has with some of the leaders in nearby towns.

The issue of whether to support the natural park rules on the mainland divides this part of southern France. Half the towns have agreed and half the towns refuse to adopt the same conservation standards on the continent as they have in the islands that make up the national park.

The lobby of the fisherman and the builders is strongly against observing the rules, which limit boating fishing and building along the coast. Most of the rules are methods to preserve the park and ocean–things like limits on boats, strict pollution rules, and tight restrictions to preserve local birds and marine mammals.

There are quite a lot of rules being proposed, but the heart of their battle is one that’s preserving the land in good shape for perpetuity, or as long as they can. That’s hard to argue with. But the debate around this part of Provence goes on, agree, don’t agree, and now the two sides can’t agree.

Cannes and Movie Stars

Delicious food is to be expected on this MEET trip to Provence.
Delicious food is to be expected on this MEET trip to Provence. These little cakes were served atop the Colle Noir.

This was not the Provence I’ve heard about when I read about the films being screened in nearby Cannes or the pebbly beaches in crowded Nice. This was instead the The way Provence was once before civilization took over almost every mile of the coast. “It’s like it was thirty years ago,” said Jerome.

Jerome and Vincent care deeply about nature and about how unspoiled things used to be and fear that it’s cement that is taking over their coast. They view MEET as a solution which will bring ecotourism in place of leisure lazy tourism.

Along the hiking trail permeable walls have been built without mortar called restanque, that allows water to flow through the wall without destroying the wall. Many locals here are using walks like this to avoid erosion in hilly Provence.

Military bases play an important role in preserving the area’s coastline since so much coastal land is occupied by bases and thus undeveloped. Military exercises are held the at largest base in the Europe in in Toulon which creates a very large swath of coastline that remains undeveloped. They have France’s only aircraft carrier here in Toulon. Lots of helicopters and ships at sea bristling with antennae, it lends an eery but safe kind of feeling.

Windsurfers enjoy the strong winds of the double Tombolo, a two-headed peninsula off Hyeres, France.
Windsurfers enjoy the strong winds of the double Tombolo, a two-headed peninsula off Hyeres, France.

MEET Brings Tourists

Many people are here are excited about the MEET program and what it will mean for a longer tourist season and for developing sustainable as opposed to leisure travel to this part of the world.

There are programs in Lebanon and in Jordan and all across the any country that touches the Mediterranean Sea.It’s a wide net to cast and one which many believe will lead to success in ecotourism promotion here. Not only that but it will create many jobs in places that are sorely in need of them.

From what I’ve seen firsthand the programs are unusual and bring different parties together unlike any other endeavor in this regard Today tour operators are being brought here to encourage to visit the programs themselves first hand and incorporate these itineraries into their own mix of trips.

The coastline is fragile in Le Pradet
The coastline is fragile in Le Pradet

My experience of the Sardinia West Coast and the Provence trip was that they were fun, well-run, safe, and provided some memorable moments. I think they are going to be hits on anyone’s tour roster.

Public Transportation

A unique aspect of the trip in Provence was that we used public transportation during the trip rather than relying all the way on cars. We even rode in an electric car for part of our journey here from the Toulon rail station!

One pretty hotel we were going to stay at was all filled, it is right next to their own wine grape orchards overlooking the sea, called Domaine de Navicelle. Instead we visited the winemaker, who credits the Gods for his bountiful and weed-free grape plants.

Hiking the trail in Provence, France.
Hiking the trail in Provence, France.

Meet brings travelers in touch with unusual locals, and people who feel strongly about preserving the environment. It might not be for everyone, but I especially enjoyed the selection of people I met who are doing good things for the environment and are eager to share discussion and how they do it with me.

Biodynamic Wines

Since 2009, the winemaker Janik Utard has used biodynamic methods and unlike most Provencal vineyards they mainly make red wines. The label is Demeter for these organic wines which fetch higher prices in stores. Like some of the Loire winemakers this is a real growth area for all vineyards in France for the organic and the biodynamique.

“Nature came before man” said Janick Utard ‘”using biodynamic methods says we have to come back to the basics.” Heavy machines and years of pesticides have damaged the soil so we do many little actions every day to change that and keep the earth from turning into a lifeless rock.”

When he showed us how they bury cow horns with manure to attract the forces of the universe he lost me. But I must say his vines are quite healthy and free of weeds despite no spraying. Bouse de corn cowshit goes inside a cow horn laid down after six months it is taken out and mixed into a slurry to spray in the vines. Only cow horns can be used because cows are special in relation to the earth and the cosmos.

Domaine Navicelle’s “Insolent rose” wine variety was rejected as a wine of Provence but when it was placed into a blind taste test it won as the best rose–hence the rebellious bottle and name. Utard is proud to be a bit of a rebel around these parts.

The trip itinerary includes a night and touring day in Porquerolles, which was a lot of fun and very pretty. Find out more about the many MEET Trips around the Mediterranean Sea.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.
Max Hartshorne

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