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G + 9 : Port-Cros - Richelieu's Play Ground

Fort Tour d'Île seen from the Fort l'Estissac yesterday morning

The weather continues to be unpredictable. We expected a light easterly breeze this morning. It would allow us to sail comfortably to the Hyères islands. But Neptune had different plans. He sent rain and a strong swell. At 1 am our Captain had to relocate the boat to move it away from the rocks. Rain woke us up before breakfast. The sun is hidden somewhere behind a thick cloud cover. Nonetheless, we will go to Por- Cros.

Weather at 6 am just after the rain had stoped - the Cavalaire Beaches at the Back

Port Cros is the middle of the three Hyères islands with Porquerolles to the west and the Levant Island to the east. There were originally four islands, Hyères being the fourth. But the Med’s currents created two tombolo over the millennia which now link it to the mainland. More about this tomorrow.

The Greek founders of Marseille settled in nearby Olbia (Hyères) and also came to these islands which they called the “Stoechiades”. The island' existence was documented by Pliny, the Elder, and Strabo, the world’s first geographer. Ligurians lived on the island as well and there is an interesting debate – not decided yet – whether the Phoenicians had a permanent trading post here. Would be one of the few places where they overlap and co-exist with the Greek.

Phoenician and Greek Settlements in the Mediterranean overlapped in Southern France

Back to Port Cros to where we are heading today. During our two hours of sail, the wind stiffened and swell increased. We were glad to arrive, attached the boat to the assigned buoy and went on shore with the tender.

The choppy Waters outside Port-Cros made Landing challenging - Tour d'Île at the left

First order of the day was climbing the three fortresses which dominate the island’s north and the port. In total there are five forts on the island. Wikipedia informs us that locals asked the French King to fortify their island as protection against Ottoman Corsairs. They all had heard how these pirates ravaged and plundered one Mediterranean village after the other. But there was no need. Francis I, the French King, had signed a strategic alliance with the Ottomans. Admiral Hayrettin (Barbarossa) would not dare to raid a French possession. The Levant Island became French as the rest of the Provence in 1486.

The lowest Fort, Tour d'Île protects the Harbour

Four of the five forts in Port Cros were actually built from 1630 – 1640. Then French Prime Minister – the title as such did not exist yet – Cardinal Richelieu worried that Spain could use the port of Port-Cros against Toulon, the new French naval base in the Mediterranean.

Construcion of Fort de l'Estissac started in 1630

Richelieu did not forget that Spanish Troops occupied Antibes and Toulon in 1524 during one of the Italian wars. France almost lost the Provence. It only got it back for the promise to never interfere in Italian affairs again. Since the French Kings did not intend to keep the promise, the coast of the Provence had to be fortified. Also, the Genovese galleys with the Spanish silver passed nearby. They were too lucrative target for not to be considered.

The big Fort de l'Eminence protected the two smaller Forts on the Land Side

Port-Cros' strategic value was its harbour. The island is rocky and has only one valley with arable land, where the Manoir is located today. The village had a good one hundred inhabitants. The port though is great. Small, it protects fully against winds from east, south and west. We saw it yesterday. The swell from the easterly could not reach it. The harbour was filled with sailing boats which took shelter – as in old days.

The Manoir in Port-Cros is today a Hotel which serves wonderful Lunch

Over 20 years time, Richelieu built four forts on the island. Fort Vigie, the No 5, on the island’s highest point, was built during the Napoleonic Wars in 1810 as a look-out and signalling post. We did not have enough time to visit. We walked up Tour de l’Île, the Fort de l’Estissace above it and then to Fort de l’Eminence, the biggest one that protects the lower forts. All three are outlaid in a systematic way and show the hand of a Renaissance military engineer. Cardinal Richelieu was well versed with military matters, having waged so many wars during his time in office. His King, Louis XIII, was weak and let him govern most of the time. Very different from his son Louis XIV who took matters in his own hand.

Plan of the Fort de l'Eminence on top of the Hill above Port-Cros

Richelieu’s foresight proved to be right – albeit not during his life time and not against the Spanish. The Royal Navy recognised the strategic value of Port-Cros. In 1792, just before it was handed Toulon, it took Port-Cros by force and used it as a logistics base. When forced out by Napoleon in 1793, the English destroyed the forts. They were rebuilt from 1810 – 1812 again and properly garrisoned. But after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, they were disarmed. In 1841, the French Government re-activated them only to leave them in 1858 again.

Lunch at the Manoir of Port-Cros - always a Pleasure

The departure of the garrison had an unintended consequence. Suddenly, houses used by the troops became available for which the locals had no use. Word got out to the writer community that Port-Cros was an ideal place to work. Living on the island was cheap, the weather perfect, the island quiet. Absolutely ideal for writing a book. In the years during the two world wars, Paul Valery, André Malraux, Jean Paulhan and others stayed here. The 1920s and 1930s were the time when painters, sculpturers and authors left Paris for settling on the French Riviera. Their choice was rational. There was no mass tourism yet that could disturb them. Thanks to the illustrative exhibition at Fort l”Estissac we now know about it.

Sailboats love windy conditions and choppy waters. For us it was time to go.

We could not afford to stay for longer on the island. The wind direction was shifting. By 18.00 the Mistral would start blowing. We better leave before the swell becomes too strong. Lunch at the Manoir was thus short - delicious though. By 4 pm, we were on our way to the safety of Porquerolles harbour. We may be stuck here for the next 24 to 48 hours. Who knows. Neptune did not share his plans with us. But the Windfinder App gives us a pretty good idea of what is going to happen over the next 2 days. More tomorrow.

By Dinner Time the Harbour of Porquerolles was full - the onsetting Mistral was clearing the Clouds from the Sky - It would be a nice but very windy Day tomorrow

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