The most southerly city in Provence, and one of the sunniest, Hyères is somewhat of a forgotten gem in the region. For this reason alone it is well worth a visit as you simply don’t get the tourists here you do in other towns and cities. This was the first real resort in the South of France and is probably best known for the 7000 palms which offer its streets a much needed respite from the sun. British tourists abandoned Hyères a century ago for the for the Mediterranean resorts of the Côte d’Azur, and it’s high time it was rediscovered.
Because it has fallen so far under the tourist radar those who have heard of Hyères tend to think of it as being way inland, when in fact it’s only 4km from the coast. You can actually see the sea on a clear day, but it just wasn’t close enough when the Mediterranean became a tourist hot spot and it still isn’t. Those who have made the trip here have marvelled at its natural scenic beauty, that includes fractured bones of an ancient castle which tumble down a hillside in such an attractive fashion they look as if they have been placed there.
A walled city dating back to Medieval times, Hyères is about as French as Provence gets. You have it all here from the church towers to the winding alleys and terracotta roofs. The neat boulevards are very La Belle Epoque and lined by palm trees which gently sway in the breeze. The sea is the only omission from this Provencal paradise, but 4km is a lot shorter distance than it was 100 years ago.
It was the French aristocracy of the 18th century which first put Hyères on the map, and the reason why it is generally considered to be the original Riviera. The artistic set weren’t far behind them and such names as DH Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling and Leo Tolstoy made many a pilgrimage here. The famous author Robert Louis Stevenson is well documented as having said; “I was only happy once and that was at Hyères.”
It even had the royal seal of approval when Queen Victoria discovered the delights of the city and, of course, if it was good enough for their monarch the British were quick to follow. Grand hotels and mansions painted in hues reminiscent of ice cream sprung up to cope with demand. Once Nice and Cannes were discovered, however, Hyères star waned as fast as theirs rose and it fell out of fashion.
The French make up around 70% of the city’s tourism today, and have kept it a pretty good secret. This is no big surprise as once you have experienced the delicious food, beautiful gardens, Maritime national park and picturesque panoramas at every turn, you won’t want to tell anyone either. There is a magic in Hyères that is hard to put your finger on, but once you have been there yourself you will know exactly what we mean.
A leisurely amble up to the Old Town is a must, and not just for the views. This is the perfect vantage point to appreciate the Knights Templar Tower in all its architectural glory, as well as the three remaining concentric walls which once surrounded the city. Weave your way through the narrow streets and stop for sustenance at one of many fine delis or wine bars. Cave Massillon is a great spot for indulging in some local produce, especially the addictive, and very delicious, compote created from lemon, artichokes and truffle oil. While there is seems rude not to imbibe a glass or two of probably the palest rosé you will ever have. This comes courtesy of one of the 17 wineries in Hyères.
If you take the trip to Hyères on a Saturday morning there is a bustling farmers market held on Avenue Gambetta. This gives you a great opportunity to mingle with the locals who are there to pick up the best of the regions local produce. These include honey, peaches and the succulent artichokes known as ‘petit violet’. Another little known fact about Hyères is that is the French cut flowers capital, and it’s almost impossible to resist parting with a few euros for a bunch of the perfect pink peonies.
Lovers of art and architecture should head to Parc St-Bernard and Villa Noailles. This modernist residence was built during the 1920’s for Charles and Marie-Laurie de Noailles. They were both art patrons and friends and supporters of such names as Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Pablo Picasso. The villa is now an outstanding gallery which also hosts international events dedicated to architecture, art, music, fashion and photography.
If you want to treat yourself to a Michelin-starred gastronomic delight, “Joy” in the centre of town is a real treat. Sitting on the terrace overlooking the pedestrianised street enjoying one of the best meals ever to stimulate your palate is an experience dreams are made of. No wonder the French want to keep Hyères for themselves.