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French Secrets

Beyond the flash of the Côte d’Azur are a twinkle of salty island starlets that no paparazzi has snapped

Spindrift falls like meteors on Porquerolles. Spinning spheres of sea spray burst high in the fierce blue sky and fizz on upturned faces. It feels magical, like a snow fight in summer.

Les lies d’Or – Porquerolles, Port-Cros and lie du Levant – lie just 20 minutes by boat off the Côte d’ Azur. The mistral, rushing down the Rhone Valley to the Mediterranean, has its last hurrah here. It’s not called ‘the idiot wind’ for nothing; bent double and forced to a trot by the 40mph gust at your back, it’s hard not to laugh.

Here on the western tip of Porquerolles, the canopy of pine is windswept to a straggly green quiff, in keeping, as it were, with the island’s retro vibe. This is the South of France as sung by Jacques Brel, unstyled and unspoilt. If Saint-Tropez is Brigitte Bardot in a bikini, Porquerolles is Jeanne Moreau in a fisherman’s jumper and espadrilles. The charms of this particular island are deliberately low-key, as if it has learned from the Riviera the perils of trying too hard.

The croissant-shaped island is just 21sq km in area: small enough to explore by foot or bike, but big enough to find solitude and, if you discount the urgent pulsing of the cicadas, silence. Private cars are banned on Porquerolles and there is no public transport. The best way to get around is cycling, and hire shops are plentiful. It should, however, be noted that the Jules- and-Jim fantasy takes you only so far on the extravagantly rutted dirt roads. The best thing would be to go for the BMX option. And don’t even think about a tandem – unless you’re hell-bent on divorce.

Island life centres on the Place d’Armes, a vast square shaded and scented by columns of eucalyptus. The trees were planted as a precaution against cholera in the Napoleonic era, when the island was a military garrison. Since then, it has been turned over to a soda factory and a penal colony for children (there is a reason why French kids have such lovely table manners). The pristine landscape and douceur de vivre enjoyed today is almost entirely due to a Belgian gold prospector by the name of FJ Fournier, who bought Porquerolles in the early 1900s on an impulse for his new wife. In 1971, just as Fournier’s descendants were on the point of selling to Club Med, the state stepped in and declared 80 percent of the island a national park.

Today, the Place d’Armes is a convivial, buzzing space where doves take dust baths and children turn cartwheels in a blur of brown limbs and Breton stripes. As shadows lengthen and the ferry carries off the last of the day-trippers, the square returns to its imperturbable rhythm. On broad cafe verandas, I’apéro turns into dinner and dinner streches to un petit digestif – the island-made mandarin liqueur, sharp, unsticky and full of vitamins, does the job nicely. The sudden ceasing of the cicadas is filled by the clink-clank of petanque – the game is an obsession here – and visitors are invited to consider the binary principle of boules: do you aim for the jack or do you smash your opponent out of play? As the vitamins kick in, the question assumes existential significance.

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