After the clamour of Cannes, the peace of pines, prayer - and a prison.
So, down to the port, onto a boat and off to the isles. You’re going there to shake the excesses of Cannes out of your hair. Here there is tranquillity. There are also the smoky aromas of the Mediterranean forest, memories of the Man in the Iron Mask and some decent wine.
There are two Lérin islands. Well, there are really four, but two are tiny and may not be visited. We’ll start with much the biggest, the Ile Ste Marguérite, some 10-15 minutes offshore. On arrival, you immediately sense the odours of pine and eucalyptus – and the slight excitement which islands always engender. Now make from the little port to the Fort Royal. Imposing though it looks, it was never much use as a fortress.
Cromwell and Napoleon: related?
But it turned out quite handy as a prison – not least for the Man in the Iron Mask, who was banged up here for 10 years in 1687, and whose identity remains a puzzle. Was he the adulterous brother of Louis XIV, an assassin’s accomplice, a noble debtor or the offspring of an affair between a negro manservant and Queen Marie-Thérèse (wife of Louis XIV)?
No-one knows, and the theories multiply. Some claim the Iron Mask may have been related to Cromwell, others that he was an ancestor of Napoleon. Perhaps he was both. (There’s an eye-popper for historians).
At any event, his cell is preserved – as are those of Protestant pastors imprisoned here during the Wars of Religion. Alongside, there’s a useful little explanation of what the wars (France’s longest, bloodiest internal conflict) were all about.
The Fort also contains the Musée de la Mer (‘Sea Museum’; open daily, adults 3.40 euros, under-25s 2.20 euros. Free for students, under-18s and on the first Sunday of the month. Shut Mondays, except July & August). It covers maritime matters quite well, and boasts some decent treasures hauled up from ancient wrecks – but is not, I think, essential.
I’d prefer to spend time wandering the island’s trails, both through the forest and round the rocky, ragged edges. This is lovely, and easy. Though the biggest island, it’s not very big – barely two miles along and just over half-a-mile across – so you might do it all in a morning or an afternoon. There are a couple of restaurants and two snack-bars on St Marguérite, but I find them pricey. I suggest you either bring a picnic or, after a morning or afternoon of roaming, return to Cannes to eat.
Popes & pilgrims
The second, smaller island, Ile St Honorat is quite different. It’s been infused with spirituality since St Honorat himself showed up there in the 4th-century. He founded a monastery, which went on to become one of the most important in Christendom in medieval times. Popes visited. Pilgrims flocked.
Later it dwindled, and there was the expected hiatus during the French Revolution. But monks returned in the mid-19th-century. And, today, the isle remains in the hands of the 25 Cistercians who live and work there. They allow visitors – asking only that we dress decently (no naturism), don’t make too much noise and, if possible, buy something expensive from the monastery shop.
Spirits for the spititual
So this is an even calmer experience than Ste Marguérite but, I think, just as rewarding. The forest and coastal walking is wonderful, and dotted with chapels. On the island’s southern point stands the 11th-century fortified monastery, its feet in the water. Don’t miss it, especially as entry is free.
The modern-day abbey, in the centre of the island, may not be visited. But have a look at the church and bob into the shop. The monks here, like monks everywhere, have long used this beauty spot to do God’s work of distilling liquor. They have now added to their repertoire some excellent, if pricey, wines from the island’s vines.
They also run – or, at least, oversee – the island’s only restaurant, La Tonnelle (04 92 99 54 18). It’s open daily, midday only, and in a lovely spot – but hellishly expensive for those who might have been obliged to take vows of poverty (or even of tight-budgeting).
There’s a weekday, two-course lunch for 24.70 euros. Beyond that, prices shoot up to nearer 27 euros for a main course. Cheapest of the island’s white wines are 51.70 euros a bottle. As on Ste Marguérite, I’d take a picnic, or return to the mainland to eat.