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Magazine Latitudes | Discover France : Lerins Islands

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Discover France :

Lerins Islands

Dominique Anger

4 November 2017

When you tire of the crowds at the Cannes Film Festival and its beaches invaded by multicolored umbrellas, a ten-minute boat ride will take you to breathe in the pure air of the Lérins Islands.

The archipelago consists of two main islands and several small islets. In Sainte-Marguerite, the largest of the isles, 3km long and 900m wide, covered almost entirely with pines and eucalyptus trees, you will not have to wait long to meet all the inhabitants, because fewer than 20 people live permanently in this corner of paradise.

The activity on the island is concentrated mainly in the small fishing village, which is also the location of all the bars and restaurants. The geology of the island, which does not allow the soil to retain rainwater, largely explains its small number of inhabitants over the centuries. However, the Romans had been among these few inhabitants, as evidenced by the ruins of a city and immense cisterns designed to collect rainwater, visible in the museum of the Sea.

During the day, a favorite pastime is getting lost in the pine forest that covers virtually the entire surface of the island, crisscrossed by kilometers of paths leading up to creeks protected by the natural preservation society. You can also opt for the shade and visit Fort Royal, built by Richelieu and perfected by Vauban. It is this fortress which imprisoned the famous and mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, whose identity was never truly established: the adulterous brother of Louis XIV, an accomplice in the “Affair of the Poisons”, Madame de Brinvilliers, or even an Italian spy, all remain viable theories.

On Sainte-Marguerite, as well as on Saint-Honorat, we also find the famous furnaces, built by order of Napoleon Bonaparte and intended to heat cannonballs up to over 1,000 degrees Celsius in under 10 minutes, cannonballs which were then sent as a welcome gift to enemy ships! The Bateguier pond is also a nice spot to visit, where you can admire the many species of birds that come to reproduce here in peace during the migration season.

Many legends circulate about the origin of the island’s name, the most famous of which is as follows: Marguerite was the sister of Honorat d’Arles (Saint-Honorat). In the 5th century, she headed a religious community on the island. Her brother, living on the neighboring island, could not welcome her, for the island was forbidden to women. Honorat told her that he would come to see her once a year when the almond trees were in bloom. In her despair, Marguerite addressed prayers to heaven with such fervor that the almond trees began to bloom every month !

Saint-Honorat Island

The second treasure of this small archipelago is located a few hundred meters off the coast of Sainte-Marguerite. A little smaller, but just as lush, it takes its name from its most famous inhabitant: Honorat d’Arles or Saint-Honorat. In the year 410 AD he left the city in search of calm and seclusion, and took refuge on the island of Lero which had been deserted after a terrible earthquake followed by a tsunami, and invaded by snakes. He cleansed the island of its unwanted residents by simply lifting his hand and turning the living snakes into corpses instantly. No one could say his sainthood wasn’t well deserved! It was in memory of this miracle that the coat of arms of the Lérins Abbey was created, representing two serpents entwined around a palm tree. However, little by little, Honorat’s place of retreat became known, and his disciples came flocking back to him. He then created the monastery, which became one of the most powerful and influential in Europe. Many of the faithful were buried within its walls.

In 662, Saint Aigulphe, also called the Abbot of Lérins, established the monastic Benedictine order on the premises. The monastery survived for centuries, persevering through wars, the abductions of monks and larcenies of all kinds until 1788, the date of the convent’s closure. Following the revolution, it was sold and after having passed through the hands of several private owners, it was restored to the order in 1859. Since then, it has belonged to the twenty Cistercian monks of the Sénanque congregation.
The monastery is open to visitors, as well as the chapel, the ramparts and the famous cannonball furnaces.

Finally, if you’ve tired of ancient stones, the island offers you a small visit to the Club of Friends of the Vineyard of Saint-Honorat which manages the production and distribution of the island’s wine. The 8 hectares attached to the monastery produce more than 35,000 bottles a year, some of which appear on the menus of major names in French official gastronomy, such as the Hotel Matignon, the Elysée Palace and the National Assembly!

How to go
www.compagnie-maritime-napouloise.com

Where to eat
La Guérite : www.restaurantlaguerite.com
L’Escale : +33 (0)4 93 43 49 25
La Tonnelle : +33 (0)4 92 99 54 08

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