Hyères sits on the cusp between rustic Western Provence and the cosmopolitan Côte d'Azur. There's a lot to see here, from the gorgeous coastline and islands to its many layers of history.
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This is a guide to the town centre of Hyères. Click here to read about Porquerolles Island. We'll be adding a full report on the beaches, coastal strip and salt marshes of Hyères' Giens peninsula in due course.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
The Greeks landed here in the fourth century BC, baptising their settlement "the Blessed Olbia". They were duly followed by the Romans and you can visit the archeological remains of this ancient colony at the beginning of the Giens peninsula, on either a guided or a self-guided tour.
Cut to the eleventh century, when the Knights of Fos built a fortified castle on the top of nearby Castéou Hill. Over the next centuries the expanding mediaeval town cascaded down the slopes all around it.
In the 18th and 19th centuries Hyères surged forward again when it became an early choice for wealthy Britons to spend the winter. The Prince of Wales (later King George IV) set the trend in 1788 and 1789. Later many more aristocrats from artists from Northern Europe and North America followed suit.
Leo Tolstoy, George Sand and Robert Louis Stevenson were among Hyères' many distinguished guests and it received another royal seal of approval when Queen Victoria visited in 1892.
There were good reasons why Hyères became the premier winter resort on France's south coast.
It lies out of the main path of the Mistral, Provence's legendary (and notorious) wind - even if it's not totally sheltered from it, as we discovered during our own visit!
The year-round climate is clement enough to support orange trees and stunning subtropical gardens. Pictured: the terraced Saint Bernard gardens one of the town's four "remarkable gardens" (the term is an official French government seal of excellence).
In the early 19th century palms were cultivated here commercially and the town counted some 1.25 million. Today around 100,000 remain, and the town occasionally calls itself Hyères les Palmiers (though this isn't its official name).
Nice, which later became Hyères' main rival for winter tourism, was out of the running in the early 19th century when it was still part of strife-torn Italy.
And the new railway line from Paris only went as far as Toulon, where a grand station was built in 1859 as part of Baron Haussmann's remoulding of that city. The aristocrats would travel on from Toulon in a horse-drawn carriage until Hyères finally got its own station in 1875.
In the 20th century the picture changed again, when tourism turned towards summer and the sea. The grand hotels in Hyères' downtown district - which was 4 km / 2.5 miles from the beaches - gradually closed down or turned into schools or private apartments. One of the most lavish, the Park Hotel, is now the home of the Tourist Office and municipal archives.
Hyères hasn't been abandoned by celebs and beautiful people. Each April it's the base for the annual Festival of Fashion and Photography, when leading names from the world of haute couture such as Kurt Lagerfeld descend on the town. Access to many of these glamorous events is free. There's also a smaller festival devoted to new young designers in July.
Pictured: the Casino des Palmiers, inaugurated in 1902.
The centre of Hyères can be divided into roughly two areas, each with its own distinct character: the mainly mediaeval Old Town and the 19th century quarter, when Hyères developed as a winter resort for the great and the good.
The Tourist Office offers free annotated maps with two suggested itineraries. It estimates that each one will take about ninety minutes, depending, of course, on your walking speed and how long you stop at each sight.
We did both circuits in one morning, but it was something of a rush and you should try to schedule them for two separate half days. Alternatively, you might well prefer just to wander around at random and enjoy making your own discoveries.
THE OLD TOWN
The tour of the Old Town (Vieille Ville) involves some steep climbs, so is best done when it's not too hot. Wear sensible shoes, as the streets are cobbled and there's a particularly uneven section right at the top of the hill. If you want to go up there without the climb, you can drive: there's a car-park by the castle.
From the bottom of the hill, the main entrance into the fortified Old Town is through the Porte Massillon and along the rue Massillon where there are some nice, if rather touristy little shops selling local produce, crafts and souvenirs.
The place Massillon, pictured, is a focal point for cafés, bars and nightlife in the town centre (the latter was not much in evidence on our visit on a sleepy April Monday).
From here you weave under archways and up narrow alleys lined with ancient stone houses and bright with flowers and shrubs. Two of the prettiest streets are the passage Jules Romain and the rue du Repos, so called because it once led to the oldest cemetery in Hyères.
The Old Town is jam-packed with historic buildings too numerous to list in full here. But you might watch out for the 13th century Tour des Templiers (Knights Templar Tower) which houses temporary exhibitions, the Porte Peñiscola with a Renaissance house built above it, the Romanesque Saint Paul Collegiate Church with its huge collection of ex voto offerings and the Castel Sainte Claire.
This 19th century villa once belonged to the American writer Edith Wharton who used it as a winter residence. Planted with exotic trees and shrubs from around the world, the lovely gardens are open to the public.
As you climb the hill you travel back in time: the higher you go, the older the buildings, broadly speaking. Near the top are some Neolithic slabs and the town's eleventh century castle, now ruined but still commanding strategic and sensational views across the town, peninsula, salt flats, beaches, sea and islands.
It was built in the late 1920s by the great architect Robert Mallet-Stevens for Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles, wealthy art patrons from Paris.
The Villa (closed, alas, when we visited) remains dedicated to the arts. In fact it's probably the leading cultural venue in a town that's otherwise a little short on museums and galleries.
The Villa Noailles also has its own superb terraced Saint Bernard Garden, panoramic look-out point and even a mini-maze. Website for the Villa Noailles.
THE 19TH CENTURY QUARTER
Accompanied by the gentle plashing of fountains, the 19th century tour of Hyères is a sedate stroll through elegant squares and along long, wide boulevards lined with palm trees, shops, villas and hotels.
You can't go inside most of these grand hotels. But their ornate and grandiose façades, from the vast, canary-yellow expanse of the Grand Hôtel des Îles d'Or to the dignified caryatides of the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs, are breathtaking.
And the theatre and grand casino are still in use today. Walking round this part of town it's easy to imagine yourself back in Hyères' fabulous Golden Age.
The area bears the mark of one of Hyères' most generous benefactors: Alexis Godillot. Godillot was a manufacturer of military boots whose fortune came from two clever inventions. He devised a way of making shoes waterproof, and he designed differently shaped shoes for the left and right foot.
Amazingly no-one had thought of this latter idea before but, as we know, it caught on. Two slang French words for "shoe", "godillot" and (the more common) "godasse" are named after him.
Drawing on his wealth (we can't resist the temptation to call it "booty"), Godillot developed Hyères, along with his favourite architect, Pierre Chapoulart.
He was also a shareholder in the iron foundry which made Wallace drinking fountains and donated many of these to the town (one of them is pictured top left), as well as the monumental Godillot Fountain, the centrepiece of the great avenue that also bears his name.
Godillot's own villa is an eccentric affair, part Norman style, part traditional 19th century. Chapoulart's own Tunisian villa is inspired by Moorish architecture. We also liked Aux Dames de France, a beautiful Belle Epoque department store that's still used as a shopping centre.
Don't miss the Anglican Church of Saint Paul, which looks as though it should be in a London Home Counties village. It's the only surviving one of the three English churches which Hyères boasted in the 19th century (it's now deconsecrated).
Outside a plaque, pictured above, announces that only voitures suspendues (rich visitors' high, horse-drawn carriages) are allowed to use the avenue. In other words, no peasant carts and farm wagons!
The Tourist Office of Hyères is at the Rotonde du Park Hotel, avenue de Belgique, 83400 Hyères. Tel: (+33) 4 94 01 84 50.
Its website is extremely good and comprehensive. And it's translated (properly and not, as you see on all too many French sites by a computer!) into English, German, Italian and Japanese.
Hyères' largest weekly street market is held on Saturday morning on the place Clémenceau, near the Tourist Office.
How to get to and from Hyères:
Click here for the train timetable. Select timetable no.1 (Marseille-Toulon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page.
N.B. Timetable no.2 (Marseille to Les Arcs Draguignan) lists La Pauline-Hyères as one of its stops. However this station is six km / 10 miles out of the centre. These trains do not run to the main Hyères station, which is on place de l'Europe, 83400 Hyères, around one km / 0.6 miles from the centre.
If you are approaching Hyères from Nice, you will need to change trains in Toulon.
By car: From Marseille take the A50, A57 and A570 motorways. From Nice take the A8 and A57 motorways. There is a list of free and paid-for municipal car-parks on the Hyères Town Hall website.
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By bus: Hyères is served by two bus companies, Var Libre and Réseau Mistral. Their routes connect with the airport and with towns in the surrounding area including Saint Tropez, Toulon, Brignoles, Saint Maximin, Le Lavandou, Cogolin, Saint Raphaël and Fréjus.
There is a list of these on the Town Hall website, with links to the relevant timetables. The bus station (gare routière) is on the place Maréchal Joffre, near the Tourist Office.
By air: Toulon-Hyères airport is very near the beaches and quite close to the town centre. However few international airlines fly there. Alternatively, Marseille-Provence airport (106 km / 67 miles) is somewhat closer than Nice (144 km / 89 miles).
Photo credits (from top): © Hyères Tourisme (two images), Casino des Palmiers, Julia Maudlin for Flickr, Hyères Tourisme, SJ for Marvellous Provence.