Etang de Font Merle
The Etang de Font Merle in Mougins is a hidden gem. Most of the year it’s a large open meadow-like park with a very big pond. But in July this pond radically transforms with the blooming of Nelumbo nucifer – the largest lotus colony in Europe.
Although Etang de Font Merle is a little off the beaten track if you love exotic plants, enjoy walking and it’s mentioned on your tour programme, then this park is for you. If your port of call is Cannes your journey time to the Etang is a short twenty minutes drive and under an hour if it’s Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Your coach will bring you to the top end of the Etang de Font Merle where the main car park is. Tucked behind some bushes (but signposted) is the park’s one and only public toilet, a domed, wheel-chair friendly automated self cleaning unit, painted dark green to blend in with the environment.
As you enter the park you’ll see an arrow pointing in the direction you should go. I have yet to obey it instead following my two dogs who invariably like to go round the other way. This route takes you past some wooden picnic benches and a stone water fountain (this fresh water is quite safe to drink and comes from the canal de la Siagne). There are a number of other picnic benches dotted here and there around the park.
Etang de Font Merle
Set against the glorious backdrop of wide open blue skies, the three Baous and foothills of the Prealps (looking even more stunning in winter when snow-capped) this 12 hectare park is edged by a kaleidoscope of trees (Aleppo, Oak and Stone Pines, Holm, Bald Cypress, Weeping Willows and Poplars) and a wide sandy track, perfect for ramblers, joggers, dog walkers and cyclists.
Between the trees and the track lies a huge grassy area where children play games, dogs run around and, in summer, families enjoy picnics. And when the day is over and the park is left silent it’s the turn of wild boar, foxes and Garenne rabbits to meander around it.
By July the once lush green meadow becomes parched and brown and turns into the perfect backdrop for the many wild flowers (Field Scabious, Chicory and Pinks, Gorse, Bramble and Hogweed) and butterflies (Silver-Studded Blue, Marbled White, Ringlet, Speckled Wood and Fritillaries to name just a few) that live within this eco-system.
Your walk should take about half an hour, depending on your speed. But it is the beauty of the lotus that will capture your attention and make you linger. And you’ll find those in the 5-hectare man-made pond at the bottom of the meadow. To avoid incidents (kids and dogs would run in and get very muddy – or stuck), a waist-high narrow wooden fence has been erected around the Etang and through which grow reeds, bulrushes, sedge and iris plants.
Three different types of observation platforms are positioned around the pond.
The one above is located half-way round it, raised on stilts and accessed by steps as the photo shows. It’s a good vantage point and comes with a number of explicative plates (in French) about a few of the birds that visit the Etang.
The second one, also constructed in wood, is much bigger (75m) and juts out into the pond rather like a pontoon. Access is easy as it has no steps and is another good observation point.
There is a planked walkway leading you there and a wooden fence surrounds it. The panelling is wide enough for small dogs to put their heads through and kids to stretch out their hands and throw duck food. This platforms brings you much closer to the lotus and water birds which is great.
The third observation point is flat, much bigger and more open. It has metal railings, (also widely spaced) but is a great observation point and comes with explicative plates about the park and wildlife. There is a bench close by if you wish to sit for a while and watch the world (and birds) go by.
Lastly, there are a number of other explicative plates around the pond and some are in Braille.
The first lotus were planted in 1970. They grow to a maximum height of 30 centimetres with flowers appearing at the end of June or early July which last well into the end of September. The fragrant showy blossoms open for just three days and are usually white or pink with between 15 and 20 oval, spreading petals that can reach 25 centimetres in diameter.
The lotus have adapted so well to the park’s micro-climate that in summer they carpet the entire pond with their huge round leaves – some measuring up to 50 cm across.
The seeds are contained in a large flat, cone-shaped fruit head (or pod). This remains attached to the top of the stalk for quite a while before turning ripe and a deeper green.
The pod then drops off and floats face down in the pond, causing seeds to descend and settle in the mud. By the following spring the seeds have germinated and give rise to new lotus plants.
Come Autumn the majority of lotus have turned brown, covering the Etang in a tangled mass of dying leaves that sink to the bottom of the pond. In winter they have disappeared leaving the surface of the water clear and unobstructed. Walking past you’d never suspect something magical lies beneath the surface.
In 1992, the Etang was dying, invaded by the reed-like Phragmites (a large, exotic perennial grass) which reduced the water surface to 3%. With funding from the General Council of the Alpes-Maritimes department and the commune of Mougins, the reeds were cleared out and the Etang (and the lotus) returned to its former glory. Since then the General Council maintain the pond twice a year, cutting and removing dead vegetation and any returning reed roots.
Water & migrating birds
The Etang de Font Merle is one of the few places where over sixty species of birds have been spotted. Some live here all year round: mallard, ducks, coots, little grebes and moorhens. Kingfishers and grey herons are often seen too.
Little egrets and purple herons come in spring while many duck species winter near the pond. It is also home to threatened protected birds, like the little bittern and great reed warbler which reproduce in the area. As the pond is fairly shallow, carp, tench, eels and various frogs live and spawn there. A very useful little fish has particularly prospered: the Gambusia, which feeds on mosquito larvae and thus protects the environment.
Safety and Security
Due to Promenade de l’Etang that runs parallel to the park being very straight, a few foolish drivers took it as their own Formula 1 track. Complaints were raised so Mougins municipality implanted a number of ‘sleeping policemen’ that have since helped with traffic management.
The municipality also added three large cement chicanes at both ends of the road (primarily to prevent drivers hauling caravans into the main park area). Both have made a big difference for the safety of children and dogs sometimes straying away from the park. Large coaches now come along the Chemin de la Chapelle and park at the top of the park while smaller trucks and vans can get through the chicanes if they’re not too wide. As a byline there is a second, smaller car park midway along Promenade de l’Etang.
Further security is added with the presence of local municipal police who patrol the park at different times of the day. Depending on the time of year I have seen them on sporty bicycles, horseback and nifty BMW motorbikes. I have always found them polite and attentive.
I spy with my little eye…
Can you find this painting by Maurice Gottlob of the Etang de Mougins which he painted in 1949? It’s near the pond but I won’t say where. So look carefully as you walk round and see if you can find it. No prizes if you do – but just a bit of fun.
The Etang de Font Merle (sometimes spelt Etang du Fontmerle) sits on the edge of a larger park known as La Valmasque. This enormous park covers 561 hectares and overlaps the communes of Valbonne and Mougins.
It is divided into four sectors:
• les Clausonnes (167 hectares)
• le Fugueiret (135 hectares)
• Font Merle (154 hectares)
• le Carton (105 hectares)
Le Manoir de l’Etang
If all this walking has opened up your appetite, you may like to wander over to the beautiful hotel-restaurant Le Manoir de l‘Etang for a spot of lunch or dinner. Exit at the bottom of the park and walk along the pavement until you get to the T-junction. Turn left along Avenue de Grasse and the next turning will take you to Le Manoir (you’ll also see a sign). If you’re going by car it’s only 5 minutes away from the park, if that.
Landscaped by Stephen Woodhams, this 19th century bastide sits in four hectares of grounds and is a wonderful retreat. Their chef, Laurent Poulet, offers an excellent menu using seasonal ingredients he changes every day according to his discoveries at the local market. And with outdoor dining overlooking the Etang de Font Merle – this is the perfect place to end a perfect outing.
(Le Manoir de l’Etang is open from 21st March to 31st October. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)
After your walk round the Etang de Font Merle and if you have a little extra time left over you may like to walk back 400 metres along Chemin de la Chapelle and visit Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Vie.