I first discovered l'Etang de Font Merle in 2007 and what a hidden gem that turned out to be. Most of the year it's a nice park but then, come July, the pond bursts into life with the blossoming of Nelumbo nucifer - the largest lotus colony in Europe.
So you can imagine that it was one of the first notes I put in my calender when I came back to live in France – a return visit in July to see these beautiful lotus flowers in bloom.
The best time to visit is really early morning during a week day if you can manage it. Then the day is peaceful and still fresh before it becomes crowded and the heat from Mediterranean sun hits hard and relentlessly. By July the once lush green grass is now golden brown – the perfect backdrop for the many wild flowers and butterflies that have made this park their home.
Swathes of Field Scabious, Chicory and Pinks rub shoulders with Gorse, Bramble and Hogweed – a delight for the variety of butterflies that live within this eco-system. During the hour I was there I saw Silver-Studded Blue, Marbled White, Ringlet, Speckled Wood and Fritillaries.
The entrance and exit to the park is now regulated by four very large cement bollards situated at both ends of the road (a caravan deterrent) but other than that I found the park much as it was when I first saw it.
By the weekend the park is heaving with people of all ages seriously intent on jogging or cycling and parking gets difficult. But by arriving early you nearly have the park to yourself – which is an absolute joy.
The Etang Font Merle
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)
The Font Merle is bordered by 12 hectares of open meadow and edged by a kaieidoscope of trees; Aleppo, Oak and Stone Pines, Holm, Bald Cypress, Weeping Willows and Poplars.
In and around the pond (with a surface area of 5 hectares) are reeds, bulrushes, sedge and iris plants. In summer bramble and sloe bushes squabble for space.
The park is also visited by wild boar, foxes and Garenne rabbits who cleverly keep well out of sight. But the main attraction are the lotus plants as the pond is home to the largest lotus colony in Europe: Nelumbo nucifera from Asia.
This exquisite flower was first implanted in the pond in 1970. Growing from the mud at the bottom of the pond, it rises above the water on stems sometimes 2 metres high. The fragrant showy blossoms, which open for just three days, are usually white or pink with 15 or more oval, spreading petals, and can reach 25 centimetres in diameter. The dark green leaves can measure up to 1 metre across but in winter they totally disappear and you would never suspect something magical lies beneath the surface.
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 much darker green. The pod then drops off and floats face down in the pond, allowing seeds to gently drift down to the bottom and settle in the mud. By the following spring the seeds have germinated and give rise to new lotus plants.
There are two man-made vantage points from where you can get a good look of the pond and its wildlife; with one platform depicting pictures of the local bird life. Thoughtfully, a few wooden picnic benches have been installed although disappointingly no doggy toilets – so watch out for dog poo everywhere if you’ve young children running around.
It appears that all parts of the lotus plants are edible and considered a culinary delicacy. The immature seeds can be eaten raw or cooked and have a chestnut-like flavour. Ripe seeds are roasted and ground into flour, or boiled to extract oil. Lotus roots produce starchy tubers and have the taste of sweet potato. The young, unrolled leaves are cooked as a vegetable.
But perhaps this beautiful plant is better known as an extremely important spiritual symbol in Eastern religions. It represents purity, divine wisdom, and the individual’s progress from the lowest to the highest state of consciousness.
Water & migrating birds
Apart from the wonderful display of lotus flowers, the Font Merle pond 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 can also often be seen.
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.
While we were there we saw a number of ducks and a few birds, but heard many more. 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.
In 1992, the Font Merle pond was dying, invaded by the reed-like Phragmites, which reduced the water surface to 3%.
With funding from the General Council of the Alpes Maritimes département and the commune of Mougins, the reeds were cleared out and now half of the five hectares are again covered in water. Obviously, to protect the ecosystem no hunting or fishing is allowed.
If you are worried about visiting this park on your own – don’t be. There are police patrols cycling round the park keeping a watch on both the park and its visitors.
Le Manoir de l’Etang
All this exercise will certainly open up your appetite, so the beautiful hotel-restaurant Le Manoir de l‘Etang situated on the edge of the Etang de Font Merle and within easy walking distance, is ideally located for a spot of lunch or dinner.
Set in four hectares of land, which was landscaped by Stephen Woodhams, this 19th century bastide is surprisingly Provençal in style and a wonderful retreat.
Their restaurant serves wonderful menus created by their chef, Laurent Poulet, all based on seasonal ingredients which change every day according to what he finds in the market. And with outdoor eating overlooking the pond – this would be the perfect place to end a lovely outing.
(Le Manoir de l’Etang is open from 21st March to 31st October. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)