More often than not, the mention of the French Riviera conjures up images of the famous faces of yesteryear sunning themselves in Saint Tropez, the world-renowned Festival de Cannes (Cannes Film Festival) and Mr Moneybags’ playground, Monaco. Glitzy goings-on aside, the Mediterranean coast is home to one of France’s most impressive natural landscapes. Stretching from Marseille, France’s second city, to Cassis, a scenic fishing port, the Parc National des Calanques is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline I have ever set eyes on.
After picking up viennoiseries and a baguette from a nearby bakery, we set off for the station to catch the 08:35 train to Cassis. Just over a quarter of an hour later, the train pulled in and we set off on a 3km walk into town, passing vineyards, olive trees and blackcurrant bushes en route. (Walking turned out to be faster than waiting for the bus, so we were glad we hadn’t wasted time hanging around at the station.) After taking a few snaps of the colourful port, we continued walking towards the Parc National des Calanques. I quickly realised that you can scour Google Images as much as you like, but it will never quite replicate the feeling of being there. Pictures, quite simply, don’t do this magical national park justice. (Not that that stopped me from trying.)
I should probably preface this by explaining what a calanque actually is, for those not familiar with the area and/ or French. In essence, a calanque is a rocky inlet – defined by Wikipedia as a “narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone, dolomite, or other carbonate strata and found along the Mediterranean coast” – not dissimilar in shape to the fjords of Scandinavia. Following the dotted pink lines on our map (aka the Grande Randonnée path, GR51-GR98), we headed off in the direction of Calanque de Port Miou, the first of the calanques when approaching the park from Cassis. As it’s so easily accessible on foot – a thirty minute stroll from the entrance to the park at most – there were large numbers of people here, in assorted garments: velvet jackets, corduroy trousers, flip flops, skinny jeans, bikinis.
The Calanque de Port Miou was filled with boats, masts bobbing in the breeze. The last day of October was unseasonably warm, and it wasn’t long before we were stuffing our fleeces into our rucksacks. Before long, we reached the Calanque de Port Pin, where crystal clear water lapped onto the shore. People were beginning to stake out patches of the shoreline, and some eager beavers had already taken to the (freezing cold) water for a swim. A few tour boats entered the calanque, but most stayed for less than five minutes before turning round and heading back into open water.
Leaving Port Pin behind, we veered onto the coastal path towards Calanque d’en Vau; we followed the trail marked in blue (itinerary #4 on the map), finally escaping from the crowds. Along the way, we came upon a superb viewpoint and decided to stop for lunch and admire the view; we certainly weren’t the only people with that idea. Limestone cliffs shelved steeply, foliage burst out of cracks in the rock and a sliver of aquamarine water filled the void at the base of the rock face.
Tucking into our picnic lunch, we couldn’t quite believe our luck – it was the tail end of October, and we had blue skies with barely a cloud in sight and temperatures in excess of 20°C. After lunch, we took a few pictures before realising we had a rather unwelcome guest. Having grown up playing Top Trumps Dangerous Predators (amongst other versions of this marvellous card game), I promptly edged away from this creature which bore an uncanny resemblance to a praying mantis. (I later Googled it, and discovered that there is such thing as the European Praying Mantis. At the time, I was just relieved it hadn’t crawled into my bag!)
Since time was on our side, we decided to reroute ourselves and follow the red trail (itinerary #7 on the map) down to the beach of Calanque d’en Vau. We passed some gorgeous lilac-coloured fauna and more incredible vistas before making our descent.
Rock climbers scaled the cliffs while we scooted down the scree slope towards the beach. At the foot of the cliffs, I felt absolutely minuscule.
We relaxed on the beach for a little while, until we began to feel chilly and felt it best to head back. Neither of us had fully anticipated the effort required to haul ourselves back up the scree slope – we’re more used to sliding down them!
Once back at the top of the cliffs, we followed the GR path back to Cassis, arriving in time to catch the sunset casting a warm glow over the port.
After purchasing an ice cream to share – blackcurrant and banana chocolate split – we sat by the beach watching the sunset. By the time we began to walk back uphill to the station, it was dark; our train back to Marseille was delayed, but we were too happy to care about the SNCF’s inability to run trains on time.
- Although the park is well-signposted, the IGN “Les Calanques: De Marseille À Cassis” (1:15,000) is a helpful resource, featuring several itineraries. I also find it’s much easier to gauge the distance you’ve covered when armed with a map! Most newsagents (tabacs) and bookshops (libraries) will stock them; I bought mine at Marseille’s main train station.
- Over the summer, there’s a risk of wildfires in the Parc National des Calanques, due to high temperatures and the fierce mistral. Regardless of the time of year you plan to visit, it’s advisable to check access online prior to visiting; orange or red means people are free to circulate in the park whilst black means the park (or a particular section of it) is off-limits. Calanques13.com is a particularly useful site for this.
(I’m also rather chuffed at my new-found ability to write rhyming titles in French.)