THE CALANQUES OF CASSIS
For our final day in the French Riviera we decided to leave the crowds and glamour of places like Nice, St Tropez, Cannes, and Monaco behind and headed for Cassis. Sitting below impossibly high cliffs, this small resort town still has a relaxed, unpretentious vibe to it that we really enjoyed. It’s situated on the far Western edge of the Côte d’Azur, but is easily accessible by train as it sits along the Marseilles-Nice-Monaco train line. In and of itself the town would be a great place to stop for a few days of R&R, but what really drew us there today were the famous calanques of Cassis.
A calanque is a narrow, steep-walled inlet carved out of limestone or dolomite – like a Mediterranean version of the Nordic fjords. The Massif des Calanques between Marseilles and Cassis is the largest collection of calanques in the world; dozens of inlets are carved into this 20km stretch of coastline.
There are a few ways to see the calanques:
1. By boat – if you happen to have a boat, sailing yourself there is the best way to see the calanques. Just find one you like, drop anchor and enjoy. We saw a bit of that going on today.
2. Kayaking – there’s a place that rents kayaks out in Cassis; from there it’s a short paddle to Port Miou, Port Pin, and En Vau (the first 3 calanques). Just remember to bring your snorkelling gear as there are fish galore in there!
3. Hiking – hundreds of kilometres of walking trails criss cross the rugged terrain around the calanques, and many of the routes lead you down onto sheltered beaches where you can enjoy the turquoise blue waters at your leisure. There were lots of hikers around today, but we chose not to join them, opting instead for the laziest option of all…
4. Cruise – a flotilla of tourist boats awaits in Cassis to take eager, but lazy, travellers like us out onto the Mediterranean to see the calanques from water level. There are cruises of various lengths available; with time up our sleeve we chose to do the longest cruise on the menu and were awash in a sea of bliss for the next 2 hours with scenery like this all around us.
Upon returning to Cassis we strolled around the port for a while, admiring the brightly coloured pointus
(i.e. the double-bowed boats traditionally used by fishermen in the region). Lined up alongside modern speed boats and yachts, the pointus looked small and unassuming. And yet local fishermen still use them to go out for the day’s catch – as they’ve done for the past 2,000 years.
The catch of the day featured on many of the restaurant specials boards around town as le plat du jour; many places serving it as part of their bouillabaisse (i.e. a traditional French fish stew that originates from the nearby port city of Marseille). We found a restaurant we liked the look of in one of the quieter side streets in the old town and lingered over lunch for a while*.
*It’s the law in France I think to linger over lunch.
A post-lunch stroll through the streets of the oldest part of Cassis revealed some lovely old buildings, some dating back as far as the 16th century.
In the heart of town was the central square, where a few grey-haired locals where relaxing in the shade and chatting about the day’s affairs. Nearby groups of older French gentlemen where playing petanque (a form of French bowls), much to the delight of their small audience.
The central square is lined with “Stone of Cassis”, the white limestone quarried out of the surrounding hillsides that Cassis is known for. The stone was used to create the base of the Statue of Liberty, and also in the construction of many important public buildings in Cassis and Marseilles – including the lighthouse. The stone is still quarried nearby and, along with tourism and fishing, is a mainstay of the town’s economy.
Also built of Cassis’ famous stone is 14th century Chateaux de la Maison des Baux, which sits on the hill above Cassis. Unfortunately this impressive edifice is privately owned and closed to the public so we couldn’t go for a visit. What IS open to the public, however, is the local beach – La Plage de Grande Mer. Here we found ourselves joining the locals for a bit of sun and surf, watching boats out in the distance as they cruised the Mediterranean.
Eventually we decided we’d had enough sun and caught the bus back up the hill to the train station (which is inconveniently located 3km out of town). Happy after a great day’s outing, but a little baked from the sun, we were keen to get home. Imagine our disappointment, then, when we arrived at the station only to discover that ALL TRAINS between Marseilles and Nice were not running due to some “technical issue” with the tracks. The guy at the counter was trying his best to find out what was going on and when the issue might be resolved, all whilst fielding questions from irate French grandmothers, loud and angry American tourists, and confused backpackers, all trying to get where they needed to go. Eventually the verdict came back that “…the problem will be fixed, maybe in an hour or maybe in a day”. Errrrr…, what?!
The conversation that ensued went something like this:
Me: So there’s a problem with the ONLY TRAIN LINE between Marseilles and Nice (2 big, busy coastal resort towns), and your train engineers have looked at it, and in their expert opinion, it will take somewhere between 1 and 24 hours to fix this issue?!
Train dude: Yup.
Me: Will buses or other replacement transport be organised?
Train dude: Maybe.
Train dude: Maybe in an hour or maybe tomorrow.
Me: Errrr…, what?!
At this stage a rant about French rail system is required: the trains here are such a mixed bag! Some of the intercity and TGV trains are incredible – clean, comfortable, efficient, etc. But some of the little regional trains are just horrendous – they’re covered in graffiti, dirty, and constantly running late. It makes catching trains around France a bit of a hit and miss affair; we’ve learnt to leave at least 20 minutes between connecting trains just in case, and never to touch the sticky bits on train seats. Ah the joys of travelling!
We decided that a wait of 1 to 24 hours was not really how we wanted to spend our time so we called a taxi to get us just to the next train station that WAS operational and made our way home that way. It took longer and cost us a few extra Euros, but was no big deal in the end. Still, what a pain in the ass! It was worth it though, to have seen the calanques and enjoyed a day in Cassis. Especially as this was our last day by the beach for a while – tomorrow we’re heading inland towards the hills of Provence. See you then!