Into the blue

With tiny secluded beaches, soaring chalk-white cliffs and sparkling azure water, Les Calanques is a truly unique French wonder. Mark Stratton falls in love with a very special place

With tiny secluded beaches, soaring chalk-white cliffs and sparkling azure water, Les Calanques is a truly unique French wonder. Mark Stratton falls in love with a very special place

It is little wonder Les Calanques is earmarked to become France’s newest national park. Spanning 14 inlets indenting the coastline between Marseille and Cassis, the name given to these limestone fjords derives from a Roman (although some say Corsican) word calanca, meaning long sheltered place. And it’s a truly special location; boasting secluded beaches and great hikes, and ending with Europe’s highest sea-cliff, the 362-metre-high Cap Canaille just outside the pretty harbour town of Cassis.

Hiking is the way to explore Les Calanques because no public roads exist inside, so I lace up my boots and set off. I’m trekking into Cassis’ closest calanque, Port Miou, with hiking-guide, Gilles Panzani, following a 17th-century chemin over limestone bedrock polished like marble by centuries of feet. It traces the 1.5 kilometre-long sea-filled inlet that harbours over 400 permanently moored yachts from an inland quarry where durable Cassis stone was once extracted for constructions as grandiose as the Statue of Liberty. Besides steep surrounding cliffs studded with Aleppo pines, I am immediately purring at the rich turquoise clarity of the sea. These Mediterranean fjords were fashioned first by fluvial erosion then flooded by rising sea-levels as the Ice Age melted around 19,000 years ago, leaving a spectacular legacy.Rich resources“Les Calanques’ real wealth is its nature,” Gilles enthuses. Amid the pines, dry calcium soils support a mosaic of plants such as rosemary, thyme, orchids and endemic herbe � Gouff�. “The Calanques is unusual because the hot dry summers produce few flowers. You see more in wintertime,” he explains.

We search without success for Europe’s longest snake, the Montpellier viper, but instead see poisonous centipedes, Spanish festoon butterflies and pretty red-legged partridges. “The hunters love this bird,” whispers Gilles, “as it’s good to eat”. New park rules may limit hunters to several days shooting per week – something that hasn’t gone down too well in that fraternity.

“We French are not good at being told we can’t do what we want, when we want,” Gilles says smiling. A relaxing drive from here to Marseille along the scenic D559 via Col de la Gineste takes in blistering panoramas of the Calanques’ calamine-coloured gullied massif. Marseille offers abundant hotels and restaurants plus myriad routes into the western Calanques via foot and boat, so I settle in for three nights at the harbour-facing La R�sidence in Marseille’s historic Vieux Port; enjoying the ebb-and-flow of the port’s sailboats. Departing from Vieux Port I’d heartily recommend a pleasure-boat cruise along the Calanques to appreciate its sea-facing perspective.

The boat trip proves a spectacular introduction. It is immediately evident how Marseille’s urban sprawl has subsumed the western Calanques so that both city and scenery are proverbially joined at the hip. However, eastwards of �le Ma�re, the coastline fuses elements of Norwegian fjords with Croatian Dalmatia as wilderness shines through. Sometimes stark and blanched white, sometimes speckled by pine forests, the coast is sculpted by caves and islets. Near Le Devenson, limestone slabs peel away like sliced bread while islands float like scoops of ricotta cheese. Off-limits, some 37 metres underwater, La Grotte Cosquer cavern possesses an air-bubble preserving Palaeolithic cave-art, from handprints to penguins, drawn during lower Ice Age sea-levels, while the Calanque d’En-Vau is famed for its vertical cliffs and crystalline seawater striped by posidonie waterweed. By late morning it is chock-a-block with yachts, scuba-divers and kayakers.

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“Inside En-Vau during summertime you can get 500 people on the beach and 60 yachts – it can be chaos,” says Cyril Gombert, director of Naturoscope, to whom I spoke later. His environmental organisation provides summer dinghy patrols, Les Patrouilles Bleues, to advise boat users on safe and sensitive seamanship. “Jacques Cousteau considered the Archipelago Riou (an existing marine reserve) as a world class dive site. The undersea cliffs are covered with corals and gorgonians (sea-fans). It’s spectacularly beautiful but fragile,” enthuses Cyril.

Cousteau filmed his groundbreaking Le Monde du Silence here in 1952, but overuse of the area worries Cyril, so he moots hypothetical measures to prevent this, such as limiting hikers heading into the national park on a first-come-first-served basis. “You must earn the right to enjoy the Calanques,” he says. I heed his advice that afternoon to earn’ my Calanques by hiking solo – not a moment too soon after the previous evening’s fabulously filling bouillabaisse.

Marseille’s excellent public transport system operates frequent buses to the Calanques’ outskirts – not least bus number 21 to the trailhead of an easy introductory hike from the Luminy university campus. Here, the trail to the Calanque de Sugiton is a joyfully French affair. A stream of families and friends trek in on a baking Mediterranean afternoon with baguettes and copies of Le Figaro rather than walking-poles and maps and, who knows, perhaps even a drop of vin de Cassis in water-bottles? The pine-forested path is splashed with cherry blossom and trills with birdsong while sunlit glades flutter with vivacious tequila sunrise-coloured brimstone butterflies. Breaks in the forest revealed the Calanques’ highest peak, Mont Puget (565 metres), dotted with climbers grappling its grey massif. This coast offers some of France’s most technically demanding climbs.

During the walk, I really begin to appreciate why this landscape is so cherished locally. The pines have dwindled away to stunted les garrigues communities of pubescent holm-oaks near the sea-cliffs where I plan to descend to Sugiton beach. But before doing so, I divert onto a needle-sharp watershed signposted belv�d�re’ where a jutting headland facing the sparkling Mediterranean offers a Kate Winslet Titanic moment. Only, while Kate had acres of boring ocean ahead, the creamy cliffs around me tumbled away for nearly 400 metres into the narrow slit of the Calanque de Morgiou where the sea shimmies spectral-bursting shades of blue. It is simply breathtaking.

Hungry for more Calanques � pied, I hike in next morning in the pleasurable company of Bertrand Laville – with advance notice the Marseille Tourist Office will arrange greeters’; Marseillais who volunteer to show visitors around and share their local insight. Former engineer and one-time goalie for the 1960s’ French water-polo team, Bertrand takes me on another popular walk into the Calanques to Marseilleveyre. His rich tapestry of tales helps me understand why the Calanques has long seeped into the Marseillais’ collective psyche. By La Pointe-Rouge, the coastal plain is positively lunar; scraped clear of vegetation by the fierce mistral. “Each month we get 100kph mistrals when it’s hard to stand up, but today is a baby mistral, a cool breeze,” reassures Bertrand.

By Callelongue, the road has fizzled out and it is time to walk. For the energetic, the GR51/98 coastal track (occasionally more suited to mountain goats) runs to Cassis at least ten hours away. We follow this along a craggy wave-cut platform for about an hour to Marseilleveyre, which translates as to see Marseille’ in old Occitan, recognising the unencumbered views eastwards, once vital for spotting enemy ships and thus Marseille’s defence. That enemy was once the British. At a ruined fortification, Bertrand explains how in 1793 Napol�on Bonaparte sailed past in a company of warships.

“Bonaparte was asked if they should fire on a handful of British soldiers (still occupying Toulon at that time) who watched from where we sit now. But Napol�on replied don’t waste our bullets’.” Ironically, one of those soldiers, Sir Hudson Lowe, would later be Napol�on’s jailer and tormentor upon Saint Helena. The views here are sensational. The Archipelago Riou seemingly hovers in the heat haze and I can see all the way back to Cap Canaille and beyond to the angular rock formation Le Bec d’Aigle; apt because Calanques hosts rare Bonelli eagles.

We certainly aren’t alone this morning as crowds of walkers traipse to the Calanque de Sormiou’s popular plage, which possesses a little beach restaurant. “We say walking here on a Sunday is like walking along La Canebi�re (Marseille’s main high street),” jokes Bertrand. Finally, pausing opposite the �le de Jarre on our return, Bertrand settles down for more theatre – the legend of Le Grand Saint Antoine. “It was a Marseille commerce ship that sailed to the Middle East in 1743 to trade goods but became infected by plague,” he starts. Despite being put in quarantine, the backers wanted their goods and after greasing a few palms, the ship surreptitiously unloaded its cargo in Marseille. “Within eight days, plague had broken out in the city and more than 40,000 died,” he continues. The ship now lies scuppered off Jarre. “Everybody knows where this ship sunk even 200 years later,” he reflects, “it was the last great epidemic of Marseille but people remember it like it was yesterday.” 

With its stunning landscape, rich wildlife and cultural resonance, Les Calanques undoubtedly warrants national park status. This may now be formalised early next year. But at this moment, in the throes of such beauty, labels seem unimportant.

 

FRANCOFILE

 

GETTING THEREBy rail: Mark Stratton travelled from London to Paris on Eurostar where return tickets start from �69 booked in advance. Tel: 08432 186 186 www.eurostar.com From Paris to Marseille single fares start from �19.50 booked by Rail Europe. Tel: 0844 848 4070www.raileurope.co.uk 

By road: Marseille is just under ten-hours’ drive from the northern ferry ports.By air: Marseille has its own international airport

WHERE TO STAYH�tel la R�sidence du Vieux Port18 Quai du Port13002 MarseilleTel: (Fr) 4 91 91 91 22www.hotelmarseille.com

Cassitel H�telPlace Cl�menceau13260 CassisTel: (Fr) 4 42 01 83 44www.hotel-cassis.com

Where to eatLa Poissonnerie Laurent6 Quai Jean-Jacques Barth�l�my13260 CassisTel: (Fr) 4 42 01 71 56 www.lapoissonnerie.fr 

Restaurant Miramar12 Quai du Port13002 Marseille Tel: (Fr) 4 91 91 10 40www.bouillabaisse.com

ACTIVITIESIcard MaritimeQuai de la Fraternit�13002 Marseille Tel: (Fr) 4 91 33 03 29www.visite-des-calanques.com Marseille Greeterswww.marseilleprovencegreeters.com

FURTHER?INFORMATIONMarseille Tourist OfficeTel: (Fr) 8 26 50 05 00 www.marseille-tourisme.com

Cassis Tourist OfficeTel: (Fr) 8 92 25 98 92www.ot-cassis.com

Provence-Alpes-C�te D’Azur Regional Tourist Board61 La Canebi�re  13001 Marseille Tel: (Fr) 4 91 56 47 00 www.cotedazur-tourisme.com