Hiking the Calanques Near Cassis

Take your pick.IMG_3492

On either a cloudy day along the Mediterranean coast or a sunny one on which  you’d like to reach to a more secluded beach, hiking the calanques west of Cassis makes for an enjoyable outing. (We chose the gray day — last Thursday — and saved the sunny one  for the beach in town).

Cut into limestone formed 120 million years ago, the IMG_3478calanques are fingers of water — sort of mini-fjords — along the coastline.  For just a little more than two years, the calanques from La Ciotat to Cassis to Marseille have been classified as a French National Park, the first such “sea, land and peri-urban” park in Europe, according to Cassis’ tourist and convention office. (No, don’t ask me to define that.)

It’s possible to hike to one, two or three calanques from Cassis. The third, the most IMG_3472rugged, requires four hours and a “difficult descent to the beach,” the village’s brochure says. We had planned on the first two, a two-hour roundtrip, but settled, on a pretty wild and windy day, for just the first, an hour-and-a-half-loop.  We took our time though and spend another hour en route. It’s a good space to dawdle, with views of water, rock and boats, and the chance to brace against the wind.

Unlike Port-Pin, our intended destination, Port-Miou doesn’t have a beach. It’s a harbor for more than 500 pleasure boats.  The hike doesn’t seem like much at first. It winds through Cassis’ streets, past some elegant homes, but without dramatic views of the ocean.

Once we hit the end of the calanque, however, the trail got a lot prettier. It looped around what’s called sentier du Petit Prince — trail of the Little Prince — which I’ll explain in a minute.  One appealing aspect of the walk is that every so often there is a sign that describes the area’s history.  (These are in French only.) The other is that you’ll be treated to a series of pretty dramatic views of Cap Canaille, the 1,300-foot cliff and bluff that dominates the port of Cassis and changes colors depending on the time of day and light.IMG_3481

I’d recommend wearing good footwear even for the first calanque. There are times you’ll need to scramble over rock. Carry water, too.

This Port Miou area used to house a limestone quarry.  In fact, the base of the Statue of Liberty comes from this quarry as do the imposing stairs leading to the massive train station in Marseille.

As we walked out of the harbor and further along the first calanque, waves dashed against the rocks, very much as they do along the Maine or California coast.

“There are no IMG_3486guard rails,” Kathy said. “You get right to the edge.”  It’s true. The French tend not to fret in the same way we Americans do and trust that tourists will be careful.

Guard rails or not, the calanques present a barren and rocky landscape.  Which in a way ties back to the name of the trail: Sentier du Petit Prince.

It’s believed that the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de St. Exupéry, crashed somewhere off IMG_3482of this coastline on July 31, 1944, toward the end of World War II.  A sign along the route suggests that when the Little Prince describes the moonscape of his imaginary planet as le plus beau et le plus triste paysage du monde (the most beautiful and saddest countryside in the world), he was referring to this region.

Was he really? Who knows.

But it surely makes for a nice story along a peaceful and scenic walk.



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