Monday, March 12, 2012

Cassis

The seaside town of Cassis is a little off the beaten path; I can see how the short distance from the highway that leads from Aix-en-Provence to Toulon can take hours to travel in the summertime at the height of tourist season. Portrayed as “a bustling fishing port” in the Michelin Guide, I’d lean more towards a description of “popular resort town,” as even in these colder days of March the beaches and cafés were full of people taking advantage of the sun. We chose Cassis for our next destination after Avignon because of the location. To the east are the towering cliffs of the Canaille and to the west the world-famous calanques.


We arrived at the Hôtel Le Clos des Aromes shortly before dinner after a bit of trouble. Google maps pointed us into old town and had us turning down the tiniest little streets, many of which were not navigable as they were torn up in preparation for new cobblestones. After two tours into and around on one-way streets that seemed to only lead us further from our destination we finally found a hotel sign over a door. Roberts checked us in and came back out to drive us to the parking spot they had for us, and after another maddening trip all the way out and back into town we ended up on the street that we originally drove in on – right in front of the other entrance to the hotel! As we were busy trying to navigate to the opposite side the address was leading us to, we had missed seeing the signage and front door; at that moment I understood why the Michelin guide had suggested a bus from Marseilles in lieu of suggestions on where to park!

I recite this story about our arrival (and add that a screaming twenty-two month old didn’t help the situation or my sanity) as the beginning of the theme to our visit there; initial impressions of dismay were always reversed and proved completely wrong. As I initially lamented my choice of hotel based on the hard to find location and the torn up back-street I believed it to be located on, we entered into a fairy tale courtyard before meeting the most pleasant and obliging staff. This was followed by the realization I should have reserved a spot for dinner when booking, they announced that all the tables were full… until they suggested seating us at the farm table in the lobby… which on our return from the cozy rooms we were assigned to had been beautifully set and eventually served up a fantastically delicious dinner!


After a sleepless night (and the hotel was not to blame, just our offspring) I was relieved to steal downstairs with Mikus and enjoy a humongous coffee and fresh croissant by myself, with peace and quiet to finish a few chapters of my novel. And then we were off! I had planned a driving tour from Cassis to La Ciotat skirting the Canaille on the coastal road Corniche des Crêtes and was somewhat disappointed to find it overcast and foggy. The fog (and my mood) only got worse as we started our ascent, at the first lookout we could barely see 10 feet from the car, and I debated calling the drive off right there and then.


Then, all of the sudden we climbed out from the fog into a beautifully sunny day. And even though at the next lookout we could only see a portion of the view (and no ocean yet), we kept on, with more and more scenery revealed to us at every stop. By the afternoon the fog had all but burnt off and the view was amazing, of the cliffs themselves, of Cassis, of the calanques, and finally the port of La Ciotat. What was even more fantastic was that although we returned to Cassis by the same route it felt like a different road, for what we had missed in the fog was revealed in full by the return trip.


The limestone range we were driving on has some of the tallest cliffs in France, with Cap Canaille measuring at 1,188 ft (362m) and the Grand Tête at 1,310 ft (399m). It was an impressive view all around because on one side we had the Mediterranean, and the other, across the valley, the Massifs de Puget and de Marseilleveyre. I was in awe of the views, each stop more impressive than the last, and was sad when the road started its descent into La Ciotat, a port with large shipbuilding yards. The feeling was short-lived as we quickly found ourselves at the parking lot for a short walk to the calanque de Figuerolles, one of the more picturesque of the rocky inlets near the town.


We climbed down the stairs to the small clear-water inlet flanked by strangely eroded rocks, cliffs with round interior cavities and sharp crags rising up from the water. The wind was sharp off of the water, but we stayed a while to throw rocks into the water, take pictures and enjoy the view. Several other families had the same idea, and some even braved the cold to lunch among the rocks. We chose to return to the car and find a warmer spot to picnic, finally ending up in town at a small seaside park with a grand view of the port. Lauris was in crane-heaven – no construction cranes in sight but the docks were filled with cranes for shipbuilding and loading cargo.


In the late afternoon we found ourselves back in Cassis, and this time we set out on foot. Although not very large, there was plenty to keep us busy until dinner and even then we still had some exploring left the following morning after breakfast while we waited for the 2pm boat tour of the calanques.

The one boat company that provides the tours from Cassis (there are more tours departing from Marseilles) has three options, a 45 minute – 3 calanque tour, a 1 hour 5 minute – 5 calanque tour and a 2 hour – 8 calanque tour. We opted for the shortest, not knowing how Mikus and Lauris would enjoy the confinement. Of the tour, the last of the three calanques was probably most representative of the 5 we didn’t see, and I would like to return for the long tour as well as the chance to hike the area. The water was choppy, however each calanque had sunbathers and hikers laid out on the rocks sunbathing. The calanques themselves were beautiful, the white limestone cliffs sharply contrasting with the blue sky and water. We learned from the guide about the ecosystem, as soil is almost non-existent and the cliffs instead contain numerous cracks into which the roots of plants (such as sage, juniper and myrtle) are anchored. All moisture comes only from evaporation of the sea and during the summer it is as dry as a desert. I though the most interesting portion of the journey the description of the underwater cave, the grotte Cosquer, which was only discovered in 1985. Inhabited when the sea level was much lower (currently the cave is about 37 meters underwater), the handprints have been dated back to 27,000 BC and the cave art (horses, seals, penguins and fish drawings) to 17,000 BC.


After our boat tour it was a slow stroll back to the car, taking one last look back at the Mediterranean before continuing on to our final destination, Nîmes.

16 comments:

  1. Beautiful... it's great that you turned around a potential rough start into an adventure! I'm anxious about travel with a 2 1/2 y.o. and you're doing it with 2 so I need to just suck it up!

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    1. My rule of thumb is to always keep snacks for bribery handy!

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  2. I enjoy your trips so much. I'm fascinated by the story of that grotto. That is amazing.

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    1. Overall one feels the age of everything here in France more than in the US. But 27,000 BC is just inconceivable to me!

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  3. Driving into the hills above Cassis was magical - emerging above the clouds was breathtaking! The boat trip was fantastic, with just enough waves to let us feel that we were truly on a large body of water, and truly incredible views! One little surprise on the boat delighted me: the friendly, somewhat "pirate-ish"-looking tour guide (his brother was the captain) asked what language we were speaking, and after a minute or so, came back and said "Laipni aicinu jūs uz kuģa" - "You are welcome to board the ship", in Latvian! Now that's going one step above and beyond to connect with tour members...! I LOVED the trip with you, and definite kudos for daring travel with two babies...!
    Liene's mamm

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    1. Couldn't have done it without you :)

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  4. Bonjour. I am a new Follower of your blog's. I am glad I stopped by today. I have always wanted to spend some time driving around Cassis and discovering "Les Callanques." I live far away now, but until I can go, this post provides great photos... and a wonderful story too. Bonne semaine! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

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    1. Merci Veronique! Et une bonne semaine à vous aussi!

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  5. A great trip. Does Cassis has anything to do with the Cassis drink?

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    1. I believe you're thinking of crème de cassis, which is blackcurrant liqueur. This is the key ingredient in the typical French apéritif, Kir...

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    2. (And the French word for blackcurrent is also cassis)

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  6. What a cool trip! Cassis is now officially on my list of places to visit. Beautiful pictures!

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    1. Thanks Inga, I bet you would get some fantastic shots!

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  7. Liene,
    Thank you, thank you. I want to go to Cassis so bad and have since we moved here but have always been afraid of the crowds. I love the sound of 'calanques' and could say it all day long. It's fun. Thanks for explaining the tours and the ecosystem and making me even more excited about a visit. I will put your hotel into my wish list and follow your itinerary for a future trip, minus winding through the tiny roads of the village. I've done that and I know how stressful it can be! Wonderful post.
    bisous,
    aidan xo

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    1. Calanques, calanques, calanques!

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  8. I love all of your pictures. It looks like you had an amazing trip to Provence.

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