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Hiking the Calanques of Cassis

The Calanques between Cassis and Marseille in the South of France are one of the top sites in that area, so last summer while in that region, I knew I had to see them. I began researching on the internet, finding that there are several ways to get to them but uncertain about which to go with. The following is an account of why getting advice from someone on the ground is often a better guide even than what one reads on the internet (though it does not hurt to research in advance).

The Calanques are a series of limestone cliffs that form narrow inlets along the Mediterranean Sea. They appear similar to karsts in Norway.  The various blogs and travel boards I read debated the merits of seeing the Calanques by a chartered boat, a kayak, or on a hike, with most focusing on the boat option. Several companies offer trips in motorboats or catamarans in which you sail by some or all of the calanques, depending on which tour you chose. From what I had heard, these tours did not allow swimming in the inlets.  With hiking you could swim because you would arrive right on the rocky beach inlet. Yet boating seemed to be the more popular option, so when I arrived in Cassis I was prepared to find a chartered boat trip leaving from the port.

However, a young staff member at Cassis Hostel, where I was staying, strongly recommended hiking and seemed almost surprised that I would take a boat. He said I should hike out to the third Calanque, d’enVau, which was the prettiest. As I sat by the hostel pool later that night getting information from people, it seemed that just about everyone had hiked to the Calanques. They warned that it was hot and that I should bring water, but no one seemed to have considered boating as an option, so I decided I would hike.

The market in Cassis

The market in Cassis

I set off the next day a little before 9 am with a light backpack, water bottle, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, a book, and a small cheese knife I had bought in Aix-en-Provence (when it became clear I'd be stopping by markets and buying hunks of cheese). I went first to Cassis's market (Wednesdays and Fridays at Place Baragnon). Like every market I had been to in the South of France, there were stalls of seasonal vegetables, olives, cheese, and meats. I made what had become my standard market purchase of a basket of cherry tomatoes, a bag of olives, a hunk of cheese, a hunk of meat, some bread, and some fruit. I was set.

Setting out on the hike

Setting out on the hike

Then I headed west, walking out of town, following signs and the map I had through a quiet, well-heeled neighborhood of past vacation homes. Occasionally I’d see people in front—a woman with her kids in the kiddy pool or a couple walking into their home from the car. A small number of hikers were following the same path. I finally reached the end of the sidewalk portion of the hike, and joined what seemed to be many more hikers, making what felt like a pilgrimage. We began to see blue down below, and sailboats.

After the stretch, we came to a sign that said Calanque de Port-Miou -- the hit Calanque. People broke off, finding their spots on the rock beach. People were swimming, snorkeling, or perched on the cliffs alongside the clear water . But I had to continue, as I had two more Calanques to go.

With the sizable chunk of hikers who hadn't split off, I walked up a cliff. I thought to myself that so far, this was much easier than Breakneck Ridge back in the Hudson Valley, and I didn't understand why they had warned against hiking on some of the websites I had read. Little did I know. 

When we got to the second calanque, Calanque de Port Pin, many more people broke off. I was tempted to join them and install myself at that beach. But the hostel worker’s promise of the third Calanque kept me going.

The hike between Port Pin and d’en Vau is where things got rigorous. The path became rocky, mostly loose rocks, stones, and pebbles, which meant I had to be careful walking, especially downhill, so not to trip. The ascent up the third cliff was tiring, and there were now only a small number of hikers. It, was peaceful but hot, with the sun beating down, and my water going quickly. Craggy limestone and shrubs surrounded me.

Once reaching the top, and after a bit of time walking on fairly level surface, I had to climb back down, which in some ways was scarier because of the loose rocks. I was glad that despite the heat I had worn my hiking boots. Finally, I reached a white dirt path. People were walking from the  other direction, and that seemed like a good sign. Sure enough I came to a sign: “Les calanques vous accueillent. Protegez les Ramenez vos déchets.  The calanques welcome you. Please protect them. Bring your garbage back with you." (There are no garbage cans at the calanque).

What I saw next made the walk worth it: a dramatic inlet, azure water, and people lying in the warm sun on bright towels.

I found a spot near one side of the inlet, set up my towel, and took out a baguette, cheese, and the trustee cheese knife I’d purchased. I looked out into the sea, where ahead there were sunbathers, swimmers, and sailboats. It felt like the setting of a French impressionist painting. I went out to swim in the refreshing waters and then returned to my towel, reading my book, falling in and out of a nap, and hearing the different languages spoken around me--French, of course, something that could have been Danish or Dutch, Italian. I silently thanked the guy at the hostel for guiding me in the right direction.

On the way back, somewhere after passing Calanque Port Pin, and nearing civilization, I treated myself to an Orangina being sold at a food and drink stand -- the only one along the whole trail --  glad I was at the end of the hike and not the beginning.