The French Mediterranean coastline is well known and loved but, surprisingly, not so many people know about a national treasure lying at the western end of the Riviera. This is the Massif des Calanques, a national park combining land and sea. It's an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of the most breathtaking places you'll visit.
What are the Calanques?
The Calanques are fjord-like inlets puncturing the rocky coastline. The most remarkable ones lie between Cassis and Marseille. Views and landscapes described as ‘stunning’, ‘breathtaking’, ‘impressive’ are so common that you practically take them for granted when you’re touring the south of France, but as you will discover, the Calanques really do merit these adjectives.
Once the site of invasions by the Sarrazins, the hideout of pirates, and the property of monks, the Calanques National Park is now the playground for the people of Marseille and visitors to the region. There aren’t many cities in the world that can boast such a thing on their doorstep.
An Adventure Playground
Any sunny weekend (which means most weekends in the year!) you’ll see people hiking, climbing, swimming, sunbathing, picnicking, snorkelling, sailing, diving, kayaking in the heart of the park and in the creeks and little beaches. The only hiccup is when there are strong winds, high temperatures, and the fire risk factor is high. When that happens the Calanques are closed, or access is limited to between 6am and 11am.
At the Marseille side, the main Calanques are Morgiou, Sormiou, and Sugiton. Morgiou and Sormiou are postcard worthy picturesque with typical fishermen’s ‘cabanons’ handed down through local families for decades. Both of these Calanques have restaurants. No prizes for guessing their specialities – fish caught that day.
In the summer season, you can only drive into these two Calanques if you are a resident, or if you have made a restaurant reservation. Otherwise, it’s a question of parking at the road head and walking in, a good distance in both cases. It might seem like a pain, but the objective of limiting traffic is very welcome when you hike in and can appreciate the lack of cars. Otherwise, get onboard a boat to see the Calanques from a different perspective.
Sugiton is in the Luminy park. You can leave your car by the universities, and after a 45-minute walk down through the hills, you arrive at the little bay with rocky islets within easy swimming distance.
On the Cassis side, the three main Calanques are Port Miou, where many boaters have berths, Port Pin, and En Vau. Port Miou is the site of a former quarry; the stone of which graces many a monument and building in France and beyond, including the Suez Canal and the plinth of the Statue of Liberty.
You can only get to Port Pin and En Vau on foot, hiking along and up and over the rocky white limestone, enjoying the whiffs of wild thyme and rosemary as you go. En Vau is majestic – steep sides plunging into crystal clear turquoise waters with a pebbly beach at the end of the inlet. Look up at the cliff sides when you’re swimming or rowing in En Vau and spot the climbers moving up the rock as though they have suckers for fingers.
The maritime part of the Calanques National Park makes up over 43 thousand hectares, its clean waters enjoyed by boaters, swimmers and divers. An underwater cave, the Cosquer cave, discovered in the 80s by a local diver revealed wall paintings, testimony to the ancient people dwelling here before the sea level rose and flooded the rocky landscape. The cave is not open but divers today can explore shipwrecks bearing antique amphora which must carried olive oil and wine.
Walk this way
Walking the GR51 trail which traverses the Calanques National Park, you traverse from 400 to 500 feet above sea level, balancing near the top of La Grande Candelle. It feels like you could soar down to the rocky isle below like an eagle, to sea level where you can plunge into the strangely welcoming ice cold turquoise waters which are fed with underground springs carrying snow-melt water from the Alps.
A hike from Marseille to Cassis, 21 kms, takes a leisurely day ending with the great sensation of having exerted yourself in an incomparable landscape. It’s serious hiking for the fit, requiring the right gear, and plenty of water, plus sun lotion.
But the pastis, glass of Cassis rose wine, or the pression (beer) that you sip watching the sun go down behind Port Miou while relaxing at the Bar de la Marine on Cassis port will be well deserved.
Find the main Calanques
Click each pin below to see more information and images for each Calanque.