One of the great views in all of Europe is from the cliffs of France’s Parc National des Calanques, fewer than 15 miles southeast of Marseille. From the white limestone precipice that overlooks the Baie de Cassis from the Route des Crêtes, the clear azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea may be seen lapping against fiord-like coves that frame the charming port town of Cassis.
Translated to English, calanques are “creeks.” More than three dozen named inlets highlight this 610-square-mile sanctuary, 90 percent of it a marine preserve. Many pioneers of oceanography, including the redoubtable Jacques Cousteau, Frederic Dumas and Philllipe Thalliez, did their early work here, home to 60 protected marine species.
The three calanques nearest to Cassis are accessible by trail from the village. Nearly a dozen calanques may be seen in 90-minute cruises from Quai St-Pierre, in the center of town. And as in many limestone landscapes around the world, there are numerous caves in this seaside massif, formed about 120 million years ago.
The discovery of one cave, in particular, was largely responsible for the creation of this national park in 2012. Professional diver Henri Cosquer happened upon the Grotte Cosquer from the water in 1991 — and as he continued into the dry cave, found carvings and prehistoric paintings that dated as far back as 27,000 B.C. The cave is closed to the public, however, for preservation and safety reasons.
Cassis and La Ciotat
Our excursion to Les Calanques began in the picturesque fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer, where tenders from Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf shuttled us to the Quai du Levant. There a tour bus met our
small group, whisking us through the nearby town of La Ciotat, historically famed as the original home of the motion-picture industry (in 1895), color photography (in 1904) and the popular French game of pétanque (in 1907).
La Ciotat is the gateway to the 10-mile Route des Crêtes (the Crest Road), a narrow, winding, two-lane highway atop Cap Canaille, whose sea cliffs — the highest in France — tower nearly 1,300 feet above the Mediterranean. Numerous turnouts access footpaths leading to precipitous viewpoints across the water and distinctive land features like Le Bec d’Aigle, “The Eagle’s Beak.”
Tiny Cassis has very limited parking, but we find that more a blessing than a curse, given that many streets are designated for pedestrians only. Our party
was wisely dropped at Les Gorguettes parking area, where a shuttle tram gave us a brief, narrated tour en route to the 17th- and 18th-century homes on the central streets.
An hour was just enough time to stroll the Quai des Baux and sip a glass of local white wine, an herb-scented, full-bodied blend of Marsanne and Clairette. Our server suggested we try it with the local preparation of oursin, or sea urchin. On this occasion, we demurred.
Back in Sanary-sur-Mer in the early afternoon, we enjoyed wandering the main port, where dozens of colorful pointus, traditional Provençal fishing boats, were moored close to shore beside 19th-century heritage vessels. As fishermen unloaded their catch in front of the Prud’homie des Pêcheurs (“Fishermen’s Tribunal”) on the quay, we found a table at a nearby bistro.
We had been urged to try Provençal bouillabaisse during our visit to Sanary. It seems every chef has a different method for making this traditional fish stew, but none will argue that it should have at least four different kinds of fresh fishes (usually including shellfish) in a broth of onions, tomatoes and garlic.
It didn’t take long for us to learn what locals know — that a proper bouillabaisse must be ordered a couple of days in advance, in order to allow the various herbs and spices to blend. With our in-and-out-of-port cruise schedule, that would be impossible. But we settled for a more modest Provençal-style fish stew, without the shellfish or the simmering herbs, but still delicious a delicious lunch.
Just behind the harbor, a Romanesque defense tower, built in the 14th century, is home to the Frédéric Dumas Historical Diving Museum, displaying a unique collection of original diving equipment. Boats depart to the Paul Ricard Oceanographic Institute on the offshore Iles des Embiez. From the top of the tower, there are views across Sanary’s bay and surrounding countryside.
A few steps away is the town’s namesake, the Eglise de Saint-Nazaire. The church is dedicated to San Nàri, a First Century Christian martyr after whom Sanary-sur-Mer was named. Built in Byzantine Gothic Revival style in the late 1800s, the Eglise contains beautiful Romanesque frescoes and an organ often played for concerts.
Sanary is also known as a residence in exile for anti-Nazi German and Austrian writers between 1933 and 1942. Stripped of their citizenship by Hitler’s Third Reich, authors like Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Wilhelm Herzog found refuge before completing their flight to the West. An itinerary that identifies their homes is available from the local Office de Tourism on Quai du Levant.