Rambling in France’s newest national park
It’s difficult to find a stretch along the Cote d’Azur that isn’t flanked on both sides by millionaires’ yachts and low-riding Italian schmooze-mobiles. But beyond the gleaming phallic architecture of Monaco’s Monte Carlo, or the palm-fronded seaside promenades of Nice (read as ‘catwalks’ stalked by the peacocks of the leisure industry), there is, in Byronic terms, a rapture on the lonely shore of the South of France.
Between Marseille – that jangling, cantankerous and colourful arabesque of a port city – and Cassis, a small fishing village that prides itself on its elegance and seaside holiday popularity, lies the Massif des Calanques. This snaggled outline of twenty or so kilometres of white limestone coast can be traced leisurely on foot within a day. The stretch lies within the wider area of land and marine environment that will soon become France’s newest national park, the Parc National des Calanques, in the Bouches-du-Rhône region.
The calanques themselves, steep drop-offs of rock formed by collapsed caves and erosion by rivers (hello, geologists), shelter clean beaches and ribboned stretches of sea that are occasionally investigated by small boat tours. The biggest is the Calanque d’En-Vau, which sports the best beach, gin-clear waters, and staggered rocky slopes that can be scrambled up and used as leaping-points into the sea.
Boat tours run regularly from Cassis, Marseille and La Ciotat, and stop in at various calanques, but by far the best way to see them is to start either from Marseille or Cassis on foot and hike up and over, seeing each inlet from above and choosing which ones to descend into. Hiking routes along the calanques only get really busy during summer, though the climate is generally dry and predictable from spring through to autumn. September and October are often just as warm as the high summer months, and the pedestrian traffic is lower.
It is perhaps the growing popularity of these pristine beaches and tumbling rock formations that have encouraged a movement to preserve the area and the pathways through it. The ecology of the calanques is different from other stretches of coastline: with there being virtually no soil, the network of plant and animal species that thrive on the slopes of the salt-covered limestone and within the sheltered coves form closed ecosystems that, like any natural environment, must be treated with care by keen hikers and rock climbers.
What remains the most reassuring part, for me at least, is that along this particular stretch of Mediterranean coastline, there are no bright yellow sports cars or magnums of champagne to be found for miles.