Cassis, a childhood dream on the French Riviera-
Is there a place in the world that you can see when you close your eyes, that you can picture along with every tree, every silhouette and every edge, as sharply as if it had been painted on the inside of your eyelids? A place you feel driven to with quenchless longing, a place you loved as a child, where you would get married, and where you might go to die one day, when your time has come? For me, that place would be Cassis.
Cassis is a small port village located east of Marseille, in this region we call “Bouches du Rhône”, French for “Rhône river’s mouth”, where France’s mightiest river reaches the sea. Of course, lovely coastal towns abound in the south of France, but Cassis is spellbinding, and many French people would tell you they hold it very close to their heart. Cassis is famed for a particularly dramatic kind of natural beauty we call the “Calanques”: rocky white inlets, framed by high and steep limestone cliffs, which stretch all the way from Cassis to Marseille and create one of the most beautiful shorelines I have ever seen.
I grew up in the north end of Provence, on the banks of the river Rhône. At night when everything was silent and I lied awake in my bed, I could hear the barges heading south, going along with the flow. I pictured myself on their decks, going down the river throughout the night, to behold a sunrise by the sea.
Every year when spring and milder weather finally returned, we would wake up early on a Saturday morning and drive to the sea. My father, who had spent his childhood in Morocco, has kept from those early sun-soaked years a deep longing for the Mediterranean – which means “middle sea”, and that’s what she was, the very core of our southern universe – and his obsession awakened the same desire in me. I loved every beach and every harbor, but there was one city on the coast which epitomized everything I yearned for: Cassis. My night visions always lead me there, as if the stream of my dreams were southbound too, reaching the sea beneath Cassis’ high white cliffs.
Every time I go to Cassis, I live my childhood dreams anew. I usually start from Marseille and follow the incredibly scenic “Route de la Gineste”, which winds through the mountains and on the crest-lines. This road is a narrow and dangerous one, but it rewards you with the most beautiful arrival in Cassis: my heart always skips a beat when the shimmering city appears below me in the distance. Blue boats sail on the blue, blue, crystal-clear sea – the Mediterranean at its most beautiful. A medieval fortress guarded by cypresses overlooks the colorful harbor. Set between the high chalky walls, the city looks like a pearl hidden within the oyster’s shell.
The “Calanques” are innumerable and all gorgeous. Sugiton is probably the most beloved – and most crowded – one, because you can reach it quite easily from Marseille. You just have to park on the campus of the university in Luminy. I wish I had been a student there. I’m pretty sure I would have made the hike everyday between classes.
If you start from Cassis, Port-Miou (which is a harbor) and Port-Pin (a beach inlet) are the most accessible ones.
But the most astonishing and perfect one, the one you will never forget, is En-Vau. En-Vau, the deep set, steep, mystical “calanque”, a fortress of salt and stone, is the very heart of the sea. Ominous rock formations stand on top of the inlet, and they are being called “God’s fingers”. Somehow, lone pines manage to take root in the white vertical walls, and leap into the bright blue void like tightrope walkers hanging by a single thread, casting distorted shadows on the pristine seabed. En-Vau is a sublime place where the imagination runs wild and free.
There are different ways to see or reach En-Vau.
Mariners in Cassis offer boat tours along the coast – if you go for it, I would suggest taking the full ride, the two-hour tour which shows you eight “calanques”, as well as the Frioul archipelago facing Marseille. It will enable you to discover caves the sea has carved in limestone, and the famous “needle’s eye” of Eissadon.
But the boat tour will also frustrate you, because you will only be able to peek at the “calanques” from a distance, and you will long for more, for the rocky beaches and the water so clear and transparent that the deep seabed seems tangible. You can hike to En-Vau – starting from Cassis, you will need three hours to reach it, and it’s a beautiful walk on the wild side through the mountain range, but the trails quickly get rocky and tough, and it may feel like the way of the cross in the hot summer sun.
The best is probably to rent a kayak in Port-Miou, the first “calanque” on Cassis’ side, and to paddle your way to En-Vau. You will need approximately forty-five minutes to reach it, and be blessed with the breathtaking vision of an arrival by sea, floating over the blue splendor of the deep inlet, slowly getting closer to the shore, like a pilgrim from ancient times in search of the promised land. I owe my most beautiful memories of Cassis to such rides.
Don’t leave Cassis without taking the famous “Route des crêtes” (Ridge Road) which leads further East, up to the wide open bay in La Ciotat. This biker’s dream will grant you with beautiful panoramas over both cities, which awaken one’s desire for adventure.
Maybe there are certain places in the world where we hide the secret key to our deeper selves. Places which have the power to restore us, to allow us to start afresh, as if nothing had been lost or damaged, as if we hadn’t betrayed any of the promises we had made to our inner child, once upon a time. As if we could wake up unbroken again and reflect all the light that shines in the world, like a crystal no stain or scar has ever dimmed. And there we could find life, love and hope at the source to quench our thirst for happiness and fulfillment. I want to believe in such places, in this worldly chance for atonement. Throughout my travels, I have created a handful of such places for myself – holy shrines of my very own religion. Cassis is one of these. And I believe you will fall in love too.