Last Updated on 5th December 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
A turquoise sea stretches out into the distance, the pungent scent of rosemary fills the air, and salty sea breeze whips my hair into knots. Hiking the Calanques de Cassis, located between the ancient port of Marseille and the picturesque town of Cassis, was something of a dream come true.
After all, it’s possible to follow trails for miles along this ancient stretch of coastline and each time you climb around one inlet, you are greeted with a little-secluded beach, approachable only by foot or boat. All in all, this is a little piece of paradise in Provence…
What are the Calanques de Cassis?
Calanques are a unique type of rock formation found exclusively along the Mediterranean coastline. They’re formed when limestone is eroded away over hundreds of years to create small inlets along the cliff edges. Dotted with pine trees, these steep trails might take skill and stamina to complete, but they are also truly worth the effort.
And one of the very prettiest sets of calanques in the world is that of the Calanques de Cassis. The National Park is best known as ‘the Massif des Calanques’ and stretches from Marseille to Cassis, stretching 20 km in length, and 4 km in width. Since 2012, the area has been designated a national park and is under strict protection laws thanks to its unique geographical properties.
The Marseille Calanques is the tenth designated national park in France, and the only European National Park to combine terrestrial, marine and peri-urban terrain, making it a truly once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. Not only all this, but the Park itself was formed over one hundred and twenty million years ago, an incomprehensible amount of time.
Hiking the Calanques de Cassis
One of the most adventurous things to do in Provence is to hike the Calanques of Cassis. When you’re not exploring the prettiest towns that Provence has to offer, sipping on wine grown in the region, or exploring the history of the region, then you should definitely consider hiking the slippery pathways of the iconic landmark.
If you don’t want to hike, then there are plenty of other ways to experience the Calanques de Cassis. You can take a boat trip from Marseille, La Ciotat, or Cassis (plenty of boat tour companies can be found on a simple internet search, though as I haven’t taken any, I can’t recommend any specifics!). Once then, it’s possible to go swimming, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and even diving. Camping is prohibited but the area does happen to be perfect for a picnic…
Practical Advice, Tricks & Tips for Visiting the Calanques
Due to the high risk of forest fires as a result of intense summer heat and lack of rain, the Calanques are often closed in the summer months of July through to September. As a result, the best times to visit the National Park is from March through to May when the temperatures are lower and the weather more bearable. There is less rain in the spring than in the autumn months, and like the rest of Europe, the shoulder season means that there are fewer tourists around!
That being said, if you’re planning to hike in the Calanques, you need to be prepared. This includes wearing sturdy footwear (the paths are rocky and uneven), carrying at least one or two litres of water per person (the hikes are steep and there is nowhere to purchase anything), and bringing plenty of sun cream. If you want to go swimming at one of the small beaches, then you’ll also want to bring a swimming suit and towel!
If you’re looking to get a taste of Provence before visiting, then be sure to pick up a copy of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Otherwise, there’s plenty of other literature to get you started (my pick of the best books about Provence can be found here!) For those looking to hike the Calanques for themselves, then you should book accommodation in either Cassis or Marseille. Here are the accommodation prices for Cassis.
Of all the Calanques de Cassis travel tips I could give you, there is perhaps no better stress-free way to travel than by booking a group/ guided tour. For example, this winter picnic cruise from Marseille lasts for four hours and will take you on a Catamaran tour of some of the highlights of this area of outstanding natural beauty. For a longer tour, this guided excursion lasts for five hours.
Best Calanques in the Massif des Calanques
The little creeks and inlets that form the entire National Park each have their own distinct feel and each have unique views. No two calanques are the same, meaning that you could spend weeks, months, or even years exploring the park and still discover new things. Here are some of the best Calanques to visit:
Calanque de Morgiou: Crystal clear waters lap onto the shore of this pretty calanque. Once a fishing point, it was once the location of a giant tuna fishing tournament hosted in the 17th century for the benefit of Louis XIII.
Calanque de Sormiou: This is the biggest Calanque in the complex of the National Park. As a result, it remains one of the most popular and is always teeming with tourists and locals. The cove is situated in the 9e arrondissement of Marseille and is famed for its great climbing spots.
En Vau and Port Pins: East of Calanque de Mogious, the twin creeks are small and cosy, providing the perfect place to enjoy a romantic picnic. These are two of the prettiest calanques, although it’s hard to compare any of the inlets considering that they’re all so beautiful!
Attractions near Calanques de Cassis
The French region of Provence is one of the most beautiful that the country has to offer and should not be missed on a trip to Southern France. After all, it’s filled with lots to visit, and even more to see. Whether you’re searching for Carolingian castles, secluded beaches, crystal clear waters of tomatoes straight from the vine, the Provençal region has it all.
Towering above the town of Cassis, the Carolingian built castle has seen centuries worth of history. Once a fortress protecting the entire town, today the Château de Cassis is a luxury hotel. Though it is only reserved for guests, the fortified French Château can still be admired from below!
If you’re looking for one of the hidden gems of the south of France, then Cassis is it. Once called ‘Bloomsbury-on-Méditerranée’ by Virginia Woolf, today it remains a pretty French settlement frozen in time. While there, make sure to purchase a lavender flavoured ice cream, a regional speciality!
The port side town of Marseille has been inhabited for over two millennia and is well worth a visit, if only to see a typical Southern French city, and the second largest settlement in France. Furthermore, as one of the oldest cities in France (and even inhabited by the Ancient Greeks), there’s no shortage of historical things to do.
Said to be home of the ever-popular game of ‘boules’, La Ciotat is a sleepy little fishing town where little has changed in centuries. While there is little to do in terms of attractions in town, La Ciotat itself being the attraction, there are plenty of eateries, and an extensive old town to explore.