All Quiet on the Riviera

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A few miles down the coast the streets are jammed with traffic, the promenades packed with people, every table taken at the cafés. The Cannes film festival is in full swing. But in sleepy Cassis, five miles east of Marseilles, there are plenty of seats available for dinner, just a few strollers enjoying the sun on the quayside, and even room for a mat or two on the sandy beach.   Cassis begins to get crowded in late June and stays that way through July and August. But during the shoulder-season months of the spring and fall the sun is warm, the water offers a cooling dip, and the cafés and restaurants have a relaxed, laid-back feel and seats to spare.   You have your choice of accommodations, from the intimacy of the seven-room Jardin d’Emile; its rosy walls tucked into the cliffside, to the four star Les Roches Blanches, with its dramatic views of Cap Calanque, a ruddy cliff towering over the tiny harbor.   These months, avoiding the searing heat of the summer, are also best for relishing the outdoors. Perfect for a hike, a boat excursion to the majestic calanques, or a stroll along the cobbled lanes lined with faded rainbow façades.   Just set free from a long transatlantic flight and anxious to be outdoors, my husband and I follow the signs along the road out of town to “Les Calanques”. These spectacular limestone inlets, reachable only by boat or on foot, shelter dazzling turquoise water so clear that the shadows of floating yachts are clearly visible on the seafloor.  Some of the cliffs tower 1300 feet above the crystalline Mediterranean. One of France’s national hiking trails, the Grand Randonnee 98, begins at the parking lot near Port Miou, the first of the three calanques closest to Cassis. This trail can take you all the way to Marseilles – an 11-hour trek.  We follow the red and white trail markers to Port Miou, from which stone was cut decades ago for the Suez Canal. Today it shelters a marina.   Eager to see a more unspoiled inlet, we hike westward to the ridge above the next calanque, Port Pin. Gazing down on the tiny beach, we watch groups of hikers resting on the sand before tackling the more difficult one-hour hike to En Vau, the most spectacular of the trio of inlets. We decide to save En Vau’s dramatic white cliffs and needle-pointed rocks for another day, and make our way back to Port Miou, where we watch a couple of swimmers braving the chilly crystal-clear water. Ready for some fresh Mediterranean seafood, we drive back to town. Cassis’ colorful quayside is lined with cafes – some offering a local specialty of raw sea urchins, washed down with a glass of crisp white Cassis wine. We wind our way up the cobbled alleyways lined with tall narrow houses behind the port. Attracted by Le Dauphin’s menu of reasonably priced regional specialties, we choose a table by the window.   Beginning with the signature apéritif of Provence, a cool pastis, we enjoy one delicious course after another. The soupe de poisson is especially tasty, with its accompaniment of croutons and rouille, a spicy red mayonnaise. The filet de rouget, a delicious rockfish, simply dressed with olive oil and herbs and grilled to perfection, couldn’t be fresher.   After the long trip and our strenuous hike, sleep comes easily, and we wake to a quiet sunny morning. Café crème on the terrace of the Café de la Mer clears out the cobwebs as we gaze out on the shimmering Mediterranean. Just to fascinate us, it seems, six miniature sailboats go by, each connected to the one ahead – it must be a sailing class! Then another neat little row of bright dinghies bob into sight, towed by a rubber raft out to sea for the first session of the day.   Our next stop is the friendly tourist office, which offers plentiful information about Cassis, boat excursions, hikes and a multitude of area attractions. Looking forward to seeing the beautiful calanques from the water, we buy boat tickets that will allow us to get off and stay as long as we want at En Vau.   As we cruise out of port, the captain of the Durandal tells the passengers, in French, then in English, about the town, resorts and homes, the cliffs, and landmarks we’re passing.   Nudging up to the rocky cliff about 200 meters from shore in the narrow calanque, he gives us a hand off of the prow to the closest rock.  This is a path to shore? We make our way carefully to the beach, using our hands almost as much as our feet as we climb up and then down the rocky trail. The secluded cove is worth the climb. The world seems far away as we relax on the rocky shore – not a concession stand in sight, the quiet lap of the sea lulling us to a nap. This charming and serene corner of France, just a short drive from the glitz and bustle of the Riviera, invites us to relax and take it easy. We leave it behind with memories of a quaint, colorful port, the bluest and clearest water we’ve ever seen, and delightful days in the sun.   Copyright (c) Anne Woodyard
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